Friday, March 15, 2013

On Ancient Shield Decorations

In ancient times, it was common for soldiers and armies to decorate their shields for religious purposes, for personal tastes, or to signify organization within the larger army structure. One of the most spectacular displays one can see on a gaming table of two ancient armies (particularly Romans) locked in battle is the large number of colorful and beautifully decorated shields. Today, many hobbyists prefer to use decals or transfers that depict known or semi-fictional designs to decorate the shields of their miniature soldiers. These shields transfers include very intricate designs in which all the lines are straight and of consistent weight, the colors are uniform and the curves and circles are always of a perfect radius. Each man's shield is an exact duplication of the shield to his left and to his right. This representation of perfect shield design is also seen in books that contain popular illustrations of ancient warriors and armies. However, after looking at many of these designs closely I have to ask myself, did the shields carried by the armies of antiquity really look like that?

Of course, the shields carried by armies such as the Romans, the Gauls or the Carthaginians were not decorated by machines - these all had to be painted by hand. In the earliest times, when armies were comprised primarily of citizens and not professional soldiers, I would argue that each shield was painted by the owner using either a solid color, simple geometric patterns or a very rudimentary symbol that perhaps had religious meaning. Shields would have been a very personal piece of equipment and the armies certainly would have appeared very diverse not only in the number of different shield decorations used but in the quality of that painting. Lines would have been crooked, alignment and spacing would be inconsistent, paint quality would have lead to variations in color saturation and circles and curves would have been far from perfect. Even when individuals decided together to paint the same decorations on their shields they would have varied greatly from shield to shield in the execution of the agreed upon design. Some people would simply have been better at it than others.

Not even the most talented artisan would have
been able to replicate this design perfectly
across hundreds of shields.
Later, as armies and soldiers became more and more professional, shields decorations were used, especially in Rome, to signify organizational structures and loyalties. These designs were often extremely complex and elaborate. Intricate patterns, animal motifs and even Greek heroic figures were not uncommon. These men were soldiers, they were not artists, and I cannot imagine that each man was capable of painting his own shield to the beautiful detail that we have come to expect. Perhaps the shields were painted by legionary craftsman. The quality certainly would have improved, but again I raise the question of consistency. There is no way that even a talented craftsman, without the use of a stencil or template, could perfectly replicate such intricate shields designs across even a handful of shields, let alone an entire legion or army. Were stencils used by ancient armies to paint their shield designs? It is certainly a very real possibility and something that requires more research since I just don't know the answer to that question.

I very much enjoy the appearance of a beautifully painted army carrying shields decorated with design transfers. Aesthetically, it is a marvelous sight and while we are gaming the appearance of the armies on the table is a very, very important matter to everybody involved. My thinking here is not to dissuade anybody from using such things, but rather an intellectual exercise to dig a little deeper into the history of the things we play with.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points, I was going to try transfers but in the end went for hand painted even though it is far from my strong point. My pride and joy is the five pike phalanx's all with Macedonian stars all painted by me. These don't stand close inspection but are fine at a distance.