What is it?

This mid 3rd century AD semi-cylindrical shield is known as a scutum and was used by legionary soldiers of the Roman Empire. Constructed of thin strips of wood glued together in layers to create a plywood board, the surface is covered with red-dyed hide or parchment. The round opening in the centre would originally have been covered by a protective boss, probably iron, now lost.

The painted decoration on the surface reflects typical Roman iconography of military victory, including an eagle on a globe, two winged Victories carrying laurel wreaths, and a lion. The red background and vivid colours recall Roman wall paintings from places like Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Measuring more than a metre in height, the shield is one of the most famous discoveries from Dura-Europos, an archaeological site in modern-day Syria.

Where was it found, and when?

The shield was excavated at ancient Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates River in modern-day Syria. It was discovered during the sixth season (1932- 1933) of a ten-year excavation campaign on the site, a collaboration between Yale University and the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

Discovered flattened, in 13 pieces and missing its umbo (central boss), the shield was reconstructed by the excavation team and is now on display in the Mary and James Ottaway Gallery in the Yale University Art Gallery. The extraordinary preservation of the wood and painted decoration makes this unique surviving example of a Roman legionary shield particularly important for scholars of ancient Roman and military history.

Why does it matter?

The shield from Dura-Europos is the first and, thus far, only known surviving archaeological example of the classic semi-cylindrical scutum. Before its discovery, this type of Roman legionary shield was only represented by ancient literary sources (including works by Polybius, Varro, and Ammianus) and Roman relief sculpture such as Trajan’s Column, where legionaries are shown using this style of shield in battle.

Dura-Europos was founded by Macedonian Greek soldiers around 300 BC, and underwent several military conquests and resultant shifts in political oversight during its history. Around 133 BC, the city came under the control of the Parthian Empire, who used it as a trade emporium and as protection for its western border for nearly three centuries. The Romans captured and occupied the city in AD 165, turning it into an important military garrison on their empire’s eastern frontier. This shield, like many of the surviving artefacts, dates to this final phase and probably belonged to one of the Roman soldiers stationed in the garrison.

In recent years, an immense amount of illegal digging and looting has occurred at Dura-Europos, with bulldozers and backhoes being used to unearth and remove artefacts, presumably for sale on the black market. As a result, this shield and other objects from the early excavations in the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection have become even more significant.

See for yourself

The scutum is on display in the recently reinstalled Mary and James Ottaway Gallery in the Yale University Art Gallery; artgallery.yale.edu

Text: Lisa Brody
Image: Yale University Art Gallery

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