I recently resumed my travels on the Limes Germanicus and headed north along Rome’s frontier in the Roman province of Germania Inferior. The Lower Germanic Limes extended from the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands to Bonna along the Lower Rhine. Numerous museums with impressive collections of Roman artefacts can be found by the Limes road. Among the masterpieces on display are the face mask helmets, also called cavalry sports helmets.

One such helmet was found at the site of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where three Roman legions were wiped out by the Germanic tribes in 9 AD. This face mask originally belonged to a helmet of a Roman cavalry man. It is composed of an iron basis and sheet-silver applied to the surface. After the battle the valuable sheet-silver was cut off and hastily taken by Germanic ponderers.

Kalkriese face mask for Roman cavalry helmet, Museum und Park Kalkriese, Germany © Carole Raddato

Kalkriese face mask for Roman cavalry helmet, Museum und Park Kalkriese (Germany)
© Carole Raddato

According to Arrian of Nicomedia, a Roman provincial governor and a close friend of Hadrian, face mask helmets were used in cavalry parades and sporting mock battles called “hippika gymnasia”. Parades or tournaments played an important part in maintaining unit morale and fighting effectiveness. They took place on a parade ground situated outside a fort and involved the cavalry practicing manoeuvring and the handling of weapons such as javelins and spears (Fields, Nic; Hook, Adam. Roman auxiliary cavalryman: AD 14-193).

Calvary helmets were made from a variety of metals and alloys, often from gold-coloured alloys or iron covered with tin. They were decorated with embossed reliefs and engravings depicting the war god Mars and other divine and semi-divine figures associated with the military.

Below are some examples of face mask helmets to be found in the museums of Germania Inferior.

The Nijmegen cavalry helmet, an iron mask sheathed in bronze and silver discovered in 1915 on the left bank of the Waal river near Nijmegen, second half of the first century, Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen (Netherlands) © Carole Raddato

The Nijmegen cavalry helmet, second half of the first century, Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen (The Netherlands)
© Carole Raddato

The Nijmegen helmet above is a cavalry display helmet that was found in the gravel on the left bank of the Waal river south of Nijmegen in 1915. It dates to the 1st century A.D., probably the latter half; the busts are Flavian in style, so from between 69 and 96 A.D.

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