The Roman army's existence spanned more than 1,200 years. It began as a fierce, amateur militia from a small central Italian city, and rose to be the world's first professional and standardised army, under the reign of the Caesars. It then saw its standards slide until it was barely recognisable by the time of the fall of the Western Empire. Over this period, the equipment of the Roman soldier changed markedly, including his galea, or helmet.
The Earliest Helmets
During the centuries when Romans were dominated by their Etruscan neighbours, the Romans imitated them in many respects. While the Etruscans in turn mimicked the Greeks and employed Corinthian-style helmets, they also had their own style of helmet, which resembled a peaked, bronzed bowl. The Romans used both styles.
The Montefortino Helmets
Helmets of the Montefortino type were used by legionaries in between the 4th century BC and 1st century AD, a period that covers the heyday of the Roman Republic and the early Empire. These helmets were essentially bronze pots with visors.
The Gallic Helmet
The Gallic helmet began making its appearance in the 1st century BC, and was used well into the 2nd century AD. This makes it the classic helmet of the Roman legionary, as that time runs from the late Republic through to the height of the Empire. Its design includes improvements that were inspired by the helmets worn by the wealthier Gallic warriors. It includes protection for the cheeks and the back of the neck.
The image of the Roman legionaries going into battle wearing crested helmets is popular in Hollywood epics, but has little basis in reality. While all helmets used by the mature Roman Republic and the Empire had fittings for crests or plumes, the common legionary wore these only at reviews, inspections and parades. As a rule, only centurions would wear a legionary helmet with a crest more frequently, and for the simple reason that that they needed to be readily identifiable to their men.
The Attic Helmet
Roman officers were almost always drawn from a wealthier equestrian or senatorial background. Helmets based on the Greek's Attic style remained popular with these gentlemen officers for centuries, who often wore a showier, more ceremonial kit than a common legionary, or even a centurion.