Did the Carthaginians introduce the oval shield into Spain?

Conventional wargaming wisdom is that Ancient Spanish light infantry carried a small buckler (Caetrata) and heavy infantry carried a large oval shield (Scutum) (see for example Head, 1982). The implication is that this division was always true. There was a similar division in the cavalry although the change to large shields was about the time of Hannibal.

Duncan Head at the 2010 Society of Ancients Battle Day offered some evidence to suggest the Carthaginians introduced the oval shield into their part of Spain – the Iberian part. He suggest this was deliberate Barcid policy to increase the proportion of heavy troops in their armies.

Coin

The first piece of evidence is a type of coin from Spain during the Barcid period (c. 237-209 BC) (Head, 2010). The coin in the photo is of a shekel from Carthago Nova, Spain, c. 228 BC. One side has a diademed male head (possibly Hasdrubal). The other side has the prow of galley with an oval shield on the bridge, two sailors on deck and a dolphin right below. The oval shield has the rib of a thyreos or scutum running the length of the shield.

Carthago Nova, Spain, AR shekel, ca. 228 BC

Carthago Nova, Spain, AR shekel, ca. 228 BC

Archeology

More convincingly recent archeology suggests the Iberians in Carthaginian zone (the south and east of the peninsular) adopted the oval shield in the late third century (Head, 2010). Exactly the time the Barcids were expanding their empire.

Art shows shieldless cavalry in the 6th-4th centuries and usually shielded after that (Head, 1982). Initially the shield were the smaller caetrata of the Spanish light infantry. In the 3rd-2nd centuries some Spanish cavalry are depicted with a heavier style of equipment, with Montefortino helmets and larger oval or round shields (Head, 2010).

The new realisation for me was this change was not restricted to the cavalry. Iberian infantry also adopted the scutum in the 3rd century. The warrior in the photo is the stereotype of an Iberian heavy infantryman. He is from bas-relief c. 200 BC and is armed with a falcata and an oval shield.

Iberian warrior from bas-relief c. 200 BC

Iberian warrior from bas-relief c. 200 BC
National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid

What about elsewhere

So what about else where in Spain? In the centre and north the locals adopted Celtic equipment and hence the oval shield. In Portugal the Lusitani retained the caetrata even for heavily armoured troops.

Did the Carthaginians introduce the oval shield?

No. The Gauls did much earlier – at least in the north. I’m not even convinced the Carthaginians introduced the oval shield into their bit of Spain.

I’m not convinced by the coin evidence on its own. Appian and Strabo tell us that the Third Punic War the Carthaginian infantry were using the thureos. In fact Head (1982) says Carthaginian infantry after 300 BC would have used the thureos. So Carthaginians using oval shields = yes. That alone can explain an oval shield on a Barcid coin. But the coin alone does not mean the Carthaginians introduced the oval shield to Spain. It just supports the fact the Carthaginians used them.

The archeological evidence is much more compelling. The timing is right for a deliberate Barcid policy to increase the heavy element in both the Iberian infantry and cavalry.

What doesn’t ring true is that the shape of the Spanish oval shield was different. Put simply the Spanish Scutum is big, fat and flat, attributes that Carthaginian, Greek, Roman and Gallic oval shields lack either individually or in combination. Gallic shields are thin. Roman curved. Greek and Carthaginian small.

I also find it interesting that Spanish cavalry adopted both large round shields and large oval shields when they became “heavy”. Contemporary Carthaginian, Roman, and Greek cavalry used round shields. So why would the Carthaginians propose their vassal cavalry used a different shape of shield.

I think there is more going on here than we know about.

My theory

None-the-less I have a working theory. If I’m lucky some archeologist will prove it in my lifetime. Here is the theory:

Spanish infantry started with small round shields. Cavalry shieldless. Over time foreign influence encouraged the cavalry to adopt shields – by default the small one of the infantry. The Lusitani never changed from this configuration. The Iberians retained it until the 3rd century.

The tribes in the north and centre came face-to-face with Celtic interlopers and over time adopted the kit of the Gauls – thus becoming Celtiberian. Specifically the Celtic oval shield for their infantry. Perhaps large shields for the cavalry.

Under Carthaginian influence in the 3rd century the Iberians adopted large shields for both infantry and cavalry. They might have been inspired by Carthaginian or Celtiberian examples but the shields shapes were uniquely Spanish.

Just an untested theory mind you.

References

Head, D. (1982). Armies of the Macedonian and Punic wars 359 BC to 146 BC. Wargames Research Group.

Head, D. (2010, September). Zama Battle Day Questions. Slingshot – The Journal of the Society of Ancients, 272, p. 12.

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