Roman Military Belt with FELIX VTERE Plates
Period: 175-250CE
Materials: Goatskin leather, linen thread, bronze plates

INTRODUCTION – One of the marks of a Roman soldier was his leather belt, balteus or cingulum, an item often richly decorated with metal plates which made him immediately identifiable as a military man. Civilians did not wear such things and it was a common minor punishment for Roman soldiers to be made to stand in the camp with their tunics unbelted.

FELIX VTERE, “use with good luck”, was a popular admonition found on personal and household items in the Roman period. There was a fashion during the later 2nd and first half of the 3rd centuries CE, in the Roman army, for military belts decorated with non-ferrous metal plates (copper alloy or silver) which spelled out this phrase. At least one plate, the letter V, from the beginning of the word “VTERE,” has been found in excavations at Dura Europos, Syria (James 2004, 78)*.

Aquae Iasae belt plates from the
Archaeological Museum in Zagreb.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND - Several nearly complete FELIX VTERE belt sets have been found. The first was discovered in Lyon, France, in association with a male skeleton, baldric fittings and sword and has been tentatively dated to a battle in that place in 197CE (Bullinger 1972, 276). Two other notable sets have been found in the Balkans, the first in Ljuben, Bulgaria, in a grave which also contained medical instruments (Redzic 2008, 155-162)**, and the second, the one upon which this belt is based (see photograph below), in Aquae Iasae (Varaždinske Toplice, Croatia)(Galić 2006, 165-186). The archaeological evidence indicates that FELIX VTERE belt fittings were most popular with soldiers from the middle portion of the Empire (modern southeastern Europe), as the finds of surviving letters are concentrated in that region and become more scarce as one moves out from that epicenter (especially to the north and west; there have been few if any finds of these fittings as yet in Britain).

Design on the back of the reproduction FELIX VTERE
belt taken from the Vimose baldric.
Leather, an organic material, is not commonly found in archaeological contexts, the exceptions being waterlogged or desert sites. The conditions at Dura Europos are very dry and preservation of leather items has generally been good - portions of footwear, armor and other items having been excavated. Unfortunately no identifiable military belts have been found there so we must look farther afield. There have been nearly complete belts found in northern Europe, in areas located just inside and outside the Roman Empire. In the excavations at the Roman military settlement in Augst, Switerland (Augusta Raurica) leather fragments have been found attached to metal belt fittings (Schmid 1968, 21ff). Amongst the sacrificial Roman military items found deposited in a bog at Vimose, Denmark, there was a leather sword baldric of a style from about 200-250CE with a leaping dolphin design which originally had been worked in thread (Ulbert 1974 and Bishop 1993, 39). A spectacular belt was found in a princely male grave in Gommern, Germany dated to the later 2nd century CE. The belt was very wide, and made of multiple layers. The outer layer was light colored thin leather about 1mm. thick. It was cut in an intricate design and laid over a middle layer of gilded leather. In addition to this very elaborate belt, the fittings for two simpler belts were also found in the burial (Breuer 1993, 96-99). From about 200 years later we have the belt in the relics of St. Caesarius of Arles***. This belt is dark colored with light colored edge and decorative stitching. Analyses of some of these belts have shown that they were sometimes made of several types of leather, calf and goatskin being the most common. Roman leatherwork employed a variety of stitches and techniques and displayed sophistication in construction which was not seen again until the Renaissance and early modern periods (van Driel-Murray 2004, 347). We know from examples from Egypt that leathers were often beautifully colored as well.

We can also draw conclusions about the overall thickness of belts from the pins remaining on the backs of belt fittings. Beginning in the mid to late 2nd century pins began to be cast integrally into the backs of the letters and were then mushroomed over on the back to a thickness of about 3mm. The Julius Terentius fresco from Dura Europos shows well the belts of the participants, they are not overly wide but the portion of the belt which goes through the buckle is very long and is caught up in a “swag” on the wearer’s right side with the end left to hang down.

Julius Terentius fresco.
We don’t know the actual layout and spacing of the letters of the Aquae Iasae belt. It was probably deposited as an offering at the spring, perhaps into some sort of cleft, and as the leather of the belt decayed the letters fell to the location where they were later found by archaeologists (Galić 2006, 179-180). To best convey the admonition, FELIX VTERE, it would make the most sense that the letters be grouped more towards the front half of the belt, where they would serve to stiffen the belt from wanting to roll over with wear.

CONSTRUCTION OF THE LEATHER PORTION OF THE BELT - The main body of the belt was made from vegetable tanned goatskin which was purchased pre-dyed from a supplier of fine bookbinding leathers. The dolphin design, adapted from the Vimose baldric, was cut into the outer leather. The leather lining was made from vegetable tanned, undyed goatskin and was gilded with 23 karat gold leaf adhered with Kolner’s Miniatum on the areas which would show through the dolphin cutwork. The outer and gilded lining was then stitched together around the dolphin design in colored linen thread. Roman stitch work was fairly fine, so I chose to work the edges at 9 stitches per inch because aesthetically it seem correct to my eye and in harmony with period examples. The dolphins were worked more finely because again it made sense given the size of the figures. To provide additional stability, a piece of thin, tightly woven linen was cut to size to fit the back of the gilded lining, then the edges of the outer were turned in and the belt was sewn along both edges with yellow linen thread. The the outer leather was then drawn up and sewn together along the center back with a plain seam (van Driel-Murray 2001, 346). The “swag” portion of the belt was made from vegetable tanned goatskin dyed yellow. It was also skived along its length, fitted with a piece of linen and sewn up the center back with an edge/flesh stitch. Then it was sewn down both edges, at 9 stitches per inch, with contrasting blue linen thread. The unfinished end of the “swag” was fitted into the end of the left side of the belt and stitched up.

BELT PLATES - As found, the Aquae Iasae set had the letters FELIX complete with the X being hinged to a kidney shaped buckle. The word VTERE was not complete; the final R and E having been lost in antiquity. I created a replacement letter R, drawing elements from the surviving plates and chose to make the letter E based on the surviving one with the loop. The V found at Dura Europos , is almost identical to the V of the Aquae Iasae set, so this drove my decision to recreate this particular belt. Subsequently I have examined a number of individual FELIX VTERE belt set letters lost randomly at discrete locations, and have noted a great deal of similarity between these individual letters and the Aquae Iasae set. I copied the letters to scale from the archaeological report, mounted them on card and used them to cut the letters from brass sheet to use as models for casting. I cast the ten letters, two hinged strap ends, the buckle and tongue in bronze using the sand casting material called Delft Clay and finished them by filing by hand and polishing with a polishing wheel. 

CASTING THE BELT PLATES – There is a very detailed illustrated explanation of my casting process ON THIS PAGE, what follows here is a digest.

Moldmaking - I prepared my two part flask using the casting medium Delft Clay, a form of fine grained sand casting. This involved packing both parts of the flask with the Delft Clay, making sure the surfaces were even. I then pressed the metal model, face down, into the clay of the bottom mold and placed a steel plate on top to press it down evenly. Then I placed the top on and gently pressed it in contact with the model. I removed the top, made at least one vent hole with a skewer and a pouring hole with a larger rod. Then I cut a pouring funnel on the topside. I put the two halves back together and placed them by the hearth in preparation for the pour.
Bronze Pouring - I heated the bronze with a MAPP gas torch in a ceramic melting dish in small hearth made of refractory bricks. The melting dish had been seasoned with borax prior to its initial use and as the metal melted I added some additional borax as flux to help it flow more easily. When the metal had melted and formed a distinct ‘button’ shape in the melting dish it was ready to pour. Any additional metal was poured into a small cast iron dish on the side. After a few minutes, the mold was be opened to see if the casting was successful.
Clean Up - The raw casting had flashing lines and sprues which needed to be cut off and filed. Then the plates were rough polished on a bobbing wheel and finely polished with jeweler’s rouge.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER – I fitted the hinged X/buckle plate first by marking the places where the pins on its back would go through the leather. Then I pierced holes to accommodate the pins, trimmed them until they were standing proud above the leather, and then peened them over with a hammer. I then did I, L, E, and F on that side of the belt and V, T, E, R, and E on the other side of the belt. I test fit it and determined where I should pierce the holes for the size adjustment. Then I carefully cut the hole which I will whip stitched around in the future for stability. Finally I put on the two strap ends using the same method as for the belt plates. Then finally after many weeks of work the belt was complete.

WHAT I LEARNED – I have a lot of experience doing investment casting but had not worked extensively with sandcasting before. This project gave me plenty of practice in using the Delft Clay method and I feel I have a much better grasp of its properties now. I look forward to making more belt fittings based on Durene models.

My Laurel is in shoe-making and I have been working leather for many years, however the leather gilding technique is new to me and enjoyable to learn. I am reminded yet again of the delightful properties of goatskin. It is thin but strong and supple, shapes beautifully and is great to sew. I think making some Dura shoes are in order!

* Now in the National Museum in Damascus, Syria.
** This burial has been dated to the 220s CE based upon coins found in the grave.
*** Now in the Musée de l'Arles Antique.


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James, Simon. Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-1937, Final Report VII, The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment. London: British Museum Press, 2004.

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vor- und Fruhgeschichtlichen Archaologie; Festschrift f. Joachim Werner z. 65. Geburtstag 1 (1974)

van Driel-Murray, Carol. “Footwear in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire,” in
Goubitz, Olaf, Stepping through time : archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800. Zwolle [Netherlands]: Stichting Promotie Archeologie, 2001: 336-376.

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