Shields and Spears
 - or why you would always use one and why you don't hammer the life out of your mates 
by Madoc

Why use a shield 
A shield is a large piece of "armour" that is carried (or strapped to the arm) and used to ward off blows or missiles. Shields in the 1st century AD are usually made of wood, covered with fabric or leather, with a stronger covering to protect the area where it is held. 
They are sometimes braced with extra pieces to the rear and may have additional edging to protect against splitting. (see pictures elsewhere on this website). A shield is primarily used with a single-handed weapon, such as a sword or spear. 

In battle especially, blows can be received from anyone that can reach you. There is no "honour" in the middle of a battle where combatants dutifully fight the person opposite and then wait for the next person should they be victorious. It is a confused, chaotic shouting and pushing match where any opportunity is taken to mete out death to anyone on the opposite side. Many bodies that show injuries from battle, often have multiple injuries to the head, shoulders and back which is perhaps evidence that as they staggered from the first blow, others took the chance to strike at the unprotected body even as it fell (possibly even already dead). 
Where body armour is limited in both coverage and availability then shields would usually predominate as the primary form of personal protection. A shield allows the user to not only actively ward off blows but acts as a static barrier, which must be breached or knocked aside to reach the warrior behind it. 
From experience, it is possible to use a shield actively against two opponents effectively but not any more than that. Hence in battle, a shield is used passively as a barrier. 
Where groups of men are quite closely packed and a shield cannot be moved around easily and also where there are many opponents that are within reach, then shields tend to be large. This means that they can cover more of your body without any active participation on your part. Smaller shields are less effective in a packed group for the opposite reason, i.e. they can't be moved and they cover less of your body. 
A small shield is usually linked to a more looser and faster style of combat. 

Why use a spear ? 
In the first century missile weapons, such as bows and slings, are not in such common use as in some later periods of history. The Romans certainly used archers but these were usually limited to specialised cohorts, although every soldier was taught the use of missile weapons as part of their training. 
The Britons do have stashes of stones at some hillfort sites, which may indicate that slings were used at least in a defensive capability. Archery seems to have been more a hunting weapon than a massed weapon of warfare. 
However, very many spears are found and in some cases in excess of the number of probable occupants. These are unlikely to be a sort of armoury for your general population but merely confirmation that warriors carried multiple spears into battle and are disposable. Contemporary art certainly shows multiple spears being carried. 
The reason for carrying multiple spears is that they can be thrown at the opposition both before and during battle. It is relatively easy to throw a light spear some 40 yards standing, in armour, with a shield and with a little balancing of the weapon and some practice to exceed this. 

The main use of the spear in hand-to-hand combat is the same in this period as for the hundreds of years beforehand and a thousand years afterwards. It is used single handed in conjunction with a shield and a very effective combination they make. It is ideally suited to delivering the fastest method of killing and injuring, the thrust, at a distance from to its user. The only problem, as you will read below, is that spears are susceptible to becoming stuck in a shield. 

How effective is a shield? 
This does depend on what it is made from. Obviously a bronze covered shield is going to be far more effective than the more common wooden variety. Even the wooden varieties tend to vary in thickness; so the trade off is between durability (how punishment will it take) and speed/stamina (how long you can carry and use it effectively). 

A thrown spear carries an awful lot of momentum and will easily pierce and possible exit an unarmoured warrior. A thrown spear, and arrows, will also penetrate a shield but not more than a few inches, so provided the shield is carried away from the body then it will provide protection. Even a Roman pilum will only penetrate a little further. However a shield with a spear or two sticking into it is a heavy and cumbersome thing and the warrior is faced with the choice of dropping it (and likely to face a short life) or taking the time to stop and remove the spears. A thrust spear actually may have less force than the thrown variety, although it does depend on the person using it and the circumstances, but in all cases battle wise warriors will always avoid thrusting their spear into a shield (as explained below). So in this respect the sheld does not actually need its intrinsic protection value just it's presence.

Shields are also highly effective against sling stones.

If we were to consider your average roman infantry auxilia cohort (of around 500 men) the soldiers, if the mainz carving is to be believed, each carry at least three spears. This means that they could roughly put around 1,500 spears into an enemy before the lines would close. The legionary's (and there could be 5 thousand of them to a legion) carry at least one, or perhaps two, of the heavier pila in addition to the other auxillia cohorts. This equates to a horrendous number of thrown spears that could be delivered. 
Would you realistically choose to fight without a shield under such a threat ?? 

The Gauls and Britons are noted for their charge and maybe it's possible that they do this, as the later Scottish Highlanders did, to close the range as fast as possible and limit the damage from their enemies superiority in ranged firepower. 
Of course, in later periods the fighting man has been known to charge into withering volleys of bullets but in these instances there is no protection possible. 
In our period, the shield is an available method of increasing your chances of survival by an order of magnitude. Even the Germans, who are regarded as a poor society, use the shield.

In his book on the Celtic sword, Radomir Pleiner carries out tests of swords against shields and finds that a sword may well split the edge of an unprotected shield but is seriously damaged by one with a metal edge. A sword would be of limited effectiveness against the face of the shield or the boss; proving the Vicus's combat maxim of fighting the man behind the shield and not shield itself.

The Shield as a weapon and using shields in single combat 
Shields can be used as a weapon but they you need to be very close to your enemy; the usual attack being a simple barge with your shoulder being behind the shield. Trying to get your metal boss into your enemies face is more problematical as usually the shield will need to be raised to manage it and this effectively blocks your vision completely (a very bad thing) and also exposes the whole lower part of your body (an even worse thing). 
Forget the garbage about legionary's putting their shield bosses into an enemies face, although ramming it into the body of someone unprotected by shield is a painful possibility. 
A far more useful application of the shield is its rim, which is very painful when used against arms, legs, hands and chin.
In addition, wooden shields have the useful ability to sometimes grip weapons that are thrust into them. This is especially true of spears, where a strong thrust may well cause it to be come lodged requiring an effort to remove it; of course the shield user is not going to let this happen easily and he can move the shield and thus the person holding it into a handy position for a strike or even twist it out of the hand. Again this proves our belief that no warrior would willingly hammer an opposing shield (especially if the spear is his only weapon!). 
Swords may also become lodged in the edges of shields with much the same results. 

A smaller shield is actually a useful item in a single combat as it allows the user more effective use of his weapon. Larger shields need to be moved out to allow some attacks. Shields are never used, as counterbalance to a strike like you see is so many films and movies.