The Velites (hastae velitares) were a type of Roman light infantry during the days of the Roman legions. Thanks to a quote from Publius, they have often been historically portrayed as wearing animal skins on their helmet and armor – particularly a wolf headdress.
The Velites were founded in the Mid-Roman Republic (264–133 bc) as a form of light infantry that would support the better-equipped heavy armored infantry in battle.
The Velites consisted of a 1,200-strong force in the early Roman war machine. Historians describe as a very effective unit. Since the Roman Republic considered the Velites light infantry, their equipment and funding were scarce. The soldiers in the Velites were some of the youngest and some of the poorest soldiers in the Roman army. Since they were some of the poorest troops, the Roman army got rid of the wealth requirements but kept a minimum property requirement for service for these troops.
They had very thin armor comprising a small thin helmet usually made from leather or bronze and covered (so it was said) in a wolf or other animal’s pelt; this was intended to make the Velites easily identified by the generals and fellow men on the battlefield.
The Velite’s only defense from enemy fire was usually limited to a small, light shield called a parma. The shields were three feet in diameter and made of iron and sheets of wood glued together to protect the soldiers. Cavalry units supporting the Roman legions also used the parma in the Roman Legions. For reference look at the image below.
All Velites soldiers were given light javelins (pila) or (verutum) that were 36” in length that, when thrown, would bind on impact and make it to where the javelin would not be able to be thrown again. An individual Velites could carry up to five or seven verutum into battle. It would also foul the shield when it struck, often causing their enemy to discard their shield on the ground and advance without protection.
The soldier was able to throw the verutum by a leather strap called an ankule or amentum. Each soldier was given darts that they could use to throw or stab at the enemy if needed. They were also given a 2 ½’ sword called a gladius that became the primary weapon once the javelins were all thrown.
The Velites were instructed to harass the enemy before the three classes of heavily equipped infantry could attack the enemy. The Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii made up the three levels of heavy infantry that backed up the Velites. As the Velites retreated into the heavier armored infantry lines, they would follow the checkerboard pattern that the heavier infantry was organized in. The checkerboard pattern that the three lines of more armored infantry used information on the battlefield was to give the most amount of flexibility to the units to back up other units in the line.
This helped prevent disruption when there was change to the units fighting in the front line, helping to maintain a seamless transition between troops. Some scholars say that when the Velites fell back in the lines, they acted as support troops and carried wounded troops to safety.
“The youngest soldiers or velites are ordered to carry a sword, javelins, and a target [parma/shield]. The target is strongly made and sufficiently large to afford protection, being circular and measuring three feet in diameter. They also wear a plain helmet and sometimes cover it with a wolf’s skin or something similar both to protect and act as a distinguishing mark by which their officers can recognize them and judge if they fight pluckily or not.” Polybius of Megalopolis, the Histories, Book VI
In battle, the Velites were used in the front lines to allow time for the heavier equipped soldiers to engage the enemy. If the heavy infantry were stopped in their advance, the Velites would fall back and wait for the next group of heavy infantry to advance.
“But among the ancients, the Velites usually engaged them. They were young soldiers, lightly armed, active, and very expert in throwing their missile weapons on horseback. These troops kept hovering round the elephants continually and killed them with large lances and javelins. Afterwards, the soldiers, as their apprehensions decreased, attacked them in a body and, throwing their javelins together, destroyed them by the multitude of wounds.” –Vegetius, De re militari
The Velites started disappearing in the Metellus campaign in 109-108 B.C. No one knows for sure what happened to them, but histories have proposed some theories. One of the more prominent thoughts is that Marius (Consul Gaius Marius) had a hand in the disappearance of the Velites because he contributed to making drastic changes to the equipment and how the military was organized. Some say that when Marius lowered the property qualification, that may have caused the disappearance of the Velites.
If this is indeed the case, then he Roman civilians who formerly made up the Velites were now able to be a part of the legions as legionaries. As a legionary, they would have received better pay and prestige. As a result, they might not have been abolished but gradually disappeared in time due to the “better benefits”.