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Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Advancement and Effectiveness of the Late Roman Weapons

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Spears and Javelins

Throughout most of the history of the Empire, Roman infantry soldiers were characterized by the use of a single weapon, the pilum. The pilum was a heavy spear, used for thrusting or throwing. The pilum had a leaf-shaped iron head, 2–3 feet (60–90 centimeters) long, embedded in, or socketed onto a wooden shaft with a short iron spike at the rear. Sometimes, especially in the later Roman period, one or two weights would be attached to the pilum. These tended to increase their power but decrease their range, indicating perhaps a soldier’s preference at those times for a thrusting rather than a throwing weapon. The length of the weapon seems to have been around 5 feet 4 inches (163 centimeters), although examples as long as 9 feet (274 centimeters) were found in the excavation of a bog site in Illerup, Denmark.

Roman armies were the only ones who used the pilum, which may mean there were strict regulations on its manufacture and trade, although there is no written evidence supporting this assumption. During the second century AD there was a decline in the use of the pilum, but in the third and fourth centuries it regained its popularity and was used against the early barbarian invaders. Only with the decline of Roman military power and the rise of the barbarians did the pilum finally fade out. Javelins, shorter (approximately 40 inches or 103 centimeters) where lighter than the pilum and had a smaller iron head. They were also used by regular Roman soldiers during the late Empire, chiefly, it seems, by lightly armored skirmishing troops.

No contemporary records document the range of these weapons, but modern experiments indicate a range of about 33 yards (30 meters) for pila, although they are only able to penetrate a wooden shield at 5 1/2 yards (5 meters), and 22 yards (20 meters) for javelins, which had a penetrating capability up to 11 yards (10 meters). Javelins and pila could be used on horseback, but late Roman cavalry preferred lances. These were longer than pila and did not have long iron heads. Excavated lance heads show a variety of shapes, lengths, and weights. The total lengths of lances—head and shaft— can only be guessed at.


Roman soldiers almost always carried an edged weapon to use as a secondary weapon to their pila. Most often these were worn on their right side and were drawn by and used in the right hand (to the Roman a left-handed person was sinister, the Latin word for left). In earlier periods these were relatively short—no longer than 13 inches (35 centimeters).

They had leaf-shaped blades and were sheathed in iron or leather scabbards with bronze edges, supports, and tips or chapes. Obviously, the dagger also had nonmilitary uses. By at least the first century BC Roman soldiers had adopted the gladius. This was a short sword made with an iron blade to which a bronze-covered wood, bone, or ivory cross guard, pommel, and grip would be attached. They varied in length, and archaeological examples range between 22 and 30 inches (56 and 76 centimeters) overall with blades between 13 and 25 inches (34.5 and 64 centimeters). A gladius in the collections of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England (IX.5583A) is 24 inches (63 centimeters) overall, with a blade length of 19 inches (49 centimeters), a width of 1.7 inches (4.3 centimeters), and a weight of 1 pound (444 grams), measurements not often recorded for similar excavated weapons.

Gladius scabbards were made of two thin pieces of wood, sometimes covered with a thin bronze sheet or leather, reinforced by bronze bands where the scabbard attached to the belt and at the chape; at times a third band was also attached further down the scabbard. Although ostensibly for adding strength to the scabbard, these bronze bands were also frequently tinned and decorated. On the bronze bands of the scabbard—the only pieces that remained— that carried the Royal Armouries gladius. The first band was engraved with a warrior moving to his right and wearing a crested helmet and a muscled cuirass; he carried a spear and a shield. The lower band is engraved with a partially clothed winged victory figure writing on a shield hanging from a palm tree.

The chape is engraved with another winged victory figure holding a palm leaf. The symbolism here suggests that the soldier carrying this weapon was willing to fight, but hoped for peace through victory. Several other decorated gladius scabbards have been found. More complete scabbards show the tip of the chape to have been a cast bronze button. The blades of some extant gladii carry the names of owners or possibly manufacturers; the Royal Armouries gladius bears three apparently separate names: C. Valerius Primus, C. Valerius, and C. Ranius. The gladius continued to be used throughout the late Empire, although it steadily declined in popularity. The gladius could only be used for thrusting and thus had limited effect when wielded from horseback. For this, it appears a longer sword was carried, called spatha.

The spatha appears at least by the end of the second century AD, primarily as a cavalry weapon, but it quickly found popularity among the infantry as well. Unlike the gladius, the spatha was usually worn on the left side and carried in a scabbard that was attached to a leather belt or baldric that was worn over the right shoulder across the body. The length of the baldric could be adjusted by a series of buttons. The spatha was carried on the opposite hip from the gladius and from the baldric, this was probably because of the sword’s relative length—extant examples are between 28–36 inches (71–92 centimeters) long overall, with a blade length of 23–27.5 inches (59–70 centimeters) and a width of 1.5–2.4 inches (4–6 centimeters).

Spatha had similarly constructed wood, bone, or ivory cross guards, pommels, and grips as the gladii, and similarly decorated panels, although bronze was increasingly replaced by iron or sometimes silver. In the fourth and fifth centuries the spatha became more popular than the gladius for all Roman soldiers and may denote an increased desire to use the sword as a slashing rather than a thrusting weapon. According to the fourth-century Ammianus Marcellinus and seventh-century John of Antioch, the results of a spatha slash could be quite devastating, the former claiming one could split a human skull in two and the latter reporting a collarbone and torso penetrated by a spatha.

In the late Roman Empire, daggers and swords would often be carried together.

Bows and Slings

Bows and slings were also used by Roman skirmishing troops. Unfortunately, there are no archaeological remains of these weapons, as they were made of wood and cloth, respectively, but they are often portrayed in art and are frequently mentioned in historical sources. Flavius Vegetius Renatus, perhaps the most famous late Roman military writer, mentions self-bows, thought to be plain wooden bows, as training weapons and recommends an exaggerated practice range of 300 yards (274 meters). Modern tests have shown the effective range of these bows to be 55–165 yards (50–150 meters), with a maximum range of 180–250 yards (165–230 meters).

Naturally, as with all missile weapons, effectiveness was determined as much by the skill of the archers as by the technology of the bow. Vegetius does not describe the war bow. Many scholars believe these were not self-bows but composite bows, constructed from wood, sinew, and horn. They arrive at this conclusion based on the later use of composite bows, for which there is no known origin, and because of the archaeological finds of ear- and grip-laths that are thought to be from composite bows. Several artistic portrayals also seem to depict composite bows, based on the way they are bent when strung. These demonstrate that the bowstring could be drawn both by the fingers—the so-called Mediterranean release—or the thumb—the Mongolian release. Bracers on the left wrist and stalls or rings for the fingers or thumb are also depicted, as are quivers.

Finally, during the period of barbarian invasions, the Romans used horse archers who could fire at full gallop when skirmishing against an opponent, but who could also use a sword or spear when directly attacking an opponent’s troops.

Two types of arrowheads have been identified from archaeological excavations. The long, thin bodkin arrowhead is thought to have been used as an armor piercer, with the suggestion that the triple- or quadruple-vaned trilobate arrowhead was more effective against unarmored targets. Both could be tanged or socketed and, as such, either bound or glued to a reed or cane shaft, which was kept from splitting on impact by the addition of a solid wooden piece in the middle. Rare archaeological examples of these arrows found at Dura Europos in Syria have also shown that part of the surface of the Roman arrow was roughened and the fletching was attached by glue.

Slings, a weapon used in ancient warfare, continued to be used into the late Roman period. In fact, Vegetius deemed them to be more effective than the bow. The excavation of one possible sling pouch shows them to have been made of thick and rough cattle hide decorated with geometric patterns. Both stone and lead slingshots have also been excavated, but none can be conclusively dated. Artistic depictions show that the sling was swung over the head or at the side of the body, and as with the bowstring grip, there seems to have been no standard method for Roman soldiers. Modern experiments have determined that the sling had a range between 165–440 yards (150 and 400 meters).

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