Arms of the Roman Legionary, 400 AD

All modern armies owe something to the Legions of Ancient Rome. A fascinating book, The Last Legionary by Paul Elliott, describes, as its subtitle suggests, Life as a Roman Soldier in Britain, AD 400. 

The book combines, in the style of Christopher Matthew’s A Storm of Spears (on the Greek hoplite at war; only $1.26 at that link; previously mentioned here in comments and here), the disciplines of history, material archaeology, and “experiential archaeology” as practiced by reenactors. Where The Last Legionary is different is that its facts about the Roman military’s last years in Roman Britannia are woven into the story of an simple soldier, we guess you could say an ordinary Gaius. Gaius was born in 362 to a Roman legionary, Maritius, and his wife, and on reaching his majority was compelled to join up under the edict of Diocletian, which committed sons to their fathers’ professions. Some youths dodged the draft by cutting their thumbs off, which was discouraged initially by burning the draft dodgers and later by drafting them anyway.

Gaius was no draft dodger, and accepted his fate. He swore an oath (to Christ and the Emperor) to serve, and if need be, die for the Roman Empire. Training was harsh and hardening, including formation drill, fast marches, position and fortification construction, and plenty of physical training.

Of most interest to our readers is probably the weaponry on which Gaius was expected to gain proficiency. While the Roman Legion of Caesar’s day fought primarily close-in with spear and short sword, by the fourth century projectiles were a major part of combat. To be a properly cross-trained legionary, Gaius would have to learn to master the sling, the recurve bow, the plumbata dart, three kinds of javelin, the crossbow ,and the barbarians’ own throwing axe, as well as the classical sword, shield and spear of centuries before. Indeed, missile weapons training usually began before close-in weapons training.

Late Roman Missile Weapons

The sling was a leather or woven cup with a cord proceeding from two corners. One cord is looped around the index finger, that’s the standing end of the sling; the other is tied in a knot, which is the running end, and the slinger releases it to launch the projectile — a stone, or a lead ball — but accuracy is hard to achieve, the author has learned. Roman sources suggest a single whip round, and setting the practice targets at — wait for it — 180 meters, same as for bows. Elliott has been unable to achieve this range, with the regular sling or using one with the cords proceeding form a stick.

The recurve bow came to the Roman army from encounters with Eastern enemies so armed. Mostly these were the tribes of the East; for centuries the Romans had trouble with Scythians and Parthians, among others.

The Romans adopted the recurve bow after seeing its effect first hand, and while it only bought them parity in the East, in the West it gave them technological superiority to the “self-bow” of the Gauls and Germans.

Often the ends or “ears” of the bow was strengthened with bone laths, and the body of the bow was carefully covered with leather to protect it from moisture. Wet conditions could ruin a recurve bow, as could misuse. Leaving the bow stringed and ready for action ruins the springiness of the bow and reduces its power. Unlike the sling, specialist craftsmen were needed to make these complex weapons.

The bowstring was drawn differently in units raised and trained in the eastern and western units. Western-trained archers shot using the fingers of their strong hand; Eastern-trained archers used a thumb ring. While archers could fire at individual targets, they were often used in volley fire.

The plumbata was a recent (~4th Century) addition to the Roman grunt’s panoply. It was a lead-weighted dart, shorter than an arrow, that could be thrown by hand or launched — as far as 100 m! —  with a sling or throwing stick.

Reconstructed plumbatae. Source.

Testa by the historical research group, Comitatus, have  found that an underhand throw was by far the best method.The plumbatae can reach an impressive distance, easily exceeding 60 m, and come down vertically directly onto the heads and shoulders of the enemy.

This is a different re-enactor group throwing plumbatae. From Roman-Artifacts.com.

Another Roman name for the plumbata was the “Barb of Mars.”

Surviving plumbata head. Source.

Romans used several types of javelins, known by the names pilum, spiculum, and verutum, but while these were nominally throwing weapons, they were hard to throw accurately or any distance.

Two weapons of secondary importance were the throwing axe, adopted from some of the northern Germanic tribes, and the crossbow, which was probably developed by scaling down a siege engine, but was rather new at the time. (Elliott cites sources that make it clear that the late Roman Empire deployed this weapon, which he points out that most people associate with medieval warfare. There was more continuity between antiquity and modernity than “dark ages” historiography suggests).

Late Roman Close Combat Weapons

The two basic combat weapons of antiquity were the sword and the spear. Technology had not stood still, and the soldier who fought blue-painted Britons in Roman Britain wasn’t armed quite like his ancestor in Caesar’s legions had been.

The sword was the spatha, a longer (~700mm) sword than the classic gladius of Caesar’s age. It was originally a weapon for cavalry.

Third Century spatha. Source.

Spatha were not crude mass-produced weapons, they were carefully wrought swords, often with pattern-welded blades. These blades were formed from several iron bars, all of different carbon content, that would twisted into a screw shape and then hammered and folded repeatedly. To this strong, yet flexible, core, hardened steel cutting edges were welded. The blades are strong and beautiful, with long straight sides and sharp points. The hilts and pommels were crafted from wood, horn or bone – all organic materials. In earlier centuries, the legionary sword hung on the soldier’s right side, but in the fourth century, soldiers wore their swords on the left, traditionally the preserve of centurions and senior officers.

In man to man combat the sword was used to stab into the body of a foe, but when engaging a shielded target the long spatha could be used to reach over the Shield to strike the head or neck, the shoulders, the sword arm, or the left leg….

If the spatha was the 400 AD legionary’s offensive weapon, his tactical defensive weapon was the spear. Spears had seen a lot less technological change in the preceding 400 years, but that’s for the best of reasons: they were quite well evolved already. A single spearman on the battlefield would have been vulnerable to being flanked and defeated by more agile foes, but no army — certainly not the Romans! — fights as individuals. Attacking a unit of spear-armed Romans was a mortal-consequences game of Slap The Porcupine. Wise enemies didn’t try, and unwise ones died or wised up PDQ.

The Roman shield, on the other hand, had changed since Caesar’s day. Caesar’s legions carried a rectangular shield, that in overhead plan view had an arc to it. The late Empire infantryman had a round shield, which worked better with the long spatha.

The infantryman of 400 AD had a great many weapons to master, along with all the other soldier skills of the day. And we enjoyed learning about his training, combat, and life in general, in The Last Legionary. 

40 thoughts on “Arms of the Roman Legionary, 400 AD

  1. LFMayor

    When I was about fourteen I made a sling from instructions I found in the column Taps Tips, out of a field and stream magazine.
    The damn thing would throw a racquetball sized dirt clod at least a hundred yards and a smallish egg sized rock out of sight, and I was a scrawny kid, wrestled at 75 lbs that year. It took some practice but in the end the trick was not to continually swing it, like in the movies, but to swing behind and up over your shoulder, almost like you were stepping forward and leaning while releasing the knot just the forward side of apogee. I could definitely imagine a grown, trained man hitting the ranges stated. Especially if using cast lead sling stones

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    1. Larry

      One small caveat, which probably won’t apply to any readers here, is that Storm of Spears is essentially a doctoral dissertation, and would be very dry to most lay readers.s The findings may be very interesting, if not all the particulars (however important they may be to the specialist). I find it fascinating, even though I’d have been a terrible hoplite or legionary.

      Reply
      1. Hognose Post author

        Yes and I’ve wondered if Elliott was thinking of just that book when he wrote The Last Legionary. The story of Gaius and his family and friends on outpost against marauding Picts does make it come alive. Sometimes in Storm of Spears you needed your imagination to make the life of the hoplite come alive.

        While a great deal of information (not all truthful!) came down from antiquity about leaders and generals, you need archaeology more than history to get a grip on the life of the ranker or junior officer.

        Reply
  2. Ken

    Interesting post. This reminds me of a book I can recommend – Longbow by Robert Hardy. Interesting how the Roman bow may have affected the English longbow…

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    1. raven

      Seconded- Hardy’s book on the long bow is excellent. His description of Agincourt was enlightening .
      My experience using a sling as a kid was similar to LFMayor’s- holding the stone and pouch in the non throwing hand, in front of the body, pulling the sling tight, and using the throwing hand to pull up, around and behind the head, releasing the pouch as the throwing hand starts to come forward. Think of the sling as a rigid stick with a stone at the end, and an ability to release the stone at will- it is just a long lever.
      The stones made a cool whirring shriek from the speed they achieved.

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      1. Loren

        I recently read of Roman throwing “stones” being found that had holes drilled in them to enhance the “whirring shriek” sound.

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  3. RostislavDDD

    >>>While the Roman Legion of Caesar’s day fought primarily close-in with spear and short sword

    The weaponry of the legionary proves the opposite.
    At first, the republic’s legionnaire is a warrior of a beggarly city on the outskirts of civilization, not much different from the barbarians.
    The established minimum of the recruit before the reforms Maria – pectoral on the straps, shield and a few javelins.
    A large shield (4 feet high) weighed 10-12 kg, it was worn on a downwardly lowered arm. With such a shield and this method of wearing a spear can not be used (I know about cervical belts).
    Pylum is primarily a throwing spear. Gladius is a pricked sword. He turned the body and shield, pricked it the slot, turned back, took out his sword and closed.
    The battle of the Roman legion of Caesar’s time is drawn – the run of the centurions around the signums and the throwing of javelins with roughly the same armed and active barbarians. When the barbarian order is softened – an ordered onslaught by the wall of shields and slaughter by swords.

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    1. Larry

      Pylum is a javelin. Very light, rather different from a spear, which is a thrusting weapon. The gladius was the short sword, correct. The sword certainly was the primary weapon, following the throwing of the javelin on the close to contact. Both were the primary weapons of Caesar’s legions.

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  4. archy

    I’ve long wondered if the Romans had designated their grunt footsoldiers seperately from the more technically-minded fellas running the longer-ranged catapultum and arbalast, their versions of MOS 11B versus 11C, with maybe the elephant-riding troops fitting the 11E MOS.

    Chris McNab’s popular reference on things Legionary has till now usually been my starting point for info on things Legionary. I may now have to rethink that idea.

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    1. jim h

      huh. never really thought about that until now. one can imagine a couple of Roman grunts in different specialties sitting around and debating about the best ways to neutralize the enemy encampment. makes me wonder about the broader sense of Roman “combined arms theory” or whatever it was being called at the time. maybe even a Roman version of Delta/DEVGRU, referencing a few posts ago…

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      1. Martin S

        The Romans were way to specialised in heavy infantry, and weak in all other fields. Caesar had major issues fighting in Britain first time around because the Romans were traditionally weak in cavalry, and recruited gaulic tribes to fill out for his second campaign. It worked better, but was still not ideal. It took another century before they went back.

        Most of the non-infantry formations were made up of non-Roman, non-Italian troops that specialised in various ways, like cavalry.

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    2. KenWats

      You’ve seen the diagrams of a typical Roman encampment? The Siege of Masada? The Romans were 12B’s baby. :) (tongue firmly in cheek)

      Reply
      1. staghounds

        Take that tongue out, you’re right. We’re still using their surveys, water supply routes, road net, and even some of the roads.

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      2. Tennessee Budd

        From atop Masada, you can still see the old Roman camp. I’ve seen it. The ramp, of course, is still there as well.
        That’s not to mention the Roman roads still in use. Nobody built a road like the Romans. Aqueducts, bridges, ports–we can’t see a Legion in action, although we can observe reenactors, but a lot of their works remain to this day. We should be cautious, lest tribes huddled under the remains of an overpass marvel at our own engineering. Oh, that’s right, they won’t. Our interstates aren’t nearly as well built.

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    3. LFMayor

      They didn’t have the stirrup yet, so that greatly reduced the power of their cavalry, there was no coupling to transmit the full force into the lance. I’ve read that the most regarded mounted units at the time were horse born archers, the Parthians held in highest esteem.

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      1. ToastieTheCoastie

        I’m terribly ignorant of equine matters, but wouldn’t some leather stirrups be very easy to attach to a saddle? How did that invention take so long? Or is it just one of those things that is only obvious in retrospect?

        Reply
        1. LFMayor

          I think the Mongols were the first to figure out the stirrup, but like gunpowder it was Europe that took it to full potential. The bit I read said that flanged lance heads appeared right after the stirrup because this would transmit enough force to rip the target apart, freeing the lance. Otherwise it would simply over penetrate and the rider would lose it from their grip.

          On the same track, the romans didn’t have the yoke either. There was a law recorded limiting the maximum load for a team of horses at literally a quarter of what they should be safely able to cart. The historians finally realized that the Roman teams were being hitched by literal noose type apparatus that would definitely choke them out at the lighter weight.

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          1. LFMayor

            That makes the Roman achievements even more incredible to me… I mean just think if they’d had better utilization of draft animals. Or pulled a Watt and taken Heron’s steam toy and ran wild.

          2. archy

            ***I think the Mongols were the first to figure out the stirrup,***

            Their decimal-based 10-horseman squad formations making up a hundred-man company-sized formation was reminiscent of Roman TO&E & ORBATs too.

            Given a little temporal fudging, wouldn’t a military alliance between Rome and the Mongols have been fascinating? I recall the Mongols laying siege to Rome for tribute from one of the Popes, who iirc paid it and the mean little horsemen kept their part of the deal and left. And there’s the splendid example of Tsulagi Khan laying waste the settlement of Baghdad.

      2. Tom Kratman

        Surprisingly not. Someone build a model of the four horned saddle and, as it turned out, the horns closed in when someone sat the saddle, holding him firmly in place. I think it wasn’t as comfortable a seat as with stirrups, but it worked pretty well.

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  5. James

    The plumbata reminds me in some ways of a atlatl,atlatl dart more flexible,wood.I tried using a atlatl that some one had at a bow shooting meet,with a little practice was quite the cool unit.I broke out the bow in yestardays warm temp.,while not official tis spring for me when I can shot without heavy layers!

    I guess plumbata and the atlatl do not really exist as spell check relines em both1

    Reply
    1. Tom Kratman

      Plumbadeta v. pilum…also spatha v. gladius.

      One of these days, God willing and the Creek (feather, not flowing) don’t rise, I’m going to do an alternate history in which one of Varus legions, the 18th, is transported forward in time to the late 4th/early 5th century, in time to contest the barbarian crossing of the Rhine. The Primus Pilus of the legion, Marcus Caelius (q.v.), is going to look at the plumbadetae and longer swords and say to his boss, “There’s the problem right there. People who are willing to close with and destroy the enemy don’t adopt longer ranged hand weapons. People who adopt longer ranged weapons like those are afraid to get close and finish the job. Instead, they’re just trying to keep the enemy at bay, anything rather than risk their precious skins and fight things to a finish.” Then he’s going to demonstrate to the crowd, with a then local, the superiority of his method and weapons.

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      1. RostislavDDD

        In the fourth or fifth century, the barbarians are a much more serious opponent than the Germans Arminius. For the death of the three legions of Varus, the experience of the “right war” of Arminius and his veterans of auxiliary cohorts was enough.
        In the fifth century, the barbarians were already far from the crowds of savages.

        Reply
        1. Tom Kratman

          Oh, I am sure they were more serious opponents, at least for the “Roman” army of the day. Many of them, indeed, learned from service in the Roman army.

          But it was a much decayed Roman army from which they learned.

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  6. Eric

    The Roman army learned from the 16 years Hannibal Barca fought them in Italy; they learned from Hannibal’s night attacks, feints, use of deception, and more. If you get a chance, read Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s Hannibal: A History Of The Art Of War Among The Carthaginians And Romans Down To The Battle Of Pydna, 168 B.c., With A Detailed Account Of The Second Punic War. It is very comprehensive down to arms and tactics of both Romans and Carthaginians .

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  7. Klaus

    I wonder how many Roman soldiers saw the business end of those “barbs from mars”? There’s nothing like giving your enemy reusable ammo.

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    1. JoshO

      That’s a good question, especially when they bothered to make the pilum specifically hard to reuse by an enemy. Maybe they saved them for a barrage immediately before charging in to close quarters?

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  8. Aesop

    Always a fascinating topic.

    The infantryman of 400 AD had a great many weapons to master, along with all the other soldier skills of the day.
    Well, those barbarians aren’t going to kill themselves, now are they?

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  9. archy

    ***A single spearman on the battlefield would have been vulnerable to being flanked and defeated by more agile foes, but no army — certainly not the Romans! — fights as individuals. Attacking a unit of spear-armed Romans was a mortal-consequences game of Slap The Porcupine. Wise enemies didn’t try, and unwise ones died or wised up PDQ.***

    I wonder how the Romans protected their baggage trains and logistics tail. Light cavalry with archers would be my guess, but that’s just a SWA guess.

    Reply
    1. Tom Kratman

      On the march, the baggage – the term was impedimenta, which is still in use today – would have troops nearby, plus be protected by the sheer fearsome reputation of the Romans on the march. Prior to a pitched battle, it would be in the camp. I don’t know how much of a line of communication they’d have maintained, except in a lengthy siege.

      Reply
  10. Tom Kratman

    Hmmm…all I see now is the spelling “plumbata.” Could have sworn we used to say “plumbadeta.” Oh, well…the mind is the second thing to go, they say.

    Reply
  11. Aesop

    Perhaps leading to the Romanish term hakuna plumbata, meaning “everything will be OK once we launch these darts into that rabble over yonder”.

    One can almost see brave Concorde of Thuringia notifying his master “THWUNK! Message for your, sir”.

    Reply

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