Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


12.6.10
  Roman Weapons - The pilum

The pilum (plural pila) is one of the weapons most typical for the Roman army. Everyone can have spears and javelins, but only the Romans had javelins that would bend on purpose.

Iron pilum shanks, LWL Museum Haltern

A pilum consisted of an iron shank about 60 cm in length that ended in a pyramidal head. The shank was attached to a wooden shaft either by a flat tang and clamp or a socket and rivets, bringing the entire length of the pilum up to 2 metres. It weighed between two and five kilograms - the versions during the Empire were usually the lighter ones, and it also seems the legionaries carried only one, not two as in the late Republic.

The point was hardened iron, but the shank was left unhardened which led to the following result.

(I had imagined fighting the Romans to be quite different.)

The pilum would be thrown in salvas from a distance of 15-30 metres. The energy of the impact concentrated in the pyramidal point of the weapon. Not only would opponents be wounded, but the pila went through the shields where they got stuck. Since the shank was not hardened, the pilum bent and was almost impossible to jank out of the targe during battle. The only way was to drop the usueless shield. That was particularly effective against people who did not have much in the way of body armour but relied on targes, like the Germans.

There seems to have been a version where one of the rivets was made of wood which would cause the shaft to twist even if the impact was not strong enoug to bend the iron shank. The invention is ascribed to the late Republican consul Gaius Marius (which would make sense because he was the first who had to deal with large numbers of raw recruits he had to train in a hurry). Another advantage of the pilum construction is that it could not be thrown back by the enemy; moreover, the iron parts could be collected after battle and reforged.

Another fine display of pila from the APX Museum in Xanten, going by the title 'Crooked Lances'. Well, not so much lances as javelins, but crooked they were.

The pieces in the middle are original finds, framed by two reconstruced versions. The one to the left has a wooden shaft shaped in a way it would give the hold better leverage (you can see it in the background drawing as well). Another method was to wrap the shaft with leather or linen straps to prevent the hand from slipping on the wood.

There is pictorial evidence that some versions of the pilum were weighted by a lead ball at the end of the shaft, but so far no such balls have been found.


The second photo above was taken in the APX Museum in Xanten as well.
 
Comments:
And so, even a simple weapon can be complex.
 
Great description of the pilum Gabriele. I love the pyramidal point. I spent half an hour trying to figure out how to describe that and didn't come up with an answer.
 
I've discovered nothing about Romans is simple, from food to weapons. I have the parts from a long ago reenactment to make myself a pilum and also a spear, but they sit in my garage and wait. Making garum was much easier. :P
 
Fascinating! Thanks for taking the time to explain that.
 
Bernita, that started the moment Ugga Caveman added a few bits of stone to his club. :)

Thank you, Doug. I found 'pyramidenförmige Spitze' in a German text and stole ... erm, translated it. :)

Constance, garum is more surely to kill people anyway. ;)

You're welcome, Jeri. BTW the museum in Xanten is a lot more fun than the one in Mainz. You should visit it - take an entire day for the Archaeological Park and Museum, you'll need it.
 
Mainz was horrible when we went there a few years ago! The Roman exhibit was like an exhibition from the 60s, and the guide/guard had no clue when I asked him a very simple question.

The nautical museum was impressive, though.

Xanten, now how far out is that? Will have to find it on the map.
 
Quite ingenious invention!
 
Jeri, yes, teh RGZ Mainz is a very conservative museum. I didn't mind that much because I visit museums since I was a child, back in the 60ies. Though of course, modern ones like Xanten are more fun. What I did mind was the - rather recent - ban of photographing, with the somewhat strange reason that they had found photos in the internet with wrong descriptions. Hello, this is the internet, guys. Not even my argument that I study the stuff did help. One of my professoers told me 'wrong description' could well mean, something not accepted in Mainz. Hehe. The nautical museums was closed for renovations (obviously the roof threatened to come down), but since it's part of the RGZ, I suspect photographing would be forbidden there, too. The real ship on the lake in Haltern can't be topped by any museum anyway. ;)

I don't know how far Xanten is by car - I took a ICE train to Duisburg and a regional one from there. It's a pretty little town and everything is in walking distance, including the Archaeological Park. You should see the cathedral, but skip the Nibelungenhort except you want to read a lot of tablets about the misuse of the Nibelungs during Hitler.
 
It is, Louis. They had some fun catapults, too. :)
 
I made a pilum one time. It was startling how well it worked! It flew true, and farther than I expected, and it hit the road, where it dived into the pavement and levered up a great slab of asphalt. The results were much more spectacular than we thought they would be.
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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