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Шиманович А.А.

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Pilum (Latin pilum, plural pila) — a throwing spear (dart) used by the legions of Ancient Rome. The pilum was as much an integral part of a Roman legionary's armament as the gladius or scutum. This unusual spear was no less formidable than the legionary swords and auxilar spears, and wherever the legion went, each legionary carried one or more pilums on his shoulder, in addition to the furka (cross-shaped carrier on which personal belongings were carried), waiting for his turn to make a blood sacrifice for the glory of Mars.

Legionnaires with pilums. Metopes of Trajan's Trophy (109 AD). Adamklisi, Romania
Funeral stele of Gaius Valerius Crispa, legionnaire of Legio VIII Augusta. The pilum is clearly visible. The end of the first century AD is found in Mattiakum (modern times). Wiesbaden, Germany)
Sandstone relief (II century AD) depicting three legionnaires holding pilums. Found in the castrum of Croy Hill, Val Antonina, Scotland. Kept at the National Museum of Scotland

Historical background

It is not known exactly when and under what circumstances the Romans first started using the pilum. It is known that it was used even before the 4th century BC, according to one version, it could have been borrowed from the Samnites, Sabines, or Etruscans, who had darts vaguely similar to the pilum for fishing. Anyway, the Roman army used pilums, initially, apparently, arming only velites (lightly armed and mobile soldiers) and Hastati (heavily armed soldiers) with them.

During the reforms of Colonel Gaius Marius (157-86 BC), the purpose of which was to reorganize the legions, the purpose of the scutum also changed - now it was worn by all legionaries, respectively, the tactics of combat and the structure of the pilum itself underwent some changes. Subsequently, the pilum underwent some minor changes, mainly related to the method of attaching the tip to the shaft, changes in weight, and the softness of the metal from which the tips were made. It is believed that each legionnaire carried with him two pilums, different in weight. By the end of the Roman Empire, the pilum was gradually being removed from the legions ' armament, replaced by a lighter spiculum, according to Vegetius.

Combat use of the pilum

Since the pilum is a throwing spear, its main purpose was to defeat the enemy at a relatively short distance. Directly in combat, the pilum was thrown by legionnaires at the enemy at a distance of up to 35 meters, in order to cause confusion in the enemy formation. In addition, a direct hit of the pilum tip was a very formidable factor, since heavy variations of this dart were able to penetrate armor and cause terrible injuries, but the pilum that hit the shield served a certain purpose - it actually deprived the enemy of protection, significantly weighing down his shield, not allowing them to maneuver quickly. And freeing the shield from the pilum was a very difficult task - the jagged pommel was tightly stuck in the shield, and the long iron tip did not allow cutting off the stuck spear. As a result, the enemy was forced to drop his shield, leaving him defenseless right before a hand-to-hand clash with the formation of legionnaires.

Gaius Julius Caesar's legionnaires throw pilums at the Helvetic warriors. Drawing by P. Dennis

In his" Notes on the Gallic War, "Caesar vividly described the effect produced by a volley of pilums thrown at the enemy:" Since the soldiers let their heavy spears fly from above, they easily broke through the enemy's formation... ...A great obstacle to the Gauls was that the Roman spears sometimes with one blow punched several boards at once, and so were nailed them to each other, and when the tip was bent, it was impossible to get and the soldiers were not able to fight, as movements with the left hand was difficult; in the end, many long shaking hand, preferred to throw the shield and fight with the whole body open."

There is also a mention of using the pilum as a regular spear. In particular, it was this use of throwing spears that made a certain contribution to the victory of Gaius Julius Caesar over Gnaeus Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC). "Noticing that the enemy's left flank consisted of numerous cavalry, Caesar transferred six reserve cohorts to himself and placed them behind the tenth legion, ordering them not to show themselves to the enemy until they were at close range, then to run out of the ranks, but not to throw pilums, but to fight with them as close-range spears effective against cavalry... ...Pompey waited to see what the cavalry would do. She was already extending the line of her squadrons to outflank Caesar and drive his small cavalry back to the infantry. At this moment Caesar gave a signal, and his cavalry parted, and the three thousand men in reserve advanced to meet the enemy. As they did so, they began to strike upward with their spears and point them in the face. The cavalry, inexperienced in such battles, became timid and could not bear to be hit in the eyes. The horsemen, covering their faces with their hands, turned their horses and turned into a shameful flight."

Structure of the pilum

In the third and second centuries BC, the tip of the pilum was usually much shorter than the later, most well-known variants. Short tips did not exceed a length of 30-40 cm, and had a wide flat shape. Already in the middle of the second century AD, the pilum consisted of a long iron tip, approximately equal in length to the shaft, and had a total weight of 1 to 2.5 kg, depending on the specific model. The total average length of the pilum was usually 2 m, the tip was 60 cm long, although some finds reach a length of 90 cm. From the bottom, the shaft often had an iron tip for sticking the pilum into the ground, if necessary.

Iron tips attached to the lower end of the shaft. First century AD Found in Vindonissa. Stored in the Vindonissa Museum

The thickness of the tip was usually about 7 mm, while the pommel was jagged or pyramidal. There were several different ways of attaching the tip to the shaft, for example, the "sleeve" method - an expanding cavity was made at the end of the tip, which was put on the tip of the shaft, or the most common fastening using a flat tongue, which was also attached to the shaft with several rivets, initially iron, and later wooden.

Drawing of the pilum tips. Approximately III-II centuries BC Finds from: Talamonaccio (a), Ephyra (b) and Castelrufa (c)
Drawing of pilum heads (before AD 9) from a Roman camp on the site of the modern city of Oberaden, Germany
A collection of handpieces in various shapes and sizes. Different methods of attachment to the shaft are clearly visible .Mid-2nd century BC Find from the town of Schmichel, Slovenia. It is kept in the National Museum of Slovenia

The introduction of wooden rivets by Gaius Marius was caused by the need to exclude the reuse of abandoned pilums already against the Romans. As a rule, the tips of the pilums were made of rather soft materials and were not tempered, which, when hit by an enemy shield, led to a bend in the tip, and, as a result, the saw blade was unusable for reuse. However, it was noted that the tip often did not bend, so the wooden rivets served as a solution to this problem, leading to the failure of the pilum. Since the late Republic, bas-reliefs sometimes show pilums with spheres attached to them, which were supposedly made of metal, and were attached at the end of the shaft. Their purpose was, apparently, to increase the weight of the projectile, and, as a result, its penetration force.

Fragment of the stone relief "della Cancelleria" depicting the Praetorians. You can see a pilum with a metal sphere, on which an eagle is engraved. I century AD Rome
Eagle engraved on the pilum, from the stone relief "della Cancelleria"


First of all, you need to determine the tasks that will be assigned to the reconstructed pilum sample, and based on certain tasks, choose the direct type of reconstruction. In other words, to recreate the image of a legionnaire and to reproduce the equipment of Roman soldiers, a pilum made "according to the combat" model, that is, made of wood and iron, is most likely suitable. In 1998, the English historian Peter Connolly recreated some samples of pilums for field testing in order to establish their real effectiveness on the battlefield. During tests of penetration, it was found that the pilum of the early Empire model could penetrate a sheet of plywood 11 mm thick, despite the fact that because of the pyramidal tip, it was difficult to reach, and the tip itself was curved, according to narrative sources.

Results of testing the penetration capacity of pilums. 2002, P. Connolly
The result of testing the penetration ability of the pilum by our club members
Legionnaire with a pilum, reconstruction

Our club also conducted tests of the penetration ability of this weapon, which confirmed that the pilum is an extremely formidable weapon. From a distance of several meters, a pilum was thrown at the target, which served as a pork carcass covered with a small shield. Pilum not only pierced through the shield, but also the "enemy" who was hiding behind it, causing injuries incompatible with life.

List of literature

Bishop, M.C.; Coulston, J.C.N. (2009). Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford Books;

Connolly, Peter. "The pilum from Marius to Nero: a reconsideration of its development and function", Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies, vol. 12/13

Zhmodikov, Alexander, 2000, "Roman Republican Heavy Infantrymen in Battle (IV-II Centuries B.C.)," in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, vol. 49 no. 1.

JAMES CURLE, F.S.A. SCOT., F.S.A. A Roman frontier post and it's people. The fort of Newstead in the Parish of Melrose. Glasgow, MDCCCCXI. Originally published by JAMES MACLEHOSE AND SONS for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Related topics

Legionnaire, Gladius, Scutum


Pilum tips from Castrum in Martin Hill 370-380 AD Slovenia. Stored in the National Museum of Slovenia
Pommel of the pilum shaft, with the remaining flat part of the tip, and rivets of unusual shape. 9 AD Found in the Teutoburg forest. Stored in the Kalkrize Park Museum
Connecting parts of three long tips. Approximate dating of 30 BC-30 AD Found in Smichel, Slovenia. Stored in the National Museum of Slovenia
The tip is from Sanchenzo (Trento), has four small hooks on the tip, I century BC.
Decorated with a carved tip with a preserved part of the shaft. VII century BC Found in Satricum. Kept in the National Museum of Etruria Villa Giulia
Tip from Tesero (Italy), II-I century BC is kept in the Museum Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme