The Plumbata, #2

This Collegium is devoted to discussion, research and the contribution to the Roman Republic of Articles, pictures, drawings, military reenactment, questions, comments and all other material relating to the purpose of the Militarium (Ancient Roman Military). Collegium Website: | Join at: ... itarium/41

Moderators: Publius Iunius Brutus, Lucius Aurelius Curio, Marca Marcia, Gaius Flavius Aetius, Paullus Aemilius Gallus, Aula Flavia Philippa

The Plumbata, #2

Postby Marcus Minucius Audens » Sun Dec 11, 2016 9:04 pm

>>>> The “Plumbata,” #2<<<<

While most of the weapons of the fourth-century legion had been in common use for many centuries, the plumbata was a new and deadly invention. It was a lead-weighted throwing dart, a short arrow with a barbed head and an egg-shaped lead weight at the juncture of the iron head and wooden shaft. Several examples of the plumbata heads have been found, and the length of the shaft has to be inferred from Vegetius’ comment that legionaries could carry up to five of the darts inside their shields. (See Note 1)

“Vegetius -- “They (Legionaries) usually carried five plumbatae or (mattiobarbuli) each, slotted inside their shields.” (See Note 2)

The author’s reconstruction is 40 cm long. There is no surviving account of how the plumbatae were discharged toward the enemy line. Were they tossed by hand? If so, was this an overhand (Javelin-style) throw, and underhand throw, or a slingshot throw in the same way a modern discus is cast? Even more intriguingly, practical tests by the author have shown that these lead weighted darts can even be thrown from a leather sling and even a staff sling.

Vegetius also refers to the plumbatae as ‘mattiobarbulus’, which is presumed to be an error, and should have originally read ‘martiobarbalus’, meaning ‘Mars-barb’. He also states that two Roman legions were renamed Martiobarbuli Iovani and Martiobarbuli Herculiani by the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. This was because these units excelled at throwing the plumbatae and preferred it to all other weapons (presumably all other ‘missile’ weapons). According to this writer, the darts were thrown both during an attack by charging troops, and defensively by rear-rank legionaries. The front rankers, presuming they carried the darts inside their shields would be cast by hand, and tests by the historical research group Comitatus have found that an underhand throw is by far the best method. The plumbatae can reach an impressive distance (easily exceeding 60 m) and come down vertically directly upon the heads and shoulders of the enemy formation -- truly Mars-barbs: lethal spikes of iron from the heavens. Rear ranks could use the leather sling to cast the plumbatae. Staff slings could also used, but the use of a leather sling to cast a weighted dart is attested historically during the Roman conquest of Macedonia in the second century BC. The ancient writer Livy records that the Macedonians used the ‘kestrosphendon’, which seems to have been a traditional leather or woven sling, to cast a 35-40 cm dart. Experiments by the author have shown that lead-weighted plumbatae cast in this way can reach distance of up to 100m, which would allow the rear-rankers of a fourth-century legion to sling darts well over the heads of their comrades. See Note 3)

Note (1) -- (Sagittae) plumbatae, known as ‘arrows weighted with lead’, used in hunting for nests of the cinnamon bird when they were shot from a bow, may have originated in military use as the cestrus, a short wooden dart with an iron head thrown from a sling, described by Livy 42.65.9 and Polybius 27.11 (9).1 as having been introduced c. 171 BC. From the Anon. De Rebus Bellicis 10, we find it developing into a kind of throwing- mace in late antiquity, also attested as such in Byzantine times, its weight increasing the while. But they came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from the late-Roman period, some clearly darts for firing from engines, others for throwing by hand. There are no earlier examples so far discovered by archaeology. Cf. T. Volling, “Plumbata-mattiobarbulus,”

Note (2) -- V. is the only source to attest the use of lead-weighted darts by the Joviani and Herculiani, the most senior pair of legiones palatinae of the fourth century AD, cf. Hoffman, 1.215-217. See also T. Drew-Bear, "Les voyages d' Aurelius Gaius, soldat de Diocletien,", in La Geographie administrative et politique d' Alexandre a Mahomet, Actes de Colloque de Strasbourg 14-16 juin 1979 (Univ. de Strasbourg 1982) 97, 101-102. vict. Caess. 39.18 implies that they were originally auxila, a statement which may arise from confusion with Jovii. Diocletian acceded to the throne in AD 284 and Maximian as his colleague in 286, and they created a number of units named after their devine surnames, "Jovius" and "Herculius." For late-latin doceantor, "are judged", cf III.6 fin. note.

Note (3) -- In the book , “The Last Legionary,” Plate six, there are shown four reconstructed plumbata. They have shafts of varying lengths from that of a hand dart to the similar length of a pilum.

>> References:

>> Paul Elliott, “The Last Legionary,” (Spellmount, 2012);

>> Philip Matyszak, “Legionary, The Roman Soldiers Manual (Unofficial),” (Thames and Hudson, 2009);

>>Vegetius: N. P. Milner (trans.), “Epitome of Military Science,” (Liverpool Univ. Press, 2011) Book I, P. 17;

Respectfully Submitted;

Marcus Audens
Marcus Minucius Audens

Return to Collegium Militarium