Spears in Scotland; the Roman Era

The spear is a basic sort of weapon and has ancient origins. Its original use in “prehistoric” times was presumably as a weapon that allowed the wielder to keep the teeth and claws of fearsome wild animals at greater than arms length, while, if kept to manageable proportions and weight could also be thrown to take down fleeting quarry.

Obviously this basic principle of keeping and dealing with the object of particular interest at a safe distance from yourself while making use of the spears fairly aerodynamic shape as a missile weapon was readily transferrable to conflict between humans.

The sheer simplicity of spears components – basically a shaft of reasonably straight wood with a worked head of a hard and point holding material - meant that it became the weapon of necessity for the bulk of ancient armies from proto-history up through the ancient era we are concerned with here and well beyond to modern times. Indeed the last version - the lance - was still standard (if declining) cavalry issue as late as the Great War of the early 20th C.

There is little to suggest that the Iron Age spears wielded by the ancient tribes inhabiting what is now Scotland and encountered at the sharp end by the Romans had developed beyond the traditional functions outlined above.
In our Tribes of Ancient Scotland article we looked at sculptural evidence of a Pictish infantry formation of a slightly later date but given the marked similarities between the way this formation would likely operate and the description Tacitus gives of the stages of fighting at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD against the Caledonians then the suggested technique probably had an ancient pedigree.

Aberlemno Pictish engraved slab

In essence it appears to have consisted of a front rank (or body) of – probably elite - sword wielding warriors supported behind by ranks of warriors with spears held levelled and projecting between and beyond the front rank thereby providing them with some protection and greater reach.
Behind them stood another rank – or body - of warriors armed with smaller spears. As these are deliberately represented as being smaller and are not levelled at the enemy then these are likely to have been used as missiles. These warriors role then appears to have been to either maintain a constant barrage or alternatively take opportunistic pot shots over the heads of their colleagues in front onto and discomfiting the enemy beyond who at close quarters would probably have received scant warning of the weapons imminent arrival.

The essential difference in spears of these separate functions would be in their length and the substantial or slight nature of their construction, essentially a reflection of the realities of a weapon that was used in either hand to hand combat or one that required to be light enough to be carried in quantity and thrown as far and accurately as possible.
Iron appears to have been used economically however and examples of spear heads of the time and slightly later such as the Scottic examples unearthed at Dunnad and in Ayrshire were quite small.

Native spear head among other finds, Ayrshire Native spear head among other finds, Dunnad, Argyle

Rather interestingly Etain, the female warrior character in the entertaining movie “Centurion” is shown for cinematic effect wielding a dramatically bladed spear. This bears a passing similarity to the grand cast bronze weapons of the areas earlier Bronze Age era.
However iron is a more readily available raw material than the copper and tin components that were used to create bronze weapons and it has been cogently speculated that it was the difficulty acquiring large quantities of these raw materials that kept these bronze weapons rare, the preserve of the rich with the ostentatiousness evident in their form that usually brings.

Iron on the other hand – once the skills required to work it are mastered - is the material of mass production (see our Iron Masters of the Caledonians newsbite) and a frugality in the quantity of material used to create a fairly disposable weapon such as a spear reflects both a different status in which these items were held and the mass quantity they would now be produced in as opposed to the one-of craft pieces of the Celtic Bronze Age. In the spear heads of the tribes then we can tangibly see the impact of what has been described as one of mans first large “arms races”.

Rome too relied on spears. At the start of the age of Roman involvement in Scotland in 79 AD the average Roman infantryman carried either a “pilum” – a large javelin – or a “hasta” – a spear of traditional appearance.
It is argued the weapons were distributed most probably on the basis of whether they were a legionary close order infantryman or an auxiliary who may have had to fight on occassion in more open order however it is likely matters were never quite as straightforward as this notion suggests.

What is notable here is the pilum.

A member of the Antonine Guard re-enactment group portrays a legionary holding a pilum

Unlike the Romans sword – the gladius - (link to Roman Swords article) the origins of the pilum are not clear and may have been a Roman invention as opposed to a weapon readily copied from one of their many enemies as the Romans were wont to do.

The weapon itself took the form of a worked timber shaft with a cone shaped spike at the bottom. The business end of the weapon involved a small - almost ballistically shaped - pyramidal head set on the end of the weapons most characteristic feature; a long length of square or circular section iron “tang”.

Pilum Head

This tang – the length of which varies on examples found - was connected to the shaft by various means.

One earlier source suggested that a weakness deliberately induced in one particular dowelled fixing arrangement was designed to cause the weapon to break on impact therefore rendering it both incapable of being hurled back at its previous owner as well – should it be embedded in the targets shield - as proving a battle losing impediment in the encounter with the now rapidly advancing sword wielding Roman infantryman.
Some other modern sources also suggest the shank was manufactured from a more malleable grade of iron allowing the weapon to bend to similar effect. That the shank and head may have been separate components joined together is something we shall return to.

More realistically however the length of tang provided the pilum with the ability – once the “ballistic” shaped pyramidal head had punched through an opponent’s shield – to continue travelling forward impaling the opponent sheltering behind his shield.
Although no examples have yet been found sculptural depictions of globular additions to the weapons just ahead of the handgrip have been identified as weights, added to improve the kinetic energy of this penetration of an opponent’s shield, notwithstanding the obvious down side that any additional weight will impact negatively on the range the weapon could be thrown. Clearly a point that will easily penetrate a typically Middle Eastern wicker, metal or hide shield may not fare so effectively against western shields based on laminated boards of timber layered cross ply.

Much modern “Romanist” military myth surrounds the range the average Roman soldier could throw his pilum with various fantastical distances from 100 metres down to 100 feet being common quotes in novels and glossy picture books penned by alleged experts.
What should be remembered is that the pilum – if carried and wielded by close order Roman Legionary soldiers as is suspected – would not benefit from much if any of the run up prior to throwing that the modern athlete in the javelin sports event has.

Ranges should not then be so compared. Modern reconstructions of pilum are not light; the wielder we must remember was wearing armour, in close ranks, holding a very heavy shield and like most regular soldiers throughout history – was only a trained man, not superman!

The likelihood therefore is that the pilum was a fairly short range weapon, aimed to discomfit and disadvantage an opponent either in attack or defence not long before the clash of opposing battlelines.

Quite how the weapon was launched without taking out the eye of the man in the rank behind the wielder – or as shown in some quite nonsensical publications – being thrown by rear ranks in deep formations as the front ranks charge forward into the area the weapon is likely to fall!! - is a conundrum the ancients did not write down for us. Arran Johnson of Scotland’s own The Antonine Guard however speculates that it may have been;

“…done in a static open chequer-board formation, with a blank file between the front-rankers. The front rankers release their javelins, and then the second release theirs, and then the second closes up into the blank files in time to receive the enemy (or advances beyond to form a new front rank still in chequer-board, in a rolling advance). At a decent speed, and allowing for a healthy step forward for the (follow) through…We do have a rolling advance like this in our manual, with the rear rank advancing through the second and so on, which I think is intended to keep a pushing momentum in an otherwise static line situation. These options can only be achieved by disciplined well-trained forces - which is no problem for 1st-2nd century units”

In modern texts it is common to suggest that there were “light” and “heavy” versions of the pilum and that in carrying two pila the Roman soldier automatically carried one of each.
This identification is entirely a modern one. Handling modern reconstructions show that – like the originals – the main difference lies almost solely in the area where the tang joins the timber shaft.

The junction between tang and shaft, the riveted tang on the "heavy" pilum and the simpler socket on the "light" pilum

The so called light version had a simpler socket formed in the base of the iron tang while the iconic so called heavy pilum had a truncated pyramidal profile timber head at the end of the shaft to accept various fixing methods of securing the iron tang where it was not provided with a socket. The difference in weight and probable range between the two examples however is minimal and the two different patterns appear to simply reflect different manufacturing processes and responses to fixing the head of all missile weapons; either by socket or tang.

What is certain is that the whole process is simpler when the blacksmith creates the socket in the metal as the tanged connection requires the larger block profile which would have increased the size of the unworked billet of timber required for each shaft and the manpower as well as material wastage in shaping it to size.

Does Scotland yield any clues about the pilum?

The iron pyramidal points of pila are certainly far from rare finds in Scotland, though usually only retaining the shortest nib of the shank. These have been found in places such as Newstead amongst others but most interestingly at the Antonine Wall fort at Bar Hill.

Here the original excavators found numerous examples of these heads, not least a telling scatter lodged in the counterscarp of the forts ditch.

Similar discoveries have allowed the recent identification and relocation of the 18th C AD Prestonpans battlefield by accurately plotting both government and French supplied calibre musket balls recovered on the site. This form of investigation is fairly standard practice now but not so in the early years of the 20th C when Bar Hill was first excavated.
This scatter of finds simply reflects the pattern where a volley or volleys of pila were thrown, either in training but more probably in action and is a much safer basis on which to estimate the fairly restricted range these weapons were capable of being thrown in antiquity.
This fairly consistent point of breakage between the iron tang and the iron head on these pila heads, and not least similar finds from workshop locations (fabricae) suggest an inherent - and likely unintentional - weakness caused by the method of manufacture where the two separately made pieces were finally hammer welded together.

Yet again in the field of research of Roman arms and armour it demonstrates how finds from Scotland help assist develop our understanding of these pieces of equipment. Understanding of pila has to some extent lain dormant as so much of what is generally discussed of the pilum is based on examples recovered in the 19th C at Alesia in France. The action there where the weapons were lost- Caesar’s great confrontation with Vercingoterix - dates to some two hundred years before the Antonine Wall was built and the time the examples at Bar Hill were thrown, either in training or in anger.

What is also interesting is that Caesar recorded ordering his men to use their pila as spears in fending off their opponents indicative that the weapon was more robust than the “designed” to fail theory would suggest. It was however a heavy javelin first and foremost and Caesar may simply have been allowing his soldiers – who were first and foremost swordsmen - more reach to “prod” at their attackers from the elevated position of their fortified siege lines ringing Alesia.

Hasta spear head. Native examples were much similar throughout the era.

Differentiating recovered hasta blades from native spear heads is not easy unless something about the find-spot makes the identification clear – such as the haul of finds within the Roman fort at Newstead. Strangely a whole host of terms get applied to these in museum displays, titles ranging from pike heads to lance heads with just about every description in between used too!
Simply put a spear head is a spear head and as with native spears larger examples were probably intended for close combat and smaller or lighter examples would be in most cases thrown, either by infantry deployed in a light skirmishing role or by cavalry.

Plumbata heads, as recovered

Small javelin heads ranged from the recognisable leafed spear head shapes similar to but of smaller proportions than the larger hasta, while some have small yet elongated pyramidal heads, intended to punch through shields or armour.

Javelin head with elongated square section point for punching through armour

The “shoulder” of spear heads in this era tend to be rounded, one of the characteristics which gives this shape its common name of “leaf” shaped. Later era spears often had more angular or squared shoulders, however we cannot generalise too much on the point of standardisation. Spears were made by blacksmiths and even if they were made to an agreed pattern or design by the Romans they are unlikely to have been so controlled by many other peoples.

The hasta blade as we know it is unlikely ever to have gone out of production though spears and javelins in late Roman service did take on marked changes in their form and design and this sees blades with a distinctive elongated barbed shape come to the fore. Utilised on arrowheads, on specialist light javelins or spears proper (which appear to follow the principles of form and use of the earlier pila) these shapes - probably from around the time of the late 3rd C AD reforms by Diocletian of the military and its equipment - seem to have become the norm and are often attributed to increasing free Germannic influence in the Roman military.

A range of named weapons; spears and javelins are noted in historical sources but it is guesswork to be specific about which examples unearthed by archaeologists reliably relate to terms used in surviving ancient texts. Weapons such as the “spiculum”, the “lancea” and the “verutum” are all recorded in the texts but it is difficult to reconcile accurately a type found in an excavation with a name found in a surviving text. To illustrate just the range of sources names for weapons came from we refer again to the Scottish context. Agricola’s successor - the governor under whom Rome made its greatest effort to hold down northern Scotland – was probably Sallustius Lucullus and his fate is recorded as being put to death and suffering damnation by the tyrant Domitian. He displeased him apparently by having allowed a sort of javelin to be named in honour after himself!

Late Roman spear head, possibly the Spiculum. Note the barbed profile of the head and the simple socket for fixing to the shaft.

One thing is certain though, these late long tanged weapons – usually with increasingly accentuated barbs – are likely the successors of the pilum and their fitting to the shaft is universally a socketed one. So the pilum as such evolved, it was the iconic tang and block fixing that disappeared. However the barbed heads of these weapon point toward the likely target the soldier now often faced, no longer designed to punch through the shields of opposing infantry its shape was now designed to cause maximum damage to musculature in use, most probably in horseflesh. In the late period on the continent it was horse warriors who would inflict the greatest defeats on Roman armies and spearing enemy cavalry is a very common motif on Roman coins.

One weapon we can consider ourselves to be on fairly safe ground when attempting to identify is the quite revolutionary “plumbata”.

This is different from anything seen before. Essentially a short weapon, it resembles an enormous flighted dart and the telltale plumb weight at base of the tang is the telltale which confirms the weapons original name; plumb as in plumb-weight. This is key as in use, just as a brickies plumb line weighs down a cord in a perfectly vertical plane, so too did the carefully placed weight in relation to the weapons centre of gravity.

Replica Plumbata with representation of a bright Roman colour scheme

In the late Roman period around five of these are recorded carried in the back of a soldiers shield.
Thrown underhand high into the air (not overhand like a modern dart) the weapon naturally rights itself in flight, the weight of the plumb pulling the point down and creating what must have been a most horrendous vertical barrage to endure being on the receiving end of.
Quite remarkable ranges have been recorded with reconstructed plumbata, usually reliant again on some sort of run in prior to throwing.

Like the British at the battle of Omdurman - where ammunition and fresh rifles were passed from inactive rear units up to the busy firing line - it is probable that the plumbata in each shield was simply a means of transporting these and that they would have been centralised for appropriate use, in this case most probably by the rear ranks throwing mass volleys over the heads of the main battleline.

Throwing Roman plumbata dart

How did the Romans carry their spears?

Many modern reconstructions portray many different suggested manners in which the spear or pilum could have been carried. Hollywood’s “Sand and Sandals” classics from the 1950’s and 60’s favoured a diagonally held forward pointing position clamped between arm and body.
Modern re-enactor drill, taking its influence perhaps from British army weapon drill from the same era hold the weapon upright with the right arm extended in a reverse grip and cradling the weapon somewhat in at the elbow. Images survive showing Lictors carrying their axes in this manner however not soldiers with spears or pila so some doubt must remain over this posture.

Roman re-enactors marching with pila in the crook of their arm

Rome’s ancient writers for once are of little help here, some things may have been just too mundane and in plain sight for all to see to take the time to record. However soldiers throughout history have traditionally eased the strain of carrying heavy weapons for long periods of time by resting them on their shoulders.

Roman sculptural evidence usually portrays infantry soldiers in funerary dedications standing still with the spear upright and butt grounded; all much as one would expect.

Croy funerary sculpture

The remarkable Adamclisi Metopae – recording either the first or second Dacian Wars of Trajan in the early years of the 2nd c AD whilst crude in execution, tell us a lot that is of interest in the manner the Roman soldiers are portrayed and in its detail. This all lends credibility to the suggestion that the sculptor was, or had been a soldier himself and that the renditions are more reliable than the fine yet stylised reliefs shown of Roman soldiers on the contemporary yet much more famous column built in Rome commemorating Trajan’s Dacian war.

Adamclisi Metope showing pilum carried shouldered

In one scene the Roman troops are clearly shown marching with weighted pila held shouldered. Given that on-the-march in full equipment the Roman soldier carried a wooden cross poled yoke from which his gear was suspended, and as his left arm either supported or controlled his large shield (scutum) then it seems only realistic to suggest that carrying the pila together with the yoke rested on the shoulder is the only really practical way of achieving this.
The Adamclisi Metopae certainly does not show the yoke or suspended kit - which this sculptor would have been at pains to portray - so it seems most probable that carried shouldered was the prescribed manner in which spears were carried, vertical with butt grounded (perhaps even stuck into the ground) is how they were held when stationary and from which it is fairly straightforward to reverse the grip when hefting ready to throw.

We have already discussed the manner in which the tribes of ancient Scotland probably fielded and employed their traditional spears and javelins, so how did the Romans utilise this collection of traditional and innovative weapons?

Tacitus tells us that the Caledonians showed great courage and skill at Mons Graupius deflecting the incoming Roman missiles. As they were faced by auxiliary infantry, and if the assumption that it was the legions that used the pilum is correct then it will have been the heavier thrusting hasta that the auxiliaries will have thrown at the Caledonians, as well as any javelins carried, in anticipation of closing to handstrokes with drawn swords. Whether it was pilum or hasta that were thrown at the tribesmen, deflecting such weapons – presumably with their characteristic small shields - in a packed battleline is no mean feat and the Romans were sufficiently impressed to record the deed for posterity.

Indeed it was during this phase that Tacitus makes it clear that the Roman auxiliaries were on the receiving end of a considerable barrage of missiles from the (probable) Caledonian rear ranks as described above. So much so that Tacitus records Agricola having to send instruction for his beleaguered troops to close with their tormentors, such was the pounding they were sheltering from.

In 134 AD, fifty one years after Mons Graupius Arrian aligned his troops to face the expected mounted onslaught of the heavy armoured cavalry of the eastern Alans. Here we are told he successfully had his front ranks brace themselves behind their shields while the ranks behind bombarded the approaching Alans with pila and javelins. To add to the effect he lined his mounted archers behind the infantry to further add to the weight of barrage.

It is, if nothing else, interesting therefore to see Arrian deploying his Roman forces – and later commanders using plumbata - in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the Caledonians deployment at Mons Graupius in 83 AD.



©2011 Roman Scotland. All Rights Reserved
First Published February 2011