Aug 5, 2014

Weapons & Warriors: The Plumbata of the Romans

Art by TL Jeffcoat
Although originally used by the Greeks, this throwing dart is best known from its use by the Roman legions over 1,600 years ago. These weapons are so effective that a legion could halt a charging cavalry before it reaches the line. Half of every battle is killing your enemy, the other half is disorienting or confusing them so they are easier to kill.

The Plumbata is a simple design. It’s a wooden dart that is slightly shorter than an arrow. The iron tipped head is weighted with lead to keep the sharp end pointed towards its target while airborne, no matter how it is thrown. This not only simplifies training, it allows the darts to be thrown under pressure at short ranges without focusing so much on technique. The fletched rear of the Plumbata helps the dart stay balanced, and increases range. The weight of the lead also increases the power of the weapon's impact, allowing it to penetrate light armor, or even horse skin as cavalry tries to flank or charge the legion.

Each legionnaire carried five Plumbata on the interior hollow portion of their shields. The iron darts were much easier to grab in this position than from a quiver or belt strap when attempting to strike at someone outside of sword range but too close to load a sling or bow safely. There were entire legions armed with Plumbata who could toss a one within a couple of seconds.

There are various ways a Plumbata can be thrown. Throwing the darts underhanded gives the darts a longer range but is more difficult to aim against moving targets. This technique is best used against stationary targets, like archers or officers shouting orders from the line, who wouldn’t be moving around a lot. The drop from a high arcing toss increases the strength of the impact of the weighted dart as is comes down, increasing the penetration and force as it strikes the opponent. This tactic is also useful against a large cluster of charging warriors. Someone stumbling from the hit might be a disruption among the group.

An overhand or sidearm throw has more force and accuracy at closer ranges, which is perfect for that short period of time when two armies charge each other. The air, in that short space before they meet, on the field would fill with Plumbata as the legion would throw as many as they can before they had to draw their swords. 

This weapon is one of the reasons the Romans were able to lay claim at having the most superior weapons on the field, even the greenest of their soldiers could take down several enemies with a few Plumbata, before engaging in melee.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.

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