crossed gladii (Spanish swords)

Romans soldiers fought primarily with spears and swords and relied on discipline and superior organization to defeat foes on horseback with bows. They also used slings, sling shots and bows themselves. Roman foot soldiers fought with a shield, a spear for throwing at close range and a short sword for stabbing and slashing.

For offensive weapons, each man carried a short sword, which could be used for cutting or thrusting. The soldiers in the first two lines each had also two javelins, to be hurled at the enemy before coming into close quarters; and those of the third line each had a long lance, which could be used for piercing. It was with such arms as these that the Roman soldiers conquered Italy. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\]

Adam Hart-Davis wrote for the BBC: “When the Roman army invaded Britain in force in the spring of A.D. 43, they brought with them technology that must have astonished the native Celts. To begin with the Roman weapons were far better - they had good swords, spears, and several machines to throw missiles The Roman armour was also superior; they had both chain mail, which might have been worn by the auxiliaries, though no one is quite sure, and also heavy armour made of overlapping iron plates that would stop anything short of a ballista bolt.” [Source: Adam Hart-Davis, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Gladiator combatants fought in specific categories, each with certain rules, weapons and armor that were often based on weapons and tactics used by the Romans or their enemies.. Retiarii carried a net and Neptune-like trident and lithely danced around the arena. Murmillones were the equivalent of heavyweight boxers. They carried heavy swords and shields. Samnites — based on early Roman enemies of the same name — carried a large oblong shield, a sword or spear, and were protected by visored helmets, greaves on their right leg and a protective sleeve on the right arm. The Thracians — based on another early Roman enemy — had much the same equipment as the Samnites; the marks of distinction were the small shield in place of the oblong shield and, to make up the difference, greaves on both legs. They carried a curved sword. The Gauls were heavy-armed, but we do not know how they were distinguished from the Samnites.

20120224-Costumes_of_All_Nations_(1882) 29.jpg
other Ancient Roman weapons, and standards
About a dozen different weapons were used in gladiator contests, many of which were based on weapons used on the battlefields against the Roman legions by their different enemies. Other weapons included pitch forks tied to the ankles, whips, clubs and the cestus, an iron-studded leather thong which could cause death if landed squarely on the temple.

The Romans employed sophisticated catapults and were attacked with flame throwers. Large stone balls were fired into cities by catapults. They damaged and pitted city walls and smashed the roofs of buildings. Long-rang catapults were capable of piercing shields at a distance of 300 meters.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Gladius Hispaniensis (the Spanish Short Sword)

Short swords were often preferred to long ones because they were more maneuverable and ideal for slashing. The fighting was less like a fencing match than a free for all with wild swings and wrestling. Swords were often kept behind shields until a move was ready to be made.

“The standard short sword used by the Roman army was known as the gladius hispaniensis (“Spanish sword”). Developed in the Iberian Peninsula, it was the AK-47 of its time: deadly, reliable and practical.

Livy wrote in History of Rome, 31.34), that during the Macedonian War (200–196 B.C.), the Macedonians were stunned by the effects of the lethal weapon: The Macedonians had before “only seen wounds inflicted by spears and arrows. When they saw the bodies dismembered by the Romans’ Spanish swords, and arms sliced off at the shoulder, and heads separated from the trunk, neck and all, and entrails exposed...they trembled as they realized what weapons and what soldiers they would have to face.”

Armor of the Ancient Romans

20120224-military mask iter_mit_Gesichtshelm.jpg
military mask
The defensive armor of Romans soldiers was a coat of mail for the breast, a brass helmet for the head, greaves for the legs, and a large oblong shield carried upon the left arm. Detailed descriptions of armor from the Greek and Roman period have survived but actual pieces of armor are very rare. Rigid scale armor was made from metal, bone, wood or cuir bouilli (leather made hard by boiling in wax) by the ancient Greeks and Romans. An iron mask sheathed in silver and bronze and attached to a helmet was discovered in the Netherlands. It was worn in parades and perhaps in battle. Banners and perhaps a metal dragon with a fabric body were carried on poles.

Gladiators wore armor on their heads and other parts of the body, scholars believe, because battles in which gladiators were quickly put down with a blow to the head were not be very interesting for spectators to watch. The armor prolonged the battles and made the contest more challenging and sporting.

The armor, often weighing 30 pounds or more, was specially designed for gladiator events. The helmets, with their fearsome-looking face guards, were extremely heavy but well balanced so they didn't put too much strain on the neck. Shields were made of wood because they were lighter than metal ones. They were often lined with felt to absorb the shock of the blows. The leg and arms guards were protected with linen or wool and felt linings were put under the helmets for the same reason.

Peter Conolly, a historian and expert on gladiators, told Discover magazine: “The metal won't protect you from the blow, and this is particularly so with helmets. If someone belts you on the head, the helmet might stop the blow but it will knock you out." The main problem with the lining was it made the armor extremely hot.

Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “According to some ancient writers, helmets in the Roman army had other benefits besides their obvious protective function. Polybius (Histories, 6.23) noted that the decorations on top of their helmets had a psychological impact on their enemies because it made the Roman soldiers look taller and more intimidating. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 <=>]

“The use of helmet decoration to intimidate enemies was widely practiced by most cultures. But in this case, Polybius was referring specifically to the use of a “circle of feathers” to make the Romans look considerably taller than they actually were. This observation makes sense when we consider that many of their enemies, especially in central Europe (e.g., Gauls and Germans), were much taller and robust than the Romans.” <=>

Arms of the Ancients

most Roman legionaires were armed with swords and long spears

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The manner of arming the troops comes next under consideration. But the method of the ancients no longer is followed. For though after the example of the Goths, the Alans and the Huns, we have made some improvements in the arms of the cavalry, yet it is plain the infantry are entirely defenseless. From the foundation of the city till the reign of the Emperor Gratian, the foot wore cuirasses and helmets. But negligence and sloth having by degrees introduced a total relaxation of discipline, the soldiers began to think their armor too heavy, as they seldom put it on. They first requested leave from the Emperor to lay aside the cuirass and afterwards the helmet. In consequence of this, our troops in their engagements with the Goths were often overwhelmed with their showers of arrows. Nor was the necessity of obliging the infantry to resume their cuirasses and helmets discovered, notwithstanding such repeated defeats, which brought on the destruction of so many great cities. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight. What can be expected from a foot-archer without cuirass or helmet, who cannot hold at once his bow and shield; or from the ensigns whose bodies are naked, and who cannot at the same time carry a shield and the colors? The foot soldier finds the weight of a cuirass and even of a helmet intolerable. This is because he is so seldom exercised and rarely puts them on.

“But the case would be quite different, were they even heavier than they are, if by constant practice he had been accustomed to wear them. But it seems these very men, who cannot support the weight of the ancient armor, think nothing of exposing themselves without defense to wounds and death, or, which is worse, to the shame of being made prisoners, or of betraying their country by flight; and thus to avoid an inconsiderable share of exercise and fatigue, suffer themselves ignominiously to be cut in pieces. With what propriety could the ancients call the infantry a wall, but that in some measure they resembled it by the complete armor of the legionary soldiers who had shields, helmets, cuirasses, and greaves of iron on the right leg; and the archers who had gauntlets on the left arm. These were the defensive arms of the legionary soldiers. Those who fought in the first line of their respective legions were called principes, in the second hastati, and in third triarii.

“The triarii, according to their method of discipline, rested in time of action on one knee, under cover of their shields, so that in this position they might be less exposed to the darts of the enemy than if they stood upright; and also, when there was a necessity for bringing them up, that they might be fresh, in full vigor and charge with the greater impetuosity. There have been many instances of their gaining a complete victory after the entire defeat of both the principes and hastati.

more advanced weapons included ballitstas like this
“The ancients had likewise a body of light infantry, slingers, and ferentarii (the light troops), who were generally posted on the wings and began the engagement. The most active and best disciplined men were selected for this service; and as their number was not very great, they easily retired in case of a repulse through the intervals of the legion, without thus occasioning the least disorder in the line.

“The Pamonian leather caps worn by our soldiers were formerly introduced with a different design. The ancients obliged the men to wear them at all times so that being constantly accustomed to have the head covered they might be less sensible of the weight of the helmet.

“As to the missile weapons of the infantry, they were javelins headed with a triangular sharp iron, eleven inches or a foot long, and were called piles. When once fixed in the shield it was impossible to draw them out, and when thrown with force and skill, they penetrated the cuirass without difficulty. At present they are seldom used by us, but are the principal weapon of the barbarian heavy-armed foot. They are called bebrae, and every man carries two or three of them to battle.

“It must be observed that when the soldiers engage with the javelin, the left foot should be advanced, for, by this attitude the force required to throw it is considerably increased. On the contrary, when they are close enough to use their piles and swords, the right foot should be advanced, so that the body may present less aim to the enemy, and the right arm be nearer and in a more advantageous position for striking. Hence it appears that it is as necessary to provide soldiers with defensive arms of every kind as to instruct them in the use of offensive ones. For it is certain a man will fight with greater courage and confidence when he finds himself properly armed for defense.

Weapons Training for Roman Soldiers

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “Not to Cut, but to Thrust with the Sword: They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“The Use of Missile Weapons: Besides the aforementioned exercise of the recruits at the post, they were furnished with javelins of greater weight than common, which they were taught to throw at the same post. And the masters at arms were very careful to instruct them how to cast them with a proper aim and force. This practice strengthens the arm and makes the soldier a good marksman.

“The Use of the Bow: A third or fourth of the youngest and fittest soldiers should also be exercised at the post with bows and arrows made for that purpose only. The masters for this branch must be chosen with care and must apply themselves diligently to teach the men to hold the bow in a proper position, to bend it with strength, to keep the left hand steady. to draw the right with skill, to direct both the attention and the eye to the object, and to take their aim with equal certainty either on foot or on horseback. But this is not to be acquired without great application, nor to be retained without daily exercise and practice.

“The utility of good archers in action is evidently demonstrated by Cato in his treatise on military discipline. To the institution of a body of troops of this sort Claudius owed his victory over an enemy who, till that time, had constantly been superior to him. Scipio Africanus, before his battle with the Numantines, who had made a Roman army ignominiously pass under the yoke, thought he could have no likelihood of success except by mingling a number of select archers with every century.

“The Sling: Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any incumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.

“The Loaded Javelin: The exercise of the loaded javelins, called martiobarbuli, must not be omitted. We formerly had two legions in lllyricum, consisting of six thousand men each, which from their extraordinary dexterity and skill in the use of these weapons were discingui.shed by the same appellation. They supported for a long time the weight of all the wars and distinguished themselves so remarkably that the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian on their accession honored them with the titles of Jovian and Herculean and preferred them before all the other legions. Every soldier carries five of these javelins in the hollow of his shield. And thus the legionary soldiers seem to supply the place of archers, for they wound both the men and horses of the enemy before they come within reach of the common missile weapons.”

Romans Cavalry and Their Weapons

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The cavalry is divided also into ten parts or troops. In each of these, three captains first are chosen; who afterwards appoint three other officers to conduct the rear. The first of the captains commands the whole troop. The other two hold the rank and office of decurions; and all of them are called by that name. In the absence of the first captain, the next in order takes the entire command. The manner in which these troops are armed is at this time the same as that of the Greeks. But anciently it was very different. For, first, they wore no armor upon their bodies; but were covered, in the time of action, with only an undergarment. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“In this method, they were able indeed to descend from their horses, or leap up again upon them, with greater quickness and facility; but, as they were almost naked, they were too much exposed to danger in all those engagements.The spears also that were in use among them in former times were, in a double respect, very unfit for service. First, as they were of a slender make, and always trembled in the hand, it not only was extremely difficult to direct them with exactness towards the destined mark; but very frequently, even before their points had reached the enemy, the greatest part of them were shaken into pieces by the bare motion of the horses. Add to this, that these spears, not being armed with iron at the lowest end, were formed to strike only with the point, and, when they were broken by this stroke, were afterwards incapable of any farther use.

“Their buckler was made of the hide of an ox, and in form was not unlike to those globular dishes which are used in sacrifices. But this was also of too infirm a texture for defense; and, as it was at first not very capable of service, it afterwards became wholly useless, when the substance of it had been softened and relaxed by rain. The Romans, therefore, having observed these defects, soon changed their weapons for the armor of the Greeks. For the Grecian spear, which is firm and stable, not only serves to make the first stroke with the point in just direction and with sure effect; but, with the help of the iron at the opposite end, may, when turned, be employed against the enemy with equal steadiness and force. In the same manner also the Grecian shields, being strong in texture, and capable of being held in a fixed position, are alike serviceable both for attack and for defense. These advantages were soon perceived, and the arms adopted by the cavalry. For the Romans, above all other people, are excellent in admitting foreign customs that are preferable to their own.”

Dealing with Armed Chariots and Elephants

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands. The Roman soldiers rendered them useless chiefly by the following contrivance: at the instant the engagement began, they strewed the field of battle with caltrops, and the horses that drew the chariots, running full speed on them, were infallibly destroyed. A caltrop is a machine composed of four spikes or points arranged so that in whatever manner it is thrown on the ground, it rests on three and presents the fourth upright. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Romans faced the elephants of Pyrrhus half a century before Hannibal crossed the Alps

“Elephants by their vast size, horrible noise and the novelty of their form are at first very terrible both to men and horses. Pyrrhus first used them against the Romans in Lucania. And afterwards Hannibal brought them into the field in Africa. Antiochus in the east and Jugurtha in Numidia had great numbers. Many expedients have been used against them. In Lucania a centurion cut off the trunk of one with his sword. Two soldiers armed from head to foot in a chariot drawn by two horses, also covered with armor, attacked these beasts with lances of great length. They were secured by their armor from the archers on the elephants and avoided the fury of the animals by the swiftness of their horses. F oot soldiers completely armored, with the addition of long iron spikes fixed on their arms, shoulders and helmets, to prevent the elephant from seizing them with his trunk, were also employed against them.

“But among the ancients, the velites usually engaged them. They were young soldiers, lightly armed, active and very expert in throwing their missile weapons on horseback. These troops kept hovering round the elephants continually and killed them with large lances and javelins. Afterwards, the soldiers, as their apprehensions decreased, attacked them in a body and, throwing their javelins together, destroyed them by the multitude of wounds. Slingers with round stones from the fustibalus and sling killed both the men who guided the elephants and the soldiers who fought in the towers on their backs. This was found by experience to be the best and safest expedient. At other times on the approach of these beasts, the soldiers opened their ranks and let them pass through. When they got into the midst of the troops, who surrounded them on all sides, they were captured with their guards unhurt.

“Large balistae, drawn on carriages by two horses or mules, should be placed in the rear of the line, so that when the elephants come within reach they may be transfixed with the darts. The balistae should be larger and the heads of the darts stronger and broader than usual, so that the darts may be thrown farther, with greater force and the wounds be proportioned to the bodies of the beasts. It was proper to describe these several methods and contrivances employed against elephants, so that it may be known on occasion in what manner to oppose those prodigious animals.

Siege Warfare and Tunneling

Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “Whenever a town or building was under siege, a special army unit was sent ahead to surround the settlement and prevent anyone from escaping. A fortified camp would then be established around the area, preferably on high ground and always out of missile range. An army unit would then be sent to breach the defensive walls, protected by covering fire from archers, bolt-firers, and catapults. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 <=>]

“The catapult was one of the most intimidating siege weapons. Josephus (The Jewish Wars, 3.7.23) offers us a firsthand account of the catapult’s devastating power: “A soldier standing on the wall near Josephus was struck by it [a stone thrown by a catapult]. His head was torn off by the stone missile, and the upper part of his skull was hurled [550 meters (1,800 feet)].” <=>

Samnite war

“Tunneling was key for siege warfare. The failure or success of many sieges was decided by how well the Romans were able to breach the defensive walls by digging tunnels underneath the town or building in question and breaking in. Although this was an effective tactic, it became widely known to Rome’s enemies and eventually lost its surprise factor. During the war against Mithridates of Pontus in the early first century B.C., the Romans were trying to dig a tunnel to breach the defenses of the city of Themiscyra. Its inhabitants drove a number of dangerous wild animals into the tunnel, including bears and even bees. <=>

“The oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare has been dated to the third century A.D. and comes from tunnels found at Dura Europus (Syria), where evidence of an underground battle between the Romans and the Sassanian Persians were found. The Persians were besieging a Roman garrison and using tunnels to break in. The Romans responded by also digging tunnels to neutralize the attackers. Skeletons and weapons found in one of these galleries attest to the fact that the Roman soldiers were choked to death by an asphyxiating gas cloud coming from bitumen and sulfur crystals ignited by the Persians.” <=>

Roman Catapults

The Romans employed sophisticated catapults. Large stone balls were fired into cities by catapults. They damaged and pitted city walls and smashed the roofs of buildings. Long-rang catapults were capable of piercing shields at a distance of 300 meters. Catapults were the primary form of artillery before canons were invented. In the Jewish Wars, 3.7.23), Josephus gives a firsthand account of a soldier standing struck by a stone thrown by a catapult:. “His head was torn off by the stone missile, and the upper part of his skull was hurled” more than half a kilometer.

There were two main types of catapults in the Greco-Roman era: The Ballista was essentially a giant crossbow. Believed to have been invented by the Greeks and later modified by the Roman, it had the long range and ample power of the crossbow and was the earliest catapult. Resembling a bow laid on its side, with the middle section cut out, it was comprised of two wood arms attached to a rope usually made of human hair or animal sinew. The rope was attached to a winch and pulled back, bending the arm back. When released the Ballista would shoot large arrow, or darts toward the enemy with deadly accuracy. The word Ballista comes from the Greek word "Ballistes" meaning throw. [Source: Google groups, Physics of Catapults]

Loading a ballista
The Mangonel is what many people think of when they think of a catapult. Its name is derived from the Latin word "manganon" meaning engine of war. Invented by the Romans around 400 B.C., the mangonel was comprised a long wood arm with a bucket (early models used a sling) with a rope attached to the end. The arm was pulled back (from natural 90 degree angle), with the energy stored in the tension of the rope and the arm. Then the loaded bucket was released the Mangonel's arm would return to its upright position. When it came in contact with the beam (or block) the arm would stop but the missiles stored in the bucket would fly toward the enemy. The Mangonel fired projectiles in an overhead arc, The angle of the path of the projectile could be determined by a block placed on the beam that stopped the Mangonel's arm. Stopping the arm short of the 90 degree angle resulted in a path angle equal to the the angle between the arm and the 90 degree angle. The Mangonel was capable of firing projectiles more than 400 meters. It was easy to construct. Wheels were added to the design to increase mobility. The Onager was a type of Mangonel named after the onager, or wild ass, because its motion and power mimicked the kick of the wild ass.

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The legion owes its success to its arms and machines, as well as to the number and bravery of its soldiers. In the first place every century has a balista mounted on a carriage drawn by mules and served by a mess, that is by ten men from the century to which it belongs. The larger these engines are, the greater distance they carry and with the greater force. They are used not only to defend the entrenchments of camps, but are also placed in the field in the rear of the heavy armed infantry. And such is the violence with which they throw the darts that neither the cuirasses of the horse nor shields of the foot can resist them. The number of these engines in a legion is fiftyfive. Besides these are ten onagri, one for each cohort; they are drawn ready armed on carriages by oxen; in case of an attack, they defend the works of the camp by throwing stones as the balistae do darts.” [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Adam Hart-Davis, a scientist who reconstructed some Roman catapults, wrote for the BBC: “The manuballista was a hand-cranked catapult that could hurl a bolt with an iron tip. This bolt whistled through the air at some 50 metres per second, and carried a terrifying punch; it would go through armour, and cause instant death. “The onager (named after a wild ass) hurled great rocks, which could demolish wooden buildings. [Source: Adam Hart-Davis, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“I watched a ballista being fired and was impressed by the sheer power and accuracy. I can well imagine the defending Celts surrendering quickly after seeing the force and accuracy of the Roman artillery. We also constructed a repeating ballista, which fired bolts one after another automatically. On its first trial we were able to shoot eleven bolts a minute, which is almost four times the rate at which an ordinary ballista can be operated. If the Romans really used these they must have frightened the pants off the enemy, although they would also have used ammunition at a prodigious rate!” |::|

Greek Fire and Flame Throwers

Describing an attack on the Romans by the Samosatans with petroleum-based weapons in 69 B.C., Pliny wrote: "a flammable mud called maltha [semisolid petroleum and gases] exudes from a nearby marsh. It sticks to anything it touches. The flames clings to anyone who tries to flee. Water merely makes it burn more fiercely."

The Byzantines discovered that by adding sulphur or quicklime and saltpeter to naptha they could create a material capable of spontaneous combustion and produce bombs that could be thrown at enemies that would explode on impact. This napalm-like "Greek fire" was used in A.D. 673 and 678 to fend off attacks on Constantinople by Arabs.

reconstruction of Byzantine-era Greek Fire arbalest flamethrower

In the 10th century the Byzantines invented the flame thrower, a powerful secret weapon that changed the nature of warfare. The devise used Greek fire that was preheated under pressure and discharged in liquid form with pump-powered, syringe-like bronze tubes. It was used primarily in sea battles, incinerating wooden ships and their crews and even spreading fire on the water. Russia's Prince Igo purportedly lost 10,000 vessels to Greek fire in a battle in 941.

Fire weapons made Byzantine ships masters of the sea for centuries. Byzantine war ships were outfit with catapults used to fire "Greek fire" grenades and cannons. Greek Fire was also used on land.. Pressurized siphons were fired at forts, squirt guns and ceramic hand grenades were used at close range in hand-to-hand battles,

The recipe for Greek Fire was a carefully guarded secret. It is believed that early versions were devised by Callinicus, a A.D. seventh-century engineer from Syria, where people had been using flammable petrochemicals for some time. Scholars are still not sure of the ingredients. It was likely a highly combustible mixture of quicklime, sulphur, naptha and saltpeter. The stuff was particularly nasty because it clung to whatever it touched and was not quenched by water. Clothing and ship sails were often ignited and people could not put out the fires by jumping into the sea.

The use of Greek Fire was regarded with horror and moral disgust. There is no mention of it from A.D. 800 and 1000 and some scholars believe it may have been banned because it was "too murderous."

Whistling Sling Bullets: a Roman 'Terror Weapon'?

Tom Metcalfe wrote in Live Science: “Some 1,800 years ago, Roman troops used "whistling" sling bullets as a "terror weapon" against their barbarian foes, according to archaeologists who found the cast lead bullets at a site in Scotland. Weighing about 1 ounce (30 grams), each of the bullets had been drilled with a 0.2-inch (5 millimeters) hole that the researchers think was designed to give the soaring bullets a sharp buzzing or whistling noise in flight. [Source: Tom Metcalfe, Live Science, June 14, 2016]

“The bullets were found recently at Burnswark Hill in southwestern Scotland, where a massive Roman attack against native defenders in a hilltop fort took place in the second century A.D. “These holes converted the bullets into a "terror weapon," said archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust, a Scottish historical society directing the first major archaeological investigation in 50 years of the Burnswark Hill site. "You don't just have these silent but deadly bullets flying over; you've got a sound effect coming off them that would keep the defenders' heads down," Reid told Live Science. "Every army likes an edge over its opponents, so this was an ingenious edge on the permutation of sling bullets."

“The whistling bullets were also smaller than typical sling bullets, and the researchers think the soldiers may have used several of them in their slings — made from two long cords held in the throwing hand, attached to a pouch that holds the ammunition — so they could hurl multiple bullets at a target with one throw. "You can easily shoot them in groups of three of four, so you get a scattergun effect," Reid said. "We think they're for close-quarter skirmishing, for getting quite close to the enemy."

whistling sling bullets

“Sling bullets and stones are a common find at Roman army battle sites in Europe. The largest are typically shaped like lemons and weigh up to 2 ounces (60 grams), Reid said. Smaller bullets shaped like acorns — a symbol the Romans considered lucky — have also been found at Burnswark Hill and other sites in Scotland. “About 20 percent of the lead sling bullets found at Burnswark Hill had been drilled with holes, which represented a significant amount of effort to prepare enough ammunition for an assault, Reid said. "It's a tremendous amount of work to do, to just chuck them away," he said.

“Whistling sling bullets haven't been found at any other Roman sites, but ceramic sling bullets with holes punched out have been discovered at battle sites in Greece from the second and third centuries B.C, Reid said. “Many archaeologists had assumed that the holes in the Greek bullets were reservoirs for poison, he said. But in slinging experiments using about 100 replicas of the whistling bullets, Reid found that they would have been little use as poisoned weapons. "The holes are too small, and there's no guarantee that these are going to penetrate skin," Reid said. "And they are ballistically inferior: They don't fly as far, don't fly as fast and don't have the same momentum [as larger sling bullets] — so why put poison holes in only the little ones?"

“Reid's brother, a keen fisherman, offered some insight into their possible purpose when he suggested the bullets were designed to make noise in flight. "I said, 'Don't be stupid; you've no idea what you're talking about. You're not an archaeologist,'" Reid joked. "And he said, 'No, but I'm a fisherman, and when I cast my line with lead weights that have got holes in them like that, they whistle.'" "Suddenly, a light bulb came on in my head — that's what they're about. They're for making a noise," Reid said.

“At the time of the Roman attack on Burnswark Hill, slings were used mainly by specialized units of auxiliary troops ("auxilia") recruited to fight alongside the Roman legions. “Among the most feared were slingers from the Balearic Islands, an archipelago near Spain in the western Mediterranean, who fought for the Roman general Julius Caesar in his unsuccessful invasions of Britain in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C. "These guys were expert slingers; they'd been doing this the whole of their lives," Reid said. In the hands of an expert, a heavy sling bullet or stone could reach speeds of up to 100 mph (160 km/h): "The biggest sling stones are very powerful — they could literally take off the top of your head," Reid said.

Ancient Chemical Warfare Used Against the Romans

Stephanie Pappas of Live Science wrote: “Ancient warfare was a messy matter, but a group of 20 or so Roman soldiers may have met a particularly nasty death nearly 2,000 years ago. During a siege of the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura, Persian soldiers dug tunnels under the city walls in an attempt to undermine them. The Romans retaliated by digging their own tunnels in an attempt to intercept the Persians. But the Persians heard them coming, and some archaeologists think they prepared a grisly trap: A cloud of noxious petrochemical smoke that would have turned the Romans' lungs to acid. The tunnels were excavated in the 1920s and '30s, and have been reburied now. But some modern archaeologists think the placement of the skeletons and the presence of sulfur and bitumen crystals suggests chemical warfare. The choking gas would have been like "the fumes of hell," archaeologist Simon James of the University of Leicester told LiveScience. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 8, 2011]

Heather Ramsey of Listverse wrote: “ With great power comes great enemies. The Romans were reminded of this in A.D. 256, when the cunning army of the Persian Sasanian Empire captured Dura, a Roman fortress-city in what is now eastern Syria. As a way to invade the fortress, the Persians dug a deep mine to cause a city wall and tower to buckle. The Romans tunneled from the other side to intercept them. When they met, the Roman countermine was above the Persian mine, creating a shaft like a chimney between the two. [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015 <=>]

Greek Fire catapult

“With no written records, what happened next is somewhat unclear. In the early 1900s, archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson discovered a pile of 19 Roman bodies in the mines. Only one Persian body was nearby. Du Mesnil believed the soldiers had engaged in a vicious battle, causing the Romans to fall back into their tunnel. Then the Persians set that tunnel on fire, which supposedly killed the Romans. <=>

“But Simon James, an archaeologist from the University of Leicester, offered a different theory in 2009. “This wasn’t a pile of people who had been crowded into a small space and collapsed where they stood,” he said. “This was a deliberate pile of bodies.” According to his view, the Persians heard the Romans digging and ignited a fire to meet them. Then, the Romans opened the shaft between the two mines. James doesn’t know if the Persians directed smoke with a bellows or let the smoke rise naturally through the shaft. But archaeologists did discover sulfur and bitumen in the mine, possibly making these bodies the first chemical warfare victims ever found. James believes the Persians deliberately threw these chemicals in the fire to create deadly fumes, which became sulfuric acid in the lungs of their enemies. The one dead Persian soldier probably set the fire and couldn’t get out in time. <=>

“James believes any Roman soldiers outside the countermine would have seen the smoke, realized their comrades were dying, and avoided entry. Meanwhile, once the smoke cleared, the Persians quickly piled the bodies like a shield in the countermine and destroyed it. Then they resumed trying to enter the city. Their mining efforts didn’t work to collapse the walls, but the Persians eventually got in anyway. They killed some residents and deported the rest to Persia. At that point, Dura was abandoned forever.” <=>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except whistling sling bullets from Live Science

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.