Many of you probably remember a yard game from the 70s and 80s called Yard Darts or Lawn Darts. In this game you would throw darts underhand at a ring set on the ground trying to land them into, or as close as possible to, the ring. These darts had a pointed steel tip, a large plastic fletching, and about a 4 inch grip behind the fletching.
Now, imagine a dart with a 6 to 8 inch long barbed iron tip and fletched wooden shaft with about a 4 inch grip behind the feathers. The iron tip and the wooden shaft are joined by a 3 to 4 ounce ball of lead. This is a Plumbata, a thrown weapon that Roman soldiers used with great effect during the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The name, Plumbata, is derived from the Latin word for lead, Plumbum. The lead gives this rather small weapon added weight which increases both the distance they can be thrown and their penetrating power upon impact.
In examining images of the extant remains of Plumbata it is easy to see that there was significant diversity in the way they were constructed. These variations include length of head, point design, shape of the lead, and the cross section of the head. The metal head could be round, square, or circular in shape. The hollow, circular shafts often had the lead attached to the metal shaft rather than at the connection point between metal and wood. This was possible because the wood shaft was inserted into the head and held in place with 1 or 2 pins. The round and square heads were attached by having the lead cast around the connection point between the metal head and the wood shaft.
Plumbata Construction Variations
Plumbata Flight Tests
Since I first found out about the Plumbata, I have wondered two things: what is the best way to throw it and how far can I throw it? I have not yet finished construction on any of my own Plumbata, so I have not been able to conduct any flight tests. What I have done is research other’s testing of this weapon. I found two papers written by Robert Vermaat from The Netherlands. The first was a summary of results from his 2007 series of throwing tests. The second was from a series of tests he conducted in 2011. Vermaat tested several commercially made Plumbata for distance using both underhand and overhand throws.
I also found a paper written in 2010 by John Emery as part of his Bachelor of Arts of Archeology for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He also considered the distance of flight for both over and under hand throws. For his tests he manufactured his own plumbata based on images and descriptions from period sources. Unlike Vermaat, he did not throw the weapons himself. He recruited, and trained, a group of volunteers who threw the weapons so he could focus on making observations and taking measurements.
These researchers used Plumbata that were different in size and weight so the results they produced vary greatly but there were some similarities. Both found that underhand throwing produced longer throws and required much less energy. They also found that, with practice, greater distances could be achieved.
In Vermaat’s first series of tests he found that in all cases, and with all weapons, underhand throwing produced the greatest distances. These differences varied by from 4 to 9 yards depending on the particular weapon used. His average distance for underhand throws was 35.9 yards, (108 feet). For overhand throws the average was 32.6 yards (97 feet). In his second set of tests in 2011, with different weapons, his averages were 35.4 yards underhand (106 feet) and 32.6 yards overhand (98 feet).
Emery conducted two sets of measured tests after several practice sessions. During these initial sessions he discovered that the overhand throw produced results significantly different than the underhand throws. These initial tests were not measured but he estimated the overhand throws averaged somewhere between 110 and 120 feet based on his pacing of the distances. This was 40 to 70 feet shorter than the underhand throws so he decided to end testing of the overhand method. His first series of tests produced an average distance of 170.9 feet. The second set resulted in an average of 173.7 feet and included multiple throws over 200 feet. Emery also noted that his longest throws resulted from the smoothest releases which produced less inflight wobble. These were also the last throws that were made after the throwers had the most practice.
For his trials, Vermaat used Plumbata that were longer and heavier than Emery. The fletching on his commercially made weapons was disproportionately larger than those used by Emery and this increased drag may help to explain some of the differences in distance achieved.
Plumbata Archaeological Finds
The Plumbata is a late period Roman weapon. Most of the extant finds have been in or around Roman fortifications active during the late antiquity period. The earliest dating of weapons found that can with certainty be known as Plumbata was in the 270s, with most finds being dated from the 4th and into the early 5th centuries. As of yet, no Plumbata have been found in Roman fortifications that were abandoned before the last third of the 3rd century. The latest finds so far have been dated as late 5th or early 6th centuries.
These weapons have been found over a vast area ranging from Britain, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungry, Greece, and as far as Georgia. They’re use seems to have been centered in and around the Roman province of Illyricum, which corresponds to parts of modern day Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Croatia. In this region were two legions of 6000 men each that were described as preferring the Plumbata over all other weapons. These legions were given the titles of Jovian and Herculean by the emperors Diocletian and Maximian who reigned together from 284-305 ce. These legions were the preferred troops of these emperors due to their extreme prowess with the Plumbata. The use of this weapon seems to have spread out from this central region.
Roman Wars 270-500 AD
A friend asked if the location of the extant finds of Plumbata coincided with army on army battle locations that Rome was involved in from the era that the finds were dated from. In comparing a timeline of Roman wars with Plumbata find locations, here is what I found. A note, there were many small skirmishes and conflicts which took place in and around Roman held territories which I have not taken into account for this post since the question focused on army on army wars.
When Diocletian was named emperor in ad 284 there already existed 2 legions noted for their use of the Plumbata who were stationed in Illyricum where some of the earliest finds were located. These were dated around 270 ad so I began my search here. In 279 Probus launched a campaign against the Vandals in Illyricum. It seems probable that the legions used Plumbata in these battles and their fame for their use began here. In 285, in the region of the Morave River east of Illyricum (present day Serbia), Diocletian defeated Carinus. Here again, it is most likely that Diocletian would have used his best legions (which he had named Jovian and Herculian a year earlier for their skill with Plumbata) as his primary troops. In both of these regions Plumbata have been found.
There have been several Plumbata finds in Britain where, between 286 and 296 the Carausian revolt took place. Many have also been found in Germany where, in 357, the Battle of Strasbourg took place between a coalition of Germanic tribes known as the Alemanni and Emperor Julian. Others have been found throughout much of Southern Europe where Roman troops were stationed during this time.
It is worth noting that most of the Plumbata found have been at the sites of Roman fortifications. These were built in areas where conflict was either expected or taking place and then abandoned when the conflicts were resolved. So, to answer my friend’s question I would have to say that there is definitely a direct correlation between areas where major battles took place and where Plumbata have been found. My research also seems to indicate that Plumbata use spread from the region of Illyricum outward to the rest of the Roman Empire based on the dating of the finds.
The website Roman Army Talk has a list of extant Plumbata heads (from page 44 in the Plumbata thread, moderated by Robert Vermaat): Currently there are 175 published finds: 31 from Serbia, 30 from Britain, 16 from Slovenia, 15 from Italy, 15 from Austria, 14 from France, 10 from Hungary, 9 from Croatia, 7 from Germany, 7 from Switzerland, 5 from Georgia/Abchasia, 4 from Romania, 3 from Bulgaria, 3 from Greece, 2 from Liechtenstein, 2 from The Netherlands, 1 from Belgium, and 1 from Slovakia. Added are 88 from doubtful or unprovenanced origins (up from 80) for a total 263.
from Der Griken en Romeynen krygs-handel by Johan van Paffenrode (1675)
Emery, J. (2010). Experimenting with plumbatae and observations on their behavior. [Unpublished bachelor’s thesis]. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Roman Army Talk. (nd). Plumbata. Retrieved from https://www.romanarmytalk.com/.
Vermaat, R. M. (2007) Testing late Roman plumbatae 1 - Veerse Dam 2007. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/30544051/Vermaat_Robert_M._2007_Testing_Late_Roman_Plumbatae_1_-_Veerse_Dam_2007
Vermaat, R. M. (2011). Testing late Roman plumbatae 2 - Breezand 2011. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/30545939/Vermaat_Robert_M._2011_Testing_Late_Roman_Plumbatae_2_-_Breezand_2011
Vujović, M. (2009). The plumbatae from Serbia. Journal of Serbian Archaeological Society, 25, 203-208.