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Apr 25 17 12:41 AM

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While at Salute last weekend I took the opportunity to ask Simon about he possibility of including rules for the use of Plumbatae (Darts) by Late Roman Infantry. He's giving it some thought but suggested that the wider membership would also have some valuable ideas.

An internet search will reveal several websites that speculate on their use, which many of us will be familiar with, at least in general terms. The best piece that I have come across which actually examines their use in action is an article in Ancient History Magazine , Vol IV, Issue 3. The publishers Karwansaray sell digital back issues. "The Late Roman Army" by Gabriel Esposito also has some interesting information.

At this stage my own initial thoughts are:
  • That there is a case for representing the use of plumbatae in the rules as they certainly seem to have had as much impact as say, bows, pilum’s or other heavy throwing weapons.
  • Range: the plumbatae exceeded the rang of Javelins and “enabled soldiers to supply the place of archers” – so two squares?
  • Frequency of use: Although equipped with 5/6 darts I get the impression that to maximise effect were used en- masse or as a barrage, so they would be a one or two shot weapon?
  • Ammunition Supply: I don’t feel that resupply from the camp would be appropriate.
  • Activations: I think that the choices here are whether to treat the plumbatae as bow or heavy throwing weapon or is it best thought of as a long range heavy throwing weapon? As bow the unit would activate to shoot (I’m unsure of the Latin for lob) and if appropriate activate again to attack. This would probably be the best choice if the range is two squares. Alternatively, the plumbatae could be treated as a pilum/heavy throwing weapon with it’s use included in attack activations. Not sure at this stage about the  long range heavy throwing weapon idea.
  • Hits and Saves: To be consistent I feel that the plumbatae should hit on an 8. However, the nature of the weapon and  it’s falling fire apparently made in particularly effective against unarmoured men and horses. Is there a case for increasing (worsening) the save necessary for cavalry units and deep infantry such as warriors or shieldwall where rear ranks were likely to lack armour? Not sure, it could be said that the current values already take armour or lack of it into account.
  • Who used them? Gabriel Esposito comments that plumbatae were initially introduced to the Legiones Ioviana and Herculiani by Diocletian and later spread to other legions and auxillia. Might be that plumbatae could be an optional extra at 1pt per unit so equipped?
​I'm sure there are plenty of knowledgable members on the Late Roman Arm out there, so please post your ideas.

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#1 [url]

Apr 25 17 1:29 AM

I am keen to reflect these in the rules so this is definitely worth some thought. :-)

There are a number or reenactor videos; this one looks quite good. I have seen other reconstructions with a heavier projectile. They appear to have a longer range than javelins but a shorter range than bows- but perhaps hitting harder than the latter on account of the weight.

We also need to think in parallel about other weapons that the Late Romans used in profusion- bows, slings, possibly crossbows, since some units will have these as well.

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#3 [url]

Apr 25 17 6:41 AM

I reviewed a test of plumbatae done by Robert Vermaat in an article on The plumbatae weighed about 70 grams, and were thrown both overarm and underarm. According to his results, the average distance achieved was 33 to 37 meters, less than he had expected, although he said the wind had an effect.

Another article from written by Miroslav B. Vujović, published in the Journal of the Serbian Archaeological Society (2009) is very useful. I think this article would provide a lot of what you need in order to model the plumbatae. I have the article in PDF format.

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#4 [url]

Apr 25 17 7:47 AM

I mentioned the article from, "THE PLUMBATAE FROM SERBIA," written by Miroslav B. Vujović, published in the Journal of the Serbian Archaeological Society (2009). Here are some of the highlights of that article:

Vegetius, in his Epitoma Rei Militaris (I, xvii), stated that every infantryman carries five of them in the concavity of his shield.

They had a spindle-shaped, biconical or oval lead weight attached to the socket, or to the wooden arrow shank. This contributed to a greater range and penetration force of the missiles with narrow iron points, which “was crucial in a battle against the armoured enemy.” The lead weights also made it possible to throw the plumbatae over lower fortifications and walls.

The plumbatae also had stabilizers ensuring a more regular trajectory and greater range. This allowed a high-arch trajectory, allowing the plumbatae to decend nearly vertically on the target. Thus, it was possible to hit enemies hidden behind the shields, breastworks or palisades. The heads, necks and shoulders of enemy soldiers were most vulnerable.

According to Vegetius (I, xvvii), plumbatae were hurled from a distance in charge attacks, and were also used for defensive purposes by making it impossible for enemy infantry or cavalry to reach the front line without sustaining losses.

Vujović states that modern experiments have shown that the plumbatae can travel a distance of up to seventy metres hand-thrown, and twice as far if hurled with the aid of a sling or an amentum.

Vegetius seems to indicate that the soldiers who used the plumbatae were separate units, and formed the forth line that comprised lightarmed soldiers such as archers and spearmen (III, xiv). They were a great substitute to having a unit of archers.

The likely predecessor of plumbatae were the cestros and the cestrofendon, missiles that Polybius and Livy mention with reference to the Third Macedonian War (the Romans used them against the Persians in 171 BCE).

These darts then went out of fashion until the third and fourth centuries. The reason for their reintroduction was the radical change in warfare and military equipment, especially during Diocletian. The reforms sought to bring a more cost-effective organization and supply of combat units.

As Vujović writes “[t]he wider use of plumbatae under the late Empire may be looked at as an expression of not only a different, more practical, approach to military equipment, but also of a more efficient use of the army in the changed conditions of warfare. The unremitting conflicts in the east, notably with the Parthians, highlighted to Roman strategists the increasing need for archery units. Such units were usually made up of mercenaries of Oriental origin (Greeks, Syrians etc) and their use was quite costly. The Roman withdrawal from Dacia under Aurelianus in 272 and the loss of Palmyran archers undoubtedly highlighted the need for fresh archery units in the Danube basin. The training of regular troops, unskilled in using the bow and arrow, would have taken too long for achieving a satisfactory level of combat efficiency. On the other hand, modern experiments have shown that not even amateurs would have found it difficult to master the use of plumbatae. Vegetius himself (I, xvii) insists on the necessity of training recruits to use plumbatae and on their introduction into the equipment of regular infantry and cavalry troops. This practically means that the same troops could be used both as a “conventionally”-armed force in close combat and as a force in long-range combat, which provided a significant tactical advantage.”

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#5 [url]

Apr 25 17 7:57 AM

Hi I've just looked at the Vujovic article- very interesting- thanks!

Some points-
Range up to 70m (140 with a strap)
Most finds in Britain or along the Rhine/Danube frontier
Used both in attack and defence
May have been introduced to supplement or replace mercenary archers, as the Eastern areas from which these were recruited, were lost.
Most finds are from the second half of the fourth century onwards into the Early Byzantine period.
Produced by Roman armament factories.
High trajectory means that they could hit over shields- head and shoulders.

It strikes me that they were somewhat more effective than javelins, because of the longer range and lightness, which mean soldiers could carry up to five. They might be more effective at range than thrown at point blank, since at range they get this plunging effect. 

Last Edited By: BigRedBat Apr 25 17 8:04 AM. Edited 1 time.

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#7 [url]

Apr 25 17 10:37 AM

So far, it sounds like they are more like bows than they are like javelins- and not very much like pila. It also seems that to some extent they replace bows, or complemented the bowmen and slingers in the rear ranks, at least in the Western Empire. Perhaps they might replace the pila of later legionaries, as "extra bows", for an extra point, or be added to auxiliaries for an extra two?

If this is the case there would be no need for a special rule- simply adjustments to the relevant army lists (Late Roman after 350, Decline Roman and Early Byzantine). How does that sound?

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#8 [url]

Apr 26 17 12:25 AM

A very interesting piece from Kenntak which I felt highlighted the uniquness/flexibility of the weapon.

Given the emphasis on bow replacement I agree that treating later legionaries and auxilla as "extra bow" is a good solution.

As a slight deviation, I'm sure I remember reading that the pilum/spiculum had fallen out of use by the end of the 4th century, perhaps the appropiate Late Roman list could make it optional until then?
Not that I've ever hit much with a pilum anyway.

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#9 [url]

Apr 26 17 2:46 AM

Yes I was thinking the same- that I need to look at pila in the later lists.

I do wish that more manufacturers made a figure throwing a plumbata. Aside from the old Foundry one, I can't recall a single miniature throwing one!

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#10 [url]

Apr 26 17 3:22 AM

Does anyone have a source for the approximate date for the end of pila? I notice that I have them into the 5th century- it would be a good idea to take them out.

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#11 [url]

Apr 26 17 5:07 AM

Simon MacDowall states in “Late Roman Infantryman,” that Vegetius implies that the spiculum replaced the pilum around the mid-third century ACE, but it is unknown whether it was the same weapon with a new name, or a new weapon. The spiculum is described as a heavy javelin, 190 cm long, with a fairly short iron head (less than 30 cm). Vegetius equates the spiculum to the pilum and German weapons, but the latter weapons did have longer heads. A couple of Wiki sites state that the spiculum fell out of use around 400 ACE, but I have not yet found an actual source for that.

Regarding the plumbatae, I agree with Simon and Phil that under the rules, they should be treated as extra bows.

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#12 [url]

Apr 26 17 7:28 AM

...I think- for the post 406 lists- I shall replace legionaries with auxiliaries. The units may still be named as legionary units but will fight as if auxiliaries pila. This really simplifies the lists.

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#13 [url]

Apr 26 17 11:49 AM

Don't fiddle with the lists too much. I'm about to start another Late Roman project and it's a little frustrating when things change! 

Like I said about Cataphracts not being in the later lists, there is a commercial aspect to consider here. If figure manufacturers make a certain figure, they really should be incorporated into the rules as an option, even if there is contrasting "evidence" (opinion, really). 

Late Roman legionaries had missile capability. So whether it's bow, javelin, dart, sling or crossbow, the rules should allow for "extra missile" at 1 point. Standardise the range otherwise you will always choose the best. Say javelin range (1 box)?

As for pilum well there's plenty of evidence they had them, debate about when they stopped using them. There seems to get little difference between auxiliaries and legionaries in later armies, so the rules need to reflect that. 

Im about to shock the wargaming world by showing off my (Foundry) Marian a Roman Army with rectangular scutum shields. Shock horror, it's historically inaccurate they cry. And I say, well were you there?.. did you see it? Or are you basing all your understanding on a few relics someone dug up in a German field. I did it because I think they look cool, and they are mine, and life is too short to worry about what others think, do what makes you happy!

Phil Barker catered for those who wanted MI, JLS, HTW, D, SH. those of you old enough to know what that means will appreciate that was quite a potent combination, but a lot of points each. But if you wanted a handful of legionaries armed to the teeth, you could have them!

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#14 [url]

Apr 26 17 2:13 PM

Hi Barry- no won't fiddle too much.Honest. ;-)

Legionaries will still be there, at least until the Rhine freezes. The extra missile (costing 2 points) will be pretty generally available. Post 406 CE, the distinction between legionaries and auxiliaries will be largely nominal.

I found myself thinking tonight that auxiliaries or better still veteran auxiliaries, with extra bow, might be a very effective force- better than legionaries at stopping hairy Germanic types, and cheaper, too. This evening I have been prying Late Romans off some old bases and planning some new units....

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#16 [url]

Apr 27 17 1:24 AM

Yes that is definitely on my radar- in fact I hope to work something up for the October Wargames Holiday Centre event. I'll get me painter on it!

I would very much like to do Strasbourg, too.

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