The pilum (plural pila) was a javelin commonly used by the Roman army in ancient times. It was generally about two meters long overall, consisting of an iron shank about 7 mm in diameter and 60 cm long with pyramidal head. The shank was joined to the wooded shaft by either a socket or a flat tang.
The total weight of a pilum was between two and five kilograms, with the versions produced during the Empire being a bit lighter than those dating from the previous Republican era.
The iron shank was the key to the function of the pilum. The weapon had a hard barbed tip but the shank itself was not properly tempered. This deliberate 'un-tempering' would cause the shank to bend upon impact, thus rendering the weapon useless to the enemy. More importantly, If the pilum struck the shield of an enemy it would embed itself into the shield's fabric, and this along with the bending of the shank would cause the shield to become unwieldy, forcing the enemy to discard it.
Pila were divided into two models: heavy and light. Pictorial evidence suggests that some versions of the weapon were weighted by a lead ball to increase penetrative power but archeological specimens of this design variant are not so far known.. Recent experiments have shown pila to have a range of approximately 30 metres (98 ft), although the effective range is up to 15–20 m (49–66 ft).
Legionaries of the Late Republic and Early Empire often carried two pila, with one sometimes being lighter than the other. Standard tactics called for Roman soldiers to throw one of them (both if time permitted) at the enemy, just before charging to engage with the gladius.
The effect of the pila throw was to disrupt the enemy formation by attrition and by causing gaps to appear in its protective shield wall.
Pila could also be used in hand-to-hand combat; one documented instance of this occurred at the Siege of Alesia. Additionally, pila could be employed as a thrusting implement and a barrier against cavalry charges. Some pila had small hand-guards, to protect the wielder if he intended to use it as a melee weapon, but it does not appear that this was common.
The late Roman writer Vegetius, in his work De Re Militari, wrote:
And later in the same work:
It may be argued that a short iron shaft has very few confirmations from archeology. Vegetius is writing about a one foot iron shaft because at Vegetius' time the pilum had disappeared and been substituted by similar shorter weapons such as the plumbatae or the above mentioned spiculum.
Results of experimental archaeology
Thanks in part to experimental archaeology, it is generally believed that the pilum's design evolved to be armour-piercing: the pyramidal head would punch a small hole through an enemy shield allowing the thin shank to pass through and penetrate a distance sufficient to hit the man behind it. The thick wooden shaft provided the weight behind the punch.
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