Military History

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Aerial Insults: The Tradition of Inscribing Lead Sling-Bullets in Antiquity

Posted by Brandon Olson on February 12, 2008

Typically, when one ponders the use of the sling in antiquity the first image that comes to mind is the story of how David slew Goliath. The exact origins of the sling, however, are not precisely known. Classical authors such as Strabo, Vegetius, Thucydides, and Pliny attribute the invention of the sling to several groups including the Aetolians, Baleares, Acarnanians, and Phoenicians.[1] The most renowned slingers attested to in the ancient Mediterranean include those from Acarnania, Aetolia, Thessaly, the Balearic Islands, and Rhodes. The earliest archaeological evidence for the sling came from the fourteenth-century tomb of Tutankhamen.[2] Based on the historical and archaeological evidence, it appears that the sling became a popular weapon as early as the Neolithic period.[3] It functioned throughout antiquity and was particularly popular beginning in the late Bronze Age through the Roman periods.

One interesting phenomenon regarding the use of the sling in antiquity concerns the presence of inscriptions on sling-bullets. These inscriptions, in relief rather than incised, offer a unique vantage point into ancient warfare and history. The problem with this material, however, concerns access. Archaeological reports mentioning sling-bullets rarely offer any type interpretation. Synthetic investigations, with a few exceptions, rarely go beyond providing measurements and a basic translation of the inscriptions. Few works ponder how, why, and who would inscribe something as seemingly insignificant as a sling-bullet or how it functioned in society. This work attempts to bridge this archaeological and historiographic gap. By examining the historical sources, both ancient and secondary, and the archaeological material from the ancient Mediterranean, this work intends to contextualize and examine the nature of inscribed leaden sling-bullets in the greater Mediterranean. A thorough examination of this material will provide insight into the role of inscribed leaden bullets in ancient warfare, as well as illustrate what types of information about the past sling-bullets may provide scholars.

Classical Perceptions of the Sling and Leaden Bullet

The sling was a popular subject among ancient authors. Although some have argued that the status of the sling was never that great, many classical authors attest to its value and effectiveness as a weapon.[4] Several authors note how, with motion, leaden sling-bullets heat up and glow. Ovid writes, “so the cold bullet, that with fury slung from Balearick engine mounts on high, glows in the whirl, and burns along the sky.”[5] Later when speaking of Romulus Ovid attests, “his mortal part dissolved into thin air, as a leaden bullet hurled by a broad sling is wont to melt away in the mid-heavens.”[6] Lucan notes, “ponderous balls of lead molten by speed of passage through the air.”[7] Lucretius writes, “even as you see all things become hot and catch fire through motion, yea, even a ball of lead too, whirling in a long course, will melt.”[8] Even in Classical literature the leaden sling-bullet was an interesting phenomenon.

Both Cassius Dio and Strabo note that a bullet cast by a slinger would travel farther than an arrow.[9] With its reported speed and potential distance, the sling-bullet was capable of doing great physical harm. When speaking of the Etruscan king Mezentius, Virgil contends he, “dropped his spears, then made a sling. Go whipping round his head three times as he put stress upon it and he split the adversary’s temples with a molten leaden slug, knocking him down asplay on a bank of sand.”[10] Well-trained slingers, such as the Acarnanians, took full advantage of their skills. Livy writes they, “would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed.”[11] Vegetius notes how, “soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round bullets from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Sling-bullets kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood.”[12]

Celsus discusses in detail the methods that physicians employed to extract leaden sling-bullets.[13] He notes that sling-bullets were often lodged underneath the skin, in bones, and joints, which the physician removed through a variety of techniques. Celsus writes that in cases where the bullet was lodged deep into a bone, the traditional method of extraction was the same as removing a tooth! If this method proved unsuccessful, the physician would then proceed to cut the bone in a V-shape around the missile to release the pressure.[14] According to several ancient authors, leaden sling-bullets had the ability to do great physical harm and proved to be a well-utilized weapon in ancient warfare.

Inscription Tradition

One of the central functions of inscribed sling-bullets was to communicate information. Based on the available evidence, five categories of inscription types emerge: commands and exclamations, name of a city or people, personal names, deities, and symbols. Commands and exclamations inscribed on sling-bullets are intended either as an instruction to the missile or directed towards the recipient and are usually verbs in the imperative mood. Messages from the slinger to the bullet typically relate to the bullet’s flight, commanding it to fly straight or carry. Both Wilhelm Vischer et al and McCaul note a missile with the inscription EUSKANOU, which they translated as “be lodged well.”[15] McCaul argued that certain commands are messages to the missile not to miss the mark.[16]

Commands and exclamations intended for recipients relay such information as DEXAI “take this,” LABE “take it,” FAINE “appear,” NIKA “victory,” PAPAI “ouch,” AIMA “blood,” LHGE “desist,” AISCRODWRO “an unpleasant gift” and TRWGALION “bit it in vain” are well attested.[17] Inscriptions of this type represent an early form of psychological warfare. Slingers used these missiles to intimidate and belittle their opponents. During a conflict slingers, often from both sides, exchanged several bullets. One may imagine the emotions felt towards the enemy once someone read the messages conveyed the on sling-bullets.[18]

Several sling-bullets survive that bear the names of groups of people and cities. Although group and place name inscriptions were more prevalent on Latin forms, several Greek bullets survive at Olynthus and nearby Mecyberna. Olynthus, a prosperous city in antiquity, produced nearly 500 lead sling-bullets, of which 112 are inscribed. Two group names and one city name appear in this assemblage, the Athenians, Olynthians, and Mecyberna. According to Robinson, the bullets bearing the inscription AQHNIWN were a result of the Olynthians seizing the city from the Athenians in 421.[19] Nine bullets recovered from Olynthus and Mecyberna possess the abbreviated inscription OLU, which Robinson translated as “Olynthians.”[20] He also noted the presence of two abbreviated sling-bullets inscribed MER (obverse) and NA (reverse), which Robinson translated as Mecyberna.[21] The presence of the Olynthian and Mecyberna inscriptions are expected, since both Olynthus and Mecyberna produced clay moulds, which suggests local production. Inscribed bullets with the name of a city may also denote the place of manufacture.[22] The names of peoples are particularly interesting because they offer insight into ethnic identity and mobility. The Olynthian slinger intended the missile to represent him and his respective army as Olynthian to anyone who may read the bullet. The Athenian bullets convey the same type of information and allude to an Athenian presence at the site at some point.

The most prevalent type of inscriptions preserved on sling-bullets is personal names both in the nominative and genitive cases. According to Foss, personal names in the nominative case represented the manufacturer or the thrower while the genitive cases represented an authority figure ordering the attack or issuing the projectiles.[23] Having examined several sling-bullets of this type through first hand observation and the secondary material, Foss’ interpretation seems accurate. In his exhaustive examination of the Olynthian sling-bullets, Robinson identified mostly personal names in the genitive case from his assemblage.[24] Two common names from Olynthus are those of Philip (obverse: FILI, reverse: PPOU) and Hipponicus (obverse: IPPO, reverse NIKOU). Both these names appear exclusively in the genitive case. Robinson, with no reservation, attributed the missiles to Philip II of Macedon, who took the city in 348, and one of his high-ranking generals Hipponicus.[25] The sling-bullets at Olynthus resulted from Philip’s siege of the city (349-348), which Hipponicus played a major role. Early in a conflict these types of inscriptions served as graphic reminders of who was besieging whom.

Daremberg et al, McCaul, and Ciacomo Manganaro have alluded to the presence of sling-bullets bearing the names of certain deities.[26] McCaul noted inscribed bullets with the following inscriptions from Sicily: DIOS NIKH and NIKH MHTERWN.[27] Although McCaul does not offer any specific provenience information for these bullets, his publication, coupled with those of Daremberg et al and Manganaro, add a religious component to this inscribing tradition.

Some bullets possess more intricate designs than mere inscriptions. Although inscribed sling-bullets drastically outnumber images, ornately designed missiles with motifs add another interesting component to our study. A pictorial relief argues for a higher level or artisanship when compared to inscriptions. The most attested to image on these types of bullets are scorpions. Vischer et al, Charles Daremberg et al, and Chris Hagerman all presented examples of individual sling-bullets bearing the image of a scorpion.[28] Other popular motifs included eagles,[29] spearheads,[30] tridents,[31] thunderbolts,[32] arrows with wings,[33] and bundles of rods with wings.[34] The most frequent inscription with images is DEXAI. Hagerman noted an example from Stymphalos inscribed KOUC (a possible variant of kokkuxw meaning “the cry of a cuckoo”) with a scorpion, the other side is inscribed SAI (a possible variant of sainw meaning “cringing like a dog”) with, what Hagerman suggested is, a stylized insect.[35] The presence of images and inscriptions on sling-bullets demonstrate a greater skill in craftsmanship, as compared to undecorated and uninscribed forms, and an added level of functionality to a common ancient weapon.

Inscriptions and decoration on lead sling-bullets are important pieces of historical and archaeological evidence. One of their primary functions in antiquity was to communicate information. In we consider the various intended audiences for inscribed bullets, the multifarious functions of these missiles will emerge. The manufacturer, slinger, or authority figure initiated a dialogue to the besieged, the bullet itself, or a deity. Manufacturers put their names on bullets to advertise their product while slingers gave instructions to the bullet. Generals let the besieged know whom they were defending against and sling-bullets with humorous exclamations and commands undoubtedly harassed opponents. The messages on these forms, with images, served as an early form of psychological warfare. McCaul argued that bullets bearing the name of a deity were, “of those gods and goddesses, whose aid was specially invoked by the combatants on either side, or to whom the missiles were consecrated.”[36] Bullets bearing images demonstrate a higher level of craftsmanship. Inscribed sling-bullets did not function merely as harmful projectiles but also conveyed a variety of messages from one group to another.

The inscriptions on sling-bullets preserve useful information for any scholar of the past. Themes such as ethnic identity and mobility emerge from nominal inscriptions. From the inscriptions found at Olynthus, Robinson attributed some of the names to known historical people and events. Granted Robinson knew about Philip’s siege of Olynthus but attributing the sling-bullets to him provides material evidence for the event and, coupled with careful attention to stratigraphy and other diagnostic artifacts, provide a temporal framework for that particular area of the site. The inscriptions bearing the names of the Athenians and Olynthians represent their presence and a self-proclaimed ethnic division.


Inscribed sling-bullets have the ability to provide useful information to any scholar of the past. In some circumstances, scholars can link the personal names preserved on missiles to known historical people and events. These bullets provide vivid material evidence for a specific person and event. City and group names are useful because they can reflect issues such as ethnic identity and mobility. These types are particularly relevant for frontier zones and other obscure areas that are void of any historical context. Commands and exclamations, coupled with the other inscription types, demonstrate a certain level of literacy within the military and represent an early form of psychological warfare through taunting and belittling opponents. Above all, inscribed sling-bullets served to communicate information.

[1] For the Aetolians see Strab. 8.3.33; Baleares see Veg. Mil. 1.17; Acarnanians see Thuc. 2.81, and the Phoenicians see Plin. HN 7.56.

[2] The sling is preserved at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo under inventory numbers JE 61572, 61573; Exhib. 1084.

[3] See Manfred Korfmann, “The Sling as a Weapon,” Scientific American 229 (October 1973) : 34-42.

[4] For the status of the sling in antiquity and a good introduction to both Greek and Latin inscribed sling-bullets see W. Kendrick Pritchett, The Greek State at War: Part V (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 1-67.

[5] Ov. Met. 2.727

[6] Ov. Met. 14.824-826

[7] Luc. 7.513

[8] Lucr. 6.177-6.179

[9] Strab 8.3.33 and Cass. Dio 49.26.2

[10] Verg. Aen. 9.592-9.596

[11] Livy Epon. 38.29.3-9

[12] Veg. Mil. 1.17

[13] Celsus, Med. 7.5.4

[14] Celsus, Med. 7.5.4

[15] Wilhelm Vischer, Heinrich Gelzer, Achilles Burckhardt, and August von Gonzenbach, Kleine Schriften (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1877-1878), 282 and McCaul 1864, 99.

[16] McCaul 1864, 97.

[17] For DEXAI see Margherita Guarducci, Epigrafia Greca vol. 2, (Roma: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria Dello Sato, 1967-1978), 522; Walter Hawkins, “Observations on the Use of the Sling as a Warlike Weapon, Among the Ancients,” Archaeologia 32 (1847), 104; McCaul 1864, 97; and Vischer et al 1877-1878, 248 and 253. For LABE see Foss 1975, 28; Guarducci 1967-1978, 522; and Vischer et al 1877-1878, 254. For FAINE see Hawkins 1847, 97 and McCaul 1864, 98. For NIKA see Foss 1975, 28; McCaul 1864, 96; and Vischer et al 1877-1878, 267. For PAPAI see William Bates, “Two Inscribed Slingers’ Bullets from Galatista,” American Journal of Archaeology 34 (January – March 1930), 44;

Foss 1975, 28; and Guarducci 1967-1978, 522. For AIMA see Foss 1975, 28; Guarducci 1967-1978, 522; and Vischer et al 1877-1878, 256. For AHGE see Hawkins 1847, 104 and for AISCRODWRO see Robinson 1941, 421 (Inv. 31.226). For TRWGALION see McCaul 1864, 99.

[18] For nineteenth-century travelers accounts of the presence of these inscription types see Edward Dodwell, A Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (London: Rodwell and Martin, 1819), 160-161 and William Leake, Travels in Northern Greece (London: J. Rodwell, 1835), 176-177.

[19] Robinson 1941, 424 (Inv. 34.58a, 34.58, 38.ms127).

[20] Robinson 1941, 429-431 (Inv. 38.ms126, 31.437, 31.467, 31.474, 31.44, 38.ms55, 38.ms144, 38.ms212, 38.ms142).

[21] Robinson 1941, 429 (Inv. 38.ms49 and 28.39).

[22] See McCaul 1864, 95.

[23] Foss 1975, 28.

[24] See Robinson 1941, 418-443; David Robinson, “New Inscriptions from Olynthus and Environs,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 62 (1931), 56; David Robinson, “The Residential Districts and the Cemeteries at Olynthus,” American Journal of Archaeology 36 (April-June 1932), 138; Robinson 1934, 136; and David Robinson, “The Third Campaign at Olynthos,” American Journal of Archaeology 39 (April – June, 1935), 233.

[25] Robinson 1941, 418-443.

[26] Charles Daremberg, Edm Saglio, Edmond Pottier, Georges Lafaye, Dictionnaire des antiquities grecques et romains (Paris: Hachette, 1877-1919); McCaul 1854; and Giacomo Manganaro, “Monete e ghiande degli schiavi ribelli in Sicilia” Chiron 12 (1982) : 237-243.

[27] McCaul 1854, 96.

[28] Vischer et al 1877-1878, Tafel XIII and XIV; Daremberg et al 1877-1919, 1610; and I would like to thank Dr. Chris Hagerman for providing me with this information regarding the excavations at Stymphalos. For an introduction to the sling-bullets found there see Hector Williams, Gerald Schaus, Susan-Marie Cronkite Price, Ben Gourley, and Chris Hagerman, “Excavations at Ancient Stymphalos, 1997,” Classical Views 42 (1998) : 261-319.

[29] Vischer et al 1877-1878, Tafel XIV and Daremberg et al 1877-1919, 1610.

[30] Vischer et al 1877-1878, Tafel XIV; Daremberg et al 1877-1919, 1610; and Giulio Jacopi, Clara Rhodos. Istituto storico-archeologico di Rodi. Vol. 6/7 (1931), 361, figure 110.

[31] Vischer et al 1877-1878, Tafel XIV.

[32] Bates 1930, 44 and Henri Seyrig, “Antiquités syriennes 25. Sur quelques monnaies provinciales de Syrie et de Cilicie” Syria 20 (1939) 39-42.

[33] Daremberg 1877-1919, 1610.

[34] Daremberg 1877-1919, 1610.

[35] I would again like to thank Dr. Chris Hagerman for access to his forthcoming analysis of the Stymphalos sling-bullets. Chris Hagerman, “A Deposit of Lead Sling-Bullets from Ancient Stymphalos,” (Forthcoming).

[36] McCaul 1854, 96.

4 Responses to “Aerial Insults: The Tradition of Inscribing Lead Sling-Bullets in Antiquity”

  1. Riawr said

    i am gonna show this to my friend, bro

  2. steve gray said

    As an elderly phd student, thank you for one more example to add to my corpus of lead “as used in the roman world”. My thesis is that lead was so insidious in roman life that if it is not found in an area of the empire – especially in an area with lead mines – then that region was not romanised; you can conquer but you failed with the hearts and minds thing.
    Cofion i chi gyd
    steve gray / tortoise

  3. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme? Excellent work!

  4. I remember seeing lead sling bullets with “take that” on them in greek, reminded me of what modern US soldiers right on bombs.

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