Military History

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Archive for the ‘Ancient Military History’ Category

Dealing with the military history of the ancient world. Covers the period from beginning of man to the fall of the Roman Empire

Norwich University creates online infographic on significant naval battles

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on June 12, 2013

Check out this interesting infographic, titled “The Largest Naval Sea Battles in Military History,” which presents some facts related to some of the most important battles in naval history. It is a big image, but you can share it on the various social media as well. Norwich University is a pretty good school and offers an online Master of Arts in Military History geared for working professionals looking to advance their historical knowledge.

Norwich University Master of Arts in Military History Online

Posted in 20th Century Military History, Ancient Military History, Early Modern European (1494-1648), Greek military history, Other military history, World War I, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

An interesting online publication

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on April 10, 2010

Thanks to the Society for Military History website for making me aware of this online military history publication. A solid group of scholars, who organized as the Michigan War Studies Group created the Michigan War Studies Review, which, according to the announcement on the SMH website, is seeking contributors. I urge everyone to subscribe to this publication,which is free, and to tell others interested in military history about this site.

Cross posted at Doctoral Bliss

Posted in 20th Century Military History, American Military History, Ancient Military History, Conflict, Early Modern European (1494-1648), Early Modern European (1648-1792), General, Greek military history, Medieval Military History, Napoleonic Wars, Other military history, Roman military history, World Military History (1500-1700), World Military History (1700-1900), World War I, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Podcast of “Anarchy, Rivalry, and the Beginnings of the Roman Empire” by Dr. Michael Fronda

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on September 21, 2009

Dr. Bill Caraher at the University of North Dakota has made available a podcast of the lecture of his friend Dr. Michael Fronda of McGill University, which was held at UND on Thursday, September 17, 2009. Dr. Fronda’s lecture was titled “Anarchy, Rivalry, and the Beginnings of the Roman Empire” and was very well-attended and quite good. Click here to download and listen to the lecture.

Posted in Ancient Military History, Conflict, General, Roman military history | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Commemorating the Roman Soldier

Posted by Brandon Olson on February 13, 2008

During the Imperial period Roman soldiers devised unique commemoration practices to ensure a lasting posthumous memory.[1] According to Cicero, “the life of the dead is set in the memory of the living.”[2] The Roman perception of memoria (memory) is much different than contemporary perceptions. It encompassed more than the act of reproducing or recalling an individual or event. Memoria reflected an individual’s character and virtues and was directly linked to immortality. In pre-Christian Rome immortality and identity survived through memory. If one’s memory existed after death, they were immortal. This principle permeated society and according to Eric Varner, the belief that a deceased individual possessed an afterlife through the perpetuation of his memory is at the core of Roman cultural identity.[3] To demonstrate the persistence of memory in Roman society throughout its history one may reference the Late Republican author Sallust and the Late Imperial author Eusebius. By citing two Roman authors, one from the Republican west and the other from the Imperial east, one may identify the importance of memory in Roman society over a span of 300 years. Writing in the middle of the first century B.C., Sallust noted, “since the span of life which we enjoy is short, we may make the memory of our lives as long as possible.”[4] Eusebius, writing in the early fourth century A.D., commented that non-Christian Romans, “devising some consolation for the frail and precarious duration of human life, having thought by the erection of monuments to glorify the memories of their ancestors with immortal honors, some have employed…inscriptions deep on tablets and monuments…thought to transmit the virtues of those whom they honored to perpetual remembrance.”[5] These texts reveal two themes that demonstrate the importance of memory in Roman society, human mortality and a need to perpetuate memory. The preservation and perpetuation of memory in Roman society manifested itself through a variety of commemoration practices. In antiquity, as well as subsequent periods, memory survived through commemoration. The Romans employed numerous modes of commemoration to maintain their memory during and after their lives. Emperors, aristocrats, and senators plastered the visual landscape with their images, names, and property to maintain and justify their positions in society. These various forms of commemoration were carefully crafted to reach multiple audiences and thus served well to preserve the memory of their subjects.

Roman soldiers, while on active duty, existed outside of the social environment of greater Rome. Nevertheless, they understood the importance of memory and the need for commemoration. They could not, however, participate in the same types of commemoration that occurred in well-established urban areas. Soldiers on active duty, for the most part, did not have the means to commemorate themselves like wealthy or even ordinary Roman citizens. Unlike emperors or aristocrats, soldiers did not place their image or name in civic space for all to see and interact with. Furthermore, they could not employ their personal property as a tool for safeguarding their memory in the same manner that civilians did. Soldiers had to devise unique commemoration practices to serve their commemorative needs while on active duty.

The rise of unique soldierly commemoration practices rested on a strong supportive social environment. Soldiers were surrounded by comrades who acted as a pseudo-family while they were apart from loved ones. This pseudo-family provided a support network for its members. The camaraderie shared between soldiers prompted them took care of each other after death by providing a proper burial, when possible, and carrying out their requests ex testamento (according to the will).[6] These relationships not only alleviated the army’s responsibility of disposing bodies but also strengthened the camaraderie in the ranks through their unique commemoration practices. These commemoration practices included erecting funerary monuments and inscribing their most valuable personal property their military gear.[7] The familial bonds shared between soldiers allowed them to devise unique commemoration practices to ensure a lasting memory while in the military. While on campaign or stationed at a fort, soldiers were outside the social environment of the greater Empire. Their new family provided a supportive social network, which perpetuated and safeguarded their posthumous memory.

Funerary Monuments

The most attested form, historiographically, of Roman military commemoration practices are funerary monuments.[8] Generally, funerary monuments allowed the deceased to have a lasting memory and were constructed in a manner to encourage interaction from anyone passing by.[9] Horace, writing in the first century B.C., stated the importance of funerary monuments:

I have reared a monument, my own,

More durable than brass,

Yea, kingly pyramids of stone,

In height it doth surpass.


Rain shall not sap, nor driving blast,

Disturb its settled base,

Nor countless ages rolling past,

Its symmetry deface.


I shall not wholly die, some part,

Nor that a little, shall,

Escape the dark destroyer’s dart,

And his grim festival.[10]

This passage again emphasizes the Roman preoccupation with mortality and perpetuating memory through a commemorative monument.

Even during the late first century B.C. and the first two centuries A.D., when the use of funerary monuments in the military was in its heyday, most soldiers did not employ funerary monuments to preserve their memory. According to Valerie Hope, erecting funerary monuments was a camp-based activity characteristic of peace time and the thousands of surviving military tombstones do not represent soldiers who died in combat.[11] Moreover, the soldiers commemorated on these monuments were financially capable to receive this form of commemoration and typically did not die during combat.[12] Funerary monuments, therefore, do not commemorate the vast majority of soldiers who died on active duty.

Roman military funerary monuments do not significantly diverge from civilian forms but they do have unique features. These features include the time period that funerary monuments were employed in the military, strong military symbolism, and the reasons for the adoption and breakdown of their utilization, which primary occurred through broader changes in the military. By the Late Republic the army consisted of professional soldiers recruited from various regions who often died far from their natal homes. Soldiers who died when stationed far from home were rarely sent back, which created a need to commemorate each other in the eyes of their pseudo-family. For example, Maureen Carroll noted a funerary monument that commemorates a legionary soldier who died far from his home. It states, “Gaius Deccius, son of Lucius, registered in the tribe of Papiria, from Ticinum. Soldier in legio XX and tender of the sheep. He lived thirty-five years and served for sixteen years. Here he lies.”[13] Archaeologists recovered this monument from Cologne and it dates to the first century A.D. Gaius Deccius was from Ticinum, modern day Pavia, far from his final resting place in western Germany.

The use of funerary monuments declined in the second century A.D. when many military camps eventually became permanent bases.[14] The soldiers stationed at these permanent forts became locals over time and the need for funerary monuments within the military declined since soldiers were near their homes and family. The ties of camaraderie and familial bonds within the military gradually ceased to function in the same way, as these bases became permanent homes capable of sustaining a supportive social network outside the military.

Of the surviving military funerary monuments, most had two parts, an epitaph and a pictorial motif. The epitaphs are formulaic as they usually present the name, age, rank, years of military service, legion, century, and place of origin of the soldier represented. The pictorial motifs presented the soldier in military dress displaying some form of military gear, which is an important indication of the role of military gear in identity, memory, and commemorative practices. Soldiers wanted to be remembered as soldiers. They are pictured in military garb and holding the “tools” of their trade in these commemorative monuments.

Funerary monuments served to commemorate soldiers but soldiers did not utilize them to any great extent. Funerary monuments served a specific purpose and according to Hope they were display items and the value of which fluctuated through time.[15] Those who fell on the battlefield did not receive individual burials or commemoration through funerary monuments. Disposal of bodies from a battlefield was quick and unceremonious, which prevented most forms of commemoration. According to Pliny the Elder, “after that they were given to understand that the corpses of men slain in the far off wars, and buried in those areas, were taken forth to the earth again, it was customary to burn them.”[16] A hasty burial reduced the risk of someone digging up the remains. Soldiers did not mark individuals within these burials, since they were, for the most part, mass graves.[17]

In many cases soldiers interred their fallen comrades. The basic requirement for a Roman burial is that the remains were covered with earth.[18] If a soldier did not receive a proper burial, Roman society believed he would live a life in limbo, unable to rest peacefully. Once such example of this comes from Suetonius, where he described the events after the death of Caligula, “his body was carried secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly burned on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of earth…it is well-known that the caretakers of the gardens were disturbed by spirits, and that in the house where he was slain a night did not pass without some fearsome apparition.”[19] Therefore, many soldiers not only lost their lives but any chance at a dignified burial and a lasting memory. Hope argued that at best the remains of the fallen soldier were lightly covered with earth, at worst his bones were left to whiten upon the ground.[20] The individual soldier’s fear of an unceremonious burial, which would prevent him from preserving his memory, created a need to establish alternative forms of commemoration. Soldiers wanted to preserve and perpetuate their memory after death, just as much as any other Roman. Many Romans used personal property to perpetuate their status, wealth, identity, and memory, such as Cicero did with his house and Nero did after the Great Fire when he built his Golden Palace. Legionary soldiers did not posses much property while on active duty, other than their military gear. In the following analysis I will argue that soliders utilized their military equipment, preimarly helmets, to commemorate themselves and each other before and after their deaths.

Inscribing Military Gear as a Mode of Commemoration

Ramsay MacMullen argued that Roman inscriptions are a, “specially useful window through which we may examine that [Roman] world.”[21] He determined that the production of inscriptions in the Roman Empire was not constant through time. During the first and second centuries A.D. a considerable boom in epigraphic production occurred with noticeable lulls before and after. Rome’s “epigraphic habit” occurred during a 200-year span in the Early Empire. MacMullen’s time frame provides a perfect temporal framework for the following analysis of inscribed equipment as a commemorative process. During most of the Republic soldiers did not see their military exploits as a life-long career and fully expected to return home after a relatively short stint of military duty. The Late Empire saw permanent forts where many soldiers became locals over time or were recruited locally.[22] The apex of commemoration through inscribing equipment, thus, occurred in the first two centuries A.D., which also coincides with the time period of military funerary monuments.[23]

Valerie Hope and Silvia Giorcelli argued that fallen soldiers did not receive any form of commemoration.[24] All the recent works discussing soldierly commemoration have focused on funerary monuments. As we have discussed, funerary monuments only commemorated a select few who had the resources to erect a monument and did not die during combat. This would leave the vast majority of fallen soldiers without any form of commemoration. The three personal features Romans used to commemorate themselves were their name, image, and property.[25] One would expect that soldier would establish their own commemoration practices by utilizing some of these features.

Soldiers did not use every piece of their equipment as commemorative monuments. The most conducive piece of equipment for commemoration through epigraphy was the infantry helmet. The infantry was a valuable piece of personal property and provided ample writing space for a soldier’s name. It was also very visible during parade and combat. Soldiers, on occasion, recycled their helmets, which, coupled with nominal inscriptions, provided a form of commemoration that circulated throughout the military. New helmet owners recognized and respected the inscriptions of a comrade.[26] Moreover, infantry helmets were often deposited in water as votive offerings, which continues to demonstrate the importance of the helmet to the Roman soldier.[27] Unlike funerary monuments, every soldier had a helmet. It therefore, became an ideal location to preserve the memory of a previous comrade with the hope that a future comrade would perpetuate his own memory.

Historiography of Inscribed Military Gear

The primary type of evidence utilized in this work to examine the commemoration practices of Roman soldiers are inscriptions on helmets. The most insightful pieces are those that bear multiple inscriptions, which most scholars have neglected to examine to any great extent. The only works to address and somewhat interpret this custom are those of Ramsay MacMullen and Mike Bishop and Jon Coulston.[28] In discussing the supply of arms in the Roman Empire, MacMullen examined the tradition of inscribing equipment. He constructed three categories of equipment: those inscribed with the owner’s name and unit, items inscribed with multiple names, and those that bear the name of the manufacturer. MacMullen argued that soldiers did not keep their gear with them but rather the custos armorum oversaw the equipment in a designated storeroom where, “they remained till needed for parade or war, no doubt jumbled together a good deal, and hence marked with their owner’s name and unit.”[29] For MacMullen, inscriptions on gear, “with very little question, were… meant to tell anyone who picked up the armor where it belonged.”[30]

In MacMullen’s study he listed eleven pieces of equipment that possess multiple ownership inscriptions. He argued some of these pieces may have been in use for up to four generations of military service.[31] For MacMullen this longevity demonstrated that an expensive piece of gear was worth selling when one quit the service.[32] This argument, however, appears to undermine MacMullen’s own reasoning behind inscribing equipment for the custos armorum. If the overseer of arms encountered some accoutrements with more than one name, he must have experienced some level of confusion. If the primary goal for inscribing one’s gear was to show who it belonged to, surely multiple inscriptions would have complicated this process.

In their exhaustive critique of military equipment, Bishop and Coulston also discussed the Roman “epigraphic habit.” They acknowledged the presence of multiple ownership inscriptions and offered a helmet from Koln that belonged to several men. At least one of these men served in legio XVI, which moved from Mainz to Neuss in 43 A.D. and disbanded in 70 A.D. Since this legion served in Mainz and Neuss, and the helmet came from Koln, these inscriptions demonstrate the mobility of gear through time and space. This is the primary piece of evidence that Bishop and Coulston utilized to determine that, “some helmets had multiple ownership inscriptions, suggesting long service, and confirming the practice of recycling equipment once the owner had finished with it.”[33] According to MacMullen and Bishop and Coulston, the presence of multiple ownership inscriptions represents acts of recycling expensive gear and denoting personal property. Although multiple inscriptions do show a conscious act of marking personal property and demonstrate evidence of recycling expensive gear, they also indicate a unique commemorative practice.

The Material

Two problems arise when one wishes to study Roman military equipment: access and sample size. Gaining access to inscribed equipment is very difficult because the surviving examples are strewn across Europe in several museums and private collections. Indirect access through publications also posses some problems. Although these publications offer adequate descriptions of the material, they rarely present clear images of the inscriptions. Several scholars do translate the inscriptions but usually do not offer the unadulterated Latin. This forces scholars to examine each piece first hand for any chance at a reexamination, which is very expensive and time consuming. Compared to the tens of thousands of soldiers on active duty at any point in 200 years of Roman history, there are very few helmets that survive.[34] Thus, all scholarly investigations of Roman military equipment base their material evidence on a comparatively small sample size, which is why the best approaches complement material culture with historical evidence.

The vast majority of the surviving inscribed Roman infantry helmets date to the first two centuries A.D. Typically, these helmets provide a soldier’s name and his century. Considering the role of inscriptions in other media, it is reasonable to argue that soldiers inscribed their helmets to designate personal property and commemorate themselves. In a society that placed such importance on memory through commemoration, Roman soldiers knew there was a chance that their memory may die with them. For soldiers, it was very possible that they might die prematurely and have an improper burial, which prevented any chance of a lasting memory. To combat these fears, soldiers created new forms of commemoration to ensure a lasting memory. Soldiers used helmets to perpetuate their memory during active service and after their death. When new recruits or experienced soldiers acquired gear that had inscriptions, they eventually realized their importance.

The “Thames Helmet” housed at the British Museum in London is a Coolus type helmet.[35] The helmet dates to the first century A.D. and represents the standard infantry helmet type of the period. The British Museum purchased the helmet in 1950 from a private collector who noted that the helmet was dredged from the Walbrook River, a tributary of the Thames.[36] The neck guard bears several inscriptions indicating four different owners noting each individual owner’s name and the century. The soldiers represented include Lucius Dulcius of the century of Marcus Valerius Ursus, Rufus of the century of Scribonius, Lucius Postumus of the century of Martialis, and Aulus Saufeius of the century of Martialis. Although it is very difficult to determine the chronology of these soldiers and a more specific time frame, the mere appearance of their names on one helmet indicate that each successive owner preserved the name and thus memory of a previous comrade.

The Verulamium Museum in southeast England possesses a Coolus type with multiple inscriptions.[38] Archaeologists recovered the helmet from Nijmegen, a Roman city in what is now the eastern part of the Netherlands. The original fort, founded in the first century A.D., sits on the bank of the Waal River and is in close proximity to the modern border of Germany. The helmet dates to the first two centuries A.D. and bears two ownership inscriptions on the neck guard, Papirius in the century of primus pilus and Marcus in the century of Victor. The structure of these inscriptions is different from the previous example, as the individual soldiers did not offer proper names for their respective century. Papirius is from the century of primi pili (the first or most important maniple) and Marcus is from the century of victor (the victorious century). Although the inscription tradition of this helmet diverges from the previous example, it does demonstrate two soldiers commemorating themselves on an expensive piece of personal property.

The Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, Germany possesses a Coolus type helmet of unknown provenience.[39] Similar to the two previous examples, the helmet dates to the first two centuries A.D. It bears two individual ownership inscriptions and a specific legion on the neck guard: Publius Aurelius, Marcus Munatius in the century of Arabus, and legio XVI Gallia. The name Publius Aurelius is not associated with a century and legio XVI Gallia does not appear to be associated with Aurelius either. The individual names Publius Aurelius and Marcus Munatius continue to demonstrate a unique Roman military commemoration practice.

The previous case studies not only indicate evidence of a soldierly tradition of commemoration on expensive gear but also provide insight as to how the individuals sought to commemorate themselves. Some soldiers associate themselves to a specific century while others list a legion or a maniple, all of which are organizational distinctions utilized within the military. One such soldier, Papirius from the Verulamium Museum example, went as far as naming the maniple he was assigned to as the most important unit. The forms of commemoration reflected through this gear also demonstrate camaraderie at multiple levels. Based on the current evidence there was no formulaic method of soldierly commemoration on these helmets. Soldiers understood the tradition and commemorated themselves how they wished, whether that be with the 5,000-6,000 men in a legion, the 120 men in a maniple, the 80 men in a century, the eight men in a contubernium, or the individuals who commemorated themselves on the helmet previously. Roman military helmets were truly multifaceted commemorative monuments.

Every Roman infantry helmet with inscriptions that this author encountered, either directly through photos and first hand examination or indirectly through the historical evidence, had inscriptions on the neck guard only. They also date to the first two centuries A.D. These facts further suggest that these inscriptions are a form of commemoration during the height of Rome’s “epigraphic habit.” When soldiers wore their helmets, whether on parade or combat, they were in an organized formation. In this formation every soldier, with the exception of the individuals in the first row, had the ability to see these commemorative inscriptions, as the neck guards tapered downward allowing easy access for the spectator. One may image that during an engagement or celebratory parade, soldiers were continually reminded of the soldiers who came before and the soldiers fighting or celebrating with them in the present.

From a functionalist perspective, there was no need to preserve the name of a previous soldier on one’s equipment. In fact, as discussed earlier, multiple names on equipment confused matters when denoting personal property. These individuals realized that they were participating in a commemorative process. By leaving the names of previous soldiers intact and adding their own, these soldiers commemorated themselves while preserving the memory of another. Just as images of the emperor plastered the “visual landscape,” so too did individual inscriptions on helmets plaster the “visual landscape” in the military realm.


Roman soldiers were as preoccupied with postmortem memory as every other Roman. The first two centuries A.D. comprise the height of Roman commemoration practices in the military. Soldiers before this period believed that they would return home and continue their civilian life. Soldiers after this period often found themselves at permanent forts where they eventually became locals and thus the need for soldierly commemoration within their pseudo-family ceased to exist once a soldier could turn to his civilian family for support. During the first two centuries A.D. soldiers saw the military as a career and looked to each other for camaraderie and familial support. In this period, Rome reached its greatest territorial extent and her military was most successful.

A soldier’s unique lifestyle and position in society prevented him from adopting the commemoration practices utilized in civilian society. Since the most valuable property a soldier owned was his gear, he was unable to participate in the traditional forms of commemoration. To remedy this situation, soldiers devised unique methods to commemorate themselves using their property. Indeed, few soldiers possessed elaborate tombstones and they knew, from burying other comrades on the battlefield, there was a good chance that they may not have a lasting memory after death. Soldiers inscribed their names on their helmets to commemorate themselves and each other. Since Roman officials recycled gear, soldiers gained possession of equipment bearing the names of previous comrades. New recruits and veterans understood the importance of this custom and were more than happy to attach their name to it. During an engagement or parade, these inscriptions were very visible. Soldiers were constantly reminded of their comrades during times of stress, fear, and celebration, which provided the essential elements for the commemoration of memory.

[1] The arguments presented in this article originate from my MA thesis. The thesis was successfully defended and accepted by the assigned committee and the dean of the graduate school at the University of North Dakota on July 30, 2007. I would like to thank my thesis advisor from the University of North Dakota Dr. William Caraher and my current PhD advisor from the Pennsylvania State University Dr. Paul Harvey Jr. both of whom offered valuable critiques for the present work. Any errors to the final product, however, are entirely my own.[2] Cic. 9 Phil. 4.10 (transl. Carroll).

[3] Varner, 2004, 2.

[4] Sall. Cat. 1.

[5] Euseb. Vit. Const. 1.3.

[6] For wills see Champlin, 1991.

[7] Although the use of funerary monuments is very well attested to throughout Rome, the nature of military tombstones differs from civilian forms.

[8] Among many recent studies see especially Carroll, 2006; Gilchrist, 2003; Hope, 2003, 79-97; and Saller and Shaw, 1984, 124-156.

[9] For a convincing discussion of the interaction between people and funerary monuments see Carroll, 2006, Chapters 2 and 5.

[10] Hor. Carm. 3.30 (transl. Bennett).

[11] Hope, 2003, 85.

[12] See Hope, 2003, 86 and Hope, 2001, 39.

[13] CIL 13.8287.

[14] This appears to be the norm except during the Early Empire in Britain where a majority of the surviving inscribed tombstones recovered come from military contexts.

[15] Hope, 2003, 85. See also Cannon, 1989, 437-457; Meyer, 1990, 74-96; Parker-Pearson, 1982, 99-113; and Woolf, 1996, 22-39.

[16] Plin. HN 7.54.

[17] See Verg. Aen. 21.210 and Tac. Ann. 1.62.

[18] See Cic. 2 Leg. 22.57.

[19] Suet. Calig. 59.

[20] Hope, 2003, 88. For a dignified burial see Polyb. 6.54; Cic. 15 Phil.13; and Joseph. BJ 6.46-6.49.

[21] MacMullen, 1982, 233 and see MacMullen, 1984.

[22] See Jones, 1964, 1025-1068.

[23] For a classical account of the importance for soldiers inscribing their gear see Veg. Mil. 2.18.

[24] See Hope, 2003, 87 and Giorcelli, 1995, 235-242.

[25] It is precisely the name, image, and property that are targeted for sanctions against memory. There are several works on Roman memory sanctions, see especially the works of Eric Varner and Harriet Flower.

[26] At no point did I come across any mention of soldiers removing, altering, or mutilating inscriptions on helmets in the primary or secondary historical sources.

[27] For the tradition of depositing arms and armament in water see Bradley, 1998; Czarnecka, 1994, 245-253; Oldenstein, 1990, 27-37; Rald, 1994, 227-241; and Roymans, 1996, 9-126.

[28] MacMullen, 1960, 23-40 and Bishop and Coulston, 1993.

[29] MacMullen, 1960, 23.

[30] MacMullen, 1960, 36.

[31] MacMullen, 1960, 36.

[32] MacMullen, 1960, 36.

[33] Bishop and Coulston, 1993, 46.

[34] The 200 years of Roman history that I am referring to concerns the temporal confines of this investigation, not Roman history generally.

[35] This particular helmet resides at the British Museum and is on public display. It has been published in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain series (RIB 2425.2), MacMullen, 1960, 36 (n. 47), and 32 (pl. 54).

[36] I would like to thank Ralph Jackson and Richard Hobbs of the British Museum for permission to examine the Thames Helmet during the summer of 2007 and for access to the museum acquisition records.

[37] There are also some fragmentary inscriptions present on the neck guard.

[38] This helmet resides in the Verulamium Museum near St. Albans in southeast England. It has been published in the RIB series (RIB 2425.3), and Robinson, 1975, 32-33 (pls. 58-61).

[39] This helmet is preserved in the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, Germany, inventory number 1965/801 and was published by Klein, 2003, 33 (abb. 7).

Posted in Ancient Military History, Roman military history | 3 Comments »

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.

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