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Insight on the Roman military machine! The Pilum is a quarterly webzine publication and the official newsletter of the Sodalitas Militarium of Nova Roma, providing articles, stories and discussions on various aspects of the Roman Military with a special focus on Infantry, Cavalry, Naval, Engineering and Cartography topics.

Editor's Article Review: The Battle of Pharsalus

by Marcus Minucius Audens

Jonathan W. Jordan, The Battle of PHARSALUS, The Military History Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 6, February, 2001,Leesburg, Virginia

The Republic was crumbling. The Civil War in Rome had come about over the rivalries of two great generals; Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus held the position as the military head of the faction of optimates, or Romeʼs patrician factor, or the aristocrats and senators. He was the most famous general in Rome in 48 BC.

Gaius Julius Caesar, led the populares, a populist faction of nobles supported by farmers, soldiers, and those of the middle class in Rome. His recent victories in Gaul, Spain and Northern Italy had marked him as energetic contender against Pompeysʼ fame.

The article marks the path of Pompeyʼs rise to power, and the gradual separation of Caesar and Pompey politically. The article discusses in some detail the maneuverings both military and political between the two rivals until August 9, 48 BC when Pompey prepared to launch his army against the usurper Caesar near the village of Pharsalus and Old Pharsalus (present day Fersala) on the North bank of the Enipeus River in Thessaly.

It was here that the two generals would fight the battle that would decide who would rule Rome.

The article provide a large amount of detail as the movement and tactics of both armies leading up to and during the battle. In addition there is a side note entitled Marian Reforms and the Legion. This interesting side note discusses the changes brought about by Marius in Legion structure , weapons and equipment as well as their ability to move rapidly against the enemy without a massive an clumsy supply train. leading to the nickname Mariusʼ Mules.

For the beginning Roman military historian, this article is a valuable source of material, names, and tactics. It is highly recommended to all interested in the Roman Civil War.

Respectfully Submitted,

Marcus Audens

Editor's Article Review: The Clash of Titans at Zama

by Marcus Minucius Audens

Daniel A. Fournie, The Clash of Titans at Zama, Great Battles Magazine, Weider History Group, Leesburg, VA, 2006

In 202 BC the conflict at Zama brought together the armies of Rome and Carthage, and commanding these armies were two generals of great ability and stature. The prize of this battle was the entire Western World which had borne the conflict of the Second Punic War since 219 BC. Publius Cornelius Scipio Minor commanded the Romans, and Hannibal Barca the Carthaginians. Even though they were both famous military men, and while one would be victor and the other defeated they would both share the disgrace of exile and Hannibal would meet his death no more than 12 months from the death of Scipio Africanus.

In the early part of the war Hannibal had been overwhelmingly successful, carrying out victory after victory against the best of the Roman Generals. Scipio had studied his opponents tactics carefully, and when he had completed his Consular duties, having bolstored and retrained his legions he was ready to take on the Carthaginian who had become a living legend to all who knew of him.

The story opens with Scipio transferring his army in an invasion fleet of forty warships and 400 transports to the Northern Coast of Africa near Cape Bon. The story continues with the many steps and contests necessary to bring the two generalʼs together for the great conflict.

Included in this detailed story is a battle map of Zama, together with an inset map as to the Zama location in Africa. A painting of the charge of Hanibalʼs elephants is included as are the bust of Scipio and the equestrian statue of Hanibul, and a Roman painting of a part of the negotiations that went on during the campaign. Lastly there is a drawing of the legend of the meeting of the two great generals before the Battle of Zama begins. Apparently, each man wished to see for himself his opponent, Iy is said that Scipio admired Hannibal for his sldierʼs abilities and his tactics.

I enjoyed the story greatly now having a better understanding of what led up to this famous battle. It is sometimes difficult to pick up the story of the Roman victories, and the growth of Rome over the long period that she was a major world power. This article will provide an excellent basic idea of this campaign.

Further study in this area can be found in the following:

  • The works of Polybius and Livy;
  • H, H. Scullard, “Scipio Africanus : Soldier and Politician;”
  • John Peddie, “Hannibalʼs War;”
  • Brian Cavin, “The Punic Wars;”

Respectfully Submitted,

Marcus Audens

Roman Soldiers -- Victims of Chemical Weapons!!??!!

by Marcus Minucius Audens

Deep within a Roman siege tunnel dug against the Persians over 2000 years ago was found twenty Roman remains. The soldiers had apparently died where they fell, but almost as certain was that they had not died of wounds inflicted by spear, blade or arrow. How then?? Such is the below story.

The mystery was first discovered in an excavation in the Middle East in the 1930ʼs. No solution was forthcoming at that time and the discovery was put away unsolved until just recently. The twenty legionaries were part of the detachment which was defending the city of Dura--Europos, a Roman Empire outpost on the River Euphrates. This city site is found today in the modern country of Syria. The Romans were attacked by a large army of the Persian Sassanian Empire is approximately the year AD 256. The Persian commander had put the city to siege and both sides were using a full range of siege tactics as known in that day. These tactics included the well-known mining and countermining under the walls of the city.

It is apparent by the findings at the site that both the Roman and the Persian forces were engaged in both of these special tactics. In the mining and countermining techniques the attackers attempt to dig mines beneath the walls to access into the city or to destroy the walls. At the same time the defenders dig countermines to prevent the attackers from succeeding in their efforts. Material and conditions found at the site of the excavation indicated that the Persians were aware of this underground defense on the part of the Roman group. and were awaiting the breakthrough of the legionaries.

The Persian troops would have set up a bellows and brazier in their gallery and following the sounds of the Roman digging would simply have waited for the breakthrough into the Persian area. Items found in the Persian gallery indicated that the fire in the braziers was started with bitumen and sulphur crystals to start the fire, and when the breakthrough was accomplished the other chemicals were added to the fire and the smoke and fumes were blown into the Roman gallery with the bellows, resulting in filling the entire gallery with noxius and toxic smoke.

The deaths occurred in a gallery only two meters high and wide and some eleven meters in length. Obviously some other method besides hand weapons would have had to been used to deal with these legionaries in such narrow confines. When the Romans broke through into what they hoped was the Persian side of the defensive wall, the tunnel was filled with an extremely toxic gas and smoke created from a mixture of bitumen, chemicals and sulphur. This toxic resultant gas and smoke would have killed the legionaries very likely within a few minutes through asphyxiation. It is assumed that the gas / smoke would have had within it both sulphur dioxide together with some very complex petro-chemicals. This combination would have caused death by choking, losing conscienceness and then dying where they fell. Dr. Simon James, who is a researcher at the University of Leicester made the presentation of his findings at a meting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

No historical written data remains to tell of this siege, however, the excavation details and clues together with the remainings items provide a fairly clear picture of what occurred here. After carefully reviewing the position of the bodies in the gallery it was clear that the bodies had been dragged to the opening in the countermine in order to block the opening by stacking the bodies and shields creating a wall and keeping the Roman follow-up attack away long enough for the Persians to fring and collapsing the Roman countermine.

There is in historical text, a description of the Greeks using a similar weapon against the Romans, but no hard evidences has ever been found to validate that claim. Historical text often indicates that perhaps the forces of the East were not as effective in the use of siege tactics as the Romans were. However, in this case they appear to have met the challenge of the Roman army very well.

Respectfully Submitted,

Marcus Audens

Reference: Romans-were-the-first-to-use-chemical-weapons-hyml

A Brief Overview of Roman Naval Armament from the Republic to the Early Empire

by Varro

“The Romans were a gifted people,” observed historian Lionel Casson, “who, when hard necessity pushed them, were able to master the sea. But salt water was not to their taste and, as soon as they could, they gave it up.” From her earliest history until the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome was essentially a land power. That is not to say that naval forces of varying size were not employed before that time as emergencies dictated, but there was no concerted effort directed toward the foundation of a navy, no focused attempt at the construction of a fleet of warships or the training of crews to man them. The onset of the struggle with Carthage changed all that.

In the spring of 260 B. C. the Senate ordered construction of 120 ships: 100 quinqueremes and twenty triremes. The new vessels were to be finished in time for the summer campaigning season. It is likely that use was made of naval architects from Syracuse and the Greek coastal cities of southern Italy in fulfilling this directive. According to the historian Polybius, use was also made of a grounded Carthaginian ship as a model for the Roman designs.

Whether or not the architects did incorporate Carthaginian features in their designs, they did make adaptations to designs common to vessels of the era by adding bulk to their ships at the expense of speed. Slower ships could more easily be handled by Rome’s less skilled crews. Such adaptation resulted in more deck space which accommodated a detachment of soldiers on each ship, a characteristic which would serve the Republic well in all future conflicts.

In the meantime, while the new vessels were being built, crews of rowers were trained on land on benches arranged much as they would be aboard ship. At the end of the sixty day period prescribed by the Senate the construction of the 120 vessels was completed, and the new Roman fleet set sail along with allied contingents to face the Carthaginian foe.

The ships that constituted the Roman fleet that summer of 260 included types that had seen action in the Mediterranean for decades past. The workhorses of the fleet were three types of galleys known as triremes, quadriremes, and quinqueremes, each so called by the number and arrangement of oarsmen carried aboard. Although there is still much debate on the subject, the consensus seems to be that triremes made use of three oarsmen on each oar and quadriremes and quinqueremes four and five men per oar respectively.

The trireme was the first of the types to appear on the waters of the Mediterranean. It was of Greek design, dating from about the end of the 7th century B. C., and was a light draft vessel about thirty-five meters long and five and a half wide. The trireme normally carried a complement of about one hundred seventy oarsmen. The quadrireme and quinquireme, wider and steadier than the trireme, were probably invented in Sicily or Carthage and first appeared early in the 4th century B. C. With their somewhat larger size they were able to deliver a significantly heavier impact than the trireme when ramming enemy vessels. Consequently, by the middle of the century they had displaced the trireme as the standard component of most fleets.

As it was with ship types, so it was with the armament carried by Roman vessels. Most of the weapons used during the periods of the Republic and Empire were carried over from other nations and eras with some adaptation over time. The appearance of the Greek trireme with its ram, for instance changed the nature of naval combat entirely. Whereas it had formerly been customary to attempt to capture enemy vessels during the course of a battle and to make the prize a part of the captor’s own fleet, the trireme with its deadly ram made destruction of enemy vessels rather than their seizure the object of attackers. Classical naval combat changed again with the appearance of the larger vessels, the quadriremes and quinqueremes. More deck space made the use of various types of artillery more feasible. In addition to the ever-present bow and arrow, ballistae, onagers, and scorpions firing heavy bolts, stone and lead balls, containers of fire and even of snakes became commonplace features of naval combat. Towers were erected at the bows of ships to give archers and artillerists a platform from which to fire down on opponents. Heavy weights of one hundred or two hundred pounds called “dolphins” became the earliest examples of plunging shot, and were dropped on enemy ships from heights of thirty feet to pierce decks and possibly even the hull below.

Let us now examine briefly some of the more important classes of weaponry in the Roman naval arsenal.


The ram had been used in naval combat for centuries to sink enemy vessels. In order to bring this effective weapon into play, fleet commanders had devised intricate and effective maneuvers designed to bring their vessels into position to attack enemy ships in the most vulnerable quarters. The ram itself was simply a large bronze-sheathed timber mounted on the prow, often at the waterline but more frequently below it. Because the planking used in the construction of the warship of the period was quite thin, at most 2.5 inches in depth, minimal speed was required of attacking vessels to penetrate their targets.

Naval historian William Ledyard Rodgers, in discussing the tactics used by successful commanders in deploying the ram noted, “apparently it was not the practice to attempt a headlong attack with the ram, for when once committed to the attack, a slight error in judgment or a change of course of the adversary might make the difference between giving and receiving a fatal injury.”

Although the ram was perhaps the most omnipresent naval weapon of antiquity, a typical example of the deadly and effective use of this weapon is seen in the last great naval battle of the Republican era. At Actium, on September 2, 31 B. C., the fleet of Octavian, commanded by perhaps the greatest of Roman admirals, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, maneuvered with its smaller ships to get into an advantageous position from which to use his rams against the fleet of Marcus Antonius. The ships of Antonius, by virtue of their greater general height, were able to make good use of artillery and hand-thrown projectiles against Agrippa’s fleet. Making a quick attack, Agrippa was able to use his rams to advantage, not only in piercing the hulls of enemy vessels, but also by destroying oars and rudders and thus impeding his foe’s ability to steer and to maneuver, a major factor in his success on that day.


The very fact that ships in the ancient world were constructed of wood naturally made fire one of the more effective naval weapons. Over the years there developed several different modes of delivery of this weapon, which, along with drowning, was certainly one of the sailor’s most dreaded fears. The simplest method, of course, was the arrow. A graphic example of the efficacy of this simple delivery system occurred on October 3, 42 B. C. during the last battle of the War of the Second Triumvirate. While the forces of Octavian and Marcus Antonius struggled against those of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus at Philippi in eastern Macedonia, a fleet of transports bearing reinforcements for the army of the triumvirs was intercepted on the Ionian Sea and virtually destroyed. The transports, commanded by Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, had set sail with a small escort of triremes and were sighted by the large fleet of the “Liberators”, commanded by Lucius Statius Murcus and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, which hurried to the attack.

Because the winds had slackened, only a few of Calvinus’ ships, which had been under sail, were able to escape and the small escort proved ineffective. In order to more effectively defend themselves, the remaining transports were lashed together to free sailors to defend the sides of the vessels that were thereby exposed to attack. But the men of Murcus and Ahenobarbus shot flaming arrows into the transports endangering every ship and causing their crews to sever the vessels from one another. It was then easy for the fast-moving rowed vessels of the attacking fleet to move among the troop ships and finish the business. Many of the transports were burned, resulting in the loss of the better part of two legions to the cause of the Triumvirate. Seventeen of the escorting triremes were also captured.

Eleven years later, in the run up to the battle of Actium, Agrippa was forced to plan an action against ships that were generally larger than his own. He faced another disadvantage in that he would be unable to count on the superior fighting qualities of the legionaries that sailed aboard his ships because the men who would face his troops if an attempt at boarding the enemy vessels was made were also Romans. He, therefore, resorted to an attack on the enemy vessels themselves and did not, as was commonly done, rely on the superiority of his infantry. He would try an improvisation – devices designed to throw fire.

The Roman historian Dio Cassius described the resulting action: “…the assailants [Agrippa’s fleet] coming from many sides shot blazing missiles and with engines threw pots of flaming charcoal and pitch. The defendants tried to ward off these fiery projectiles and when one lodged it was quenched with drinking water. When that was gone, they dipped up sea water, but as their buckets were small and few and half-filled they were not always successful. Then they smothered the fires with their mantles and even with corpses. They hacked off burning parts of the ship and tried to grapple hostile ships to escape into them. Many were burned alive or jumped overboard or killed each other to avoid the flames.”

One historian, analyzing the effect of Agrippa’s tactics, said: “It was the fire-throwing devices of Agrippa, following his short attacks against the hostile oars [see “Ram” above], that won him success, for when the sluggish great ships of Antony were further slowed by the loss of oars, concentration of numbers against individual ships became easy.”


The use of projectiles of varying sorts was commonplace in Roman fleets as well as in fleets of all nations of the period, whether employed offensively or defensively. In 214 B. C., for example, some four years into the Second Punic War, the city of Syracuse was besieged on land and sea by Rome. In order to cover his landing force, Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus utilized a line of warships carrying a covering force of archers, slingers, and spearmen. The landings came off successfully, although the siege dragged on for two more years. Despite the fact that the Roman fleet met with little success in keeping supplies from reaching the beleaguered city, it eventually fell in 212 B. C.

In order for archers and spearmen to be as effective as possible, ships of the Roman navy often mounted wooden towers, which were constructed near the prow of the vessel. Examples of this adaptation are quite common. The large ships of the fleet of Marcus Antonius at Actium were so equipped. So were the fleets of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Sextus Pompeius Magnus Pius (son of Pompey the Great), which met at Naulochus off the northern coast of Sicily on September 3, 36 B. C. At least in the case of Agrippa’s fleet, the ships mounting the towers were not designed for close action. Instead, it was the purpose of these vessels to provide a covering fire of projectiles while other ships closed in for boarding.

Agrippa’s fleet achieved great success in boarding enemy vessels at Naulochus in large measure because of the invention of a new projectile known as the harpago. This device consisted of a timber about eight feet long and covered by iron strips to protect it from the axes of the enemy. Iron rings were fastened to each end of the timber. The ring at one end was connected to an iron claw and the one at the other end to a long rope. The harpago was shot from a catapult at enemy vessels and, when the claw had fastened itself to the vessel, a winch was employed to pull the contending ships together. Once they were close enough, the boarders did their work. The Roman legionaries carried aboard the ships of Agrippa’s fleet far surpassed in fighting skills the many escaped slaves making up the force of Sextus Pompeius. The day went to Agrippa.


Another device uniquely Roman in its design and application was the corvus, invented during the First Punic War and probably so named by the sailors themselves who believed the mechanism resembled a raven. Its invention was necessitated by the Romans’ realization of their weakness in naval tactics and combat skills and their desire to bring their proven land combat prowess to bear on the sea. The corvus itself was a crane-like device consisting of a gangplank about thirty-six feet long and four feet wide mounted at the prow of the Roman warships. Pulleys and a pole allowed the corvus to be raised, lowered, and swung about as needed. A heavy spike was mounted on the outboard end of the corvus which, when it fell upon the deck of an enemy vessel, would hold the ship fast and allow legionaries to cross the gangplank and board the captured ship.

In the summer of 260 B. C. the Carthaginian fleet under Hannibal Gisco, numbering about 140 ships was raiding along the northern coast of Sicily near Mylae. A Roman naval force, commanded by Gaius Duilius and consisting of approximately the same number of vessels, sallied to meet the enemy. When the Carthaginians attempted to attack with their rams Duilius employed his corvi which performed exactly as designed. The Carthaginian ships were unable to maneuver and Roman soldiers boarded and captured thirty-one of their number including the flagship. Hannibal attempted a second attack, this time trying to avoid the corvi. Duilius countered, however, with a reserve force which he had posted behind his main line. As Hannibal engaged the Roman main force Duilius’ reserves attacked the Carthaginians from the rear, again employing the “ravens” with great effect. Hannibal retired having lost forty-four of his ships and nearly 10,000 men. Duilius thus became the first Roman admiral to win a major victory at sea.


In considering Roman naval armament it is necessary to look beyond technology and take note of the most effective and ubiquitous weapons of them all – the legionary soldier of the Republic. Naval historian William Ledyard Rodgers noted that ”the tactical effort of Roman admirals was always to make the contest of battles take such form that the outcome would be decided by the valor of the legionary soldier. This has been the decisive factor. The corvi, the grappling irons of the Mediterranean, and the scythes of the Bay of Biscay [see below] were all used to prevent the enemy from running away….” Even at Mylae with the introduction of the corvus, the victory, according to Rodgers “was a victory of the individual soldier and his weapons rather than one of fleet maneuver.” Duilius, he contends, is to be credited with devising an innovative way for his men to get into a position from which to make the big difference. The Roman legionary did indeed make the “big difference” in countless encounters as sea over the years.


There were other weapons over time, of course, to which the admirals of Rome resorted in their efforts to control the waters surrounding the far-flung parts of her empire. One of the more noteworthy examples of Roman ingenuity as it related to naval combat occurred in 56 B. C. during the Gallic campaign of Julius Caesar. In his quest to defeat the Veneti, a seafaring Celtic tribe located in what is now northwestern France, Caesar risked all on a decisive naval encounter. The Veneti fleet numbered two hundred ships which were generally sturdier and higher than their Roman counterparts. Boarding and ramming to achieve victory were therefore out of the question.

Likewise, the Veneti sails were made of leather and resistant to the normal punishment received in most naval encounters. When the opponents met in the Gulf of Morbihan on the southern coast of Brittany in the summer of 56 B. C. each ship in Caesar’s fleet, commanded during this action by Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus (a distant cousin of Marcus Junius Brutus and of Caesar himself), was equipped with several long poles with a sharp, scythe-like hook at the end. With these weapons Caesar’s sailors were able to hook the lines controlling the Veneti sails and cut them thus rendering the enemy ships immobile and vulnerable to boarding. The Veneti fleet was destroyed and Caesar’s campaign was successful.

With ingenuity and determination Rome ruled the seas, channels, bays, and rivers that surrounded or ran through her domains. But after Actium in 31 B. C., when Roman control was established throughout the Mediterranean world, as one historian put it, “the peace of Rome prevailed over those waters [and] the Roman navy shrank to a mere coast guard for the protection of the public against pirates.” Even the pirates were controlled, at least until the latter days of the Empire. Whatever the mission, Roman naval forces prevailed more often than not. In the end, perhaps the most potent weapons in Rome’s naval arsenal which allowed her to achieve such an admirable record had nothing at all to do with technology. It was simply the Roman spirit and the Roman mind that eventually bested all of her enemies.

Sources Consulted

  • Casson, Lionel. The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times. 2nd ed. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Freeman, Philip. Julius Caesar. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  • Rodgers, William Ledyard. Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B. C.) to Actium (31 B. C.). Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute, 1964.
  • Rougé, Jean. Ships and Fleets of the Ancient Mediterranean. Translated by Susan Frazer. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981.

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