A Deadly Precision Weapon of Ancient Rome: The Plumbata

For as long as societies have fought and battled one another, the weapons they developed, relied upon and ultimately had to defend against have defined their deadly combat.

In the realm of ancient warfare, one weapon in particular emerged. It embodied precision and deadly effectiveness—the plumbata.

The plumbata was wielded by skilled Roman skirmishers. This projectile dart altered the dynamics of a battle against their many enemies.

It is a weapon with an intriguing history. The plumbata’s design, tactics, deployment, and lasting influence on the military strategies of the time makes it unique.

Over the years, the plumbata came to exemplify the lethal efficiency of Roman soldiers. With its evolution from a simple iron dart to a formidable projectile that disrupted enemy formations, it also had a lasting impact on the battlefield.

So how did this weapon come to be and what does modern archaeology have to tell us about its fascinating history?

Museum Lauriacum: Plumbata ( 4th/5th century AD )

Origins of the Roman-Style Dart

The origins of the plumbata can be traced back to ancient times. The first known users were the Ancient Greeks around 500 BC.

However, it was the late Roman and Eastern Roman armies that became best known for employing these deadly projectiles. Our knowledge of these weapons primarily comes from historical documents composed centuries later.

Archaeological findings reveal the plumbata to be a fletched dart with an iron head weighted by lead. This aligns with the description provided by Vegetius, a Roman writer.

One of the earliest and most informative sources is a document from around 390-450 AD, which references a period around 300 AD. Although copies of the original manuscript are all that remain today, it confirms the existence of plumbatae and provides an image of what they looked like.

The illustration reveals a short arrow-like shaft with a weight attached to it. It depicts a clear and concise design.

Another source is a late 4th-century treatise called “De rebus bellici.,” This document mentions spiked plumbatae.

Additionally, the 6th-century Byzantine emperor Maurice’s work, “Strategicon,” mentions a similar weapon called the martzobarboulon.

The term “plumbatae” contains the word “plumbum,” meaning lead. This refers to the lead weights attached to the darts.

It translates to “lead-weighted darts.” While its other names, “mattiobarbuli” or “martiobarbuli,” refer to “little barbs of Mars.” This suggests a connection to the god of war, Mars, and implies that the plumbata had a barbed head.

War darts similar to plumbatae continued to be used in Europe during the Middle Ages, showcasing the lasting influence and adaptation of this ancient weapon.

Design and Construction

The design and construction of the plumbata were relatively straightforward, yet effective. As already described, it consisted of an iron dart head or spearhead with a lead weight attached to the front end.

This combination resulted in a short dart that could be thrown overhand or underhand by a soldier. When paired with a wooden shaft adorned with feathers, the entire dart would have been around 30 cm long, depending on the specific type.

One archaeological example of a plumbata showcases a visible iron shaft that measures 9 cm, with the remaining 6 cm comprising the lead weight. The dart head has a long triangular shape with slightly angled barbs.

The lead portion, which would have accommodated the organic wooden shaft that has long since eroded, appears hollow.

Remarkably, this plumbata remains unbent and straight. This indicates that it hadn’t yet been used in combat and was likely newly crafted.

Variations in style and size can be observed in other examples and sketches of plumbatae. This suggests that there was some flexibility in the design of these projectiles.

The Plumbata’s Use in Late Roman Warfare

The plumbata played a significant role in Roman warfare. Not only among infantry but also among cavalry units. Although the specifics of its use remain somewhat unclear.

Likely, plumbatae were primarily employed during foot-based service duties. This includes defending fort walls or watchtowers. However, their versatility extended beyond defensive scenarios.

According to the writings of Flavius Vegetius Renatus, a Late Imperial author, expert soldiers in two legions stationed in Illyricum were known as “Mattiobarbuli” due to their skill in using the plumbata.

These legions operated before the reign of Emperor Diocletian. They were renowned for their prowess in battle. Each soldier would affix five plumbatae to their shield. This ensured they were readily available at the beginning of combat.

While the heavy infantry in the front rows typically used plumbatae in battles, light infantry units also utilized them, potentially employing more than just five.

The plumbata’s range of applications included open battles, storming and defending town walls, and even maritime engagements, where they were used to injure enemies.

The earliest and most informative written source about the plumbata was composed between 390 and 450 AD. This indicates that the deadly weapon was already in use and widely known during the late Roman Empire.

Vegetius’s account provides valuable insight into the prominence and effectiveness of the plumbata in Roman military strategy. This is where it served as a versatile weapon capable of inflicting damage to both enemy soldiers and their horses from a distance.

The plumbata’s role as a tactical projectile highlights the Romans’ ability to adapt and employ innovative weaponry in various combat scenarios, leaving a lasting impression on ancient warfare.

Significance and Decline

As the centuries progressed, the prominence of the plumbata began to decline.

The exact timeline of its demise and cessation of production remains uncertain. But the weapon’s significance and influence cannot be understated.

The plumbata found its place in Roman military strategy during the 3rd and 4th centuries. This timeline coincided with the increasing importance of ranged weapons in warfare against barbarian forces.

Equipped with plumbatae, units were not only effective in close combat but also in ranged engagements. This complemented or even replaced traditional bowmen.

The plumbata’s ability to diminish the momentum of charging enemies was particularly valuable. It proved especially effective against opponents who lacked helmets or shoulder guards. As well as against cavalry, as most horses were not protected by armor or shields.

Its success is evident in the weapon’s ability to supplant the pilum, a staple of Roman legions for nearly 500 years.

Despite its effectiveness, little is known about when the use of the plumbata eventually faded out and ceased altogether.

While war darts continued to be utilized in Europe during the Middle Ages, it remains unclear whether the plumbata persisted beyond this period.

Nonetheless, the plumbata’s significance is clear – its contribution to Roman military tactics, its ability to enhance Roman soldiers, and its role in shaping the evolution of ancient weaponry all make it a historical weapon of immense importance.


“Iron and Lead Plumbata.” The Online Collection of Roman Artifacts. Accessed June 10, 2023. http://www.roman-artifacts.com/Military%20Accessories/4th%20Century%20Plumbata/Plumbata.htm.

Keszi, Tamás. “PLUMBATA, THE ROMAN STYLE DARTS. A Late Antique Weapon from Annamatia.” Hungarian Archaeology, 2018, 21–32. https://www.academia.edu/36798885/Plumbata_the_Roman_Style_Darts_A_Late_Antique_Weapon_from_Annamatia.

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