Full Version: What was the pilum made of?
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I mean what type of wood was the haft made of or did the Romans use different types of wood? Thanks in advance.
To my knowledge only one group of pilum hafts has ever been found and those are from Oberraden in Germany, so it's really impossible to say just what the 'standard' wood was, if there even was one. Just like anything else, it's likely there was a variety based on region, etc. Ash is a reasonable choice as are probably any number of hardwoods.
The hardwood most common around Europe is oak. Beach is also abundant and could be used. Nice grain! Ash would not really class as a hardwood, but I do agree it is an excellent choice. Hazel also makes a nice straight shaft, but is less strong then ash. I will be trying to handcraft an ash spearpole in due time, using an ax and a spokeshave. I have some excellent material, having obtained a fairly straight six foot log 40# diameter.
I believe ash was quite a common wood used by the greeks, so perhaps it was also used for pila, at least in med area?
I would go with ash, as its got a really tight and straight grain. :wink:

Oak is heavy and the grain deviates in its growth pattern
Quote: Ash would not really class as a hardwood

No, but I didn't say it was- "Ash is a reasonable choice as are probably any number of hardwoods" I didn't say 'other' hardwoods :wink:

I've made a number of pilum hafts from ash and it is very serviceable- strong, fairly light and easy to work.
Ash is classified as a hardwood.

Long straight grain, easily coppiced (purpose grown poles)

Other species have similar properties

A picture of coppiced ash: ... /11649.jpg

An overview article: ... onment.cfm

We've used other wood for pilum poles.. in a pinch. Fir makes for a very light pole
Quote:Fir makes for a very light pole

Plenty of that in Europe! Especially Germania! :wink:
At the risk of getting the slam from the few who tend to do that, I repeat a supposition from some time back.

Either the Roman legion when on campaign brought wagon loads of select poles for spears, pila, tents, and whatever else with them from their coppice farms, or they harvested whatever kind of straight or straightenable wood from where ever they were, whenever they needed it. Most agree that a pilum was probably considered to be a one use weapon, since they might not ever get the haft back after a battle. So, they'd need to be replaced at regular intervals, or they would simply run out.

My lame brain says that they'd use cedar, pine, ash, oak, linden, birch, or whatever was at hand, perhaps even riving out poles from larger lumber, and the drops from beams, etc. Wood is wood, and as long as the shaft is reasonably straight, it will make a throwing spear or javelin of whatever kind. Somehow, to me, the argument over which specific sort of wood was used seems unrealistic and unreasonably narrow.

Oh, well, flame on, guys.
Salve Demetrius!

Far from wanting to slam you, there are some elements that in my view contradict your statement and need discussion.
Primarily there is the element of resources. Why would one spend a lot of effort producing iron, shaping it into a pilumpoint, crafting a balanced shaft and then just trowing it away at something and forgetting about it. The argument that they MIGHT not get it back after a battle still doesn't make it a reasonable assumption that therefor the weapon was considered a write-off from step one and fashioned accordingly.
Then there is workmanship and effort put into its design and fabrication. What we see in the pilum design is a crafting of a purpose made shaft, consisting of a round lower part and a more elaborate square part to which the iron was riveted. Now, if it were single use only, why not just make a round shaft, a tanged iron point, stick those two together, add some binding and be done with it. Why the flange, why the rivets?
Then there is the issue of ballistics. A pilum made of oak is a lot heavier then one made of birch. To get a more uniform throwing characteristic, it would be advisable to select a range of woods with similar properties. This would be an argument for selecting wood to fit these properties when and where available. You want a spear to fly straight and true, not flop :? The weighted pilum was even fitted with a ball of lead, not a readily replaceable commodity when out at war.
If pushed for supplies during a grueling campaign, yes, wood would be wood and anything would go, but you would have to be losing that campaign in the first place to be denied access to the battlefield after the battle was fought, thus losing your pila. In that case, I do hope there was a large stock of iron in the bagage train Smile
What makes you think the weighted pilum had a ball made of lead, Robert ? AFIK none has been found, so this is presumably an assumption, based on 'plumbata' ( which were smaller, and did use lead weights - see surviving specimens ).
It seems to me that a lead weight the size of a tennis ball or larger would weigh too much ( even with a shaft through the middle ) and that a likelier candidate might be bronze.
Has anybody out there experimented with a weighted pila, of any sort ??

On the subject of wood selection, many roman soldiers went years or even a whole career without fighting a battle and their gear was as rich, decorated, and good quality as they could get. It is likely therefore that the same criteria applied to Pila witness, for example the Pila carried on thw well known Domitianic Praetorian relief, where the shafts are bound with whipping and the ball-weight bears an 'eagle' decoration,( yes, I realise Praetorian in Rome is not Legionary on the Rhine frontier) and the timber would have been the best quality available.
Obviously, need would be the exception, as Robert has pointed out.
Well Paul, lead seemed to be a logical material both to easily shape into a weight (low melting point) and costwise, but yes, it's an assumption. Even so, leaving lead or bronze weights laying around attached to one-time weapons just doesn't sit well with my thrifty nature :lol:
I do not regard the pilum as a one-use weapon and will favor and recommend ash as a timeproven candidate for spear poles. It's straight, strong, has a good weight (not overly heavy) and is a nice wood to work and shape due to it's long grain structure. It's also a good grower and fairly abundant throughout the European continent, often in the vicinity of streams, marshes and bogs.
I guess I'm working on the assumption that reenactors in the 21st century regard their finely crafted pilum accessory as a work of art, and a thoughtfully decided expense, but a 1st Century Roman considered it a simple tool of combat. Consider a modern soldier marvelling and polishing a rifle cartridge...silly, no? Its function is to go into the rifle and then downrange in the direction intended. At the shooting range, we pick up the brass cartridges. In a firefight, when it's needful to move on, soldiers do, and don't worry about the litter.

I am sure that at one point or another, soldiers or camp followers, etc., picked up the pila from the battlefield, sorted them into reusable or "need work" piles, and redistributed them. I can't see the reasoning behind a person's position that there were no spares, and that the line soldier had to worry about exactly which pilum belonged to him, and which was not his to pick up. If the battle followed in a straight line across the field, it's possible that some pila would be retrieved, but more likely, that would happen when the wounded were tended to (or dispatched), and a count of casualties was made. A battle might move a half mile in one direction or another, and if the lines were redrawn, I can easily see supplies being reissued to the javelineers, legionaries and auxilia from the baggage train stores. Same way a soldier gets ammo during the battle today, right? Someone brings or sends it up to the front, and it gets distributed, as soon as it's safe to do so.

I know that's not a good straightline analogy, but I guess I'm thinking that the Romans were quick, excellent carpenters at need, being able to build fortifications, gates, bridges, and, yes, pila, when needed, from whatever was at hand. They didn't stop to mine and smelt iron ore while on campaign, so they must have brought stores of bar and billet to work from for whatever metal needs they had at the time they needed them. I guess it's possible they brought enough poles of wood to reissue pila, but remember they went on campaign and might not get back to "home base" for years at a time. They lived off the land in every way that they could.

Just my thoughts, though, everyone is entitled to whatever other opinion they want to hold dear.
OK David, The line of thought you are advocating makes good sense, although comparing a pilum to a rifle bullet is somewhat off IMO. For an arrow, this comparison would be more fitting. I agree that the pilum would not in all likelyhood be considered a personal item and would not recieve the care a sword or pugio would. Yes, there would most likely be a store of replacements in the baggagetrain, containing spare shields, pila, arrows, bolts etc. The discussion was and is about the kind of wood used to make a period pilum. My reaction was to your statement that "any wood goes, so what's the fuss" (popular refrasing :lol: )

No, I don't think (nor did I state) the Romans left home with a grand supply of wood and that was that. I would think that wood was gathered localy to replace wooden objects lost BUT I do think they were selective about the kind of wood used for the various items and in the case of pila suggest they would prefer ash over several other kinds of wood available. Spares could be picked up at fabrica along the way as well, by the way. Ash is a very common wood and was even more abundent in Roman times (there is good paleobotanical data on this). As a lot of folks want to get it "right", it is likely that a "right" pilum was made of ash Big Grin
Oddlyenough, I don't think there is any significant disagreement here. We are all"singing from the same hymn book", in that we agree that initially equipment, including pila, would be the best available, that spares in the form of complete weapons for 'first-line' replenishment would most likely have been carried, that spare raw materials - iron billets, wood poles etc would be available for the legionary artisans to work with for 'second-line ' replenishment, and that in need, whatever was available might be pressed into service.
It is also certainly true that the ancients were more conscious of 'the right timber for the job' than perhaps we are ( though I suspect any good wood craftsmen out there would disagree! :wink: )
Like the Romans then, we would use Ash or similar if we could get it, but in need use whatever will do the job !!
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