(The following borrows heavily from Matt Amt’s Handbook for Legionaries)

The javelin (pilum), the legionary’s first-use weapon, was 5-1/2′ to 7 feet in length, and consisted of a long iron head with a small point, attached to a wooden shaft. At left, three pila-armed legionaries stand sentry before a forbidding forest.

The head: Pilum heads are 14″ to 30″ long, with pyramidal or barbed points about 2″ long. The bottom end or the iron half widens into a flat tang, which is riveted into the widened top of the wood shaft. The iron shanks are about 1/4″ thick (squared) below the point, swelling to 3/8″ or 1/2″ square at the base. The rectangular tang is an inch or more wide. (Before forging the tang, it’s a good idea to fold up c. 6″ of the shank, then flatten, to strengthen the tang and allow more width.) Some tanged pila are shown with a spherical weight, presumed to be lead, behind the joint block.

The shaft: The wood shaft is approximately 4’ long, and is made all in one piece, generally of ash wood. Most of the length is round in section, about 7/8″ to 1-1/8″ in diameter. At the top of the top of the shaft is the tapered, square-section “joint block”, 5″ to 8″ long. It is slotted to receive the tang, and capped with an iron ferrule or collett which is secured by 2 little iron wedges. (Since the ferrule is also tapered, it works best to allow a little of the wood to project above it, to be splayed out by the wedges.) Two or three rivets hold the tang in place.

All iron parts of the pilum should be black from the forge, imitated if necessary by heating the piece and wiping it with oil. The buttspike is a cone made by wrapping a triangle of sheet steel (20-gauge). The point is sometimes hammered into a square-section spike, but the seam is usually not forged shut. It is secured to the shaft with a small nail. The head can be riveted to the shaft with regular nails if you first heat the heads red hot and give them a few raps with a hammer to make them look forged. Use a washer at both ends of the nail and peen the end flat like a regular rivet. Washers can be cut from blackened sheet steel with a cold chisel; round washers can be used but first remove any galvanization and blacken them. The wood may be treated with linseed oil, but should not be stained. An ash 2×2 can be worked down to the proper shape by first sawing the shaft section down to 1″ square, then using a drawknife and rasp to round it. Then saw the joint block to its desired shape. Starting with a hole-digger handle–mostly round with a square-section end–is another option.

Usage: The pilum was probably thrown at a range of about 30 yards, just as the Roman line charged. The small point could penetrate a shield and wound the man behind it, or even pierce armor (at right, Dave Michaels / Flavius Crispus demonstrates proper pilum-tossing form). Any man with a pilum stuck in his shield would find the javelin’s weight so cumbersome that he would probably discard the shield. The pilum’s head shape prevented its easy removal, and the iron shank prevented its being cut off. (This shield-removing capability has always been over-emphasized–the pilum was designed to kill and maim.) Finally, no matter what the javelin hit, its iron shank was supposed to bend, so that an enemy could not throw it back. When the Romans were finished winning the battle, they could gather their pila and straighten them. During the Republic, each legionary carried two pila, one light and one heavy. Most illustrations of Imperial legionaries show only one pilum, but a few show two, both tanged and apparently identical. It would appear that two pila were still carried, but that there was no longer a “heavy” and a “light”.

There were other types of pila as well. The second type had a socketed head, and a third type, less well-known, has a spike tang. The thrusting spear (hasta) was an auxiliary weapon, and was completely different from the pilum. Legionaries in the third century began using hastae as well as an extremely (10-foot or more) spear similar to the Macedonian sarissa. The classic pilum seems to have fallen out of use by the mid-third century, although many other derivative forms of socketed javelin continued in heavy use right into the Byzantine era.

SWORD (Gladius and Spatha)

The legionary’s primary weapon was his short-sword, or gladius. One scholar estimated that, prior to the introduction of firearms, the gladius had inflicted more battlefield casualties than any other weapon in history. At left can be seen Gil’s Deepeeka-made Pompeii-pattern gladius. He has modified the scabbard to improve its overall accuracy.

The gladius was a brutally efficient weapon, mainly a long, sharp point with a handle at the opposite end. The Romans were generally not sentimental about swords and had no elaborate mythology wrapped up in them, as did the Celts and later Vikings. A sword was simply a tool for killing. The gladius was primarily a thrusting weapon, although it was also certainly capable of hacking or slashing. It was not a very effective defensive, or parrying weapon, and Romans were not taught this type of swordsmanship; opposing sword blows were to be parried with the shield edge, not the sword. The basic Roman attack was a forward punch with the shield boss or an uppercut with the shield rim, followed by a quick, direct gladius thrust at the vitals.

The steel blade of the gladius generally had a diamond cross section all the way up to the hilt, although at least one style had square “shoulders” at the top. Metal content varied from a low-carbon core to higher-carbon outer surfaces and edging, to low-carbon steel throughout. The hilt was made of wood, bone, or ivory, and a thin brass plate was usually set into the bottom of the guard. Pommels were generally spherical, a flattened “spheroid” shape, or even egg-shaped, though some were flat discs (standing on edge). The handle was generally either wood or bone (bone has good durability and feels great in the hand), and was “notched” for the fingers.

Like most forms of Roman military equipment, the gladius underwent a steady evolution during nearly five centuries of use. The Mainz style, which features a broad, slightly waisted blade and a long point, seems to have been popular from the middle of the first century BC through the mid-first century AD. The scabbards of Mainz gladii are frequently gorgeously decorated with embossed brass plates, At right is Albion Armorer’s version of the Mainz style gladius.

The Fulham style gladius seems to have been a slightly later development from the Mainz, with a narrower blade. Since the type find was made in England, we know Fulham-style swords were in use in Britannia in the first century AD.

The simplified Pompeii type, which featured a parallel-side blade with a shorter point, came into use in the mid-first century AD and seems to have been the most popular sword in our period, the mid-second century.

The gladius was usually worn on the soldier’s right side by means of a baldric, or diagonal leather strap, attached to three of the four rings on the scabbard (note Gil’s suspension system above). The baldric passed over the left shoulder and underneath the soldier’s belt, enabling the soldier to quickly draw the weapon from the right side (a move once thought difficult or unlikely, but proven by Roman reenactment to be quite easily managed).

Toward the middle of the second century, a new type of short sword with a ring pommel came into use. This weapon was suspended by means of a scabbard slide instead of the ring system used by the gladius. It never completely replaced the gladius, but merely supplemented it. Sadly, at this point no one makes a ready-made reproduction of this particular sword, but it might be possible to get a custom armorer to make one.

Toward the end of the second century, the longer spatha, originally strictly a cavalry sword, began to replace the gladius. Because of the longer draw required, the spatha hung from the soldier’s left side, usually by means of a much wider baldric decorated with openwork fittings.

As it is likely that swords remained in service for as long as they were usable, and might have even been handed down through generations of soldiers, any pattern of Roman gladius is acceptable for use with Legio VI. The Pompeii pattern, however, is preferred and suggested. Of the off-the-shelf swords available, we favor those made by Albion Armorers and Deepeeka over those by other manufacturers commonly sold on eBay and through Museum Replicas. However, it is possible to modify a sword that is reasonably close to the originals to acceptable standards of authenticity. If in doubt about a sword’s manufacture, authenticity, or modifiability, contact the Centurio or Optio.

DAGGER (Pugio)

The dagger, or pugio, was a soldier’s tertiary, “if-all-else-fails” weapon. The typical pugio had a wide, leaf-shaped blade and a simple handle constructed of alternating layers of metal (iron or brass) and an organic material, usually wood or bone. The scabbard was constructed either of thin metal sheeting soldered at the sides, or of wood with metal strips along the edges and across the middle, a la a gladius scabbard. The scabbard generally had four suspension rings, but only the top two were used to hang the pugio from a pair of hinged “frogs” on the soldier’s belt. At left is a popular, and reasonably accurate replica of a pugio made by Deepeeka and marketed through Albion Armorers and several other suppliers.

There is some controversy over exactly how long, and in what form, the pugio remained in use from the first into the second century. If Trajan’s Column is to be believed, no legionary from that time period seems to have worn a pugio. It has been oft quoted that they fell into disuse in the second century. However, they certainly appear again in the third, and the pattern is very similar to that of first century pugios. It seems unlikely that the pugio would disappear from use entirely in the second century, only to reemerge in the third. More probably, the dagger continued in use throughout the period, and its absence from Trajan’s Column is simply an artistic convention. Further notes on pugios by Matt Amt can be found HERE.


Legio VI recommends the following suppliers for Roman weaponry. More information on each can be found on our SUPPLIERS page:

Imperium Ancient Armory: Arik Greenberg and Dave Michaels, 28039 Promontory Lane, Valencia, CA 91354. Phone: (310) 417-8229. Website: http://www.imperiumancientarmory.com. Email: info@imperiumancientarmory.com. Imperium enjoys “most-favored supplier” status with Legio VI not because two legio members run the business (well, maybe that has something to do with it…), but because everything they sell in the way of Roman armor is Legio VI approved as fully authentic. In addition to the newly improved Deepeeka swords, Imperium also makes its own highly accurate weapons (including a great pilum and/or kit), shields, and belt components. Imperium rates everything it sells according to an “accuracy scale,” which makes it much easier to pick from among the available products. Paid Legio VI members also get price breaks on all weapons, armor and shields!

La Wren’s Nest: Lawrence and Julie Brooks, 233 Route 197, Woodstock, CT 06281, 860-928-6908, fax 860-928-6701, lbrroks@sbcglobal.net, http://www.lawrensnest.com. These folks are dedicated historical reenactors and understand the needs of the community. They also offer Deepeeka helmets, mail shirts, weapons, and accessories. They fill orders in a prompt and courteous manner. Please check with the Authenticity Officers or Centurio before buying anything.

Albion Armorers: 421 Second Street, PO Box 66, New Glarus, WI 53574 (For UPS – leave off PO Box info). 1-888-806-HELM, Quest@albionarmorers.com, www.albionarmorers.com. Albion produces some beautiful Roman swords, albeit at rather high prices, though this is justified by the superior blades and overall attention to detail. Please check with the Authenticity Officers or Centurio before buying anything.

RPG / Soul of the Warrior: Rusty Myers, 1700 Misty Court, Hanahan, SC 29406-8560. 843-437-5587, fax 843-797-7266, Info@SouloftheWarrior.com, http://www.SouloftheWarrior.com . Rusty Myers also runs our “twin” unit Legio VI Ferrata and so understands Roman reenacting. He carries both Deepeeka gear and a growing line of custom products, most of which looks pretty good from the photos on the site. Please check with the Authenticity Officers or Centurio before buying anything.

HReplikate: Holger Ratsdorf, Germany. http://www.hr-replikate.de/. Herr Ratsdorf makes drop-dead gorgeous replica equipment. Of course, his work does not come cheaply and the recent strength of the Euro versus the U.S. dollar makes his items more expensive still. My one experience ordering belt components from him involved a 3-4 month wait, but when they arrived, the pieces were absolutely beautiful and well worth both the price and the wait. Payment can present difficulties since he does not as yet accept credit cards and either international money orders or bank-to-bank cash transfers must be arranged.