Saturday, December 26, 2020

Roman archery

During most of the Republican period, there is little evidence that the Roman army employed the wide-spread use of archers.  This changed after the defeat of the army of Crassus by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 51 BCE. By the time Pompey's troops occupied the Middle East, the Romans had introduced units of auxiliary archers, primarily from Syria, armed with composite bows and arrows with trilobate heads.   Large  quantities of these types of arrowheads, dated between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, have been found at Masada, Herodium, and Dura-Europos.

The discovery of a grave of a late Roman sagittarius, thought to be of Germanic origin, near Augsburg included arrows with heads ranging from bolt-like bodkin heads to leaf-shaped heads to barbed heads. The more rare incendiary arrows, with basket-like heads to hold combustible materials like oil-soaked hemp fibers, have been found at Straubing, Germany and at the site of the Illyrian fortified settlement at Tilurium, Croatia.

Although wooden bows made from Yew were used for training, it is thought composite bows were used in combat, even in the wetter climates of Europe.  Bone remains from composite bows dating from the Augustan period have been documented at Oberaden, Germany and from the period of the Marcomannic Wars at Muŝov in the Czech Republic.  A weapons store excavated at Carnuntum, once the capital of Pannonia Superior, contained remnants of composite bows as well.  Another large cache of composite bow components were recovered at the Raetian Danube fort at Straubing/Sorviodurum where the Syrian archer unit cohors I Canathenorum milliaria equitata was stationed.

Wet climate would normally cause composite bows to split apart if exposed for long periods so bows were kept in leather cases when on campaign in Europe.  These cases have been depicted in artwork from the period but few examples have been recovered from the historical record.  Silver fittings thought to be from an ornate bow case/quiver was found in the grave of a Germanic prince, dated from the middle of the 3rd century, at Gommern, Germany.

Recommended reading: Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History by Thomas Fischer

Roman horse archer of the 6th century CE courtesy of Johnny Shumate.

Rare Roman incendiary arrowhead, 2nd century CE, found near Vienna, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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