Authored By Staff Writer (Updated: 4/8/2013): With the thrusting / throwing spears of the ancient world slowly on their way off of the world stage, Roman soldiers were becoming an amalgam of the old and new eras of warfare. The spear as a frontline weapon now gave way to the more skirmish-oriented “pilum”, and traditional spears now held in the deeper formations at rear, and more often times in the hands of older soldiers as a method of last resort should the heavy infantry and skirmishers fail in overtaking – or holding back - an advancing enemy group.
The Roman Pilum (or 'pila' when pluralized), was the primary attack weapon of the Roman Legionnaire before his sword (the 'Gladius' detailed elsewhere on this site) was drawn into play. Pila were nothing more than precisely weighted javelins made for throwing at distances of up to 33 yards, to which the Roman soldier would then proceed at march or full speed with his drawn Gladius for melee combat. At the very least, the thrown pilum would break up the organization of any advancing or stationary foe. At most, the pilum would find its enemy target in the most lethal of ways.
Two classification types of pila were produced - a light version and a heavy version. Most pilum featured a socketed head and was made to cover a good amount of distance when heaved. Additionally, a barbed head tip of most pila designs forced the javelin to stay embedded in an enemy's body or shield in order for the weapon to not be reused against its owner. Once embedded, the pilum should render the shield inoperable - or at least difficult to yield in a trained fashion.
A leather thong-like sling was attached to the shaft portion of the pilum which the Roman infantryman would pull as part of his overall throwing action. This action produced the effect of rifling the javelin through the air, maintaining a good amount of accuracy and promoting the build up of momentum in the process.