Devastating Missile Power – The Archers Of The Ancient Roman Army

Roman archer Auxillia can be seen in the top right of this amazing relief from Trajan's Column by Conrad Cichorius circa 113AD

Although the armies of Rome were famous for their hard-hitting legionaries, they also used a range of other troops. Cavalry, slingers, and light infantry all played their part. Among them were the archers.

Roman Auxiliaries

Roman archers were always drawn from the nation’s auxiliary units. Less highly trained and less respected than the legionaries, these men were not citizens of the empire. Instead, they were allies or people from conquered territory. They served the Romans for pay and the promise of citizenship when their work was completed.

Auxiliaries came from all over the empire and beyond. Cavalry from the Celtic tribes. Slingers from the Balearic region. Archers were Cretan at the time of Julius Caesar, then later drawn from Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. They were organized into smaller groups than the legionaries, making it easier to move them flexibly around the empire as strategy required. These small units were also a security measure, as they would be relatively easy for the legions to put down in the event of a revolt.

Trajan's column relief
Trajan’s column relief

As foreigners rather than Roman citizens, the auxiliaries were not regarded as equals to their comrades in the legions. Their role was often minimized in depictions of the army, both in writing and in art. On Trajan’s column, auxiliaries are seen, but in small numbers compared to their importance.

Trajan’s Column also hints at the pride these men took in their role. Each unit depicted on the column had its own distinctive uniform. They were not a disorganized rabble, but proud warriors earning status and wealth through the risks they took. When they went home at the end of their fighting careers, they did so as men of status, bringing Roman culture and learning to their people.

The Equipment of Roman Archers

Roman archers fought using composite bows, like the horsemen of the Asian steppes. Made from layers of wood, bone, horn, and sinew, they were strong and springy, packing a lot of punch for weapons of their size. Stiffer parts on the ends of the bow and the hand grip gave the string greater leverage and kept the bow from bucking when it was fired, increasing accuracy.

These were much less powerful than the bows that would strike dread into knights in the late Middle Ages. With a draw weight of around 90 lbs, they had half the power of the later English longbow. For the time this was a lot of power.

Ancient Roman Arrowheads. Photo Credit
Ancient Roman Arrowheads. Photo Credit

Arrows were also relatively sophisticated. The archers used different arrow heads depending on what sort of opponents they faced.

Against unarmoured foes, such as the Germanic tribesmen of central Europe, they used broad-headed arrows that maximized damage, slicing through flesh and veins.

Confronted with the more heavily armored troops of the East, they used narrower, more pointed bodkin arrows, which were less devastating to the flesh but capable of piercing armor.

Shafts could be made of reed or cane as well as wood. The head was fixed in place with a wooden pile so the arrow would not shatter on impact and lose its force.

As well as their bows and arrows, each archer had a bracer to protect his wrist from the bowstring. They also had leather finger guards or a metal thumb ring for pulling the string. They wore chainmail or leather armor and carried a sword for close quarters fighting.