Academic journal article Antichthon

The Battle of Vercellae and the Alteration of the Heavy Javelin (Pilum) by Gaius Marius - 101 BC

Academic journal article Antichthon

The Battle of Vercellae and the Alteration of the Heavy Javelin (Pilum) by Gaius Marius - 101 BC

Article excerpt

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Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) is widely known as one of the most innovative commanders of the Roman military. In 101 BC Marius implemented an alteration to the design of the heavy legionary javelin (pilum). However, unlike Marius' previous reforms, this modification of an elemental aspect of the Roman legions was not adopted as a standard military practice. An examination of the evidence relating to the reform and of the events surrounding the time of its implementation demonstrates that the benefit of the modification was different from that currently accepted by scholars. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that the reason why this reform failed to be adopted by the legions was not that it provided no clear tactical advantage on the battlefield, but was due to the course of Roman political and military history immediately after it had first been implemented.

The nature of Marius' reform to the pilum cannot be fully comprehended without placing it within the historical context of the other alterations that he made to the structure of the Roman military. In 107 BC Marius was given command of a campaign against Jugurtha, king of Numidia. It was at this time that Marius instituted the first of his five famous reforms: the opening of service in the army to volunteers from the 'head count' (capite censi ).1 In 104 BC he was given command against an imminent invasion by 300,000 Germanic tribesmen.2 In conjunction with this new command, Marius initiated three more reforms to the Roman legions: the adoption of the eagle (aquila ) as the dominant standard of the army; the creation of 'Marius' mules' (muli Mariani ) by which each legionary was required to carry his own personal equipment; and the abandonment of the style of deployment based upon the maniple and its replacement with the cohort (cohors ).3 During Marius' fourth consulship in 102 BC, the German tribes launched a twopronged invasion of the Italian peninsula.4 Splitting his forces, Marius advanced to the mouth of the Rhône to engage two groups known as the Teutones and the Ambrones, while his consular colleague, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, was sent to hold the Alpine passes against the Cimbri and the Tigurini. Marius defeated the Teutones/Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae (modern Aix-en-Provence, France) in late 102 BC before moving to reinforce Catulus who had been forced from the Alps.5

Plutarch states that prior to the battle against the Cimbri at Vercellae (modern Vercelli, Italy) in 101 BC Marius ordered his fifth and final reform, an alteration to the design of the heavy pilum.6 This weapon was the same as that which had been in service with the Roman army prior to the time of Marius. The hastati of the pre-Marian legion carried both a light and a heavy pilum as part of their offensive armament. Polybius describes the construction of the different pila as follows:

The length of the wooden shaft of them all is approximately three cubits [approximately 135 cm]. An iron head is fixed to each shaft that is barbed and of the same length as the shaft. They secure the head so firmly, attaching it half way up the shaft and fixing it with several rivets, that the iron breaks in battle sooner than this fastening becomes loose, although its thickness at the socket is a finger and a half 's breadth; such pains do they take about securing it firmly [fig. 1].

The legions that Marius commanded in 101 BC were universally equipped with light and heavy pila following his reforms of 104 BC. The construction of these two weapons influenced how they could be modified. The head of the light pilum was attached to the shaft by a socket into which a tapered end of the shaft was inserted. The head was then secured in place by a single rivet. The shaft of the heavy pilum had a wide, oblong-shaped, flat tang which was inserted into a wooden block at the head of the shaft and was then held in place by two rivets which passed through both the block and the tang. …

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