Object: Spear Head


Figure 1   Iron spear-head from the Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Museum

Iron spear-head
Germany: Taunus Mountains, Limes Region
Likely first to second century AD
Materials: Iron

This type of spear was used by the Roman auxiliary (“helper”) army, while the Roman legions (permanent army) preferred the pilum throwing spear.  The auxiliary army began in the late Republic (147-30 B.C.)  and used mounted troops.  In 52 B.C. Caesar began using Germans in the auxiliary since the German tribes were known for their horsemanship.  Auxiliaries were used throughout the Roman Empire.  This spear was likely used in the Roman auxiliary army and may have been held by a German.

It was illegal to sell Roman weapons to the Germans. Yet there is archaeological evidence that Roman weapons were in the hands of Germans.  Germans may not have gotten Roman weapons through trade, but Germans in the Roman army brought their weapons back to their homes in Germany.

Though spears were common weapons of the Roman military, they are difficult to classify since usually only the iron head survives.  There are multiple ancient Roman terms used to describe spears, such as hasta, lancea, verutum, speculum, tela, and missilis.  These words were used by ancient authors to describe spears with little to no differentiation of the type of spears they refer to. Modern authors also use different terms to describe the same artifacts.  Spears may also be referred to as lances.  The ambiguity in terms makes it difficult to classify spears based on shape and use.

The butt of spears sometimes survives since they are made of iron.  The wooden shafts of spears are rarely found because wood does not preserve as well as iron.  Shafts were commonly made of ash or hazel. Spears could be used for thrusting in hand-to-hand combat or as missiles thrown at enemies from a distance. Spears, like this one, had forged iron heads with sockets to attach to the wooden shaft.  Socketed spear heads were common from the first to the second century A.D.

This spear at the museum is 9.25 inches (23.5 cm) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) at its widest point.  Its hole for attaching to the shaft is 1.1 inch (2.8 cm) in diameter.  The blade is leaf-shaped, meaning it is wider towards the bottom and narrows to a point at the tip.  It also has a midrib, or raised section cutting across the center of the head, and a closed socket.  As mentioned, the socketed spear heads were common from the first to second century A.D., so this spear may date to this period.

Similar spear heads come from Neuss, Germany and various areas across England.  They are all extra-long socketed spearheads with the leaf-shaped narrow blade. The large size of the spearheads indicates they were likely used for hand-to-hand fighting, not throwing. The Roman legionary often used the pilum that could pierce armor.  The leaf-shaped spears of the auxiliary were not as good at piercing armor.  Instead, they could be thrown against an unarmored enemy or used in hand-to-hand combat, aiming for any unprotected areas between the enemy’s armor.  The large size of the Sam Noble spear indicates it was used for hand-to-hand combat.

The following link has videos of what Roman Auxilaries and Roman cavalry would have looked like:


[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Bishop, M. C. and J. C. N. Coulston

2006 Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Feugére, Michel

2002 Weapons of the Romans. Translated by David G. Smith.  Charleston, South Carolina: Tempus Publishing Ltd.

James, Edward

2009 Europe’s Barbarians AD 200 – 600. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Manning, W.H.

1985 Catalogue of the Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings, and Weapons in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press.

Sim, D. and J. Kaminski

2012 Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Early Imperial Military Armour. Wales: Oxbow Books.

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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