📸 Archers depicted on Trajan's Column
Today, the ancient Romans are remembered for their military tactics and sprawling empire, but they were not always the powerful force we know them as. Roman military tactics were built around spears, swords, and shields, which left them with a deadly weakness: the bow. The Romans would not fully realize the power of archery on the battlefield until the end of the Republic period, the weapon’s use paralleling the rise of the Empire and its eventual collapse. The Mediterranean world was conquered under a hail of Roman arrows, but its capital city would ultimately fall in much the same manner.
📸 La destrucción de Numancia by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1802
Archery flourished during Rome’s imperial era, but it was not unknown during the Republic. In the Roman constitution, there are mentions of “arquites” being used in defense of the city—archers were later known as “sagittarii” meaning “those that go with the bow.”
Archery was then mostly limited to recreational sport, but it was a deciding factor in the Spanish Wars. Led by General Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman forces built a ten-foot high wall around the city of Numantia, along with seven military forts manned with mercenary Cretan archers. Numantia’s fall brought a violent end to the war and cemented the bow’s place in the Roman arsenal.
📸 Horseback Parthian Archers attack the Roman Square formation
Julius Caesar used similar mercenary tactics during his campaign in Gaul, hiring out archers from Crete and Numidia, but the weapon was underused by the Roman army itself, preferring instead legionnaire shock troops. That changed with the Republic’s violent defeat against the Parthian Empire.
In 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the Republic’s First Triumvirate, attempted to invade Parthia for riches and glory. His army was over 40,000 strong and marched through Mesopotamia, aiming to capture cities in the region. Orodes II, the Parthian king, sent his own force of 10,000 men led by the spahbod, Surena.
The bulk of Surena’s force were cavalry troops, most of whom were trained archers, a tactic unexploited by the Romans. The Parthians lured Crassus’ force into the desert, near the town of Carrhae, where they made their counterattack.
📸 A Parthian archer on the Hephthalite silver bowl (source: British Museum)
Though the Parthians were outnumbered almost 4 to 1, Surena was able to surround the Roman square formation, using his mounted archers in hit-and-run attacks. Charges by legionnaires were useless, as the Parthian horsemen were trained to fire backward as they retreated, quickly recovering whatever ground was lost.
Crassus hoped to outlast the Parthians’ supply of arrows, but Surena organized a train of a thousand camels to keep his archers stocked. Eventually, Crassus was forced into a peace meeting by his own men, but miscommunication led to his death and the capture of his remaining forces. Three-quarters of the Romans were killed or enslaved, while the Parthians suffered minimal casualties thanks to the tactics of Surena and the skill of his archers.
With this defeat, it was clear to the Romans that archery could no longer be an afterthought tactic farmed out to foreign mercenaries, it had to be integral to the army’s organization.
This stunning defeat prompted the Romans to begin integrating archers into their own forces. Campaigns in the east now saw legionaries backed up by both Roman archers, turning the tactics of their enemies against them. Legionaries used composite bows like those deployed by cavalry further east. These bows were made up of wood, bone, and animal hide. Their structure held up fine in drier areas, but the humid climate of central Europe forced them to use bows made entirely of wood. While these types of bows are known to history, they have not been well preserved and most have rotted away with time.
📸 "Venationes Ferarum, Avium, Piscium" by Jan van der Straet, after 1595
As archery grew into a military tactic, it remained a tool of spectacle, too. The emperor Commodus was a famed archer and the stories of his skill at the bow, while surely partly fictionalized, attest to the weapon’s cultural dominance. From his perch in the Colosseum’s imperial box, he is said to have killed one hundred lions with one hundred arrows. An arrowhead he designed in a half-moon shape was able to decapitate an ostrich in one strike.
Even less savory are the stories of Domitian, another emperor, who is said to have proven his skill at the bow by shooting arrows between the fingers of slaves at great distances.
📸 "The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Vandals" by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890
As time went on, the Romans relied more and more on auxiliary military forces. Towards the end of the Empire, Celtic and Germanic warriors made up the majority of their archers, and Roman arrowheads became indistinguishable from those used by these groups.
The Barbaria groups that menaced Rome as the Western Empire collapsed were nomadic tribes that deployed mounted archers in battle, in much the same way as the Parthians. In spite of Rome’s embracing of archery, it was still never core to their battle plans, and the weapon that helped build their empire also hastened its collapse.
📸 Archers depicted on Trajan's Column
📸 Roman arrowhead
Weapons of war
Want to get hands-on with Roman history? Check out the 1st-century CE Roman arrowhead specimen!
These particular arrowheads are made from bronze and feature a trilobate design. The long, three-bladed heads were made to make short work of armor, puncturing deep into their targets and penetrating any protections they wore.
Arrowheads come from numerous sites across Europe and date to the 1st-century CE. They are available as both a specimen and a necklace pendant.
Burke, Edmund H. The History of Archery. Morrow, 1957.
Keppie, L. J. F. The Making of the Roman Army : from Republic to Empire / Lawrence Keppie. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Fischer, Thomas, et al. Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History. Oxbow Books, 2014.
Bishop, M. C., and J. C. N. Coulston. Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Second Edition. Oxbow Books, 2006.
Sim, D., and J. Kaminski. Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Early Imperial Military Armour. Oxbow Books, 2012.