Roman Archers

Archers and their tools in ancient Rome were a crucial part of their tactics. Though not until the battle of Carrhae in which the Parthians archers defeated the Romans, did Rome began to increase the number of bowmen from 500-700 in a Legion to 11,000.

Some of the tactics used was “a line of auxiliary pikemen backed by bowmen stood before [the] legion” (p.97, Archer), and they were “mingled with slingers to provide a protective screen against cavalry attacking flanks, [or] spaced out among heavy infantry chiefly on the wings” (p.91, Peddie).

The bow they used was adopted from the Turk’s it was “3 ft 9 in in length when measured along its outer curve and 3 ft 2 in when fitted with a bowstring of 2 ft 11 in. The war arrow it discharged measured 2 ft 4 ½ in in length and required a draw weight of 118 lb to pull the bowstring back to its full capacity” (p.89, Peddie).


The arrows that were used could have various aides to help their lethality. The best known was flaming arrows, “the Roman philosopher Lucretius had written that fire became a weapon as soon as men learned to kindle sparks” (p.208, Mayor) this holds true today. The “arrows [were] wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw) and set afire” (p.209, Mayor), “Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the wooden shafts” (p.213, Mayor).

There were poison arrows but they seem to be used by the “enemies” of Rome not by Romans, this I think stems from the idea that to poison a weapon would be an act of cowardice.  The general Licinius Lucullus, who’s Asian campaigns were less than ideal, faced a revolt thanks in part to the “double arrow-points of iron, [that were] poisoned” (p.246, Mayor).

The Romans, being good at using others for their army did not falter on the archers, as Josephus wrote about the use of “Arab bowmen” by “Vespasian, at Jotapata” (p.91, Peddie).



1: Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Woodstock: Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2003), 208-209, 213, 246.

2: Christon Archer, John Ferris, Holger Herwig, and Timothy Travers, World History of Warfare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 97.

3: John Peddie, The Roman War Machine (United Kingdom: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. 1996), 89, 91.

4: Josephus, op. cit., III, p.220.

5: Roman Archer Mosaic:



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3 responses to “Roman Archers

  1. I have always enjoyed the concept of flaming arrows in war. I think that I would be more scared of the arrows during a battle than any other aspect of the battle. Did these warriors have great aim, like Robin Hood, or was it just luck and shear numbers when they hit a target? I know in reenactments, that the arrows are shot at such numbers that all you can really do is hunker down beneath any shelter available. Since so many things were built of wood, it is understandable that fire would be a useful weapon. I have to admit that I have a great sense of respect for the Roman soldiers for not stooping to the level of thier enemies and using poisoned tipped arrows.

  2. maximus4720

    Poisoned arrows in a war would be so clever to use, but you would think with how much force the arrow would enter into you the blow enough would kill you but to add poison would definitely make sure the person is dead. I think the description of the arrows you gave was great and make them bigger and stronger was a good way to make improvements. The Legion from 500 to 700 then to 11,000 is crazy. Good war tactics played a huge part once the effectiveness of the arrows could be used. Good job

  3. maazarat

    The idea of Poison arrows is such a great (and evil) idea. It really wouldn’t matter where you hit a person, as long as you broke the skin they would be goners. I have heard of indian tribes in areas like South America (Amazon) that use arrows poisoned with frog juices, but I had never heard that the people back in Ancient Roman times used them. That is very … noble? … i guess? of the Romans not to stoop to the level of Poison arrows. I mean really is it necessary to go beyond FLAMING ARROWS!?

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