What actually is a… Pilum muralis?
“Pilum muralis” means “wall spear” and is the name for an odd squared timber that was pointed at both ends. Around the year 0 such poles belonged to the standard equipment of all Legionnaires of the Roman army. They were used as border pillars to secure the camp of a military unit as a palisade, fence or simply as an obstacle.
“Pilum muralis“ is a term used in German-speaking regions, the correct Latin term would be “Sudes”, “stakes” in English. A wide range of finds and mentions in historical sources confirms that these pillars were part of a Roman Legionnaires standard equipment. Due to their size, form and weight, they were however inadequate as “spears” in the form of lances or javelins.
“Sudes” were 150 to 180 centimeters in length and were made from oak timber. They had a slimmer part in the middle, with a diameter between 5 and 10 centimeters that looked like a handle. Legionnaires usually had two of these pillars each with them, even though they didn’t actually carry them themselves when marching. Groups of eight soldiers each formed a tent community, the so called “Contubernium” and each tent community was assigned a mule that carried the group’s equipment.
It is not certain how these pillars were actually used. Experiments conducted by archaeologists like Marcus Junkelmann and Peter Connolly have shown that these poles, due to their form, were not suitable as assault weapons. They were quite heavy and the notch in the middle would have hampered any throw. In throwing trials distances of a maximum of 12 meters were achieved – that’s too little for an effective weapon used from distance.
Historical reports and experiments prove their use as fence posts and palisade. On their marches, Legionnaires could use these pillars to erect a fortified position, from which they could defend against assaults and cavalry attacks, in almost no time at all.
The pillars’ notches made it easy to put together three of them to form an obstacle to approaching troops in the form of a cheval de frise. Lines of defense could easily and quickly be erected in this way. Foot soldiers however can easily knock down these tripods and the convenient notch turns into a weak spot, if great pressure is applied to the pillars.
Tests by a Danish reenactment group suggest that these pillars could have been used as “spikes” that reinforced a camp’s defense in the moat around it.