Guides and Articles
Member Gallery
Historical Gallery
Media Gallery
Sling Ranges
Textual Resources

Other Websites


I'm happy to answer any questions or give advice. If you have some ideas or experiences you would like to share, consider submitting and article for publication on the site. You can contact me at

The Use of The Sling Among The Ancients - Walter Hawkins

Full Title: Observations on The Use of the Sling as a Warlike Weapon Among the Ancients.

In a letter addressed to Sir Henry Ellis, K.H., F.R.S., &c., Secretary, London
Printed By J.B. Nichols and Son, 25, Parliament-Street,

Archaeologia, Vol. XXXII. pp. 96-107, 1847

Converted to typed text by Mike Greenfield.

36, Finsbury Circus, 23rd November, 1846

My Dear Sir Henry,
As I believe that the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London does not include a specimen of the Leaden-pellet or Sling-bullet of the Greeks, I do myself the honour to forward to you one; of which, together with the accompanying drawing I beg the Society's acceptance.

This specimen was found lodged in the Cyclopian walls of Same' in Cephalonia. The determination of its date must depend on the degree of probability which may be attached to the supposition that it was deposited there by one of the Achaean slingers from AEgium, Patrae, and Dyme, of whom there were one hundred in the army with which the Roman consul, M. Fulvius, reduced that place, after a siege of four months, B. C. 198 (Livy, xxxviii, 29.)
It will be observed that in shape it very nearly resembles an almond. It appears to exhibit on the one side the characters (in Greek) or (in Greek), commencing at the smaller or taper end, and extending to the larger, where they are slightly defaced in consequence of the forcible compression of the pellet from the impact.

If the word be (in Greek), or in the Ionic dialect (in greek), it will mean "Appear" or "Show yourself." The other side seems to have been without character or device. The superficial appearance which it now presents is the natural result of a long exposure to the atmosphere, which has produced an incrustation of carbonate of lead or white lead.

In collecting materials for the accompanying paper on the use of this species of missile among the ancients, I have availed myself of the assistance of friends whose attention has been especially directed to Greek history.

The importance of missiles in the military operations of the ancients is not to be estimated by that to which they have attained in modern warfare. The issue of a battle in ordinary cases depended on the conflect between the (in Greek) or heavy-armed soldiers; yet the (in Greek) or light troops, whose office it was to discharge stones, arrows, and darts, frequently rendered important service, whether as skirmishers, in driving the enemy from his battlements, in discomforting the wavering phalanx, or in dealing death against the fugigives. In this last capacity they constituted in some measure a substitute for cavalry, a description of troops in which the ancients were very deficient. But they afforded most effectual aid in rugged and mountainous places, where the regular troops, being unable to act, were destroyed, without the means of retailiating, by the slingers and archers on the surrounding heights. One cause of the undue depreciation of missile warfare amongst the Greeks, and of the disasters which its neglect entailed upon some of the finest armies, may be recognised in the pride of wealth or of valour which taught the citizen-soldier to regard the rank of the heavy-armed as the more honourable, whether on account of his more costly equipment, or of his more perilous post. The low estimation in which slingers were held is evinced by the fact that generals who wished to degrade or deteriorate a conquered people not unfrequently armed them with slings, and forbad them the use of any other weapon. This policy was adopted by Cyrus the Great (about B. C. 540) towards the Phrygians and Lydians. And Xenophon remarks that Cyrus considered the sling to be of all weapons the most dishonourable and servile: "For," he proceeds, "although slingers when combined with other forces are sometimes of the greatest service, yet not even a large body, if unsupported, could withstand the attack of a few men armed for close combat." The truth of this observation was evinced at the battle of Pharsalia, B. C. 48. Pompey's bow-men and slingers, of which description of troops there was a large number in his army, having been left exposed by the flight of the cavalry, were quickly cut to pieces by Caesar's reserve. Again, Quintus Curtius represents Alexander, before the battle of the Gaugamela or Arbela, B. C. 331, as endeavouring to inspire his soldiers with contempt of their adversaries by reminding them that while some of them are armed with a javelin, others with a sling and stones, few are furnished with a full accoutrement. But, though such was the relative rank of slingers with respect to their comrades in arms, there were periods in which their importance in warfare was irresisitbly forced upon the attention of the Greek generals and statesmen.

Our chief difficulty in tracing historically the use of the sling arises from the circumstance that under the name of "light troops' were comprehended several distinct classes of soldiers; the slingers, the bow-men, the javelin-men, and the stone-casters; and that the Greek historians more frequently use the general term than the specific denomination. We shall however, without professing to supply a complete history of the sling, be able to discover its chief epochs, and to collect accounts of some of the most important campaigns in which it was employed, together with some notices by ancient historians of its peculiar excellencies and deficiencies, as an engine of warfare.

The invention of the sling is attributed by Pliny to the Phoenicians, by Vegetius to the Baleares, (who were Phoenician colonists,) and by Strabo to the AEtolians. It was called in Greek (in greek), and in Latin 'funda'. It consisted of a thong of leather, a string of sinew, or a cord of twisted wool, hair, or hemp, of greatest width in the middle, where the stone or bullet rested; sometimes, however, a kind of cup was attached for the reception of the missle; of the two ends, the one which was to be held firmly in the hand usually terminated in a loop or handle. Slings varied in length according to circumstances, the shorter ones being used in the assault upon besieged towns, and the longer to gall an enemy from a distant eminence; for the projection of large stones they were constructed with two, three, or more cords. Cheapness and compactness were advantages offered by the sling over all other offensive weapons, and it often could be employed when other arms were unavailable (positis hatis). Virg. AEn. ix. 589. Stones or bullets could be projected from a sling to greater distance than either arrows from a bow, or javelins with the aid of a thong. The projectiles used in slings were in earlier times smooth pebbles, but afterwards leaden bullets; they were carried either in a bag (in Greek, 'marsupium') hung over the shoulder, or in the folds of the outer dress.

Most of these particulars are admirably illustrated by the representations of slingers upon the Egyptian monuments (as engraved in Wilkinson's Egypt, vol.i.316) and by those upon the columns of Trajan and Antonine. (See Montfaucon and Bartoli.)

Many of the nations of antiquity are said to have attained most wonderful skill in the use of this weapon. Thus, the Benjamites, mentioned in the Book of Judges, could "sling stones at a an hair-breadth and not miss." But amongst the most celebrated were the inhabitants of the Balearic isles (now Majorca and Minorca), whose name is derived by Polybius from (in Greek), "to cast." Of this people Diodorus Siculus says that "they can hurl far larger stones than any others, and with so great force that the missile might be supposed to be projected from a catapult; and yet so accurate is their aim that they rarely miss their mark. This extraordinary skill is acquired by constant practice in their boyhood; for a custom obtains among this people of fastening pieces of bread upon poles, and compelling their children to win their meal by striking it from a distance with a sling-stone." They usually carried with them three (in Greek) of different lengths, to serve either as bands or as slings; one of these was bound round the head, the second round the loins, and the third was carried in the hand. Livy informs us that at the time of the second Punic war (which was terminated B. C. 201) the Baleares bore no other arms but the sling; while in his own time, though it was still their chief weapon, it was not used exclusively. We learn from classical sources that the sling was in use amongst the Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Carduchi, Ilerdes and Spaniards, Cirtaei and Numidians, Belgae, Gauls, Greeks, and Romans. Of all the Greeks the most noted slingers were the Archaeans, Acarnanians, AEtolians, and Rhodians. The fame of the Achaeans was perpetuated in the proverbial expression (in Greek), "an Achaean hit." Livy relates that the Achaean boys were wont to practise slinging with smooth pebbles on the sea shore; "their sling," he says, "was made, not like the balearic, of a single thong, but of three strengthened with stitching, and thus they effectually provided against the slipping of the bullet; they ply their slings with a longer range, and with surer aim, and greater force than the Baleares; they can hurl their missiles through small rings placed at a considerable distance, and hit not only the heads of the enemy, but any part of the face at which they choose to aim."

On the other hand Thucydides, four hundred years earlier, says, the Acarnanians had the reputation of being the most expert of all nations in this species of warfare. According to an ancient legend mentioned by Strabo, the AEtolians won their land from the original inhabitants through the issue in their favour of a single combat. Their own champion was armed with a sling (the use of which had been recently discovered among them), his adversary with a bow, and the longer range of the former weapon secured the victory to the AEtolian. The Athenians were at most periods very deficient in this branch of the military art, and suffered in the consequence several severe checks and defeats. The chief application of the sling among the Greeks was of course as a military engine; it was however also used for the sake of exercise; and Plato in his Laws advocates its adoption not by men only but by women, as a means of invigorating the body. The sling was assigned as an attribute to Nemesis, by which was signified that Divine justice reaches the guilty even from afar.

The earliest historical notice of the sling is about the date B. C. 1406; it is found in the Book of Judges, ch. xx. 16, where it is related that in the army of the Benjamites were "seven hundred chosen men, left-handed, every one of whom could sling stones at an hair-breadth."

The next allusion is in the well-known account of the death of the Philistine champion Goliath by the sling-stone of David. Again, it is said of some of the warriors who "came to David to Ziklag," B. C. 1058, "they were armed with bows, and could use both the right hand and the left in hurling stones, and shooting arrows out of a bow, even of Sauls's brethern of Benjamin." Amongst the weapons which King Uzziah provided for his army, B. C. 810, were "bows and slings to cast stones" (or as it is rendered in the margin, "stones of slings.") See also II Kings, ch. iii. 25.

From these passages it appears that the slingers occupied a far more honourable position in the Israelite armies than in those of the Greeks and Romans; we also have an intimation of a practice prevalent among this people of accustoming themselves to the use of either hand in slinging, and there is perhaps no need of attaching any other meaning than this to the expression "left-handed," in the first passage. The value which the Israelites assigned to the sling as an engine of destruction, may also be estimated from the frequent use inthe prophecies of the expression to "sling-out" a people, as a synonym for total extermination.

Of the two Homeric passages which bear upon our present subject, (Il. xiii. 599, and xiii. 716,) the word (in Greek) (a sling) occurs only in the first. It is there used in conjunction with the expression (in Greek) (a cord of twisted wool), which is again employed in line 716, without any explanatory adjunct. In the former passage Agenor is represented as bandaging the wounded arm of Helenus with a woolen (in Greek); and the Scholiast on this passage observes that the ancient slings were made of woollen cords. From the second passage we learn that Locrian slingers followed in the train of Ajax Oileus, and rendered services at the time of the attack on the ships by Hector and the Trojans. Their post in battle was in the rear of the army, whence they projected their missiles in security, and sorely galled the enemy's phalanx. The supposed date of these events is about B. C. 1184, three hundred years anterior to that of the poem in which they are related. In later times, the light troops were not unfrequently attached as servants to the 'hoplites'; they commenced the battle by hurling their missiles on the advancing foe, and then retreated through the ranks to the rear of their own army. Thus, in the first engagement of the Athenians before Syracuse, B. C. 415, the stone-casters, slingers, and bow-men on either side, made the first assault, and then the trumpeters sounded the charge, and the 'hoplites' advanced to the combat. Sometimes, however, at particular junctures, the light troops were again brought forward to assail the enemy with greater effect from a nearer position.

The conference between the Greek ambassadors and Gelo of Syracuse, relative to their contemplated alliance against Persia, B. C. 480, affords a good opportunity of estimating the usual numerical proportion of slingers to the rest of the army. The Syracusan auxiliary was intended to be as complete in all its appointments as the wealth of that potent tyrant could render it. The proposed complements of the several departments are thus given by Herodotus; 20,000 'hoplites, 2,000 horse, 2,000 bow-men, 2,000 slingers, and 2,000 light horsemen.

The policy of Cyrus, which we have described above, rendered the proportion of slingers in his armies much larger; thus, on his advance upon Babylon, he was accompanied, says Xenophon, by a great multitude of horse and bow-men, and javelin-men, and by slingers innumerable. Again, in the disastrous expedition of the Athenians against Sicily, B. C. 415, the proportion of bow-men and slingers was made much larger than usual, in accordance with the requirements of Nicias, who demanded that a large body of these troops should be provided to form a counterpoise against the enemy's superiority in cavalry. The armament, therefore, was composed of 5,100 'hoplites', 480 bow-men, 700 Rhodian slingers, 120 Megarian light troops, and 30 horse.

Two years afterwards Demosthenes, when on his way to join Nicias with the second armament, stopped to reinforce his troops with slingers and javelin-men from the territory of Acarnania. Reverting to a somewhat earlier period, we read that in the year B. C. 429 the Lacedemonians, having invaded Acarnania under the command of Cnemus, were completely foiled and compelled to retreat before the noted slingers of that country. The value of light troops in mountainous localities is well illustrated by the account of the reduction of Sphacteria, B. C. 425, when the redoubtable Spartans were cut off in detail by the arrows, javelins, stones, and slings of the enemy, without the opportunity of retaliating, or of reducing the contest to a pitched battle. Thucydides in detailing the circumstances of the calamitous expedition of Hippocrates in Boeotia, B. C. 424, relates that the Athenians were not at this period in the habit of including in their army any organised body of light troops, and in consequence were now totally unprovided with this description of soldiery; while on the other hand the Boeotian force was composed of 7,000 'hoplites', 1,000 horse, 500 peltasts, and 10,000 light troops, which were stationed with the cavalry on the wings. Yet, after the defeat of the Athenians, and their retreat into Delium, the Boeotians sent for a reinforcement of javelin-men and slingers from the Malian Gulf, in the hope of speedily reducing the fortress by their aid, so great appears to have been the importance attached to missile warfare by this people.

Passing over other instances which might be alleged, we arrive now at the expedition of the Greeks in support of the pretensions of Cyrus the younger to the Persian throne. The general and historian of the famous retreat of the Ten Thousand, B. C. 401, relates that the Greeks suffered severely from the slingers in the army of Mithridates, while they themselves had no cavalry or slingers, and were unable to reach the enemy with their arrows and javelins. But Xenophon, having ascertained that there were in his army some Rhodians who understood the use of leaden sling-bullets, immediately organised a body of 200 men armed with these weapons. The employment of these Rhodians was attended with signal success; and they were able, says Xenophon, to project their missiles twice as far as the Persian slingers, who used large stones. Darius Codomannus in making his dispositions previous to the battle of Issus, B. C. 423, posted a force of 20,000 slingers and bow-men, with his cavalry, on the right wing, while in front of the whole army he placed 8,000 javelin-men and slingers. Hence it would seem that the policy of Cyrus was still pursued by the Persian Court.

At the same period we find mention of Acarnanian slingers in the army of Alexander. About B. C. 219, we read that Philip III. of Macedonia was supported by an auxiliary of 300 Achaean slingers; and we have already seen that the Romans had need of 100 slingers of the same nation to aid them in the reduction of Same' in Cephallenia, B. C. 189. It appears, therefore, that the Acarnanians and Achaeans retained down to a late period their ancient celebrity as slingers.

The early notices of the sling which we have instanced have been chosen, not so much for their historial sequence, as for their importance in illustrating the mode in which this weapon was gnerally employed.

Towards the close of the fifth century before Christ, the use of sling-stones began to be superseded by that of leaden bullets, and from this period downwards the latter missiles are frequently mentioned both by Greek and Roman historians. But before we proceed to describe these bullets more minutely, we will adduce a few examples of the use of the sling from Roman history. Livy informs us that Hannibal, previously to his descent upon Italy, B. C. 219, provided for the safety of Africa by sending over 870 Balearic slingers; another body of light-armed Baleares accompanied his own army, and 500 were left with Hasdrubal in Spain. Again, in B. C. 206, when Mago attempted to land upon the greater of the Balearic islands (Majorca), the inhabitants hurled their sling-stones in such numbers upon his ships that he was not able even to enter the harbour. Caesar employed Balearic slingers with eminent success in the Gallic war, and on one occasion he routed the foe by the employment of sling-stones of a pound weight, and of bullets. When he invaded Britain, B. C. 55, he disposed his slingers and other light troops on the decks of his ships-of-war for the purpose of terrifying the Britons, and covering the landing of his troops.

In the year A. D. 16, Germanicus, by a skilful disposition of his slingers, obtained a victory over the Germans in a rugged and woody country, where a hand-to-hand engagement would probably have entailed a defeat. Again, when Corbulo was attacking one of the fortresses of Armenia, A. D. 59, he posted his slingers so as to gall the enemy at different points, and thus prevented their rendering succour to one another.

Slings were also used with remarkable success against elephants, which, terrified as much by the whizzing sound as by the actual blow, often turned upon their masters and commmitted great havoc. We might easily enlarge the number of our quotations, but enough have been already adduced to illustrate this portion of our subject.

We have before remarked, that towards the close of the fifth century plummets or leaden bullets began to supersede the ancient sling-stones. The name given to these missiles by the Greeks was (in greek, in Greek), or (in Greek) "leaden balls," and by the Romans 'glandes', "acorns." This latter name was derived from their shape, which very nearly resembles that of the acorn, the olive, or the almond, and was calculated to experience a comparatively slight resistance from the atmosphere. Stores of these pellets of sling-bullets were kept in the arsenals for future us: sometimes, however, the metal was fused and bullets cast in the camp when an engagement was already impending as was the case in Caesar's African war, B. C. 46. The bullets were generally ornamented with some device, such as a thunderbolt, a star, or an arrow-head, or with characters, as the word (in Greek), "Appear;" (in Greek), "Take this; " (in Greek), "The King's;" (in Greek), "Desist." Sometimes, also, we find on bullets the names of the generals as for instance, (in Greek), "Cleonicus'," (in Greek), "Calistratus"; and again, the names of Philip and Perdiccas, or those again of the contending nations, or merely a monogram or single letter, of which, after the lapse of so many years, we cannot now hope to obtain a solution. The characters appear generally to have been in relief, and to have read from the smaller end to the larger, where they are often defaced in consequence of the collision of the bullet with some hard object.

Sling-bullets sometimes weighed as much as an Attic pound, though the usual weights of the exitant specimens are between 1-1/2 and 3-1/2 ounces. Specimens have been found on the plains of Marathon, in Cephallenia, Ithaca, and Corcyra, at Athens, and in the channel of the Ilissus. There was another use to which these leaden projectiles were applied (at any rate in later times), which we have not yet mentioned; namely, the communication of warning or of intelligence, as for instance by secret friends in the enemy's camp. Thus, when Sylla laid siege to Athens, and the city was at length reduced to the last state of famine, a secret friend within the walls informed the Roman general that on the following night Archelaus (the General of Mithridates) intended to introduce some provisions from the Piraeus. This information was inscribed on a sling-bullet, which Appian calls (in Greek), (an oval body, whether of stone or lead); and Sylla was thus enabled to intercept both the supplies and those who had charge of them. They were similarly employed on several distinct occasions during Caesar's war against Cnaeius Pompeius in Spain. At a subsequent period these missiles, as well as the soldiers who projected them, seem to have acquired the nic-name of "Martiobarbuli," a word which has been derived from 'barbus', "a barbel," and said to mean the dainty fair of tit-bits of Mars.

A favourite notion of the Roman poets, and one that must be recorded not as a mere poetical extravagance, but rather as a somehat hyperbolical expression of a matured opinion, was that the bullet was heated and almost liquified by its friction with the air. Thus Virgil, in the 9th AEneid, line 589:
"Stridentem fundam positis Mezentius armis,
Ipse ter adducta circum caput egit habena;
Et media adversi liquefacto tempora plumbo

Which Dryden translates:
"Him when he spy'd from far, the Tuscan King
Laid by the lance, and took him to the sling,
Thrice whirl'd the thong around his head, and threw
The heated lead, half-melted as it flew," &c.

Again, Lucretius instances the "melting" of the sling-bullet in support of the assertion that all things are heated by motion.--Book vi. 177.
"Ut omnia motu
Percalefacta vides ardescere: flumbea vero
Blans etiam longo cursu volvunda liquescit."

And Ovid. Metam. ii. 727,
"Non secus exarsit, quam cum Balearica plumbum
Funda jacet, volat illud, et incandescit eundo,
Et quos non habuit, sub nubibus invenit ignes."

And lastly Lucan, Phars. vii. 513,
"Saxa volant spatioque solutae
Aeris, et calido liquefactae pondere glandes."

Specimins of sling-bullets with Roman characters are far more scarce than those with the Greek letters. The largest number have been found at Florence, where (as is conjectured) there was formerly a Roman arsenal. Amongst the devices in Roman characters may be mentioned the following: 'Feri', "Strike;" 'Fugitivi peritis', "Ye perish in your flight;" 'Ital, et Gall', "The Italians and the Gauls." And among the ruins of Eryx, to the eastward of Trapani, (the ancient Drepanum,) many leaden bullets for slings are found, some of which are inscribed with imprecations. (See Captain Smyth's "Sicily and its Islands," page 242.) We may instance one of these inscriptions, which is translated: "Your heart for Cerberus." Many of the ancient sling-bullets which are still preserved are incrusted with carbonate of lead, from the natural effects of long exposure to the atmosphere, as appears by the specimen presented, and sometimes with yellow oxide of lead or litharge, where they have been submitted to the more direct action of the sun's rays.

With the mention of a few peculiar applications of the sling, we will conclude our historical sketch of the use of the weapon amongst the ancients. Pellets of a kind of porcelain or earthenware, and moulded like sling-bullets, were sometimes used; they were discharged when red hot. Quintus Cicero, Caesar's Lieutenant in Gaul, employed these formidable missiles against the Nervii, B. C. 57. A new species of sling was employed by Perseus, King of Macedonia, against the Romans, B. C. 171. It is called 'cestrosphendone' by Polybius and Livy, and was constructed to project a kind of dart ('cestrum') of length of half an ell. It contributed much to the discomfiture of the Romans at Sycurium in Thessaly. Vegetius describes a species of sling in use in his time (A. D. 3), which is more familiar to us as a weapon of the middle ages; it is the 'fustibulus' or "staff-sling," and is described by that author as consisting of a staff of four feet in length, to which was attached a sling of leather. It was wielded with both hands. But stones were hurled not only from slings, but also with the naked hand. The armies of the ancients, especially those of the Greeks, frequently included large numbers of stone-throwers, (in Greek) or (in Greek). And in Homer we constantly read of great execution being done by the (in Greek) or large stones thus projected. Again, as the advancement of the arts introduced new weapons, engines were employed for the projection of stones and darts. The slingers (in Greek, 'funditores') must be distinguished from the stone-throwers on the one hand, and on the other from the engine-men, ((in Greek), 'balistarii',) who by aid of the balista (in Greek (in Greek)) threw stones of half a hundred weight, a whole hundred weight, and even three hundred weight.

We now pass to mediaeval and modern times.

The sling has often been assigned to the ancient Britons; but there appears to be no adequate foundation for this supposition. The Saxons, however, were celebrated for their skill in the use of this weapon; and the Anglo-Norman army seems always to have included an organised body of slingers; but the use of the sling gradually became obsolete, though it was retained for a long time as a means of amusement and exercise. We have however evidence of its employment in war as late as the end of the fourteenth century, in the ballad entitled "A Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd;" and at the commencement of the fifteenth century, in the following passage from a poem, called "Knyghthode and Batayle," quoted by Strutt in his "Sports and Pastimes."
"Use eek the cast of stone, with sling or honde
It falleth ofte, yf other shot there none is,
Men harneysed in steel may not withstonde
The multitude and mighty cast of stonys;
And stonys in effect are every where,
And slynges are not noyous for to bear."

The box in which, for the sake of protection, the pellet now submitted to the Society has been inclosed, is constructed of the wood of the redoubtable Téméraire. Some few particulars respecting this vessel have been engraved, and a copy has been placed in the lid of the box.

I have the honour to subscribe myself,
My dear Sir Henry,
With much respect, yours very sincerely,
Walter Hawkins.

© 2007