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The Sling in Literature - Michael Gillelan

In a recent article published in the Chicago Tribune, James Janega tells about U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Thornton of Norristown, Pennsylvania, now fighting in Fallujah, Iraq:

As his team slept, he used a marker to write "This is 4 my buddy" on a 40 mm grenade for his M203 launcher.

"His wife lives right across the street from my wife," he said softly. "I'm all about fighting."

His buddy was killed in battle a few days earlier.

Sgt. Thornton in marking his grenade was keeping alive an ancient tradition. Many sling bullets survive from antiquity, some with inscriptions scratched on them. The Greek for one of these leaden projectiles is molybdis, and in Latin they are called glandes plumbeae (literally leaden acorns). Here are a couple of inscriptions, from Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, I:

  • 650: Feri Pomp(eium) = Strike Pompey.
  • 682: Pet(e) culum Octavia[ni] = Attack Octavian's arsehole.
    (The implication is that Octavianus (the future Augustus) would have turned tail in flight.)
Karl Zangemeister collected some of these Latin inscriptions in his Glandes plumbeae latine inscriptae (Rome, 1885) = Ephemeris epigraphica, VI.

The sling was not a toy in antiquity but a deadly, accurate weapon, made usually of a strip of leather narrow at the ends and broader in the middle where the bullet was held in a kind of pouch. Its Latin name was funda, and the warrior equipped with a sling was called a funditor. The Greek equivalents are sphendone for sling and sphendonetes for slinger.

The most famous slinger of antiquity was of course David, who slew Goliath with a shot from his sling:
  • 1 Samuel 17.40: And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.
  • 1 Samuel 17.49: And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

Other Biblical references include:

  • 2 Kings 3.25 (Israelites against the Moabites): And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kir-haraseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it.
  • Judges 20.16 (the Benjamites): Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.
  • 1 Chronicles 12.2: 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 Saul's brethren of Benjamin.

One advantage of the sling in battle was its long range, longer than that of spears or even arrows. Xenophon makes that clear in these passages from his Anabasis (tr. Carleton L. Brownson):

  • 3.3.6-7: They had not proceeded far when Mithradates appeared again, accompanied by about two hundred horsemen and by bowmen and slingers--exceedingly active and nimble troops--to the number of four hundred. He approached the Greeks as if he were a friend, but when his party had got close at hand, on a sudden some of them, horse and foot alike, began shooting with their bows and others with slings, and they inflicted wounds. And the Greek rearguard, while suffering severely, could not retaliate at all; for the Cretan bowmen not only had a shorter range than the Persians, but besides, since they had no armour, they were shut in within the lines of the hoplites; and the Greek javelin-men could not throw far enough to reach the enemy's slingers.
  • 3.3.16-18: Hence, if we should propose to put an end to the possibility of their harming us on our march, we need slingers ourselves at once, and horsemen also. Now I am told that there are Rhodians in our army, that most of them understand the use of the sling, and that their missile carries no less than twice as far as those from the Persian slings. For the latter have only a short range because the stones that are used in them are as large as the hand can hold; the Rhodians, however, are versed also in the art of slinging leaden bullets. If, therefore, we should ascertain who among them possess slings, and should not only pay these people for their slings, but likewise pay anyone who is willing to plait new ones, and if, furthermore, we should devise some sort of exemption for the man who will volunteer to serve as a slinger at his appointed post, it may be that men will come forward who will be capable of helping us.

Certain ancient peoples were well known for their skill with the sling. Thucydides (2.81.8, tr. Charles Forster Smith) mentions the Acarnanians in particular:

But when the barbarians in their flight broke in upon them, they took them in and uniting their two divisions kept quiet there during the day, the Stratians not coming to close quarters with them, because the rest of the Acarnanians had not yet come to their support, but using their slings against them from a distance and distressing them; for it as not possible for them to stir without armour; and indeed the Acarnanians are famous for their excellence in the use of the sling.

Livy (38.29.3-8, tr. Evan T. Sage) refers to the inhabitants of three Greek cities on the northern coast of the Peloponnesus as expert slingers:

A hundred slingers were recruited from Aegium and Patrae and Dymae. These peoples were trained from boyhood, in accordance with a tradition of the race, in hurling with a sling at the open sea the round stones which, mingled with sand, generally strew the coasts. In consequence they use this weapon at longer range, with greater accuracy, and with more powerful effect than the Balearic slinger. Moreover, the sling is not composed of a single strap, like those of the Baleares and other peoples, but the bullet-carrier is triple, strengthened with numerous seams, that the missle may not fly out at random, from the pliancy of the strap at the moment of discharge, but seated firmly while being whirled, may be shot out as if from a bow-string. Having been trained to shoot through rings of moderate circumference from long distances, they would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed. These slings prevented the Sameans from making sallies so frequently or so boldly, to such an extent that they begged the Achaeans to withdraw for a while and in quiet to watch them fighting with the Roman outguards.
centum funditores ab Aegio et Patris et Dymis acciti. a pueris ii more quodam gentis saxis globosis, quibus ferme harenae immixtis strata litora sunt, funda mare apertum incessentes exercebantur. itaque longius certiusque et validiore ictu quam Baliaris funditor eo telo usi sunt. et est non simplicis habenae, ut Baliarica aliarumque gentium funda, sed triplex scutale, crebris suturis duratum, ne fluxa habena volutetur in iactu glans, sed librata cum sederit, velut nervo missa excutiatur. coronas modici circuli magno ex intervallo loci adsueti traicere non capita solum hostium vulnerabant, sed quem locum destinassent oris. hae fundae Samaeos cohibuerunt, ne tam crebro neve tam audacter erumperent, adeo ut precarentur ex muris Achaeos, ut parumper abscederent et se cum Romanis stationibus pugnantis quiete spectarent.

As Livy mentions in passing, another people famous for their skill with the sling were the inhabitants of the Balearic islands (today Majorca and Minorca). Strabo (3.5.1, tr. Horace Leonard Jones) writes:

They are spoken of as the best of slingers. And this art they have practised assiduously, so it is said, ever since the Phoenicians took possession of the islands. And the Phoenicians are also spoken of as the first to clothe the people there in tunics with a broad border; but the people used to go forth to their fights without a girdle on — with only a goat-skin, wrapped round the arm, or with a javelin that had been hardened in the fire (though in rare cases it was also pointed with a small iron tip), and with three slings worn round the head, of black-tufted rush (that is, a species of rope-rush, out of which the ropes are woven; and Philetas, too, in his "Hermeneia" says, "Sorry his tunic befouled with dirt; and round about him his slender waist is entwined with a strip of black-tufted rush," meaning a man girdled with a rush-rope), of black-tufted rush, I say, or of hair or of sinews: the sling with the long straps for the shots at short range, and the medium sling for the medium shots. And their training in the use of slings used to be such, from childhood up, that they would not so much as give bread to their children unless they first hit it with the sling. This is why Metellus, when he was approaching the islands from the sea, stretched hides above the decks as a protection against the slings.

Florus 3.8 (1.43 Rossbach) also mentions the three sizes of slings:

Each one fights with three slings. Who would be surprised at their accurate strikes, since these are the only weapons of that people, this alone their pursuit from childhood on?
tribus quisque fundis proeliantur. certos esse quis miretur ictus, cum haec sola genti arma sint, id unum ab infantia studium?

Vegetius 1.16 (tr. John Clarke) gives similar details about the Balearic islanders:

Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any incumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.

ad lapides vero vel manibus vel fundis iaciendos exerceri diligenter convenit iuniores. fundarum usum primi Balearium insularum habitatores et invenisse et ita perite exercuisse dicuntur, ut matres parvos filios nullum cibum contingere sinerent, nisi quem ex funda destinato lapide percussissent. saepe enim adversum bellatores cassidibus catafractis loricisque munitos teretes lapides de funda vel fustibalo destinati sagittis sunt omnibus graviores, cum membris integris letale tamen vulnus importent et sine invidia sanguinis hostis lapidis ictu intereat. in omnibus autem veterum proeliis funditores militasse nullus ignorat. quae res ideo ab universis tironibus frequenti exercitio discenda est, quia fundam portare nullus est labor. et interdum evenit, ut in lapidosis locis conflictus habeatur, ut mons sit aliquis defendendus aut collis, ut ab obpugnatione castellorum sive civitatum lapidibus barbari fundisque pellendi sint.

The velocity required for a bullet to puncture the skin is sometimes given as 163 feet per second, to break a bone 213 feet per second. Modern sling projectiles have been clocked at about 130 miles per hour, or approximately 190 feet per second. We have no reason, therefore, to doubt the testimony of the ancient medical writer Celsus, who writes (7.5):

There is a third type of weapon that sometimes needs to be removed, a leaden bullet or rock or something similar, which breaking through the skin lodges inside in one piece. In all of these cases, the wound needs to be opened a bit wider, and what is inside must be extracted with pincers along the same pathway by which it entered.

tertium genus telorum est, quod interdum evelli debet; plumbea glans aut lapis aut simile aliquid, quod perrupta cute integrum intus insedit. in omnibus his latius vulnus aperiundum, idque quod inest, ea, qua venit, forfice extrahendum est.

It was a common misconception in antiquity, from Aristotle onward, that bullets propelled by slings travelled so fast that they became molten. Lucretius makes this mistake (6.178-179, tr. H.A.J. Munro): "A leaden ball in whirling through a long course even melts" (plumbea vero / glans etiam longo cursu volvenda liquescit), and so does Vergil, Aeneid 9.586-589:

The hero Mezentius, putting aside his spears, with tightened thong whirled thrice around his head the whirring sling and split his adversary's forehead with the molten bullet and stretched him out flat over a great stretch of sand.

stridentem fundam positis Mezentius hastis
ipse ter adducta circum caput egit habena
et media adversi liquefacto tempora plumbo
diffidit ac multa porrectum extendit harena.

- Michael Gilleland

© 2007