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A roman lead sling bullet with a relief of what appears to be an insect or spider

Messages on missiles: Here is a Sugar Plum for You!

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Writing messages on bullets and missiles goes back at least to Biblical times and continues to modern times among Israelis, Jordanians, Americans and others. The practice became industrial to ancient Greeks and Romans, who manufactured lead sling bullets in molds with taunting messages in bas-relief, such as ‘Ouch!’, ‘Be lodged well’, and ‘Here’s a sugar plum for you!’.

The Ancient Weapon of the Sling Shot

The use of the sling to launch rocks at the enemy is known from the famous battle between David and Goliath in the 9 th century BC. Cast lead bullets from 490 BC were also found at the scene of the Battle of Marathon. The use of slings is known in many parts of the world from ancient times.

 Clay sling bullets from Ardoch. In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

 Clay sling bullets from Ardoch. In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. ( Ross Cowan / Flickr )

The ancient Greeks and Romans produced lead bullets for use in slings in mass quantities, sometimes in molds and sometimes just by digging a figure into sand and pouring molten lead into it. The messages that ancient Romans put on lead sling bullets ranged from naming the leader of the sling unit, the commander of the troops or messages invoking a god or wishing injury upon or insulting the targets, according to the Collector Antiquities blog .

Bullets launched with a sling traveled farther than an arrow and caused devastating though subtle injuries to the people they struck, according to ancient sources. Lead made a very good missile because it is heavy and could remain small and because they were very hard to see and avoid. An interesting point to note about lead bullets is that they get hot from air friction and glow in flight.

Slings were known in many other parts of the world; here is a sling with a black bullet from Peru, the Inca period.

Slings were known in many other parts of the world; here is a sling with a black bullet from Peru, the Inca period. (Photo by Peter van der Sluijs / Wikimedia Commons )

The Deadly Strike of a Sling Bullet

According to the Military History Blog , the Roman poet Virgil reports that Etruscan King Menentius “dropped his spears, then made a sling. Go whipping round his head three times as he put stress upon it and he split the adversary’s temples with a molten leaden slug, knocking him down asplay on a bank of sand.”

Some of the best slingers in the ancient world, according to ancient sources perhaps even the inventors of the sling, were the Acarnians. Livy, ancient Roman historian, wrote that the Acarnians “would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed.”

Vegetius, a Roman who wrote on military matters, reported: “Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round bullets from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Sling-bullets kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood.”

The most common lead bullets among both Greeks and Romans were almond-shaped bullets cast in two-part molds and measuring about 35 mm (1 3/8ths inch) long by about 20 mm (3/4 inch) wide and weighing about 28 grams (1 ounce), says Collector Antiquities. These molds had inscriptions or symbols in relief that would be imparted to the bullet. In ancient Rome they were known as glandes plumbeae, or “lead acorns,” or simply as acorns.

Ancient Greek sling bullets with engravings. One side depicts a winged thunderbolt, and the other, the Greek inscription “take that” in high relief.

Ancient Greek sling bullets with engravings. One side depicts a winged thunderbolt, and the other, the Greek inscription “take that” in high relief. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Taunting Messages of the Romans

The Collector Antiquities blog says the inscriptions included the name or monogram of the leader of the sling unit; the name of the commander of the army or of the enemy’s commander; a message seeking luck from the gods, usually Nike; and threatening message, including “This is for dessert,” “Crack your teeth”, “Catch”, “For Pompey’s backside”, and “This is an unpleasant gift.” Some of the messages were indecent – one bullet was found that said, “Attack Octavian’s arsehole.”

The practice of taunting the enemy with signatures and insults on missiles continued from ancient times until 2015, when it was reported that Jordanian pilots wrote messages on chalk on rockets destined for Islamic State targets in Syria. Perhaps the most egregious example of such missile messages were the signatures and taunts on Fat Man, a devastating nuclear plutonium bomb that the U.S. government and military dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 8, 1945.

Featured image: A roman lead sling bullet with a relief of what appears to be an insect or spider (Photo by Peter van der Sluijs/ Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

Comments

Why oval bullets instead of round ones??? Wouldn't oval bullets tumble in flight and be less accurate than round ones?The Romans must have had a reason to do so as they could have molded spherical bullets just as easily.

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