Thracian Weapons

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Spears and Javelins

Introduction | Javelins | Long Spears | The Sarissa

Introduction

Euripides, Hecabe, p96 (Penguin):

Polymestor: "Thracians!  Hear me, Thracians!  Come with your spears, your armour, your horses!  Thracian warriors, hearts of Ares!

There are references in Greek texts to 'Thracian spears", but these are unfortunately not described. It is supposed that these references are to javelins, the cornel wood short spear that could be used as a deadly missile weapon, or hand-to-hand.   Peltasts and javelinmen carried a bundle of javelins.  Although they are conventionally illustrated with only two, it is clear from accounts of battles that more were carried, the number depending on their length which varied between 3.5ft (1.1m) and 7ft (2m).  Most of the wealthier warrior burials in Thrace contained at least two spearheads; one had four, and another five.  However, there are some vase paintings of Thracians with long spears, and Thracians seem to have used both types in either mixed or separate units.  Duncan Head says "The typical peltast weapon was a pair of javelins, but many peltasts are shown on vases using a single long thrusting spear. It is hard to see how these could have fulfilled the traditional peltast skirmishing role, but there is no evidence that these spearmen carried javelins as well. Perhaps they threw stones at the enemy, a procedure often indulged in by Greek light troops, and which the javelin-armed peltasts may also have been reduced to when they had used the paltry two missiles which is all they are ever shown with." Some authors (including Best) suggest that the ideas for the Iphicratean reforms came from Iphicrates' time in Thrace, and that some Thracian tribes were using especially long spears in the fourth century.  This could also have influenced Philip in his development of the sarrissa.  It is not known when Thracians stopped using long spears, or if they continued to use javelins with rhomphaias.  When Thrace was ruled by a Roman client-king, Thracian troops were "equipped in the Roman fashion".  This probably meant they were trained as auxilia using javelins.  All Thracian cavalry were armed with javelins, except for the Getae, who were armed with bows like their Skythian neighbours.

Vratsa spearsVratsa spearsLeft: Spear points on display in the Vratsa museum.  Unfortunately, the Celtic spears are mixed up with the Thracian spears, and there is no indication of which is which.   However, this is a good illustration of the different types possible.  The relative size of javelin- and arrow-heads is also shown.

Some spears had leaf-shaped heads, but the commonest type was of lancet form with a marked central rib.  There was also a barbed Skythian type of javelin head.

Homer Illiad, Chapter 2

Acamas next and the hero Pirous led the Thracians confined by the strong-flowing Hellespont stream, and Euphemus arrayed the Ciconians, men of the spear, the son of Troezen the son of Ceos was he.

Long Spears

Peltast with long spear«Figure 2: Peltast with long spear from Attic cup, 5th century (Best)

 

Best shows that LTS (long thrusting spears) and JLS (javelins) should not be used in the same Thracian unit. The LTS­armed troops were meant to support the JLS­armed troops while the latter skirmished. When the javelins ran out, the LTS troops would advance to hand­to­hand combat.  Archibald (P 202) says that "the archaeological evidence suggests that individual soldiers used spears of different types according to circumstances, like the pre-archaic Greek soldier, and there is no evidence of organised groups of spearmen and javelin throwers in this period...most warrior burials.. contained multiple spearheads with blades of varying lengths.  The principle forms are derived from older iron age types, though the total length is often equal to or smaller than the blades of their early predecessors.  Sixth-century and later examples tend to be much shorter and narrower.  Javelin heads as such are rarely recognised...."

Three principle shapes were in use between the fifth and third centuries BC:

1. the lancet-shaped type with a pronounced midrib, the blade base jutting sharply away from the socket.  This was also the commonest form from the late sixth century onwards in south Russia and the Carpatho-Danubian region.

2.  The leaf-shaped type, with the blade base curving smoothly into the socket.

3.  Archibald does not describe the third type!  Perhaps this was the barbed Skythian type of javelin head.  In the later fouth and during the third century, the number and range of types increased.

Long spearmen are last reported (by Plutarch) in 322 B.C., when a Macedonian general sent some to arrest the Athenian orator Demosthenes:

Plutarch, Demosthenes, 322 B.C.

Demosthenes, he [the Macedonian general Archias] heard, had taken sanctuary at the temple of Neptune in Calauria and, crossing over thither in some light vessels, as soon as he had landed himself, and the Thracian spearmen that came with him, he endeavoured to persuade Demosthenes to accompany him to Antipater, as if he should meet with no hard usage from him....And that when his sudden death was much wondered at, the Thracians who guarded the doors reported that he
took the poison into his hand out of a rag, and put it in his mouth, and that they imagined it had been gold which he swallowed, but the maid that served him, being examined by the followers of Archias, affirmed that he had worn it in a bracelet for a long time, as an amulet.

Thracian spearmen chase Heracles on a 4th Century jug from RozogenBelow left: detail of the jug at right.

 

Detail of the jug at rightRight: Gilt silver jug from Rozogen, (from the area inhabited by the Triballi) first half of fourth century BC. A spearman (or woman) chases Heracles. This possibly shows a fight between an Amazon and Heracles, or is an allegory for the conflict between the Triballi and the Greeks.

 

 

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There is an outside chance that the text at the end of the following extract refers to all troops in the army (including the Thracians) rather than just the Egyptians:

Xenophon, Cryopaedia 6.2.10 (OK, so it refers to the Egyptians, but maybe...)

The Indians that Cyrus had sent as spies to the enemy's camp returned with the report that Croesus had been chosen ... commander in chief of all the enemy's hosts... They also reported that many Thracian swordsmen had already been hired and that Egyptians were under sail to join them, and they gave the number as one hundred and twenty thousand men armed with shields that came to their feet, with huge spears, such as they carry even to this day, and with sabres.

Left:  Thracian youth with a single javelin or long spear, from an Attic red figure vase c. 460 BC now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The circular symbol covering the left arm is a vase decoration.

 

 

Thracian peltasts carrying two javelins eachJavelins

The Spartan poet, Tyrtaeus, wrote of the traditional weapons of the light-armed: stones and javelins (Tyrtaeus fr. 11, 1.25; Loeb, Greek Elegy and Iambus, v. 1, pp. 74-75)

Right: Thracian peltasts with two javelins each, from M. Opperman, Thraker, page 96

Euripides Hecuba 1155

[1155] and they were praising the weaving of our Thracian handiwork, looking at this robe as they held it up to the light; meantime while others examined my Thracian spear and so stripped me of two-fold protection. And those that were young mothers were dandling my children in their arms, with loud admiration, as they passed them on from hand to hand to remove them far from their father;

Figure 8: Thracians with javelins, from a krater in NaplesFigure 8: Thracians with javelins, from a krater in Naples«Figure 8A, B, C: Thracians with javelins, from a krater in Naples (Hauser)

In Livy XXXII. 27 Aenesidemus, leader of the Achaean garrison of Argos, bars Philip of Maceon's way with his person and a few retainers.  "he replied that he intended to die under arms, in defence of a city entrusted to his care.   Then, at the prefect's order, javelins were hurled at the company by the Thracians, and all were killed."

 

 

Javelin headsFar Left: Javelin heads in the Pleven museum.  Left: The Thracian Warrior at left shows how a Thracian could be armed with both long spear and javelin.  Presumably he would ram the butt spike of his long spear into the ground while he threw the javelins.  7th and 6th century Greek hoplites are shown similarly armed on Greek vases.

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=1990.01.1101&type=vase A Thracian woman spearing Orpheus (doesn't look very Thracian)

 

 

 

 

 

Below: peltast and light cavalry with javelins.

Folp126.jpg (30949 bytes)Folp127.jpg (37801 bytes)

 

Early Thracian javelinmanLeft: an early Thracian javelinman, a reconstruction by Daniella Carlsson.

 

Duncan Head's comments

Chris does pick up what may be a genuine problem with the early Thracians: since the evidence for Thracian spearmen consists primarily of vase-paintings showing men with spears and shields, much the same as the presumed Iphikratean equipment, can we really justify giving the Thracians the option to be "superior"? I’m not sure exactly what the original justification for (S) status for the Thracians was. But in contrast to the Iphikrateans, who were all spearmen, the Thracians may have mixed spearmen in groups of javelin-armed peltasts; certainly we don’t hear of separate bodies of spearmen. Such a mixed group would be able to present a front-rank hedge of spear-points when required, as a rallying-point for the javelinmen or to hold off cavalry while the javelinmen lobbed missiles from behind. This might produce much the same effect as the double-arming with spears and javelins implied by the Ax (S) definition, and would give such Thracians a flexibility that the Iphikrateans lacked.

But all this is fairly hypothetical; and we might be better off limiting Ax (S) status to the fierce Thracian hill-tribes who are described as "the most warlike" of the Thracian infantry by Thucydides II.98 (and, of course, to the later Thracians armed with the rhomphaia). It was such hill-tribesmen, mercenaries in Athenian service caught by Theban troops while raiding in Boiotia, who "made a very respectable defence against the Theban horse, by which they were first attacked, dashing out and closing their ranks according to the tactics of their country, and lost only a few men in that part of the affair" (Thucydides 7.30). Peltasts who can so effectively hold of cavalry probably do deserve to be classed as superior, and the combination of dashing out (presumably to throw javelins) and closing ranks might suggest the combination of spears and javelins - although in fact these troops are called swordsmen, "machairophoroi", just to add to the confusion. But whether their superior status should be extended to all Thracians is more debatable.

The Thracian mother-goddess throwing a javelinChristopher,

Thanks for the reply. I think that there is a good chance that the Thracian spearmen shown on the vases were in fact Dioi, or similar hillmen, on the grounds that these tribes would have provided quite a high proportion of the mercenaries. In any case I’m reluctant to see them as Wb (F), or Bd (F), because they’d be too good in game terms against Sp: I think that if any Thracian infantry were tough enough to stand a chance of charging through a hoplite line, we’d have heard of it.

Rhomphaia-men as Bd (F): maybe. Given the uncertainty about what the rhomphaia was, it’s hard to be sure. But in practical terms: the new DBM Book 2 lists are out, so this classification can’t be changed this time round. Book 1 is still in the works: so we won’t change the classification of Hellenistic-period rhomphaia-men this time round anyway, but if you want other amendments to the Thracian list, you might get them. (Book 1 got sent to the back of the queue; but the others are nearly finished so I think we may see a new draft of 1 within a few weeks.) Of course one has not only to convince Phil and Richard that a change is correct, but also that there’s room on the page for it.) I had thought of trying to persuade them to split the list into northerners (or just Getai), hill-tribes, and "lowlanders" (ie "what’s left over").

The following are just notes: I haven’t checked the references yet (ie, I’ve been doing this in the office when I should have been working ...) but I hope to finish this off and send it to PB and RBS when/if they send me a new Book 1 draft. I don’t expect to get it all in!

Thracian DBM list:

Is just saying "Ax (O) or Ax (S)" enough for Thracian peltasts, or does the ability to have as many Ax (S) as you like make them a bit too good? Now that we’ve regraded Bithynians as Ax (O) only, perhaps it’s time to do something here. Once they start using the rhomphaia, Ax (S) is fine as a general classification: but there’s no evidence for that before the 3rd century, and earlier than that it seems to me the majority of Thracian peltasts are Ax (O) armed with javelin and dagger just like the Bithynians. There are two exceptions: first, the hill-tribes such as the Dioi are described as swordsmen (machairophoroi) and also as the best of the Thracian infantry. Second, there are some Greek vase-paintings showing long spears. It’s not certain what nationality the long-spear-men are; but they may also be hill-tribesmen, since these may have provided the bulk of mercenaries. We could perhaps class the Dioi "swordsmen" as Bd (F) or Wb (F) on account of their swords, but they do still seem to have essentially been javelin-throwing peltasts, just fiercer ones. So it seems appropriate to restrict Ax (S) classification to these hill-tribesmen (until everyone else starts using the rhomphaia). The corollary is that the hill-tribes army should have few or no cavalry: those Thracian armies that had around 30% cavalry were the northern Getai or the lowland Odrysai or Edones.

 

The use of the Cavalry javelin -Xenophon, On Horsemanship, XII:

Again, in place of the long reed spear, which is apt to be weak and awkward to carry, we would substitute two darts of cornel-wood;
the one of which the skilful horseman can let fly, and still ply the one reserved in all directions, forwards, backwards, and
obliquely; add to that, these smaller weapons are not only stronger than the spear but far more manageable...

As regards range of discharge in shooting we are in favour of the longest possible, as giving more time to rally[12] and transfer the second javelin to the right hand. And here we will state shortly the most effective method of hurling the javelin. The horseman should throw forward his left side, while drawing back his right; then rising bodily from the thighs, he should let fly the missile with the point slightly upwards. The dart so discharged will carry with the greatest force and to the farthest distance; we may add, too, with the truest aim, if at the moment of discharge the lance be directed steadily on the object aimed at.[13]

[12] Al. "to turn right-about."

[13] "If the lance is steadily eyeing the mark at the instant of discharge."

The Sarissa

The comments below have now been published in The Thracian Sarissa, by Duncan Head, in Slingshot 214, March 2001, pp 10-13 - replied to by Bob Marshall and Phil Barker in Slingshot 215, May 2001, p 57

"Finally, the late writer Lucian mentions a Thracian infantryman with sarissa and shield killing an unknown governor of Media, perhaps in a 3rd century context. Lysimachos is more likely than any other general to have Thracians in his phalanx, and the governor of Media may be a subordinate of Seleucus." - Duncan Head, AEMPW.

Some very long (60cm) spear-heads have been found recently in south-western Bulgaria - these may be pike blades.

Cavalry with sarissa

Scene from the Kazanluk tombLeft: a horseman with sarissa, from the dromos (entrance corridor) in the Kazanluk tomb.  This horseman could be Macedonian, as he may be wearing a kausia, the hat worn by noble Macedonians.  Otherwise he is from some unknown Thracian tribe.  Photographed by the author.

Duncan Head writes....

"Light cavalry - up to 1/3 Irr LH (O) with javelins or sarissa, the rest Irr LH (F) horse-archers"

The source for the cavalry sarissa - this is the famous passage on the Triballian sarissophoros wounding Philip II, which comes if I remember rightly from Didymus of Alexandria. I’ll try to look out the exact reference for you. The old theory is that since Philip was retreating on horseback, and the Triballian caught up with him, he must have been mounted too. But this is a bit dubious, since I’d have thought it all depends on the terrain.

------------------------------------

No idea about Didymus. I can’t even remember if I saw a copy or just a quotation. I’ll try to check my notes. (The notes in question must be nearly 25 years old; they certainly predate AMPW. But I think I may know where they are.) But it won’t tell you much except "Philip was wounded by a Triballian sarissa". As for Triballian cavalry, there are plenty in their art: those scale-armoured plaques are from Triballian territory.

"Sarissa" has one of those old pre-Greek endings - like "Larissa" - which are supposed to be Luwian or Pelasgian or something. So the word may be very old indeed. Perhaps it may originally have been no more than Macedonian dialect for "long spear"!

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Papazoglou’s article on the Illyrians (Fanoula Papazoglou, "Les origines et la destinee de l’Etat illyrien" in Historia XIV (1965) refers to a papyrus of Didymus discovered in 1901 and published in 1904: Diels-Schubert (ed.) "Didymi de Demosthene commenta" (Leipzig). Cols. 12-13 record three wounds suffered by Philip II, the third at the hands of the Triballi.

I have a note saying "Is this the origin of Tarn’s Triballian sarissophoros"? Now, I can’t find any notes I made when I first read Tarn; but I believe in volume II of his Alexander the Great, he argues that Alex’s sarissophoroi were Thracians - using this Triballian sarissophoros as evidence. He accepts the text of Diodoros XVII-something which describes Alex’s light cavalry as "Thrakes de prodromoi kai Paiones" (that may not be the exact wording), "Thracian prodromoi and Paiones", whereas most people would amend it to "Thracians, prodromoi and Paiones".

Ellis’ "Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism" has a brief description of the campaign of 339: Philip is returning from his campaign against Atheas’ Scythians when he is attacked by the Triballi, who take much of his booty. He receives a wound right through the thigh, that kills his horse. Ellis doesn’t cite Didymus (though his footnoting is not voluminous) but suggests that the main source for this campaign is Justin (another man hard to get hold of, especially in translation.)

A wound to a cavalryman’s thigh is perhaps more likely to come from an infantryman than another cavalryman, perhaps?

------------------------

The Diodoros reference is 17.17.4, and it is indeed "Thrakes de prodromoi kai Paiones ennakosioi", "Thracian prodromoi and Paiones, 900". The classic statement of the majority position, against Tarn and against a literal intepretation of this passage, is P A Brunt’s "Alexander’s Macedonian Cavalry" in JHS 83 (1963)." 

» Right: a Thracian officer equipped as a hoplite with long spear, from DBA OnlineThracian officer

Lucian, Dialogue 22:

J G P Best (Thracian Peltasts and their Influence on Greek Warfare, Studies of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society volume 1, Wolters-Noordhoff, Groningen, 1969) on page 103 quotes Lucian "Nekrikoi Dialogoi", 27.3 as describing "how a Persian horseman is pierced by the sarissa of a Thracian peltast, after the long shaft had already passed through the belly of the horse!"

On page 139 he cites a discussion of this passage in Parke’s "Greek Mercenary Soldiers" pages 155-156. Not mentioned in my old notes on Parke, sadly.

However, I can’t yet find the exact text of Lucian, or why I thought the Persian cavalryman was a governor of Media: I thought that was in Bar-Kochva’s "Seleucid Army", but can’t find it there now. I’ll try a web search when I can get a connection, which I can’t this morning!

In Dialogue 22, the philosophers Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Krates discuss those who accompanied Krates on his journey down to Hades. Among these was Arsakes, "the hyparchos of Media". Arsakes, annoyed at having to walk down to the underworld,

"… kept calling for his horse; for his horse had been killed with him, both pierced by the same blow from a Thracian peltast in the battle by the Araxes against the Kappadokians. Arsakes was riding, he told us, a long way ahead of the rest, when the Thracian, standing his ground and crouching beneath his pelte, parried Arsakes’ kontos, and planting his sarisa beneath him, pierced both man and horse with it."

Antisthenes, not unreasonably, asks how that could happen: and Krates replies:

"Very easily, Antisthenes. He rode to the attack with his twenty-cubit kontos levelled, but the Thracian parried his thrust with his pelte, and when the point had passed him he bent down on one knee and, meeting the charge with his sarisa, wounded the chest of the horse, which impaled itself by its own fire and force, while Arsakes was run right through from groin to buttock. You see what happened; it was done, not by the Thracian, but rather by the horse."

Didymus:

Minor M Markle III "Use of the sarissa by Philip and Alexander of Macedon" (AJA 82 (!978) pages 483-497) cites Didymus "In Demosth." col. 13 lines 3-7, derived probably from Theopompos or from Marsyas!! The following paragraph is in symbol font to get the Greek letters. It may not translate over email ....

"T[r]iton trauma l[a]mbanei kata thn eis Triballous embolhn thn sarisan tines twn diwkontwn eis ton dexion autou meron wsamenwn kai cwlwsantos auton."

Transliterated, being (w=omega):

"Triton trauma lambanei kata ten eis Triballous embolen ten sarisan tines ton diwkontwn eis ton dexion autou meron wsamenwn kai chwlwsantos auton"

Which means something like (no guarantees as to accuracy of translation offered):   "The third wound he took in the invasion of the Triballians, one of the pursuers thrusting the sarisa through his right thigh and laming him."

It is apparently Justin 9.3.1-3 who adds that this pins Philip to his horse. Plutarch "Moralia" 331b uses logch (longche) of this same incident! (Markle argues that since Philip was mounted, his pursuer must have been too. He argues also that Plutarch’s longche is general while Didymus’ sarisa is specific and thus more likely to be correct.)

Bob Marshall and Phil Barker respond in Slingshot 215, May 2001, p 57:

Bob Marshall writes:
Further to Duncan Head's article in issue 214 on Thracian sarissa's, what if "sarissa" describes a spear joined in the middle?  Thus a simple tube could be carried by a Thracian peltast to lengthen his last two javelins to scare off cavalry becomes in the hands of the Macedonians their primary weapon (after their conflict with the Phokians?).  They make the connection more positive to allow a greater variety of agressive actions on the battlefield and we get the classic pike phalanx.

Wounding horsemen in the thigh fits well with a spear braced against the ground as does the story of the horse getting its rider killed by impaling itself.

Both of these would have required a relatively short length of, presumably, bronze tube slid/pushed onto the wooden shaft of two javelins back to back then one point stuck in the ground.  This makes every javelinman potentially a pikeman.  A bit like wht the first plug bayonets did for the musketeer.  Worth a thought?

Phil Barker writes:

On Lucian's Thracian story mentioned in Duncan Head in his article on Thracian Sarissa's in Issue 214, I have illustrated to Duncan that a spear with its butt on the ground that passes through the chest of a horse and then the rider's groin and buttock cannot be more than about 8 feet long.


Introduction | Javelins | Long Spears | The Sarissa

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This page last updated on Monday, 07 January 2002 by Christopher Webber thracian@pnc.com.au

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