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Ancient Greek weapons

The ancient Greeks (c. 750—146Bc) regarded the sword as strictly an auxiliary weapon, one that would never supplant their battle-proven reliance on the spear. The spear enabled the heavily armoured hoplites, or infantrymen, to stand together and protect each other within the close formation of their phalanx wall of shields and spears. This allowed them to repeatedly fight and win battles against far superior opposition.

 

The Hoplites

Infantry foot-soldiers, the ancient Greek hoplites (from the Greek word hoplon, or armour) formed the military backbone of the Greek city states. Hoplites were recruited mainly from the wealthier and fitter middle classes, and bore the financial responsibility to arm themselves. Bronze armour, sword, spear and shield all had to be provided from solely private means. Hoplites were not full-time professional soldiers whose only life was war. They had volunteered to serve their state only in times of war (usually in the summer), and, if they survived, would return afterwards to their civilian roles. The hoplite was a true manifestation of the classical Greek ideal of shared civic responsibility.

ABOVE: Spartan hoplites, c.500Bc, wearing Corinthian helmets. In addition to the shield and spear, hoplites would have also carried a sword.

 

The Spear

A Greek infantryman’s main battle weapon was the spear, or doru. Measuring around 2.7m (8.8ft) in length, it would have been held in one hand, while the shield (aspis) was grasped in the other. The spearhead was leaf-shaped, socketed and made of iron. At the butt of the shaft was a sharp bronze spike, or sauroter (“lizard killer”), which could be thrust into the ground for added stability. In extremis, when the spearhead was broken, the sharp spike could be flipped around and used as a weapon of last resort.

The Macedonians, under the leadership of Alexander the Great (356—323BC), also developed their own spear or pike, the sarissa. Little is known about it, but it is thought to have been up to twice the length (around 4—5m/13—16.4ft) of the doru and had to be wielded underarm with two hands. This meant that the usual protection of the shield-and-spear phalanx could not be utilized, and so a small shield, or pelte, was strapped to the left forearm. The sarissa’s great length meant that it could keep the opposing troops at a distance, enabling the Macedonian cavalry to wheel around the flanks of an enemy and strike with devastating effect.

ABOVE: Mosaic showing Alexander the Great, leader of the Macedonians, hunting a lion with a doru (spear) in the 3rd century BC.

 

The Phalanx - Ancient Armored Fist

Derived from the Greek word phalangos (meaning “finger”), the hoplite phalanx was made up of a tight formation of spearmen, armed with large, concave shields that rested on the soldier’s left shoulder and protected the man next to him, thus forming an all- enveloping, locked curtain of defence. The phalanx was typically about eight men deep, with the front ranks projecting their spears forwards. The key to the success of the phalanx was the ability of the soldiers to keep together and not break the formation. This was not always easy, especially for the first few ranks, who were the main combatants, as the rear ranks’ main purpose was to continually push their phalanx forward and maintain its shape.

ABOVE: A frieze from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, c.35OBc, depicting a mythical battle between the Greeks and the Amazons.

There has been much debate as to how the spear was used while in the phalanx: was it held aloft or under the arm? Some authorities believe that it had to be held aloft, as it would have been impractical for a hoplite to hold his spear underarm, in case the sharp butt spike injured the man behind him. The use of the sword by the hoplites in the phalanx would have been regarded as a highly dangerous manoeuvre, because it necessitated breaking up the shape and, consequently, the defensive cohesion of the phalanx.

 

The Sword

There is great irony in noting that the most successful sword design of the Ancient World was developed by the Greeks, who were ostensibly spearmen. The sword was never regarded as a main battle weapon and played a purely secondary role. Once the spears had been thrown or lost in battle, swords were then engaged to finish the conflict in a decisive manner.

The main battle sword of the ancient Greek military was the xiphos. Introduced around 800—400Bc, it comprised a straight, double-edged, leaf-shaped blade of around 65cm (25.6in), and was particularly effective at slashing and stabbing. The Spartans carried a slightly shorter sword of the same design as the xiphos. This design probably influenced the later Roman gladius, or short sword.

Mounted Greek cavalry used a curved sword, or makhaira (meaning “to fight”). It had a large, slightly curved falchion-type blade and was designed to deliver a heavy slashing blow at speed.

The use of a curved blade for mounted horsemen would remain a constant feature of cavalry swords for the next 2,500 years.

ABOVE: A stone depiction of Greek hoplites standing in phalanx formation, from c.400BC.

 

 

 
 
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