Wednesday 14 June 2017

Greek contempt for archers

Vain archer! trusting to the distant dart,
Unskill’d in arms to act a manly part!
Thou hast but done what boys or women can;
Such hands may wound, but not incense a man.
Nor boast the scratch thy feeble arrow gave,
A coward’s weapon never hurts the brave.
-- Alexander Pope, The Iliad 11.493-8
(inspired by Homeric Iliad 11.385 and 388-90)

In the Iliad, these words are spoken in battle by the hero Diomedes, straight after he has been injured by an arrow. It’s not surprising he’s cross. The question is whether his animus against archers is typical. Did the Greeks despise archers?

Heracles shooting arrows: sculpture from east pediment, temple of Athena Aphaia, Aigina, ca. 500-480 BCE. Glyptothek, Munich (source:

Spoiler alert: it’s pretty much a myth. It’s not quite simply flat-out false: it’s at least true that different weaponry kits did have certain social implications. But it definitely wasn’t a case of ‘swords good, bows bad’. The position of archery in ancient Greek perceptions of warfare isn’t a matter of moral character, and it doesn’t have its roots in aristocratic prestige. It’s about economic practicalities and material costs.

Yes, ancient sources will occasionally set archers in opposition to hoplites -- that is, spear-warriors, like the Spartans in the film 300 -- but if you read those sources in context, they’re never quite that straightforward. In the Iliad passage, above, Diomedes’ critique of archery comes in the context that an archer has just successfully beaten him in combat. Of course he’s cross at archers!

Some relatively experienced people fall for the myth too. Here’s one writer who should certainly know better:

When the hoplite dominated Greek warfare, archers were generally looked down upon as men who lacked the bravery to engage in hand-to-hand combat. A fairly typical utterance is ‘the measure of a man is not archery; rather he who stands fast in his rank and gazes unflinchingly at the swift gash of the spear [is a brave man]’ (Euripides, Heracles, 190-192). This attitude may have existed as early as the Lelantine War if the evidence for the ban on missile weapons during this conflict has any value. The attitude probably developed even further with Greek exposure to foreigners such as the Persians and Scythians, who used the bow and not the spear as their principal weapon.
-- Iain Spence, Historical dictionary of ancient Greek warfare (2002), p. 59

Spence treats the status of archery as purely a moral thing, and that distorts things badly. He also commits some real howlers.

1. Get the citation right. First, a basic error: Spence’s Euripides quotation comes from Heracles lines 162-4, not lines 190-2.

2. Says who? Spence treats the sentiment as ‘typical’. This requires forgetting that the speaker in the play, Lycus, is no ethical paradigm: he’s unquestionably a villain, a usurper and tyrant, who wants to murder Heracles’ family unjustly, for no reason other than just to be a complete bastard. He is not typical.

3. Fair and balanced? Haha, no. Picking out Lycus’ testimony is a really really bad case of cherry-picking. Spence cites Lycus’ words at 162-4, but neglects to mention lines 188-203, where Amphitryon answers Lycus’ claim and rejects it completely. Amphitryon speaks of a hoplite as someone who is ‘slave to his arms’ and to his neighbours in the battle-line. He also argues that archery is tactically superior. That doesn’t mean that’s Euripides’ own verdict on the subject, of course! But it does show that it’s tendentious to call Lycus’ words ‘a fairly typical utterance’. Amphitryon, the good guy of the scene, gets the last word.

4. The Lelantine War. Spence’s second piece of evidence is a treaty according to which archery was supposedly banned during the Lelantine War. Even at the best of times, the Lelantine War poses historiographical problems. It’s a very early war, and our earliest testimony about it is nearly 200 years later than the war itself. Evidence for the supposed archery ban is weaker still -- so weak that it undermines the story more than it supports it. The earliest sources for the war, Herodotus and Thucydides, make no mention of any ban. The ban only appears in Polybius and Strabo, another few centuries later. And Strabo’s testimony makes it clear that the alleged treaty wasn’t about archery, but about all forms of ballistic missile -- and at the time of the war, that would have included spears as well as bows! In other words, this supposed treaty banned both of the two weapons most commonly associated with aristocratic warriors. In the present day, consensus is that the ban was almost certainly invented by Polybius’ and Strabo’s source, Ephorus of Cyme, a historian who wrote ca. 350 BCE, some decades after Herodotus and Thucydides. Why did Ephorus come up with the story? Well, in light of Strabo’s reference to all missiles rather than bows and arrows, Wheeler (1987) suggests that Ephorus’ concerns were probably not about archery at all: he may have been thinking of early 4th century BCE developments in large artillery.

Odysseus slaughters the suitors: illustration by John Flaxman, 1805 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

In 5th century BCE sources it is possible to detect a less high regard for light-armed troops than for hand-to-hand hoplites. That’s not really about archery, though: it’s more to do with the class connotations of being a hoplite. Hoplite arms were very expensive -- much more expensive than being a slinger, or what the Greeks called a peltast (peltastēs), that is, a javelineer. Hoplites were more prestigious because they were richer; light-armed troops were proles. It wasn’t about archery itself, it was about economic class. That didn’t stop 5th-4th century combatants from recognising the advantages of ranged warfare (see for example Xenophon Anabasis 3.3.6-10). In the late 5th century, throughout the Peloponnesian War, whenever hoplites came into conflict with light troops, the hoplites consistently got massacred if they didn’t have support from their own light troops or cavalry. The first ever time that a band of Spartan hoplites threw down their shields and surrendered unconditionally in a land battle was when they were utterly trounced by an army consisting of archers, peltasts, and slingers. It’s hard to argue with success.

I wonder if people are tempted to see hoplites of the Classical period as successors to Homeric heroes. Well, in a way: there’s a certain continuity in their armour. But not in their tactics. Hoplites fought in phalanxes; Homeric heroes fight in melee (or if they do fight in phalanxes, it’s far from obvious). And they don’t use their spears in hand-to-hand combat, as Classical hoplites did. They throw them. Homeric heroes are all warriors-at-a-distance.

Now, that’s not to say that Achilles is a peltast. Iliadic combat is in a kind of in-between state. At the time of the Iliad, in the second quarter of the 7th century BCE, Greek warfare saw a transformation in the use of spears: pictorial depictions show a transition from soldiers holding multiple spears, evidently for throwing, to a single spear, evidently for hand-to-hand combat. There are hints of the same transition within the Iliad: in combat, spears are always thrown, but when Patroclus is arming for battle he takes two regular spears rather than Achilles’ one special ultra-heavy spear (Iliad 16.139-144; the special spear appears again at 19.387-391); and it’s only through divine intervention that Achilles gets to have two spear casts at Hector (22.273-277). Patroclus’ two spears sound like peltast javelins; Achilles’ one special spear sounds a bit more like a hoplite weapon.

Be that as it may. Spear-throwing is relevant -- it would have been banned under the mythical Lelantine War treaty, remember -- but it’s archery that we’re here to talk about.

Archery was prestigious, not contemptible. Do we really need to spell out that the supremacy of Heracles and Odysseus in battle was largely thanks to their prowess in archery? Or that archery is key to winning the Trojan War in Sophocles’ play Philoctetes? Or that one of the most revered gods of the Greeks, Apollo, was an archer god? Or that among aristeiai in the Iliad -- that is, setpiece scenes where a Greek hero excels in battle and goes on a rampage -- one of the outstanding heroes is an archer, Teukros? (a.k.a. Teucer; the brief aristeia is at Iliad 15.442-483, with an arming scene unusually at the end, 478-483.) Or that the greatest warrior at Troy, Achilles, is laid low by an archer? Or that in Archaic depictions of sympotic scenes, when aristocratic homes have weaponry hanging on a wall as decoration, that weaponry will typically be shields, swords, and bows, and only rarely spears?

‘Teucer’, by Hamo Thornycroft, 1881 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)). (Backdrops can be deceiving: this statue is 2.4 m high!)

No matter how many positive icons I mention, though, it’ll just never be enough to dispel the idea that the Greeks despised archers. Because one particular archer outweighs them all in the popular imagination: Paris. Other characters in the Iliad really have it in for him. Diomedes’ rant, at the start of this post, is aimed at Paris. And here’s how Paris’ brother Hector addresses him at one point:

Hector berated him when he saw, using harsh words:
‘Wretched Paris! Beauty specialist, woman-crazy seducer,
if only you had never been born, that you had died without marrying!
I genuinely mean that: it would really have been much better
than to be a disgrace and have others roll their eyes at you. ...’
-- Iliad 3.38-42

And so on. Later, Paris’ wife Helen scolds him for not being on the battlefield (3.427-436); further on Hector and Helen both lambast him at the same time (6.325-353); and then of course we get Diomedes’ rant in book 11.

Other characters’ loathing of him is so marked that he seems to have become iconic of all archers. But other archers in the Iliad, like Teukros and Meriones, should show that the treatment of Paris is not typical. And neither Hector nor Helen reproaches him for being an archer. It’s only Diomedes that does that, and of course that’s because he’s just been beaten. In fact, Hector is very complimentary about Paris’ abilities in combat (even if Paris wasn’t good enough to stand up to Menelaus in a spear-duel in book 3):

In answer shining-helmed Hector addressed him:
‘You oddball! No man who is reasonable
would ever dishonour your action in battle: you’re a sturdy guy!
It’s that you give up willingly, or you’re unwilling. That’s why my heart
grieves in my spirit, when I hear shameful things about you
from the Trojans, who have long suffering on your account. ...’
-- Iliad 6.520-525

Archery is one of his virtues, not a flaw. It’s how he beats Diomedes; one day (not in the Iliad), Achilles himself will become another victim. Paris is so unconquerable with his favoured weapon that one day (again, not in the Iliad), the Greeks will have to bring in another archer specially, just to get rid of him: Philoctetes, armed with the bow and arrows of Heracles himself.

Actually the most damning thing said about archers in the Iliad has nothing to do with Paris. It’s about the Locrians, mainland Greeks led by Aias son of Oileus:

Now, the Locrians were not there with great-hearted Oileus’ son:
for their heart did not stand fast in close battle,
for they didn’t have bronze horse-haired helmets,
and they didn’t have circular shields and ash spears;
but in the bow and fine-spun sheep wool (i.e. slings)
they trusted when they came to Ilios. ...
-- Iliad 13.712-717

Not sturdy enough to be there with the front fighters -- sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? (Note, incidentally, how being in the front line involves using a spear? That ain’t how people use spears in the Iliad...) Yet even here, the narrator recognises that it’s more about tactics than about prestige. Of course you don’t put slingers in the front line. Once again, it’s hard to argue with success --

... As a result, with those (weapons)
they would break through the lines of the Trojans by shooting.
-- Iliad 13.717-718

In Homer, as in real life at the battle of Sphacteria, archery beats hand-to-hand.


  • Van Wees, H. 1994. ‘The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.’ Greece & Rome 41.1: 1-18, 41.2: 131-155.
  • Wheeler, Everett L. 1987. ‘Ephorus and the prohibition of missiles.’ Transactions of the American Philological Association 117: 157-182.