Researching ancient Greek arms and armour

A recent blog post by author William Shepherd on the website of Osprey Publishing discusses some points with regards to his printed statements on ancient Greek weapons and armour. One of the problems with writing books or printed articles is that, once published, the contents become fixed. Unlike a blog post that you might go back and retool to correct any (perceived) problems, a book or journal article will remain in its published form forever, barring the appearance of any reworked editions in the future, of course.

Shepherd writes:

The start of a new Persian War project and some comments in Amazon reviews on points of detail in my Plataea book have caused me to take a critical look at one or two “facts” that I confidently include in my descriptions of hoplite weaponry.

The linen corslet

The first of these is his interpretation of the linen corslet. He is no longer sure that these were actually always made of linen, but were perhaps more often made of leather. He adds that the few references he found in Homer and elsewhere make the corslets “sound quite special and exceptional”.

However, a little further research would have shown that there are actually quite a lot of references to linen armour, and only one very late reference to a corslet made of leather. If anything, the textual evidence, at least, suggests overwhelmingly that linen was the most common material from which these non-metallic corslets were made. The recent publication of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor (2013) by Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, and Alicia Aldrete should be required reading on this subject: chapter 3 is entirely dedicated to figuring out of what material the corslet was made. The authors there also discuss in detail the depictions of corslets on vases and show that colours alone are insufficient to determine the nature of the materials used. (A review of mine of this book is forthcoming, either online or in print.)

Wielding the spear

Shepherd’s second point concerns the thrusting spear. In one of his books, he wrote that “practical experiments” suggested that an overarm thrust was more powerful than an underarm stab. In the blog post, he admits to have only read about this somewhere and had “not seen the evidence from these ‘practical experiments’”. A talk with one Nikolas Lloyd – or a visit to his website, I am not exactly sure – convinced him that the overarm thrust was far less effective than the underarm thrust.

I am rather puzzled by Shepherd’s next statement:

Two pieces of research would be useful here: a survey of a decent sample of vase paintings depicting combat to quantify the proportion of over-arm to under-arm holds; and a survey of surviving spearheads and butt-spikes to establish the thickness of the shafts and to arrive at an average weight including 8ft of ash for the original weapon. Both may have been done, and in any case I must now track down that research on the power of spear-thrusts.

This research has, in fact, already been done, namely by Christopher Matthew in his A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War (2012). In fact, not too long ago, I even wrote a review for the book on this very website. The book features exactly the research that Shepherd is looking for, and it surprises me that he has not heard of it at all, since its publication made something of a stir. Despite the problems that I noted in my review, the book is a useful source of information and contains loads of practical information.

The Argive shield

The final point discussed by Shepherd concerns the penetrative power of the Persian arrow. In particular, one illustration in one of his books features a hoplite, whose shield was pierced by Persian arrows. A reviewer apparently suggested this would have been impossible. Shepherd here includes a reference to the book The Battle of Marathon (2011), written by Peter Krentz (and not StephenKrentz, as Shepherd writes), and states that the “Persian bow could generate a maximum kinetic energy of 50 joules”.

At a range of 40 metres or less this would be sufficient for an arrow to pierce a hoplite shield, which was found to pierce a hoplite shield, which was found to require energy on impact of 25–30 joules.

I do not know where Shepherd got the final bit of information from as regards the energy needed to pierce a hoplite shield. However, there are a few problems with his statements regarding the effectiveness of Persian arrows. In the first place, Krentz states that the Persian bow impartedbetween 24 and 52 joules of energy. In battlefield conditions, which would have been less than ideal, most bows would have generated less than 50 joules, especially as the archer could weary from firing. Range would have decreased the arrow’s effectiveness even further.

But the Argive shield used by Greek hoplites had a few characteristics that would have made piercing them more difficult. The shield itself was convex (or concave, depending on one’s point of view), making it very difficult for any weapon to solidly pierce it and more likely for it to glance off. This would be particularly true for arrows, which never fly straight, but instead sort of wobble slightly, making them more likely to bounce off a shield’s surface. They might have gotten stuck in some cases, certainly, but to solidly pierce the shield through and through would have been difficult. An additional problem would have been posed if the shield was also covered by a thin sheet of bronze.

I find it rather curious that it still seems to be difficult for some people to find good sources of information on the Persian Wars and Greek equipment. A large amount of material is readily available, even right here with the regular publication of Ancient Warfare (the Marathon special springs to mind, as does the ancient Greek warfare collection), and online articles and blog posts. And hopefully this blog post contributes something to the problems on hand.

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