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Attacking from a distance

Archers in ancient Greece

Someone on Reddit’s AskHistorians wondered if bows were unpopular in ancient Greece. An uncritical reading of the ancient sources might, at first glance, suggests that this was indeed the case, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

On Reddit’s AskHistorians, someone asked if bows were unpopular weapons in ancient Greece. I wrote a reply, which I have adapted into this article. Once I committed my comment to the website, I saw that Roel Konijnendijk had also written an insightful answer, which you can read here.

Of course, we both answered that no, the bow was not unpopular in ancient Greece. It was, in fact, widely used. However, there is a tendency among modern scholars to regard the bow as inferior to the spear, as demonstrated by the interest, bordering on obsession, that military historians of ancient Greece have with regards to the hoplite – a man equipped with large, “Argive” shield and a thrusting spear.

To be fair, though, this notion has been fostered to some extent by the ancient Greek sources themselves. Archers, after all, fight from a distance rather than up close and personal, and it might seem logical that they were therefore held in low regard. The reality, of course, was more complicated.

The Homeric epics

In Homer’s Iliad, there are a number of instances where the heroes disparage those who fight using bows and arrows. In the Iliad, enemy archers are dismissed as cowards, who fight from a distance. One Trojan hero, Achamas, insults the Greeks by calling them iomōroi or “arrow-fighters” (14.479). Similarly, when Diomedes is injured by one of Paris’ arrows, he insults his assailant by calling him toxotēs: “archer” (11.385).

Such takes on archers are always rather one-sided: they are dismissed as cowards by their enemies. When allied archers do well, they are heralded as brave fighters by their friends. For example, at one point in the Iliad, the archer-hero Teucer manages to take down several Trojans in quick succession.

Because of his amazing display in shooting down the enemies of the Greeks, Agamemnon heaps lavish praise on the son of Telamon. He tells him (Iliad 8.281-291, transl. Lattimore):

Telamonian Teukros, dear heart, o lord of your people,
strike so; thus you may be a light given to the Danaans,
and to Telamon your father, who cherished you when you were little,
and, bastard as you were, looked after you in his own house.
Bring him into glory, though he is far away; and for my part,
I will tell you this, and it will be a thing accomplished:
if ever Zeus who holds the aegis and Athene grant me
to sack outright the strong-founded citadel of Ilion,
first after myself I will put into your hands some great gift
of honour; a tripod, or two horses and the chariot with them,
or else a woman, who will go up into the same bed with you.

There is a notion today that the bow was a simple and cheap weapon. But this ignores the fact that the bow requires a great deal of skill in order to wield effectively. Furthermore, all of the archers that are described in detail in the epic poems are all high-born men, who seem to wield expensive composite bows, and who would have had the necessary free time to undergo the training to become adapt with the bow.

Aside from Teucer, we should also mention the Trojan prince Paris, another archer-hero, who would eventually shoot and kill the mighty Achilles. But it seems clear from the poems that most high-ranking men would have had received archery training. Take, for exampe, the king of Ithaca, Odysseus. His bow is an ornate weapon with a detailed biography of its own, having been a gift from Iphitus, a Euoboean prince, who had himself inherited the bow from his father Eurytus (Odyssey 21.30). Odysseus’ mastery of this weapon plays a crucial part in the denouement of the Odyssey.

For the most part, archers in the epic poems appear mostly in the role of snipers: they don’t loose their arrows as volleys into the sky, instead picking specific targets on the battlefield. Interestingly, this is also how we find archers depicted in scenes on Greek painted pottery throughout the Archaic and Classical periods.

Figurative scenes of combat from two aryballoi, Corinth CP-2096 (top) and Perachora 27 (below). The archers in question are highlighted using red rectangles. The one in the earlier scene (Early Protocorinthian, ca. 720-690 BC), top, gets stabbed in the back by a swordsman; the one in the later scene (Middle Protokorinthian I to II, or ca. 670 BC), below, is positioned in front of a fluteplayer.

Noteworthy early examples that are more or less contemporary with the presumed date of the Homeric epics include a number of Corinthian aryballoi (perfume bottles). One from Lechaion depicts an archer getting stabbed in the back (CP-2906), another shows an archer with greaves and helmet (Perachora 1842), and yet another features a scene that includes warriors with different types of shields, a flute-player, and a solitary archer (Perachora 27).

In most artistic renderings, the archer aims more or less straight ahead, with the arrow more or less parallel to the ground, instead of aiming higher. Archers that are deployed as part of a larger group would be expected to engage in volley fire, so they would aim high to ensure that the arrows fly in an arc towards their intended victims.

The Greek historians

In Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars, accounts of battles focus on the hoplitai, and in some battles, such as Marathon and Thermopylae, it seems as if the Greek forces consist of nothing but hoplites. Herodotus contrasts these Greek troops specifically with the Persians, whom he describes as gymnetes (“naked”), and who are specifically said to deploy lots of archers. This stereotype isn’t typical to Herodotus; in Aeschylus’ play Persians, the Graeco-Persian Wars are depicted as a contest between the Persian bow and the Greek spear (as emphasized already by Kelley 1979, p. 216).

However, when Pausanias sends a messenger to the Athenians to ask for help, he hopes that they will at least send him some archers (Hdt. 9.60), which suggests that during this period, archers were relatively common in the Greek city-states. Nevertheless, masses of archers are considered a mainstay of the Persian army, rather than the Greek.

One example, at the battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), is that when a man reported that the Persians could fire enough arrows to block out the sun, the Spartan Dienekes regarded this as excellent news, as this meant that the battle would be fought in the shade (Hdt. 7.226). Herodotus doesn’t shy away from hyperbole!

The Greek historian Thucydides writes that, at the start of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Athens had 1,600 archers, as well as an unknown number of horse archers (Thuc 2.13.8). He also notes that 800 Athenian archers were sent to Pylos (4.32), a city in the southwest Peloponnese.

Of course, Thucydides also claims that during engagements between Greek armies, the fighting between light troops – including archers – is largely inconsequential, a mere prelude to the main battle, which is ultimately decided in a contest between hoplites (e.g. 6.69).

This latter sentiment no doubt stems from the notion that fighting with the bow and arrow is somehow less honourable than fighting at close range with spear and sword, as we have also seen in the discussion on the epic poems. But this doesn’t mean that light-armed troops were ineffective.

Indeed, certain peoples in Greece acquired particular reputations as ranged fighters. Already in the Iliad, conventionally thought to date from ca. 700 BC, we have the Locrian contingent, who all fight as archers, but can apparently also be deployed as slingers (Il. 13.712-722). In Herodotus, too, bows are most often found in the hands of specialists, especially epikouroi, which are similar to mercenaries, though the connotation isn’t strictly transactional (e.g. Hdt. 3.39).

From Classical times onwards, certain regions in Greece developed reputations for yielding excellent ranged troops, among which Cretan archers and Rhodian slingers (e.g. Thuc. 6.43; Xen. Anab. 1.2.9 and 3.4.16).

The archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence also demonstrates that the bow was an important weapon all through Greek history. Arrowheads, for example, are found in tombs dating to the Bronze Age, and they appear continuously in tombs and, from the eighth century BC, as dedications at sanctuaries. Here, too, the idea that the bow is a cheap weapon is belied by the relevant context.

For example, two graves in the rich Toumba cemetery at Lefkandi (T26 and T79), dated to the Late Protogeometric (ca. 950-900 BC) and Subprotogeometric II (ca. middle of ninth century BC) periods, respectively, feature arrowheads. T26 also contained an iron sword, an iron pin, and a lot of pottery; T79 included a sword as well as a spearhead, two knives, various pots, two Phoenician and three Cypriot flasks, a bronze grater, and more. A piece of horn in Toumba pyre 1 (Late Protogeometric?) may even have been part of a composite bow (see esp. Popham et al. 1980, p. 256).

Dedications of arrowheads at sanctuaries are rare until the seventh century BC. Nearly all known examples of arrowheads before this time come from graves. At Olympia, the largest of the Panhellenic santuaries, nearly 500 arrowheads have been unearthed, of which around a tenth can be dated to the seventh century; most of them date to the fifth century BC, especially from the period after the Persian Wars (see Baitinger 2001, pp. 29-30).

A simplistic reading of the archaeological evidence here suggests that while archers were known and valued among the Greeks before the Persian Wars, they increased in number when their efficacy was demonstrated in the engagements with the Persians. If true – and this reading is not unproblematic! – this would mean that the insistence of the ancient Greek writers that light troops were ineffectual is even more dubious than it at first appears.

Closing remarks

Finally, we can take a brief detour into the world of religion and mythology: the twin deities Apollo and Artemis are both depicted as skilled with the bow and arrow. Indeed, the bow and arrow are their main weapons.

The story of Niobe is illustrative here, perhaps: when Niobe boasts of being better than Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, for having had a large number of sons and daughters, the vengeful goddess sends her children to kill them all. In this case, Apollo shoots all of Niobe’s sons, while Artemis takes care of the daughters (see Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.5.6).

If you would like to learn more, you can also check out my PhD thesis on Early Greek warfare, which is available in Open Access here, and includes detailed discussions on archers, finds of arrowheads, and so on.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • H. Baitinger, Die Angriffswaffen aus Olympia (2001), Olympische Forschungen 29.
  • Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece (2013).
  • K.A. Kelley, “Variable repetition: word patterns in the Persae”, Classical Journal 74 (1979), p. 213-219.
  • M.R. Popham, L.H. Sackett, and P.G. Themelis, Lefkandi I: The Iron Age (1980).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.