Friday, December 28, 2007

On Archers in Ancient Greece

This is an excerpt from the bood Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley and Roy Adkins, an excellent book which I highly recommend. This part is about Archers, under the chapter on warfare:

"Archers were used in Greek warfare from earliest times, and archery is mentioned quite often in Homer's Iliad. Archery seems to have played a crucial role in the Trojan War, but Homer implies that archers had a lower status than spearmen. Leaders like Teucer and Odysseus were proficient with the bow, but they also fought with other weapons. However, there is some evidence of groups of specialist archers even at this early date.

Later Greek armies concentrated on soldiers of the phalanx, and archery seems to have been neglected, except in Crete. Contingents of archers in Greek armies were therefore often mercenaries, usually Scythians or Cretans. Athens employed Scythian and Cretan archers as early as the 6th century BC. Scythian archers were often portrayed in contemporary Attic vase paintings, frequently shooting from a kneeling position. They wore a distinctive longpointed cap or hat, loose tunic, and trousers; slung from their belt was a bow case, which also contained their arrows. The Scythians protected the hoplites, and in the 5th century BC Scythian archers who had been bought as public slaves for Athens served as a police force in the city.

Nevertheless, the importance of archery was not fully appreciated until the latter part of the Peloponnesian War, and archers were not always used effectively. In part, this may have been because Greek archers pinched the bowstring between thumb and forefinger, a weak grip that did not allow them to use the most powerful bows. The Scythian used the first three fingers of the hand curled around the bowstring (the "Mediterranean loose", still used today) and so could draw the more powerful Scythian bows. Hellenistic armies made greater use of archers, but unlike the Parthian armies, the Greeks never used archers as a main element of their forces. Archers were generally armed with only a bow and arrows and did not wear armor. They were almost always foot soldiers; mounted archers were rarely used by the Greeks until the time of Alexander the Great.

Some notes to be taken:
  • Even though specialized archers were inferior in class, don't forget that Apollo also uses the sword and is, after all, the Lord - we could say he is sort of a special archer;
  • Strenghtning how special he is, on the myth of Delphi he came mounted on a Dolphin and then shoot the Python, but not mounted, much like the leaders in the Broze Age would drive charriots or horses to the battle, but unmount to fight;
  • The Greeks employed foreigns to their archery ranks and they were better archers than the Greeks; Apollo is also the god of foreign people, maybe it is just a coincidence?;
  • Archers as policeman sounds really odd, but it fits Apollo as protector of the community.


Anonymous said...

Hi there -

Not sure if this is right here about the greek archers pinching the string - my research indicates that Greek archers used the thumb to draw with the fore finger on the arrow. The draw was done to the chest, not the ear. It seems that the idea was to fire as quick as possible as the enemy hoplites would close in very quickly.I have tried this method and one can shoot very quickly. Archers seem to have not been used by the greeks because war meant burning cornfields and archers could not melee with hoplites so could not hold ground.

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