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Peltasts: The Other Greek Warriors

By Arnold Blumberg
2/28/2018 • MHQ Magazine

On ancient battlefields formerly dominated by heavily armed, well-protected hoplites, a once scorned class of fighting man changed the face of warfare.

The prevailing image of ancient Greek warfare typically involves tight formations of helmeted hoplites clashing at close quarters in epic battles against opposing armies. But that image depicts just one variation on the Greek way of war. In reality, Greek military practices underwent significant changes during the archaic and classical periods, as military leaders developed tactics to fight upon a battlefield that itself was changing. Among their most important innovations was the development and increased use of light troops, particularly the mobile, missile-carrying peltast.

During the early Iron Age (eighth century BC), as described by Homer, aristocrats dominated the Greek battlefield, fighting heroic duels in front of a large but mostly uninvolved mass of armed supporters. Combats between individuals or small groups were scattered about the battlefield, with no coordination between allied fighters using common tactics and formations. This was the first recorded Greek way of war.

As the archaic period yielded to the classical era, the nature of Greek warfare gradually changed. Whereas in the Homeric age the aristocratic class dominated the life of the polis (city-state) in all its aspects—political, social, economic, and military—the classical period (500– 350 BC) saw a democratic system of government take hold in many Greek cities. This new form of government allowed citizens who were property owners, merchants, farmers, and free laborers to take part in the affairs of the state. Since defense of the city was paramount for the protection of its members and their democratic rights and privileges, all eligible males in the community were subject to military service. Armed citizen militias became the hallmark of classical warfare.

Heavily armed and armored infantrymen—hoplites, whose name derived from the Greek ta hopla, meaning tools or war equipment, especially the large, round shield called the hoplon—became the primary defenders of the state. Hoplite gear was expensive and individuals had to furnish their own. This, combined with the classical polis ideology that closely linked military service and political power, meant that possession of hoplite battle panoply gave a man political as well as economic status.

The well-protected hoplite carried a double-handled, 18-pound, three-foot-wide shield and was encased in metal body armor that included an iron cuirass protecting his torso, a metal helmet, leg greaves, and arm guards. His principal weapon, a six- to nine-foot-long thrusting spear (dory), weighed about five pounds. He also carried a 30- to 35-inch-long slashing sword (xiphos), and a dagger (encheiridion) for really close fighting. But this burdensome kit limited the Greek hoplite’s mobility, sometimes putting the fighter at serious disadvantage in combat.

The hoplite’s equipment weighed from 50 to 70 pounds at a time when the average Greek male weighed less than 140 pounds. Consequently, a fully equipped hoplite moved slowly and had limited stamina during battle. Helmets like the Corinthian type covered almost all of the head and face, and therefore impaired vision and hearing. The hoplon gave the left side of the hoplite great protection, but it was so heavy that the warrior needed to grip the handle and hold it steady with an armband. The user’s right arm was free to use spear or sword, but was unprotected unless he kept close to the hoplite to his right.

What transformed hoplite warfare from a staring match between two unformed, static, heavily armed mobs was the employment of the phalanx—the second Greek way of war. The Spartans are thought to have first used the phalanx in mainland Greece, in the early seventh century BC. Soon the formation gained wide acceptance. Over the next 300 years, Greeks expanded its use and honed its tactical application. The phalanx reached its highest point of development in the classical period.

Replacing the once customary loose collection of individuals and small gaggles of warriors who fought without any coordination, the phalanx grouped its members into a rectangle that regularized movement and delivered overpowering shock effect against disorganized warriors. By the mid-fifth century BC, the phalanx formation typically comprised rows of men four to eight soldiers deep, so tightly massed that their shields overlapped. Only large city-states such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes could field wide formations, but the smaller cities could pit their smaller phalanxes against the forces of cities of equal size, and did.

The bravest warriors occupied the front and rear; the least resolute or poorly armed fought from the middle lines. This spear-tipped juggernaut had to form before battle began, warriors standing anywhere from two to six feet apart. Then they advanced straight for their opponent, determined to bull their way through. When two such forces met, a pushing match ensued, each side thrusting with spear or hacking with sword to create gaps in the enemy lines. The contest could last an hour, but most were over in minutes. Usually, one side broke ranks and ran, and the victors would try to pursue, since hoplites out of formation were totally vulnerable.

The phalanx yielded significant results on the battlefield that earlier Greek forms of fighting had failed to achieve, but it did have failings. Phalanxes required large numbers of well-equipped, seasoned warriors to be truly effective. Except for Sparta, the Greek polis fielded citizen-soldiers who often lacked training and proper battle gear.

Such volunteer soldiers were not always willing to serve when needed. This became such a problem for Athens that the polis instituted a citizen hoplite draft during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). While this helped meet the city’s manpower problem, the drafted hoplites often lacked the proper combat equipment that the city expected them to personally supply.

Unbeatable in head-on attacks against unregimented troops, the phalanx worked best on level, unobstructed terrain. Because the formation was so tightly packed, it could not maneuver on the field except to make minor adjustments to the left or right. Well-trained professionals could wheel with precision, but, aside from Sparta, the Greek city-states only required sporadic training of their volunteer armies, at best. With little option but to move straight ahead, unless the troops were well trained and experienced, the phalanx was unable to retreat in good order or re-form if broken.

Indeed, even in victory the phalanx could not retain its shape and vigorously pursue a beaten enemy. As a result, even a victory won might not necessarily be decisive.

Finally, the phalanx was very vulnerable on its flanks and rear. Unable to react to such threats without disrupting the entire formation, early phalanxes employed small numbers of lightly armed men such as archers or slingers to the sides and rear, to ward off any menace while the phalanx re-formed to meet an attack. But by the early sixth century BC, most city-states no longer found these skirmishers effective. Instead, all the major combatants in Greece devoted their resources to fielding as many heavy infantry as possible.

Cavalry, which might have used speed effectively to attack the phalanx’s flanks and rear, never emerged as a major threat. The rugged, mountainous terrain of much of Greece limited options for cavalry charges, which required smooth, level ground. Furthermore, horses need substantial quantities of food and water, which the country lacked, so cavalry troops had to be small. The great expense of maintaining war horses also discouraged their widespread use.

Just as horse soldiers were seldom a real threat to the dominance of Greek hoplites fighting in a phalanx, the same was true of archers and slingers. Most Greeks disdained such weapons, considering them suitable only for cowards and barbarians who feared close combat. The bow’s short accurate range (100 to 150 yards) and slow rate of fire (about five arrows per minute) limited its employment as well. Slingers could be quite effective, but perfecting the art of hurling lead or stone projectiles from a leather sling with deadly accuracy usually required years of practice. Bowmen and slingers were thus scarce on Greek battlefields.

Even as the phalanx and its armored infantry held sway over the Greek way of war, roughly since the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, subtle changes in classical warfare began to emerge that challenged the preeminent standing of the Greek heavy infantryman. To lighten the hoplite’s military load and make the phalanx more nimble on the battlefield, by the 450s BC composite corselets of bronze and leather were replacing body armor of iron and bronze. Jerkins of laminated linen or leather had become common by the end of the century. So too had the pilos—a light, open helmet made of bronze or stiffened felt. These changes in what the Greek hoplite wore made him more mobile and thus better able to challenge the growing number of lightly armed troops that were being developed to protect the phalanx, thwart the enemy’s hoplites, and in some cases replace them. The lighter accouterments were also less expensive to make or buy, so more men of lesser means could equip themselves as hoplites.

Moreover, as hoplites lightened their protective gear, they became more susceptible to the threat of less heavily armored, missile-equipped enemy troops. This self-perpetuating cycle also led to a general increase in the employment of light troops who, because they were cheaper to outfit, could be recruited in large numbers from both within and without the polis.

Even the seasonal nature of Greek warfare contributed to this trend. The average hoplite was a farmer or tradesman who needed to support himself and his family by working his land or earning wages. These pursuits required his attention for most of the year, so he welcomed anything that reduced his military obligations. Having other types of soldiers available could reduce the need for hop – lite service, so these breadwinners could continue their civilian endeavors with fewer disruptions.

As a result, a third way of war evolved, one centered on the increased use of light infantry to both support and substitute for hoplites. The more they were used, the more effective they became. While in theory the hoplite remained the mainstay of Greek armies during the classical period, from the Peloponnesian War onward new types of soldiers made their presence increasingly felt on the battlefield. The most prominent among these was the peltast.

Named for the crescent-shaped, circular or oval shield (pelta) he carried, generally made of wicker covered by skins, peltasts became the most important of the light troops (archers, slingers, and stone-throwers being the others) used by the classical Greeks. The javelin was their principal weapon, although they often carried short swords as well. Peltasts originated in ancient Thrace, whose boundaries encompassed the southern part of present-day Bulgaria, European Turkey, eastern Macedonia, and northeastern Greece.

The Indo-European Thracians were divided by their geography: warlike clans in the mountainous areas, and on the plains a more peaceful, agrarian society. They were split into numerous petty kingdoms and tribes with no formal political organization until the creation of the Odrysian state in the fifth century BC. Settlements were mostly small, fortified villages, with larger ones serving as regional market centers. Considered rural and barbaric by their more urbanized Greek neighbors, Thracians nevertheless developed advanced forms of music and fashioned artistic crafts from gold and silver mined in the region.

If the Greeks looked down their noses at the Thracians as politically and culturally unsophisticated, they greatly appreciated the Thracian fighting man, the peltast. The Greek historian Herodotus described the Thracians as ferocious in battle and honoring their warriors above all other professions. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, said Thracian peltasts were “bloodthirsty” warriors, used to carry out executions and massacres because of their savagery.

The Greeks had been in contact with the Thracians since the latter had migrated to southeastern Europe. Homer states in his epic poem The Iliad that Thracians from the Hellespont fought with the Trojans against the Greeks. Conflict between Thracians and Greek frontier cities and settlements was constant. After the Persian conquest of that part of Thrace south of the Danube River in 512 BC, Thracian peltasts became a prominent force of light infantry in the Persian army. About 6,000 Thracian men accompanied Xerxes’ 480 BC invasion of Greece.

In his Histories, Herodotus describes the clothing and equipment of the Thracian peltasts fighting under the Persians: “The Thracians went to the war wearing the skins of foxes upon their heads [the flapped Phrygian cap], and about their bodies tunics, over which was thrown a long cloak of many colors. Their legs and feet are clad in buskins made from the skins of fawns, and they had for arms javelins, with light targes [shields made of wicker or animal hide stretched over a wooden frame], and short dirks [swords].”

Thracian soldiers were typically large for the time, powerfully built with red or light-colored beards, and generally wore their hair long. Skilled in the use of javelin, spear, and sword, the Thracian peltast reveled in combat. He placed loyalty to his tribe above all else, and eagerly sought plunder before, during, and after battle, Herodotus wrote.

During the long struggle of the Peloponnesian War, both Athens and Sparta employed peltasts. In 431 the Athenians secured the support of a powerful Thracian chieftain and his peltasts in operations south of Macedonia involving raids in the Chalkidike region. These efforts were so successful that by 429 the Spartans enlisted their own peltasts to counter the enemy threat. Referred to as Krousis peltasts (possibly Thracian), these Spartan allies first defeated the Athenian peltasts and hoplites in well-coordinated missile and foot attacks near the town of Spartolos. Days later, when the Athenians withdrew from the town, the Krousis peltasts harried their retreat, never approaching to within hand-to-hand com – bat range. Pelting their enemy with javelins, they scampered off each time the Athenian hoplites turned at bay. Then, as their foes continued falling back, they resumed their missile assault. Cavalry ably assisted the Spartan peltasts. When the enemy hoplites bunched up for protection against mounted attacks, they presented excellent targets for peltast projectiles.

In 425 at the Battle of Spachteria, on an island just off the west coast of the Peloponnesus, the Athenians defeated 420 Spartan hoplites and—in an unprecedented act that shook Sparta to its martial core—captured 292 prisoners. Although Athens had more than 800 hop lites on the scene, it was the hit-and-run tactics of their 800 mercenary peltasts, supported by the missile fire of an equal number of archers, that forced the Spartans to surrender. The Athenian commanders, Demosthenes and Cleon, divided their peltasts and archers into companies of 200 men each, placing them on the island’s high ground so that they could constantly threaten the enemy’s flank or rear.

Using light troops to harry the Spartans from a distance with arrows, javelins, and stones was the key to the Athenian tactics. When attacked, the light troops fled, but when their pursuers turned, the Athenians were on them again. Even when the Spartans retreated to the shelter of a small fort along the beach, archers firing from a height made the Spartan position untenable. This was an example of what peltasts could and did accomplish against hoplites.

The stunning success of the peltasts at Spachteria came from both sound tactics and good training. Throwing the javelin (akon), whose length varied from 1¼ to 2¼ yards, required constant practice. A trained peltast could accurately throw his weapon on the run about 45 yards. Use of a leather thong (ankyle) extended the range. The metal points on the javelin were both smaller and better balanced than a hoplite’s spear point, and thus made for a more effective projectile.

Peltasts were trained to act on rough terrain in loose formations of 100 to 200 men, quickly maneuvering around enemy units. On open ground, they might be grouped into companies of up to 600 to protect a phalanx’s flanks and rear. In either case their function was to harass their opponents from afar while avoiding close combat. Trumpet calls usually controlled their movements during battle.

The most favorable situation for a peltast was to be faced by an unsupported hoplite enemy in hilly or broken terrain. Although unable to stand head-on against an unbroken phalanx, peltasts could fight at close quarters effectively against surprised or demoralized heavy infantry.

This occurred at the 422 Battle of Amphipolis when the Spartan Brasidas overcame a larger Athenian hoplite army by deploying peltasts to strike at its flank. Once the flank collapsed, Sparta routed the phalanx, killing about 600 Athenians, including their commander, Cleon. Brasidas was also killed in the close fighting of the pursuit, and with both charismatic leaders lost, each side warily agreed to peace.

By the easly fourth century many Greek hoplites feared an encounter with versatile, mobile, BC, well-trained peltasts. Spartans fighting around the city of Corinth in the 390s BC devised the only effective counter to them. The Spartans would send out their youngest and fastest men to pursue the enemy peltasts, hoping to run them down and kill them. This tactic worked sometimes, but more often than not the retreating peltasts would outdistance their Spartan pursuers and then return to harassing attacks. This occurred in 390 when Corinthian peltasts under the Athenian general Iphicrates (412–353 BC) smashed a 600-man Spartan hoplite regiment at the Battle of Lechaion after repeated and failed Spartan attempts to catch the attacking and evading light infantry.

The use of peltasts increased dramatically after the Peloponnesian War. Unemployed mercenary soldiers, a significant portion of them peltasts, sought any leader who had money to spend. Battles employing peltasts ranged from Greece to Egypt to Persia. Sometimes they were fought between Greeks and foreigners, and sometimes Greek mercenaries fought against other Greek mercenaries, both sides far from their homeland.

By now the peltast was a respected specialist, and native Greeks as well as Thracians were learning skills with the javelin. Peltasts were used extensively, on and off the battlefield. On the march, they served to guard the advance, flank, and rear. They could scout for the army as well as forage for supplies in the countryside or ravage the enemy’s fields. Since even major thoroughfares in mainland Greece were mere dirt trails and cavalry was rare, peltasts and archers were the best troops to send on raiding or scouting missions, or in any situation requiring speed.

The peltasts of the fourth century many of their commanders— BC were fortunate in that dubbed the “condottieri of the fourth century” by historian William Kendrick Pritchett—were outstanding leaders: Agesilaus of Sparta, Pammenes of Thebes, and Chabrias and Xenophon of Athens, to name a few. But the most important general (strategos) associated with the peltasts during this time was Iphicrates.

The son of an Athenian shoemaker, Iphicrates first found martial glory at the Battle of Lechaion. He then went on to clear Corinth of all enemy forces. Between 398 and 356 BC he served various forces, fighting in Thrace, Asia Minor, and Egypt, as well as in Greece. He was usually victorious.

In 374, according to the first-century BC Roman historian Diodorus, Iphicrates reformed the peltast troops he recruited by changing their battle panoply:

Hence we are told, after he had acquired long experience of military operations in the Persian War, he [Iphicrates] devised many improvements in the tools of war, devoting himself especially to the matter of arms. For instance, the Greeks were using shields which were large [megalais aspis] and consequently difficult to handle; these he discarded and made small oval ones [peltas summetrous] of moderate size, thus successfully achieving both objects, to furnish the body with adequate cover and to enable the user of the small shield, on account of its lightness, to be completely free in his movements. After a trial of the new shield its easy manipulation secured its adoption, and the infantry who had formerly been called hoplites because of their heavy shield then had their name changed to peltasts [peltasti] from the light peltasts they carried. As regards the spear [dory] and sword [xiphos], he made changes in the contrary direction: namely, he increased the length of the spears by half [to 12 feet], and made the swords almost twice as long.

The Roman historian Cornelius Nepos wrote in general agreement with Diodorus, except he stated that Iphicrates made the swords 100 percent longer, while replacing bronze and chain armor with linen garments.

If the descriptions of Iphicrates’ reforms are correct, it appears that he did not maintain his troops as lightly armed skirmishers but instead transformed his peltasts into medium infantry, similar to hoplites, able to contend with both light and heavy infantry. His newly furnished soldiers were successful up to the 350s BC.

Although the classical peltasts before Iphicrates’ reforms were equally important to traditional hoplites in Greek warfare during most of the fourth century BC, there were signs that they too would meet serious challenges to their war-waging supremacy. Peltasts had also proven effective in combat when teamed with cavalry. This was especially true during the Sicilian campaign of 415–413 BC, when Syracusan cavalry and infantry working together inflicted a number of decisive defeats on the Athenians. Now cavalry alone became an ever-increasing threat to the peltast, especially if he was beyond the protection of a friendly phalanx.

Peltasts could throw javelins more accurately than a man on horseback. Cavalry presented a bigger target, a further disadvantage in battle. According to Thucydides, under rapid covering fire of javelins, Thracian peltasts successfully charged and defeated Theban cavalry. The answer for the horseman was to close the distance rapidly and use spear or sword against the peltast. This winning tactic was driven home in 381 BC when a force of Olynthian horse, feigning retreat, turned on pursuing Spartan peltasts, defeating them and killing more than 100.

Olynthian cavalry repeated the tactic against non-Spartan peltasts a few years later. In 378 BC Theban riders routed first the Thespian peltasts and then their accompanying hoplite infantry in a grand mounted charge.

The second threat to the peltast was the emerging Macedonian phalangite created by King Philip II. The Macedonian foot soldier wielded a long pike (sarissa). Estimated at between 14 and 18 feet long, the sarissa required both hands to control and could outreach any Greek spear, giving the Macedonians a great advantage when the two types of phalanxes met in combat. Philip’s phalangites carried a smaller shield, about 24 to 30 inches in diameter, that was a hybrid between the classical Greek hoplon and the pelta. The shield hung from the neck or shoulder, freeing both hands to manage the long Macedonian pike.

Philip trained his infantry to fight with either the pike or the javelin, depending on the geography. He also relied more on cavalry, which he used to attack almost any target under almost any circumstance. He reversed the accepted battle formula: His army used the phalanx as a base of maneuver around which his shock cavalry would deliver the decisive blow, not the traditional other way around. Philip’s new tactics and equipment, so foreign to what the Greeks had been doing, left them vulnerable in battle against the Macedonians.

As a student of Iphicrates, Philip appreciated the achievements of the classical Greek peltasts, but at the same time he strove to overcome them. This led him to field light infantry known as hypaspists, who were swifter than the phalangists. He formed these hypaspists into three battalions of 1,000 men each, and they became the elite fighters of his army. Although it is not known exactly how the hypaspists were armed and equipped, Philip used them to move quickly and guard the flanks and rear of the phalanx. Close combat was a part of their duties. The historian Arrian records that Philip’s son, Alexander III, used them to keep pace with his cavalry and execute special mobile operations.

The Greek peltast, in all his variations, embodied specialization requiring more training and skill than the Greek hoplite. In Greece, they may have been among the first professional military men. Their abilities to throw javelins with accuracy and stay in top fighting trim probably did not allow them to pursue full-time civilian occupations, unlike the hoplites who eagerly returned to civilian life once their brief campaigns ended.

Yet precisely because peltasts were available at any time, they were more likely to be employed than idle. Continual use rather than seasonal wars disrupted the generally peaceful system under which the Greek city-states had flourished. After their defeat by Philip II at Chaeronea in 338 BC, and subsequent subjugation in the Macedonian empire completed by Alexander the Great, the Greek city-states never recaptured their former glory.


Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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