The Greek and Hellenistic Period

Seleucid cataphracts

The question comes from an email received in the summer of 2011 from an artist in need of an answer to help him illustrate a book on the Seleucids. The issue of the length of the cavalry spear used by cavalry trained to charge home is perhaps one of the more contentious issues in the study of Hellenistic warfare. I have had to change my views on this more than once.

Back in 1977 M.M. Markle in the American Journal of Archaeology 81, initially just suggested that the cavalry sarissa was identical to the infantry weapon, at around 15-16 feet long. Later, in the American Journal of Archaeology 82 in 1978, he reduced the length to 14.5 feet. Connolly accepted the length, as did Devine in Hacket's book on ancient warfare. Manti in 1983 "The Cavalry Sarissa" in Ancient World 8, nos. 1, 2:73-80, went for a 9 foot lance which he calls a sarissa! Hammond at first thought big but now agrees with Manti. People have tried to calculate the length of infantry sarissa but there is confusion of the length of the cubit which many give as 13.5 inches but the Attic cubit is 18". Finally Paul McDonnell-Staff on Roman Army Talk put forward the idea that the Macedonian lance or xyston was around 12 feet, similar to the kamax but with a larger head and thicker shaft and could be welded one-handed. The Greek Kontos or Roman contus was literally a barge pole of around 12 feet with a very large head and thick shaft used two-handed. It was developed by nomad steppe peoples e.g. Massagetae after encountering Alexander's cavalry, and was later adopted by Hellenistic heavily armoured cavalry the "kataphraktoi". It was adopted by the Roman cavalry around AD 100 after fighting the Parthians.

Iconographic evidence is often unreliable and perhaps even more so in the case of such a long weapon.

Just what weapon close combat Macedonian cavalry used is perhaps best discussed by Robert E. Gaebel in his excellent "Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World". Arrian, Diodorus, Curtis and Plutarch are the four major sources giving battle narratives, and only Arrian gives any glue to the nature of the lance. At the Granicus in 334 he states Alexander's companions were using cornel wood lances against shorter javelins. Not much help there! But descriptions and iconography suggest that they are using a one handed lance, which Gaebel thinks would be 7-10 feet long. He tries to mirror the attacks and parries of Napoleonic lancers with those of the companion cavalry. So Manti, Gaebel and McDonnell-Staff all agree the lance should be held one handed, and only disagree slightly over the length. Manti says 9 feet, Gaebel 7-9 feet and Paul says 12 feet.

Practical Observations from personal experience
Re-enactors generally just mount a spearhead on any old pole and claim it is a spear. But in reality to be a viable weapon a spear needs to be well balanced and is generally tapered. The balance point depends greatly on the weight and length of the iron head, and to a lesser degree on the weight and shape of the butt spike and tapering of the shaft. Needless to say all my weapons are well balanced and a joy to use.

You can use a 9 feet long lance in one hand and it makes a good solid weapon. You can parry with it and it outranges infantry spears. Indeed throughout history cavalry spears seem to be longer than infantry spears, although their weights may be comparable.

You can ride carrying a 12 feet spear in one hand but it is unwieldy and easier to use in two hands. This would be true for what Paul would define as a xyston or a kontos/contus. Spear heads generally have a 22-25mm internal diameter which could suggest that a kontos head with a wide shaft of 30-40 mm diameter does not exist. But of course the spearhead may not give an indication of the width of the shaft especially if the shaft is tapered. So I cannot disprove or prove Paul's belief that the kontos is thicker or heavier than the xyston. But 12 feet is very long for a one handed spear!

The Seleucid Cavalry
Asclepiodotus (1.3) using Poseidonius gives some pointers on Greek cavalry. But Aelian (2. 11-13) and Arrian (4. 1-6) are more useful. Both give us cataphracts and unarmoured cavalry (aphraktoi). The unarmoured cavalry are further divided into a sort of lancer (doratophoroi, sarisophorai, kontophoroi, xystophoroi or lochophoroi depending on the weapon) and missile cavalry (akrobolistai). The cavalry with shorter spears could also carry shields (thureoi) and were called thureophoroi. Akrobolistai could use horse archery, throw javelins as "Tarentines" or hippakontista in Aelian (3.13). Some Tarentines could throw javelins and encage in combat.

In terms of the Seleucids the cavalry at the Daphnae parade in around 166 BC are described in Polybius (30.25.3-11). We are probably looking at a cadre of regiments which could be expanded in war time. The cataphracts are described as wearing purple surcoats, many embroidered in gold with animal designs, probably elephants and bees, typical Seleucid badges. Man and horses were both armoured. We don't read of cataphracts in the Seleucid army until Livy in 192 BC, and they are at Magnesia in 190 BC. But they may have been around since Antiochus the Great (210-206 BC).

They were probably non-Greeks, such as Iranians. People normally paint such troops very much like Parthian and Sasanian armoured cavalry. But there is very little evidence of Selucid cataphracts. There is a set of armour from Ai-Khanoum in Afghanistan using both scale and lamellar which does mirror the Pergamon reliefs which are well known. But the senior regiment, the Agema or "those that lead" were probably Medes and armed as cataphracts. As were the next regiment, the Nisaian. The Companions the Friends are probably Greek/Macedonians who are almost as heavily armed as cataphracts.

So, ignoring the other regiments you have Median and Iranian cataphracts, plus slightly lighter armed Hellenistic units perhaps using more western inspired plate armour.

In terms of weapons Plutarch writes that Armenian cataphracts used the kontos in 69 BC. He also mentions that the knees were left bare. No other weapons are mentioned in relation to Hellenistic cataphracts.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a Seleucid cataphract would be relatively eastern, using lamellar and scale with limited western influences. They would be probably be armed with a kontos, a two handed weapon of at least 12 feet. The kontos was probably heavier than the old xyston, and used two-handed. It may have been an eastern weapon, or not. They would not have used shields, if nothing else because it would be hard to wear armour on the left arm and carry any form of pelta.

And they would have formed alongside "Macedonian" elite units, slightly less heavily armoured, perhaps using shields and 9 foot weapons. A sort of almost cataphract!

John Conyard