The Greek and Hellenistic Period

Types of long weapon and their use

Several people have tried to classify the various long weapons available to Classical armies, from the writers of wargames rules to academics. So here I am following in a long established tradition.

I am basing this attempt at classification on a definition of Hellenistic long weapons put forward by Paul McDonnell-Staff on Roman Army Talk. I have gently tried to expand it to Roman weapons as well, perhaps a little unwisely. I fear Paul would not agree with some of my changes but hopefully these can form the basis for future discussion.

Broadly speaking spear-type weapons fall into the following categories:

Small heads, no butts, thin shafts c. 3-4 feet long - purely missile/throwing weapons, such as the Greek akon and palton, plus Roman verutum. Vegetius( Epit. II.15) describes these weapons as having an iron head 5 Roman inches (114mm) long, with a shaft of 3.5 Roman inches (1030mm) in length. Such examples vary in weight from 325 -350g.

Left - AD 4th century Roman carrying veruta


Dual-purpose spears
Larger heads, generally no butts, c, 5-7 feet long, often carried in pairs, the dual throwing/thrusting weapon; also the typical Greek 'hunting spear' as well as a weapon of war e.g Greek longche and Latin lancea. We could stretch this to cover the pilum and spiculum sometimes used by Roman cavalry, but these are generally throwing weapons.

Xenophon writing in the mid fourth century BC (Peri Hippikes 12.12) recommends that two Persian javalins be carried made using cornel wood.

Left - A mid 4th century BC Greek with two longche


The thrusting spear
This often has a large cutting head, usually counter-balanced by a butt spike, usually centre-balanced , with a thicker shaft, not suitable for throwing, around 9 feet long, used in war only, often called "Great Spear" e.g. Greek: doru, Latin hasta. It is the standard close order weapon.

Left - AD 4th century Romans with the hasta.
A late 4th century BC Boeotian hoplite with a duru.


Long two-handed pike 14-18 feet long, possibly of Thracian origin, made famous by Philip's Macedonian army, used in conjunction with a round 'pelta' shield, 60-70 cm/ 24- 28 "/8 palms diameter. 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". Iconographic evidence is often unreliable and perhaps even more so in the case of such a long weapon. I fear I do not believe in such a cavalry weapon.


Cavalry lance, Kamax and Macedonian Xyston
With a small head, large butt, often tapered to give balance point one-third down shaft, c. 9-12 feet long e.g Greek Kamax, literally 'reed' or Xenophon's doratus kamakinou, a thrusting weapon, possibly of Thessalian origin, which began to augment/replace javelins as the primary weapon of Greek cavalry from the last quarter of the 5th C BC.

This long weapon with a small head, tapered shaft, large butt spike and balance point one-third up the shaft, seems to have been also adopted by some Hoplites, perhaps to counter the mounted version. But it did not replace the centre-balanced 'doru' probably because in use the tapered head was more likely to break than the thicker-shafted 'doru'.

The Macedonian xyston is probably a slightly heavier version weapon, with the balance point still towards the rear of the weapon, optimised for hand to hand combat. It is possibly shown used by Alexander on the "Alexander Mosaic" and other bits of iconography.

Top right - 360's BC Athenian with the kamax
Bottom right - Alexander chasing Prus

The funerary relief of Panaitos dated to around 395-390 BC (on the left) shows him armed with a kamax and longche. The tapering of the kamax is nicely shown.


Hellenistic kontos, Latin contus
Typically around 12 foot long, perhaps carried one-handed but used in two hands to fight. The kontos or "barge pole" may have been developed by nomad steppe peoples ( e.g. Massagetae) after encountering Alexander's cavalry, and later adopted by Hellenistic heavily armoured cavalry, the 'kataphraktoi'. It was adopted by some Roman cavalry around AD 100 as the contus after contact with the Parthians. It was probably heavier than the xyston with a thicker shaft, and less likely to break. It would need to be used two handed.

Right - AD 4th century Roman with contus


John Conyard