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Cretan Archers in Roman Service


Archers have been appearing in Cretan art from the Early Bronze Age. After the end of the Geometric Era when the Doreans firmly established themselves on the island, the Cretan armies were unique in the fact that archers found themselves in the battle line rather than just giving support as psiloi. They first made themselves a name as mercenaries in the Greek and Hellenistic Armies. By that time the Romans had encountered them in the service of the Syracusans and the Carthagenians. They realized their value and start hiring them themselves. Perhaps the first recruits might have been prisoners of war from the opposing armies that were thought too valuable to be wasted as slave manual labourers. They are mentioned in the story of the Gracchus Brothers. It seems that being full time soldiers were more readily available than the citizen legionaries. Being also foreigners were more likely to support their paymasters rather than the plebians.  In their native Crete though constant civil wars have wrecked the land and have made it a refuge for many outlaws in the Mediterranean, including Cilician pirates. It was so notorious that at the time bad behavior was termed: “Cretan attitude” The Romans now started facing these archers as crews of the Cilician pirate ships. Polybios wrote that under the pretext of fighting piracy the Romans found a good excuse to invade the island. After Metellus subjugated the ferocious Cretan guerillas with unparallel savagery, the Romans reorganized the island as military colony under a prefect and a caestor and continued to recruit archers for their armies as before. Ancient writers talk about the red tunics of the Cretans. Usually this was the mark of elite troops and supports the idea that they fought in the line, because red is hardly a color that ambushing skirmishers would favor. Another characteristic was their headband that still survives in the Cretan national dress. They used small buckler or target shields. Initially they must have been made of wicker, reinforced with leather but later it is possible that bronze facings were used. It is also more possible that they carried them suspended from their shoulder with baldrics rather that burdening their arms while using the bows. Shield device was probably the AIGAGROS (chamois) or the swastix-like labyrinth of Knossos but other designs or even the adoption of Roman symbols could not be ruled out.

Archer shield. Design by Nikolakopoulos Dimitris, Architect.

There is evidence that they started carrying the linothorax and helmets at the late classical period. This might have been their armor in the initial period of their service in the Roman Army but the longer they stay in service, the more Roman their gear would become. They also carried short swords and daggers-sometimes even javelins and they were not unwilling to fight as psiloi or peltasts quite aggressively. Composite bows are mentioned in Homer and by the Hellenistic period Scythian type bows would be available. Excavations in Crete have unearthed triangular heavy arrow heads capable of devastating wounds. The bow would be carried in the gorytos bow case when not in use. At the time of Julius Ceasar they most probably wore “montefortino” type helmets and bronze plaques protecting the chest like the earlier roman principes. The ones attached to the elite 10th legion might even have chain mail. A red roman tunic and braca, along with calligae would supplement their equipment. Service in cold northern frontier would have made them to adopt animal furs and other  “barbaric” clothing items. In the late roman period Cretans are not mentioned and perhaps they were not distinguished from other auxilia missile troops. But they are listed fighting valiantly among the defenders of Constantinople in 1453-perhaps a fitting end for these tough troopers.

CretanArcher Source:


Stylianos Spyridakis “Cretans and Neocretans”

The Classical Journal Vol. 72, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 1977), pp. 299-307

Polyvios “Military Institutions of the Romans”

The Library of Original Sources, Oliver J. Thatcher 1901),

Plutarch “Caius Sempronius Gracchus” Loeb Classical Library1920

3 Σχόλια
  1. Thank you. Your informative blog also gives me incentive for further research.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Pelethites and Peltasts | Against Jebel al-Lawz
  2. Ancient Greek Mercenaries in Antiquity | stefanosskarmintzos


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