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Elite peltasts of Xenophon’s “ten thousand”

19/05/2015

When someone mentions the Ancient Greek armies the impressive image of the hoplite comes to mind. Unless someone talks specifically about them, auxiliary troops serving in the manly hoplite-composed armies are being left out of the grand picture. While Greek light troops are visible in art from the Bronze Age only after mid 5th century written sources mention them thus making them “visible” to us. The Greek troops hired by Cyrus the Younger were a combined arms force and Xenophon specifically mentions 300 peltasts under Pasion the Megarean, 500 Thessalian peltasts under Menon and 800 Thracian peltasts under Spartan Clerachus.

Peltast with "attic" helmet and carrying sword is getting ready for deployment. Author's archive.

Peltast with «attic» helmet and carrying sword is getting ready for deployment. Author’s archive.

These men were not less well off citizens who fought as javelineers because they could not afford hoplite equipment but professional specialists in missile weapons and light infantry tactics. For the Thracians javelin was their national weapon and the learned its use from childhood. But in mountainous Greece were urbanization was almost non-existent and the living conditions harsh good quality light infantry was also produced. The Aeninians and the Locrians are mentioned again in Xenophon’s account.

The combat effectiveness of these troops was demonstrated in open order battle when they successfully resisted Tissaphernes cavalry. But it was in the later stages of the campaign their true potential was shown when they cleared the army’s path by occupying the high grounds thus denying advantages to the enemy. While written sources was the backbone of the reconstructed peltasts we present here we have to say that we are relatively lucky that during the late 5th and later 4th century B.C. artists did not frown upon light troops and thus they were frequently depicted,

Peltast ‘wearing “chalcidic” helmet on the march. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

Peltast ‘wearing “chalcidic” helmet on the march. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

Two of the reconstructed individuals wear the traditional Thracian boots with the distinctive flaps that were so useful for campaign and one is wearing emvadae (closed shoes). To combat the hot climate of Asia Minor and the Middle East they have provided themselves with Greek style chitons probably bought in the Greek Coastal colonies. They are using leather belts to tighten them in the waist. A dagger could be tucked in the belt to be used as a secondary weapon. At this time many Thracians used the rhomphaia as an assault weapon and specimens dated roughly 421 BC exist in Xanthe Museum but Xenophon does not mention this wepoan. A khopis would be more likely if the individual warrior knew how to use it but straight swords or even romphaie cannot really be excluded. The romphaia would be something to terrorize enemy ;light troops and a force to be reckoned against  the cavalry of the time. No horseman would relish the prospect of coming close to these wicked blades an even heavy infantry was at risk from determined flank attacks.

Thacian peltast armed with rhomphaia. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

Thacian peltast armed with rhomphaia. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

The pelta shield is generally thought to be have been basket-woven with an animal hide stretched over it. Another opinion is sole hardened leather but these shields were made of perishable materials none have survived. (Snodgrass 1967, 78). Our approach has been hardened layers of leather held together with animal glue and forming a crescent shape. The shield device is based on contemporary attic pottery.

Peltast wearing a pilos helmet and emvadae shoes is waiting for a group of hoplites to prepare for action. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

Peltast wearing a pilos helmet and emvadae shoes is waiting for a group of hoplites to prepare for action. Photo courtesy of the “Hetairoi” Living History Association

Being a professional soldiers who valued their lives our reconstructed peltasts, while they would probably wear the traditional pilos cap or a straw hat when not on duty, they chooses to enter combat wearing an helmets. The helmets should not impair hearing and provides good visibility necessary for the hit and run tactics of the light troops. The pilos helmet would have been more popular but “attic” and “chalcidic” types could also exist depending on individual preference or available funds.

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