The Hellenistic Period, Weapons and Armour, 400–150 bc I

Recent work, such as that by Connolly, Hanson and Sekunda, has paid much attention to army organisation, strategy and tactics, with some work on the psychology of war and the equipment used. It is with the equipment, the arms and armour, that this article is concerned. The basis of all warfare is arms and armour. What weapons were actually used during which periods, and how effective were they? What was armour made of? Did it work, and why did it change so much? Everyone knows pretty well what a spearhead looks like. Body armour and helmets, on the other hand, show a much greater variety of types, which benefit from full examination and discussion, especially concerning their origins. In general, a sword is a sword, and a spear is a spear. (Not true, of course: please read for details!) But helmets, shields and body armour are what change the most, and are what make a soldier recognisable for what he is – heavy infantry, light cavalry and so on – and from what period he comes.

This article follows the great changes in Greek warfare that occurred in the fourth century under the influence of Iphicrates of Athens, Epaminondas of Thebes, and Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedonia. These led to the hoplite and peltast being replaced by infantry wielding a two-handed pike called a sarissa, and to the greater use of heavy cavalry. The third century saw the rise and fall of the use of elephants and, to a much lesser extent, the use of chariots again. Finally, the second century marked the rise of Rome and the demise of the Greek kingdoms as an effective military force. The same period also saw the development of siege artillery (catapults), which will be touched on.

The evidence for this period is widespread across the three spheres of artistic representations, archaeological artefacts and literary evidence, but there are still major problems with interpretation. Rather than the vase painting of the Archaic and Classical periods, it is sculpture and, to a lesser extent, coinage that provide the best artistic evidence for the period. These start with Athenian funerary monuments and the Alexander Sarcophagus, and end with the great Hellenistic monuments such as the Artemision at Magnesia-on-the-Meander and the altar friezes at Pergamum.

Of the archaeological finds, pride of place must go to the ones from the royal tombs at Vergina in Macedonia; but there have also been outstanding finds of an iron muscle cuirass from Thesprotia in north-west Greece, and cataphract armour from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan.

As for literature, we have good secondary sources in Diodorus and Arrian for the earlier period, and an excellent primary source in Polybius for the later period. There are also an increasing number of useful contemporary inscriptions, like that from Amphipolis referring to military equipment under Philip V.

Another difference in this period is the geographical coverage. Apart from Greece and the islands, this chapter includes Macedonia in north Greece to a much greater extent. Philip II of Macedonia conquered the rest of Greece and then his son, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian Empire, including Egypt, and pushed on to India. After his death, various generals – the Successors – quarrelled over the spoils. These disputes eventually settled down into new kingdoms: Macedonia itself, the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire of Syria and the East, and several smaller kingdoms that came and went. The Greek states of mainland Greece obtained varying degrees of freedom, but were generally under the Macedonian yoke. This means that much of the evidence for later Greek warfare comes from Egypt, Asia Minor, the Near East and the Far East – even as far as Afghanistan. These Hellenistic kingdoms used the same troop types as one another, with minor differences. Mainland Greece tended to continue with peltast and hoplite warfare using the ordinary spear, but most changed eventually to the sarissa and Macedonian-style warfare. After Alexander they played a small part in warfare, which was dominated by the larger Hellenistic states.


We have seen how light troops called peltasts had been effective against the Spartans at Sphacteria in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians repeated the feat in 390 when Iphicrates defeated a unit of Spartan hoplites in the field with a force of peltasts (Connolly 1998, p. 49). He later campaigned with his peltasts in Egypt and, after returning from there in 373, he apparently instituted some military reforms. We do not have a contemporary source for this fact, but only the later reports of Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus XV, 44, 2–4) and Cornelius Nepos (Life of Iphicrates XI), which are so similar that they must have copied the same earlier source. The following is Best’s translation of Diodorus (Best 1969, pp. 102 ff.):

Soldiers who used to carry the aspis (hoplite shield) and were called hoplites, now carried the pelta and were called peltasts. Their new spears were half as long again or even twice as long as before. Sword length was doubled. He introduced a new type of boot called the Iphicratid, and linen corslets replaced the bronze cuirass.

The original author of this can have known nothing of the military practices of the early fourth century as it is full of errors, leaving interpretation difficult. The first clear misconception is that hoplites became peltasts. We have seen that these two infantry types had co-existed since the Peloponnesian War. The other misconception concerns the corslet. Linen corslets had replaced bronze cuirasses for most hoplites at the end of the sixth century. By 400, if not earlier, it seems that the leather spolas was the main body armour of choice, apart from cavalry and officers who wore a bronze cuirass as well. It may be that Iphicrates had come across linen corslets on his campaign in Egypt, where the material originated, and brought back some to give body armour to peltasts for the first time, but there is no other corroborating evidence for this. Parke (1993) accepted these reforms as a bringing together of hoplites and peltasts to form one infantry type, with peltasts adopting the spear instead of javelins, and hoplites adopting the lighter shield of the peltast. Best (1969, plates 3, 4) has shown, however, that a thrusting spear was sometimes used by peltasts in the fifth century, although perhaps Iphicrates made it more common. Both Parke and Best accept the idea of hoplites discarding bronze cuirasses for linen, which we have shown to be incorrect and which is a problem in the original source. Many peltasts were mercenaries from Thrace, and Thracian hoplites did still wear bronze cuirasses throughout the fifth century (see below). It is possible, then, that Iphicrates took a force of Thracian hoplites as well as peltasts to Egypt, or perhaps he was put in charge of some on his return, and it was they who discarded bronze cuirasses for linen corslets and became peltasts. The Iphicratid boot sounds very much like the high boots often worn by peltasts as early as the fifth century, and there is no reason why it should not have been worn instead of greaves. It may have been adopted from the cavalry boot mentioned by Xenophon. The lengthening of the spear suggests a forerunner of the Macedonian sarissa, or pike, and this will be looked into when we examine infantry weapons.

The main infantry body of troops, the phalanx, continued to be made up of soldiers called hoplites throughout the rest of the fourth century, and it is uncertain whether these new peltasts existed outside one or two campaigns of Iphicrates. Some of the ideas certainly stuck, however, and we shall be examining those as they occur. The main body of this chapter concerns the armies of Macedonia and the successor Hellenistic kingdoms, which consisted of many different troop types. We will look at the infantry first.

THE Sarissa

Hoplite spears seem to have been about 7 or 8ft in length from the limited evidence we have (Anderson, in Hanson 1991, pp. 22–3), so the doubling by Iphicrates would give a length of 14 – 16ft. This approaches the length of the later Macedonian sarissas and makes the spear a two-handed weapon. Whether Iphicrates’ peltasts ever used a two-handed pike like this is doubtful. It would have removed the mobility of the soldier. It is possible that our late sources are exaggerating the lengthening of the spear and that Iphicrates did lengthen it, but not by so much. Spears up to about 13–14ft long can be managed with one hand, especially if used underarm.

In 371 BC the Thebans defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra, much to everyone’s surprise. The main reason for their victory was that they had a phalanx that was fifty men deep instead of the usual eight to twelve, and they put their crack troops, the Sacred Band, on their left wing. This put them opposite the Spartan king and his bodyguard, and the depth of the Theban phalanx simply steamrollered the Spartans. The rest of the Spartan army (made up of allies) melted away. It is possible that an additional reason for this victory was that the Thebans were using longer spears, of the Iphicratid model. It seems most likely that the hoplite phalanx charged with the spear underarm, and a longer spear would have presented more spear points to the enemy (Hanson 1989, p. 162). A possible argument against this is that in 377 the Thebans were certainly still using normal hoplite spears, as they threw some at the Spartans like javelins (Anderson, in Hanson 1991, p. 20). The main argument in favour is that Philip II of Macedonia, in north Greece, was a hostage at Thebes at the time of their victories after Leuctra, and when he returned to Macedonia he built up an army which eventually included the two-handed sarissa. It seems likely that he got the idea from the Thebans, or developed it from what they had already achieved. It is still not certain that the sarissa in Philip and Alexander the Great’s time was two-handed, but given the fact that both men used the phalanx – now generally sixteen men deep – as a holding force while attacking with cavalry, it does seem likely (Sekunda 1984, p. 27).

The length of the sarissa has caused much academic argument over the years. Theophrastus, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that the Cornelian cherry tree, whose wood was commonly used for spears, grew to a height of 12 cubits, the length of the longest Macedonian sarissa (Theophrastus 3.12.2). Polybius, writing in the second century, states that the sarissa was 14 cubits long. Ten of these cubits projected in front of the soldier, and the spears of the first five ranks projected in front of the phalanx (Polybius XVIII, 29, 2–30, 4). Twelve and 14 cubits are commonly translated as 18 and 21ft, as the cubit is to be regarded as the Attic cubit, a standard measurement. Tarn (1930, pp. 15–16) argued that the measurements were shorter Macedonian cubits, giving a Theophrastan length of only 13ft. He suggested this because the sarissa was used by cavalry under Alexander, as well as by the infantry, and 18ft would have been an impractical length. However, it is unlikely that an author like Theophrastus would use anything other than the standard Attic cubit, as he was writing for an Athenian audience. Also, it seems likely that the cavalry sarissa was a different weapon, the word sarissa simply meaning ‘a long spear’ (see below). Studies of the sarissa have also been hampered by Markle’s reconstructions (1977 and 1978) in the 1970s. Connolly (2000, pp. 105–8) has shown that the sarissa head used by Markle is in fact a heavy butt end, and that sarissas had much lighter heads to aid balance. He has also shown that the sarissa was not of uniform thickness all along its length, but tapered from butt to point, also as an aid to balance. Using these criteria, Connolly has reconstructed 12-cubit sarissas weighing only just over 4kg, about two-thirds that of Markle’s reconstruction. We still have to consider the difference between the lengths given by Theophrastus and Polybius. This seems entirely chronological, as Polybius himself says that sarissas were longer in earlier times (Polybius XVIII, 29). So we might suggest that the sarissa used by Philip and Alexander was 18ft long; in the third century it grew to perhaps 24ft, the longest manageable pike; and that by Polybius’s time in the third century, it had reduced again to 21ft. It seems likely that the earliest sarissas were of Cornelian cherrywood, which is hinted at by Theophrastus, but that later examples – too long to be easily obtained from that tree – were much more likely to be made of ash, like sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pikes. Ash has the added advantage of being a lighter wood, and so longer sarissas could be made which were no heavier than the shorter cherrywood ones (Lumpkin 1975, p. 197).

The Macedonian phalanx was organised into units of 256 men, called syntagmas or speiras (Connolly 1998, p. 76). These were generally arranged in blocks of sixteen by sixteen, although at Magnesia in 190 Antiochus III arranged his phalanx to a depth of thirty-two men. The overall size of the phalanx was also larger, as Philip II had more men at his disposal. Philip’s phalanx was usually 20,000 men, supported by 2,000–3,000 horse. Alexander would invade Persia with a phalanx of 32,000 and 5,100 horsemen. As was mentioned earlier, the points of the sarissas of the first five ranks projected in front of the phalanx. The other men held their sarissas upright to avoid spearing their own men, and this also helped to break up missile attacks. This new style of phalanx was much more unwieldy than the hoplite phalanx had been, and Connolly (2000, p. 111) has demonstrated the difficulties of manoeuvring it into position. With its sarissas lowered the phalanx was a formidable fighting machine, which held up the Persian armies with ease while Alexander won his victories with the cavalry. Later Hellenistic battles, such as Ipsus in 301 and Raphia in 217, had huge phalanxes locked in combat almost to no avail, while the battles were won and lost by cavalry encounters. The Battle of Ipsus, when Antigonus fought Seleucus and Lysimachus, featured a staggering clash of 70,000 men in each phalanx, supported by 10,000 cavalry. It was the Romans who finally showed the weakness of this type of phalanx. Because of the need for cohesion, battles tended to be fought on flat ground, where the phalanxes could manoeuvre carefully. The flexible Roman legionaries could fight anywhere and, when they drew the Macedonian phalanx onto rough ground at the Battle of Pydna in 168, they annihilated it and put an end to the Macedonian kingdom. In his campaigns in Italy in the 270s, Pyrrhus tried to add flexibility to his phalanx by inserting bodies of Italian light troops in between each phalanx block, which seems to have been fairly effective but was not copied elsewhere. At the Battle of Magnesia in 190, Antiochus III inserted elephants and their light troop guards in between phalanx blocks, but that became a disaster when the Romans attacked the elephants with archers and javelin men and panicked them. They then routed and broke up the Greek phalanx.

Apart from the phalanx, Alexander the Great also had a body of men called the hypaspists (shield-bearers). These men were often used for scouting manoeuvres and usually formed up in battle between the cavalry and the phalanx. They were apparently lightly armoured, therefore, although the name suggests they carried substantial shields. The warriors on the Alexander Sarcophagus (which dates to the late fourth century, and was the tomb for King Abdalonymus of Sidon) carry large hoplite shields of c. 85–90cm and must therefore have been using a spear rather than a sarissa. It is possible that these men are meant to be hypaspists (Sekunda 1984, pp. 28–30)

Newcastle University has a bronze spear butt in its collection, which is marked ‘MAK’, showing it was an official Macedonian issue. It must be from a spear rather than a sarissa, and may therefore be from one of those used by the hypaspists. There is also the possibility that it comes from a cavalry spear. The Macedonian army was issued with all its equipment by the state, though this is the only known marked item apart from sling bullets and ballista bolts marked with Philip’s name (see below).


In the reforms of Iphicrates mentioned by Diodorus and Nepos, swords were also apparently doubled in length. However, there appears to be no real archaeological evidence for this, and the two types of hoplite sword – the straight sword and the recurved machaira or kopis – continued in use. By the second century the latter sword was certainly the more popular, and Polybius mentions that the Romans reinforced their shields with iron to withstand them. Most surviving machairas are 35 to 70cm long, although the example from the cuirass tomb in Thesprotia (see below) is 77cm (Choremis 1980, pp. 15–16). These longer examples are almost certainly cavalry versions, and a sword length of under 50cm for infantry seems more likely. At their widest point these blades measure about 5cm, and the bone or wood handles are usually in the form of animal heads. Examples on the Pergamum frieze have elaborate scabbards decorated with tassels (Jaeckel 1965, figs 5–7). The straight sword is also featured on the Pergamum reliefs and on the tomb paintings of Lyson and Kallikles (Hatzopoulos and Loukopoulos 1980, pp. 60–1), dating to the early second century BC. The latter have sword handles of a Celtic style, no doubt adopted following the Celtic invasions of the early third century.

Miller Art-2


The Macedonian shield has been studied at length by Liampi (1998). The adoption of the two-handed sarissa by the infantry obviously necessitated a change in the shield, as the left hand now needed to be able to protrude beyond the shield rim to grasp the sarissa. Surviving shields seem to suggest a diameter of c. 65–75cm. At the top end of this range they may have been cavalry shields, but Connolly (2000, pp. 109–10) has successfully used 63cm shields in a reconstructed phalanx, and the pictures suggest that larger shields of up to 70cm would not have been a problem. The shield seems to have had a shoulder strap, which would also have taken some of the weight of the sarissa in the lowered position, while it also enabled the shield to be carried on the back, leaving both hands free to manoeuvre the pike. A hoplite grip was still employed, with the hand also slipping through the handgrip to grasp the sarissa. This also meant that, should the sarissa be lost or broken, the grip could be used like a hoplite grip and the sword drawn, as is shown on the second-century Aemilius Paullus monument (Kahler 1965, plate 12).

Third-century depictions of this shield show it to have been very convex and there must have been quite a lot of padding behind the metallic face, which cannot all have been a wooden core. The bronze facings that survive, and the literary mentions of ‘bronze-shields’ and ‘silver-shields’, show that these shields cannot have been wicker peltast ones, as suggested by Plutarch at the Battle of Pydna. He also mentions small daggers as compared to Roman swords, and is clearly indulging in literary exaggeration. By far the commonest designs on Macedonian shields are geometric. A small shield from Olympia, and the paintings in the tomb of Lyson and Kallikles (Liampi 1998, plates 1, 3), show a large central circle and smaller circles around the edge. These were all embossed onto the bronze sheet. Occasionally the shields feature a central Macedonian star or head of a god or, on one occasion, an eagle (Liampi 1998, plates 2, 14); but what is most remarkable is the uniformity of design from 300 down until 150. The Lyson and Kallikles paintings show us that, apart from the embossing, these shields were painted as well. Sometimes different regiments, or wings of the phalanx, were distinguished by their shields. Livy describes the two halves of the Macedonian phalanx as ‘bronze-shields’ and ‘white-shields’. The phalanx of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king in the late third and early second centuries, all had bronze shields, although he had a separate guard unit called the ‘silver-shields’, a name which had been used for a corps of elite troops since Alexander the Great’s time. In 167 at the Daphne parade (Polybius XXX, 35.3), Antiochus IV showed off a phalanx of 20,000. Part of this, or possibly in addition to this, was a unit of 5,000 ‘bronze-shields’, some (5,000?) ‘silver-shields’, and perhaps some ‘gold-shields’, although there are difficulties with the text (Sekunda 1994b, pp. 14–15).

The shields of the hypaspists shown on the Alexander Sarcophagus have very elaborate portraits of gods and goddesses painted on, and one has an apparent portrait of Alexander the Great as King of Persia (although these have all virtually completely faded away now). Although Sekunda suggests these are regimental devices, I cannot see such devices being applied to the army in general, owing to the time and expense of applying such decoration. I think they are far more likely to be elaborate pictures dreamed up by the artist of the sarcophagus (Sekunda 1984, plates F, G, H). The shield from the tomb of Philip II is a highly elaborate affair covered in gold and ivory, although the basic structure was of wood covered with leather. It tells us little about the decoration of combat shields (Vokotopoulou 1995, pp. 157–8).


The soldiers of the phalanx had a wide variety of helmets to choose from, and these same helmets were also worn by the heavy cavalry, and so they will all be discussed here following the designations and order given by Dintsis. The Boeotian helmet was mentioned in Chapter 4, and it continued to be worn throughout the period: indeed, until about 50 BC. Usually thought of as a cavalry helmet, it was possibly worn by infantry from the third century onwards. Later versions are shown on coins and sculpture with cheek pieces and horsehair crests coming from a central knob. Alexander’s companion cavalry almost certainly wore this helmet (Sekunda 1984, plates A, C, D).

The Phrygian helmet appeared from about 400 and lasted until c. 100. It is similar to the Thracian helmet, but its most conspicuous feature is a high crown very similar to a Phrygian cap. It usually has a peak, cheek pieces, and sometimes an extra brow guard. An example in the Ioannina Museum in north Greece shows tubes at the sides and at the top of the crest to hold plumes (Sekunda 1984, p. 26). Other examples from Thrace are decorated with silver appliqués (Webber 2001, pp. 11, 23, figs 2, 4). Nearly all the infantry on the Alexander Sarcophagus are wearing this type of helmet, and it also seems to have been the favoured cavalry helmet under Philip II (Sekunda 1984, plate D). It is being worn by soldiers on the Pergamum frieze, too.

The tomb of Philip II produced an iron helmet of this type, where the crest is a raised, flat piece of iron rather than the hollow crest of the bronze Phrygian helmets, and this is no doubt because of the difficulties in working in iron. The reinforcement crests on the front of these and other Hellenistic helmets seem to appear first in the third century, and Connolly (1998, p. 80) has suggested that this was a response to the Celtic invasions of that time. The Celts wielded long slashing swords, and extra reinforcement would have been a useful addition.

The Pilos helmet also continued in use until about 150. After Alexander, this helmet incorporated the wavy lower edge of the Boeotian helmet, and is called a ‘Cone’ helmet by Dintsis. There is a fine example of this type in the Ashmolean Museum. An example with a Celtic-style crest knob is shown being worn by an officer, possibly from the cavalry, on the Artemision at Magnesia-on-the-Meander dating from the early second century BC.

The Corinthian helmet, which by 400 had degenerated into a cap called by Connolly (1998, p. 110, no. 5) an Italo-Corinthian helmet, seems to have remained popular in Sicily and south Italy, but not among the Hellenistic states, although there is one example on the Pergamum frieze (Jaeckel 1965, fig. 25). Cheek pieces also appeared later with this type of helmet, and it sometimes had a fore-and-aft crest or a metal ridge in place of a crest.

The Attic helmet also continued throughout this period. It features on the Alexander Sarcophagus, and developed into Dintsis’s Pseudo-Attic helmet, which is generally called Thracian by other modern writers. A good number of examples are known from Thrace, but it does seem to be an Attic derivative and not to have derived from Thrace. This helmet has a peak and cheek pieces, and third-century and later examples have a brow protector. Instead of a crest it usually has a fore-and-aft ridge for added protection. An example from Thrace is of the usual bronze, but originally it had iron cheek pieces (Webber 2001, p. 24), and two wonderful iron specimens are known from a cuirass tomb at Prodromi in Thesprotia near Epirus (Choremis 1980, pp. 13–14). These are both very similar in design, but one has been completely sheathed in silver, and so it seems that we have here examples of a battlefield helmet and a parade helmet. They date from about 330. The warrior in this tomb was certainly an officer and probably a cavalryman, but Thracian helmets are also seen being worn by infantry soldiers on the tomb of Antiochus II, dating to 246 (Head 1981, figs 8–10).

A final item of headgear that warrants a brief mention is the kausia. This is a traditional Macedonian hat rather like a beret. It features on the Alexander mosaic at Pompeii, being worn by a light infantryman who may be a hypaspist (Sekunda 1984, p. 30). A kausia is also pictured on the victory frieze at Pergamum, but I think it unlikely that it was used as a regular item of protective headgear for the phalanx, since we have so many references to the use of helmets. It was possibly worn off duty, like an army forage cap, and was clearly a very popular item. Kings of the Greek Kingdom of Bactria, in what are modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, are often shown wearing the kausia on coins as late as 100 BC.

Helmets were also frequently painted, and the tomb of Lyson and Kallikles is our best evidence for this. One helmet is coloured red with a black peak, yellow cheek pieces and crest, whereas the other is yellow with a black and a red stripe, silver peak and cheek pieces and a large orange plume. I would suggest that the yellow paint on these helmet pictures shows the original bronze, with the rest being painted additions on the helmets.

We have already mentioned the use of iron helmets, of which that from the tomb of Philip II is the earliest known. The expense of these meant that they were unlikely to have been used for the general rank and file, but could have been purchased by wealthy officers, perhaps especially among the cavalry. They would certainly have been stronger helmets, if rather heavier than bronze. The Roman army did not equip their legionaries with iron helmets until the time of Marius or Caesar (first century BC), and it is unlikely that any of the Hellenistic kingdoms could have been more generous. There are ambiguities with a couple of sculptures, which use blue paint. The soldiers on the Alexander Sarcophagus have blue helmets, which Sekunda (1984, plates F, G) interprets as having been painted blue, but there is a slim chance that they are meant to be iron helmets. There is also a third-century grave stele from Ptolemaic Egypt showing an officer with a helmet and a muscle cuirass both painted blue, which Head (1981, p. 24) has interpreted as representing iron. The fact that we are dealing with an officer here, both items are painted blue, and we are fifty or so years later in date, all make this a far more likely candidate for the use of iron armour.

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