Roman Archery
Written by
Categories: Ancient, Medieval

Roman Archery

An archer on a galloping horse takes aim at a king with a broad-headed arrow
My library lacks photos of east Roman archers, but they and the Avars influenced peoples in western Europe, so how about this ninth-century picture from folio 32v of the Stuttgart Psalter in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek

In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).

The Training and Drilling of the Individual Soldier

He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. That is essential and should also be practiced while mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, shooting slowly is useless. He should practice shooting rapidly on foot from a certain distance at a spear or some other target. He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run, to the front, the rear, the left, the right. He should practice leaping onto the horse. On horseback at the run he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or a half-case designed for this purpose, and then he should grab the spear which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the spear in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted, on the march in their own country. For such exercises do not interfere with marching and do not tire out the horses.

Other, later sources explain what is meant by rapid shooting in more detail, specifying that soldiers must be able to shoot three arrows at a target at a certain distance before the first hits, or that they must be able to ride past a row of targets a few metres apart and hit them all. Some give hints about how to achieve this, such as holding arrows in the bow hand, using a bow which is lighter than the strongest bow which the archer can handle, resting the arrow on the thumb of the bow hand instead of the side, or even practicing shooting small moving targets such as dogs and birds at close range. The archer in this video has thought up other tricks, such as using a very light bow and not drawing it fully which further reduces the speed of the arrow. There were also many differences within traditions of mounted archery. Maurice later comments that the Persians shoot extremely fast but not strongly, and some peoples seem to have preferred to shoot continuously from a distance, others to gallop close and loose a few arrows before galloping to safety.

In western Europe archery traditions since the Chalcolithic have been based on long self bows, although composite bows were used occasionally from Roman times onwards and crossbows became important in the later middle ages. Europe has plenty of timber, including trees such as yew which make good bowstaves, but not grass for so many horses. Archers in these traditions practiced standing and shooting at model birds atop poles, at targets on earthen mounds some scores of yards away, or dropping arrows onto targets hundreds of yards away from above.

Archery traditions are diverse, and archers develop many different skills. When two archers from different traditions meet, each will probably each find that the other can do things which they can not. Rather than deny or dismiss, it is better to try to understand what each is trying to do and how they do it. Those interested in historical archery will find that historians and ethnologists have compiled and translated many useful sources and have advice on how to interpret pictures, stories, and other difficult kinds of evidence.

Further Reading: George T. Dennis ed. and tr., Maurice’s Strategikon (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1984). David Nicolle has an encyclopedic knowledge of medieval warfare, especially that in the Moslem world, and has published many affordable books for a wide audience which describe archery techniques. On the archery of the Scots, Flemings, English, and other such peoples see the works of Roger Ascham in the sixteenth century and Hardy and Strickland, The Great Warbow.

Edit 2015/08/18: I forgot to mention the Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN), a group of bowyers, archers, and scholars who study archery from horseback and who have made many useful resources available.

Edit 2021-10-16: converted to block editor, reformatted quote to work with block editor, fixed broken link

paypal logo
patreon logo

22 thoughts on “Roman Archery

  1. reynom4 says:

    Thanks for avoiding the “video”.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You are welcome. It has been too long since I played with a bow, so I should see if there are any local archery ranges!

  2. ryddragyn says:

    The strategikon is arguably not talking about speed shooting at all.

    “he should fire one or two arrows rapidly”. This is the first clue that it’s not talking about speed shooting. By definition, one arrow isn’t exactly rapid fire, speed shooting. However, this is the key part:

    “speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with FORCE…even when the arrow is well aimed, shooting slowly is useless.”

    I put it to you that the words “speed” and “rapidly” are NOT talking about reload/renocking speed, they are talking about the speed of the arrow itself, and the motions of shooting – drawing and loosing- are what are supposed to be executed swiftly. Hence discharging it with force. I say this with a strong degree of confidence because archery manuals from both the east and west almost universally stress the importance of what Roger Ascham described as a “sharp loose”. As in, the hand comes to anchor (a full draw, not a half ass partial draw like in the “video”), then releases the string while simultaneously pulling back in a swift motion. The Arab and Turk manuals also specifically call for a sudden jerk backwards of the string hand while loosing.

    This lengthens the effective draw length (increasing power), prevents muscle collapse, and cleans the release up a bit. It’s a key technique for making sure arrows are “discharged with force”.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Ryddragyn, Thanks for your comment. I had not heard of Ascham’s sharp loose.

      One of the passage which you may not know because I did not quote it comes from book XI, the “know your enemy” for all the Romans’ neighbours. Maurice warns that ”the Persians are more practiced in rapid, although not powerful archery than all other warlike nations.” (p. 114 pf G.T. Dennis`translation). I am not an expert in sixth-century Greek, but I am reasonably confident that the word which he translates as “rapidly” refers to drawing and loosing the arrows within a short space of time. I would call drawing one arrow from the quiver and loosing it in a short space of time speed-shooting, although everyone is free to use these terms as they wish.

      But there are a lot of Greek works on archery, and not all the people who have worked with them are archers, so someone who wanted to look at all the technical terms would be more than welcome to go over the Greek text and make a case for a different translation. You probably know about the controversy about whether Maurice wanted the light infantry to be armed with crossbows (as G.T. Dennis translates) or with those devices which let an archer make a full draw with a short arrow.

      1. ryddragyn says:

        Yes, I am familiar with the overdraw rest vs crossbow controversy.

        Provided GT Dennis’ translation is correct for the beginning of that chapter, then I am fairly certain that at least in that one passage, Maurice is referring to the sharp loose technique, which, as I said, was a widespread practice across cultures. (For reference, the Arab Archery text and Klopsteg’s text on Turkish archery both talk about the exact same thing.) Maurice’s emphasis is very strongly placed on the force of the arrow. Having done some flight archery, I can vouch that a sharp loose is a very effective technique for both accuracy and power. (again, a sharp loose from a full draw. not a half drawn snap shot.)

        Procopius also uses the term “rapidity (or at least the translation does) in reference to horse archers, specifically the power of their arrows: “they drive their arrows with such rapidity, that it is certain death to him on whom they fall, nor can the stoutest shield or helmet resist the violence of the stroke.” He makes this comment in regards to the benefit of longer draw lengths, such as drawing to the ear instead of the chest. So, in that context rapidity is also clearly referring to speed and power.

        Given the prior use of the term “rapid” I wonder if Maurice meant that the Persians loosed their arrows with high velocity but low kinetic energy (e.g. fast moving light arrows that didn’t have all that much penetrative power). I suppose it’s also possible he did indeed meant high volume of fire from relatively weak bows. Comparing all the original texts next to each other would be very useful.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          I would read it as Persian arrows having low energy or momentum or penetrating power even if the details are hard to understand (did they use weaker bows? lighter arrows? a shorter draw?) A.D. Bivar thought that “the Roman manner of shooting” was to hold the arrow with the thumb and forefinger, and the “Persian manner” was to hold it with the lower three fingers. If I ever get a chance to work on these archery texts, I will be sure to get back into practice at archery, and write to the folks at ATARN. I do not know the Arab and Turkish sources well, just that they exist and that there have been archers reading and interpreting them for some time now.

  3. ryddragyn says:

    There is another Byzantine manual that talks about archery in more detail: G.T. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises

    (page 129)

    This one does use the term rapid to refer to what we would nowadays call speed shooting. But it also equally stresses the importance of long draw length for adequate power. Multiple times, for that matter.

    The manual also draws the same release dichotomy as Maurice, but again, goes into a bit more detail. One draw uses the “three middle fingers, the other “only two. Of those who who use two, some will press the thumb upon the index finger, the others just the opposite. The last draws the bowstring back further and fires the arrow with more force.”

    Again, the thumb draw vs. fingers draw dichotomy.

    However, I think Bivar erred in describing the Roman release as the thumb draw, and the Persian as the fingers draw. I am working on a short research project on this very subject, looking at as many primary sources as I can (art, literature, archaeology). Long story short, I think the evidence shows that the Persian/Sassanid draw was actually a clever modification of the thumb draw, although the standard thumb draw was also in use. I will provide a link in the comments here when I finish it, if you want.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I would be happy for you to post a link to your research. I have a bibliography on ancient archery but I have had to put it aside since that is not the research which I am being paid for, and since I should really learn more archery before I try to talk about it. I have a Greek text of a Byzantine archery manual back in Canada.

      I changed your link to the book since G.T. Dennis’ book is still available in a cheap paperback, and since I make part of my small income selling my writing.

      1. ryddragyn says:

        Apologies, didn’t realize it was still in print.

        (the link with the pdf is not from a website I have anything to do with, by the way).

        1. Sean Manning says:

          That’s alright. And thanks for pointing out that “the video” uses the ‘Mediterranean grip’ and explaining why he does it. I will say that he can do things I can’t do, and he read at least one book on archery before posting his video even if he cherrypicked which parts to follow.

  4. ryddragyn says:

    I had a look through Procopius again, for clarification on the Persian horse archers.

    “For while their missiles were incomparably more frequent, since the Persians are almost all bowmen and they learn to make their shots much more rapidly than any other men, still the bows which sent the arrows were weak and not very[33-38] tightly strung, so that their missiles, hitting a corselet, perhaps, or helmet or shield of a Roman warrior, were broken off and had no power to hurt the man who was hit. The Roman bowmen are always slower indeed, but inasmuch as their bows are extremely stiff and very tightly strung, and one might add that they are handled by stronger men, they easily slay much greater numbers of those they hit than do the Persians, for no armour proves an obstacle to the force of their arrows.”

    Perhaps a bit overly patriotic, but otherwise believable. Weak bows easily shot quickly. But otherwise ineffective.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks for the quote … if I ever have a chance to study these much later Persians, I should read Procopius on Justinian’s Persian war. He is supposed to be lots of fun.

  5. ryddragyn says:

    Took me a while to get it finished up, but here is my take on the Sassanid release. My conclusion: it’s a modified thumb release, and not a fingers draw like Bivar thought.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks, I am sick right now but I will have a look over the weekend. I have a post coming up in three weeks which you might like.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks for the video! I had never seen those versions of the Mongolian draw. And I had never seen any actual photos of those finger-sheaths … I agree that something so long and smooth and inflexible would make it hard to perform a Mediterranean draw. I used to shoot with a leather tab.

      Ancient Warfare Magazine will be looking for proposals on archery in the second half of next year

      1. ryddragyn says:

        Thanks for the feedback.

        Could my hypothesis on the Persian release be adapted for a print/illustrated article in AW, or would they want something that had not been previously released in any form? Some of the material in my video was also sourced/quoted from other publications (e.g. the finger sleeve photos), albeit in a highly limited manner for the purposes of critical review. So I could imagine that being problematic.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          I think that an article on the same topic would be fine … YouTube videos and articles tend to attract different people, and it could be that you will have more thoughts by then. Getting rights to reproduce photos is always a problem, especially since AWM is a for-profit magazine not an academic journal. But I have something coming up next week which you might like.

  6. Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage | Book and Sword says:

    […] the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid […]

  7. Tak Hallus says:

    Speaking of rapid fire, is there any evidence that the Romans encountered the Greek Polybolos and incorporated it into their collection of artillery?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Humh, I am not an artillery expert! Most Roman writers don’t go too much into the details of artillery, that was engineering for people who had to earn a living. Apparently Wellington had the same issue: he was desperate to plant himself at the highest levels of the English aristocracy, and didn’t like the technically educated, meritocratically promoted gunnery officers.

  8. dearieme says:

    “soldiers must be able to shoot three arrows at a target at a certain distance before the first hits”. Move forward 1300 years or so: the 6-pounder gun used in British Churchill tanks could get three shells away before the first struck. This would be in the bocage country in Normandy so the target would not be distant.

  9. russell1200 says:

    You mention grass for horses. Which gets you into this oat and oat-hay issue of horse diet. And, oddly enough, the agricultural revolution that preceded the industrial one.

    As farmers, Europeans would have tended toward maximum use of land for farm. They would have set aside a certain amount of land for forest for heating purposes, and a very small amount for various oat types to feed very powerful, but small in numbers, horses. The agricultural revolution (this comes from E.A. Wrigley) is started when the British begin using coal for their heating. Since they now have an alternate to wood for heating, they can use some of their previously forested land for additional pastorage to raise horses. In agriculture this is important because they can now use stronger, more efficient in time, plow horses over oxen which can get buy on much lower value food types (multiple stomachs, cuds, and all that).

    My point is that the horseman that are created on the steps, are what they are because of the low population density, and shear size of the steppes. The opportunity costs of using the land to grow oat, oat-hay meant that the Europeans would choose to have less horses, but the horses could be bigger and stronger with the better diet.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.