Some Thoughts on “Hoplites at War”

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The cover of "Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE" ISBN-13 978-1-4766-6602-0

Paul M. Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray, Jr., Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE. McFarland and Company: Jefferson, NC, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4766-6602-0 (paperback) 978-1-4766-2636-9 (ebook). 233 pages.

In 1989 Victor Davis Hanson threw a match into some scholarly tinder by publishing a book which was both very readable and obviously flawed. Since no two scholars could agree about which parts of his book were incorrect, this has lead to thirty years of argument about just what happened on Greek battlefields. Unlike most scholarly debates, this one has fascinated people outside the university who follow the debates and try to push forward their own theories. Some of them have gone on to graduate school, others organize re-enactments and backyard tests, and a few write books. One of these amateur contributions is Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE by Paul Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray. That is an ambitious title for a book of 233 pages, and the preface is bold too:

In this book, we make use of traditional sources, but combine those with cutting-edge (apt for a book on warfare!) science … We hope the result provides a comprehensive source on hoplite warfare that will advance key debates for modern scholars, while entertaining the general reader. … [what we present here] is an assessment of what we firmly believe to be most probable based on all evidence at hand.

While this book’s reach exceeds its grasp, I think it contains some important ideas.

Bardunias is fascinated with term ὠθισμός or “pushing” in Greek stories about battles. To him, this is not just a metaphor, or something which happened sometimes, but a characteristic of most battles when the lines collapsed into two masses of struggling bodies, each pushing with its chest against the man in front and pushed by the man behind. Many scholars doubt that this is physically possible, and interpret this term a figure of speech, or the action of individual fighters in the front rank. But as Bardunias notes, physical pushing is explicitly described by many technical writers on warfare. He is particularly impressed by the Strategikon a text written around 600 CE but drawing on written and oral traditions stretching back at least a thousand years. Because it was written by a fighting soldier whose main goal was to instruct other soldiers (not to impress cultivated readers with his learning and mastery of archaic forms of Greek) we should take its assumptions about what happens in combat very seriously. This source does not seem to be widely known among ancient historians, so I will quote some relevant passages:

As far as the depth of the line [of cavalry] is concerned, the ancient authorities wrote that it had formerly been regarded as sufficient to form the ranks four deep in each tagma, further depth being viewed as useless and serving no purpose. For there can be no pressure from the rear up through the ranks, as happens with an infantry formation, which may force the men in front to push forward against their will. Horses cannot use their heads to push people in front evenly, as can infantry. (tr. Dennis p. 27)

They [the heavy infantry] tighten up or close ranks when the line gets to about two or three bowshots from the enemy’s line and they are getting set to charge. The command is ‘close ranks’ (JUNGE: Maurice’s army still used Latin commands) Joining together, they close in towards the centre, both to each side and to front and back, until the shields of the men in the front rank are touching each other, and those lined up behind are almost glued to one another. This manoeuvre may be executed while the army is marching or while it is standing still. (tr. Dennis p. 146)

In battle, it is not necessary for the whole line to manoeuvre at one signal. … Besides, the movements of the enemy are not uniform. Suppose, for example, that one unit of the line is shallow and is being pushed back by the enemy. Others, whose ranks are deeper, may be able to assist. (tr. Dennis p. 151)

In Bardunias’ view, the famous round Argive shield with its offset lip was designed to enable fighters to breathe in such a press. In modern crowd disasters, people caught in the middle or trapped against a wall or pillar often suffocate because they cannot expand their chests to breathe. Some scholars in the hoplite debate are very skeptical about massed, physical pushing, but I think that the balance of the evidence suggests that it happened sometimes. Bardunias also tested his hypothesis at the re-enactment of Marathon in 2015 by having files of hoplites test out different ways of pushing against a tree. He describes this experiment and its result in chapter 9, and it should be read by anyone who wonders whether such massed pushing is physically possible.

A red figure vase painting of Achilles standing
A painting of Achilles which many re-enactors who like long rear-weighted spears point to. He has one of the longest spears in Greek art. If you measure photos of the vase, his spear is about 33% longer than he is tall. Vatican Museum, inventory number 16571. Digital photo after http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/it/collezioni/musei/museo-gregoriano-etrusco/sala-xxi–della-meridiana–ceramica-attica-ed-etrusca/anfora-attica-eponima-del-pittore-di-achille.html

The first chapter of this book contains a valuable section on ways of striking with a spear, and the second chapter contains something even more important: an English summary of Stamatopoulou’s PhD thesis on the Argive shield (Aristotle University Thessalonike, 2004) which was originally written in Modern Greek. One of the barriers to progress in the hoplite debate is that most of the debaters are Anglophone classicists and ancient historians, but learning about what Greek arms and armour could and could not do requires handling artefacts and reading German and Modern Greek. The scholars who participate in the hoplite debate as part of their academic career tend to be meticulous in citing texts and artwork, but their claims about how things were made and what they could do often make people who have studied ancient crafts or worn armour sad.

Unfortunately, not all of the sections on arms and armour are as detailed as the section on shields, and even that leaves me asking questions. Just how many Argive shields with fragments of the wooden components survive? How does the archaeological evidence relate to depictions of shields in art? After reading descriptions of artefacts which few researchers have seen, and handling a variety of replicas, how heavy do they think Greek shields were? I wish that the authors had expanded their section on arms and armour and on the experiences of people who have used good replicas of Greek equipment. I also wish that they had included more insights from people who imitate ancient craft processes, such as coppicing spear-shafts or splitting logs and shaping them with adzes and draw-knives. People with those experiences have important insights which are rarely printed.

A glazed brick relief of a Persian soldier wearing a robe and holding a spear
A picture of Persian soldiers from the palace of Darius at Susa with spears longer than some depictions and shorter than others. The ratio between spears and men is 21:17 (1.24), about the same as on the Achilles amphora. Photo from the Louvre, Paris, taken by Jona Lendering http://www.livius.org/su-sz/susa/susa_soldiers.html

Unfortunately, Hoplites at War is not a product of a scholarly press, and that shows. Again and again, a promising section ends before the authors have time to give important details or address some of their readers’ concerns. A book two thirds the size of Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities tries to cover a period 50% longer. While this book has many end-notes, and they always cite evidence to support claims, they don’t always cite evidence against them, or refutations of the studies which they cite. For example, Herodotus’ claim that Persian spears were shorter than Greek ones is reported as a fact, despite the fact that scholars since 1894 have noticed that the spears on Persian sculptures are about as long as the ones on Greek vases.[1] Could Herodotus have confused macho boasting with serious reporting? On page 84 we hear that the Iliad was “likely composed c. 750 BCE in the early days of the phalanx” (the date is common, but the idea that Greek armies fought in anything like the phalanx that early is very hard to support!) Most of these problems are in the section on events before Thucydides and after Alexander, and that might be one argument for focussing the book on a narrower period. This book’s editors failed to check its facts and to help the authors narrow their focus to reach a well-defined audience. I suspect that casual readers will like Ray’s “battle pieces” but want something with more illustrations, serious re-enactors will want more detail about arms and armour, and academics will put this book down when they decide that the authors have not thought hard enough about the texts and artwork which they use. I think that is a shame, because the authors have some important ideas and evidence.

Every chapter of this book begins with a “battle piece” by Fred Ray. I am not the target audience for these pieces, especially not for his vision of Thermopylae and Mycale, but I think that many readers will enjoy them. Although this book does not stress it, Ray’s stories about battles are based on systematically collecting information about all the Greek battles mentioned in surviving texts and looking for patterns and trends. While sometimes I think he goes a bit too far in extrapolating, and makes assumptions about what is important in battle which I am not so sure about, this is more rigorous than the usual ways of writing a “battle piece.” Creating such lists of evidence was also a great deal of work. I think that there is plenty of room for professional historians to work with Fred Ray and his catalogue of evidence, even if they have to agree to disagree about some things.

I think that many readers would be able to find something useful in Hoplites at War, but not as many will do so as might have if the authors had thought harder about what different readers are looking for and made some tough choices to cut some topics in order to explore others in depth. I hope that by now my gentle readers have decided whether or not to buy this book (Bookfinder link to paperback and Amazon link to the ebook). But what if you want to know what I think about the hoplite debate?

Well, I have not worn hoplite kit, I have not read Thucydides and the Iliad in the original, and I have not spent weeks studying vase paintings. I am not sure that my opinion is anything but noise. But I am a military historian who has studied how people behave in combat around the world.

Maurice is an important source, but his heavy infantry do not behave like Thucydides’ hoplites: they are clearly organized into ranks and files and a hierarchy of officers, and advance slowly into battle with shields held in front of them and over their heads, then hurl shafted weapons before closing in to fight hand-to-hand. Ray and Bardunias are fascinated by reports that Theban armies lined up 25 or 50 shields deep, but according to Maurice “no matter how deep or shallow the enemy’s files are, the depth of our own files should not exceed sixteen men, nor should it be less than four. More than sixteen is useless, and less than four is week.” (tr. Dennis p. 150) So just like the “primitive warriors” from 20th century New Guinea to 19th century Afghanistan who help us understand Homer, Maurice’s soldiers give us examples of the kinds of thing which can happen in battle, but not proof that other soldiers behaved exactly the same way. I think that it is very important that Maurice takes it for granted that infantry push chest-to-back as a file, and that shallow files are more likely to be pushed back than deep ones.

This book argues that the Argive shield was specially designed for pushing (ὠθισμός), but that creates a problem. The first depictions and remains of these shields date around 725 BCE, but there is no good evidence for literal massed pushing before the fifth century BCE, and especially the second half of that century (if you want the details, see Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities [www.bookfinder.com/search/?isbn=0715629670&st=xl&ac=qr] or Henchmen of Ares [www.bookfinder.com/search/?isbn=9490258075&st=xl&ac=qr]). The “heretics” (anti-Hansonians) have painstakingly showed that many aspects of warfare which Hanson saw as primeval do not even occur in later stories about early battles, let alone in the few surviving Greek texts written before 430 BCE. Warfare in the seventh and sixth centuries probably saw men with all kinds of kit mingled together, small numbers of well-armed men, and a great deal of throwing spears and running back and forth. Men were able to move to the front, fight for a time, then withdraw to the middle or rear of the army when they had done enough. A few thoughtful scholars find intense close combat in the Iliad and on the Chigi vase, but I think that the balance of the evidence is against them and will get worse as scholars give more weight to the archaeological and iconographic evidence than the few short texts. Bardunias and Ray sometimes hint at the existence of these arguments, but they don’t show that they fully understand them and have an answer. Its unlikely that a shield was invented in the seventh century BCE for a type of warfare which had not yet emerged at the beginning of the fifth.

A battered statue of three men forming a shield wall with round domed shields
A limestone statue of the three-headed monster Geryon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 74.51.2586, released under a CC0 1.0 Universal license). Bardunias and Ray, like many other moderns, imagine hoplites entering combat with their shields held like this (pp. 32, 117ff), and Maurice describes a similar posture. It is a good one for pushing and resisting being pushed, and has excellent ‘passive defence.’ But in fact, as far as I know, Greek texts and art rarely show shields held this way, especially before the 5th century BCE. When the Ancient Greeks depicted hoplites, they usually showed them leading with the bottom edge of the shield or with the edge opposite their hand (both well-attested positions in shield fighting in later cultures). This statue, and a famous passage in Thucydides, both date to the 5th century BCE and I do not recall any earlier examples.

However, I also think that the attempt by the “heretics” to loosen the ranks of Thucydides’ hoplites, and explain away references to fighting chest to chest and shield to shield, are strained. I don’t see any reason to doubt that massed pushing sometimes happened in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, although I doubt it was as common as it seems when we read and re-read the accounts of the handful of “great battles” which get detailed descriptions in our sources. Hoplites did much more than fight great battles, and their kit had to suit a wide variety of tasks, from stealing cattle to putting down a revolt against the local tyrannos. The historians neglect these other kinds of violence, but other kinds of evidence imply that they were everywhere. (Two important insights of the “heretics” are that a man with a big shield, a long spear, and an open helmet is only clumsy relative to one with a sling, and that the “orthodoxy” exaggerated the role of the polis and warfare inside mainland Greece and neglected other kinds of fighting such as service with foreign kings or the wars between the cities on Crete).

Even in Thucydides and Xenophon (who focus on Athens and Sparta and avoid weaker cities with less experienced armies) I would estimate that about half the times that two armies line up against each other, either one side decides not to fight at the last minute, or the front-rankers on one side have barely started fighting when the men behind them start running away. It was not for nothing that Alexander spent the night before the battle of Gaugamala performing sacrifices to Fear (Φόβος: Plut. Al. 31.9). Rather than spending several pages and invoking David Grossman to retrospectively diagnose the ancients with PTSD and reluctance to kill (pp. 101-103), why not spend more time exploring the language of terror which appears again and again when the ancients talked about battle? (As an aside, the response of the British Psychological Society to the 5th edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is worth reading by anyone who wants to use modern theories to diagnose the ancients; another phrase worth googling is western educated industrialized rich democratic). We have all kinds of evidence that Greek soldiers used blinding bronze, echoing chants, and fierce charges to frighten their enemies, but not so much that they deliberately tried to become effective at pushing as a crowd.

I would also like to see the authors explore whether soldiers would have been willing to put themselves into the kind of situation where “shock waves are produced that can tear off clothing, lift people off their feet, and propel them 3 m or more through the air.” (p. 133) In Bardunias’ views, crowd physics can only happen when both sides agree to cooperate, because if one stops pushing and leans or steps back, the solid mass of bodies on the other side loses its cohesion (p. 137). Whether soldiers’ bodies could endure the pressure is one question, and its important that the authors used an experiment to answer it. However, another issue is that once they are grappled chest-to-chest like this, the soldiers in the front rank are very vulnerable and have no way to escape if they feel their bodies or their courage or their minds failing. They can’t step back due to the pressure behind, and the measure (in the fencing sense) is too short to have much chance of defending against anyone except the man they are grappling. Greek boys grew up on poetry which made it perfectly clear that mortals have limits in combat, and Greek and Roman military thinkers tended to say that the best heavy infantry were solid older men, not the young and fearless. In combat people often find themselves in situations which they would not have chosen if they had seen an alternative, but I am not certain that the aristocrats of early Greece would have chosen to build a way of warfare around massed pushing. Sometimes the hand-to-hand fighting in Greek battles lasted for many tens of minutes, perhaps even hours: are we supposed to imagine that most of that was spent pushing, or that the lines somehow separated to let both sides catch their breath and gather their courage to step forward into the spears? How did they separate without the front rankers being stabbed as they withdrew? There are a few comments on this subject on page 137, but not enough to let me understand the authors’ answers. I am sure that they have thought about these issues, but they don’t let me see how they think through them. So while I am open to the idea that massed pushing sometimes happened, I don’t think it could have been as central as it is to Bardunias, especially not before the middle of the fifth century BCE.

I also think that we need more books on Greek arms and armour, or on combat mechanics in other cultures, which approach the subject as interesting in its own right and not as a weapon in the hoplite debate. Greek arms and armour were diverse (a fact which disappoints many students of Greek warfare looking for the One True Panoply!), and all kinds of things can happen in combat. Just sorting out the combat mechanics which we can prove happened somewhere, and the claims about Greek arms and armour which match some significant number of artefacts, and what we actually know about what kit was popular when, would be helpful. I certainly don’t think that the historical-philological approach which has traditionally dominated the hoplite debate is the only useful one, or that only people with graduate degrees in the field should write about ancient warfare.

Full Disclosure: I know Paul Bardunias through emails and his blog.

Edit 2017-02-25: s/Greke battles/Greek battles; clarified meaning of measure

Edit 2017-07-15: Corrected date of introduction of the Argive shield.

[1] The first mention of the problem which I have found is Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson, “Herodotus vii.61, or Ancient Persian Armour,” in Classical Studies in Memory of Henry Drisler. (MacMillan and Co: New York, 1894) p. 100 https://archive.org/details/classicalstudie01drisgoog “The spear or lance (αἰχμή) is the next weapon in the list of Herodotus. It is to be seen in all of the Persian monuments and is constantly referred to in all Iranian writings. Whether Herodotus rightly terms the Persian spears ‘short’ (βραχέας) is a question whose answer is a relative one, depending of course on the Greek point of view.” In the 120 years since, it has been periodically mentioned by authors such as W.W. How, Duncan Head, Bruce Lincoln, and John Hyland (although many try to minimize the problem, using weasel words or reminding readers that Persian sculptures might not be a reliable source for the length of weapons but not that the same is true of Greek paintings). Needless to say, this problem will be in my doctoral thesis …

0 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Hoplites at War”

  1. paulmacd1 says:

    I too have known Paul B. for many years, since 2007 in fact, and we have debated his theories all that time. I would agree with you that whilst physical pushing and ‘crowding’ occurred from time to time in ancient and mediaeval battles, if the circumstances were right, it was certainly NOT the norm. ( any more than ‘crowding’ or pushing is the norm in modern crowd events such as demonstrations etc).

    As for the so-called ‘Hoplite debate’, it is complete nonsense. Both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’ supporters are demonstrably wrong! I won’t write a complete paper, but just give a couple of examples.Firstly, ‘Othismos’, while derived from a verb meaning pushing, does not mean physical pushing necessarily, and its most general meaning is something like “scrimmaging”.
    Secondly, take a look at the earliest usage in Herodotus, which is between Greeks and Persians.Now the Persians doing the shoving and fighting are either dismounted shieldless cavalry, or at best sword/akinakes or axe/sagaris armed infantry with wicker shields !! So much for ‘othismos’ needing aspides to avoid axphyxiation, or being unique to Greeks, or Hoplites !! See also HerodotusVII.225 the ‘struggle/othismos’ over Leonidas’ body by both sides and IX.62 the ‘struggle’ at the shield barrier at Plataea, and its downing, is followed by ‘when it came to the close quarters struggle/scrimmaging/hand-to-hand combat/othismos’, once again it is by BOTH sides…..and the Persians didn’t lose this ‘shoving’ contest for lack of strength to push, or skill, as H. says but because they ‘lacked armour’ [lit:’anoplas’ = un-panoplied/unarmoured] and incidently because they advanced/attacked in groups in an undisciplined manner. So we have ‘shoving’ carried out by Persians as well as Greeks…..

    Clearly, othismos/otheo relates to front-line scrimmaging by any army, not just an aspis equipped Greek one. The whole ‘Myth’ of othismos simply evaporates when examined closely….it’s not unique to Greeks, you don’t need an Aspis, you don’t need to be formally organised as a phalanx to do it……it’s just the usual ‘shoving/scrimmaging’ attending any confrontation at close quarters/hand-to-hand between any groups of warriors…..

    That’s long enough for a ‘comment’, I think!! 🙂

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment. That is how I see Herodotus’ version of Plataea and Mycale: first there is a fight over the wall of shields, then when that breaks there is a long fight where there is usually some gap between the Laconians and the Persians, wide enough for Persians to come forward “one or ten at a time,” for a Spartan with nothing to lose to leave the line and fight as a heroic individual, and where a legend could emerge that one of the Greeks brought an anchor with him so that when he advanced he could not be driven back. I talk about that in my dissertation but I did not want to go into it here, especially since this is already a long post!

      I had not noticed that wording in Herodotus’ description of Thermopylae before: on the last day “much pushing occurred (ὠθισμὸς ἐγίνετο πολλός) between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas.”

      There are some people who think that massed pushing never happened and that it would be impossible to survive, so I am glad that someone has tried it out.

  2. russell1200 says:

    I would be curious to see if there is a way you could tell why the spearmen tightened up their formation in the first place. Was it the use of heavy chariots, the introduction of more effective massed missile weapons, or something else? One possibility would be that as armies gained a greater mixture of troops, they could charge forward in some sort of concentrated wedge, and their was enough of the other folks on the flank to keep the wedge from simply being surrounded and pelted by missile troops just out of reach. This would in the long run give an advantage to the better organized states that could field this multiplicity of types: even as the heavy spearman came to be lauded for their particular valor.

    The later Swiss certainly had their form of a charge into battle. And they also had halberdiers (others used two-handed swords) to try and break the log jam if the charge didn’t overrun the enemy. Presumably the later situation could lead to a very drawn out battles. Interestingly, in Italy, the firearms initially became more prevalent because of their usefulness in skirmishing/small wars. An area where the pikemen were not of much use.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Russel,

      Its hard to say because we only have one detailed description of combat between the Iliad (600s-ish) and Herodotus (420s-ish), and that one is hard to date and has probably been selected for the bits which sounded as hoplite-ish as possible. Assyrian sources are not interested in the details, although they make it clear that armies have different parts, are drawn up in order, etc. Van Wees or Brouwers have studied warfare in archaic Greece, so they would be the places to start.

      After about 700 BCE, most Greek armies seem to have had a core of rich guys with big shields and armour and helmets (and often horses). So just like those 19th century Pashtuns, they could run around and throw things, but not as nimbly as some other styles of troops. And since they were probably the highest status, they probably wanted the most important place in the fighting, and a chance to confront their peers on the other side, even if they knew that it would be wiser to let their poor neighbours do most of the fighting. It seems that over time, in some parts of Greece, the pressure to fight that way grew and grew: art historians can show that at a specific date, Herakles started to appear with a club, probably because archery did not seem heroic enough any more (except maybe to the Cretans? Archers all over Greece probably pointed to their favourite archer gods and Homeric heroes, but they were not the ones buying fancy pottery or sponsoring new sculptures).

      Also, Greeks were acquiring more stuff, which also made it hard to completely evade combat (because if you just kept retreating, eventually they would get to your farm and burn it down, and you could not rebuild in a few weeks any more). When you look at cultures which refuse to line up for battle at all, usually they live somewhere where there is a lot of terrain relative to the population, and usually they are dirt poor because they have to be willing to abandon everything that they can’t bury or carry away on a few hours’ notice (remember Thucydides on the Athenians stripping their farms to the rafters?) I think that explains why in some parts of Greece, they started to mass for combat.

      But even Thucydides and Xenophon don’t sound as fixated on keeping in close order and regular ranks as say high medieval sources with their constant refrain that good troops mass together so tightly that if you threw an apple among them, it would never touch the ground. Even if they lined up close together, it seems that things often got messy as soon as they started moving (and that different contingents were separate enough that it was easy to say that the troops from this city ran away, while their neighbours in line were still fighting).

      One important possibility is that Greeks fighting for and against the kings of Egypt and Cyprus and Cilicia and the Levant learned drill from them. We can see that happening later on the fringes of the Roman empire. In Macedonia the adoption of drill seems to have had a lot to do with Philip asserting his authority over the different tribes and families, and there are hints that he borrowed things from the Scythians or Persians. There are lots of hints that in the ancient world skills spread through wandering experts who travelled wherever they could find work.

  3. How Long are the Spears of the Warriors at Susa? | Book and Sword says:

    […] an earlier post, I talked about the guards in Persian reliefs from Susa who are 17 bricks tall and have spears 19 […]

  4. Alan Rowell says:

    An excellent piece. Just a thought on relative spear length. If the Persian counterweight is lighter than the Greek sauroter then it may have been held further forward at the point of balance, thus the same length spears would appear shorter to the Greeks as they would have a longer reach. Is there any evidence to support this – artistic or reconstructive?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      In terms of counterweights, the ones from Greek sites are quite diverse, and most surviving spearheads are not paired with one. So some are heavy, some are light, some are short, some are long.

      Most spear-staves and pike-shafts from recent cultures have sophisticated shapes, they are not cylinders because they are made by splitting a log into wedges and working the wedges down with adzes and knives. So the maker can also control the balance point and the flexibility by choosing which parts to make thick and which thin, and so far no spear-shafts survive intact from the ancient Mediterranean. There is one famous grave in Macedonia with a spearhead, a spear-butt, and traces of the wood in between but that is not enough to see how the wood was shaped.

      It could be that Persian spears were shorter-in-reach not literally shorter, but a lot of people who believe that want Herodotus to be right! If we just had the art, the surviving weapons, and writers other than Herodotus, I don’t think anyone would be talking about short Persian spears.

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