How Long are the Spears of the Warriors at Susa?

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Categories: Ancient
A glazed brick relief of a man holding a spear in both hands next to a clenched fist.  The fist gripping the spear and the live fist are aboout the same size.
One of the polychrome brick reliefs from Achaemenid Susa, now in the Louvre, Paris.

In an earlier post, I talked about the guards in Persian reliefs from Susa who are 17 bricks tall and have spears 19 or 21 bricks tall. Artists often ‘improve’ human proportions according to different ideas of what the well-formed body looks like: these guards are 5 2/3 bearded faces tall (17/3), Cennino Cennini would have them 6 1/2 bearded faces tall (26/4).

When I visited the Louvre in July I had a chance to look at some of those reliefs for the first time since 2016 (a few are on display behind glass in Tehran). As you see, my hand and the hand of the sculpture are about the same size (and I am not particularly tall or short). My hand is slightly closer to the camera than the sculpture is, so it is slightly enlarged.

We can’t test the length of the spears in these sculptures against surviving spears, because the wooden parts have rotted away or were broken before they were placed in graves. But we can compare the bodies against human bodies today. I came away from Susa convinced that the sculptures show warriors about 170 cm tall holding spears 190 or 210 cm long, about a head taller than their bearers, the length of the longer kind of spear in Greek vase paintings and sculptures. You can use that rule one brick high = 10 cm (4″) to estimate the size of the spearheads, thickness of the spear shafts, and other details. For example, the blades of the spears are a bit more than 1 1/2 bricks tall, so a spear with a blade about 15-18 cm/6-7″ long would be a good choice for Plataia 2021.

Edit 2019-10-26: On the same scale, most soldiers with a hoplite shield in Greek art would have spears from 15 to 23 bricks high (so the short, common kind is shorter than any of the spears at Susa, and the longest, rarest kind is longer).

People who have measured bones find that most ancient populations were only a few centimetres shorter than people in the same area today, but that is another story.

You can see more photos of these reliefs on under ‘Susa, Soldiers’ Mosaic’ (Dutch is his native language).

Some of the earlier Neo-Assyrian reliefs add some more important details:

A man holding a spear leading a bridled horse
A Median tribute-bearer in a Neo-Assyrian relief in the Louvre. Photo by Sean Manning, July 2019.

These earlier Medes also carry spears with rounded ferules, and the shafts were painted red. Were the original spears painted or just varnished? Trusting colours in ancient art is a slippery business, but it might be worth trying, since some Scythian arrowshafts appear to have been painted bright colours.

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2 thoughts on “How Long are the Spears of the Warriors at Susa?

  1. mexicansky says:

    I note from your posts that you have measured the Greek and Persian spears and found them to be of similar length although it may be claimed the Greeks though they had the longer spear. If the counterweights are of differing weight which they appear to be then the heaver Greek ones could be held nearer the sauroter so would have greater reach than Persian spears held nearer the point. Is there any artistic or reconstructive evidence to suggest this?
    Alan Rowell

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Alan, I talk about how spears can have different balance points in the forthcoming book.

      As far as I remember, only a minority of surviving spears from the Aegean have any iron or bronze on the butt (the wood never survives but there are thousands of spearheads and hundreds of butt-spikes). I would love to see a big study of the evidence, but right now I see long spears and short spears and heavy heads and light heads and spears with iron or bronze on the butt and spears with plain wooden butts and spears balanced in the middle and spears balanced towards the butt in both cultures. It might be that some kinds were more common in one culture than the other, but someone would have to look at a lot of vase paintings and grave finds to make the argument- so far the art and the archaeology don’t show a big difference between spears in the Near East and spears in the Aegean.

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