How Many Hoplites had a Butt-Spike on their Spears?
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How Many Hoplites had a Butt-Spike on their Spears?

This horseman carries two spears, one long and one medium-sized. The grave marker of Panoitios of the deme Hamaxanteia who died around 400 BCE. His longer spear is 1.62 times as long as he is tall, which would make it about 275 cm (9′) if he were an average ancient Greek man 170 cm tall. Athens Greece, National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accession number 884. Adapted from Wikimedia Commons

Because most of the participants in the old hoplite debate were English-speaking philologists not German-speaking archaeologists, English speakers have many misconceptions about the things Greek hoplites carried. Many people today believe that most Greek hoplites carried a long spear with an iron-clad or bronze-clad butt. I don’t know any basis for this in an ancient text, and in my experience much less than half of all warriors with round shields in Greek art have a spike (saurotēr) on the butt of their spear. But we can check this against archaeology. By the 6th century BCE it was not common to bury people with weapons in southern Greece, but it was common to dedicate arms and armour to the gods at sanctuaries. These were sometimes buried when there was no more room for them (as at Olympia) and sometimes buried when the site was destroyed by invaders (such as at Kalapodi in central Greece, which was probably destroyed by Xerxes’ troops in 480 BCE). Josho Brouwers summarized the weapons from these sites in his PhD thesis.

most of the spearheads (excavated from Olympia), of which no less than 840 are made of iron, were definitely weapons of war: some of the later examples feature inscriptions that clearly identify them as booty. It seems likely that most of the earlier spears were also taken from vanquished opponents to be dedicated to the gods. Toward the end of the sixth century, butt-spikes were also offered as tropaia at Olympia; no earlier examples are known. A butt-spike (saurotēr, literally ‘lizard-killer’) was fixed to the bottom end of a spear; it gave some balance to the spear, allowed it to be stuck into the ground, and was also used to dispatch fallen enemies.

Brouwers, Josho (2010) Warfare and Society in Early Greece: From the Fall of the Mykenaian Palaces to the End of the Persian Wars. Doctoral Dissertation, Vrije Univresiteit Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/1871/21508 pp. 58, 59

At Kalapodi:

The weapons include more than three hundred spearheads, more than thirty sauroters, over seventy arrowheads, more than sixty swords (of which twenty-two indeterminable fragments), and nine knives (of which only one dates to the sixth century, the others are Classical). Interestingly, some spearheads and swords were ritually ‘killed’, i.e. bent in order to make them useless. The bulk of the spearheads are Classical; less than a tenth can be dated to the sixth century. Of the sauroters, about half a dozen belong to the sixth century, the rest are later.

Brouwers, Josho (2010) Warfare and Society in Early Greece: From the Fall of the Mykenaian Palaces to the End of the Persian Wars. Doctoral Dissertation, Vrije Univresiteit Amsterdam. http://hdl.handle.net/1871/21508 p. 62

So these spikes only appear at Olympia around 525 BCE. For the first 200 years after the invention of the round hollow shield, warriors did not often fit their spears with these spikes. And at Kalapodi, where most of the finds date to the 5th century BCE, there was about one butt-spike per ten spears.

And yet the idea that Greek hoplites had heavy butt-spikes on their spears is so powerful that one researcher in Australia takes an extant spear from Macedonia with a butt-spike and ‘corrects’ its length by assuming it had a larger kind! He knew that spears in Greek art 500-300 BCE range in length from 150 cm (5′) to 270 cm (9′), and he could have read the same reports which Brouwers did, but he insisted that a spear which is about the average size of the spears in art must have been smaller than average. Expectations can prevent us from seeing what is in front of our faces.

We see a similar pattern elsewhere in Iron Age Europe. At British and Celtic sites, ferrules for spears are “rare.” In the charnel house at Ribemont in France, there were about 22 shield bosses, 121 spearheads, and 29 ferrules for about 75 or 80 men executed around 250 BCE (Paul R. Sealey, A Late Iron Age Warrrior Grave from Kelvedon, Essex (Colchester Museums: Colchester, 2007) pp. 10-11, 35-36). About 24% of these spears had a butt-spike. It seems that wealthy warriors in Britain and Gaul often had a spike on the butt of one of their spears, like they had a shield with an iron or bronze boss and a sword. Ordinary warriors made do with a simple spear and sometimes did not even have an iron or bronze boss on their shield. Some of the spearheads at Kalapodi probably belonged to humble warriors too. But at Kalapodi, it seems that about 10% of spears had iron-clad or bronze-clad butts. Even if we assume two spears from other soldiers for every hoplite, no more than 30% of hoplites had spears with a saurotēr.

I do not know of any artistic, written, or archaeological evidence that most Greek hoplites ever had iron or bronze on the back end of their spears. But if we keep collecting information from archaeologists and art historians, many of the questions which people argue about will be settled. And we can use that energy to argue about the things which are really uncertain, like just what happened when two lines of spearmen came together.

PS. If you really want metal on the back of your spear, join the King’s men! In western Iran, artists show very many warriors with a round ornament on the butt of the spear from the 7th century BCE to the fall of the Achaemenid empire. At least one of these survives from a grave at Deve Hüyük in Syria, and Greek and Roman writers mention them.

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(scheduled 6 January 2022)

7 thoughts on “How Many Hoplites had a Butt-Spike on their Spears?

  1. Jaojao says:

    Interesting! When I read spear-butts my first thought was, as you refer to, the metal ‘apples’ and ‘pomegranates’ of Persian guards as described by Greek writers. Since you mentioned German-speakers, what are these terms (Spear-butt, butt-spike, lizard-killer &c.) in German? As a Swede I like to be able to speak about these topics in Swedish, and it is generally more easy to find Swedish cognates of German words than English words.

    1. Sean says:

      I lost access to most of my books in Gerrman when I had to leave Austria during the pandemic, maybe Hülse or Ringbeschlag? Or just Sauroter? The French books I am reading say talon and ferret.

      1. Jaojao says:

        Sorry to hear you don’t have access to your German books! But thank you for these words! On my own I managed to find the Swedish word ‘doppsko’ (literally “dipping shoe”, translated ‘ferrule’ or ‘chape’) which usually refers to the ends of either swords/daggers or canes, but apparently can also be used for spear-butts. I guess Sautorer would be used in German as you say, I’m not fluent in it but I think Hülse or Ringbeschlag would be a bit general. Once again thank you!

    2. Sean says:

      The auction house Hermann Historica sometimes says Lanzenschuh, but collectors, makers, and archaeologists often speak three different languages.

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Interesting post, it’s been long since I read Brouwers Ph.D., I totally forgot this. Saurotér seems like “fresh invention” in the time of Persian coming. Masistios must have been shocked during first and last encounter… (Plataia 479 BC) Why wasn’t this universal? Spear was cheap weapon, buttspike couldn’t be drastic difference in price. Medieval spear combat techniques are vastly researched and covered (Youtube is full), what about antiquity? (Please forget that California school with their two motions:)) I have one video from two French reenactos in hoplite kit. It’s in some older mail of mine, but I can find it again, if You want. I know for Troy (2004) movie some Indonesian martial arts was used as basis of Achilleus movements. What about some researcher (You remember that new article in Brill Military History Journal about use of kopis), who has interest in the spear?

    Especially Persian type, was it really just ornament or it could have also other function except balance? I was always wondering, why isn’t there attempt to reconstruct fighting techniques from Persian side. Simultaneous use of spear and sagaris (as we can see on seals), spear + akinakes, etc. And mainly test possible tactics, fighting skills of smallest Persian infantry unit, 8 -10 men in line, deep 8-10 files. I have heretical ideas, that shields maybe weren’t so common and most Persian units (except Royal Guard and two units of pearmen) were working with different tactics, than now imagined. Because Persians had Elamite heritage and perhaps knew their style of fighting (I’m working on this idea).

    1. Sean says:

      Were you thinking of OLBIA ARKEO, L’Art de la Guerre en Grèce Antique! <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HLJxAY_KHQ>

      I can’t find a way to get access to Thomas O. Rover, “The Combat Archaeology of the Fifth-Century BC Kopis: Hoplite Swordsmanship in the Archaic and Classical Periods.” International Journal of Military History and Historiography 40.1 pp. 7-49

      There are a group of simple ferrules from the citadel at Pasargadae, its hard to say whether they are Achaemenid or Seleukid. The hollow round ones are not so good for planting in the ground or striking with, but they might help keep control of the spear when you almost throw it but don’t let the back end leave your hand. They would probably be good for crowd control too.

      I am making a pair of spears (one sharp, one padded). I don’t know what Christian Cameron and Paul Bardunias have in mind for this summer, at one point they were talking about a mock battle but I would think that for that you need to lay out the rules and the equipment standards very clearly in advance. There is a little information about their Hoplite Experiment at WMAW 2017 in Paul’s new article with Roel K., but I hope there is a dedicated article on it.

      If you believe Christopher Matthew, the hollow Greek butt-spikes weigh about twice as much as big spearheads (300 g versus 150 g). And they were a more expensive material.

  3. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I meant this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PnB2KoXK4Y Obviously saurotér could be use for more, than just disposal of lying enemy. Cavalrymen would need more buttspike, than infantrymen according to my view. That move with Persian spear – almost throwing, sounds interesting. Let’s hope for good videos from Plataia project. I will write You more, about my “crazy ideas” aboutt Battle after Persian custom.

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