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.

two men in hoplite kit stand on a dry field with a town in the background
The hoplite in the background has a spear almost as long as the spear on the sculpture above, 1.42 times as long as he is tall (about 255 cm / 8 1/2 feet for a man 170 cm tall). Long spears are fashionable with Anglo hoplite reenactors in the 2020s. Photo c/o Christian Cameron https://nitter.it/Phokion1/status/1557696748797190144#m

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)

Edit 2022-08-11: added a new photo

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15 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.

  4. Dan A says:

    I wonder what was the range in dimensions for the spear heads found at those sites? Is it possible to differentiate between javelin heads and those intended for use with a thrusting spear? If some of those heads belonged to thrown weapons, that could help to explain the disparity. Javelins would not have been equipped with a sauroter- they would either have a much smaller cap (styrakion) or none at all.

    The addition of a sauroter to a thrusting spear dramatically changes the balance of the weapon, which in turn dictates how it can be used. Without any added weight to the butt of the spear, the balance point tends to be a little closer to the point than halfway down its length, depending on the weight of the head. Reconstruction of the spear based on the spear head and sauroter pair found at Vergina shows that the point of balance was very far back, at least two-thirds of the length of the haft away from the point, assuming the haft had a uniform diameter. If it was tapered, as is suggested by some artistic evidence, the point of balance could have been as far back as three-quarters or more.

    A spear with this point of balance would have offered two distinct advantages to a hoplite in a phalanx. First, because the segment of the spear behind his hand would have been very short, it could be used much more effectively in the tight confines of close-order formation: it would be far less likely to hit the man behind him, potentially injuring him and interfering with the weapon’s point control. Second, it offers a significant increase in the spear’s reach. This would be especially important to a hoplite because his static position in the phalanx would limit his ability to attack enemies to those within one weapon’s-length away from him. Increasing that distance, therefore, improves the lethality of every man in the formation. Spears without a sauroter or another form of counterweight are still perfectly usable weapons of course, but they are much better suited to fighting in loose formations where the wielder can move around, parry attacks with either his shield or weapon, and move forward to attack opponents out of measure without endangering his fellow soldiers. But in the confines of a phalanx, the extra length of shaft behind the grip becomes a major hinderance, knocking into the ranks behind and preventing the spear from being used effectively.

    While the thrusting spear may have been the principal weapon of the hoplite, javelins likely would still have been found on any battlefield in far greater numbers. Poorer citizens who could not afford the full hoplite panoply could still participate in land warfare as light troops, and contemporary historians frequently attest to their numbers. And unlike hoplites, who would carry only one spear in battle, each javelin-armed soldier would likely have brought as many as they could carry. As such, I think it could be reasonably suspected that any battlefield would offer up a greater number of javelin heads than those of thrusting spears. Javelins also may appear more frequently in ancient art than has been previously assumed, too: Christopher Matthew argues that any spear depicted in art that is held in a center-balanced overhand grip (the normal posture for throwing a javelin), lacks a sauroter, and is of shorter than average length is probably depicting a javelin and not a thrusting spear. While figures in hoplite panoply are sometimes shown in this attitude, it does not mean that hoplites were armed with javelins- he argues that such figures are probably depictions of Homeric heroes, who are frequently described as throwing their spears, and who are often shown equipped anachronistically as hoplites, as per the stylistic conventions of the time.

    I’d personally like to do a lot more research on this. If I’m ever able to equip a reasonably large number of hoplites to test my hypothesis, I’ll get back to you with the results!

    1. Sean says:

      A few years ago reenactors got excited about how butt-spikes affect the balance of a spear, but I don’t know how many of their spears have tapered shafts, light heads, and light or no butt-spikes like most Classical and Archaic period spears. I will be interested to see where the balance on my new spear ends up. The head is a bit heavy at 290 grams.

      I think you can say that a spear balanced well to the rear was not meant for throwing since a spear balanced like that does not throw well.

      We definitely need more systematic analysis of warriors in South Greek art, but Christopher Matthew’s statements about his analysis have some problems.

      1. Dan A says:

        I can definitely agree with you about that- I don’t necessarily hold with Matthew’s conclusions about the overhead grip by any means, but I do think he raises an interesting point about what artists are portraying when they depict warriors wielding spears.

        I’m setting up an experiment this Friday to explore a few of my suppositions. While I can’t quite muster up a dozen fully equipped hoplites, I can at least manage enough similarly weighted equipment for two. I plan to set myself up in a similar way to Thrand’s video, with a dummy behind me, but I’ll be facing a resisting opponent. I intend to try out spears with different balance points and grips. We’ll be wearing modern protective equipment rather than 5th century panoply, so it won’t exactly be scientific, but hopefully I can at least gain a bit of insight!

        Returning to the evidence from Olympia and Kalapodi: do we have a reasonably good idea as to the range of dates those spearheads represent? The advantages I attribute to a rear-weighted spear presuppose a more rigid, tightly-spaced phalanx, which could very well have been a relatively late innovation (supposing that it ever occurred at all). The widespread use of center-weighted spears in hand-to-hand might support the interpretation of a looser and less organized phalanx. Perhaps the appearance of the sauroter could indicate a transition from one to the other?

        1. Sean says:

          The tests at Racine use steel rotella shields from the 16th century. I wonder if the same companies in India and Pakistan which make them would be willing to try a larger model around 90 cm in diameter rather than 60 cm. Since wooden hoplite shields are hard to make and expensive to ship, that might make it easier to get a group with ‘reasonable substitute shields’ together. You can make ‘good enough’ Roman shields or Viking Age shields with plywood, canvas, and about $40 in pre-made metal bits but hoplite shields are harder.

          Kalapodi has a lot of finds from just before c. 480 BCE because it was sacked then, I would have to see if I have a photocopy of the site report from when I was in Austria.

          If enough people keep trying things, I think our understanding will start to move forward. People were arguing about massed pushing for something like 70 years before Paul Bardunias showed it is physically possible and how it works. There will always be arguments, but at least we can focus on the things which we know were possible.

          1. Dan A says:

            Update: my experiment has been pushed back to this coming Friday, as my sparring partner forgot to bring his equipment last week. Still planning to report back with my observations once I have them!

        2. Dan A says:

          Alright, my first series of tests have been concluded and I am finally able to report my observations!

          The tests involved myself and two other experienced historical fencers, though none of us have a particularly strong background in spears. We used training spears from Purpleheart Armory, roughly 7.5′ in length. These were equipped with movable weights to simulate different points of balance. I don’t have exact weights for them, but they are likely a bit heavier than properly constructed, period-accurate spears. For shields, we used steel rotelle. Again, I don’t have exact measurements for these, but I believe that they adequately approximated aspides without the rim. Naturally, they’re quite a bit lighter, but we made sure to keep them in the proper position and not exploit their lack of weight. Otherwise, we were equipped with modern historical fencing equipment for safety. Finally, to simulate other members of a phalanx, we used full sized training dummies with movable limbs, posed in an approximation of a hoplite in combat.

          To gain a proper basis for comparison, we experimented with multiple scenarios, using both center-balanced spears (simulating those without a sauroter) and those with a balance point around 2/3 of the length toward the back. In each case, we tried both underarm and overarm grips. We adopted the stance sometimes called “three-quarter” or “oblique,” which I believe is generally agreed to be correct, and which we found to be the most natural. The scenarios we tested included fighting in front of and beside the training dummies at various intervals and also behind one, simulating a hoplite fighting in the second rank. In all scenarios, we prioritized keeping our shields in place as much as possible so as not to expose our hypothetical comrades to incoming attacks.

          Here are some of my observations from these experiments, along with the obligatory disclaimer that this recreation is an imperfect attempt to simulate imperfectly understood styles of combat using extremely limited evidence. As with all experimental archaeology, this is speculative in nature and certainly should not be used to contradict more scientific forms of evidence. That said, we did our best to be as accurate as possible, and hopefully my findings can be of some use to our understanding of hoplite combat.

          I began by using a center-balanced spear. For this, I found that the overarm grip was much more effective than the underarm, as the long back end of my spear often hit the legs of the dummy behind me when I tried to use an underarm grip. Even so, I needed extra space behind me to give my weapon an effective range of motion. I also needed more space to my right for changing hand position and for making attacks to my left. That kind of broader interval made me slightly more vulnerable to attacks coming from my right, but I could compensate for this somewhat by parrying with my spear. I found that fighting from the second rank was rather impractical with a center-balanced spear. In order to reach an opponent in the front rank, I had to get very close to the “person” in front of me, and as stated above, this would likely interfere with his ability to use his weapon.

          In general, I found that fighting in formation was much more effective with a rear-balanced spear. With this configuration, I found that both the overarm and underarm grips could be used to good effect, and changing between them (using the method suggested by Paul Bardunias) was noticeably easier. The reduced length behind my hand meant that I could decrease the intervals between the dummies behind and beside be without sacrificing any offensive potential. Naturally, the increase in length gave me a longer reach. I was surprised to find that it didn’t impose much of a limit on my minimum range, either: by pulling my arm back and up with either an overarm or underarm grip, I could keep my point fairly close to my body. The only time an opponent was too close to strike was when they were pressed very close, shield to shield.

          I did find that the overarm and underarm grips offered different sets of advantages and disadvantages. Overarm made it easier to strike at targets behind my opponent’s shield, naturally. However, it did make my right bicep much more vulnerable to incoming thrusts. To mitigate this, I found myself keeping my hand close to my shoulder whenever possible, raising it only to make an attack. This position was also less taxing on my muscles. Bardunias has suggested a resting position of raising the arm straight up and letting the forward end of the spear slope downward at a 45 degree angle, but I would never recommend doing this while in measure- your arm is very vulnerable to attack, and your opponent can easily pin your spear between your shield and his before you’ll have time to move it.

          I found that the underarm grip allowed me to deliver somewhat faster strikes, but with a slightly slower recovery. When not attacking, my right arm was safer, positioned well behind my shield. This position also gave me the option of making a rising attack in addition to a level or descending one, though the utility of an upward strike against a hoplite is rather limited. The descending attack could be achieved by lifting the hand up with palm outward, similar to a fencing guard of seconde, and striking downward. I found this to be nearly as effective as a descending attack made from the overarm grip, though notably slower in its recovery.

          In either position, I found that parrying with the spear was ineffective. The extra length gained by shifting the balance back makes it weaker in lateral motion, and therefore incapable of quickly turning aside incoming strikes. However, I found that I was capable of avoiding any incoming attack by covering behind my shield and/or voiding the target. The right arm can be pulled back and down, especially when combined with a twist of the hips to bring the torso into profile, and the head and upper body can be dropped without moving the shield by taking half a step back with the right foot, shifting the weight backward, and leaning down and to the right. Overall, I found that both attacking and defending required relatively minimal amounts of footwork or body movement, and keeping my shield in position to protect me and the men to either side of me was surprisingly easy.

          The rear-balanced spear also made fighting from the second rank much more practical. Both the added reach from the spear and the distance gained by being able to stand closer to the man in front of me meant that I could often hit an opponent in the front rank of the enemy formation. If that opponent pressed in against the man in the front rank so that he was inside the reach of his spear, I could easily hit him, negating any advantage gained from stepping in close. However, a man in the second rank would probably need to be careful not to interfere with the man fighting in the front rank, so he would probably be limited to opportunistic sniping whenever an opening appeared. Still, I think it would have increased the effectiveness of the formation. When fighting in this position, I found that both underarm and overarm grips were effective, though I suspect that using the opposite grip of the man in the front rank might work best.

          This experiment involved around 20 minutes of fighting, interspersed with a few breaks of a minute or two. The experience was highly exhausting, particularly for my right arm. Being able to switch between the overarm and underarm grips was very useful here, since they seemed to place stress on different muscle groups. In a sustained fight on the battlefield, I think being able to switch from one to the other would be hugely advantageous.

          In conclusion, I found that shifting the balance point of a spear made it easier for me to fight in formation and allowed for closer intervals between both ranks and files. While it was still entirely possible to fight in ranks with a center-balanced spear, it required more space to use to its full potential. However, even with a back weighted spear, some space is still required between files to allow the arm enough room to make attacks with the spear and change grip, as well as to avoid incoming attacks. I found that an interval of about an inch or two between shield rims for rotelle, or with just the flat rims overlapping for properly-sized aspides was ideal. This gave us plenty of room to move in any way we needed without exposing ourselves to attacks from either side. With a center-balanced spear, another six inches between files was necessary to maneuver the spear effectively, and at least a foot between ranks.

          The above are my direct observations from my experiments, with all the subjectivity that implies. If anyone has questions or criticisms about my methods, or any suggestions about how to improve them, I’d love to hear them! While these results have given me a great deal of new thoughts and ideas about how hoplites may have fought, I have not included them here for the sake of brevity- I’ve ranted long enough on Dr. Manning’s blog. If anyone is interested in my thoughts, please let me know!

          1. Sean says:

            Thanks for the writeup! I hope more people post their thoughts, even if they are informal things like Thegn Thrand’s trials of Viking Age equipment

            I think Christian Cameron and Paul Bardunias will have something in the next Ancient Warfare magazine.

    2. Sean says:

      There has also been an unfortunate amount of “no true Scotsman” fallacies as the California school learned things about the art and archaeology which did not fit their preexisting conclusions. I think the evidence is pretty solid that warriors with a big shield only stopped carrying two spears in Southern Mainland Greece in the 5th century BCE, and that earlier and in places such as Italy two spears remained common. We see a similar pattern in La Tène culture where as time goes on graves are more likely to contain a single spear with a big head and a ferrule, and less likely to have two spears with small heads and no ferrules.

      The idea that many early hoplites had two general-purpose spears rather than one specialized thrusting spear is only a problem if you believe that Archaic Greeks must have fought exactly like Thucydides’ Greeks, but parts of the California School were committed to that position.

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