The Bow and Arrow in Archaic Greece

By Dr. Todd Alexander Davis
Instructor of Classics
Belmont Hill School


Despite a renewed interest in scholarship about archaic warfare, hoplites, Homeric society, and other related areas, archery in the Archaic period has managed to escape comprehensive study for half a century.[1] Scholarship on the subject stands in urgent need of update and revision. The following dissertation is an attempt to address this need.

Before launching into a discussion of my evidence and approach, I would like to introduce my reader to the subject by briefly examining two important pieces of evidence. These should highlight the complexities of the issue and underscore both the
necessity and benefits of such a study. I will then use the remainder of the introduction to present an overview of the evidence, articulate my position with regard to certain peripheral but relevant issues, define some important terms, and describe the organization and approach I have taken throughout the remainder of the dissertation.

The first piece of evidence is literary – a well-known and often cited passage from the Iliad. The second is a widely recognized figure who appears in a large number of Attic vase-paintings in the Late Archaic period. These two items together account for a great deal of the confusion and many of the misconceptions regarding archery in Archaic Greece.

The Mute Missile of a Weak and Worthless Man?

Diomedes, hero of the Trojan war. / Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Diomedes is kneeling down, stripping the armor from a corpse, when Paris, like a sniper, strikes him in the foot with an arrow. A verbal exchange ensues in which Diomedes berates Paris and his arrow – “for mute is the missile of a weak and worthless man.”[2] The archer in this passage is characterized by Diomedes as a contemptible coward and likened to a woman or a child. The wound is described as inconsequential and the weapon as impotent and psychologically unimposing.

This passage, while not the only one in Archaic literature disparaging of archery, is easily the most vitriolic. For many (if not most) scholars, it as emblematic of long-held negative attitudes towards archery in Homeric warfare and in Archaic Greece more
generally.[3] Michael Sage, for example, writes, “In general it [the bow] is a weapon held in low esteem in the poems, as is clear from the remarks of Diomedes …”[4] Hainsworth regards this speech as “an eloquent expression of the aristocratic spearman’s contempt for the bow.”[5] Anthony Snodgrass, more tempered in his reaction, states, “It would be premature to assert that the Greeks were permanently averse to archery, but there is literary evidence, going back negatively to Homer and positively at least as far as Pausanias, that for long periods this was true of mainland Greece.”[6] These are widely circulated and influential reference books written by top scholars in the field.[7]

To be sure, these themes, particularly the cowardice, impotence, and the feminization of the archer are quite prominent in Classical literature, but the passage should not be taken out of context. Immediately following Diomedes’ rant, Odysseus (himself a prominent archer) steps in front of him to shield him from additional missiles. Diomedes sits down and pulls the “swift arrow” from his foot as a “hard pain comes over his flesh.”[8] He then gets into his chariot and instructs his charioteer to drive him back to the ships, “for his heart was heavy.”[9] Thus, the Greeks lose one of their champions in a form of warfare that hinges on the exceptional performance of exceptional front-fighters. Eight books later, Diomedes is still leaning on a spear because of the painful wound.

Clearly, archery is more effective than Diomedes is willing to admit. In essence, Diomedes has answered Paris’ shout of triumph with an exaggerated and venomous personal attack that should not be taken at face value. How much credence should we give the rest of Diomedes’ invective? Ideology, here, has been taken for reality. This is all too often the case with respect to archery.

It is not hard to see why this has happened. The documentary evidence for archery is scattered and confusing. Most modern scholars have taken what they see as a combination of neglect and denigration in the sources at face value, inferring that Greeks
not only held archery in low regard, but that archery was more or less a non-factor on the battlefield during the Archaic and Classical periods.

This conclusion is familiar and even alluring. The evidence for archery is much more abundant in the Classical period and it appears to offer a certain clarity. Literature from the period, in a common antithesis, opposes the bow and the spear. The archer was, at bottom, the anti-Greek – a foil against whom the triumphant Greek hoplite defined himself. This archer was therefore foreign and probably, although not necessarily, from the East. He was ineffective and cowardly, effeminate and slavish. He was certainly no
match for a hoplite. Passages, like the one uttered by Diomedes above, seem to invite the retrojection of this worldview.

The Foreign Archer

Greek vase painting of foreign archer (pointed cap) / National Museum, Florence

Sometime in the early 6th century, Athenian vase painters introduced figures like the one below into their iconography (Fig. 1).[10] They are characterized by a pointed cap of foreign inspiration, an unusual quiver, and a composite bow – distinctive for its extreme curvature.[11] Often they wear patterned jackets and trousers too (although this varies to a degree that will prove important). These attributes are generally associated with Scythians, nomadic peoples who inhabited the Northern Black Sea region and Eurasiatic Steppe from at least the early 8th c. B.C.E. until Roman times.[12] For this reason, these figures are referred to as Scythian archers.

Between 550-500 B.C.E. vases bearing one or more of these figures accounted for 5% of the more than ten thousand catalogued vases in Beazley’s archive from the period. This is a staggering percentage given the considerable diversity of themes depicted on
vessels during the period – particularly for a figure about whom we have almost no other information. There is no other evidence placing Scythians in Athens during the 6th century. In fact, when Scythians do arrive in Athens – first as part of the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 B.C.E. and then later as public slaves or ‘policemen’ sometime in or after 476 B.C.E. – they cease to appear on vases altogether.

A number of scholars have tried to make sense of the phenomenon. The position that has the most currency in modern historical scholarship, however, is that the images represent actual Scythians.[13] Moreover, it is common for scholars to go a step further and take this as evidence of a Scythian presence in Archaic Athens. The argument is problematic for a number of reasons – foremost among them is its circularity. Essentially it states that the images result from the presence of the Scythians and that their presence is proven by their inclusion on vases. Nevertheless, this is a comfortable conclusion for someone well versed in Classical literature. For there, the equation between archer and foreign is almost assumed – at least ideologically. Support is also drawn from Pausanias who states that archery is not a Greek custom.[14]

Reputable scholars accept this explanation for the ‘Scythian’ archers with frequency. For instance, in the recently published Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, Hunt writes, “Scythians mercenary archers for example, are depicted on Attic Vases of the late sixth century.”[15] This has had important ramifications for the study of mercenaries, slavery, Black Sea trade, and more. Unfortunately, this position is very unlikely to be accurate, as we shall see.

Some Notes on the Evidence

The Archaic period presents the historian with a hornet’s nest of evidentiary problems. Our texts are minimal and usually fragmentary. What we are lucky enough to have has often been filtered through or disseminated by Classical or later sources with
their own agendas or ideologies. These texts combine with the normal problems of interpretation associated with archaeological and art historical evidence to present a dishearteningly uneven record for the period. The result is an era for which we have few
firm answers and a great deal of controversy. It therefore seems profitable to address here some of the challenges posed by the evidence for archery in this period. In doing so, I hope to clarify my position on some controversial subjects and persuade the reader that they are worthy of being admitted into evidence.


Ancient Greek bilobe-type bronze arrowhead. 5th-2nd century BCE

Perhaps the biggest problem facing this study is a general lack of firm archaeological evidence. Literary and art historical sources are representations. The evidence we gather from them is second hand at best. Archaeology can present us with an opportunity to examine evidence firsthand. This is not to say that archaeology is not without its own set of interpretational concerns. It is worth considering some of these broadly to emphasize these difficulties before treating our own evidence.[16]

Peter Ucko, for instance, collecting ethnographic data in a study of funerary remains, cites three different explanations for the presence of grave goods in tombs.[17] The Nankanse of Ghana believe that such goods have the power to keep the soul alive.
For the Lugbara of Uganda, grave goods represent a visible expression of the deceased party’s social personality. In a third case, a group of people deposited goods in tombs in order to dispose of objects with emotional connections to the deceased party. In essence, it was a cathartic practice for the living rather than a meaningful gift for the dead in their afterlives. Ucko’s is an excellent cautionary tale and one that makes its point with frustrating clarity. One must proceed with great care.

The evidence available to us is also extremely limited. For example, we have yet to excavate a single bow from Ancient Greece – even for time periods in which the remainder of the record is clear as to the regular use and stature of the bow.[18] This is
unfortunate but hardly surprising. The bow was made out of wood or, if composite, some combination of wood, horn, and sinew – all perishable materials.[19] We do have some examples of bows from both Egypt[20] and Russia[21], but their value is limited to
purposes of comparison. A number of fully intact medieval English and Scandinavian longbows have also been recovered. The analysis of these has proven very fruitful in countering preconceived notions about what would and would not have been possible with such weapons.[22]

Arrowheads are our main source of archaeological information. Like the bow, the arrows themselves, which are usually made of out wood, reeds, or bone usually decompose.[23] Arrowheads, on the other hand, are often made out of stone, bronze, or iron and stand the test of time. Their size and shape can offer useful information about the size of the arrow itself, the size of the bow, and even the arrow’s intended purpose. Was it meant for hunting or battle? Was it meant to be used against armored or light-armed soldiers? How effective could it have been? A leaf-shaped ‘broadhead’ arrowhead, for example, might be effective for hunting or against a light-armed soldier. It would have been quite sharp and designed to slice through flesh, severely incapacitating a target via
blood loss. However, the same arrowhead would very likely have bent upon impact with hoplite armor. A pyramid-shaped ‘bodkin’ type arrowhead, on the other hand, was designed to withstand impact and was therefore more likely used to pierce armor. This
arrowhead would create a smaller puncture wound and draw less blood. It would therefore be less deadly and worse for hunting. The Scythian-type three-edged arrowhead seems to represent a compromise of sorts. Its third leaf would have provided weight and structural support, making the arrowhead less likely to bend upon impact. At the same time, the cross section would have helped to stabilize the arrow in flight and its relatively lighter weight would have made it capable of a longer range.[24]

The size of the arrowhead is also helpful is assessing the range from which it was intended to be fired. A heavy arrowhead might be very effective at a close range, even piercing an opposing soldier’s armor. The same arrowhead, however, might not make it as far as a lighter arrowhead.[25]

Moreover, arrowheads can be typed and organized into groups based upon their manufacture.[26] This allows for the study of an arrowhead’s evolution or adoption and ultimately reveals that no arrowhead can be considered characteristically Greek. McCleod, using Snodgrass’ typology, notes that no type of arrowhead is confined to or even seems to have originated in Greece.[27] The bulk of arrowheads found can be associated with Cretan and Scythian types, but it should be emphasized that this is not evidence of a Cretan or Scythian presence. It implies some form of contact, however diluted, but there is ample historical evidence that people were rarely shy about adopting non-native military technology where it proved effective.[28] These arrowheads, particularly the Scythian variety, were quite popular in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East and seem to have spread rapidly well beyond the regions for which we have any credible evidence for a Scythian presence. Parts of Egypt, which the Scythians never reached, Sicily, Southern Italy, and France all yield Scythian arrowheads dating to the Archaic period.[29]

So, arrowheads can be a great boon. Unfortunately, most have been recovered from archaeological contexts that give us little or no indication of their dates. After completing his survey on the subject, Snodgrass concludes that most examples come from unstratified sanctuary deposits or from surface finds and that they are rarely found in burials. He adds that stratified siege deposits are also uncommon, late when they do occur, and then are only found where the assailants are known to be foreign.[30] Since his
publication, many more arrowheads have been recovered, but his observations about the troubling nature of their respective contexts stands.

Other archery-related objects have been discovered by archaeologists, but none from mainland Greece dating to the time period in question.[31] As a result, we will not consider these. For the Archaic period, arrowheads and a few skeletal remains represent the sum total of our archaeological information.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the adage that an absence of evidence does not presume evidence of absence. The burden of proof requires the historian to show that the bow did exist using the evidence at hand, however little there might be. Yet, one also
needs to account for the evidence that does not present itself. Inorganic artifacts, for instance, show up disproportionately in contrast to reality.[32] Sometimes arrows were constructed with a fire-hardened wooden point rather than a metal head, and would
therefore be unlikely to survive.[33] Persians, for instance, frequently used perishable materials like wicker shields and wooden javelins with such fire-hardened points.[34]

Slavomil Vencl also points out that a lower population density, such as that experienced during the early Iron Age, considerably lowered not only the finds, but also the probability and frequency of clashes.[35] While this does not serve as proof, it could very well account for what is often described as a decline of archery after the Late Bronze Age (followed by a reemergence in the Geometric Period). This description is based upon the small number of arrowheads found that date to the period in question, but this number, as we shall see, is growing. Furthermore, Coldstream suggests that mainland Greece may have lost as much as three quarters of its population between the 13th and 11th centuries and then seen its population double or triple during the 8th century.[36] The number of arrowheads very likely exists in some proportion to the size of the population.

We might also consider changing burial and dedicatory practices, tomb robbery, perishable fortifications, and the fact that victorious soldiers in Greece (and elsewhere) would commonly strip the armor from their dead foes. All of these factors will influence the extant record. Most suggest that the actual number of bows and arrows would have been considerably higher than our current evidence suggests.


A reconstruction of scenes on the Chigi Vase / National Etruscan Museum, Rome

The most abundant source for information about the practice of archery in the Archaic period is art – painted vases in particular. The nature of this evidence is also problematic. There are numerous issues inherent in the interpretation of art – preservation, context, and the potential influence of the marketplace, to name just a few. At bottom, there is more to these images than immediately meets the eye and we must resist the temptation to see the images as representations of an objective reality.

The Chigi Vase, for instance, is a well-known Protocorinthian Olpe found in Etruria.[37] It dates to around 640 B.C.E. A scene on the shoulder of the vessel depicts rows of hoplites in full panoply marching towards one another with spears raised. The hoplites overlap one another to the degree that one soldier is nearly invisible behind his peers. The overlapping perspective allows for the soldiers to be seen but gives the impression of a densely packed line, soldiers fighting in close order. The vessel is often taken to be the earliest depiction of hoplite warfare and it is frequently used as a terminus ante quem for development of phalanx warfare due to the armor and close order depicted on it. The scene looks ‘realistic’ in the sense that it conforms in many ways to what we know, or think we know, about hoplite warfare from other sources. Yet, it is one of only a few such depictions.

Although ancient vase painters could paint massed fighting, they usually chose not too, instead focusing on duels, mythological scenes, departure scenes, chariot processions and the like. If we broaden our focus a bit and account for general trends before hazarding theories, we will see that there is no clear correlation between periods of warfare and depictions of warfare. Vencl notes that depictions of war on Athenian vases were more than twice as popular from 575-550 B.C.E. (relative to the total number of vessels recovered from the period) than it was during the Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.E.). The theme was even less popular during the Peloponnesian Wars.[38] It may seem counterintuitive, but it appears that the popularity of battle imagery declined markedly
with the frequency of battle. Thus, it is best to approach the art historical evidence with Hölscher’s cautionary maxim in mind, “War in art is not war but art.”[39]

Although we will discuss most of these vases in their capacity as symposium vessels, we should confront the inconvenient reality that most of the vessels for which we have provenance, despite their Athenian manufacture, were found in tombs, or outside of
Greece, or both – that is, in tombs outside of Greece.[40] There are 128 vessels depicting Scythians in Lissarrague’s catalogue for which Beazley offers a provenance.[41] Six were found in Athens. Most were found in Italy. In fact, the Etruscan site of Vulci alone
yielded sixty-two of these vessels. Sicily, Ukraine, Romania, and locations in Greece other than Athens are also listed by Beazley. We are hoping to admit these vases into evidence, so how do we know that these vessels and the imagery on them are not being
produced to suit the tastes of a foreign market?

In some cases, they are. The ‘Nikosthenic’ amphora, for instance, represents one well-known effort by an Athenian potter, Nikosthenes, to imitate a shape that was popular in the Etruscan town of Cerveteri. Not surprisingly, the bulk of these amphorae are found in Etruria.[42]

Greeks could also be accommodating with regards to their choice of imagery as well. The so-called Perizoma Group (circa 600 B.C.E.) offers an example of Greek artists actually adapting their imagery to meet the needs of the Etruscan marketplace. This
group of vessels depicts competing athletes. Etruscans, however, did not compete nude, as was common among Greeks. So these athletes are shown wearing a white-painted ‘perizoma’ (loincloth).[43]

Other examples of the adaptation of imagery are more subtle. A class of Attic Black Figure amphorae known as ‘Tyrrhenian’ amphorae offers such an example. These vases, the bulk of which were found in Etruscan sites along the Tyrrhenian Sea, date to
560-530 B.C.E.. The main difference in iconography is subject matter. They are noted for scenes of graphic sex and violence uncommon in art from this time period in mainland Greece.

Along these lines, another example, and one which is particularly apropos to this particular argument, are scenes depicting hieroscopy (extispicy), that is, the practice of examining the liver of a sacrificed animal.[44] Roughly 2% of all of the scenes depicting Scythian archers are hieroscopy scenes. Greeks did practice the ritual, but they seem to have associated it with Etruscans.[45] Although our sample size is relatively small, the Attic vessels bearing depictions of the ritual for which we have provenance seem to support this conclusion. All of them were found in Etruscan sites.[46] Thus, it seems reasonable to venture that Etruscans had a greater interest in these scenes than Athenians.

A final point worthy of mention in this discussion revolves around writing. An impressive number of vases found in Etruscan tombs yield examples of what are often referred to as ‘nonsense’ inscriptions. Often using Greek letters or symbols approximating them visually, they are gibberish. This would seem to indicate a demand for inscriptions, but clearly illustrates an inability to read them or perhaps an apathy toward what they would say if intelligible.[47] These pots were likely made for a foreign market.

More often, however, it seems that Athenian iconography met the needs of its market, Etruscan and otherwise, without having to accommodate specific demands. Shapes and iconography popular in Athens found meaning in their new homes abroad. One obvious example is the Panathenaic amphora. This vase was made with a very specific Athenian purpose in mind. Filled with oil, it served as a prize for victors in the annual Panathenaic games. Yet, even these can be found in Etruscan tombs, where we can be sure that their Etruscan owners had no influence over their original iconography.[48]

Legible Greek writing, such as the popular ‘kalos’ inscription, is also much easier to understand and defend as a product of Athenian taste that was then accepted by a secondary Etruscan (or other foreign) market. It is unlikely that many Etruscans spoke or read Greek. The presence of nonsensical inscriptions noted above may indicate a desire for the look of writing, but they illustrate that correct Greek seems not to have been expected in Etruria.

What of the numerous other locations around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea where Athenian Vases – often with an identical program of iconography – are found? The Scythian depictions alone are found as far away as Ukraine, as I mentioned above. Should we credit the desires of the Etruscan market in Vulci for similar iconography found in Olbia, Egypt, or Sicily?

We would also be remiss to exclude from consideration the ultimate provenance of these vessels in Etruria. Most of them survive as a result of having been buried in elaborate and extremely sturdy tombs. Such provenance is fortunate but very unusual. Therefore, conclusions drawn from the great numbers of vases found in Italy are likely to be skewed radically as a result of this happy accident of preservation. One should therefore exercise caution in making assumptions due to the exorbitantly high numbers of vessels with Etruscan provenance.

Osborne, in a study comparing the iconography of scenes found on vessels recovered from the Etruscan towns of Vulci, Tarquinia, Bologna, and Nola to that of scenes found on pottery recovered from the Athenian agora, found that most of the representations of daily life found at Vulci or the other three Etruscan sites can also be found on vessels from the Athenian agora.[49] He goes on to say that the same holds true of depictions of mythological scenes. Certain scenes found in Etruscan cites, however, do not appear on vases found in Athens. He concludes by arguing that the Etruscan market had a voracious appetite for Athenian pottery but was discriminating. It just so happened that much of Athenian iconography, designed with Athenian symposia in mind, suited Etruscan funerary tastes or needs. This deduction brings us to the question of primary and secondary usage.

Take, for example, the Panathenaic amphora mentioned above. Before burial in an Etruscan tomb it was inscribed ‘συθѳινα’ (belonging to the grave), apparently in preparation for its new function.[50] A Panathenaic amphora was meant, as we noted, to
serve as a trophy. This was its primary function – the reason (excluding, of course, the goal of making money through its sale) for the manufacture of the object. Somehow, this vessel did not serve its intended function in Athens or did so and then went on to have another life as an inscribed grave good in Etruria. This should be considered a secondary function. This is not to deny the object (or its iconography) meaning within its new context. The correlation between the iconography on the vases and tomb paintings (or other contextual details) within the tomb argues convincingly that it did have meaning.[51] The original intent, however, which is of concern to us, should be associated with the object’s primary function.

Along these lines, an amphora, hydria, or almost any of these vessels may very well have had multiple uses beyond the realm of the symposium. An amphora could be used for the storage of liquid or dry goods. A hydria is often associated with the retrieval of water from public fountains. Clearly, these objects and others could have been and probably were used in other contexts. These uses, however, are too varied to anticipate. Their primary association, or at least the association that we can most confidently assume, is that of the symposium. So, a Panathenaic amphora would be primarily considered an oil storage vessel and trophy, a krater should be considered to have been a mixed vessel for wine, the hydria a vessel used to pour water into a krater as part of the
wine mixing process, etc.

In sum, I believe that Athenian vases were intended for an Athenian market unless there is evidence to the contrary. I further hold that, though an image can have meaning beyond its primary context, the iconography selected by an artist results from his desire to appeal to a market comprised of people who intend to use the object in this primary context. So, for the purposes of iconographical study, a krater, for instance, should be first and foremost considered a mixing vessel for wine used at the symposium.

The symposium was an extremely important vehicle for ideology. This ritualized and exclusive drinking party served elite men in myriad ways, most of which can be said to revolve around aspects of social identity designed to teach and reaffirm elite ideology in adolescents and adults alike. Beyond communal drinking, which itself constitutes an important group bonding activity,[52] poetry contributed to the sympotic discourse about what it meant to be elite. The poetry sung and discussed at these parties was often
devoted to political and social themes. As Oswyn Murray observes, even the vocabulary of this poetry, which tends to emphasize the prefix συν- (together), for example, reflects the social bonding of the symposium environment.[53]Military elegy, important in this
study, was relatively common and in it we can see the changing ideology discussed earlier. Rather than focusing on a heroic exemplar, as Homer encourages us to do, elegy exhorts a warrior to action and links his behavior to a community.[54] “How long are you going to lay down? When will you have a strong spirit, young men?” asks Callinus at the beginning of one elegiac poem.[55] Sympotic art echoed these same themes and promoted many of the same elite values demonstrated by this poetry.


The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BCE, Museum of Roman Civilization

The extant literature is equally problematic. Part of this is due to its rare and fragmentary nature as mentioned above. A scholar must also be careful to consider questions of authorship, audience, context, and intent. Chronology too is an important consideration. Many scholars have been tempted to see not only a pattern of neglect regarding archery, but one of outright contempt.

It is true that the bow is generally neglected in the extant written sources of both the Archaic and Classical periods, but this neglect served the ideological end of legitimizing one class’s claim to power at the expense of another class.[56] Generally speaking, the authors are merely displaying an interest in the hoplite or hero at the expense of other types of troops. Why? Usually these texts are praising a hoplite civic ideal to an audience of hoplites. The author may also have been a hoplite.[57] This neglect should in no way be taken as either the absence or impotence of archery. A careful reading will reveal that archers are often present, mentioned obliquely or in passing.

Homer’s worth as a source is contentious. Regardless of one’s position on the subject, however, we can appreciate the enormity of his influence in the 6th century without embroiling ourselves in the controversy surrounding his date. That Homer was
committed to writing in Athens during the tyranny of Peisistratus speaks volumes about his importance in Athens during this century and it supplements the ample art historical evidence suggestive of Homer’s broad influence. We need not take his work at face
value to be sensitive to the ways in which later Greeks mined it for information as well as inspiration. Thus, Xenophon’s Niceratus brags to his fellow symposiasts, “If any of you wish to become a manager or a politician or a general, or like Achilles, Ajax, Nestor, or Odysseus, you should befriend me. For I know about all these things.”[58] Theognis also assumes that his sympotic audience will have a familiarity with the poems of Homer when he writes, “Do not remind me of my evils. Indeed I have suffered like Odysseus…”[59] The same can be said of Hesiod, Tyrtaios, and others to varying degrees. None of these authors were bound in their influence or relevance by the limitations of geography or chronology. While they vary in their ability to describe the ‘reality’ of their respective times, they all reflect and promote certain attitudes and expectations. These can be very helpful.

Classical authors, on the other hand, write in the aftermath of Greece’s epoch-making victory over the Persians in 479 B.C.E. This had a profound effect on the way in which peoples, events, and attitudes prior to the war were perceived and rewritten just a few generations later. Some Greeks began to define themselves as Greek by contrasting themselves to a foreign ‘other.’ A more clearly defined sense of panhellenism began to emerge. To use Edith Hall’s term, Greeks ‘invented the barbarian.’[60] Foreigners and many of the characteristics associated with them would henceforth be laden with negative connotations against which Greeks might compare themselves favorably. Archery was a casualty of this new ideological climate.

The change was so drastic and enduring that even Greeks writing years later would echo Classical views. Pausanias, for instance, writing the passage mentioned above in the 2nd century C.E., claims to be puzzled during his survey of the Athenian Acropolis when he observes a bronze statue of Diitrephes shot with arrows.[61] He points out that Crete is the only Greek region in which archery survived, adding that Homer’s Locrians had given up the bow for the spear by the time of the Persian Wars. Even the Malians, he writes, knew nothing about the bow until Philoktetes taught its use to them, and they gave it up soon thereafter.

We can find another such example in Polybius. Writing in the 2nd century B.C.E., he idealized Greece’s military exploits, extolling a romantic vision of Greek hoplite warfare in a pointed comparison to the Macedonian tactics practiced closer to his day.[62] For the ancients, a proper victory was won in open hand-to-hand combat. So important was this that, according to Polybius, Greeks would enter into pacts prohibiting the use of missiles, announce their intentions to do battle, and fight at a previously specified location. At the present, he adds by way of comparison, they say that it is a crime to do anything open in war!

Finally, it deserves note that, as is the case with so many topics, the bulk of our evidence (written and art historical) is Athenian. In my examination of all available evidence, I found nothing in the non-Athenian evidence that contradicts that which we find in the Athenian evidence. While is seems likely that the Athenians took a greater interest in the bow than many other Greeks, Athenian evidence pertaining to the bow’s presence and capabilities appears to be representative and accurate. There is, however, a silver lining to some of these vexing evidentiary obstacles. The bow itself did not change technologically from roughly 700 B.C.E. to roughly 700 C.E.[63] So, while armor, strategies, tactics, and attitudes changed over time, certain observations about the bow and its capabilities will be applicable, even if the author is Classical or later. While I will try not to roam too far temporally from the Archaic period, certain later sources will prove useful in various ways.


  1. The works of McLeod and, to a slightly lesser degree, Snodgrass remain the most complete treatments of the subject. Both stand in need of revision and elaboration. McLeod’s unpublished dissertation remains the most comprehensive work on the subject but he lacked much of the evidence now available to us. W. McLeod, “The Bow in Ancient Greece, with Particular Reference to Homeric Poems” (Ph.D. Diss, Harvard University, 1966). He also wrote several articles (11 altogether) deriving from this research, some of which remain the most authoritative works of their kind. Snodgrass’ Early Greek Armour and Weapons from the End of the Bronze Age to 600 B.C. (Edinburgh: University Press) originally published in 1964 is the other most influential work on the subject, despite spanning just 15 pages. When other scholars have addressed archery, they have done so by looking at individual elements of the larger picture, i.e. Scythian Archers, Amazon Archers, Athenian Archers, Archery in the Iliad, Odysseus’ Bow, etc. These studies tend towards methodologies that favor documentary evidence, art historical evidence, or archaeological evidence, seldom bringing the various forms of evidence together in a meaningful way to create a more complete picture. Toelle-Kastenbein’s more recent work fits this description, despite its title. It is a fragmented treatment of the subject that takes great license in using vase-paintings as authoritative illustrations. R. Toelle-Kastenbein, Pfeil und Bogen im antiken Griechenland (Bochum: Duris-Verl, 1980).
  2. Iliad 11.390. “κωφὸν γὰρ βέλος ἀνδρὸς ἀνάλκιδος οὐτιδανοῖο” The translation is my own. κωφὸν is a word that pertains to a lack of sound. It is used on two other occasions in the Iliad (Iliad 14.16, 24.54). It both cases is means ‘silent.’ Here, however, Diomedes contrasts the κωφὸν βέλος of Paris (βέλος being the generic word for missile – spear, arrow, stone, etc.) with his ὀξὺ βέλος (sharp spear) two lines later. Thus, ‘silent’ here is used metaphorically to mean dull (or perhaps imperceptible). We will examine this exchange in much greater detail later.
  3. It is fair to say that this view is canonical.
  4. M. Sage, Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 1996), 10. My brackets.
  5. B. Hainsworth, in G. Kirk, G., ed., The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume III: Books 9-12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 269.
  6. A. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons, 141.
  7. Although they represent just three of many such characterizations, I elect to cite these because a.) they are sourcebooks and commentaries, referred to by novice and expert alike, and b.) they cover three different (though interrelated) academic disciplines – history, classics, and archaeology.
  8. Iliad 11.398. “ὀδύνη δὲ διὰ χροὸς ἦλθѳ’ ἀλεγεινή”
  9. Iliad 11.399-400. “ἤχθѳετο γὰρ κῆρ” The same short sentence is used to describe Agamemnon as he withdraws from battle, after being wounded by a spear thrust to the arm (Iliad 11.274).
  10. Attic Black Figure Dinos, Circle of the Antimenes Painter, 520-510, J. Paul Getty Museum 92.AE.88.
  11. A composite bow is composed of multiple materials (usually wood, horn, and sinew) as opposed to a standard ‘self-bow’ constructed entirely from wood. Please refer to Appendix I for a detailed description of the bow and how it works. This Appendix includes a glossary of archery terms.
  12. The cap appears in Scythian images of themselves as well as in Persian depictions of them, as in some of the reliefs at Persepolis and in the famous Behistun Inscription. Herodotus (7.64) also mentions the cap.
  13. M.F. Vos, Scythian Archers in Archaic Attic Vase-Painting (J.B. Wolters: Groningen, 1963). This is the only full-length monograph dedicated to the subject which may be one reason why the notion has not been examined more arduously by ancient historians. Art historians are far less likely to subscribe to this view, largely, I imagine, because the key to Vos’ argument is absurd to someone who is practiced in the study of images. She alleges that artists would have to had seen Scythians in order to paint them so consistently.
  14. Pausanias 1.23.4. “Ἕλλησιν ὅτι μὴ Κρησὶν οὐκ ἐπιχώριον ὂν τοξεύειν” Crete is distinguished from Greece here. This statement, as we will see, has been granted undue authority. You can find the full passage in Greek, my translation, and my critique in Chapter 1 on pgs. 44-45.
  15. P. Hunt, “Military Forces,” in The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare I, ed. Philip Sabin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 122.
  16. This dissertation is interdisciplinary and it is my operating assumption (and hope) that it will be read by scholars in various fields. I have tried, where possible, to give some background information to serve as a theoretical context for non-specialists.
  17. P. Ucko, “Ethnography and Archaeological Interpretation of Funerary Remains,” World Archaeology 5.1 (1969): 265.
  18. The Mycenaeans, for instance, seem to have placed great value on the bow. Classical Athens had a corps of citizen archers for most of the 5th century. Hellenistic armies employed specialized groups of archers as well.
  19. Herodotus even describes bows made of reeds. See Hdt. 7.64, 7.65, 7.67.
  20. W. Petrie, “Tools and Weapons,” British School of Archaeology 30 (1917); and W. McLeod, “Egyptian Composite Bows in New York,” AJA 66.1 (1962): 13-19.
  21. E. Cernenko, The Scythians 700-300 B.C. (New York: Osprey Publishing, 1983). B. Brentjes, Arms of the Sakas (India: Rishi Publications, 1996), 37.
  22. M. Strickland & R. Hardy, The Great Warbow: From Hastings to the Mary Rose (Alpharetta: Haynes Publishing, 2011), 3-33.
  23. For a discussion of bone arrow shafts see Brentjes, Arms of the Sakas (1996), 40.
  24. Ibid., 40.
  25. See Appendix I for an explanation of the physics behind this.
  26. A. Snodgrass offers a very useful typology, which has become the standard in the field. Early Greek Armour and Weapons (1964).
  27. McLeod, “Egyptian Composite Bows,” 298. This typology is an important part of Snodgrass’s influential theory that the bow fell out of favor on mainland Greece with the fall of the Mycenaeans and was later reintroduced to the mainland from Crete. A. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons (1964).
  28. For a great example of this see P. Stary, “Foreign Elements in Etruscan Arms and Armour: 8th to 3rd centuries B.C.,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 45 (1979): 179-206.
  29. T. Sulimirski, (1954) “Scythian Antiquities in Western Asia,” Artibus Asiae 17.3/4 (1954): 306-308.
  30. A. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons (1964), 141. Thermopylae, the Athenian Acropolis, Olynthos, and Sardis are a few examples.
  31. Archaeologists discovered an arrow mould on Samos dating to the Geometric period. An “arrow smoother” and thumb ring dating to the Late Bronze Age were found at Mycenae. The former is a stone with a long thin semi-cylindrical groove that is generally understood to have been an implement used to smooth or sand down wooden arrows. The latter is a ring with a nub on it that was used to draw the bow in such a way that the bow string on a strong bow would not slice into the archer’s thumb. Scythians used such devices, although they were not alone in doing so.
  32. S. Vencl, “War and Warfare in Archaeology,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 3 (1984): 125.
  33. McLeod, “Egyptian Composite Bows,” 255. Vencl, ibid., 125. Strabo 15.2.7, 16.4.9, 17.2.3.
  34. Vencl, ibid., 125.
  35. Ibid., 119.
  36. J.N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece 900-700 B.C. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 367-8. A. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece (New York: Routledge, 2000), 364-7.
  37. Villa Giulia, Rome. Inv. 22678.
  38. Vencl,“War and Warfare,” (1984): 126.
  39. T. Hölscher, “Images of War in Greece and Rome: Between Military Practice, Public Memory, and Cultural Symbolism,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 2.
  40. Marconi, for instance, describes two separate pots bearing Scythian images found in a tomb in Agrigento on the southern coast of Sicily. See C. Marconi, “Images for a Warrior. On a Group of Athenian Vases and their Public,” in Greek Vases: Images, Contexts, and Controversies, ed. C. Marconi (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 32.
  41. Osborne, “Images of a Warrior. On a Group of Athenian Vases and their Public,” in Greek Vases: Images, Contexts, and Controversies, ed. C. Marconi (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 48.
  42. N. Spivey, “Greek Vases in Etruria,” in Looking at Greek Vases, ed. T. Rasmussen, and N. Spivey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 139-140. Nor is this the only example of an Athenian potter adapting to a market by imitating a popular Etruscan shape. See Osborne, “Why did Athenian Pots appeal to the Etruscans?” World Archaeology 33.2 (2001): 278.
  43. N. Spivey, “Greek Vases in Etruria” (1991), 144. Shapiro also deals with this issue at length. H.A. Shapiro, “Modest Athletes and Liberated Women: Etruscans on Attic Black-figure Vases” in Not the Classical Ideal, ed. B. Cohen (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 318-329.
  44. See W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 46-53. According to Burkert the practice originated in the Near East where it was widespread geographically (Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, etc.) and practiced by diverse peoples (Hittites, Assyrians, et alia). He ventures that it spread to Etruria via Syria and Cyrus.
  45. Osborne, “Why did Athenian Pots appeal to the Etruscans?” (2001), 283Ibid. Osborne is able to compile a list of twenty-two hieroscopy scenes, all of which were painted “in or around the last quarter of the sixth century.” Of these, eight have a relatively secure provenance.
  46. Ibid. Osborne is able to compile a list of twenty-two hieroscopy scenes, all of which were painted “in or around the last quarter of the sixth century.” Of these, eight have a relatively secure provenance.
  47. N. Spivey, “Greek Vases in Etruria” (1991), 142; and Osborne, “Why did Athenian Pots appeal to the Etruscans?” (2001): 178.
  48. N. Spivey, “Greek Vases in Etruria” (1991), 143.
  49. Osborne, “Why did Athenian Pots appeal to the Etruscans?” (2001): 280.
  50. N. Spivey, “Greek Vases in Etruria” (1991), 143.
  51. See C. Marconi, “Images for a Warrior” (2004).
  52. O. Murray, “War and the Symposium,” in Dining in a Classical Context, ed. W. Slater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 84.
  53. Ibid., p. 97. Also see F. Lissarrague, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet, trans. A. Szegedy-Maszak. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 8.
  54. O. Murray, “War and the Symposium” (1991), 97.
  55. Callinus Fr. 1. “μέχρις τ<έο> κατάκεισθѳε; κότ’ ἄλκιμον ἕξετε θѳυμόν,/ ὦ νέοι; …” My own translation. This is the beginning of the longest extant fragment of Callinus. It is believed that Callinus is here inciting his fellow Ephesians against the invading Cimmerians. The poem is usually dated to the middle of the 7th c.
  56. H. van Wees, “Politics and the Battlefield: Ideology in Greek Warfare,” in The Greek World, ed. A. Powell (New York: Routledge, 1995), 153: “From Homer to Aristotle, poets and writers slanted their accounts of warfare past and present so as to attribute a decisive military role to those in power – or those aspiring to power. Their bias was all the more effective for being less blatant: so much so that some of it found its way into modern histories of ancient Greece, unchallenged until recently.”
  57. Archilochos, for example, and later, Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.
  58. Xenophon Symposium 4.6. “ὅστις ἂν οὖν ὑμῶν βούληται ἢ οἰκονομικὸς ἢ δημηγορικὸς ἢ στρατηγικὸς γενέσθѳαι ἢ ὅμοιος Ἀχιλλεῖ ἢ Αἴαντι ἢ Νέστορι ἢ Ὀδυσσεῖ, ἐμὲ θѳεραπευέτω. ἐγὼ γὰρ ταῦτα πάντα ἐπίσταμαι.”
  59. Theognis 1123. “Μή με κακῶν μίμνησκε· πέπονθѳά τοι οἷά τ’ Ὀδυσσεύς,”
  60. E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  61. Pausanias 1.23.4. According to Thucydides, a Diitrephes was an Athenian general elected to govern the Thracian part of the Athenian empire (8.64). He also led a group of Thracian mercenaries who were responsible for the massacre of Mycallesus in 413 B.C.E. (7.29). Some suggest an earlier Diitrephes. See E. Gardner, A Handbook of Greek Sculpture (London: MacMillan and Co., 1897), 318. This is the passage referred to above by Snodgrass.
  62. Polybius 13.3.2-6. This passage suggests that the use of missiles was normal (why else make a prohibition against there use?), but frowned upon. This passage is sometimes associated (incorrectly, I think) with the so-called ‘prohibition of missiles’ in the Lelantine War. This will be discussed in greater detail below.

From Archery in Archaic Greece, Dissertation by Todd Alexander Davis, Columbia University (2013)