There is a wide range of ancient weapons from around the globe. Ancient weapons are often advancements on the earlier phase of weapons development, the primitive weapons man first created for hunting and warfare. However, some have no primitive predecessors, like the sword. Swords can only be crafted through a forging process that had not been invented in the earliest phase of weapon construction. Ancient weapons come in three forms, ranged weapons, melee (close combat) and siege weapons. Many of these weapons, like the sword, are almost universally known while others like the bizarre hunga-munga are little known and defy classification. The age of ancient weapons technically ended with the dawn of the medieval period, but these human powered weapons continued to dominate battlefields up until the ascendance of firearms. However, they can still be found on battlefields up to this very day.
From the time man first picked up and sharpened a stick an arms race has raged throught history, even now shaping the politcal, economic and social destiny of mankind.
The Weapons of the Ancient World
Ancient Weapons: The Game Changers
To discuss the entire arsenal of ancient weapons could, and has, filled volumes of books. For the scope of this series, we will discuss the general categories, game changers and those that are interesting and odd. While these weapons are in reality horrific and have caused untold suffering to humanity, they are still worth our attention. Advancements in ancient weapons could be the nuclear weapon of the ancient world, giving on society the edge and dictating the course of history.
Spears - Primative Weapon of Choice
Spears are one of humankind’s earliest weapons and they reigned supreme for a hundred thousand years. The material culture of our Paleolithic (500,000 BC – 8,000 BC) ancestors covers 99% of the total time that man has been making tools and weapons. This undoubtedly makes the spear mans most produced weapon. The spear has been credited with creating 450,000 years of peace on earth, as even an outnumbered man holding a spear would be deadly to attack without ranged weapons.
The spear offers its user a level of protection due to its long reach and found a place in many ancient armies. The simple spear is a cheap and effective, ancient armies often combined it with a shield when equipping the ranks of their heavy infantry units. Spears units were found in many, many ancient armies from the ancient Sumerians and Egyptian weapons, to the military of ancient India and Japan, and indeed around the world.
Spear warfare hit its pinnacle of perfection when used by the Greeks and Macedonians. Spear armed Greek warriors, called Hoplites, mastered this style of warfare as their city states battled each other over hundreds of years. The terrain of Greece is broken up by rough terrain so Greece never developed the Chariot or Cavalry warfare, but instead focused on the use of infantry. During the Bronze Age Greek warriors battled in the heroic style, each man fighting for his own glory independently. They considered the use of range weapons to be cowardly so their focus was primarily on heavy infantry. By the classical age of Greek civilization they had developed formation tactics. The Phalanx was developed, were rows of hoplites formed a shield wall, the left side of one hoplites shield protecting the man on his right. Heavily armored, spear wielding armies would form up and fight set piece battles. Casualties were generally light until one force’s formation was broken, then slaughter ensued as they fled. (See Spartan Weapons for mor detials)
The next strategic development took advantage of this when an astute Theban general, Epaminondas (ca. 410 BC – 362 BC), realized that battles between phalanxes were essentially giant shoving matches. Whichever phalanx had the strength to put enough pressure on their opponent caused them to break formation, route and loose the battle. It was correctly reasoned that if he loaded up one side of his line and had his weaker side trailing behind them in an echelon formation that by the time the week side engaged the enemy the strong side would have already broke their formation, winning the battle.
Greek hoplite tactics dominated the battlefield of their time; two massive Persian invasions, the super power of their day, were defeated by the numerically inferior Greeks. However, the next major development would be made by their neighbors to the North. Phillip of Macedonia, who paid attention to Epaminondas' innovations, doubled the length the spears of his army (to over 18 feet!) and reduced the size of their shields so his soldiers could hold the long spears with both hands. This allowed the spears of the first five ranks to protrude from the formation instead of just the couple ranks like in a Greek phalanx. Enemies faced an impregnable wall of spear tips. Phillips son, Alexander the Great, then used this formation to conquer the known world (335 BC – 326 BC).
After reaching its zenith in the conquests of Alexander the Great , the phalanx began a slow decline. Phillip and Alexander understood that a phalanx was could easily be destroyed if not supported; Soldiers could not defend themselves from attacks from the flanks, the ponderous phalanx lacked maneuverability and had difficulty holding formations on rough ground. Calvary, light infantry and skirmishers were deployed in combination with the phalanx. The tactics of Alexander and his father were gradually replaced by a return to the simpler assault tactics of the hoplite phalanx after his death.
The Roman military dropped the inflexible phalanx during the early Roman Republic in favor of a more flexible system after suffering major setbacks in their decade’s long war against the Samnite hill tribes. Around the year 315 BC adopted the system of the Samnites, called the maniple system, that allowed for more flexibility in the rugged hills of Samnium where the Romans were forced to fight. The maniple system has been called a phalanx with joints, each square maniple, about 120 men, could function as an independent unit. The maniples were arrayed in a checker board pattern; this allowed space for skirmishers to retreat through the gaps when the heavy infantry closed on their enemies. The front two rows of maniples would then form a single line and battle the enemies. When this line tired it could then retreat through the spaces of the maniples behind it without disrupting their formations, and a fresh line of soldiers would take up the fight. Maniples could also be detached to protect flanks or any other task. The Roman heavy infantry was organized into three lines, the first two lines used short, double edged stabbing swords and the last armed with spears. The youngest men formed the first line, the hastati , after they tired they would fall back through gaps in the next line, the principes. The more experienced principes would then continue the fight, if they were having trouble they could then retreat behind the Triarii. The triarii were the final line and most experienced soldiers.
In the Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC) Rome proved that they were capable of competing with the armies of the Hellenistic kingdoms — the successor kingdoms of Alexander and the dominant Mediterranean powers of the time. The legions fought the Hellenistic, Macedonian style phalanxes to a bloody draw, forcing Pyrrhus of Epirus to leave Italy. Seventy five years later the Romans fought the Macedonians and their phalanx in the Second Macedonian War (200–197 BC). They employed a variety of tactics to break up the massive formations. They chose uneven ground to fight on, attempting to break the cohesion of the massive phalanx. Before the front lines met in battle the Romans let loose with their pila, harpoon like throwing spears that caused gaps in the enemy formation that could be exploited. They used a wedge shaped formation to attempt to break through the wall of spear points. The well armored Romans with their large, curved shields were able to exploit the gaps in the wall of spears and get to the Macedonians in order to break up their formations. Once inside the spears the longer swords and better armor of the Romans gave them a distinct advantage over the lightly armored Macedonians whose secondary weapon was a short sword was little more than a dagger.
In the end the Macedonians were repeatedly defeated on the battlefield. Their defeat is often held to have demonstrated that the Macedonian phalanx, formerly the most effective fighting unit in the ancient world, had been proven inferior to the Roman legion. Others have argued that the loss was actually due to a failure of command on the part of Perseus, the Macedonian king. They also dispute weather the Roman maniples ever succeeded in breaking the Macedonian phalanx by engaging it frontally. We will never get the opportunity to know how a Macedonian phalanx using combined arms tactics in the style of Philip or Alexander would have sized up against the Roman legions.
The Roman legions eventually standardized the sword as its main weapon, but they also carried the pila that could be used as spear in certain situations. Pila could be employed in hand to hand combat or as protection from mounted troops. The pila, like the maniple system, was adopted from powerful Semite hill tribes. The legions conquered the Mediterranean world with sword in hand, but spears remained a common weapon throughout the world. Roman auxiliaries and cavalry also continued to years throughout the period of Roman military domination. (See Roman Weapons for more details.)
From around 117 AD to the Western Roman Empires collapse around 476 AD the Roman army slowly changed. The sprawling empire was difficult to defend so the Romans became more and more dependent on barbarian troops. Additionally, a greater emphasis was placed on speed. The Romans concentrated on ranged weapons and cavalry at the expense of the heavy infantry. The infantry became more lightly armored as well and they acquired a heavy thrusting-spear which became the main close order combat weapon. Roman infantry had come full circle. During the 5th century, large portion of Western Rome's main military strength lay in barbarian mercenaries known as foederati. Between losing control of their mercenaries and hunnish invasions the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
In the years that followed, called the dark ages, spears continued to be used widely. Barbarian armies used shield wall tactics reminiscent of the Greeks as they jostled for their places in the new world order. Spears also offered an excellent defense against ascending military power of cavalry, if braced against the ground a charging enemy would impale himself. The Huns had introduced the stirrups to the roman world; this allowed a spear armed man to deliver a blow with the full power of the horse, couching the weapon under their armpit instead of stabbing overhand as was done in antiquity. This was the beginning of the medieval knights, but even if a plate armored knight wanted to charge into a wall of spears, his horse might not share his sentiment. When a spear was braced against the ground a charging enemy would impale himself.
During the Viking age and medieval period spears developed into a variety of polearm weapons, such as the bill, the halberd and the lance. The long, two-handed Macedonian style spear also made a comeback during the medieval times. During renaissance and age of exploration Pikes had another heyday and were used extensively by close order infantry formations both for attacks on enemy foot soldiers and as a counter-measure against cavalry assaults. Pike and firearm formations worked together; the pike men defending the slow loading and vulnerable gunners from enemy infantry and the deadly cavalry while the gunners provided a powerful ranged weapon. The fact that large pike formations were vulnerable to artillery and improved firearms eventually ended the era of pike formations. Although pikes and spears were still used, usually due to the lacking of quantities of more modern weapons, up through the 1800’s.
The spear had a very long history, from the dawn of man and even into the first several hundred years of the gun powder era. Today spears are manufactured and used for hunting by humans, chimpanzees and orangutans.
The ancient weapons series will continue with the other game changers, the sword, axe and bow. The final article will be about unique, strange and interesting weapons.