Author Topic: Wielding a sarissa overarm  (Read 1484 times)

Justin Swanton

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Wielding a sarissa overarm
« on: January 11, 2019, 09:57:14 PM »
Myke Cole's Legion vs Phalanx brought up yet again the old, old problem of the hellenistic phalanx. The manuals are all clear that it could compact its files to close order - 1 cubit (1½) feet per file - whilst on the battlefield, even if this was only a defensive formation designed to received an attack. Problem is that with shields 2 feet wide, 1½ feet means the shields will be overlapping each other by 6 inches on average, leaving insufficient space to present five ranks of sarissas beyond the frontmost rank. Thus far I've seen four solutions to the problem:

1. There isn't a problem. They could do it (with no explanation as to how they did it).

2. They didn't deploy in close formation. That applied to hoplite phalanxes in which spears were presented overarm (but the manuals clearly refer to the hellenistic phalanx).

3. The shields didn't overlap but were angled to allow space for the sarissas (but in that case the shield edges would have had to virtually face the enemy, making them useless).

4. The phalangites raised their spears vertically in close order, relying exclusively on their shields for protection. (Roman centurion: "Help yourselves, lads!")

Only practical solution: the phalangites presented their sarissas overarm, with exception of the front rank who would have presented them underarm at least to receive a cavalry charge. The question then is how did the phalangites hold up their sarissas, sometimes for long periods of times, without overstraining their arm muscles? It is a real problem.

Looking through Renaissance pike manuals, it's clear that pikemen had to contrive support for both their arms. They did this by holding the left arm close to the chest. The bones of the arm, rather than the arm muscles, bore the weight of the levelled pike, in the same way an archer's bones, at full draw, bear the weight of the bow rather than his muscles having to do it (which is why it is easier to hold a bow at full draw than it is to draw it in the first place). The Renaissance pike was not counterweighted, meaning that the levelled pike was front-heavy, the rear end having a strong tendency to tip upwards. The pikeman countered this by holding the butt of the pike with his right hand and letting the weight of his arm keep the rear end level. Quite an ingenious arrangement.



Some pike manuals have pikemen using shields slung from their shoulders with straps. They were clearly emulating the hellenistic pikemen. One diagram from a manual showed a way of presenting a pike overarm whilst resting the left elbow on the porpax:



The difference between renaissance and hellenistic pikemen was the fact that the renaissance pike had no sauroter and so was not in fact gripped at its centre of balance. The classical pike was, which meant you could not rest your right arm by holding on to the butt. The pike would tip upwards. However, if the pikeman held the pike at its centre of balance with his right arm, and then gripped the pike forward of that with his left hand whilst his left elbow rested on his shield's porpax, he would have a ready weapon which did not impose any undue strain on his arm muscles. Something like this (excuse the manipulated image):



This would be the 'rest' position. With a bit of adjustment of his shield strap, he could hold the pike such that it angled upwards over the shoulders of the men in front of him. He could quite easily raise the pike and then jab it forward at the enemy over the heads of the pikemen in front of him. Shields can now overlap without getting in the way of the pikes and one can retain the hellenistic phalanx as a close order formation with ''shields together" sunaspismos, without having to force the text in any direction.

I read somewhere though that phalangite shields didn't have porpaxes, which would pretty much scuttle this hypothesis (well, make it limp anyway). Is the lack of porpax an established fact?

« Last Edit: January 13, 2019, 08:52:38 PM by Justin Swanton »
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Patrick Waterson

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #1 on: January 12, 2019, 08:39:07 AM »
The Wikipedia Ancient Macedonian Army entry, which seems to sum up current thinking on the subject, has this:

"The Macedonian phalangite shield, also termed the 'Telamon shield', was circular and displayed a slight convexity; its outer surface was faced by a thin bronze sheet. The inner face of the shield was of wood or a multilayered leather construction, with a band for the forearm fixed to the centre of the shield. Plutarch noted that the phalangites (phalanx soldiers) carried a small shield on their shoulder. This probably meant that, as both hands were needed to hold the sarissa, the shield was worn suspended by a shoulder strap and steadied by the left forearm passing through the armband. The left hand would project beyond the rim of the shield to grip the sarissa. Recent reconstructions of the sarissa and phalangite shield showed that the shoulder strap supporting the shield effectively helps to transfer some of the weight of the sarissa from the left arm to the shoulders when the sarissa is held horizontally in its fighting position. The Macedonian phalangite shield is described by Asclepiodotus (Tactica, 5) as being eight palms wide (equivalent to 62 cm or 24 inches) and "not too hollow"."

It is believed there was a porpax, although there appears to be no conclusive proof either way, but in the acid test of employing a replica the strap-and-porpax arrangement seems to work.

Using the sarissa overarm has its attractions, although I wonder how one gets from pikes upright to pikes overarm pointing at the enemy.  All to do with the centre of balance, I imagine.
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Justin Swanton

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #2 on: January 12, 2019, 11:08:18 AM »
Using the sarissa overarm has its attractions, although I wonder how one gets from pikes upright to pikes overarm pointing at the enemy.  All to do with the centre of balance, I imagine.

I imagine a hellenistic pikeman would use a drill similar to that of a Renaissance pikeman. If you hold your pike vertical with the thumbs of left and right hands pointing downwards and the right hand gripping the pikeshaft around the level of the waist (about 3 feet off the ground) then all you have to do is hoist the pike upwards and lower it forwards. You'll find that your right hand is holding the pike at its centre of gravity.
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2019, 12:26:17 PM »
Justin wrote:

Only practical solution: the phalangites presented their sarissas overarm, with exception of the front rank who would have presented them underarm at least to receive a cavalry charge. The question then is how did the phalangites hold up their sarissas, sometimes for long periods of times, without overstraining their arm muscles? It is a real problem.

But it's not the only practical solution: if they had to squeeze up, angling the shields would probably be how they managed it, and it wouldn't require a change from the normal way the pike was held.

See here for example. Even though the shield is angled, the body is still quite well covered, and presumably the smaller phalangite shield could be used in a similar way.

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #4 on: January 12, 2019, 01:24:25 PM »
Didn’t we do this a few years ago?

Conclusion, no evidence for over arm exists until the renaissance
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #5 on: January 12, 2019, 01:33:50 PM »
Didn’t we do this a few years ago?

Conclusion, no evidence for over arm exists until the renaissance

This thread just looks at the mechanics of wielding a pike overarm without fatiguing the arm muscles. Re the other discussion there's no evidence that all the phalangites except the front rank wielded their pikes underarm either (nor that the front rankers did so except against cavalry), which leaves the question at which option presents the fewest practical problems.

As regards angled shields, Paul Connolley did a diagram of what that would look like. I see big exposed areas of the phalangites' bodies behind the shields just begging to be exploited by enterprising skirmishers.

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #6 on: January 12, 2019, 01:55:33 PM »
I see big exposed areas of the phalangites' bodies behind the shields just begging to be exploited by enterprising skirmishers.

All the more reason to deploy with c.3 foot frontage per man and have other troops in support.

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #7 on: January 12, 2019, 04:47:26 PM »
Yes we did do this, not years ago, but March 2018.

This thread: http://soa.org.uk/sm/index.php?topic=3241.0

Unless there's any new evidence or argument to present here, is there any value in going over it all again? I expect you will find answers to your specific questions in that thread (there's twelve pages of it).

Some comments:

Asclepiodotus says the best shield for the phalanx is two feet in diameter (eight palms), but there is plentiful evidence that larger shields were also used. What relevance that has to the subject under discussion I don't know, but it always rankles when Asclepiodotus' evidence is misused this way.

Most people assume that the sarissa had a sauroter or counterweight of some sort, but there is no evidence for this (no evidence either way).

The Macedonian shield and lack of porpax - you are thinking of Plutarch (Cleomenes 11.3) who says that Cleomenes, when re-equipping the Spartans in the Macedonian style, trained them "to carry the shield (aspis) not with a porpax but with an ochane". Exactly what this means could be the subject of another long, indecisive discussion.

I like and admire Wikipedia, but it's not evidence (except for the opinion of the person who wrote the article).

I don't think anyone except Christopher Matthew thinks phalangites couldn't deploy at one cubit, and I've not come across anyone who agrees with him. Whether they habitually did is another matter (another matter that has been worked over interminably for a hundred years and more).

"Only practical solution" - there may be lots of practical solutions. Nobody has explored all the possibilities. Delbruck and Connolly both performed practical experiments and concluded that the one cubit spacing (presumably with underarm hold) posed no problem, but their experiments were sloppily designed and/or inadequately documented, and haven't settled the question definitively. Matthew concluded that the one cubit spacing is impossible, but whether this is based on practical experiments is not clear from his writing. I really wish someone (some reenactment group, or someone with a bit of time/money to spare) would design and conduct a proper experiment and fully document it - it would be easy (given time/money).

The overarm hold is perfectly possible, but there's no evidence for it. There is evidence for the underarm hold (see other thread). We can't rule out the overarm hold - it remains an interesting possibility. Is there anything else (new) to say?
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #8 on: January 12, 2019, 05:39:05 PM »
Quote
I like and admire Wikipedia, but it's not evidence (except for the opinion of the person who wrote the article).

Actually, a wikipedia article should never in theory be the "opinion of the person who wrote the article" as it breaches core tenets of editing such as WP:NPOV (neutral point of view) and WP:OR (original research).  Wikipedia should be built on reputable secondary sources (WP:RS) which are cited so all information can be traced to source.  Of course, its often not true.  Even if use use RS, you can be selective about which ones.

To the case in hand, the two sources for Patrick's quoted passage are :

Connolly, P. (1981) Greece and Rome at War. Macdonald Phoebus, London. ISBN 1-85367-303-X
Markle, M.M. (1982) Macedonian Arms and Tactics under Alexander the Great, Studies in the History of Art, Vol 10, Symposium Series I: Macedonia and Greece in Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Times, pp. 86–111. National Gallery of Art.

I'd be happy to call those RS.  My only issue would be they are old sources - there may be newer evidence out there.  Almost certainly, there is newer analysis of the evidence.  I expect Rich, Duncan and several others to be more up on this question, therefore.


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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #9 on: January 12, 2019, 05:51:42 PM »
I forgot we had a Wikipediast in our midst, and intended no slight :)

My point was just that, if the question is 'were Macedonian shields wielded with a porpax?', quoting Wikipedia, Markle or Connolly doesn't get us very far - Wikipedia is just quoting Markle and Connolly, and Markle and Connolly don't know, though they have some intelligent speculation. There is no newer evidence out there (or if there is, it is still underground, or wrapped up in a charred mass, or something); there is plenty of newer analysis but none of it is conclusive. So far as Wikipedia gives current thinking of some reputable thinkers, it's fine. That's all it does.
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Justin Swanton

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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2019, 06:16:30 PM »
The overarm hold is perfectly possible, but there's no evidence for it. There is evidence for the underarm hold (see other thread). We can't rule out the overarm hold - it remains an interesting possibility. Is there anything else (new) to say?

Sorry for resurrecting an old topic, but seeing what it did to Christopher Matthew and Myke Cole rekindled my interest in the close order and overarm/underarm question.

Re evidence for the underarm hold, would that be exclusively the Pergamon plaque or is there anything else?
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2019, 06:23:15 PM »
Quote
So far as Wikipedia gives current thinking of some reputable thinkers, it's fine. That's all it does.

That is indeed the wiki-plan :)  It's an encyclopedia that collates together information collected and digested by others.  Rather less simple in practice, of course.
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2019, 06:27:52 PM »
Quote
Re evidence for the underarm hold, would that be exclusively the Pergamon plaque or is there anything else?

Do re-read the other thread, it will answer your question.

If the question is, what artistic depictions are there of phalangites in combat? - there is only one, the Pergamon plaque (and even that was lost at the end of WW2, and all we have now is the line drawing from the original publication). Arguably the Alexander Sarcophagus also depicts phalangites in combat, but they are not fighting as phalangites.

Edited to add - I'm forgetting the Aemilius Paulus monument, but they aren't fighting as phalangites either (at least, they don't have sarissai).
« Last Edit: January 12, 2019, 07:13:35 PM by RichT »
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2019, 09:46:15 AM »
Having reread the Feb-March 2018 thread (I have a bad memory and need to refresh the arguments in my head from time to time) it is clear that besides the Pergamon plaque that shows two phalangites bracing to receive a cavalry charge, there is no evidence, literary or pictoral, that proves phalangites wielded their sarissas underarm.

It seems pretty clear that the two phalangites in the plaque are side-by-side: the left leg of the leftmost phalangite is in front of the right leg of the rightmost phalangite, and the sarissa of the leftmost phalangite appears to be in front of the rightmost phalangite's shield - it is certainly in front of the legionary who himself is in front of the rightmost phalangite. So the plaque has nothing to say about how the rear ranks of the phalanx wielded their sarissas, nor even how the front rank wielded them when not facing cavalry.

Which means the arguments come down practicalities, and the ones that remain practical whilst doing the minimum of violence to the sources* are IMHO preferable.

*cue the manuals
« Last Edit: January 13, 2019, 09:48:01 AM by Justin Swanton »
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Re: Wielding a sarissa overarm
« Reply #14 on: January 13, 2019, 07:52:48 PM »
Did you really just argue that despite there being no evidence to support your theory, if we dismiss the evidence for the more normal position, your theory becomes equally valid?

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