The sarissa

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Ateas
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The sarissa

Post by Ateas » Tue Feb 20, 2018 8:55 am

Hello, everyone.

Everything is going well, I trust...? There is a topic I am interested in. Seeing as the sarissa is generally considered to be of a substantial length, I have been hearing that it may have not been as long as many people think it was. To be more specific, I have heard from some comtemporary sources that it was probably no longer than 13-17 feet in length. In Philip II and Alexandros’ time. Apparently the average spear length was around 7-8 feet in length in antiquity.

Seeing as this forum is one of the best sources to find information about the Argead dynasty, I was hoping that you fine people might have some insight into this topic that I am not already familiar with. My thing is more early Middle Ages to late 19th century, so you can probably understand my ignorance.

If anyone could enlighten me on the truth of this subject, I would appreciate it a great deal.


With sincerity,

Ateas




PS, I would like to create some artwork that conforms with the best knowledge of the era. I can imagine you fine people understand why the truth in these matters matters to me.

Ateas
Fortune favours the bold!

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Xenophon
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Re: The sarissa

Post by Xenophon » Wed Feb 21, 2018 1:20 am

That is not the easiest question to answer! It has been the subject of debate over many years. Not only do our half dozen ancient sources all offer different figures in cubits/pekhos, but the actual length of the cubit varied from city to city as well!!

With the aid of archaeology and testing reconstructions, and what is practical from later periods (such as the length of Swiss and Engish 16-18 C pikes) we can give a range of,say, 16 to 20 feet.Perhaps the best guide is Theophrastus, the only source who was contemporary with Philip and Alexander who says the 'longest' pikes/sarissae were 12 (Athenian) cubits which is 5.29m, or 17.2 feet. The shaft was tapered (like the later Swiss and English ones) from 34mm aprox at the foot, to around 20 mm at the socket of the head. They were usually made of Ash and weighed around 4 kg. They were not made in two parts joined by a tube - that is due to a misinterpretation of a grave find.

7-8 ft is indeed the length of a typical 'doru'/spear being the maximum length that can be comfortably wielded in one hand.

The attached picture shows the late Peter Connolly's son wielding a reproduction sarissa. Note how the carrying strap for the 'pelte'/shield helps support the weight of the sarissa.
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tn_Mak Connolly sarissa picture.jpg
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Paralus
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Re: The sarissa

Post by Paralus » Thu Feb 22, 2018 9:05 am

Xenophon wrote:Perhaps the best guide is Theophrastus, the only source who was contemporary with Philip and Alexander who says the 'longest' pikes/sarissae were 12 (Athenian) cubits which is 5.29m, or 17.2 feet.
Indeed he does and for those without the text (Enquiry into Plants, 3.12.1-2):
The wood of the ‘male’ tree has no heart, but is hard throughout, like horn in closeness and strength; whereas that of the ‘female’ tree has heart-wood and is softer and goes into holes; wherefore it is useless for javelins. The height of the ‘male’ tree is at most twelve cubits, the length of the longest Macedonian spear, the stem up to the point where it divides not being very tall.
There are a number of things generally misunderstood in this little passage. It does not say that the sarisa was made of cornel wood. As Xenophon noted, the sarisa was more likely made of ash and definitely was not connected by the supposed six inch "connector". It also does not say that the Macedonian sarisa was 12 cubits long only that the longest sarisa in Theophrastus' time (he was born abt 370) was such a length. In fact, it does not say "Macedonian sarisa", simply sarison, the translator has added "Macedonian" as these are associated with Macedonia. There were, then, other sarisai that were not this long, else saying so is redundant. The Macedonians did not use sarisa in a technical sense but actually applied the word in general to "spears". Thus we need not suppose, as Markle does, that the Companion cavalry rode into battle improbably carrying a 17 foot plus pike. A twelve to thirteen or so foot xyston, or sarisa to a Macedonian, would do the job nicely.
Paralus
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Wicked men, you sin against your fathers, who conquered the whole world under Philip and Alexander.

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Xenophon
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Re: The sarissa

Post by Xenophon » Fri Feb 23, 2018 9:14 am

Paralus wrote:
The Macedonians did not use sarisa in a technical sense but actually applied the word in general to "spears".
I'd entirely agree. It is most likely that "sarisa" in Macedonian dialect simply meant generically any 'long spear', and that it was the Greeks who adopted it to have a technical sense of meaning the two-handed Macedonian pike.......

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Paralus
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Re: The sarissa

Post by Paralus » Sat Feb 24, 2018 1:42 am

And so we can have Theophrastus opining about the "longest sarisa". A xyston, to a Macedonian, will have been a "shorter" sarisa.
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Ἐπὶ τοὺς πατέρας, ὦ κακαὶ κεφαλαί, τοὺς μετὰ Φιλίππου καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου τὰ ὅλα κατειργασμένους;
Wicked men, you sin against your fathers, who conquered the whole world under Philip and Alexander.

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