exactly is Arrian talking about when in his treatise
Ektaxis kata Alanoon or Acies
contra Alanos, he equipped his legionary heavy
infantry with the kontos? It must be a spear
of some type, but which? Was it simply a pilum, the
weapon commonly regarded as characteristic of legionary
infantry in the time of Arrian? Or was it something else,
maybe a thrusting spear? This short article does not
claim to have the answer, simply because this cannot be
established on the basis of the evidence available, but
several possibilities will be looked at, without
disregarding any type of spear.
Im using two English translations of Arrians
Bachrach, Bernard S. (1973): A History of the Alans in
the West, from their first appearance in the sources of
classical antiquity through the early middle ages,
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 129-133.
Relying as I have to do on others for the Greek text,
Im using the Greek text provided by Sander van
Dorst, which is based on Roos translation used in
the Loeb edition.
Problem: how alien is Arrians
deployment to Roman practise?
To begin with, a short word about the usability of Arrian.
The text has posed many translators with a problem. What
is Arrian talking about? Can we even begin to use his
text as a common model for Roman deployment? Is he
perhaps describing something archaic, something entirely
alien to the Roman military?
The deployment of heavy infantry in very close order (pyknosis)
is not strange, since it is already used by Marc Anthony
in 36 BC (Plutarch, Anthony, 45 and 49), who had his
legionary infantry close ranks and stab at the Parthian
cavalry with their pila. The three tiers of scuta also
seems reflected by Maurices foulkon,
which may well indicate a continuous tactic. Nevertheless,
Arrians ectaxis is often described as
a one-off, or a regional
That may be due to the words with which Arrian describes
this deployment. For not only is he the first to even
provide a name for this deployment, he is also the first
to refer to legionary infantry as kontophoroi.
The question is, what was Arrian thinking of when he
chose the word kontos? After all, the
original meaning of the kontos was a long
pole, and the common military use of the word was in the
sense of a two-handed cavalry thrusting spear. Some
commentators have literally copied that meaning; some
even want to see a two-handed sarissa
infantry spear. Others (like Bachrach) simply translate
the word with spear (and he even translated
lonche (lancea) with pike).
However, a detailed study by Wheeler does not lead to a
conclusion that Arrians theoretical deployment was
either strange to Roman practise, nor that it was a
regional variant. As a result of that, we can discuss the
deployment as a normal deployment in terms of weaponry,
Seems, because there are several difficulties with this
explanation. In looking at each spear, well begin
to examine the text by looking at the three sections in
which Arrian supposedly has described the pilum; Acies 16,
17 and 26.
In fact, the text is not as clear as is often assumed.
Wheeler noticed that while the text of acies 17 indeed
describes a spear stuck in armour which is bending due to
the iron softness, acies 16 does not describe that. As
well see below, this sentence is very damaged and
various commentators have attempted their own emendations.
I sure hope I used the correct transcript for the Greek
The MS Laurentius gr.LV 4 actually reads: oii (spatium
3-4 litt.) tois kontois makra kaì èpìleptò.
Scheffer in 1664 already emended: oii dikon
(..) tois into: ?n dè kontois
, thereby inserting the word kontos
into the sentence.
C. W. Müller, in the Didot edition of Arrian (1846), had
a version in more readable Greek, although probably
building on earlier emendations: ?n dè kontois
makra kaì èpìleptà sidèria proèktai.
The early 20th-c. translation of Antoon Gerard Roos
used by most translations (including the one from
Sander van Dorst used here) went a bit further, and was
used for the Loeb edition: ois dè <tois>
kontois makra kaì èpì leptòn tà sidèria proèktai.
What do these emendations of Acies 16 mean for us?
Wheeler argues, in my opinion rightly, that the text of
the sentence is now full so of emendations that although
more readable no longer usable to support the current
translation. Roos text is not what the damaged
original MS has, for it disregards the missing letters
and the emended text is the invention of the editor. The
current translations of spears ending in thin iron
shanks is therefore a modern insertion, no doubt to
make it more agreeable with the next line. The best we
can do with the words available is concluding that the
kontoi in acies 16 had a long slender blade,
all the rest is based on later speculative emendations.
But the text of acies 16 is unusable as proof for any
conclusion about the weapon described.
In acies 17 we seem to be on more secure ground, since
the description of the flexible iron that is
bent when stuck in the enemy seems to be a spitting image
of a pilum. Again, seems, because there are difficulties
First of all, the sentence itself is odd, because the
Alan cavalry did not have any shields, so why is Arrian
writing that? In acies 31, the last surviving part of the
text, Arrian even writes that the enemy does not wear
armour at all, which flies in the face of the description
in acies 17.
What also looks odd is the actual description itself.
Apparently the kontoi are thrust into the
enemy, not thrown, and apparently the shanks bend when
they are subsequently pulled out again. But no ancient
description exists of a pilum bending when simply thrust
at an enemy. Pila can surely bend when thrown from a
distance, the impetus is surely enough to, in some cases,
make the shaft bend upon impact. But pila shafts were not
made from extremely soft iron and it is difficult to
accept that a thrust at an enemy shield could make a
pilum shaft bend, let alone a thrust at the body!
Similarly, pilum shafts also do not bend when they are
wrenched from a shield (let alone armour), so again
things are not the way they seem to be.
Again, one wonders why Arrian writes exactly that
did he perhaps have no practical experience whatsoever?
But we know he had plenty of experience, he saw action on
the Euphrates front against Parthians and Armenians. He
had experience enough with cavalry and armour as well, as
is known to us from his works. So what is the reason of
this apparent confusion?
There is a possibility, as is put forward by Wheeler,
that Arrian is not being literal here at all, but
inserting a topos, a literary reworking of
traditional material, particularly the descriptions of
standardized settings, but extended to almost any
literary meme. A topos was meant to create an aha-erlebnis
with the reader. Such a topos, which was a common concept
in ancient writings, would show the author to be a man of
learning who had read a lot. As a concept, this would not
be strange to Arrians purpose, who dedicated his
works to the emperor. Also, a topos could be a
description of something that was not literally correct (Philip
Rance describes a topos about elephants supposedly being
very tall, noisy and very smelly, which was used by many
authors almost verbatim throughout the classical period).
If treated as a topos, the seemingly odd description of
the use of the kontos would no longer create
the need to look for errors on Arrians part, nor
would we have to look for some specific type of spear. As
a commonplace, the topos would not even have to be a
correct description of any specific spear.
This section has in the past been referred to as showing
that the spear meant by Arrian should be seen as pila
for does Arrian not recommend that at that stage
in the battle, the fourth rank should throw their spears?
This passage is mostly read by commentators in English,
after which almost everyone thinks this is the passage
where Arrian is therefore describing a
Indeed, Arrian writes that spears must be thrown
but he writes that the fourth taxis should throw their
lonches their lanceas!
What has happened? Did Arrian make a mistake here? Did he
suddenly equip the fourth rank with lanceas instead of
the kontos, or maybe even both?
Wheeler offers a solution, by proposing that Arrian has
changed the sense when he uses taxis. In
Acies 16 and 17, taxis seems safely
interpreted as denoting the rank of the formation. It may
be that in Acies 26, he switched meaning to
formation, describing not the fourth rank,
but the formations as described in his deployment;
taxeis I-III not being the first three
legionary ranks but the left wing (auxilia), the right
wing (auxilia) and the centre (legionary kontophoroi),
with taxis IV being the legionary
lonchophoroi. Im not sure that Wheeler is correct
here (because next, Arrian describes only the first taxis
to stab at the enemy without pause. Maybe the
first taxis is just the heavy infantry, which would make
Similarly at Acies 20-21, Arrian describes all the
cavalry together with one uncharacteristic word,
lochos (To de hippikon xympan kata
eilas kai lochous oktoo xyntetagmenon ephestatoo tois
pezois - The entire cavalry arrayed together in
eight wings and squadrons must stand next to the
infantrymen on both flanks), and Wheeler has
hypothesised that Arrian in Acies 26, too, used one word
(taxis) to denote a unit or formation, instead of a rank.
The Latin ordo also has the same duality of
This explanation has its problems too, but I leave it to
the linguists to argue whether Wheelers solution is
accepted or not, but it seems a better way out of our
predicament of Acies 26 than assuming that the fourth
rank suddenly had changed to using different weapons. Or,
even worse, that Arrian used the wrong word, for not only
would we then presume to know better than Arrian, making
him a silly oaf at the same time, but it would mean the
whole text would become unusable.
Anyway, it is clear that Acies 26 in no way shows that
the kontos was being thrown (van Dorst is
wrong here, as is therefore his conclusion that the
kontos cannot be a heavy pike), and therefore
this part of the text does not offer support for the
spear being a pilum.
Spear 1 the pilum
Most commentators however have translated the
kontos of Arrian with pilum. Most
do not even question that Arrian seems to describe
the pilum when he mentions that the kontos
had a thin iron shank and an iron point that bends upon
impact (acies 16 and 17), and also that it was thrown (acies
26). The conclusion seems obvious Arrian describes
But as weve seen above, two of the three reasons
for accepting this are not valid acies 16 is too
damaged to be trustworthy and too emended by wishful
thinking to be of use, and acies 26 is clearly
misunderstood or misinterpreted. Which leaves acies 17,
but the literal explanation of that part of the text
seems well out of place when taken literally.
Of course, it cant be ruled out that the spear in
question is a pilum. As noticed before, already Marc
Anthony had his legionary infantry use the pilum as a
stabbing and thrusting spear in a very close order
formation, therefore we cant rule it out. But the
description in Arrians text does not describe, as
so often heard, a typical spear that can only be a pilum,
ruling out all other types of spear. Nowhere do we see a
description typical of the pilum, such as the shaft and
shank being of equal length (as Polybius describes). In
fact, the words that we can be certain of can describe a
slender blade of a common spearhead just as well.
This means that the claim that Arrian for
sure is describing a pilum can be put aside as
unsubstantiated. A close look at the text that the
translation of kontos with pilum
is overly rash and not supported by the text.
Spear 2 the sarissa
Scholars have assumed that the kontos is
thrown as well as thrust, but as we have seen above, that
assumption is false. Could this then mean that Arrian was
being very archaic in his ideas, looking to describe a
classical Greek or Macedonian extremely long stabbing
spear, the two-handed sarissa?
About this possibility we can be short. Although
Caracalla later seems to have wanted to revive a
Macedonian phalanx, complete with the sarissa, it is also
clear that because the Roman infantry has a large shield,
a two-handed sarissa or indeed any other two-handed
thrusting spear is out of the question.
Spear 3 the javelin
Spears like the pilum or the lancea could be dual-purpose
weapons that, in their various shapes, could be used for
stabbing as well as throwing. But can we judge from the
description that the kontos is such a weapon?
The sparse description that we have immediately makes
clear that the kontos is never actually
thrown in Arrians text. And even though the other
spear in this deployment, the lonche, is generally
accepted as the lancea, a multi-purpose spear than also
occurs in conjunction with the pilum, that need not mean
that we should for that reason alone interpret the
kontos as a pilum. And because the even
shorter pure javelin-type spears clearly do not fit
Arrians kontos, we can rule out that it
was a javelin.
Spear 4 the long hasta
When we can rule out pilum, two-handed thrusting spears
and javelins, the remaining possibilities are sparse. But
a clue might be received from another of Arrians
writings, the Tactica, where he describes (Tactica IV: 7-9)
not infantry but cavalry being divided in kontophoroi (who
charge in the manner of Alani and Sarmatians) and
lancearii (who hurl their weapons at long range or use it
in hand-to-hand combat). The analogy is clear
Arrians kontos is a thrusting weapon.
Of course, the kontos of his infantry in his
treatise Ektaxis kata Alanoon cannot
be exactly like the two-handed cavalry spear for reason
mentioned above. But it need not be. Other authors from
Tacitus to Vegetius describe infantry with a long spear
using that same name, either Greek kontos or
Latin contus. Images of such one-handed infantry
thrusting spears are also known to us, ranging from
ancient Greek hoplites to Late Roman heavy infantry.
These spears were between 7 and 9 ft. long and could be
used for underarm thrusting as well as over arm stabbing,
which would make them fit Arrians description. No
single name for this weapon is known to us. Greek authors
used the generic dory for this weapon, and
the equally generic Latin translation hasta
seems fitting enough. But by Late Roman times, this
weapon seems to become universally known (again?) as the
kontos/contus. Its even possible that the slender
tips of the spearhead (which can bend when thrust into an
object, or bend when wrenched out) are what Arrian had in
mind when he wrote acies 17. With that, this weapon ticks
all the boxes of our original question.
Concluding, it can be held that Arrians
kontos was most likely a one-handed long
The relevant passages:
Acies 16, 17 and 26:
Ektaxis kata Alanoon,
|Tetachthoon de epi
oktoo, kai pyknè autois estoo hè xyntaxis. Kai
hai men prootai tessares taxeis estoosan
kontophoroon, hois dè tois kontois makra kai epi
lepton ta sidèria proèktai. Kai toutous hoi men
prootostatai eis probolèn echontoon, hoos ei
pelazoien autois hoi polemioi, kata ta stèthè
malista toon hippoon tithesthai toon kontoon ton
||They should deploy in
eight ranks and their deployment should be close
ordered. And the front four ranks of the
formation must be of spearmen [whose spearpoints
end in thin iron shanks]. And the foremost of
them should hold their shields at the ready, in
order that when the enemies near them, they can
thrust the iron points of the spears at the
breast of the horses in particular.
Ektaxis kata Alanoon,
|hoi deuterostatai de
kai hoi tès tritès kai tetartès taxeoos eis
akontismon probeblèsthoon tous kontous hopou
tychoien, kai hippous troosontes kai hippotèn
katakanountes kai thyreooi kataphraktooi thooraki
empagentos tou kontou kai dia malakotèta tou
sidèrou epikamphthentos archeion ton anabatèn
poièsontes. Hai de ephexès taxeis toon
||Those standing in second,
third and fourth rank of the formation must hold
their spears ready for thrusting if possible,
wounding the horses and killing the horsemen and
put the rider out of action. The impact of the
spear will make the flexible iron point stuck in
their shield and body armour and the weight will
make it impossible for him to remount. The
following ranks should be of the javelineers.
Ektaxis kata Alanoon,
|ei de dè pelazoien,
enchrempsantas tais aspisi kai tois oomois
antereisantas dechesthai tèn prosbolèn hoos
karterootata kai tèi synkleisei pyknotatè tas
prootas treis taxeis xynereidousas sphisin hoos
biaiotaton hoion te: tèn tetartèn de
hyperakontizein tas lonchas: kai tèn prootèn
paiein è akontizein tois kontois apheidoos es te
hippous kai autous.
||If they do close in
though, the first three ranks should lock their
shields and press their shoulders and receive the
charge as strongly as possible in the most
closely ordered formation bound together in the
strongest manner. The fourth rank will throw
their javelins overhead and the first rank will
stab at them and their horses with their spears
- Bachrach, Bernard S.
History of the Alans in the West, from their
first appearance in the sources of classical
antiquity through the early middle ages,
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
- Bosworth, A.B. (1977):
and the Alani, in: Harvard Studies in
Classical Philology, vol. 81, pp. 217-255.
- Campbell, B. (1987):
yourself how to be a general, in: Journal of
Roman Studies vol. 77, pp. 13-29.
- Wheeler, Everett L.
Occasion of Arrian's Tactica, in: Greek,
Roman and Byzantine Studies 19:4, pp. 35165.
- Wheeler, Everett L.
Legion as Phalanx in the Late Empire (II),
in: Revue des Études Militaires Anciennes 1, pp.
147-75, esp. pp. 151-9.