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Arrian and the 'kontos'

By Robert Vermaat


What 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.

I’m using two English translations of Arrian’s text:
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, I’m using the Greek text provided by Sander van Dorst, which is based on Roos’ translation used in the Loeb edition.

Problem: – how alien is Arrian’s 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 Maurice’s ‘foulkon’, which may well indicate a continuous tactic. Nevertheless, Arrian’s ‘ectaxis’ is often described as ‘a one-off’, or ‘a regional variation’.

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 Arrian’s 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, too.

Seems, because there are several difficulties with this explanation. In looking at each spear, we’ll begin to examine the text by looking at the three sections in which Arrian supposedly has described the pilum; Acies 16, 17 and 26.

Acies 16:
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 we’ll 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 characters.

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.

Acies 17:
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 here, too.
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 Arrian’s 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 Arrian’s 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.

Acies 26:
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 pilum.
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. I’m 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 more sense.
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 meaning.

This explanation has its problems too, but I leave it to the linguists to argue whether Wheeler’s 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 a pilum.
But as we’ve 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 can’t 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 can’t rule it out. But the description in Arrian’s 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 Arrian’s 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 Arrian’s ‘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 Arrian’s 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 – Arrian’s ‘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 Arrian’s 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. It’s 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 Arrian’s ‘kontos’ was most likely a one-handed long infantry spear.

The relevant passages: Acies 16, 17 and 26:

Ektaxis kata Alanoon, Acies 16:

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 sidèron: 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, Acies 17:

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 lonchophoroon estoosan. 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, Acies 26:

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 without pause.



Secondary literature

  • 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.
  • Bosworth, A.B. (1977): Arrian and the Alani, in: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 81, pp. 217-255.
  • Campbell, B. (1987): Teach yourself how to be a general, in: Journal of Roman Studies vol. 77, pp. 13-29.
  • Wheeler, Everett L. (1978): The Occasion of Arrian's Tactica, in: Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 19:4, pp. 351–65.
  • Wheeler, Everett L. (2004): The Legion as Phalanx in the Late Empire (II), in: Revue des Études Militaires Anciennes 1, pp. 147-75, esp. pp. 151-9.

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