The ancient javelineer

Origins far back in time

The javelin is basically the oldest known thrusting weapon. It went back as speculated to the neolithic, used by hunter-gatherers to prey on wildlife as a daily routine. As a predator, ncient man needed to find a way to catch a distant prey that was already fit to outrun its natural predators, mostly felines. The latter was way faster than the human that was stuck lower in the food chain, as one of the latter's prey, despite being itself a predatory. At some point it was discovered a simple wooden stick van be used as a weapon, using blunt force or a summarily shaped spearpoint, a simple pointy edge. From this crude early contraption readily available, the spear was used to stop attackers and kill a larger prey (like mammoths), the larger stick became a mace, and it was discovered that the spear still can be thrown to hit and adversary at a distance, avoiding the always dangerous melee, with either another man or any predator, feline or bear. The choice of using the spear or javelin probably went with the available wooden stick recuperated, size, weight, if they can be shaped. At some point in the past, early "engineering" led to devise a weapon later known in south-america as a atl-atl, the spear-thrower, but it apparently never stuck in the military, instead a simple leather band was more probably used. In any case, the Sumerians used to support their main army light infantry, equipped with javelins and bows, and called "Shub-Lugal". They would serve as household troops. The Bronze age, through multiple depictions, showed the javelin still used in battle. It was already a "classic" and only really disappeared in "modern age" with gunpower. It still was an inexpensive ranged weapon, which required less skills and manpower than a bow. The name "akontistai" is greek (plural here), "akontistos" singular. It is formed by "kontos" the lance, the privative "a-" defining a smaller version, so a small/light lance.

*Note: The image seen above is from the excellent mod "divide et impera" for RTW 2. It portrays very accurately a group of akontistai as they would probably look like in the Vth-Ith century BC. These were commoners so they only had a simple tunic, the typical peasant hat or "Pileus" protecting from the sun, or a simple headband for sweat, leather boots and in some cases, a simple pelte shield and even a cheap leather helmet. They could throw their wooden-tipped crude javelins to around 25 to 30 m in teh best cases, and had to retire behind friendly lines after expending their javelins or in case of cavaly attack.

The ancient greek akontistai

The classical Greek hoplite concept led to a form of warfare which was almost codified, and skirmishers hardly had a place in it, not cavalry and archers. This was true for the VII-Vth Centuries, but the Pelloponesian wars changed this. Until then, ranged weapons infantry "psiloi" was seen as uncivilized and therefore, barbarian in nature. It was the weapon of choice for the nearby Thracian and Illyrian tribes, even the Aitolian (seen as bandits) Epirote or Macedonians, seen as semi-civilized at best, and of course, the Persian enemy. Still, that kind of troops was available in theory, for any city-state. Indeed, all those not of the social class which granted the title of "citizen", able to afford the hoplitic panoply, could still serve in battle with whatever weapons available, including untipped javelins, easy and cheap to manufacture. Until the "old ways" of hoplitic warfare started to fade out during the Pelloponesian era, pisloi were not welcome on the battlefield for two reasons:
-It would have been a disgrace to die from the hands of a javelineer, being a non-citizen, commoner or mercenary.
-Using these troops was seen as dishonorable, and assimilated to cheating.

Macedonian akontists

But the colossal war of the Peloponnese was a surprise and schock for everybody. Two empires were at each other's throats and wanted to win by all means. This meant, the hoplites became the core of a wider army, for the first time including non-citizens to bolster the ranks. Commoner now were pressed to serve in these armies, leaving their crops and animals behind. This was also the result of the "total war" waged by opponents that did not hesitated to burn and destroy the countryside around a city-state, in order to cripple its economy as well. Since even the countryside was targeted, cities were under siege, the old rules no longer applied. Total war meant to use all possible assets to win. More diversity in infantry, cavalry, and mercenaries. This led to the use of various psiloi ("ranged infantry"): Archers, Slingers, and of course... Skirmishers. The latter had a place well-thought of in the battle line. Having a smaller range, they were more vulnerable to the opponent's slingers and archers. But they would be used wisely when the enemy was closing. If the opponent did not possess either slingers and arrows, skirmishers were used to pepper the enemy, either to provoke it to attack, by ways of demoralization, or just reducing its ranks. In the Vth-IVth centuries, the Akontistai started to be registered in chronicles. They were mentioned by most ancient authors across the board, from Herodotus to Thucydide, Theopompos, or Polybius and seemed to have been part of any army, as well as cavalry. There is no mention of them being decisive, although later the peltast, closely related came to prominence, as a costier, better equipped and better trained alternative, mostly mercenary. Used to harrass the enemy, Psiloi in some rare case could be decisive if used well: ASuch was the Battle of Sphacteria, in which Athenian psiloi helped defeat a force of Spartan hoplites. They were sometimes given other names, like gymnetes, literally: "naked" referring to their absence of protection, more than their actual nakedness on the battlefield. In the Hellenistic era some were also called euzonoi ("active", "light armored"). Their shield was supposedly of better quality and they might have a helmet (see later).

The hellenistic akontistai

Deployment & Tactics

Various peltasts and well protected akontists, by Johhny Shumate

It seems the same ancient authors made a clear distinction between the akontists, as being part of the "psiloi" and the peltasts. Indeed, most infantry depictions were related to their shield. It was used to describe the Persians troops, takabara, asabara, sparabara, as they did themselves, and "standard infantry", for which the Peltastai, or those who carry the pelte, were identified as not being part of the "psiloi", the skirmishers. In a standard battleline indeed, the "psiloi", archers, slingers and javelineers, took place well forward of the main army, in loose order with wide spacing in between them, to not offer to their opponent a solid target. Peltasts, of mentioned, operated closer to the main battle line and on the wings, possibly for rapid movements with the cavary. The Psiloi were deployed together, whatever their range, to bring the fire to the enemy at the opening pahe of the battle, when both heavier infantry were slowly closing in from 500 m or more. The space between them became de facto a "no man's land" riddled with projectiles of all speeds and sises, slingstones, arrows, and javelins. Perhaps as much innerving than melerr combat for the average commoner thrown into this. Akontistai relied on speed to ensure their own protection. They needed to be mobile, never to become a static target. Timeframe was also important. They could have been deployed at the right time to avoid unneccessary casualties, in particular when facing archers. It would have made little sense to have them moaned down by archers before themselves coming into range. First, the archers (Toxotai) would have been deployed, then slingers, and then laterly, akontistai, when the space between armies was reduced to a more manageable distance of at least 50 m. This was for another reason: If engaged in 800 to 1000 m gap between armies, there was a real chance for the opponents cavalry to swiftly fell on them before they could join the safety of their own ranks. The ratio between the distance to the enemy, spotting the enemy cavalry, the horn's signal for retreat, and the speed with which the psiloi can run to their own line, all conditioned their deployment, at least by a careful Strategos. By default of a full scale reenacment, we will never know, but it can be calculated. This enable us to see one utility of these psiloi was to draw forward the enemy light cavalry, that could be later dealt for by the adequate unit on the battlefield, -and eliminate it for the remainder of the battle.


The typical akontistai came in the field with the minimal equipment: Probably an utility small knife for everyday life, a pouch, and javelins. There is no clue as the fact he was equipped with a shield or not. Since the only one describe, the pelte, led to separate an infantry type, the Peltast, it's likely most did not have any kind of shields, and some do. If that was the case, a small as light pelte would have been the best option. The akontistai was also not likely "armored", meaning wearing a helmet of any sort. Those who had one, were likely to be called "euzonoi" instead and related to peltasts. As for body armour, it was a costly for a commoner. But alt least a kind of rought leather vest or paddled armor, if procured by the state, was not impossible, but it's all speculation. The fact is these were perishable materials, and none survived at list in a tomb were small spearheads were identified as well.

The most important part in the kit was of course, the javelins themselves. Two main types existed, at least for common Greek javelineers: Those entirely in wood, and those tipped with spearpoints. The Iberians for example had an all-metal spear called the soliferum. The most common javelin was probably the all wooden one, with its spearpoint a shaped end, harnened by fire. This was cheap, efficient, but of course that type of javelin had little chance to penetrate anything but naked flesh. It was only effective against similarly unprotected light troops, and on heavily protected ones would only have cause some disruption, more psychological than anything else. Only a very skilled skirmisher would have been able to hit the eyes or jugular of an opponent at a distance. The spearpoint javelins were a more advanced, proessional version which was probably not the one ued by commoners, but more understandably either given to them by the general or officer in charge of the ordnance, forged in the village or in the army and also distributed to Peltasts. There were several advantages of a spearpoint, notably a better velocity and balance, and of course better penetration power. A heavy javelin with a well crafted spearpoint has been shown, if launched with enough stamina, to piece through leather, linen, bronze and chainmail. But there again, it's likely were distributed to peltasts in priority.

Recent scholarship shown that the use of a leather thong, called an "ankyle" increases distances on average, by some 58%. Many recrations showed its use, but it's not evident if it was used by akontistai or Peltasts yet again, requiring extra skills, it was likely to be used by the latter only. In general, the javelin throw was part of the ancient Greeks athletic festivals, specifically the pentathlon. But the figures given by athletic men from an ideal standing position and move, run-up and well-trained throwing technique was nothing comparable to the average Akontistai. The ankyle could have provided the same advantage as highly trained throwers at least in theory. Statius referred to these distances and this could be crossed with an indirect reference from a chariot race. Modern secondary literature generally agreed, partly based on modern reconstitution, of a lenght of 66 meters. The ankyle did increase average distances of 20-30 m which were more likely on the battlefield, enabling to reach up to 50 m and more. What is certain, is that modern athletes usually achieve more than 30 meters without the Ankyle, but almost double with it. On a miltary standpoint, it made a lot of sense, for such as cheap and simple contraption to be used, but yet again, training is everything. Given the "supplementary nature" of the Akontistai, which were not mercenaries, nor "peltasts", but levied commoners without particular skills, it's unlikely, unless they followed an army in a long term campaign. In that case, it would have been possible to have them trained by peltasts and even better equipped before the battle. This is a matter of debate as there is little evidence to support this and no example ever of "akontistai" acting that decisively.

A heavy Hellespontine Phrygian cavalry attacking a psiloi, with another one behind.

Social status

macedonian battle line
The Macedonian battle line, showing the "psiloi" at the forefront, including the akontistai. The peltasts, one the wings, are clearly separated

By default, and to make a clear difference with Peltasts, they were not given any protection, no helmet or body armour. First because they could not afford these, second because they would have made them slower, and third becalse they were never intended to fight in melee, contrary to the peltasts. The latter could have a longer spear and a sword, a good pelte which was a sturdy, relatively elaborated shield, and a helmet, a combination which made them heavier than akontistai but still light enough to perform the same tasks, with better stamina. This brings us to the social status of the akontistai. By default of any specific mention but for the Spartans, which enlisted the Periokoi and Helots. The former were non-citizen which could afford a relatively good panoply and therefore served as peltasts and light hoplites or phalanx, while the Helots were so poor they could only perform with the cheapest armament, and were pressed in srvice as psiloi given their skills: Archers, slingers and naturally, akontistai (skirmishers/javelineers). Petasts not only were better protected but probably also more disciplined and better trained than the "psiloi", a rabble of commoners pressed into service. Slingers and bowmen earned more respect due to their skills, but javelineers were really at the bottom of the pack. It is possible also these peasants would have brought their civilian skills to good use for any army in campaign, as many tasks were needed to be filled, that professional soldiers were reluctant to do. This again, is conform to the idea these troops had little training, if indeed all their time in between action was spent in menial tasks. They acted as support troops for the heavy hoplites in the classical era, and doubled as baggage handlers.

Belonging to the poorest classes of citizen, sometimes even proprietary conscripts or serfs (like the Helots) they fought as skirmishers, to harass the enemy phalanx before the match, provoke disorder and protect their own lines from enemy skirmishers. They coild also be sent to occupy impassable terrain around the battlefield, disrupt the enemy foresters, baggage train or during his March, deployment or encampment. They were recalled through the phalanx and tried at all costs to avoid melee combat unless in rare case, often as filler at the end of a battle largely won.

Legacy: Roman equivalents

Skirmishers were a stable of Mediterranean armies and the Romans soon used them in battle, under influence of their warlike neighbours and wars with the Samnites, which as good mountaineers, liked ambushes and guerilla warfare as much as pitched battle, and were more flexible. The Italian landscape was more conductive of a mixed infanty type using javelins and swords. The Romans introduced a popular levy infantry in the Camilian system called the "Leves" suppose to fight "ad pugnam" or "with their fists" as they had nothing else, but which probably would have been equipped for some with javelins. They were a reserve, not intended for frontline action. Also in reserve, but probably better in equipments, were the Rorarii. But their role and equipment is foggy at best. No specialized skirmisher is described before the famous "Velite". The name meant "agile" not "fast" (which were the Celeres, a cavalry). The origin of the velites is foggy but this status was linked to the progression into the Polybian legion: As he described, these were the youngest men to serve, and as citizens could not afford the equipments of the older Hastati and Principes. They were given about the same equipment as the Hellenistic peltast, with a good shield, a helmet, even a sword, and good quality metal-tipped javelins. The trademak was their world pelt, used as a recoignition symbol for officers, allowing them to identify the best of them and promote them. All in all, they were of better quality than the Akontistai. They were also known as the grosphomachoi.

Socii velites

Roman velites

When the legion was reformed under Marius, the legionaries were systematically given the pila to perform "skirmishing" duties, but in a very distinct and specific way which had nothing to do with the skirmishers. It was more of a softener. When the need of a cheaper, more agile skirmisher was needed again, light troops such as the Esploratore (on foot). When it was needed to include locals as auxiliaries, a type of local skirmisher was also created. Although it was never formulated, anywhere they could have been known as "velite auxillia". Their use was similar to the former Velites, but equipped with heavier pila (the light version). Good native skirmishers could be found in many places, in the Balkans in particular, but also Spain or Numidia. But the one preferred always has been archers or "sagitarii", former "Syrians" with their composite bows. They were uniformized, using the same oval shield (clipeus) found in all ausiliaries, allowing more agility, the typical roman helmet (coolus type) but no chainmail as this would have made them less agile. It is possible that this use was just tactical only and the auxiliaries could perform as skirmisher using standard pila and leaving out their chainmail. The Exploratores ('reconnaissance troops') were part of the "numeri" and the latter "numeri exploratorum" were attested in the 3rd century in Britain as forts garrison. From the 2nd century they served as frontier guards and often originated among the Sarmatians and Germans. There was also the possibility of dismounted "alae", which were known to carry javelins or bows according to the regions they were from. Important point, the Velites javelins were professionaly made, with metal spearpoint, standardized with a well worked, shaped wooden shaft, and armentum, which was the Latin equivalent for the Ankyle, allowing to reach an extra distance.

During the Imperial era, an intermediary between the archer and slinger appeared, the Manuballistarii, but it could have been only the servant of a larger Ballista, rather than the user of an ancient crossbow like the gastraphete. However better known is the "plumbatarii". This was sessentially a light legionary using a wooden shield, helmet, and sword but armed with lead metal darts (plumba) rather than javelins.

Medieval and Byzantine use of javelineers

The Byzantines inherited some aspects of the former Roman Army, notably in terms of discipline and organization, but had to adapt to the type of warfare in use in Asia, relyong more on cavalry and archery. During their long wars with the Sassanids, they created large numbers of light infantry generally equipped with the bow to support the heavy infantry, known as scutatii (Meaning ″shield men″) or skutatoi. A lighter variant of this infantry, probably with a smaller shield and no chainmail, armed with javelins, were used in mountain regions. According to the "strategikon", if bow was mandatory for light infantry, they in some cases supplemented with light local troops armed with small javelins or Slavic spears. Indeed a bow was costly and the skills needed rarer. The same also were supposed to carry lead-pointed darts in leather cases and slings as well. In 565 the proportion given was 16,384 heavy infantry, 8,000 light-armed troops and 10,000 cavalry, so the javelineers made probably 30% of the 8000, so around 2500 to 2700. The Akritoi (plural Akritoi or Akritai) were defenders of the Anatolian borders of the Empire which appeared after the Arab conquest and Turkish raidst. These late units formed from native Greeks inhabitants in the eastern borders could have been either soldier-farmers or living in a rent to concentrate on military duties. But they are generally described as light troops, armed with bows and javelins. Again, given the cost and skills associated to bows, the bulk would have more likely be javelineers.


After the fall of Constantinople, partly due to the use of cannons, the javelin did not disappear yet. Ranged weapons were still diverse. Alhough rarer, there were still slingers, but the norm was no longer the "citizen soldier" but paid soldiers, especially in the context of feudalism. Crossbow became more common that bows, and still, the javelin survived. The bulk of melee infantry was certainly better protected, with larger shields plate armor and systematic chainmail, so the use of the javelin wa no longer relevant. It was only maintained in some places though, or used generally mounted. The Normans for example in 1066 had an excellent cavalry using swords, lances and javelins. But a place where javelins remained common was Spain. The Jinetes were a Spanish adoption of Arabian light cavalrymen, and for example could be eiher mounted or dismounted, and they always fought with javelins. They inherited the tradition of the ancient Cantabri tribes, mounted, but skirmishing always had been fundamental in Iberian warfare. Also famous in that area were the Almogavars, a class of Catalan infantrymen armed with a short sword, shield and two heavy javelins ("azcona"). In the north, the Vikings sometimes used for hunting and warfare, but the name used for war was frakka. It closely resembled the old German Framea, and gave for the Anglo-saxon the word "France", not related to the country as the latter was baptisted by the Franks. In the shieldwall, barbed angons were thrown from behind the shield. It was used very much in the same way as the Pila, disabling an opponent or his shield. The welsh also used the javelins with success in their guerilla warfare against the English kings. The Irish Kerns, were also a kind of light infantry hich accompanied the heavier Gallowglass in combat. The last use of javelins in battle are many as far as the XIXth century, in Natal (south africa) by the Zulus for example, or Moros in the Philippines a decade afterwards against American Marines.


Sources/Read More

researchgate.net - Javelin throw
On hetairoi.de
The javelin on wikipedia
pdf: Peltasts and Javelineers in Classical Greek Warfare Roles Tactics
On Google books
The psiloi on wikipedia

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