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Laboratory – Shield-Bearers

In Sept., 2007 I had got the idea of checking whether, in ancient armies, there had been instances, other than Ey-de-Net and Dolasilla, of archers fighting in a team with a shield-bearer devote to their defense. About this subject, I had proposed a first version of this “Laboratory” where I concluded that the idea of protecting Dolasilla by means of a shield-bearer should have come to the King of Fanes’ mind authonomously, provided he wasn’t aware of the Assyrians’ methods of combat. Later on, I received two contributions, one by Alessandro Manfroi, who, among his various capabilities, is also a skilled archer, and one by Davide Ermacora, who prospected me the Mycaenean “warrior duo”, which I blatantly ignored.


As a matter of fact, I believed that the only people of the Ancient Age accustomed to that way of fighting were the Assyrians. See the detail on the right, See the detail at right, illustrating a combat team, dated about l'884 B.C. (today at the British Museum). In this case we have two archers and a shield-bearer, who propped up the huge structure, probably wooden,(although John R. Edgerton, through A. Manfroi, suggests that it might consist of reeds, and therefore be much lighter) insisting on the ground and providing also some protection from above. The bearer looks to be using his left hand for the shield, while the right one holds an edeged weapon, maybe a short one; or it may be a second handle used to turn the big thing around. He wears a cover cap like the archers, but his gown is short instead of coming down to his feet, and probably he wears an armour and shin protectors, while the archers appear to be fighting bare-breasted. Notice the latters' quivers, strapped across one shoulder, and the swords at their belts, maybe in a sheath. Last, while one archer and the shield-bearer wear their classical long beards, the closer archer wears none. Age difference, national usage, or just fashion?
At first I had supposed that what we can observe on the other side of the shield could be a flame, or an explosion. The same John R. Edgerton provided us with the complete picture, where we can clearly see that we are dealing with a tree, and no explosion. A further essential detail can be acknowledged: in the upper left corner there is another archer, presumably a foe, who is shooting arrows from above a wall.


The scene, therefore, doesn’t depict an open-field battle, but a siege. This circumstance, if it gives a better rationale to the usage of a so scarcely mobile defensive structure, on the other hand reduces its value as a comparison reference with the pair Dolasilla-Ey-de-Net.

Such teams could also be composed by an archer, a shield-bearer and a swordman; or by two people only, one archer and the shield-bearer.


Then we have the image of a heavy Assyrian battle-cart (by courtesy of mr. Bede, from Sidney, Australia), with four people aboard: two archers, and two shield-bearers. The latters, however, use a round shield, similar to those used by infantrymen.

This type of combat by small teams was not used, as far as I know, by other populations, with the exception of the teams mounted on chariots. What we can see at left is an egyptian representation of a hittite chariot. We have a charioteer an presumably a warrior, although the schematic sketch doesn't allow to understand which weapons does he carry along; besides, we have the shield-bearer, who makes use however of a much smaller and nimbler object than the colossal object of the Assyrian siege unit.

In the Homeric description of the war of Troy, it seems that the chariot team was composed by two people only, the hero, who was completely armed, and his charioteer. But the Greeks, with the important exception I will describe later, (I might generalize and talk of Europeans), don't seem to conceive any combat by small teams. Heroes fight alone, and the mass all together. Archers, when they are present, fight each by himself. It seems that archers never were considered of relevant importance in Greek armies, as well as in Balkan, or Italic, or Celtic ones; less so, that any of these populations ever felt the need to assign a man to the specific task of shielding an archer. The Macedonian phalanx (yet to come) will later use (several) "shield-bearers" to shelter its right side, relatively unguarded, but in a quite different tactical situation.

Davide Ermacora, however, indicated me the important exception I was referring to above. It consists of the Mycaenean “warrior duo”, composed by an archer and a heavily armed infantryman. Unfortunately, the rich bibliography listed by Davide is difficult to retrieve, unless one has a specialized university library at hand. Anyway, I found something, and something was kindly handed over to me by the same Davide. Thence, let us see in more detail what happens in the war of Troy itself.

In the Iliad, only three Greek heroes are mentioned as archers: Philoctetes, Meriones and Teucer (there are also the Locrians [people from the so-named region of Boeotia not from Locri Epizephiri in Calabria, which was founded as a Locrian colony many centuries later], about whom in the XIII chant it is said that they are “arrowing and slinging”). Ulysses, who in the Odyssey is described as an exceptional archer, in the Iliad appears having forgotten his bow at home (as a matter of fact, he will find it again – in the other poem – at the moment of slaughtering the Proci).
Philoctetes, from Magnesia, who is the lucky owner of the bow that was Heracles’, leads a party of as many as fifty archers, but during most of the war remains away from the battlefield because of a wound;
Meriones, from Crete, who gains the bow contest in the games on Patroclus’ death, in battle uses however conventional weapons like sword and lance.
Teucer, brother of Ajax the Telamonian, from Salamis, on the contrary uses his bow in combat, and this way he kills several Trojans. His fighting style, that makes him of special interest in the light of the Fanes’ legend, is that of sheltering behind his brother’s large shield, uncovering just to shoot, and immediately returning under cover “like a child to his mother”. The virtual analogy with the pair Dolasilla-Ey-de-Net is patent.
More so, Ajax’ shield covers him from chin to ankles, is shaped “like a tower” and is large enough to shelter his brother as well. It is composed by seven layers of oxen leather, covered by a bronze sheet, and is so heavy that the hero – the most powerful among all Greek warriors – hangs it to his shoulder with a strap, and even so he must sometimes be helped by his comrades. Again, the comparison with Ey-de-Net’s shield, “so heavy that he was the only one who could bear it” comes immediately to one’s mind.

Several passages (some of them lexical also) hint at Ajax’ character representing an archaism in the Iliad: he uses a helm with side guards and a tower-shaped shield, no body armour and a huge lance as his only offensive weapon. He is the only hero using that type of weapons and that fighting style, which is not typical of the Troy war times, but of the XVI-XV century B.C.! Therefore his character might be built upon an archetype pertaining to epical poems of the Mycaenean age, that is, even much older than the standard version of the Iliad. This is prof. Alessandro Greco’s conclusion, the top Italian scholar of Mycaenean culture, who goes as far as defining the pair archer-hoplite (=a heavily armed infantryman) as the “classical Mycaenean warrior duo”. I’m expecting to be able to read more of his writings in the next future.
You can see in the picture here below, derived from an engraving on a silver cup found at Mycaene in a XV-century B.C. grave (see Bibl. 8), a fight with tower-shaped shield and lance, involving archers.

Notice that the warriors on the right side use a tower-shaped shield and those on the left an eight-shaped one, but they all use a lance as their single offensive weapon. Both parties fight with no other body protection but their helms, of various types but common to both sides, and don’t appear in “heroic nudity”, but covered by a short gown. The third warrior on the left clearly shows how the huge whole-sized shield was used: it covered the warrior’s back, hanging from a shoulder strap, so leaving both hands free to handle the lance. Obviously the fighting style must have been peculiar to suit this type of weaponry. Then we have the archers, one on each side, with helms like the hoplites', but naturally bearing no shield. Their bows show a slight double curvature, and might therefore be of a composite type (the period might allow this).
It is finally to be noted that the fourth warrior on the right side is deprived of both shield and bow but is armed with his lance; he looks like jumping on a comrade’s back (to increase the dash in handling his lance?). It might have been a peculiar subterfuge that possibly had been used in a specific war episode, the subject of a well-known epic narration, which the scene engraved on the cup was depicting.

We must underline, anyway, that the pair archer-shield bearer doesn’t appear as having been a typical structure of any post-Mycaenean army; in the Iliad Ajax and Teucer are the only instance, and no others are known at later times.

We are apparently allowed to propose the suggestion that those who detailed the Fanes’ legend were acquainted, if not with the Homeric poem, at least with the previous ones, upon which the Iliad must have been based. At the present moment, however, it’s too early to draw any conclusion: anyway, this is a totally new strand to explore, that can bring to interesting developments.

I’m enclosing here the bibliography kindly provided by prof. Greco, through D. Ermacora (the last title is the only one I was able to read until now):

1.A. Greco, "Aiace Telamonio e Teucro. Le tecniche di combattimento nella Grecia Micenea dell'epoca delle tombe a fossa [Ajax the Telamonian and Teucer. Fighting techniques in Mycaenean Greece in the pit- graves age], In OMERO tremila anni dopo, Atti del Congresso di Genova (July 6-8th, 2000), edited by F. Montanari with the help of P. Ascheri, Roma 2002, 561-578.
2. A. Greco, "La Grecia tra il Bronzo Medio e il Bronzo Tardo: l'armamento di Aiace e il duo guerriero" [Greece between East and West: Ajax’ weaponry and the Warrior Duo] in "Tra Oriente e Occidente", studies in honour of E. Di Filippo Balestrazzi, Padova 2006, 265-289.
3. A. Greco - M. Cultraro "When Tradition Goes Arm in Arm with Innovation: Some Reflections on the Mycenaean Warfare", in ARMS AND ARMOUR THROUGH THE AGES (from the Bronze Age to Late Antiquity), ANODOS, Studies of the Ancient World, 4-5, 2004-2005 (2007), pp. 45-60.
4. A. Greco, "La Tomba di Aiace" [Ajax’ Grave] in "Eroi eroismi eroizzazioni", Atti del convegno di Padova (Sept. 18-19th 2006), S.A.R.G.O.N. 2007, 102-112.
5. Hiller S., Scenes of warfare and combat in the art of Aegean Late Bronze Age. Reflections on typology and development, In Polemos, Le contexte guerrier en Egee a l'age du bronze, Actes de la 7° Rencontre
Egeenne int. Univ. Liege, AEGAEUM 19, 1999, 319-330.
6. J. Bennet, Homer and the Bronze Age, In: A new companion to Homer, I.MORRIS-B. POWELL eds, Leiden-New York Koln, 1997, 511-534.
7. Morris, Homer and the Iron Age, In A new companion to Homer, I.MORRIS-B. POWELL eds, Leiden-New York Koln, 1997, pp. 535 e ss.
8. A. Greco, 2006: Aiace, eroe frainteso. [Ajax, a misunderstood hero] In: Eroi, eroismi, eroizzazioni dalla grecia antica a Padova e Venezia – Atti del Convegno internazionale di Padova, Sept. 18-19th 2006: 101-112

I'm also adding a text that I found on the web:

M.P.Nappi, 2002: Note sull’uso di "Ajante" nell’Iliade, [Remarks on the usage of "Ajante" in the Iliad] Rivista di cultura classica e medievale, Anno XIV, N.2

A remark about Dolasilla’s weapons

Alessandro Manfroi proposes that Dolasilla’s “magic” or “silver” bow may indeed be a composite bow, imported from Asia by the “dwarfs” and ended up by chance in the Fanes archer’s hands. This suggestion, that might well explain the peculiar qualities of the bow, is neither illogic nor absurd, although a little improbable and maybe not really necessary. Alessandro also underlines that the heroine’s arrows, if provided with metal heads, must have been not only more penetrating, but also, just for having shifted the baricenter forward, longer-ranged and more accurate.