A peltast (Ancient Greek: πελταστής peltastes) was a type of light infantry, originating in Thrace and Paeonia, who often served as skirmishers in Hellenic and Hellenistic armies. In the Medieval period the same term was used for a type of Byzantine infantryman.

Agrianian peltast. This peltast holds three javelins, one in his throwing hand and two in his pelte (shield) hand as additional ammunition.


Peltasts (Latin: Peltarion) carried a crescent-shaped wicker shield called a pelte (Greek: πέλτη) as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle, the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheepskin. Some literary sources imply that the shield could be round, but in art it is usually shown as crescent-shaped. It also appears in Scythian art and may have been a common type in Central Europe. The shield could be carried with a central strap and a handgrip near the rim or with just a central hand-grip. It may also have had a carrying strap (or baldric) as Thracian peltasts slung their shields on their backs when evading the enemy. Peltasts' weapons consisted of several javelins (akontia), which may have had straps to allow more force to be applied to a throw.


A peltast with the whole of his panoply. Ancient Greek red-figure kylix.

In the Archaic period, the Greek martial tradition had been focused almost exclusively on the heavy infantry, or hoplites.

The style of fighting used by peltasts originated in Thrace and the first Greek peltasts were recruited from the Greek cities of the Thracian coast. They are generally depicted on vases and in other images as wearing the typical Thracian costume, which includes the distinctive Phrygian cap made of fox-skin and with ear flaps. They also usually wear a patterned tunic, fawnskin boots and a long cloak, called a zeira, decorated with a bright, geometric, pattern. However, many mercenary peltasts were probably recruited in Greece. Some vases have also been found showing hoplites (men wearing Corinthian helmets, greaves and cuirasses, holding hoplite spears) carrying peltes. Often, the mythical Amazons (women warriors) are shown with peltast equipment.

Peltasts gradually became more important in Greek warfare, in particular during the Peloponnesian War.

Xenophon in the Anabasis describes peltasts in action against Persian cavalry at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE where they were serving as part of the mercenary force of Cyrus the Younger. In [1.10.7]

Tissaphernes had not fled at the first charge (by the Greek troops), but had instead charged along the river through the Greek peltasts. However he did not kill a single man as he passed through. The Greeks opened their ranks (to allow the Persian cavalry through) and proceeded to deal blows (with swords) and throw javelins at them as they went through.

Xenophon's description makes it clear that these peltasts were armed with swords, as well as javelins, but not with spears. When faced with a charge from the Persian cavalry they opened their ranks and allowed the cavalry through while striking them with swords and hurling javelins at them.[1]

Peltasts on the Tomb of Payava (circa 360 BC), around the time of Iphicrates. They are equipped with the exomis, the pilos with crest and cheekpiece, and the round pelte shield, and are depicted thrusting overarm with a long spear.[2][3]

Tomb of Payava Battle scene (detail)
Tomb of Payava, east side peltasts

They became the main type of Greek mercenary infantry in the 4th century BCE. Their equipment was less expensive than that of traditional hoplites and would have been more readily available to poorer members of society. The Athenian general Iphicrates destroyed a Spartan phalanx in the Battle of Lechaeum in 390 BCE, using mostly peltasts. In the account of Diodorus Siculus, Iphicrates is credited with re-arming his men with long spears, perhaps in around 374 BCE. This reform may have produced a type of "peltast" armed with a small shield, a sword, and a spear instead of javelins. Some authorities, such as J.G.P. Best, state that these later "peltasts" were not truly peltasts in the traditional sense, but lightly armored hoplites carrying the pelte shield in conjunction with longer spears—a combination that has been interpreted as a direct ancestor to the Macedonian phalanx.[4] However, thrusting spears are included on some illustrations of peltasts before the time of Iphicrates and some peltasts may have carried them as well as javelins rather than as a replacement for them. As no battle accounts actually describe peltasts using thrusting spears, it may be that they were sometimes carried by individuals by choice rather than as part of a policy or reform. The Lykian sarcophagas of Payava from about 400 BCE depicts a soldier carrying a round pelte but using a thrusting spear overarm. He wears a pilos helmet with cheekpieces, but no armour. His equipment therefore resembles Iphicrates's supposed new troops. 4th century BCE peltasts also seem to have sometimes worn both helmets and linen armour.

Alexander the Great employed peltasts drawn from the Thracian tribes to the north of Macedonia, particularly the Agrianoi. In the 3rd century BCE, peltasts were gradually replaced with thureophoroi. Later references to peltasts may not in fact refer to their style of equipment as the word peltast became a synonym for mercenary.

Anatolian peltasts

An Athenian mercenary peltast (left) supporting an Achaemenid knight of Hellespontine Phrygia (center) attacking a Greek psilos (right), Altıkulaç Sarcophagus, early 4th century BCE. The Athenian peltast is equipped with a machaira sword, a small round shield with a single grip, with javelins wedged in the grip, making him an effective fighter in close quarter against a disorganized enemy.[5][6]

Athenian mercenary peltast, early 4th century BCE
Altıkulaç Sarcophagus Combat scene (detail)

A tradition of fighting with javelins, light shield and sometimes a spear existed in Anatolia and several contingents armed like this appeared in Xerxes I's army that invaded Greece in 480 BCE. For example, the Paphlagonians and Phrygians wore wicker helmets and native boots reaching halfway to the knee. They carried small shields, short spears, javelins and daggers.[7]

Peltasts in the Persian army

From the mid 5th century BCE onwards, peltast soldiers began to appear in Greek depictions of Persian troops.[8] They were equipped like Greek and Thracian peltasts, but were dressed in typically Persian army uniforms. They often carried a light axe, known as a sagaris, as a sidearm. It has been suggested that these troops were known in Persian as takabara and their shields as taka.[9] The Persians may have been influenced by Greek and Thracian peltasts. Another alternative source of influence would have been the Anatolian hill tribes, such as the Corduene, Mysians or Pisidians.[10] In Greek sources, these troops were either called peltasts or peltophoroi (bearers of pelte).

"Peltasts" in the Antigonid army

In the Hellenistic period, the Antigonid kings of Macedon had an elite corps of native Macedonian "Peltasts". However, this force should not be confused with the skirmishing peltasts discussed earlier. The “Peltasts" were probably, according to F.W. Walbank, about 3,000 in number, although by the Third Macedonian War this went up to 5,000 (most likely to accommodate the elite Agema, which was a sub-unit in the 'Peltast' corps). The fact that they are always mentioned as being in their thousands suggests that, in terms of organization, the 'Peltasts' were organized into chiliarchies. This elite corps was most likely of the same status, of similar equipment and role as Alexander the Great's Hypaspists. Within this corps of 'peltasts' was its elite formation, the Agema. These troops were used on forced marches by Philip V of Macedon, which suggests that they were lightly equipped and mobile. However, at the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, Livy remarks on how the Macedonian 'Peltasts' defeated the Paeligni and of how this shows the dangers of going directly at the front of a phalanx. Though it may seem strange for a unit that would fight in phalanx formation to be called 'peltasts', 'pelte' would not be an inappropriate name for a Macedonian shield. They may have been similarly equipped with the Iphicratean hoplites or peltasts, as described by Diodorus.[4]


Panther peltast Louvre MNE1325
A peltast fighting a panther. Side A from an Attic white-ground mug, early 5th century BCE. Louvre Museum, Paris.

Peltasts were usually deployed on the flanks of the phalanx, providing a link with any cavalry, or in rough or broken ground. For example, in the Hellenica [3.2.16] Xenophon writes 'When Dercylidas learned this (that a Persian army was nearby), he ordered his officers to form their men in line, eight ranks deep (the hoplite phalanx), as quickly as possible, and to station the peltasts on either wing along with the cavalry.[11] They could also operate in support of other light troops, such as archers and slingers.


When faced by hoplites, peltasts operated by throwing javelins at short range. If the hoplites charged, the peltasts would retreat. As they carried considerably lighter equipment than the hoplites, they were usually able to evade successfully, especially in difficult terrain. They would then return to the attack once the pursuit ended, if possible, taking advantage of any disorder created in the hoplites' ranks. At the Battle of Sphacteria, the Athenian forces included 800 archers and at least 800 peltasts. Thucydides, in the History of the Peloponnesian War [4.33], writes

They (the Spartan hoplites) themselves were held up by the weapons shot at them from both flanks by the light troops. Though they (the hoplites) drove back the light troops at any point in which they ran in and approached too closely, they (the light troops) still fought back even in retreat, since they had no heavy equipment and could easily outdistance their pursuers over ground where, since the place had been uninhabited until then, the going was rough and difficult.

When fighting other types of light troops, peltasts were able to close more aggressively in melee, as they had the advantage of possessing shields, swords, and helmets.

Medieval Byzantine peltast

A type of infantryman called a peltast (peltastēs) is described in the 6th century AD military treatise, the Strategikon, associated with the early Byzantine emperor Maurice.[12] Peltasts were especially prominent in the Byzantine army of the Komnenian period in the late 11th and 12th centuries. Although the peltasts of Antiquity were light skirmish infantry armed with javelins, it is not safe to assume that the troops given this name in the Byzantine period were identical in function. Byzantine peltasts were sometimes described as “assault troops”.[13] Byzantine peltasts appear to have been relatively lightly equipped soldiers capable of great battlefield mobility, who could skirmish but who were equally capable of close combat.[14] Their arms may have included a shorter version of the kontarion spear employed by contemporary Byzantine heavy infantry.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Xenophon. Anabasis. [1.10.7].
  3. ^ The Numismatic Chronicle. Royal Numismatic Society. 2005. p. 83.
  4. ^ a b Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, XV.44
  5. ^ Campbell, Brian; Tritle, Lawrence A. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. Oxford University Press. p. 150. ISBN 9780199719556.
  6. ^ Rose, Charles Brian (2014). The Archaeology of Greek and Roman Troy. Cambridge University Press. p. 137-140. ISBN 9780521762076.
  7. ^ Herodotus: Histories [7:70]
  8. ^ Head, Duncan (1992), p40
  9. ^ Sekunda, Nicholas V (1988), p69.
  10. ^ Sekunda (1992), p. 24
  11. ^ Xenophon. Hellenica. [3.2.16].
  12. ^ Birkenmeier, p.64.
  13. ^ Birkenmeier, p.123.
  14. ^ Birkenmeier, p.241.
  15. ^ Dawson, p. 59.


  • Best, J. G. P. (1969). Thracian Peltasts and their influence on Greek warfare.
  • Birkenmeier, John W. (2002). The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081–1180. Brill. ISBN 90-04-11710-5.
  • Connolly, Peter (1981). Greece and Rome at War. Macdonald (Black Cat, 1988). ISBN 0-7481-0109-8
  • Dawson, Timothy (2007). Byzantine Infantryman. Eastern Roman Empire c.900–1204. Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-105-2.
  • Diodorus Siculus. History.
  • Head, Duncan (1982). Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars. WRG.
  • Head, Duncan (1992). The Achaemenid Persian Army. Montvert. ISBN 1-874101-00-0
  • Herodotus.The Histories
  • "Light Infantry", special issue of Ancient Warfare, 2/1 (2008)
  • Sekunda, Nicholas V (1988). Achaemenid Military Terminology. Arch. Mitt. aus Iran 21
  • Sekunda, N (1992). The Persian Army 560–330 BC. Osprey. ISBN 1-85532-250-1
  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.
  • Xenophon. Anabasis.
  • Xenophon. Hellenica.

External links


Agema (Greek: Ἄγημα), is a term to describe a military detachment, used for a special cause, such as guarding high valued targets. Due to its nature the Agema most probably comprises elite troops.


The Agrianes (Ancient Greek: Ἀγρίανες, Agrianes or Ἀγρίαι Agriai) or Agrianians, were a tribe whose country was centered at Upper Strymon, in present-day western Bulgaria, and also held areas of southeasternmost Serbia in the ancient Roman provinces of Dacia Mediterranea, at the time situated north of the Dentheletae. In the times of Philip II, the territory of the Agrianes was administered by Pella. They were crack javelin throwers and an elite unit of Alexander the Great's light infantry, who fought under the command of General Attalus.

Ancient Greek military personal equipment

Ancient Greek weapons and armor were primarily geared towards combat between individuals. Their primary technique was called the phalanx, a formation consisting of massed shield wall, which required heavy frontal armor and medium-ranged weapons such as spears. Soldiers were required to provide their own panoply, which could prove expensive, however the lack of any official peace-keeping force meant that most Greek citizens carried weapons as a matter of course for self-defence. Because individuals provided their own equipment, there was considerable diversity in arms and armour among the Hellenistic troops.The poorest citizens, unable to afford the purchase or upkeep of military equipment, operated on the battlefield as psiloi or peltasts; fast, mobile skirmishing troops.

Weapons were primarily constructed from iron, wood and bronze.

Ancient Macedonian army

The army of the Kingdom of Macedon was among the greatest military forces of the ancient world. It was created and made formidable by King Philip II of Macedon; previously the army of Macedon had been of little account in the politics of the Greek world, and Macedonia had been regarded as a second-rate power.

The latest innovations in weapons and tactics were adopted and refined by Philip II, and he created a uniquely flexible and effective army. By introducing military service as a full-time occupation, Philip was able to drill his men regularly, ensuring unity and cohesion in his ranks. In a remarkably short time, this led to the creation of one of the finest military machines of the ancient world.

Tactical improvements included the latest developments in the deployment of the traditional Greek phalanx made by men such as Epaminondas of Thebes and Iphicrates of Athens. Philip II improved on these military innovators by using both Epaminondas' deeper phalanx and Iphicrates' combination of a longer spear and smaller and lighter shield. However, the Macedonian king also innovated; he introduced the use of a much longer spear, the two-handed pike. The Macedonian pike, the sarissa, gave its wielder many advantages both offensively and defensively. For the first time in Greek warfare, cavalry became a decisive arm in battle. The Macedonian army perfected the co-ordination of different troop types, an early example of combined arms tactics — the heavy infantry phalanx, skirmish infantry, archers, light cavalry and heavy cavalry, and siege engines were all deployed in battle; each troop type being used to its own particular advantage and creating a synergy of mutual support.

The new Macedonian army was an amalgamation of different forces. Macedonians and other Greeks (especially Thessalian cavalry) and a wide range of mercenaries from across the Aegean and Balkans were employed by Phillip. By 338 BC, more than a half of the army for his planned invasion of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia came from outside the borders of Macedon — from all over the Greek world and the nearby barbarian tribes, such as the Illyrians, Paeonians, and Thracians.

Unfortunately, most of the primary historical sources for this period have been lost. As a consequence, scholarship is largely reliant on the works of Diodorus Siculus and Arrian, plus the incomplete writings of Curtius, all of whom lived centuries later than the events they describe.

Antigonid Macedonian army

The Antigonid Macedonian army was the army that evolved from the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia in the period when it was ruled by the Antigonid dynasty from 276 BC to 168 BC. It was seen as one of the principal Hellenistic fighting forces until its ultimate defeat at Roman hands at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. However, there was a brief resurgence in 150-148 during the revolt of Andriscus, a supposed heir to Perseus.

Starting as just a mere handful of mercenary troops under Antigonus Gonatas in the 270s BC, the Antigonid army eventually became the dominant force in Hellenistic Greece, fighting campaigns against Epirus, the Achaean League, Sparta, Athens, Rhodes and Pergamon, not to mention the numerous Thracian and Celtic tribes that threatened Macedon from the north.

The Antigonid army, as with the army of Philip II and Alexander the Great that came before it, was based principally around the Macedonian phalanx, which was a solid formation of men armed with small shields and long pikes called sarissae. The majority of Macedonian troops serving in the army would have made up the numbers of the phalanx, which took up to one-third to two-thirds of the entire army on campaign. Alongside the phalanx, the Antigonid army had its elite corps, the Peltasts, numerous Macedonian and allied cavalry and always a considerable amount of allied and mercenary infantry and auxiliary troops.

Battle of Byzantium

The Battle of Byzantium (Byzantion) was a battle in the wars of the successors of Alexander the Great (see Diadochi) between the general Antigonus Monopthalmus and Cleitus the White. It was a two-day-battle fought near Byzantium at the Hellespont in 317 BC and resulted in a stunning Antigonid victory.

Battle of Gaza (312 BC)

The Battle of Gaza was a battle of the Third war of the Diadochi between Ptolemy (and Seleucus) against Demetrius (son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus).

In late 312 BC, Ptolemy launched an invasion from Egypt, he marched with 18,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry along the northern edge of the Sinai. Receiving timely intelligence, Demetrius recalled his troops from their winter quarters and concentrated them at Gaza. Demetrius's advisors told him not to fight the more experienced Ptolemy and Seleucus, but he ignored their advice.

Cycladic culture

Cycladic culture (also known as Cycladic civilisation or, chronologically, as Cycladic chronology) was a Bronze Age culture (c. 3200–c. 1050 BC) found throughout the islands of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea. In chronological terms, it is a relative dating system for artefacts which broadly complements Helladic chronology (mainland Greece) and Minoan chronology (Crete) during the same period of time.


Dii is also the plural of Latin Deus.

The Dii (; Ancient Greek: Δίοι) were an independent Thracian tribe, swordsmen, who lived among the foothills of Mount Rhodope in Thrace, and particularly in the east bank of Nestos, from the springs to the Nestos gorge. They often joined the ranks of organized armies as mercenaries or volunteers. Thucydides declared that they were the most warlike infantry in Sitalkes' army.

Though usually described as swordsmen, they defeated a Theban cavalry by using peltast tactics, so they were certainly skilled in other areas of warfare as well.

The Legend of Diyes is an interesting legend about the Dii.

Greece in the Roman era

Greece in the Roman era describes the period of Greek history when Ancient Greece was dominated by the Roman Republic (509 – 27 BC), the Roman Empire (27 BC – AD 395), and the Byzantine Empire (AD 395 – 1453). The Roman era of Greek history began with the Corinthian defeat in the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC. However, before the Achaean War, the Roman Republic had been steadily gaining control of mainland Greece by defeating the Kingdom of Macedon in a series of conflicts known as the Macedonian Wars. The Fourth Macedonian War ended at the Battle of Pydna in 148 BC and defeat of the Macedonian royal pretender Andriscus.

The definitive Roman occupation of the Greek world was established after the Battle of Actium (31 BC), in which Augustus defeated Cleopatra VII, the Greek Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, and the Roman general Mark Antony, and afterwards conquered Alexandria (32 BC), the last great city of Hellenistic Greece. The Roman era of Greek history continued with Emperor Constantine the Great's adoption of Byzantium as Nova Roma, the capital city of the Roman Empire; in AD 330, the city was renamed Constantinople; afterwards, the Byzantine Empire was a generally Greek-speaking polity.

Hellenistic armies

The Hellenistic armies is the term applied to the armies of the successor kingdoms of the Hellenistic period, which emerged after the death of Alexander the Great. After his death, Alexander's huge empire was torn between his successors, the Diadochi (Greek: Διάδοχοι). During the Wars of the Diadochi, the Macedonian army, as developed by Alexander and Philip II, gradually adopted new units and tactics, further developing Macedonian warfare and improving on the tactics used in the Classical era. The armies of the Diadochi bear few differences from that of Alexander, but during the era of the Epigonoi (Ἐπίγονοι, "Successors"), the differences were obvious, favoring numbers over quality and weight over maneuverability. The limited availability of Greek conscripts in the east led to an increasing dependence on mercenary forces, whereas in the west, Hellenistic armies were continuously involved in wars, which soon exhausted local manpower, paving the way for Roman supremacy. The major Hellenistic states were the Seleucid Empire, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Antigonid kingdom (Macedonia). Smaller states included: Attalid Pergamum, Pontus, Epirus, the Achaean League, the Aetolian League, Syracuse, and other states (like Athens, Sparta etc.).


A javelin is a light spear designed primarily to be thrown, historically as a ranged weapon, but today predominantly for sport. The javelin is almost always thrown by hand, unlike the bow and arrow and slingshot, which shoot projectiles from a mechanism. However, devices do exist to assist the javelin thrower in achieving greater distance, generally called spear-throwers.

A warrior or soldier armed primarily with one or more javelins is a javelineer.

The word javelin comes from Middle English and it derives from Old French javelin, a diminutive of javelot, which meant spear. The word javelot probably originated from one of the Celtic languages.

Light infantry

Light infantry is a designation applied to certain types of foot soldiers (infantry) throughout history, typically having lighter equipment or armament or a more mobile or fluid function than other types of infantry, such as heavy infantry or line infantry. Historically, light infantry often fought as scouts, raiders and skirmishers—soldiers who fight in a loose formation ahead of the main army to harass, delay, disrupt supply lines, and generally "soften up" an enemy before the main battle. After World War II, the term "light infantry" evolved, and now generally refers to rapid-deployment units (including commandos and airborne units) that specifically emphasize speed and mobility over armor and firepower. Some units or battalions that historically held a skirmishing role have kept their designation "light infantry" for the sake of tradition.


Paeoplae (Ancient Greek: Παιόπλαι) were an ancient Paeonian tribe in Thrace. The name is suggested to have Thracian origin.


In the culture of ancient Greece, the term paideia (also spelled paedeia) (; Greek: παιδεία, paideía) referred to the rearing and education of the ideal member of the polis. It incorporated both practical, subject-based schooling and a focus upon the socialization of individuals within the aristocratic order of the polis. The practical aspects of this education included subjects subsumed under the modern designation of the liberal arts (rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy are examples), as well as scientific disciplines like arithmetic and medicine. An ideal and successful member of the polis would possess intellectual, moral and physical refinement, so training in gymnastics and wrestling was valued for its effect on the body alongside the moral education which the Greeks believed was imparted by the study of music, poetry, and philosophy. This approach to the rearing of a well-rounded Greek male was common to the Greek-speaking world, with the exception of Sparta where a rigid and militaristic form of education known as the agoge was practiced.


The pezhetairoi (Greek and Ancient Macedonian: πεζέταιροι, singular: pezhetairos) were the backbone of the Macedonian army and Diadochi kingdoms. They were literally "foot companions" (in Greek, pezos means "pedestrian" and hetairos means "companion" or "friend").

The Macedonian phalanxes were made up almost entirely of pezhetairoi. Pezhetairoi were very effective against both enemy cavalry and infantry, as their long pikes could be used to impale enemies charging on horse-back or to keep enemy infantry with shorter weapons at bay.

Thracian clothing

Thracian clothing refers to types of clothing worn mainly by Thracians, Dacians but also by some Greeks. Its best literal descriptions are given by Herodotus and Xenophon in his Anabasis. Depictions are found in a great number of Greek vases and there are a few Persian representations as well. In contrast to shapes and patterns we have very little evidence on the colours used.


The Thracians (; Ancient Greek: Θρᾷκες Thrāikes; Latin: Thraci) were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting a large area in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. They spoke the Thracian language – a scarcely attested branch of the Indo-European language family. The study of Thracians and Thracian culture is known as Thracology.

Tony Bath

Tony Bath (1926–2000) was a British wargamer who favored the ancient period. He was the founder of the Society of Ancients.

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