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The Cretan Archer

A mix of pictures gathered around the internet. Thanks to recent image search changes by google i couldn't identify and properly credit some sources.

Were Cretans the best Archers in the Mediterranean ?

There are many depiction of Cetan archers in ancient texts, from Polybius through Thucydides, Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny. They were renowned to such a way the term "kretikoi" (Cretans) was applied to these mercenaries without even mentioning their role on the battlefield. It was understood they were a byword for "mercenary archer", without having to precise it, and probably like so many other units became a type of mercenary rather distinct from peoples actually from Crete. A good example of this was the Peltast, originally from Thrace only, but with time it became a medium infantry made of Hellenic populations at large. So too, and more obviously, the "Tarentines": They were originally a kind of skirmishing medium cavalry from the city or Taras (Magna Grecia) in the south of Italy, carrying an aspsis and sword, but were cited in armies too far away to be less likely a cavalry from Taras. They should be compared to the Aspidophoroi, a type of cavalry using an aspis and throwing spears in general in the Hellenistic era, another type of late cavalry akin the Lonchophoroi (lancers) also using an aspsis.

Things gets even more blurry when Polybius do mention "nocretans" (Neoi kretikoi) in service at the time of the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC. These Neocretans" are probably young Cretan soldiers (neoi), but this does not give any clue about their role on the battlefield. According to G. T. Griffith in "The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World" these were Cretans fighting in a new style (like a medium infantry, part skirmisher?). It only can be deducted by default they were Psiloi ("throwers") either archer or javelineers, but probably not slingers as the latter were either from Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean, and cited as such, or from the Baleares in the West. According to Nicolas Sekunda, these were "symmachic troops", sent by contingents sent by rival city-states, and faced each other at some occasion in battles, just like the Galatians.

The Cretan archers in detail

By the time of the great surge of Roman power in the years 250-190 as announced with flair by Polybius, Crete was just a piece in a wide chessboard between Diadochi. On thing is sure: Their skills and training made them extremely valuable in many operations and utilized in both ancient and medieval warfare. Bows and arrows were used by Cretan hunters as early as 2200 BC as shown by a Minoan seal, and they were cited in 1700 BC, the height of the Bronze age, and the Cretan civilization. What's interesting is that they used simple but moreover double-convex designs, probably inspired by eastern composite bows. They were way more powerful and gave more range than western bows by a wide margin. According to Echols ("The Ancient Slinger," 228) they could be theoretically outranged by Rhodian slingers, but well deployed, they caused tremendous damage, as an arrow could kill the best trained and equipped warrior as easily as a sling stone, but in indirect fire. One of their most famous feat came at the time of the Peloponnesian wars, during the Retreat of the Ten thousand, following the Battle of Cunaxa in 401. They virtually saved Xenophon's hoplites, bringing them efficient support against pursuing Persian troops.

Kretikoi Toxotai
Depiction bt Johnny Schumate (extract)

Later, they were able also to reuse spent Persian arrows and seized bowstrings from local peasantry according to Wary, John. Warfare in the Classical World. They saw wide use in Alexandrian armies and his successors as well, with much distinction at the Granicus river and many other battles, like at the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, at the fall of Carthage in 146 BC, and the victories of Scipio Africanus, then throughout the Roman Empire came out and in the Byzantine era. Although the Romans gathered all archers under the single "sagitarii" auxiliary unit type, Syrians by default, Cretans must have been added to the mix as well, like many other eastern peoples renowned for their archery skills like the Scythians and Sarmatians. They are cited since marius reforms and did took part in the Trajanic Campaign as the mounted Cohors I Cretum Sagittariorum Equitata. At that time they most probably had a chainmail to rep lace their former lighter armors, but as the Empire spendings went on decline, probably had instead leather jerkins or long-sleeved tunics, also for mobility in the IV-Vth centuries AD.

Kretikoi Toxotai
Our own depiction of the Mistophoroi Kretikoi Toxotai

The usual representation of a Cretan is usually the straight bow, a rounded shield, and either a like economical helmet (like the cavalry Bottian model) or a simple hat like regular Toxotai, a sword for close combat and a light leather armor, or paddled jacket to keep their mobility. Assuredly their equipment and skills were far superior to the average Toxotai and they could have been used in close-quarter combat if needed. Nevertheless as any Psiloi they were an easy prey for cavalry. As seamen, Cretans at sea could rain a shower of arrow of enemy ships, and then board the decks and fight up close, a trade appreciated to capture ships without damaging the cargo. Needless to say this versatile infantry was much in demand. According to one source (see the forum linked) "the main feature that might have set the Cretan archers apart may have been them using what we now call the "Mediterranean draw", typical draw used by most archers nowadays. This is drawing the bow by pulling back on the string with the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, giving a much better grip and utilizing more strength, and pulling back to either the mouth or the ear." (http://historum.com/war-military-history/32068-what-bows-did-cretans-use.html). Still about the appearance, Cretans equipped themselves as they could. Helmets was probably not mandatory but in that case, models that favored excellent view are likely to have been picked, tunics and light leather armour rather than linothorax, in some case old third-hand bronze body armour, attached plaques, and of course the rounded shield, which was not more than a pelta, with a woodwork narrow enough under the skin to trap a flying arrow or sling stone. If painted, a figured bull's head would have been a favourite, as an age-old well known Cretan symbol, and potential fear factor (or morale booster for allied troops).

So what about Crete at that time ?

Crete in the Hellenistic period fell into a pattern of combative city-states harboring pirates. In the late 4th century BC, the aristocratic order began to collapse due to endemic infighting among the elite, and Crete's economy was weakened by prolongated wars between city states. During the critical 3rd century BC, Gortyn, Kydonia, Lyttos and Polyrrhenia all aspired to hegemonia. Willing to drag into their rivalry foreign forces, they invited powers like Macedon, Rhodes and Ptolemaic Egypt. In 220 BC the island was war-torn between two city-state coalitions. King Philip V came and easily gained hegemony over Crete, until the end of the Cretan War (205–200 BC). By then the Rhodians became more agressive and allied themselves with the Romans, which in turn started to interfere in Cretan affairs. In the 2nd century BC at last, the city of Ierapytna gained supremacy on eastern Crete. Meanwhile, the best men were probably more interested in solid cash and promises of loot on rich distant more or less exotic lands were recruited abroad.

Depiction of a Toxarchos (archer commander) from the Nereid monument - Photo courtesy of KORYVANTES Association, photo-edited by «ANCIENT WARFARE MAGAZINE» – Bow is a Grozer «Assyrian Biocomposite», Armor built by hellenicarmors.gr, Leather quiver built by huntresscustomleather.wordpress.com -src: https://koryvantesstudies.org/studies-in-english-language/page204-2/

Sources/Read More

Google Books "Conflict in Ancient Greece and Rome: The Definitive Political, Social, and ..." Edited by Sara E. Phang, Iain Spence Ph.D., Douglas Kelly Ph.D., Peter Londey Ph.D.

The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World - By G. T. Griffith
... and for the fun (video)

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