Hellenistic Warfare > Hellenistic Spears

Hellenistic Spears


Hellenistic Spears


During the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE), the spear was a fundamental weapon in the arsenals of Hellenistic armies. The design and use of spears evolved from earlier Greek styles, incorporating influences from various cultures and adapting to the changing tactics and needs of the Hellenistic phalanx.

Types of Hellenistic Spears

  1. Sarissa:

    • Design: The sarissa was a long spear, typically about 4 to 7 meters (13 to 23 feet) in length. It was made from sturdy yet flexible wood, such as cornel or ash, with an iron spearhead and a bronze butt spike.
    • Usage: Introduced by Philip II of Macedon and extensively used by Alexander the Great, the sarissa was the primary weapon of the Macedonian phalanx. Its length allowed soldiers to engage the enemy at a distance, creating a formidable wall of spear points.
  2. Dory:

    • Design: The dory was a shorter spear, about 2 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) long, with a wooden shaft, an iron spearhead, and a bronze butt spike (sauroter). The dory was lighter and more versatile than the sarissa.
    • Usage: Used by hoplites, the dory was the standard spear for Greek infantry before the widespread adoption of the sarissa. It continued to be used in various forms throughout the Hellenistic period, particularly by lighter infantry and in situations requiring more flexibility.
  3. Xyston:

    • Design: The xyston was a spear or lance used primarily by cavalry. It was about 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) long, with a wooden shaft and a metal spearhead.
    • Usage: The xyston was favored by cavalry units, including the Companion Cavalry of Alexander the Great. It allowed cavalry to charge and thrust at enemies effectively.

Tactical Use

  1. Phalanx Formation:

    • Sarissa Phalanx: The introduction of the sarissa revolutionized the phalanx formation. Soldiers, known as phalangites, held the sarissa with both hands, overlapping their spears to create a dense, impenetrable front line. This formation was highly effective in frontal assaults and defensive stands.
    • Depth and Formation: The phalanx typically consisted of 16 rows of soldiers, with the first five rows lowering their sarissas to present a continuous line of spear points, while the rear rows held their spears vertically or at an angle to fend off projectiles.
  2. Flexible Tactics:

    • Use of Dory: While the sarissa was dominant, the dory remained in use for its versatility. It was particularly useful in more fluid and dynamic combat situations where the rigid structure of the sarissa phalanx was less effective.
    • Cavalry and Xyston: Cavalry units using the xyston played crucial roles in flanking maneuvers, exploiting gaps in enemy lines, and pursuing fleeing foes. The xyston allowed cavalry to deliver powerful thrusts during charges.

Evolution and Adaptation

  1. Integration with Other Forces:

    • Combined Arms Tactics: Hellenistic armies often integrated sarissa-wielding phalanxes with lighter infantry, cavalry, and other units to create versatile and adaptable forces. This approach maximized the strengths of each unit type.
    • Adaptation to Terrain: The length and rigidity of the sarissa phalanx made it less effective in rough terrain. Commanders adapted by using more flexible formations and combining different types of troops to maintain effectiveness in various environments.
  2. Cultural Influence:

    • Eastern and Western Blends: The conquests of Alexander the Great and the subsequent spread of Hellenistic culture led to the blending of Greek and local military traditions. This cultural exchange influenced the design and use of spears, integrating elements from Eastern and Western weaponry.


  1. "Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises" by E.W. Marsden: Provides detailed descriptions of ancient Greek and Hellenistic military equipment, including spears and their tactical use.
  2. "The Macedonian Phalanx: Equipment and Tactics" by Nicholas Sekunda: Discusses the development and implementation of the sarissa and other Hellenistic spears within the phalanx formation.
  3. "Alexander the Great and His Time" by Agnes Savill: Explores the military innovations of Alexander the Great, including the use of the sarissa and cavalry tactics with the xyston.
  4. Archaeological Reports and Findings: Various excavations and studies, available in academic journals and museum collections, provide evidence of Hellenistic spear designs and their practical applications.

These sources offer comprehensive information on the design, use, and tactical significance of Hellenistic spears, highlighting their evolution and impact on ancient warfare.


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