Peltasts are the Barney Fife’s of ancient warriors; or perhaps they are Rodney Dangerfields. “No respect,” he might lament and so might they. The most basic form of combat considered is the simple act of hitting somebody with your fist, and so perhaps the first actual form of long-range combat would be rock throwing. To some degree, throughout ancient history, that’s exactly what peltasts were – rock throwers. Rocks, darts, spears, javelins, and sling-borne projectiles thrown anywhere from 45 yards to 150 yards became a way to reach out and touch someone in a bad way. Despite their effectiveness, despite their widespread use, peltasts rarely get the attention they deserve. The most famous peltast in the world had to be King David for his use of a rock and a sling to kill a Philistine king. That said, David hit Goliath directly between the eyes and killed him, or at least knocked Goliath unconscious until he could retrieve the giant’s sword and decapitate him. So a peltast had to be practiced. History’s volumes wrote mostly about the heavy infantry, the cavalry, and the leaders. The world’s first light artillery is often hidden in the footnotes, and has to be taken off the shelf and looked at to see the larger role that this arcane form of combat played.
Chris Harrison writes about slingers:
“The sling was one of the first projectile weapons, developed as early as 10,000 B.C. (Korfmann, 1973; Ferrill, 1985; Grunfeld, 1996). Slingers played an important part in the Persian, Greek, Roman, and various Mesopotamian armies, and were considered to be equal to or better than bowmen (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973). Although used most extensively in Europe and the Near East, evidence of its usage can be found throughout the world, with the notable exception of Australia (Korfmann, 1973). There are several Pacific Island, Andean, and Mediterranean cultures which maintain strong slinging traditions to this day through contests and historical recreations.
The weapon was inexpensive and easy to make. Sinew, plant fibers, animal hide, hair, and many other materials could be used for the cords and pouch. Unlike a bow, which required specialist skill to produce, a sling could be made by anyone. The sling of the late Paleolithic is basically identical to the modern sling because the design is so simple. The major focus of innovation was the sling’s payload. Stones from riverbeds were popular as their polished, smooth exterior caused less air resistance than angular rocks, which improved accuracy and range. However, no matter how selectively these were collected, the shape of natural stones varied. This meant the slinger had to compensate for changing projectile weights, reducing overall accuracy. Near Eastern armies began supplying their slingers with uniform projectiles, made from baked-clay or carved stone, by the end of the 7th millennium B.C.. At first, these were spherical, but by 3000 B.C., biconical or ovoid projectiles were discovered to be superior. The latter two types would orient point first and spin through the air like a bullet or American football. (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Ferrill, 1985; Carman, 1999) This improvement increased range dramatically, much as barrel rifling did for firearms. The point first orientation also increased penetration ability. By Hellenistic times, projectiles were being cast in lead, increasing the density more than eight times (Walker, 2004). Since the projectile was roughly the same size, air resistance remained the same. However the increased mass meant it suffered less from the effects of drag. These lead projectiles were also far cheaper than arrows or bolts, making slings cost effective (Wise, 1976). A good slinger could fire more than twelve rounds a minute. (Book XIX. 109)
In 480 BC, 6000 Thracian peltasts accompanied the Persian Army as it invaded Greece. In 425 BC at the Battle of Spacteria, 800 Athenian peltasts and 800 archers helped to defeat 420 Spartans, and the first time ever in ancient history, 292 Spartans were taken prisoner. In 422 BC at the Battle of Amphipolis, peltast mercenaries fighting for Sparta broke up an Athenian phalanx and the Athenians were subsequently routed.
Iphicrates was the son of an Athenian shoemaker who became a commander and was the winner of Battle of Lechaion and the then went on to clear Corinth of enemies. He perfected the tactics and weapons of the peltasts around 374 BC. He made them more mobile and taught simple tactics, such as fleeing when pursued. He made lighter shields, longer swords and javelins, in other words, a combination of light artillery and light infantry that could easily replace hoplite positions when the hoplites were not available. With the exception of Sparta that had a professional army, Greek citizens provided all the hoplites. These were people who could not spend too much time away from their crops or business affairs consumed with invasions and forays. Hoplite armor also had to be provided by the soldier. It was expensive and soldiering was hard enough so that hoplites were delighted when there were large peltast formations that relieved them of the their frontline duty.
Probably the single most famous use of peltasts in a major battle was Gaugamela in 331 BC, the gargantuan confrontation between Darius the III and Alexander. In a gamble to open up a hole in the Persian front line, peltasts ran behind a Greek cavalry formation hiding themselves and covered a cavalry counter attack from the Persians.
Other peltasts of note came from small insular cultures. The residents of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean trained slingers from childhood and developed fierce reputations that the Romans who were invading Mallorca in 123 BC had to stretch hides across their troop ships to protect against the “glandes,” or acorn like bullets that were slung. It is said that parents wouldn’t feed their children on the island unless they could hit a piece of bread at some distance. In later times Thracian peltasts could out range a 60-pound bow with rocks and lead bullets from a sling. So quite a bit of training was necessary to become an effective slinger, or a javelin thrower, and for that reason, peltasts were rare on Greek battlefields, and when they did show up, they were written about.
Xenophon, a Greek commander who was trying to retreat in good order from Persian forces in 401 BC complained that Persian slingers were harassing his retreat and he desperately needed to find some of his own.
“We must get hold of slingers and cavalry as soon as we can. There are some Rhodians…and their slings are twice the range of the Persian slings.”
The offer of money brought 200 peltasts out and so the retreat was made good.
A quote from Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from the 1st century A.D. is also revealing:
“But when Hamilcar saw that his men were being overpowered and that the Greeks in constantly increasing number were making their way into the camp, he brought up his slingers, who came from the Balearic Islands and numbered at least a thousand. By hurling a shower of great stones, they wounded many and even killed not a few of those who were attacking, and they shattered the defensive armor of most of them. For these men, who are accustomed to sling stones weighing a mina [~0.6kg], contribute a great deal toward victory in battle… In this way they drove the Greeks from the camp and defeated them.”
In Livy’s History of Rome, which was completed in 9 A.D., he states,
A hundred slingers were recruited from Aegium and Patrae and Dymae. These peoples were trained from boyhood […] Having been trained to shoot through rings of moderate circumference from long distances, they would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed.
A Karate instructor once told me “It doesn’t matter if your opponent is 300 pounds. If you stick your finger one quarter inch into his eye, the fight is over.” I suppose the same could said of a tiny projectile as said about your finger. There you have it, peltastery, an unheralded form of combat that shows up from time to time in history and makes a difference far in excess of its size or story.
The Sling In Medieval Europe, Chris Harrison. Harrison, Chris. “The Sling in Medieval Europe.” The Bulletin of Primitive Technology. Vol #31, Spring 2006.
Grunfeld, Foster (1996). The Unsung Sling. Military History Quarterly Review, V9 #1.