The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
Home > Books > Book of archery > Section XII: Greek and Roman Archery
Section XII
Greek and Roman Archery
Part 1 of 2

I Acknowledge Apollo also, the musical and the archer god, and I love his harmony but fear his arrows--Maximus Tyrius xxix." width="395" height="79">

I Acknowledge Apollo also, the musical and the archer god,
and I love his harmony but fear his arrows-- Maximus Tyrius xxix.

He that grasps
The skilful aiming bow, hath in his hand
One thing that much avails him, whence he sends
A thousand arrows 'gainst the breasts of others,
Himself from death defending;
and his stand Held distant, pours his vengeance on his foes.

Pudor est nescire sagittas.
It is a reproach to be ignorant of archery.

THE same fine taste which guided the armourer of antiquity when fabricating the helmet, buckler, sword, or the cuirass, and gave these accoutrements of the Grecian warrior forms the most exquisite of which they are susceptible, appears eminently conspicuous in the fashion of his bow.

Its figure exhibits a perfect combination of symmetry and strength. How graceful the curve, with which either horn recedes from the centre-piece or grip, occupied by the archer's hand; how imperceptibly they sayer towards their extremities, where the extended jaws of a serpent receives the bow-string. How elegant the contrast between "the beaten gold," adorning in those points, and the glossy jet black material of which the whole weapon was constructed. Those who are but imperfectly acquainted with the nature of the materials employed by our modern bowyers, must doubtless be surprised they have never attempted to work upon a model so faultless as this.[1] For ladies, bows, especially, it appears most desirable; although, in reality, a bow fashioned thus of wood, the only substance used in England, would not retain its shape during a single day's, perhaps not an tour's, shooting.

"Of what, then, was the Grecian bow composed" pettishly inquires some fair Toxophilite, a leetle chagrined at being unable to figure as the buskined goddess of the chace.

Homer, madam, shall answer you, by describing the bow of Pandarus. He, like our own Shakspeare, seems to have possessed an almost intuitive knowledge of every art common to the age in which he flourished. The passage is distinguished by perfect accuracy of description, clothed in the most harmonious verse:--

He heard, and madly at the motion pleased,
His polish'd bow with hasty rashness seized.
'Twas form'd of horn, and smooth'd with artful toil;
A mountain goat resign'd the shining spoil,
Who pierced long since, beneath his arrows bled.
The stately quarry on the cliffs lay dead,
And sixteen palms his brows large honours spread!
The workmen join'd and shaped the bended horns,
And beaten gold each taper point adorns.

Though Homer has not said so, we may conclude that the Greek had an eye principally to those "brows large honours." Like a true archer, he probably thought less of the venison than of the splendid bow which its spoils promised to supply.

Several modern Oriental bows of horn are suspended round the apartment where I am writing. How little has the bow" yer's art varied in the East during a period of some thousand years ! Those I refer to are such as we usually find in the armouries of Rajpoot and other Hindostanee chiefs. Some are formed of buffalo, others of goats' horns, curving exactly alike, and united in the centre. In one or two specimens there is a wooden tip to receive the string, beautifully painted, gilded, and varnished. The custom of ornamenting the bow with gold leaf and pigments, like other Oriental practices, is very ancient. It will explain the "beaten gold," which adorned the bow of Pandarus, and the "golden bows," frequently alluded to by other poets besides Homer; for gold, in itself, possesses no elasticity whatever. Steel is the only metal convertible into a bow; and even that, as before noted, proves inferior to many kinds of wood.

Among a host of writers, who have favoured the world with disquisitions upon the works of the Grecian Bard, in vain do we look for any critical notice of those splendid pictures of archery with which his works pre-eminently abound. One of these commentators charges Homer with grossly exaggerating the length of the horns, in the passage above quoted. If our ideas of the goat be confined to that species seen in large flocks, cropping the heathblossoms, or reposing among the thymy verdure of the chases and heaths of Monmouthshire, those dimensions certainly appear somewhat fabulous. But Homer speaks of the Asiatic goat, whose "brows large honours" often attain; nay, even exceed the length of sixteen palms; and archers who feel interested in the question, may satisfy themselves by visiting tile British Museum, where they will see many specimens of the species to which Homer alludes.

Ad interim, perhaps they would like to hear what Mr. Pashley, our latest traveller in Crete, says on this subject. "The meal furnished by the hospitality of my Samariste guide consisted chiefly of the flesh of a wild goat, killed by him on an expedition from which he had just returned. I obtained from him three pairs of the animal's horns; they are all nearly of the same size, viz., on the outer edge, 2 feet 7 1/2 inches, and on the inner edge, 2 feet 1 1/2 inches. The wild goat is alluded to by the epithet , bestowed on it by Homer; and the length of the horns, which I obtained at Samaria, is very nearly that assigned in the well-known description of the bow of Pandarus."[2] The palm is four inches; making, therefore, due allowance for a certain portion necessarily consumed in joining the horns under its handle, the bow of Pandarus must have measured nearly five feet. In northern Asia, where this animal sports very extraordinary horns, they manufacture bows of similar dimensions at the present time.

When Mr. Turner, one of the East India Company's officers, visited Thibet, he was received with great kindness and courtesy by the Teshoo Lama. This personage, who delighted in archery, presented his guest with many exquisite arrows, having characteristic names inscribed upon each, indicative of remote and steady flight; together with a beautiful horn bow, nearly five feet long.[3] It may here be observed, that the dry, bracing atmosphere of northern Asia, like that of Greece, is peculiarly favourable to the perfection of these weapons; but India, where, especially during the rainy season, the air is extremely humid, they fall out of shape, and become nearly useless. So the bow in question, when removed from Thibet to Madras, soon lost the fine symmetry which Mr. Turner tells us had originally distinguished it. The cold of our English climate proves even more prejudicial. Here they frequently fly into pieces as you string them, of which I once witnessed the following instance.

Whilst strolling through the bazaar at Calcutta, a gentleman observed a native with three or four bows and several sheaves of arrows for sale. Struck with the beauty of one in particular, which was of horn, black and glossy, like polished marble, he inquired the price; that was reasonable enough, especially as a bundle of reed arrows formed part of the bargain. Previously to paying for it, however, the purchaser, by signs, expressed some doubts of its enduring the violent strain produced by arrows nearly two thirds its own length. The Indian bowyer, a wild savage-looking hillsman, smiled grimly in reply as he beckoned his customer out of the bazaar, and prepared for an indisputable proof of the bow's elasticity, and his own extraordinary address. Placing the snake-like weapon between his legs, he strung it up with that graceful motion elsewhere described; and ran with an arrow from the bundle which lay at his feet, with monkey-like agility towards a neighbouring mud wall, where he whipped off his slipper, and stuck it heel upwards in a chink; then skipping away to the distance of about fifty or sixty paces, he drew his arrow to the head, without an instant's pause, and the admiring Englishman saw it launched against and quivering in this novel target, the heel of which it had firmly nailed to the wall. No more satisfactory proof of the excellence of his ware could be required, and you may be sure the bargain was immediately concluded. Yet, on merely attempting to string the same bow some time afterwards in England, I saw it break into several pieces, to the great peril of sundry fragile articles suspended around the apartment where the experiment was made; so completely had change of climate destroyed its original toughness and elasticity. In Shea's Mirhonda, the hero complains he never could cast his arrow ten paces during the wet season; and the name of Chaeh, a famous bowyer, has been immortalised by the Persians, because his bows were rarely affected either by heat or damp.

But to return. In describing the bow of Pandarus, Homer says, the two horns were artificially united by a centre piece, which served for the archer's grasp. The old Greek bowyers practiced another ingenious contrivance. Without separating the animal's horns from its skull, they sawed off a portion of the os fontis to serve for the handle, and then, by means of heat and mechanical appliances familiar to artizans, modelled the whole into its requisite shape. But as no bow can shoot with force unless the centre-piece or fulcrum be considerably stronger than either arm, the workman must have provided for this, by the addition of wood, or some similar material. A covering of gilded scrollwork and painted flowers probably completed the work, justifying the epithet "golden," and producing, by its contrast with the glossy jet black horn, an exquisitely beautiful effect. But if the ancient Greek bow had little resemblance to that common to the northern nations of Europe, their mode of shooting was equally dissimilar. Like the modern Turks, Persians, Tartars, and many other Orientals, they drew the bowstring with the thumb, the arrow being retained in its place by the forefinger.

Many sculptures extant in public and private collections, especially those splendid casts from the island of Egina, now in the Bristol Philosophical and Literary Institution, represent several archers drawing the bowstring as I have described.

The modern practice differs also from that of antiquty in another respect. Our English archer pulls the bowstring always to his ear. The Greek, on the contrary, raised his shaft hand only to the breast. The Roman soldier did the same for a considerable period. Latterly, however, they adopted the other method. I think it is the Emperor Leo[4], who observes that drawing to the ear, instead of to the breast, was a great improvement in the archery of his age.

"Doth it become thee," exclaims a very ancient Persian poet, apostrophising his mistress, " cloth it become thee to draw thy bow even to shine ear, that the shaft aimed at my bosom may inflict a deeper wound?"[5]

Procopius also expresses an opinion, that men drew stronger and longer by the former method than by the latter. There is no doubt of it. Let any one, wishing to make the experiment, take up a yew bow of seventy pounds, and try by which of them he can more easily draw a thirty inch arrow to its head.[6] The statue of the Apollo Belvidere affords one a satisfactory example of the Grecian mode of shooting, and Homer's vivid description places this matter entirely beyond dispute.

Then by the Greeks unseen, the warrior bends;
Screen'd by the shields of his surrounding friends:
There meditates his mark, and crouching low,
Fits the sharp arrow to the well-strung bow.
One, from a hundred feathered deaths he chose,
Fated to wound, and cause of future woes.
Then offers vows with hecatombs to crown
Apollo's altar in his native town.
Now with full force the yielding horn he bends,
Drawn to an arch, and joins the doubling ends.
Close to his breast he strains the nerve below,
Till the barb'd point approach tile circling bow.
The impatient weapon whizzes on the wing,
Sounds the tough horn, and twangs the quivering string.

The extreme tension here given to the bow, was rendered necessary by the length of the arrow, and could not be safely practised except with one formed of very tough materials. The Tartar horn bows, measuring about four feet in length, admit the use of arrows, which if drawn to the head in an English wooden bow of even six feet, would inevitably shiver it into fragments.

Whilst perusing the above passage, the reader, whether he be or be not an archer, feels enraptured with the fitness and beauty of those epithets by which it is adorned. How truly natural seems the phrase "feathered deaths", when applied to the arrows of an unerring marksman. With no less felicity is the shaft styled "impatient," both from the strain felt in the archer's drawing hand, and the velocity with which, when loosed, it flies towards its destined mark.

The rich resources of Homer's genius are further displayed in that art, with which he varies the circumstances when describing this action in another part of his poem.

--The string let fly
Sounds shrill and sharp, like the swift swallows cry,

recalls to our remembrance that enthusiastic burst of the Roman historian[7], when he exclaims, "Methinks I see the attitudes of the archer. I hear the twang of his bow!"

Though the Iliad has frequent allusions to this subject. Homer's most finished picture of Grecian archery occurs in the Odyssey With that exception, however, I believe no trace exists in any very early writer, whereby we may judge of the discipline pursued in training the bowmen of antiquity; nor are we at all familiar with the details of those sportive contests in which also they sometimes engaged.

The return of Ulysses to his native soil, despised and unknown, and the plan devised by Penelope for extricating herself from the dissolute band by whom she was assailed, furnishes all we know on the subject of an ancient Greek archery match. That the trial consisted in a challenge, first, to bend, and then employ her husband's bow, in a feat requiring consummate skill, every schoolboy knows full well. It was a shrewd and happy device; for those abandoned nobles, enervated by luxury, had become so utterly inexpert in manly exercises, that their failure might be securely anticipated. Unconscious, however, of this, they clamorously demanded a trial. It is then the poet indulges in one of those simple and affecting touches of nature peculiar to no age, time, nor individual, since they belong to the unchangeable and noblest impulses of the human heart. Having reached the costly chamber where the weapon was deposited, she lingers in melancholy fondness over this sole relic of her absent lord. Unwilling to part with it hitherto, even for a moment, her heart now upbraids her with an act of profanation, in thus resigning it to the lawless crew whose clamorous orgies still resound within her ear.

The prudent Queen the lofty stair ascends,
At distance due, a virgin train attends.
A brazen key she held, the handle turn'd,
With steel and polish'd elephant adorn'd;
Swift to the inmost room she bent her way,
Where safe reposed the royal treasure lay.
      *      *       *       *

She moves majestic through the wealthy room,
Where treasured garments cast a rich perfume.
Then from the column, where aloft it hung,
Reach'd in its splendid case[8], the bow unstrung.

Across her knees she laid the well known bow,
And pensive sate, and tears began to flow.

As Telemachus could not dig a trench in the marble pavement of a palace court, the contest must have been decided somewhere out of doors, yet near the entrance, on account of the resistance its gate offered to the arrows.

A trench he opened, in a line he placed
The level axes, and the points made fast.

None of the critics notice that, when the marks are produced, they prove to be axes, not rings. The ordinary hatchet has no point whereby it could be "made fast." If the rings were poised upon the ends of the handles, while the iron-heads rested upon the ground, a more clumsy, awkward contrivance can hardly be imagined. An equal number of pointed stakes would have done better. Homer, therefore, probably meant the battle or pole-axe, which has always a spear projecting from the head, and not unfrequently a ring at the extremity of the handle. Probably also, they were intended to be carried off by the victor as an additional reward; for at the funereal games in honour of Hector, axes are distributed as prizes.

Whose weapon strikes you trembling bird, shall bear
These two-edged axes, terrible in war.

Although no hint is given us of the precise distance shot, it must have been unquestionably within point blank range, about fifty yards[9], otherwise the arrow would have gradually descended to the ground, after passing through the first and second ring. I think Plutarch alludes to the sport of driving an arrow through several consecutive rings. The modern Turks frequently amuse themselves with aiming arrows at the circlet used for javelin exercise[10]. When the Duke of Holstein sent an ambassador to Persia, the shah entertained him with an exhibition of archery, though, as he observed, being past the meridian of life, he had lost much of his youthful dexterity. Still, willing to show the Frank that even "an old man could do somewhat," he suspended by a single horse-hair, one of those thumb rings which the Persians use to bend their bows. Then, placing the youth who held it at the distance of six paces, he cut the hair twice successively with his arrow."[11] The ring itself is a common mark in that country; but the emperor chose to depart from the ordinary practice, that his guest might be enabled to judge of the accomplishments of his youth, by the feats was still able to perform at the age of forty-five.

And now his well-known bow the master bore,
Turn'd on all sides, and view'd it o'er and o'er,
Lest time or worms had done the weapon wrong;
Its owner absent, and untried so long.

But we are approaching the final catastrophe of this domestic drama, which commences with a splendid simile, unparalleled even in the works of a poet, distinguished above all others for the appropriate introduction of that species of illustration.

Then, as some heavenly minstrel taught to sing
High notes responsive to the trembling string,
To some new strain, when he adapts the lyre,
Or the dumb lute refits with vocal wire,
Relaxes, strains, and draws them to and fro;
So the great master drew the mighty bow.
One hand aloft displayed the bended horns,
And one the string assay'd.

The son of Laertes, once more feeling the trusty companion of his youthful sports within his grasp, forthwith prepares for a fatal manifestation that his arm still retains its pristine vigour; and the insulters of his honour, and the despoilers of his household, have held their latest revel.

Then sitting as he was, the chard he drew,
Through ev'ry ringlet, levelling his view,
Then notched the shaft, released, and gave it wing,
The whizzing arrow vanished from the string,
Sung on direct, and threaded every ring.
The solid gate its fury scarcely bounds,
Pierced through and through, the solid gate resounds

Pope has somewhat obscured the sense of this noble passage Ulysses appears to draw the bowstring before he applies the arrow to it; equally absurd as if we were to talk of firing of an uncharged fowling piece. Under correction, I conceive the poet's meaning may be thus judiciously paraphrased. After the King of Ithaca had strung his bow, he placed himself opposite the marl`, and regarded the circlets through which his arrow to pass, with a firm and steady look; repeatedly drawing and loosing the bow string as he did so. When his eyes were thus in some degree familiarized with objects to which they had long been strangers, he nocked an arrow on the string, and bringing his arms to the requisite elevation, without an instant' pause, launched it against the mark.