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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section XII: Greek and Roman Archery
Section XII
Greek and Roman Archery
Part 2 of 2

The position in which Homer places Ulysses during the performance of his extraordinary feat, is not unworthy of notice From the nature of the objects at which he aimed, and their trifling elevation, a sitting posture was certainly the most con venient he could have chosen. A little experiment easily made, will show that a very tall man would be able to command a bow five feet six inches, while seated on the ground. This style of shooting has prevailed in Turkey from the earliest period; but whether they copied it from the men whose country they have usurped, I leave for antiquarians to determine. Two travellers of the seventeenth century, Busbequius and our own Sandys, have the following pertinent remarks; for unlike their touring brethren of modern times, they appear to have considered every thing connected with national habits and customs worthy attentive illustration. The former, though a Frenchman, was fond of archery; and he tells us he regularly joined the Turks in their after dinner shooting parties, for the purpose of assisting his digestion.[12] As the latter lived in an age when every gentleman received a military education, and before the bow had entirely ceased to be a weapon of war, he naturally makes some observations on its use.

"The Turks of Constantinople do constantly exercise themselves in the noble game of archery, sitting cross-legged on carpets spread upon the ground. In divers streets and crossways of Constantinople, there are also places, where, not only children and young men, but even the graver sort, do exercise. There is one that takes care of the butt, who waters it every day, otherwise it would be so dry, that the Turks' arrows, being always blunt, would not well stick therein; and he that oversees the mark is very particular to draw out and cleanse the arrows, and throw them back to the archers; and he hath a stipend from them, sufficient to maintain him. The front of the butt bears some similarity to a little door; whence perhaps was derived the Greek proverb, that when a man missed the mark, he is said to shoot extra januam, 'beside the door;' for I suppose the Greeks used this way of butting, and that the Turks borrowed it from them.". So far the learned Busbequius. The following are Sandys's remarks:-- "Their bows are for form and length not unlike the lath of a large cross-bow[13], made of the horn of bufaloes, mixed with sinews; of admirable workmanship, and some of them exquisitely gilded. So slothful they be, that they never walk up and down for recreation, nor use any other exercise than shooting. Therein they take as little pains as may be, sitting on cushions in the shadow, and sending their slaves for their arrows. They also shoot against earthern walls ever kept moist in shops and private houses for that purpose, standing not above six paces from the mark, and that with such violence, that the arrow often passes through and through."

Those unacquainted with the prodigious violence with which an arrow is propelled from a strong bow, may perhaps regard the force ascribed to that of Ulysses as a mere poetical exagger ation. An authority or two drawn from the author last quoted and from the writings of the grave historians of our own country must remove their scepticism. "I have seen," says Sands, "their (Turkish) arrows shot by our ambassador through target of steel, pieces of brass two inches thick, and through wood, witth an arrow headed with wood, of eight inches. "So stands the original; yet the words "two inches thick," must be a mistranspo-sition, and the sentence should stand thus: "through pieces of wood two inches thick." Even then, with such arrows, I confess it still appears to me a marvel; however, Lord Bacon the same, and Greaves's Pyramidographia and Barclay's Iconimorum, have something very like it.

"It happened during a siege," writes Geraldus Cambrensis "that two soldiers running in haste towards a tower situated a a little distance from them, were attacked with a number arrows from the Welsh; which being discharged with prodigious violence, some penetrated through the oak doors of a portal although they were of the breadth of four fingers in thickness." In the MS. diary of Edward IV. is a memorandum that on a certain day, a hundred archers of his guard, shot in his presence, twice each, at an inch board of well-seasoned timber. Some of the arrows pierced quite through it; others penetrated that, and also another board placed behind. As deal was then unknown, we may conclude the target to have been made of good solid oak.

Whilst Athens continued free, the citizens maintained a numerous body of archers as a kind of municipal police.[14]

Its wise and polished citizens, showed an excellent discrimination in their choice of these mercenaries, who were Scythians, a nation skilled in the management of the bow[15], beyond every other of antiquity. Uninfluenced by the splendour and refinement which every where presented itself, these barbarians retained unaltered, the simple habits which had accompanied them from their native deserts. They lived together in tents, encamped in the most public parts of the city, wore garments formed of skins, and adored the same uncouth images as their; countrymen did in the Steppes of Tartary. Altogether, their appearance and mode of living must have presented a singular contrast to the luxury and polished manners of their masters. It was civilisation and barbarism in juxtaposition.

By the by narrates a very remarkable instance of sanguinary revenge perpetrated by a tribe of these wandering bowmen, who, revolting from the body of the nation to which they belonged, had taken refuge in Media, during the reign of Cyaxares son of Phraortes. The shah at first received them with open arms, as suppliants, treated them with great hospitality, and entrusted to their care a number of his children to be taught the Tartar language, and the use of the bow. It was the custom of these Scythians to go forth constancy to the chase, but when they returned empty-handed, Cyaxares, a man of ungovernable passions, behaved towards them rudely and contumeliously. Indignant at this, the Scythians soon came to a resolution not to endure it, and, in revenge, to slay one of the children whom they were instructing, and serve his flesh up to the king as game, and both Cyaxares and his courtiers eat of this horrid mess. They then fled to the court of Alyattes, king of Lydia, who, refusing to give them up to the Median monarch a war ensued, which ultimately terminated in the ruin of the Lydian empire.

Julius Africanus, of whose writings some fragments only have survived to the present time, is one of the few authors of antiquity that treats specifically upon archery. He lived in the reign of the Emperor Severus, to whom, as Eusebius states, he dedicated a portion of his work. In the nine books entitled KESTOI Cestis, he discusses an infinite diversity of subject, following sometimes his own ideas, sometimes supplying extract from other authors. His last book has the following curious calculation.[16] If an arrow were to continue its flight with equalswiftness, and uninterruptedly, for twenty-four hours, it would traverse the distance of twenty thousand stadia, or two thousand five hundred miles. He says the experiment was once made in his presence, in the following manner: Ten men stationed themselves one hundred feet apart, each provided with a strung bow, and an arrow ready nocked. At the instant the first arrow passed over the second archer's head, he also shot; the third all did the same and so on through the whole number. Afterwards on multiplying the space by the time, it was found that the arrows would be one hour in traversing a thousand stadia, and consequently twenty-four stadia in twenty-four hours. The author deducts four thousand stadia for the time occupied in drawing up, loosing the arrow, &c., thus reducing the calculation, in round numbers, to twenty thousand. This mode of deciding the experiment does not appear very exact; but he cites in confirmation of it, the authority of one Smyrnus a Scythian and Bardisanes the Parthian, the most famous archer of his time. They made a similar calculation; so that if nothing else, the names of two distinguished men in their way are rescued from oblivion. Julius Africanus then relates anecdotes, of several persons of his acquaintance, who had excelled in the art of drawing the bow. He begins by exalting the extraordinary dexterity of a certain King Enanearus and his son Manneres, of whose history, however, like that of our friend King Modus, nothing is at present known. One day when the author accompanied them to the chase, suddenly an enormous boar rushed out of his lair, and furiously attacked the hunter band. While all sought safety in flight, Manneres called on them to fear nothing, and having rapidly discharged two arrows, he pierced the eyes of the animal, so accurately, that being blinded, and no longer formidable to any one, it was despatched without resistance. He next alludes to the singular address of the Parthian Bardisanes above mentioned. This unrivalled archer, once placed a young man armed with a buckler at a certain distance, and aimed with so much precision, that he sketched the outline of a human face with the indentations caused by the points of his arrows. Lastly, he eulogises the exploits of another dexterous bowman, the Syrmus aforesaid, of whose expertness he also states he was himself a frequent spectator. This man exposed his body as a butt to the arrows of another archer, without taking even the precaution of putting on his coat of mail.; Depending on his exquisite skill, he aimed with such address, that he never failed to arrest the flight of his antagonist's arrow midway, by striking it with his own.- As he used bolts or broad-headed arrows, whilst those of his opponent were pointed, it invariably happened that by the violence of the concussion, the one penetrated the other, and both fell firmly united to the ground.[17]

Chapters 50, 51, 52. of Africanus's book also relate to archery. Its ancient professors required three qualifications in a well trained bowman, viz. to aim correctly, to shoot with force, and with rapidity. In this division of his work, he treats each acquirement separately. The superiority possessed by the archers of one nation over those of another says he, is best exhibited when two hostile armies, drawn up in opposition, discharge many successive flights of arrows without changing their ground. It is otherwise when one party remains stationary, and the other is in motion, when both sides shoot as they advance; when one attacks, as the other retreats; or when one side pursues while the enemy, Parthian-like, discharge their arrows as they fly.

The power of shooting with extraordinary force, says Julius, depends on the strength of the bow, and the length of the arrow, as well as on the vigorous arm which practice and continual exercise has fortified. Constant assiduity is likewise requisite to enable archers to discharge the arrow with rapidity. A considerable number were exercised together at the same target; each bowman having his arrows differently marked, and when the shooting terminated, the most successful archers received a gratuity in proportion to their adroitness.

It was considered eligible also that the soldiers' training ground should contain a series of butts, at which the men were exercised, running one after the other, at full speed. All these different branches of archery were subjected to certain rules and to particular discipline. The author then treats of the manner of handling the bow; with how many fingers the string should be drawn, and if it be better to draw to the ear or to the breast; giving an opinion that the archer has greater command over his bow by the former than by the latter method. Lastly, he recommends the shooter to practice assiduously at an elevated, and rarely at a point blank, mark.

Foremost among those Romans, whose adroitness has been thought worthy of record, appear the Emperors Gratian, Comodus, and Domitian. The skill acquired by the former in management of a horse, the dexterity with which he could daft a javelin, and draw a bow had inspired him with ah ardent passion for the chase. Large parks: were enclosed for the imperial pleasure, and plentifully stocked with every species of wild beast. A body of Alana were received into the domestic and military service of the emperor; and the admirable skill they had been accustomed to display in the unbounded plains of Scythia, was exercised in the parks and enclosures of Gaul. In admiration of the talents and customs of these favourite guards, the emperor assumed the fur dress, the bow, and the quiver of a Scythian warrior.[18]

Many persons living in the reign of Domitian, have seen that emperor slaughter a hundred wild beasts in a single day, at his seat at Alba, where he drew the bow with such dexterity, that, at two successive discharges, he could fix a pair of arrows like horns, upon the heads of the affrighted objects of his aim.

Though last in the catalogue of archers. royal, not least reputation is Commodus. Herodian asserts that he never failed of his mark, either with the how or the lance, and that the most veteran Parthian archers yielded to him the palm of dexterity The amphitheatre at Rome was the public scene of his exploits, where he slaughtered with his arrows immense numbers of every description of wild animals to gratify his vanity, and in. crease the accuracy of his aim. But when thus engaged, he preferred showing his art rather than his courage, as he secured himself in a position considerably elevated beyond the reach of any attack. Lions, panthers, stags, and every other species of game fell in vast quanties by his hand, nor was a second arrow necessary, for each wound proved mortal. He could pierce an animal at any particular point he chose with the greatest accuracy, in the head, or in the heart Occasionally a panther would be set upon a criminal in the Circus; but no sooner was the animal crouching for its fatal spring, than the imperial bow" man discharged an arrow, which saved the culprit, and laid his enemy lifeless upon the sand. A hundred lions, and the same number of bears, were introduced at once upon the arena, and with a hundred shafts he laid them prostate, With arrows having heads of a semicircular form, he frequently amputated the neck of an ostrich when running at filler speed; and Herodian further observes, that when the emperor severed the neck of one of these animals, the stroke was so instantaneous that the body sometimes proceeded several paces as if still living: the motion not being immediately checked.

But Cambyses. the son of Cyrus, another celebrated tyrant of antiquity, and equally adroit in the use of this weapon, did not always confine the objects of his aim to inferior animals. To" wards the close of his. life, he perpetrated several acts which savoured strongly of madness; and among others, the following, which may be considered as the most tragical of ale In the list of his principal courtiers was one Prexaspes, whose son he had promoted to be his cup-bearer, an office esteemed honourable in Persia, as elsewhere. Addressing himself one day to this nobleman, "Tell me, Prexaspes," said he, "in what estimation am I held among the Persians ? And what generally do they say of me?"

"My Lord," replied the honest courtier, "they are loud in your praises; but yet think you are somewhat too much addicted to wine."

At this the indignation of Cambyses was kindled, and he exclaimed: "So, then, they imagine me a wine-bibber, and devoid of reason? But thou shalt now be thyself judge whether madness belong to them or to me. For if I shoot thy son, who stands in the door-way yonder, right through the heart, it will be evident that they wrong me; but, if I miss, there will appear to be truth in their accusation." And with the words he bent his bow and shot the youth; and when he dropped the king commanded his breast to be opened, and the arrow having been found upon examination to have penetrated the heart, he rejoiced and laughed exceedingly, and turning to the father, "you see," said he, "that it is the Persians who are mad, not I. For tell me, whom hast thou ever known who could have shot so true."

Perceiving that the man was mad, and fearing for his own life, Prexaspes replied, "Even the god[19] could not have taken a surer aim."[20]

I shall close this chapter with an anecdote of a celebrated

Greek archer, named who, whilst King Philip was besieging a certain city, solicited to be received among his troops. It would seem, the Macedonian monarch estimated this soldier's military qualifications at the same ignoble rate as Lycus did those of Alcmena's son.

--He with no merit held
The fame of daring courage;
His left hand never knew to raise the shield,
Never advanced his right the spear, but held
The bow, a coward's weapon; and to flight
Was always prompt: no proof of manhood, none
Of daring courage, is the bow.

Be this as it may, he rejected his application, and the disappointed archer took an early opportunity of rejoining the besieged. One day, whilst stationed on the walls, he espied Philip within bowshot. Hastily inscribing on an arrow, "To Philip's right eye, Aster sends the king a deadly messenger," he drew, and the shot took effect. Then Philip retaliated by ordering an arrow to be discharged among the besieged, labelled thus:

"When Philip takes the city he will hang up Aster." And he was enabled to execute his threat.

Here, gentle archers, reluctantly bidding ye adieu, I abandon my pen, which; although no longer, as of old, a tribute from the grey goose wing, still resembles a good arrow in its well tempered steel point. Many of the older writers with whom I have recently been on familiar terms -- and men say, we become personally acquainted with an author through his works -- conclude their labours with this classical motto, finis coronat opus. In humble imitation of this example, allow me to subjoin a plain English one,--may success crown mine. Yet a few anxious weeks, and all expectations on this point will be set at rest. En attendant, let us cheer our hearts by joining in a congenial, old-fashioned roundelay.

Bright Phoebus, the patron of poets below,
     Assist me of archers to sing;
For thou art accounted the god of the bow,
     As well as the god of the string.

The practice of shooting 't was you that began,
     When you launched forth your beams from the skies;
Young Cupid was first in adopting the plan,
     Next, the goddesses shot with -- their eyes.

On beautiful Iris, Apollo bestow'd
     A bow of unparalleled hue;
The herald of peace - and as on it she rode,
     Like a swiftly winged arrow she flew.

Diana, who slaughter'd the brutes with her darts,
     Ne'er pierced but one lover or so,
For Venus excelled her in shooting at hearts,
     And had always more strings to her bow.

To earth came the craft of the archer at last,
     And 't was followed with eager pursuit;
Still, the sons of Apollo all others surpassed,
     With such monstrous long bows did they shoot.

Ulysses the hero, was known long ago,
     In wisdom and strength to excel;
So he left in his house an inflexible bow,
     And a still more inflexible belle.

The Parthians were archers of old, and their pride
     Lay in shooting and scampering too;
But Britons thought better their sports to divide,
     So they shot,--and their enemies flew!

Then a health to all true British bowmen be crown'd;
     May their glory ne'er set in the dark,
May their bows e'er prove strong, their strings ever sound,
     And their arrows drive straight at the mark.

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