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Home > Books > The Archer's Guide > Chapter 1
Chapter I
Sketch of the Ancient History of the Bow.
Part 2 of 2

In aftertimes, the Grecian archers formed part of the , or light-armed troops, who were not held in such high estimation as the . The Athenians, however, were indebted for some of their most splendid victories to the feats of the archers, and particularly for the success of the bloody engagement with the Lacedæmonians, under Demosthenes, near the city of Pilos. Plato mentions that Athens was guarded by archers, one thousand of whom were appointed as the standing guard of the city. This celebrated philosopher was an advocate for Archery, and recommended that masters should be employed by the State to teach the Athenian youth the use of the bow.

The armies of Alexander the Great were never without large companies of archers, among whom the Cretans predominated, on account of the high reputation they had acquired in the use of the bow. The Cretans were initiated in the art at seven years of age, and in such high estimation were they held for this skill, that all the neighbouring monarchs were particularly desirous of having a band of Cretan archers in their armies. In proof that their reputation was not ill-deserved, Live informs us that the Cretan Archers completely routed the army of Antiochus, and turned his cavalry into flight by "a storm of arrows."

The Bow, the Arrow, and the Corytos, are not unusually to be seen on the ancient coins of Greece, and particularly on the Cretan. The sculpture of the Greeks, and the fables which have descended to us in their writings, conspire to prove the regard that nation had for the bow and its accompaniments.[4]

The bow used by the nations of antiquity, and represented on Grecian and Roman sculptures and coins, was undoubtedly the Asiatic bow of horn, which, when unstrung, collapsed nearly into a circle, and which, when strung, presented, in the reverse direction of the circle, two curves, divided by the centre, or holding portion, of the bow. Such was the horn bow of, as described by Homer in the fourth book of the Iliad. The hero had formed it from the horn of a mountain-goat killed by his own hand. This horn was sixteen palms in length. It had been accurately polished, and tipped with gold. In the East, the horns of the Antelope are still in like manner fashioned into bows.

They consist of two pieces firmly joined at the centre, and seldom exceed four feet in length.

The Grecian bow is observed by Montfaucon (iv. 68,) to be uniformly sculptured in the same manner in the monuments which are left to us; and he describes it as closely resembling the Greek letter sigma. It was to the extremities at which the string was fastened that gold was commonly applied, the string itself was sometimes of horse-hair, sometimes, as in that of Pandarus, of an ox-hide thong. In drawing it, the Greeks differed from modern use, and from that of the ancient Persians also, by returning the hand, not to the ear, but to the right breast. Procopius has described the Persian mode as similar to our own.

Xenophon bears testimony to the prodigious force of the bow. In his account of the retreat of the 10,000 Greeks who sorely felt the effects of the arrows of the Carducians he relates, that one Cleonymus fell, wounded in the side by an arrow, which made its way through shield and buff coat; and that the head of one Basius, an Arcadian, was shot through by an arrow. Plutarch gives us several instances of the same kind, even affirming that such was the force with which the Carducians shot, that no armour could withstand the force of their arrows. Some persons, who are anxious to extol the achievements of the English archers, represent the Grecian bows as puny and ineffective in comparison with the more modern long-bow. Their conjecture accords ill with the accounts of the strength requisite for bending them; and besides, if they had not been very powerful, it is inconceivable that they could have produced the effects ascribed to them. It required no ordinary force to pierce the shields and armour used in those days.

There is no early account of the bow having been used in the Roman armies. It seems to have been first introduced in the second Punic war. In the time of Scipio Africanus, it was applied with great effect against the Numantines in Spain. Tiberius owed his success m the war with Arminius and Inguineus chiefly to the great execution done by the archers, some of whom are described as having fought on foot, and others on horseback. The Roman Sagittarii were part of the Velites; their service was peculiarly dangerous; they were sometimes placed in front, sometimes in the wings, sometimes in the rear; and the chief purpose for which they were employed was to harrass the enemy, by assailing the weakest parts of their lines before the general attack commenced. In his Gallic campaign, Caesar makes frequent mention of his Numidian and Cretan archers: and, although they are not expressly stated to have been employed in his invasion of Britain, it is but reasonable to suppose that they followed him in this, one of his most hazardous expeditions. In the time of the succeeding Emperors, archers formed part of the garrison of this island.

Among those who have excelled in the use and management of the bow, the Emperors Domitian and Commodus are particularly celebrated. We have the authority of Suetonius and Herodian for asserting of the former, that he would often place boys in the Circus at some distance from him, and, as they held out their hands and separated their fingers, he would shoot an arrow through either space without injury to the hand of him who acted target! The feats attributed by the same authors to Commodus are also numerous. It is said that his hand was unerring, both with the javelin and the bow, and that the most experienced Parthian archers yielded to his skill. He would kill all kinds of animals in the amphitheatre by way of exercise, and to prove the steadiness of his arm; stags, lions, panthers, and all other kinds of beasts, fell without number by his hand, the first arrow invariably proving mortal; and such was his adroitness, that he would strike an animal in any particular point he wished, with the greatest accuracy. A panther was sometimes let loose in the Circus, where a criminal was placed; and just as the animal was going to seize the culprit, the Emperor would direct an arrow so opportunely that the marl would escape unhurt. A hundred lions have been introduced at the same time upon the arena, and, with as many shafts, he would lay them lifeless. He caused arrows to be made with heads curved in a semicircular figure, and with these he would cut off the neck of the ostrich running at full speed. In such cases, says Herodian, when the Emperor amputated the head of one of these animals, the stroke severed the part so instantaneously that the body of the bird sometimes proceeded several paces as though still living. Such was the reported skill of these two Roman Emperors; and although it would require a great share of credulity to admit such narratives to be faithful reports, given by eye-witnesses, yet there seems no reason to question the fact, that Domitian and Commodus were expert archers. The Emperors Julian and Gratian are also celebrated as highly skilful in the use of the bow. The latter proposed to himself the actions of Commodus as himself the like him. frequently exhibited to the public the adroitness with which he could kill animals running together in an inclosed place by the infallibility of his aim. Constantius was also much skilled in the practice of archery, and is said to have studied that art in his youth under the direction of a preceptor. A very extraordinary, and perhaps, in wars, a most useful archer, is spoken of by Zosimus, in his account of the battle between Constantius and Magentius, at Mursa. This warrior, whose name was Menelaus, possessed the art of shooting three arrows from his bow at one discharge, and with them could strike three different persons. By this expedient, says the Historian, he killed a vast number of those who opposed him, so that the enemy was almost defeated by a single archer!

During the time of Julius Caesar, the bow was much in use among the Cretans, whose archers then composed part of the Roman troops.[5] That the bow was used by the Romans, both as a weapon ofwarfare and an instrument of pleasure, there can be no doubt; but, with the exception of theexaggerated accounts of the feats of some of their Emperors, to which we have before referred, we have nothing on record of their excellence in archery; and it is certain they were much surpassed both by the Cretans and the Parthians. Indeed, the victories obtained by the Parthians over the Romans, are chiefly to be ascribed to the superiority of the former in the use of their bows With these they pursued Marcus Antoninus over the hills of Media and Armenia, conquered the noble Valerian, and slew the apostate Julian. They were mounted on horseback, and were remarkable for the peculiarity of discharging their arrows as successfully in retreating as in advancing. This, and their indomitable spirits rendered them so formidable, that they for ages withstood the Roman arms, and were never reduced to subjection until they had ceased to trust to the bow.

Such archers as the Parthians, observes Dr. Brewster, must have been irresistible. So long as their quivers were not exhausted, they could not be overpowered. Squadrons of horse could not approach them, for their aim was 80 sure that they could wound or kill every horse within reach of their arrows; and though we should not give implicit credit to the account of their fighting as successfully in retreating as in advancing, or when drawn up in line, there can be no doubt that they were beyond all comparison superior in this exercise to the troops of every other nation.

The Laplanders are said to display great ingenuity in the formation of their bows. They flatten two pieces of hard wood, and join them together by a glue of the most powerful tenacity, extracted, it is said, from the skin of the perch The North American Indians in a similar manner construct their bows of three several pieces, which they strengthen with the sinews of their deer, wrapped hard round the thickest part of the bow.

In war, archers usually occupied the front, and retired between the ranks of the heavy-armed men, as the battle joined. It was not uncommon to place them in lines between those of the infantry, as they could act over the heads of the preceding ranks; for the same reason, they sometimes fought behind the cavalry; but, when the enemy approached, it was necessary for the horsemen to incline forwards, and cover themselves with their shields. At the battle of Cressy, our archers are said to have been placed in triangles behind the ranks; and at Poitiers, they were in the wings, drawn up in the same figure, "rangé en herse."

In ancient battles, when myriads of archers were introduced into the field, the appearance of a discharge of arrows from the whole army must have been inconceivably awful. How frequently do we meet with such expressions as these: exclucere diem telis; grandine ferri, &c. There is a noble reply of Dioneces to a person who informed him, at the battle of Thermopylae that the Persian army was so numerous as to obscure the light of the sun with their arrows; "We shall then fight in the shade," said he, "and not be exposed to the heat." Herod. p. 522. There was, however, an excellent expedient by which the troops were often protected from the effects of arrows: one of the most beautiful as well as useful manoeuvres in the ancient discipline was calculated to ward off these missive weapons; It was called testudo, in use among the Greeks the Romans, the English, and others, and was often executed with wonderful address. According to Potter, it was formed "when the soldiers, drawn up close together, and the hinder most ranks bowing themselves, placed their targets above their heads; as, if we suppose the first rank to stand erect, the rest to stoop lower and lower by degrees, till the last rank kneeled upon the ground; the men in front and on the sides holding their targets before their bodies, the rest covering the heads of those that were placed before them; so that the whole body resembled a peat-house, or roof covered with tile, down which the enemy's missive weapons easily elided without prejudice to the soldiers beneath "

In France, the bow has not always been a warlike weapon. Procopius says, that in the expedition of the Franks, under Theodebert, A. D. 538, the troops were armed with a sword, shield, and hatchet, or rather battleaxe; they had neither bow nor lance. This is likewise observed by Mr. Gibbon. In the end of the 6th century, however, archery appears to have been used; and a law of Charlemagne, made in the 9th century, directs that those armed with clubs should discontinue them, and shoot the bow. During the intermediate reigns to that of Louis XI. archers were employed in the French armies; but about the year 1480, this king dismissed that part of his troops, and in their place procured Swiss infantry. Archers, however, seem to have been again in use among the French during the succeeding reign of Charles VIII. as Philip de Comines makes mention of them at the battle of Fornova, (or Fournue,) at which there were many Scottish archers. During the reign of Francis I. the bow seems to have been greatly out of use in that country. P. Daniel says, that, in the year 1522, there was but one arbalister in the army, in the fight at Bico; but this one archer was so expert, that an officer named Jean de Cardonne, having opened the visor of his helmet to take breath, this man struck him in the unguarded part with an arrow, and killed him. Fire-arms after this time became more general, and in a short period altogether abolished the bow as a weapon of war. [6]

Bows of different nations preserve a very near resemblance to each other, and it is evident, from the principle on which they act, that this must always be the case. The Grecian bow is that we generally see in the hands of the Grecian warriors, and mostly delineated in sculpture and on ancient medals. The figure of it is the most beautiful and picturesque of any; and perhaps it is for this reason we see it so often represented by painters and sculptors, who call it the bow of Apollo. It is composed of three different parts; the two end-pieces, which act as springs, and a third, into which the other two are fixed. This third piece, being between the other, is the part by which the bow Is held when made use of. The springing parts are thick towards the middle, and taper from thence to the points, where the string is fastened. These points were called , and were often of gold or silver. The springs of the bow are curved, not unlike the horns of some of the East Indian goats; and as we read that the horns of animals were sometimes used for these parts of the bow, perhaps the natural figure gave a model for the bows which are not made of horn. Another species of this weapon is made of one regular curve, having no separation in the middle. We do not see this kind often represented in the tablets of antiquity, although of the most natural figure, and of the most simple construction. The bows which are at present in use, and which formerly were used in England, are of this sort. Bows on both these principles are used in savage nations, but the latter is the more common. The museums, and many private collections, contain bows of each sort, which were brought to this country by the navigators who have visited the Pacific Ocean, and the remoter parts of Asia and America. The instruments of this kind made by the inhabitants of Asia very much resemble those of America, and are often of the same materials.

The Grecian bow is said to have been first made in the form of the Sigma, in their Alphabet. The bow used by the Scythians will pass under the same character. And, as the practice of archery was introduced from Scythia into Greece, the bows of each perhaps were not very different. The Scythian bow is called crooked, because it was so in a greater degree than the bows of other countries. This incurvation is said to be so remarkable as to represent a crescent or half-moon. Hence the shepherd in Athenæus, says Potter, being to describe the letters in the name of Theseus, and expressing each of them by some apposite resemblance, compares the third to the Scythian bow, meaning not the more modern sigma, but the ancient C, and bears the third place in CC.

The most esteemed bows of Persia, it is said, are made by fastening two pieces, one of horn, the other of wood, on each other, by means of catgut, which is bound tight around the two, from end to end; by which means they are kept firm together, and cannot slip when the bow is drawn. After this, the bow is covered with the bark of a tree, which is exceedingly tough and flexible, and upon this smooth surface they paint various figures of branches, leaves, buds, and other decorations, generally intermixing gold and silver pigments among them. They then cover the whole with a transparent varnish, which protects it from wet and damp In Persia and Tartary, and in other parts of the Eastern world, the horns of the antelope are manufactured into bows, many of which are very excellent weapons. They are generally much shorter than those used in this country, seldom exceeding four feet in length. The two pieces of which these instruments are made are joined firmly in the centre, and are usually ornamented with painting and gilding.

The Otaheite bows are very long, and consist of one piece only; in the back part of which there is a groove containing a pretty thick cord. The cord reaches the whole length, and is fastened very strongly at each end. This contrivance is found very serviceable in assisting the strength of the bow, and acts in some measure as a spring. The Esquimaux make use of a bow acting on the same principle as that of Otaheite. The wood part is about four feet, or four and a half, in length, about three quarters of an inch in thickness, and two or three inches in breadth, having the same dimensions throughout. At the distance of eight or nine inches from each end, there is an abrupt curve; and on the back of this instrument there are a number of strings, made of the sinews of deer, drawn tight, and fastened at the indented parts. These strings act in the same manner as the cord on the Otaheite bow, and increase the force of the projecting power very much. It is the custom of the savages to soak their bows in water before using as it contracts the sinews and makes the instrument stronger. The curves are made by means of thick pieces of horn, which are fastened to the wood on the outer side of the bow; the wood being first cracked and pressed into an angle. And as the horn is in a figure fitting into this angle, and is bound tight, it confines the wooden part in the curves from moving when the bow is made use of. This Esquimaux weapon is a very extraordinary species of the bow, and unlike all others.

The bows used by the Daci, a people formerly inhabiting Transylvania, and with whom the Romans had frequent contests, were made in a very beautiful curve, and ornamented at one end with the head of a swan, and at the other with that of a dragon, because these figures were the common ensigns used by that people in battle. There is a view of one of these Dacian weapons, in the hand of a warrior, pictured among a contending group in Montfaucon. The lower part of the bow is hidden by the interposition of another figure, but the clearly visible upon it. The Saxons seem to have been in the practice of ornamenting one end of their bows in a similar manner.

The form of the Roman bow is given by Spon and Montfaucon in an excellent statue of a master of archery. The figure is represented without clothing to the waist, and resting the light hand on the upper end of the bow; the lower end of which is on the ground. The bow, however, is a figure seldom to be seen among the arms and trophies struck on Roman medals. The reason is, perhaps, that it was esteemed unworthy a place among the proper military weapons, because not used by the regular troops. The sagittarii and funditores were auxiliary men, and were not held in high estimation by the legions. The Roman veteran, inflamed with the zeal of signalizing himself by acts of personal bravery, disdained the distant encounter; but, like the British sailor, reserved himself for closer combat, where he struck with unerring aim, and where his attack was irresistible. This being the school wherein the Roman delighted to study, he viewed the science of archery with contempt.

Archers, considered as soldiery, have been long disused in war among European nations; though the Turks still retain a corps who are armed with this weapon.

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