Collections: The Mediterranean Iron Omni-Spear

This week, on a bit of a lark, we’re going to discuss the most common weapon, by far, in the Iron Age Mediterranean (focusing on the period from the 8th to the 1st centuries BC): the humble, effective and ubiquitous thrusting spear. In particular, I want to discuss the striking fact that despite the wide variation in other militaria in this period – quite different swords, shields, armor, helmets and so on – functionally every Mediterranean culture seems to have stumbled on effectively the same design of spear in this period.

And then we’ll talk a bit about why everyone might have settled on this particular design of spear. We’ll also briefly talk about some of the odd exceptions to this design and what they might be trying to accomplish. I should note that while I have at this point looked at a lot of spear heads (mostly as published, rather than in person; at this point, several hundred), some of my observations here are only hypothetical – I haven’t seen careful testing of the performance of different spearhead shapes, for instance.

(Edit: Fixed a measurement problem that came out of my notes. The diameter of the sockets for these spears are consistently 2-3cm. Not 2 inches. Notes also updated, not sure where that error crept in, the actual spearheads themselves are very consistent.)

And just to add a bit of a content warning here before we dive in, we’re going to be discussing the mechanics of how weapons function, which means I’m going to be giving some (fairly dry) and clinical descriptions of what a spear might do to a person. So fair warning, since some folks might find those descriptions a bit rough. As always, if you like what you are reading, please share it as I rely on word-of-mouth to find readers! And if you really like this and want to allow me to spend even more time studying spears (and perhaps buy some), you can support this project over at Patreon; supporters at the patres et matres conscripti level even get to vote on future topics (like our recent look at Greek and Phoenician colonization). If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live. I am also on Bluesky ( and (less frequently) Mastodon (

Some bibliography before we jump in. I am going to refer to typologies for some of these spears. For spears from pre-Roman Iberia (Spain and Portugal), I am using the typology from F. Quesada Sanz, El Armamento Ibérico. Estudio tipológico, geográfico, functional, social y simbólico de las armas en la Cultura ibérica (siglos VI-I a.C.) (1997), as it is the most comprehensive.1 For spears from La Tène material culture contexts (read: Gallic spears) I am using T. Lejar’s elaborated typology in La Tène: La Collection Schwab (Bienne, Suisse).  La Tène, Un Site, Un Mythe 3.  2 vols.  Lusanne: Cahiers d’archéologie romande, 2013, which builds on the typology in Brunaux, J.-L, and A. Rapin.  Gournay II: Boucliers et Lances Dépôts et Trophées, 1988. For Roman spears of the imperial period, there is a typology in W.H. Manning, Catalogue of the Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings and Weapons in the British Museum, 1985 which is useful, but which I had to modify for the period of the republic in my dissertation, B. Devereaux, “The Material and Social Costs of Roman Warfare in the Third and Second Centuries B.C.E.” 2018. As always, your first stop for anything related to Roman weaponry should be Bishop and Coulston, Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, 2nd. ed., 2006 (third edition, I am told, forthcoming!). The spearhead of the Greek dory, the weapon of the hoplite, is bizarrely understudied and to my knowledge has no comprehensive typology so what you get are short discussions scattered here, there and everywhere, which I am going to put in a footnote.2

The Omni-Spear

So I first want to suggest a set of basic characteristics for what I am going to term the ‘omni-spear,’ the standard kind of iron-tipped one-handed thrusting spear that almost everyone fought with in the Mediterranean world.

So let us posit a spear. Its haft is made of wood – our ancient sources tend to be particular that certain kinds of wood, particularly ash and cornelian cherry (cornel wood), are best – and about 2.5 to 3m in length and roughly 2.5cm in diameter. Obviously, on one end we’ll have our iron spear head. On the other end, we probably have a smaller iron spear butt, sometimes called a ferrule.

For our spear tip, we’re going to have a hunk of iron about 250-450g in mass. It’s going to have a circular socket, about 2 to 2.5cm in diameter (to fit the haft) at its base. That socket will then proceed upwards into the tip as a ‘mid-ridge,’ though it generally stops being entirely hollow at some point. In two directions from the mid-ridge are going to project some ‘blades’ – if we’re French, we’ll call them flamme, ‘flames,’ while if we’re Spanish they’ll be hoja, ‘blades,’ and if we’re German they’re Blätter, ‘sheets, leaves.’ These taper at the tip and widen towards the base, usually before curving gracefully inward on the socket a few inches up from its base. Often scholars have called this a ‘leaf shaped’ spearhead, which I always find a bit awkward in phrasing (leaves can have many shapes), but the alternatives, like ‘tear-drop’ shaped, aren’t any less awkward. If you are having a hard time conceptualizing that picture, here is an example of what I mean:

From the British Museum (inv. ML.1689), an iron spearhead from the site of La Tène, a Lejars type Vc (that’s five-c), a type most common in the mid-to-late second century BC.3 One note on this shape, which is that the ‘biconvex’ type is not the most common type, though it also isn’t very rare. I have a ‘classic’ Type I below so you can see the more typical taper; the difference is not immense.

For the bottom of the spear we could just go with nothing. We could also make a simple conical socket in iron and secure it with a rivet or, if we’re being really creative, a nail hammered into the base of the shaft. If we want to be really fancy, we might make a spear-butt that combines a circular socket with a long square-sectioned projection so that it serves better as a backup point in a pinch. If you want to see the more developed version of that, here is a Greek ‘sauroter,’ about the most elaborate this part of the spear gets:

From the British Museum (inv. 1915,0714.1) a Greek spear-butt in bronze, 28.7cm long, dated to c. 500 BC. About the only thing that sets off the Greek spear as at all unusual is how elaborated their spear-butts can be (but not all are so complex). Otherwise, the famous dory is just the omni-spear. The oddity with this sauroter is that it is made in bronze; most were made in iron. However, bronze examples tend to be the ones that end up on display in museums because bronze preserves much better than iron.

And there we go. We have the ‘omni-spear.’ Basic spear-butt, ‘leaf-shaped’ spearhead with a strong mid-ridge, both generally in iron, joined by a 2.5-3m long wooden haft, about 2.5cm thick (though the haft might be thicker, as it could taper before meeting the socket) made of hardwood, with a grip at the center of balance.

That basic description describes the famous Greek dory, the spear of the hoplite. It also describes one of the more common forms of the Roman hasta, one with what I’ve termed a ‘Type A’ Roman spearhead (we’ll talk about some of the Roman variants in a moment). And it also describes the La Tène spear, the native of name of which we don’t know.4 And it also describes common thrusting spears of the Iberian Peninsula, both those used by the Iberians living in the coastal Levante and the Celtiberian peoples living on the Meseta; the names of those spears too are lost to us.5 And it also describes the common weapon of the Persian infantry, including their elite infantry which Herodotus calls ‘Immortals.’ Almost certainly it describes spears even further afield, but we are rapidly reaching the edge of my expertise, so I’ll stop with the Persian Empire.

Via Wikipedia, Persian artwork of Median and Persian warriors from the Achaemenid period, carrying their omni-spears. The relief is from Persepolis. Persian spears seem to have frequently featured ball-shaped spear-butts though, an oddity as most omni-spear spear-butts are pointed so they can be used as backup weapons if the spear breaks.

Origin and Purpose of the Design

Why are so many early iron spearheads shaped this way? Well, the easy answer to the question is that it is because even earlier bronze spearheads were shaped this way. In every culture I’ve studied with the omni-spear, you can find bronze spearheads with the same basic shape – the strong mid-ridge, leaf-shaped blades and circular socket – proceeding them. There are differences; the bronze spearheads of this type tend to be shorter and as a result somewhat ‘stubbier’ (that is, they’re just as wide, but not as long) compared to the later iron spearheads with borrow their shape. That seems like it is probably a concession to metallurgy and possibly production. On the production side, bronze artifacts were generally cast to shape and depending on the temperature of the cast and type of casting method, that can place upper-limits on the size of the final artifact. Certainly ancient bronze-smiths were capable of managing very large casts with high quality metals – the heaviest recovered naval ram (the Athlit ram, as far as I know) is absolutely massive at 465kg, cast in a single piece.

From the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, a bronze spearhead (inv. 10212) from Italy, c. 1300-900 BC, identified as Villanovan or proto-Villanovan.

That said, I suspect the real issue that limits the size of bronze spearheads is the metal itself. Weapons generally tend to push their materials to the outer edges of what they are capable of, because of the demand to keep weight low: the smith is looking to hit the absolute minimum amount of metal which will handle the strains of impact. And the strains of impact here are considerable! Bronze under stress tends to undergo plastic deformation, which is to say that it bends and doesn’t bend back, it isn’t ‘springy.’ As a result bronze weapons – swords, spearheads, arrow-heads, etc. – tend to be quite a bit shorter than later iron weapons, so that they can withstand the rigors of combat without permanently deforming in a way that would render them useless. But iron when put under mild stress deforms elastically, which is to say it is ‘springy’ and when the force of stress is removed it bends back to its original shape (adding carbon to make a high-carbon ‘spring steel’ can improve this quality), so even while iron isn’t any harder than bronze (though steel most certainly is), an iron weapon can take a bigger hit and not end up hopelessly bent. And that is even more true once you begin adding really any amount of carbon to make even very mild steels.

From the British Museum a pair of bronze spearheads (inv. 1865,0720.55) found at Olympia and dated by the museum to the fifth century; by that point the Greeks had largely shifted to iron for spearheads, so I wonder if these may have been ceremonial objects.

Consequently, you can push an iron sword to be longer for the same weight because you can count on it withstanding a hit, bending a bit to absorb the force and bending back when the force is removed, better than bronze. I suspect the same thing is happening as bronze spearhead designs shift to iron: smiths are realizing they can get a somewhat longer point, with a longer more deadly taper, without an unacceptable increase in weight.

But then why keep the shape? Because a lot of bronze age sword shapes drop or are extensively modified fairly quickly in the shift to iron in places where the omni-spearhead remains the standard shape, albeit somewhat larger than its bronze variant.

Well, the answer, to me, seems to be that its a pretty useful shape, at least in a particular combat environment.

The round socket, of course, is to fit the round haft of the spear. These sockets are, as noted, generally round, which suggests that these spears are almost entirely being used to thrust. You probably could cut with the edges of these blades, but if that was how you expected to use the spear, you’d want a different haft shape so that you could feel the alignment of the edges of the blades. Interestingly, octagonal or rhombic sockets are a minority type that appears in a lot of places (both Gaul and Spain, for instance), but they remain really rare, as opposed to, say, medieval polearms, where non-circular hafts become common over time so that the wielder can feel that edge-alignment.

Extending the socket to make the mid-ridge also makes a lot of sense, as it provides a nice, thick, stout element of the spear to resist the forces of impact, which is going to be a mix of compression and bending. In an ideal, perfect impact, it’d be all compression, but in the real world, your target isn’t standing still and your hit probably isn’t dead-on, so you want some part of the spearhead that can resist that impact and hold its shape, transmitting the force instead into the shaft. The mid-ridge, being nice and thick (and generally not hollow past the socket) accomplishes this neatly.

From the British Museum (inv. 1919,1119.43), a more typical archaic period Greek/Macedonian spearhead, in this case an 8th or 7th century iron spearhead, 29cm in length. You can really see, comparing above, how the shift to iron has changed the shape.

Meanwhile, those wide, thin blades ensure a wide wound that is going to slice through a lot of the target. You want that too, because the fellow striking with the weapon wants a wound which will disable their opponent as quickly as possible. After all, all of the time between the delivery of a wound and it becoming disabling is, definitionally, a period where you are in range of their counter-attack and they are not disabled and so able to give it. If you ever wondered why a lot of really narrow, quick effective piercing weapons like rapiers were less common on the battlefield, this is a big part of it: those penetrating wounds are really lethal but often not very quickly and in a battlefield (where you may not be able to quickly back off after having delivered a fatal wound) you want a wound that, fatal or not, is going to disable fast.

Wide slicing wounds do that for you, because they cut across blood vessels, muscles and tendons. The former leads to rapid blood-loss, which can be disabling (and of course, fatal, but again, you care about disabling; fatal or not is a problem to consider once you are out of danger), while the later can instantly render limbs useless. It doesn’t matter how much adrenaline or willpower an enemy has, if a blow has sliced the muscles they would use to move their limbs, they cannot physically move those limbs.

The shape of the blades also seems intentional. While we do see neatly ‘oval’ shaped blades, the most common shapes are ‘teardrop’ or ‘leaf’ shapes, which are widest close to the base. That probably helps in preventing over-penetration, because you need to be able to pull the spear back after delivering a strike; you do not want it stuck in the target. Likewise, I think that’s why truly ‘arrow’ shaped spearheads tend to be both early and relatively rare. Instead the base curves back into the socket rather than having barbs, to make it easier to get that spear back out of an opponent after you strike them.

From the British Museum, a La Tène spearhead (inv. ML.1501), in this case a classic Type Ia, the most common form. At 32.6cm long and 5.6cm wide at the widest point, it is very typical in size. At present it masses 206g, but obviously is badly damaged and rusted; the original weight was probably c. 300g or so, also very typical. Socket diameter is, as you’d expect, almost precisely 2cm at the base. This particular spearhead was found in France, though the precise spot is not clear.

At the same time, spears are by no means immune to weight considerations. Ideally a combatant wants the longest spear they can manage easily in a single hand. That in turn is going to place a hard limit on the weight of the spearhead; every gram in the spearhead shifts the center of balance forward, making the weapon harder to handle. Shifting that center of balance back means adding a gram to the spear butt. Spearheads are pretty much always heavier than spear butts (often several times over), but the basic interaction is there where adding mass to the tip of the spear imposes weight costs which limit length. The trade-off is actually quite clear in medieval spears, where winged and ‘hewing’ spears with larger spear-tips do, in fact, tend to be shorter and may have often been intended for use in two hands.

And because the humans in these systems don’t differ all that much, everyone more or less hits the same set of tradeoffs at basically the same point and so ends up developing spears with very similar weight and length characteristics. This should, I hope, help to dispel any myths that this or that group of ancient agrarian people were super-strong supermen; Greek, Roman, Spanish, Gallic, and Persian spears are all of the same basic length and weight and modern enthusiasts, reenactors and experimental archaeologists can wield those spears just fine. The basic limits of an average warrior haven’t changed all that much.

What you are left with is a spear with a 2-2.5m haft (probably just under 1kg), with spear-tips ranging from 150-450g, mostly clustered in the center of that range around 200g, and spear-butts typically very light, less than 100g and very simple in design (with an exception here for the elaborate Greek saurotar). A simple, no-frills design that would have been very effective on foot or on horseback.6

But as a basic design, the typical omni-spear provides a very effective balance of capabilities: the longest infantry spear that is easy enough to handle with a tip that is suitably deadly against lightly armored or unarmored targets and typically a spear-butt which both encloses the base of the spear (preventing it from delaminating) and provides a point which can be used to both brace the weapon and as an emergency back-up weapon, without adding unacceptable amounts of weight. Note, of course, that I’ve said unarmored or lightly armored: the wide blade on that spearhead is going to cause a strike to have to move aside quite a bit of armor if your opponent is wearing some, greatly limiting the depth of a strike if you have to move the weapon through, say, thick textile armor or mail. But assuming you only expect to strike unarmored targets, or the unarmored portions of armored targets, the shape is very effective.

And that leads us to the odd variants and changes to the omni-spear that we see in the ancient Mediterranean.

Moving Away From the Omni-Spear

The first odd point to discuss is length. Most points for omni-spears tend to sit in a fairly narrow size range, from around 20cm to about 35cm long. That should immediately make sense, because everyone is dealing with the same physics and the same human capabilities and thus the same weight concerns. Now these weapons are individually produced, often probably for individual users and so there is a lot of variation in this basic description. Always there are a few uncommonly small spearheads (though often these seem to be javelin points, which often resemble oval-shaped omni-spearheads just much smaller and lighter) and a few really big ones.

But on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) we see the striking oddity of a clearly chronologically defined type of larger spearhead. These are the early Type 1s (Quesada Sanz Type 1 which is the A-sub-variant of variants I and II; typologies get complicated) which have mean lengths over 40cm, with the longest examples being around 60 or even 70cm long. They’re not much narrower than later, more typical omni-spear spearheads either, so they are likely to be uncommonly heavy (though I haven’t yet had a chance to get one weighed). Interestingly, these types occur early, showing up in the fifth century, but being broadly replaced by more typically smaller omni-spearheads by the fourth century; one wonders if Spanish smiths ‘went ham’ with their new material for a bit before settling down to something more practical. But I think there must be a reason for these long types being dominant so early, which probably has to do with patterns of warfare and style of intended use; alas we have basically no evidence beyond the weapons themselves for warfare that early on the Iberian peninsula, so we’re left guessing. In the artistic reproductions, Quesada Sanz imagines these as being mounted on similarly long hafts, making a kind of pike, but I honestly wonder if they weren’t used with shorter hafts or perhaps two-handed (or both).

From the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, a Quesada type 1 spearhead (inv. 10362), remarkably long at 46cm, but typical for the type. At 2.8cm wide, it is not particularly narrow. Originally from the Necrópolis de Los Collados at Almedinilla, near Córdoba.

Meanwhile we have some interesting shape variants: the Roman ‘stiletto’ point and the La Tène ‘bayonet’ type (type IV). We can discuss the La Tène type first. Relatively rare, the modification is fairly simple: the mid-ridge now extends well beyond the blade, creating an elongated point several centimeters longs before the blades widen out. The type first appears in the late fourth century and is always quite rare, but there in the background.

Meanwhile, the Romans develop a rather unique spearhead type which replaces the mid-ridge and blade entirely with a square-sectioned spike, usually around 1cm x 1cm in section and often quite long. This is, to be clear, no longer an omni-spearhead at all; the point of this spear isn’t an extended mid-ridge (which would generally be rounded, either convex or concave when viewed straight on) but square-sectioned. One cannot help but think there is some connection to the Roman javelin, the pilum, which sometimes also has a square-sectioned point (but also often has arrow-shaped points), though square-sectioned ‘bodkin’ javelin points aren’t entirely unique to the Romans – some soliferrea from Spain have them too.

In either case, I think the reason for those designs is actually the same: they’re responses to mail armor. The long, narrow penetrating point isn’t particularly good for creating a rapidly debilitating wound, but it is quite good for creating a deep wound after splitting one of the rings of a mail shirt. And the chronology works out neatly: the ‘bayonet’ Type IV La Tène spearheads show up in the late 300s, right when we’re getting our earliest finds of mail, while the Roman ‘stiletto’ spearhead, to my knowledge, only starts showing up in the evidence in the second century or later (and continues into the empire). That the Roman ‘stiletto’ spearhead remains more common (though never a majority type) than the La Tène Type IV also makes sense, given that mail remains relatively rare in the La Tène context (where it was invented) but becomes far more common in the Roman context, where it is deployed widely by the common infantry in the second century. Indeed, I’d argue Roman weaponry, especially in the two first centuries, shows a lot of evidence of responding to mail, as the greatest threat to a Roman legionary (wearing mail) is increasingly another Roman legionary, also wearing mail.

Another unusual exception in Roman spearheads that have to be noted are Roman-style spearheads found in Numidia, particularly the set from the Tomb of Micipsa (d. 118).7 The grave there had four flat (see below) spearheads and two ‘stiletto’ types, but their dimensions were quite unusual. The sockets on these spearheads ranged from 1.2 to 1.6cm, rather than the typical 2-2.5cm for spearheads, and they were all very light, 66-77g. Roman spearheads are not normally that light. My suspicion here is Roman style weapons reconfigured to suit the Numidian form of warfare, which was light skirmishing javelin cavalry; Micipsa’s tomb also has a gladius and a Roman-style lorica hamata. The two ‘stiletto’ types are really distinctively Roman so it may be that there was a desire to have Roman shaped weapons (status reasons? they look cool? the Romans do lots of winning?) but the demands of Numidian warfare demanded lighter construction with a much thinner haft.

Another oddity worth explaining is the Greek sauroter; whereas most omni-spear spear-butts are quite simple, the Greek dory spear tends to have a significantly larger and more elaborate square-sectioned spear-butt (I’ve already pictured one above). Such a point could obviously be used in a number of ways and it is hard to know which use motivated its design. One such use is that the sauroter‘s spike could deliver a very powerful downward thrust to a downed enemy, potentially powerful enough to punch through a bronze breastplate (Greek breastplates in the Archaic and Classical are generally 1mm thick or less) or the textile production of a tube-and-yoke cuirass (=’linothorax‘) to deliver a finishing blow to a disabled opponent. The robust, square-sectioned shape would be ideal for this purpose for the same reason it was ideal for the Roman spearhead mentioned above: it concentrates a lot of force in a narrow space with a very stout bit of bronze or iron to enable it to punch through.

Alternately, of course, if a spear broke, a more robust spear-butt might enable the bottom half of the spear to be used more effectively as a weapon, and we certainly have references in the sources to spears being used this way in a pinch. Finally, the larger and heavier spear-butt would have pulled back the center of balance of the weapon; Greek spearheads aren’t unusually large or heavy, in my experience, but this may have made the spears – if perhaps a touch shorter – easier to handle in tight quarters.

The temptation, of course, in all of these cases is to see the development of this distinctive design element as connected to the hoplite and his phalanx and it isn’t hard to see the possible connections. The relatively ‘high armor’ environment might well have created a demand for a weapon which could quickly ‘finish off’ a downed or disabled but armored opponent. At the same time, the dense formation of the phalanx and thus the inability of any hoplite to withdraw if his spear broke might create a demand for a more effective secondary point, though of course hoplites also carried swords as backup weapons. And its possible that tighter quarters may have incentivized a differently balanced spear able to be used more easily overhand, as Greek art almost invariably represents the dory being used by hoplites.

On balance, myself, I favor the first explanation, that this is a response to a ‘high armor’ environment where hoplites tended to have body armor, either a bronze breastplate or a tube-and-yoke cuirass (= ‘linothorax‘). The thing is, the tactical system of the phalanx is not – to me at least – nearly as remarkable as it is often treated. Certainly, the La Tène equipment package seems to be intended for use by close-ordered infantry too and we see shield wall formations all over the ancient Mediterranean; ancient sources even occasionally describe Gallic shield walls as phalanxes! But what does seem unusual about hoplites is the assumption of their relatively heavy armor, very clearly not present in Spain or Gaul where most combatants lacked any kind of rigid or metal body armor.8 Heck, even basic metal helmets are relatively rare in the La Tène material culture zone and essentially absent in Spain before quite late (second century and after). Consequently, I think the sauroter is probably more a response to hoplite armor than it is to hoplite tactics.

A very basic diagram of the terminology used to describe cross-section shapes. Please pardon how rough the lenticular example is, it was a bit of a challenge to get the shape.

But the most durable variation is the ‘flat’ spear-head. Here, the basic ‘leaf’ shape is retained, but the mid-ridge is dropped, in exchange for a thicker blade, with either a lenticular (‘lens like’ – an oval shape tapering to two sharp edges) or rhombic cross-section. For ancient spears, flat spearheads can be tricky to identify because these spearheads can end up so badly rusted you might be unsure – especially if all you have is an image – if the rust is just concealing a relatively weak mid-ridge or if there isn’t one. That said, flat spearheads seem to me to be most common in Roman context and start showing up in the Republic, presumably used by both the triarii and the cavalry. They also show up in Spain (they’re Quesada Sanz Type 17) but are very rare (Quesada Sanz notes just five examples in his corpus of 663 spear and javelin-tips (not including soliferrea or pila)). Critically, they come late, mostly post-200 BC, so they may just be Roman flat-headed spears or local imitations thereof.

In Roman contexts in both the late republic and the early empire, flat spearheads co-exist with mid-ridge types, though in the imperial examples I know, the mid-ridges are generally pretty weak. That is significant because by the time we reach the Middle Ages, the flat spearhead has become the common type in Europe (possibly elsewhere; my knowledge of post-Roman spears anywhere outside of western Europe is almost nil), so it seems plausible that the flat spearhead is at least spread and popularized by the Romans, though I don’t know that anyone has gone and demonstrated this; typologies for imperial spearheads focus on length, blade-shape or the ratio between blade-length and width.9

I can offer two hypotheses as to why the flat spearhead eventually replaces the omni-spear, both related to the qualities of iron. The first is that as smiths improved in iron-working and began producing spearheads of carburized iron or mild steel, they recognized that with the much greater hardness and elasticity of the metal as compared to bronze, the mid-ridge had become structurally unnecessary; with greater confidence in their materials, they could drop it. Moving material out to the blade from the mid-ridge would provide a more durable spear-shape (damage to the thin blades of these spears is very common), which might also have been more useful doing things like draw cuts, providing more options in combat.

The second hypothesis, which could well work with the first, has to do with ease of manufacture. For bronze spearheads, which were cast, the mid-ridge shape is easy enough to produce. For for iron spearheads, which must be forged, it is a harder shape to produce than the flat spearhead. The latter, after all, can simply be drawn out from a billet directly, perhaps with an additional step of welding a higher-carbon blade on to the outer edge. I am not a blacksmith, but by understanding of the manufacture suggests that as a result, the flat-bladed shape would be easier to produce in the forging process.

In either case, omni-spear spear heads stick around through the Roman period even into the late period. I actually can’t give a good date as to when these weapons finally vanish, though flat spearheads seem more common by the Middle Ages. Everywhere I look, the omni-spear shape will invariably show up with at least one artifact or piece of artwork attesting to its continued use. And why not – it was a very handy shape, even if apparently by the Roman imperial period the flat spearhead had begun to replace it.

But for centuries, this was the Mediterranean spear, an astoundingly successful weapon design used – or perhaps independently developed – by a host of different cultures.

  1. Also useful, but less comprehensive is P.F. Stary, Zur eisenzeitlichen Bewaffnung und Kampfesweise auf der Iberischen Halbinsel, 1994.
  2. See discussions in Everson, Warfare in Ancient Greece (2004), 62-3, 122-126; Jarva, Archaiologia on Archaic Greek Body Armour (1995), 137-8; Anderson, “Hoplite Weapons and Offensive Arms” in Hoplites: the Classical Greek Battle Experience, e.d. VDH (1991). Note also discussion in Schwartz, Reinstating the Hoplite (2013), 81-5. Now quite old but still often useful is Snodgrass, Arms and Armour of the Greeks (1967). I remain convinced I must have missed a comprehensive typology somewhere, but I have never found it in anyone’s notes. The absence is baffling to me, so I admit I really do suspect it may exist and I just don’t know it. On the later Macedonian sarisa, which uses a modified (very small) version of the omni-spearhead point, see Connolly, “Experiments with the sarissaJRMES 11 (2000).
  3. Typology for La Tène spearheads here and following follows T. Lejars, La Tène: La Collection Schwab (Bienne, Suisse).  La Tène, Un Site, Un Mythe 3.  2 vols.  Lusanne: Cahiers d’archéologie romande, 2013. A fantastic volume, alas there appears to be exactly one library copy in the United States of America. Dating for types follows J.-L. Brunaux and A. Rapin, Gournay II: Boucliers et Lances, Dépôts et Trophées.  Paris: Editions Errance, 1988.
  4. And before you jump up to tell me “oh, it was called a gaesum,” no, that’s a javelin and we do not know what sort of javelin correlates to that name preserved in our sources.
  5. And before someone jumps up and tells me, “oh, it was called a soliferreum, no, that’s also a javelin and we do know exactly what sort of javelin that correlates to. They’re super cool, but they are throwing weapons, not thrusting spears. Interestingly, all over the Iberian peninsula it seems to have been standard for warriors to carry one javelin (often, but not always a soliferreum) and one thrusting spear. We find that pattern over and over again in burial deposits.
  6. Though the Greek cavalry spear of the late-Classical and Hellenistic, the xyston – pronounced ksuston, not zystin – is differently structured than this.
  7. Published by G. Ulbert, “Das Schwert und die eisernen Wurfgeshoßspitzen aus dem Grab von Es Soumâa.”  In Die Numider: Reiter und Könige nördlich der Sahara, edited by. H. G. Horn and C. B. Rüger. 1979
  8. Whereas Italy is an even more armor-heavy environment than Greece, interestingly.
  9. See Bishop and Coulston (2006), 76-7, fn. 7

102 thoughts on “Collections: The Mediterranean Iron Omni-Spear

  1. Regarding
    >The second hypothesis, which could well work with the first, has to do with ease of manufacture.
    We’re talking about a shift over a thousand years, right? I feel like it would have taken blacksmiths to get tired of putting a mid-ridge on every iron spearhead.

    1. Ease of manufacture and reduction of costs. It’s a lot easier to hammer something flat than to include ridges in it. The ridges were part of the by-now ancient tradition, but since iron’s stiffer and more flexible than bronze, you didn’t need it to keep the blade stiff.

      It most likely grew out of blacksmiths repairing spearheads and hammering them flat by accident, and finding they didn’t lack stiffness. And since the blacksmith didn’t need to spend extra hours hammering the blade flat around a ridge which was then trimmed, he could make more spearheads for the same price, etc.

    2. A thousand years is probably too long, but people who use weapons tend to be conservative in some sense. They want something that works.
      So the smith who wants to get orders likely changes things pretty slowly.

      I think Potkoorok is on to something – iron spearheads that were repaired (likely by some apprentice in the train) by hammering it flat; the spear *didn’t* fold up, and they noticed.

  2. Concerning the spear-butt image from the British Museum, that is writing on it, as opposed to just random scribbles, right? Can you provide what that says? And it does seem that there is an awful lot of ancient preserved weapons with some kind of writing on it, at least relative to what I would have expected given the low rates of literacy in the ancient Mediterranean. Is this just a bit of sampling bias, either in those sorts of weapons more likely to be preserved or me just noting them more often than their actual prevalence? Or was literacy, at least the bare and basic sort of literacy to scratch a short prayer or joke onto a weapon, more common than I had thought?

    1. I think it’s probable that a number of these bits of writing are maker’s marks, rather than the user’s scratching on. Even if you don’t know how to read, you might want to learn how to write your name.

    2. Definitely writing—I’m pretty sure the first word is “theodoros” (that first letter is what theta used to look like), the second might be anetheke, which Google tells me means “dedicated”, though I struggled a bit with what the first letter is supposed to be.

      1. So it has a bit more text than you can see, but the full inscription reads:
        “Theodoros dedicated to the king.” The king in this context is assuredly Zeus, given the location of deposition.

        1. Oh, I should add for those unfamiliar with Greek, you can tell it is Theodoros doing the dedicating because he’s in the nominative (the ΟΣ ending) while you can tell it is the king receiving the dedication because he’s in the dative (the ΕΙ ending).

    3. I would guess that basic literacy was very common among Greek hoplites or Roman legionnaires before the late Republic. We’re talking people rich enough to afford their own heavy armor, in societies using an alphabet; not hard to have your sons tutored in at least simple phonetic decoding.

  3. > roughly 5cm (about 2 inches) in diameter

    Didn’t you meant perimeter?
    5cm diameter give a 15-16 cm perimeter. Not many hands could enclose that easily (and a 5cm perimeter give a roughly 0.9 cm diameter)

    1. A 5cm circumference gives roughly 1.5cm (5/8 inch) diameter. That’s an extremely thin rod – not rigid enough to support a shower curtain, much less form a useful spear. Not to mention it would be very difficult to keep a firm grip on something so small.

      Most people can comfortably and securely grip a pole with a 4-5cm diameter. In fact if you look at modern tools designed for heavy use, such as hammers, industrial brooms, chisels, wheelbarrow handles, etc. you’ll find similar sized grips. My hands are a bit smaller than the average man’s (I take medium to small gloves) and I have no trouble getting a firm hold on a 5cm haft.

      1. Err, the professor corrected the measure

        Thanks for the correction on the diameter for a 5cm circumference.

        I’ve manipulated tools with a large diameter also, but those were two handed, and I certainly wasn’t moving around while manipulating them (a kind of two handed hammer with a roughly 80cm handle to put pick in the earth for fences)

        The tools I have at home are more in the 2 or 3 cm ranges, so the correction of the professor makes much more sense.

  4. Very interesting post, thank you.
    However, I think there might be an error in the second and third paragraphs after the bibliography:

    “and about 2.5 to 3m in length and roughly 5cm (about 2 inches) in diameter.”

    “It’s going to have a circular socket, about 5cm in diameter (to fit the haft) at its base.”

    When I look at all the images with rulers in them, and also in some places in the further text, the diameter of the socket seems to be at or below 3 cm. (which also makes more sense in terms of weight, as a stick of ash with a diameter of 5 cm and a length of 250 cm would weigh in at nearly 3.5 kg, if I’m calculating correctly, while 2.5 cm diameter would only be slightly below 900 g)

  5. A language note: hoja in Spanish, in addition to “blade”, also means “sheet” (e.g. of paper), like the German.

    1. “Blad” in swedish can mean either “leaf”, “edge” (as in a knife) or “sheet of paper”.

  6. A lot of these dynamics seem universalizable, so I’d be curious how, say, Chinese or Japanese spearheads either follow these same rules or differ, and why

  7. FWIW, German “Blatt” (pl. “Blätter”) refers to the whole tip of the spear, not just to the blades on the side.

    1. Fixed the plural. I don’t doubt you are right, but when, e.g. P.F. Stary is discussing spearhead shapes, he breaks the spearhead into Mittelrippe, Blatt und Tülle – midridge, blade and socket. Its possible his usage is idiosyncratic, but that’s what I was looking at when I wrote that. Let me check some of my other German writers.

      1. Now looking at Wilhelm Schüle and he has the same Mittelrippe, Blatt und Tülle, but I think he means Blatt to refer to the whole shape of the spear head, but then isn’t using a specific word to describe only the blades as distinct from the other components.

        I’m curious – what word would you use to describe merely the blades on the side rather than the whole spear head?

        1. I am not an expert on weaponry (ancient or otherwise), so maybe this usage is common in specialist circles. As a layman, I would probably call the sides “Klingen” (blades), or maybe “Flügel” (wings). I did a quick web search and found a “living history” website that appears to call that part the “Schneide” (edge):
          But then again, their diagram is not conclusive, they might just refer to the actual sharpened edge.

          Interestingly, I tried to look up what the parts of a plant leaf to the left and right of the “Mittelrippe” are called in botany, and there does not appear to be a specific term for these.

          In modern every day usage, tools can also have a “Blatt”, even when it does not particularly look like a plant leaf (e.g. a saw blade, an axehead, the metal part of a chisel).

          1. > As a layman, I would probably call the sides “Klingen” (blades), or maybe “Flügel” (wings).

            No, the wings are the cross part, you see on some medival spears. See the the lower picture in your link. Those are called wings in english, too.

            > In modern every day usage, tools can also have a “Blatt”, even when it does not particularly look like a plant leaf (e.g. a saw blade, an axehead, the metal part of a chisel).

            I like to add that Blatt, is also used in the word “Blattfeder” which translates to leaf spring. Which also do not look like a tree leaf.

            And as someone further up noted Blatt also translates to sheet, as in sheet of paper.

      2. German “Blatt” doesn’t necessarily mean “leaf”, but has a second meaning which translates well into “blade” (f.i. “Sägeblatt” = “saw blade”). So in the context of this post “blade” would be a perfectly accurate translation for “Blatt” (or “blades” for “Blätter”). Looking at the lexical definitions for both “blade” and “Blatt” it seems awfully like they’re the same word, covering the same meanings, the only difference being that in the botanical sense English only uses it for the long and narrow leaves of grass, while German uses it for all kinds of leaves.

  8. wooden haft, about 2.5cm thick made of hardwood, with a grip at the center of balance.
    Wait what? That would either imply some combination of heavy tapering of the haft or a very heavy butt (perhaps including some lead?), or it would imply a great length of the weapon sticking out behind the user’s elbow, into the belly of their comrade standing behind them. (Spears are used underarm, right?)

    every gram in the spearhead shifts the center of balance forward, making the weapon harder to handle. Shifting that center of balance back means adding a gram to the spear butt.
    This assumes the center of balance is halfway between the head and butt, i.e. that the two moment arms are of equal length.

    Spearheads are pretty much always heavier than spear butts (often several times over)
    Without some very heavily tapered haft, this puts that “grip at the center of balance” closer to the tip than to the butt! (Which would be exactly how javelins work, especially unfletched but aerodynamically stable ones. But then you’d just leave the butt off; it’s not only unnecessary expense but its weight actively harms aerodynamic stability.)

    1. In close combat spears are used overhand or at least that’s how it is regularly depicted in art, with the spear butts angled up over the heads of the men behind.

      And yes, the center of balance is going to be slightly forward of the center of the spear, but that’s where the grip goes (note, the center of balance for the completed spear, not the haft).

      1. While I’m ignorant of the academic debate on the under-/overarm use of spears (I’m assuming there to be one), I’ve found Lindybeige’s arguments regarding their battlefield use highly convincing. While he does address vase paintings, I think that the most conclusive part is the experimental archaeology. When two shieldwalls approach each other, the reach (and otherwise) advantages of the underarm grip appear dominant to me.

        1. I’d recommend seeing the reply video by the Hirdmenn

          While both grips have their advantages, the overarm grip does have good reach if you’re willing to spear slide in your grip (like thegn thrand – or twist your grip like Artuu does. While both techniques lack control compared to underarm they do not however lack reach.

          As for vase paintings, I recommend looking at the article “All your strength is in your spears” by Kevin Rowan De Groote which gives a much more nuanced examination into Greek vases and contemporary hoplite warfare; Lloyd’s bias against the overarm grip colours his opinions here, especially to throw out wholesale artistic evidence as inaccurate when it goes against his premise but then accept it when it does.

          1. I’d be very interested to see multiple repeated group-combat tests utilising different grips on spears (including the semi-thrown sliding grip). It seems the best way to actually hammer out the different variables into the outcome that ancient people actually cared about. Incapacitating the other side and not dying yourself.

            I’d be interested to know if artwork from other omni-spear using cultures also features overarm grips.

          2. The problem with doing a practical test is that it’s impossible to safely stab at someone with a rigid pole. Even if you blunt or pad the tip, the fact that it’s a rigid pole makes it dangerous. It doesn’t take a lot of force to break a rib or crack a skull, and that’s assuming your test spear-bearers don’t lose control of the tip and smack someone in the throat or groin. It’s too dangerous to do anything close to a realistic test.

          3. I’d be very interested to see multiple repeated group-combat tests utilising different grips on spears (including the semi-thrown sliding grip). It seems the best way to actually hammer out the different variables into the outcome that ancient people actually cared about. Incapacitating the other side and not dying yourself.

            The closest I know of is Christopher Matthew’s A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War. I don’t think he got his participants to fight each other, but he did get them to thrust reproduction spears both over- and under-arm, whilst measuring things like reach, speed, etc. As I recall, the underarm thrust both gave better reach and was more powerful than the overarm.

          4. While both grips have their advantages, the overarm grip does have good reach if you’re willing to spear slide in your grip (like thegn thrand – or twist your grip like Artuu does. While both techniques lack control compared to underarm they do not however lack reach.

            The obvious issue with the spear-slid method is recovering the spear for another blow. Maybe there’s some way of doing so which is quick, reliable, and safe to do in battlefield conditions, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. With the underarm method, on the other hand, you literally just move your arm back and you’re ready for another thrust.

          5. The obvious issue with the spear-slid method is recovering the spear for another blow. Maybe there’s some way of doing so which is quick, reliable, and safe to do in battlefield conditions, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. With the underarm method, on the other hand, you literally just move your arm back and you’re ready for another thrust.

            I too have some doubts regarding Thrand’s technique, but not regarding the range and feasibility of overarm thrusts. Performing one does not require — though, like underarm ones, it may include — any sliding; simply cast the arm forward and bend your wrist back and to the side, such that at the farthest extent of the motion the spear rests in the hollow between your thumb and index finger, secured from the sides by your fingers. The result is an action identical to an underarm thrust in range and extension, different only in that the spear is positioned above your extended arm rather than below it — as the names suggest — and consequently your grip cannot remain as stable or continuous.

            I’ve seen footage of various HEMA members experimenting with spear and shield, and my conclusion from what I’ve seen is that in a HEMA context the overarm grip is objectively superior; while hypothetically the two grips can manifest strikes of equal range, functionally the instability of the overam grip reduces the speed and fluidity of the weilder’s action sufficiently that an opponent with spear underarm has a domineering advantage in power projection.

            On the other hand, we must account for the greater nuance of real combat, where biology and armour ensure that defeat is not immediate upon coming into contact with the adversary’s spearhead. Such conditions imply a demand for force and kinetic energy unequalled in modern sporting recreations; should the overarm position provide more power, and especially considering the opportunities for closing distance opened by heavy armour, the use of overarm grips in intense close combat seems not entirely infeasible.

            That said, the great popularity of the overarm position in Archaic Greek art is indubitably a product of the dory’s prevalent thrown usage in that period.

        2. While Lindy’s videos are entertaining, he is fundamentally just some guy on the internet. I wouldn’t give his opinions any more weight than a typical reddit poster.

          1. He’s spent quite a bit of time fighting with reconstructed weapons, which I’d say gives him more authority than the average Reddit rando.

        3. There is one way to get a slightly more contemporary view of spear usage. That is to look at the history of Zulu stabbing spear usage.

          The only real reference that I have on this is “The Anatomy of the Zulu Army: from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818–1879” by Ian Knight. The section on Weapon Training, which starts on pg 112, indicates a preference for underarm usage. However overarm was used as well. This is drawn from the Webb & Wright oral recordings of interviews with Zulu’s, that were published in 1976–1986.

          1. That would have been primarily with the iklwa though, I think? Which is less than half the length of the omni-spear Dr Devereaux describes.

          2. The blade was about 18″ long (with a tang rather than a socket) and the haft about 30″, about four foot long. Half the length of the spears otherwise discussed here. My point was that you had mixed usage, which I rather expect to be the case in the classical period as well.

  9. The second image is captioned as being made of bronze. Is that correct? I’ve never seen bronze so bright and silvery.

    1. It looks like this is because it’s being photographed under very strong lighting (possibly to make the inscription clearer?)- if you follow the link to the catalogue page there’s a second image under different lights where the colour is much more typically bronze-y.

    2. It’s quite possible that in person, it will look quite yellow, but due to auto-whitebalance trying to correct for lighting, while not having a good reference for what ‘white’ is, all that gets washed out and it looks silver instead.

      I’ve seen this happen before with other bronze objects.

  10. Something overlooked — a bronze sauroter isn’t going to rust. That’s important if (as some suggest) the spear-butt was used to “park” a dory upright when not in use (in camp, on the march, etc.). Also if the spear were routinely braced against the ground as a hedge against cavalry. (I’m not up on how common this maneuver might have been at this time, though.)

    1. I am also interested in this question: When did setting the spear into the ground come into use against cavalry?

      1. My guess is that very early, and it was something that developed naturally rather than needing some innovative commander to order such a formation.

        Infantry vs cavalry need to present a solid row of spearpoints at a height where the horse and preferably the rider as well can see them clearly. And the infantry may have to do so for many minutes or even hours until the cavalry get bored and go away.

        Overhand spear grip is most comfortable with the spear point coming down as it goes forward. A spear is not very heavy, but holding an overhead grip with the point up is still tiring after a while.

        Easier to hold a spear with the point high using the underhand grip, and even easier if you rest the butt of the spear on the ground.

  11. Didn’t Herodotus or someone describe the spear butts of the Persian Immortals as being gold or silver, and shaped like apples or pears? That relief pictured might illustrate those. I suppose these could have been wielded as clubs or maces if the spear-point broke.

    1. Making the weapon’s butt dull might actually be about intentional non-lethality. The spearbutt makes a bad battle mace as it is only a hundred grams or so. Instead, a round butt will be nonlethal. This might actually be handy if you are talkong about the royal bodyguard doing non-combat crowd control. If you want to push a throng of non-hostile people back to make way, or deliver a humilating but non-debilitating strike, a light round end of the spear is a useful tool.

      1. Also recall that behind the spear wielder are his comrades. A butt spike is a compromise with the danger of a friendly stab!
        What could be done to shorten the butt of a spear? Remember, the reach of a spear carrier is not the total length of the spear butt to point! It is the front arm of the spear – handle (centre of balance) to point. Therefore, you could add weight to the butt, increasing the total weight but decreasing the butt length.
        Weight could be added to the metal butt (which are preserved, we see it was not done), or by thickening the rear part of the haft (which is not preserved).

        1. These are exactly the most compelling reasons for why spears would have been used underarm. That grip allows the wielder to hold the spear much closer to the butt, simultaneously decreasing the risk of stabbing their comrade and greatly increasing their reach. Furthermore, primarily underarm use explains why spears look like they do (incl. on Persian artwork) — the wielder’s elbow more or less touches the butt, thus any counterweight applied there has a very short arm to act on — rather than looking very different, with counterweighting on their rear arm.

          1. It also lets you brace your spears on the ground to receive a cavalry charge, something that’s obviously impossible with an overarm grip.

      2. A 100g metall ball at the end of a two meter haft will be “less-lethal” at best. A stab with it might just be a reminder to keep your distant, but a strike will break a skull.

        1. Pretty sure that what was being suggested wasn’t a strike, but using the spear butt as a pole to physically shove people away. Which would have obvious problems doing it with the spearhead.

        2. Well, these Immortals we’re talking about are the imperial guard of a quite powerful monarch. Most of the time, if you’re fool enough to provoke them, they absolutely can get away with killing you, so the weapon doesn’t have to be completely nonlethal.

          But being able to use it effectively for crowd control, in a way that’s very unlikely to kill anyone by accident (e.g. thrusting with a blunt metal ball on a stick) would be pretty handy for their duties.

  12. Fascinating article! I find it interesting to note that, compared to the dimensions documented here, the reproduction spear heads available for purchase at Kult of Athena (a well regarded vendor of reproduction weapons) are all too large and heavy (as well as being overpriced, but that’s another issue).

    Quick question: do your dimensions for the length include just the bladed section of the spear-head, or the entire spear-head including the socket?

    Second question: When does the two handed spear technique become common in warfare? And how would that method of using them affect the design?

    1. That looks really awkward to use as a mace (something to crush armor, or joints with). The spear attached to it would mean it’s really difficult to get the right swing.
      The spear head also looks really large. The blades are about the right length for a halberd.
      And there’s the barbs, which belong on arrow heads not spears.

      It seems like the usual “make things bigger” for fantasy weapons.

      1. I think the relative size of the spear head and mace are a failed attempt at perspective (the spear head is closer, therefore larger; the mace head is further away, therefore smaller than you might expect). As for the difficulty of using the mace head: I expect it could be wielded like a poleaxe: held over-head with the spear point forward for poking and parrying (like the “butt-spike” of a poleaxe), and the mace used for a heavy blow when you get that opportunity (like the axe or hammer end of a poleaxe).

        In some ways that’s what this idea comes down to: It’s a poleaxe with a mace instead of an axe/hammer, and a full spear head instead of a simple butt-spike.

        As for the barbs, that probalby DOES fall into the “make it look mean/nasty” for fantasy weapons.

        1. A mace works because it has a short haft with a heavy head (although not nearly as heavy as people seem to think).
          A spear works mostly with thrusting – the length tends to preclude other moves.
          Halberds were used as an auxiliary weapon to pikes, rather like the two-handed swords.
          A butt spike would likely have been used either as a finishing move for someone who’s already fallen under the ranks, or else as a secondary weapon if the spear head has broken and you can’t withdraw.
          If you’re already fighting someone who’s aware and able to respond bringing it to bear is likely to take too long otherwise. Making it more weighty (into a mace) would just make it slower.


            Are these guys leading with their axe, or with the butt-spike?

            Now change the axe to a mace, and change the spike from a mere spike to an actual spear head.

            That’s what I was saying. Still fantasy, for whatever reason, but the butt-spike wasn’t always reserved for a “finishing move on someone who’s already fallen” or “as a secondary weapon.” It was also used (in the context of poleaxes, as I said) as the leading part of the weapon.

          2. Two handed unbalanced swinging weapon (i.e. axe/mace) tends to be used in formation. Leverage makes a swing slow, so you want a distraction (other people getting in your target’s way and attracting attention).
            Yes, you can make smaller swings (in fact you had better), but those are still slower than a poke.
            These guys are in a duel or (more likely) practice. The axe head is unlikely to be useful in a one on one.
            So reversing would make sense. Poke him and he might stumble, or tangle his legs. The point is actually a threat, since you can poke and still defend with the shaft. Swing with the axe and you’re out of position to defend if you miss, or if not you still have to maneuver the shaft with a weight far out at the end.
            I notice that *both* ends have a pointy bit BTW. As opposed to the original picture where the butt end is a (spiked!) mace.

          3. “used in formation” — you’re talking about a halberd, and I’m talking about a poleaxe. Like what was in the more recent picture: a duel between poleaxes. Poleaxes weren’t mass-infantry weapons, they were weapons for the elite (knights and men-at-arms; those who could afford to wear a full suit of plate armor).

            “axehead is unlikely to be useful in one-on-one” — and yet, poleaxes often had them, and were practiced in one-on-one fights between knights and/or men-at-arms (as opposed to infantry tactics). But note that the fantasy item we’re talking about doesn’t have that axehead. It would be more akin to the form of poleaxe that had a hammer-and-beak arrangement (still called a poleaxe). But even there I am saying “more akin” and not identical to.

            “I notice both ends have a pointy bit, BTW. As opposed to” — do you understand what an analogy is? And that analogies aren’t intended to be absolute apples to apples comparisons of the entire set of features? What I said was that the poleaxe technique of leading with the butt-spike would likely be useful for fighting with spear-mace as well: an analogy between a poleaxe and the spear-mace so as to illustrate a possible technique that would make the spear-mace’s arrangement useful. The analogy doesn’t have to carry any further forward than that.

          4. Most halberds I’ve seen look to be fairly specific solutions to the ‘very heavily armoured horseman or footman’ problem. A spear point to slow them down, hooks to bring them down, a slim axe blade to add versatility and give extra options to disable the fallen enemy.

            Separately, I think these fantasy weapons don’t grapple sufficiently with the fact that in any formation, the butt end of the spear will be moving around within the friendly formation most of the time. Even a sharp point is dangerous (to the extent that the Persian preference for a rounded butt-end seems smarter to me) but putting blades or assorted spikes there is crazy.

    2. The problem with using it as a mace is that your spear will get in the way. You wouldn’t want to use it as a mace at range, because thrusting is MUCH faster than swinging, and because doing so could break the shaft. So you’d mostly use it when folks got up close to you. But there the force for a mace comes from the swing, not the stab. (There may be a spike at the “top” of the mace, but at that point it’s really just an overly-fancy butt spike.) And when you try to swing a weapon that long to strike at someone close to you, the weapon hits things–the ground, you, your allies, etc. Much better to have a smaller backup mace and a standard butt spike.

      I imagine the real function for that would be to shift the balance back away from the tip. That would alter the way the weapon moved. I never trained enough with a two-handed spear to know if that’s going to be a significant improvement or not, though. Given that no one seems to have done this in the real world, despite clearly knowing how (see swords), I imagine it’s detrimental.

  13. Not really on topic, but not too far off:
    “Four 1,900-year-old Roman swords found in Judean Desert, likely from Bar Kochba revolt* Apparently stolen by Jewish rebels, the incredibly well-preserved weapons are ‘an extremely rare find, the likes of which have never been found in Israel’” By Melanie Lidman • 6 September 2023,
    “While inside the cave, Gayer spotted an extremely well-preserved Roman pilum — a shafted weapon — in a deep, narrow crack in the rock.”
    *132–136 C.E.

  14. I’m passably familiar with Papua New Guinean cane spears, the sort they use with their bows for fishing, hunting and fighting. The spearheads are quite different and separate into several categories for those different tasks – a three or four-pointed prong for fishing, a long thin bamboo spearhead for hunting pig – bamboo shaves quite thin and strong for a very nasty slashing cut -, and a thick one for fighting, which usually has some nasty barbs in it, so that the enemy can’t pull it out of the wound without doing themselves serious injury.

    I don’t know anything about the spearheads used in Australia, or the Americas, or Siberia, or Africa, or Asia.

    Of these Mediterranean spearheads, it would be interesting to find out the sequences of the changes – I strongly suspect the rhomoid shape succeded the middle ridge, before smiths realized it wasn’t needed and it would be cheaper and quicker to hammer the spearhead flat.

    And what’s your take on the spears used by the Aiel in the fantasy series Wheel of Time?

    1. Apart from fish spears (where stingray barbs came in handy), Australian native spears are tipped with stone heads, usually an oval.

    2. Bret was talking specifically about the category of infantry thrusting spears. His notes allude to different forms of javelin, and fishing or hunting spears would be another subject entirely. The trident of Poseidon/Neptune rather suggests three-pronged fishing spears in the Mediterranean. I would guess any boar spears were different too.

  15. On the ‘leaf shape’, from the old multidisciplinary basic knowledge approach, this makes sense. This is the basic shape of most leaves. The multi-shapedness, biologically, generally comes from a combination of the basic shape in proximity, but given a single lobe (as is present on a spear, i.e. one point), this is the basic shape, if slightly narrow at the tip. Most significantly different shapes arise from multi-lobe or multi-stemmed leaves. I think this is still awkward for the standard reader, as pointed out, though. It just makes sense if you’ve spent too much time looking at leaves, rather than spears.

    1. Yes; I think it depends what tree and therefore leaf shape is the first association; oaks and chestnuts have very distinctive and different leaf shapes than most other trees. The “feathered branch” leaves are just a bunch of “typical” leaves on a stem, after all.

      And hence why I immediately think of tree leaf in this context when reading Blatt, not sheaf of paper, and similar to why, when talking about blades and even tools, we still talk about the Blatt despite blades today being very often straight edges – it developed from the leaf shape, and then it stuck, and there’s no good reason to invent or repurpose another word because after all people know what it refers to (at least from context).

      1. “and there’s no good reason to invent or repurpose another word”

        Unless, of course you’re English with it’s ‘leaf’ ‘blade’ ‘sheet’ because apparently we like collecting words like magpies. Although interestingly you can ‘leaf through a book’, you have ‘blades of grass’ and you get ‘sheafs of paper’. Apparently we like our mixed metaphors too…

  16. I’m a bit suprised by the length of the shaft, over 2m, yet this being a single-handed spear?

    Many years ago, in an Alexander exhibition, they had replicated Greek phalanx spears of 2-3m (or 4-5m?) and they were huge! Even with 2,5 or 3m, I have hard time imaging using them one-handed for a long time. (But maybe because I’m an out of shape elderly civilian, not a trained soldier?)

    So there was no shorter thrusting spear, of 1 -1,5 m = just below male body length? Or would that be the Roman pilum and thus an exception to the omni spear?

    Thanks for the article itself.

    1. To imagine the length of an one-handed omni-spear, have a look at an also one-handed javelin.
      The modern specifications of the bigger javelins are found at:
      Note point 3 here: “The shaft shall be constructed completely of metal, or of another suitable homogeneous material, and shall have fixed to it a metal head terminating in a sharp point.” Until 1950s, modern throwing javelins were wooden shaft (then most often birch), metal tip. The hollow metal tube javelins were introduced in 1950s.
      The standard young men´s javelin has length required to be between 260 and 270 cm – precisely in the 250-300 cm range of omnispear – and diameter at thickest point 25 to 30 mm – also omnispear range. The difference is that it seems to be lighter – javelin is 800 g minimum, probably not much more, while omnispear is maybe 350 g between tip and butt, plus maybe 900 g shaft, so over 1200 g.
      If you are elderly, you probably won´t throw the 800 g javelin – men aged 50-59 throw 700 g javelins like boys aged 15 and 16, men aged 60-69 throw 600 g javelins like women aged 17-49 and boys aged 13 and 14, men aged 70-79 throw 500 g javelins (specifications not in the above link) like women aged 50-74 and girls aged 13-16, and men aged 80 or more throw 400 g javelins (specifications not in the above link) like women aged 75 or more, and boys and girls under 13.

  17. Related to that: how do they figure out shaft length, since wood rots much quicker than the iron head rusts? The pictures are not to size (because they’re representative, not technical drawings), so how do archaelogists and historians reconstruct this?

    1. In the simple case, archeologists find a spearhead and a spear butt in line 2.04 metres apart.

      Beyond that, detect a slight difference in texture/content of the soil filling the space where the shaft used to be and the soil underneath/around it?

    2. Wood only rots in certain conditions. In some conditions it can survive a long, long time. And iron by its nature will help contribute to some of those conditions–it’s going to create a zone of reduced oxidation/reduction potential and of lower oxygen levels as the oxygen bonds to the iron (ie, as it rusts in the ground). In other cases the environmental conditions are generally favorable for preservation. It’s not super common to find wood in archaeological sites, but it’s certainly not uncommon and would excite no surprise if it was found. I’ve collected carbonized wood samples myself, despite only occasionally dipping into archaeology (I’ll dig up any animal or piece thereof, at any stage from “dead” to “fossil”, but I do not like digging up dead people).

      The long-term preservation of wood has a neat implication: We can construct a fairly complete radiocarbon history via analyzing the carbon dates on trees that overlap. This allows us to see some of the variations in C14 ratios through time, which in turn helps us calibrate our results when we collect radiocarbon samples (remember these are cosmogenic, meaning that solar cycles affect C14 concentrations). The long-term preservation of wood is one of the things that makes C14 dating possible.

      There are also situations where even though the wood is gone, we can be reasonably certain the size of the wood. Some grave goods are pretty clearly laid out intentionally, and pretty clearly included things that are no longer there. So if you find a skeleton with jewelry and some shreds of cloth and a spear head and butt spike, you can be reasonably certain that the shaft was originally there and that the length between the top and bottom was the length of the wood (soil isn’t motionless, but there are ways to account for that). For another example, we may find objects clearly designed to hold something. We don’t need to have that something there to get a sense of its size; the brackets or clamps or whatever can tell us that. Differences in soil texture can be used, but it’s REALLY tricky. Again, soil moves. And groundwater moves more. It’s really easy for stuff in soil to smear, making accurate measurements a nightmare. Not impossible–I’ve read of cases where this was used to identify bones–but pretty much if you can use any other method you do.

      I also imagine that people wrote stuff down in some fashion. If I’m ordering a bunch of spears I’d rather like to know how big they are–a pike is different than a pilum! The oldest writing we have is accounting (I joke that writing itself is just accounting that got wildly out of hand), so I imagine (but don’t know) that there’d be bills of lading and receipts and the like. “Received 500 spears, each 7 ft long” or the equivalent. Or “At X distance the spears will be engaged” in an army manual or journal. Plus, people tend to preserve famous weapons, and since aristocrats were generally warriors they tend to get depicted in a lot of paintings, drawings, urns, frescos, mosaics, and the like, and those depictions are reasonably accurate (for a given value of “accurate”, which is culturally dependent). We may not be able to tell if an Athenian spear was 9.732′ long or 9.723′ long, but we can tell it wasn’t 4′ or 12′ based on how long it is compared to the person holding it. Rome was even better, with their penchant for realism.

  18. What’s interesting is that modern military spears* use something different – either a simple spike that’s circular in cross-section (a ‘pig-sticker’), or a blade that’s flat in cross-section and has one sharp edge.

    They’re also a good deal longer. The omnispear head is 20-35cm long, including the haft. A modern spear will have a head that’s 15-20cm long just measuring the blade – sometimes up to 43cm.

    Now, are those longer because they can be – because modern metals make it easier to make a working blade of that length? I don’t think so – the Iberian Type 1s ” have mean lengths over 40cm, with the longest examples being around 60 or even 70cm long”. If people of that period had wanted long blades they could have had them.

    I think it’s for psychological reasons. An omnispear is actually made for stabbing people with. A modern military spear is primarily for scaring people with, and especially for scaring horses with – as far back as the first bayonets were mounted on muskets, the point is to create something that cavalry will be unwilling to charge into. Long shiny bayonets are visible. Short spearheads might not be seen early enough.


    1. “Modern” bayonets don’t really derive from spears at all, though. They’re a convergent evolution that developed more or less alongside pikes, and additionally had to compete with space and weight limits alongside the early muzzle-loading firearms. They’re knives (or short swords) that have been adapted to be mounted inside (plug) or alongside (ring) longarm muzzles.

    2. A long firearm was generally shorter than the shaft of the omnispear. Perhaps the longer “head” of the bayonet was to try to make up for that.

      1. British rifle regiments of the early 19th century had shorter guns than the line infantry, and were given longer bayonets to compensate.

      2. Good point about length – yes, there would be a minimum functional length for a musket with bayonet if you want to use it in a defensive formation, because you probably want the second rank to be able to extend it past the front rank.

        Are bayonets spears or pikes: yes. If they’re being used defensively in an infantry square or similar, they’re short pikes. In the assault, though, they’re spears; they’re short enough to wield and parry with. You can’t do that with a pike.

        So really the bayonet is trying to do two jobs, one of which is normally done by something about 2m long at most (the Zulu iklwa was only about 1m long!) and the other of which is normally done by something about 4m long.

        Nowadays we don’t really form square to repel cavalry very often, and rifles are too short for other reasons to make that sort of pike tactic feasible anyway. So you have a short, handy rifle with a short bayonet.

        But that doesn’t address the point about shape – why aren’t there leaf-shaped bayonets, if it’s such a good shape for a spearhead (and for that matter a pikehead)?

        1. – Make a sheathe for a leaf-shaped bayonet you can quickly draw from that it won’t fall out of.
          – Make a leaf-shaped bayonet that makes it impossible for Robin Q. Grunt to shoot their own own blade while maximizing the usefulness of the blade. Bear in mind there may be a reason the usual blade geometry of edged bayonets are biased to downward slashes whose power is increased by the weight of the weapon.
          – (Speculative): how much hand forging vs. stamping-out and edge grinding does a leaf-shaped blade take compared to a straight blade?

          These are general practicality questions that occur to me from your question, rather than picking on you. 🙂

          1. Those are all really good points – especially the first one, which I think is probably a big part of the answer. Thanks!

          2. I think bayonets are also mostly used as knifes for all sorts of different needs, so they have a shape that is more practical for that. Compared to spear which if the main weapon and is optimized for that since it’s not really used for anything else.

        2. Good point about length – yes, there would be a minimum functional length for a musket with bayonet if you want to use it in a defensive formation, because you probably want the second rank to be able to extend it past the front rank.

          I don’t think it was about extending it past the front rank, so much as making the spike big enough to deter enemy horses from charging at you.

  19. “I think bayonets are also mostly used as knifes for all sorts of different needs, so they have a shape that is more practical for that.”

    Some are and some aren’t – the pigsticker types are only really useful as bayonets and, I guess, as mine prodders, because they don’t have a cutting edge. The sword-types generally have a handle of some sort that allows them to be used for other purposes. Some even have a clever design where you can combine the bayonet with the scabbard and turn it into a (not very efficient) wire cutter. But IME soldiers prefer to carry an actual knife of some sort in addition to the bayonet, and a parang as well if needed.

  20. I’m very late here, but I haven’t seen anybody else make this point, so…

    Regarding the size and strength of the soldiers, I believe men in the (long) time period discussed here would have been shorter on average than we are today. Off memory, men would have been as short as 5’6″ compared to the average today of 5’10”. Perhaps soldiers were drawn from the taller members of the population, but otherwise they would have been *relatively* quite strong if men today can wield these spears “just fine”.

  21. Regarding the use of butt spikes for stabbing downed opponents: did that happen a lot? Battles always seem to end with lots of wounded on the field to recover, which wouldn’t seem to be the case if both sides were systematically offing anyone who ended up on the ground. That’s not to say it never happened (I’m sure it did), I’m just curious if we know (or can guess) anything about the likelihood.

    1. Probably directly related to your judgment of the danger. Getting stabbed in the ankle was plenty dangerous, though it did have to be weighed against the danger from the still walking foe.

  22. “If you ever wondered why a lot of really narrow, quick effective piercing weapons like rapiers were less common on the battlefield” – There’s another reason such weapons were less common, other than being less immediately disabling: ease of use. See, a piercing sword like a rapier runs counter to the instinctive movement people make when holding anything too short to be a spear: that top-to-bottom diagonal swing. (And when I say “instinctive” I mean even a toddler flailing a stick around in play makes this movement.) Around the time the idea of arming their men with “civilized” weapons like rapiers got popular, armies found that under the stress of combat, soldiers fell back on what’s instinctive, that diagonal swing. Which fed into the rise of things like sabers and cutlasses, sturdy swords that hack and slash well.

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