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  • Archers in Ancient Chinese Warfare › Origins
  • Agamemnon › Who was
  • Agathocles of Syracuse › Who was

Ancient civilizations › Historical places, and their characters

Archers in Ancient Chinese Warfare  › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

The bow was the most common weapon in ancient Chinese warfare and the skill of using it was the most esteemed martial art for millennia. Archers were used as infantry, chariotriders, and cavalry over the centuries, and while the weapon’s importance was challenged by the crossbow and sword, it remained a vital component of a commander’s battlefield strategy, especially in the opening moves, retreat, and in the defence of cities.

Tang Dynasty Mounted Archer


The bow was always an integral facet of Chinese culture, and the invention of the weapon was credited to one of two legendary cultural heroes depending on the source: the Yellow Emperor or Emperor Yi. Hunting with bows, however, dates back to prehistory with the first archaeological evidence from the Neolithic period. Hunting and firing from horseback was a common practice amongst the aristocracy in China, perhaps even during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE) and more certainly from the 5th century BCE onwards. The Shang, significantly, bestowed the title of “Archer-Lord” on the leaders of subjugated tribes, which is just one indicator of the high esteem the bow was held in ancient China, much as the sword was in western Europe. Archery competitions had also been a part of religious ceremonies and festivals held at the royal palace so that it is no surprise that the bow and arrow would one day make an appearance on the battlefield.
A symbol, then, of rulership and nobility, skill with the bow was expected to be displayed in various archery competitions. Warriors, senior officials and administrators had to prove their ability at archery, which was also thought to reveal the person’s moral character. Nor were one’s skills permitted to become rusty as junior army officers were required to pass an archery test each year.
In the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), and probably too in the preceding Shang dynasty, ornate bows with gold and jade additions, along with a matching 100 arrows, were given as a reward for military prowess on the battlefield or as a way for a ruler to confer an honour on a certain individual. By the Spring and Autumn period (722-479 BCE) there were two types of such honours: a red bow with 100 arrows and a black bow with 1,000 arrows.

Han Mounted Archer

It is also interesting to note that arrows were frequently placed in tombs, symbolic of their importance to the deceased in the next life. By the 6th century BCE, Confucius helped further embed archery in the national psyche by insisting it was one of the six essential arts of self-cultivation. Finally, Chinese literature abounds with stirring tales of archers pulling off impossible shots such as killing opponents with each rapidly fired shot, penetrating several layers of an enemy’s armour, or just a few archers miraculously holding off a much larger infantry force.


Designs of both bow and arrow varied over time and geographical location. The simplest bows were made of wood or horn (water buffalo was preferred) while composite bows already appeared from the Shang period onwards - that is bows made from up to eight pieces such as separate strips of bamboo glued together or bound using silk. Different woods used (often in the same bow) included silkwood thorn, wild mulberry, orange wood, and quince. All of these woods, bamboo, and horn were carefully selected and combined for their compression or elastic properties to give the maximum firing power. Glues were made from vegetable or animal matter, and later, fish glue was found to be the best. Animal sinew or tendon was used to cover the finished bow and increase its elasticity. The final stage was to cover the bow in lacquer which protected it from moisture. The string of the bow was likely made from twisted fibres of silk, leather or plant material, especially bamboo.
The recurved form of bow, which curved out symmetrically from the central handgrip, was already in use in the Shang period, too. Shang bows measured some 1.2 m (42 inches) in length, but later periods saw both smaller and larger versions (up to 1.65 m) used. Sometimes there were different sizes all available at the same time, and the decision as to which to use was based on the physique of the archer: the taller the man, the longer the bow. The arrows used with them had reed, cane, or bamboo shafts; sometimes wood was used, but they required much more work to produce. Arrows for the larger bows would have measured around 85 cm in length and had a diameter of around 1 cm. Feather (geese or duck), wood, or paper vanes were added to give extra stability in the arrow’s trajectory; they typically measured 10 to 15 cm in length and were 2 cm high. An archer usually carried a minimum quiver of ten arrows when in battle.

Shang Dynasty Arrowheads

Arrowheads were made first from stone (e.g. flints and obsidian), shell or bone, then bronze or copper and, finally, iron, but bone was a popular choice even in later times, being light and easy to carve. Those bronze arrowheads which survive from the Shang dynasty are around 9.5 cm long, have a long narrow shape tapering gradually to a point and a raised central spine which becomes thinner towards the edges either side. By the Zhou Period, arrowhead design had changed, probably influenced by developments in crossbow bolts, and they now were made shorter with a prominent central ridge to aid accuracy or with a third edge. The double projection at the back of the head which makes extraction more difficult is now more common, too. There is much debate on the penetrating power of arrows into the armour worn by soldiers, but when the latter was only made from leather, before metal plating was added in the Warring States period (c. 481-221 BCE), there are plenty of skeletal remains which show bones with deep wounds from arrows.
If the information we have on archery competitions relates to the battlefield, then it seems that an archer was expected to hit an opponent from a distance of at least some 76 metres (250 ft) and probably double that. The historian R. D. Sawyer makes the following comments regarding accuracy:
Exceptionally skilled archers could reputedly hit a flying bird at 200 paces, and superlative archers such as Yang Yu-chi in the Spring and Autumn period reportedly could hit a willow branch at 100 paces, giving rise to the phrase “penetrating a willow at a hundred paces” becoming praise for any extraordinary skill. (Sawyer, 2011, 311).
To what degree the ordinary archer on the battlefield could emulate these feats is unknown, but the Chinese did believe the skill could be acquired through practice, and so there were many training schools for archery, regarded as it was an essential skill for gentlemen for much of China’s history.


The chariot was used on the battlefield from around 1250 BCE in Chinese warfare, and one of the riders was invariably an archer. Standing usually on the left side, he shared the cab with a driver and sometimes also a spear or halberd bearer. Infantry also carried a bow, as well as a spear and or halberd. The need for a great number of weapons and the lengthy time of manufacture meant that bows and arrowheads were manufactured on large scale by state-sponsored specialised workshops, even as early as the Shang dynasty. This was certainly so by the 7th century BCE when the battlefields of China first began to see massed volleys of arrows being fired in a single moment. Records of city arsenals show that at any one time tens of thousands of bows and millions of arrows were stored up for future use.
Archers were used as cavalry from the 4th-3rd century BCE onwards. The bow remained a popular infantry weapon, though, with the traditional squad of five consisting of three spearmen and two archers. Whether on horse or on foot, archers were typically stationed to protect the flanks of the infantry armed with spears and halberds. Cavalry riders were expected to shoot while at full gallop, no mean feat considering the primitive nature of saddles - usually only a rolled blanket - and with the arrival of stirrups only from the Hanperiod (206 BCE - 220 CE). For this reason, many dynasties simply recruited experienced riders from neighbouring states; a policy which continued into the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) and even later.
Archers typically opened the proceedings in a battle with the hope that a volley of arrows would deplete and soften up an opposing force before the more heavily armed infantry soldiers entered the fray. The bow was also seen as a great defensive weapon, notably when a city was under siege.
With the introduction of the crossbow into Chinese warfare from the Warring States period (481-221 BCE), the bow had a new challenger for the weapon of choice. The armies of the Han were particularly noted for their skills with the crossbow which could fire a bolt further and with much greater penetration than an arrow fired from a bow. However, by the Tang dynasty(618-907 BCE) the traditional archer made a comeback, this time armed with an even more powerful composite bow than previously. Armies of the period, according to contemporary military treatises, fielded a ratio of bowmen to crossbowmen of 5:1. By the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) the crossbow returned to favour as repeating models could now fire bolts every few seconds and fire them longer distances and more accurately than before. Nevertheless, the bow would remain an important weapon in Chinese armies right through the medieval period and into the 19th century CE.

Agamemnon  › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad. He is presented as a great warrior but selfish ruler, famously upsetting his invincible champion Achilles and so prolonging the war and suffering of his men. A hero from Greek mythology, there are no historical records of a Mycenaean king of that name, but the city was a prosperous one in the Bronze Age and there perhaps was a real, albeit much shorter, Greek-led attack on Troy. Both these propositions are supported by archaeological evidence. Unfortunately though, the famous gold mask found in a shaft grave at Mycenae and widely known as the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ is dated as up to 400 years before any possible Agamemnon candidate that fits a chronology of the Trojan War.


Agamemnon was the son of Atreus, or perhaps grandson, in which case his father was Pleisthenes. His mother was Aerope, from Crete which provided a handy link between the Mycenaean civilization of the Greek Peloponnese and the earlier Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete. He was married to Clytemnestra with whom he had three daughters. In one version these are Chrysothemis, Laodice and Iphianassa while in other, later versions they are Chrysothemis, Elektra and Iphigeneia. Agamemnon was the brother of Menelaos, king of Sparta.


According to Homer, Agamemnon was given his king’s sceptre and right to rule Mycenae and all the Achaean Greeks by Zeushimself. Agamemnon is described as a great warrior and so as a worthy leader of men. According to Plato, his name derives from meneinmeaning ‘to endure’. Mycenae, located 15 km from the sea in the northern Peloponnese, then prospered and Homer describes the city as a ‘well-founded citadel’, as ‘wide-wayed’, and as ‘golden Mycenae’. This mythological prosperity is supported by the excavation of over 15 kg of gold objects recovered from the shaft graves in the fortified acropolis which still dominates the plain today. Further excavations have also revealed that the city once covered 30,000 m² and was first inhabited in Neolithic times.


Our main source of information on the Trojan War is Homer’s epic mythological account in the Iliad, written in the 8th century BCE but almost certainly based on a much older oral tradition. The ancient Greeks themselves considered the conflict to have been a real one and taken place in the 13th century BCE. The story came to represent the struggle of Greeks against foreign powers and it told tales of a time when men were better, more able, and more honourable. After Homer, the Trojan War became a staple theme in Classical Greek and Roman literature and was revisited many times by writers in works such as Aeschylus’ AgamemnonEuripides’ Trojan Women, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Later authors, especially Aeschylus, altered parts of the story, probably for dramatic effect on an audience all-too-familiar with it. Scenes from the conflict were also a favourite with visual artists for the next millennium.
The War began when Paris, a Trojan prince, abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos, from Argos. Paris regarded her as his rightful reward for choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess in a competition with Athena and Hera at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. A furious Menelaos then appealed to his brother Agamemnon to create a coalition force of Greek warriors and rescue Helen from Troy. This Agamemnon did, and the force from such cities as Athens, Sparta, CorinthRhodes and just about everywhere else across Greece sailed in a huge fleet across the ‘wine-dark sea’ to Anatolia.
Well, they would have done, if Agamemnon hadn’t upset the goddess Artemis when he killed one of her sacred stags and then boasted he was a better hunter than the goddess, herself famous for her hunting skills. As punishment, Artemis becalmed the Greek fleet and only the sacrifice of Iphigeneia would appease the goddess into granting a fair wind to Troy. Agamemnon duly offered his daughter in sacrifice but in pity and at the last moment, the goddess substituted a deer for the girl and made Iphigeneia a priestess at her sanctuary at Tauris. In Aeschylus’ version Agamemnon ruthlessly sacrifices his daughter, then still a child, and so guarantees his wife’s eternal hatred and his own murder later on in the story.

Lion's Gate at Mycenae


Finally arriving at Troy, most of the next nine years was spent in the Greeks laying siege to the well-fortified city. Indecisive skirmishes ensued but, as the Iliad tells, the time was near for the decisive moments of the war. As Agamemnon roused his men thus,
Let every man of you prepare well for the fighting – put a good edge on your spears, and a good hang to your shields, give a good feed to your swift-footed horses, and cast a good eye over your chariots, so that we can run the trial of hateful Ares all day long. (Iliad, Book 2, 380-384)
However, after another inconclusive clash, things finally got more interesting with a couple of one-on-one battles, first between Menelaos and Paris, and then Ajax against Paris’ brother Hektor. Neither dual ended in a fatality. More skirmishes followed and in these Agamemnon excelled:
As when annihilating fire falls on a thick forest scrub, and the wind carries it billowing all over, and the bushes are brought down headlong in the flames’ overwhelming onslaught, so the fleeing Trojans went down under Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and many strong-necked horses rattled empty chariots along the avenues of battle, missing the noble charioteers they knew: but they lay dead on the ground, a sight now to gladden vultures, not their wives. (Iliad, Book 11, 155-162)
Despite his prowess, Agamemnon was stabbed in the arm by Koon who paid for his strike with his head, and the king retired to his camp. The next big event was when the Trojans attacked the Greek camp and set fire to their ships. Things were not going at all well for the Greeks, and Agamemnon was largely to blame for he had upset the Greek’s greatest fighter Achilles when he pulled rank and stole the hero’s female war-booty Briseis. As a result, Achilles went into a sulk and refused to fight. Agamemnon sent Odysseus to persuade Achilles to rejoin the fighting on the promise of tremendous treasure. Achilles refused, and it was only when his great friend Patroklos was killed by Hektor that he put on his armour and helped the Greeks regain the initiative in the war by killing Hektor. The war still rumbled on, though, and it was only Odysseus’ ruse of the Wooden Horse, which allowed the Greeks to get inside the city, which finally brought the fall of Troy.

Trojan Horse


When Agamemnon returned to Mycenae in glory and with his prize, Trojan King Priam’s daughter, Cassandra, he was, alas, killed by his jealous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus while he was enjoying his coming-home banquet. In later versions of the story Clytemnestra killed her husband in the bath with a knife. However Agamemnon died, his fate was said to be a just punishment from the gods for outrageously demanding he share the spoils from Troy only 50/50 with the gods. In the dynastic squabbles so frequent in Greek tragedy Orestes, eight years after the event and inspired by Apollo, took revenge on his mother for her part in Agamemnon’s murder. Orestes was then in turn tormented by the winged Furies, the spirits of punishment. Agamemnon is not quite finished with Greek mythology, though, as he does pop up again when Odysseus travels to Hades in Homer’s Odyssey. The dead king explains to Odysseus his downfall,
Poseidon did not wreck my ships with fearful squalls and tempestuous winds, nor did I fall to any hostile tribe on land. It was Aegisthus who plotted my destruction and with my accursed wife put me to death. He invited me to the palace, he feasted me, and he killed me as a man fells an ox at its manger. That was my most pitiful end. (Odyssey, Book 11, 406-413)




A conflict between Mycenaeans and Hittites in Anatolia may well have occurred in the late Bronze Age and archaeological excavations at Troy have revealed that Troy VI (c. 1750-1300 BCE), one of many layers in the site’s history, is the most likely candidate for the besieged city of Homer’s Trojan War. Impressive fortification walls, which are 5 m thick and 8 m high and include several towers, certainly fit the Homeric description of ‘strong-built Troy’. The lower town covers an impressive 270,000 m² protected by an encircling rock-cut ditch and suggests a grand city like the Troy of tradition.
Troy VI was also partially destroyed, with evidence of fire and, intriguingly, bronze arrowheads, spear tips, and slingshots have been found embedded in the fortification walls, strongly suggesting some sort of conflict. The dates of these (c. 1250 BCE) and the site destruction correlate with Herodotus’ dates for the Trojan War. It is extremely unlikely that Homer’s 10 year-conflict really occurred but the myth may well have been based on smaller, more repeated conflicts between the Mycenaeans and Hittites as they battled for control of lucrative trade routes in the Aegean.


The so-called ‘Death mask of Agamemnon’, which is a beaten gold funeral mask from Grave Circle A, at Mycenae dates to the mid-16th century BCE. The mask, one of five in fact, therefore, predates Agamemnon by 400 years but nevertheless remains solid evidence of Homer's description of Mycenae as 'rich in gold'. The attribution to Agamemnon was first suggested by Heinrich Schliemann who excavated both Troy and Mycenae in the 18th century CE. The mask was laid upon the face of the deceased and some scholars suggest it is an early attempt at portraiture in European art. The mask is on permanent display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae

Just outside the acropolis of Mycenae is the celebrated tholos tomb, known as the Treasury of Atreus. It is a monumental circular building with corbelled roof reaching a height of 13.5 m and is 14.6 m in diameter. It is approached by a long walled and unroofed corridor 36 m long and 6 m wide. Lacking any written or pictorial evidence and dating from the 14th century BCE it is, once again, too early to be connected with the mythical Agamemnon. Interestingly, cults of Agamemnon did arise in later centuries after the Mycenaeans had long since disappeared, especially at Mycenae where his tomb was thought to lay but also at Chaeronea, Klazomenai, Tarentum, and in Laconian where it was also claimed lay the tomb of this great mythical king who had ruled Greece in the age of heroes.

Agathocles of Syracuse  › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Agathocles of Syracuse (c. 361 - 289 BCE) ruled as tyrant of the Sicilian city for over 25 years. Ambitious, unprincipled, and seeing himself as a new Alexander, he famously attacked Carthage in a three-year campaign and made conquests in southern Italy, but ultimately his quest for a lasting Sicilian-Italian empire failed. On Agathocles’ death, his lack of a recognised successor caused chaos at Syracuse and his memory was officially obliterated with a damnatio memoriae. His greatest legacy was perhaps that he had shown Carthage could be defeated in Africa, a lesson the Romans would later use to devastating effect in the Punic Wars.


Agathocles was born at Thermae in Sicily in 361 or 360 BCE, and his father was Carcinus, originally from Rhegium. Carcinus was made a Syracusan citizen c. 343 BCE and became the owner of a large and successful pottery workshop. In his youth Agathocles saw military service and displayed political ambitions. So much so, that the oligarchy government of Syracuse exiled him c. 330 BCE.
Establishing himself in southern Italy, Agathocles operated as a mercenary in Croton and Tarentum. Back on Sicily Syracuse was besieging Rhegium when Agathocles came to the aid of the city. His victory brought the downfall of the ruling oligarchy of 600 at Syracuse. He returned to the city but was again exiled when the oligarchs retook power. Undeterred, Agathocles raised his own army from neighbouring city-states, and when the oligarch’s Carthaginian ally Hamilcar switched allegiance to Agathocles in 319 BCE, he was able to declare himself strategos autokrator, or supreme general, of Syracuse. Agathocles then ruthlessly murdered or exiled the 600 oligarchs in a coup in 316 BCE. He next set about making himself popular with the ordinary citizens of the city by abolishing debts and redistributing the land. Agathocles was now the supreme ruler of Syracuse and he ambitiously claimed sovereignty over all the cities of Sicily.


To consolidate his rule, Agathocles then campaigned to crush those cities which had supported the oligarchs. These troublesome opponents included Acragas (Agrigento), Gela, and Messana. The tyrant’s ambitions were not going unnoticed by Carthage who still had territorial interests in the western half of Sicily. Indeed, Messana appealed to Carthage for aid with the result that Hamilcar once again interceded and mediated a peace treaty in 314 BCE. According to its terms, Syracuse would restrict itself to territory east of the River Halycus. Perhaps underestimating Carthage’s resolve to respond, Agathocles invaded the western side of the river. Carthage sent a force of 14,000 men to defend their interests, soundly defeated the tyrant near Gela in 311 BCE, and then marched on Syracuse. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian fleet positioned itself to blockade the city from the sea. Agathocles responded to this threat with an unexpected and wildly ambitious strategy; he left Syracuse in the hands of his brother Antander and sailed for Africa with a fleet of 60 ships. He would strike at the very heart of his opponent.


In 310 BCE Agathocles landed in Africa with up to 14,000 troops and now hoped to so unsettle the Carthaginians that they would be forced to withdraw from Sicily. To spur on his men and remind them that victory was the only route home, he burnt his ships (or less romantically, did so to save leaving behind the necessary troops to guard them). Winning his first engagement and killing his opposing commander Hanno, Agathocles marched down the Cape Bon peninsula to Carthage itself, plundering booty along the way. The Carthaginians were rattled and sacrificed 500 children to appease the gods according to the historian Diodorus. Even more seriously, internal political strife, a Libyan rebellion, and a failed coup by one Bomilcar were crippling Carthage’s ability to effectively respond to the invasion of their homeland. Agathocles did not have the means to besiege well-fortified Carthage, which could, in any case, be resupplied by sea, and so he established his base at Tunes (modern Tunis). In 309 BCE another Carthaginian army was defeated.

Carthaginian Mercenaries

Meanwhile back on Sicily, Syracuse was resisting the siege thanks to its own impressive fortifications, but Acragas now formed an alliance of disgruntled city-states in order to free themselves once and for all from the threat of Syracusan hegemony. Still, two successive attacks by Carthage were rebuffed in 309 BCE, and the Carthaginian general Hamilcar was captured, tortured, and beheaded.
Agathocles was then boosted by the arrival of an army from Cyrene, his old ally and fierce rival of Carthage. The ruthless Agathocles killed their commander Ophellas and incorporated his army into his own fighting force. He then managed to take the cities of Utica and Hippacra and now controlled much of Libya. Then the balance of the war began to shift. Agathocles was forced to return to Sicily when the Carthaginian siege looked like gaining the upper hand there and Acragas began stirring up the Greek city-states again. He left a force of 20,000 men in Africa in 307 BCE under the command of his son Archagathus. Looting the countryside and taking Thugga, the Syracusans allowed Carthage to regroup and a 30,000-strong Carthaginian army, which included both cavalry and war chariots, met and crushed the Syracusan army. Agathocles briefly returned to Africa to try and salvage his invasion force, now vastly depleted and blockaded at Tunes, but he was forced to retreat back home. He had abandoned his two sons in the process, and they were murdered by their own men when they realised total defeat was imminent.
In 306 BCE the two sides agreed a peace with their territorial claims re-established, as before, either side of the Halycus River. This allowed Agathocles to declare himself king of Greek Sicily, also in 306 BCE, although Acragas remained stubbornly independent. In the same year, the tyrant married Theoxene, a step-daughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt. In another useful dynastic tie, Agathocles’ daughter Lanassa married Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in 295 BCE.

Greek Fortifications


Agathocles returned to his old stomping ground of southern Italy in 300 BCE, taking Bruttium. He also supported Tarentum in its war against the Lucanians and Messapians in 298-297 BCE. More success came in 295 BCE when he amassed a fleet of 200 ships and conquered Croton. He then received Corcyra (Corfu) from Pyrrhus as dowry, while alliances were also made with other sympathetic city-states. In 289 BCE he made plans to attack Carthage in Africa for a second time, but he was either poisoned or died of illness. Without a recognised successor, the government of Syracuse reverted back to the ruling elite and, such was his unpopularity at having involved Syracuse in a series of rather pointless and hugely costly wars, his memory was officially erased from the public records.


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