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Why the butt-end of the spear?

Dr. Mark Lawall University of Manitoba

This bronze butt-end of a spear, known as a sauroter to ancient Greeks, was found at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games. It was among hundreds of pieces of armor and weapons, including helmets and greaves (protective shin armor), that were left as offerings at the temple site to thank Zeus, the father of all gods, for victory in battle. Though we might understand how substantial protective gear like a helmet or a greave must have served as an impressive gift, the question remains why a seemingly insignificant butt-end of a spear might have been considered an equally suitable offering of thanksgiving?

The answer to this question lies in the surprisingly important role that a spear-butt played in Greek fighting. Greek troops or hoplites wearing protective helmets and armour traditionally lined up in long horizontal rows with their shields overlapping the exposed right side of their fellow soldier. When facing the enemy, the two opposing lines of shields came together and a great shoving match began. As the front line pushed over their enemies, the rows behind them would trample any fallen opponents.  But it was their spear-butts that offered the most effective means of finishing off their foes in a cramped space. Indeed, studies of skeletal remains from ancient Greek battles often show fatal puncture wounds created by the sauroter and not the front blade-end of the spear. This explains why the butt-end of a spear might have in fact represented a perfect and very fitting victory dedication.

Mark Lawall is a professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba with research interests in Greek Archaeology and History. He often uses an old pool cue to demonstrate the challenges of using a spear as a hoplite.

Chigi vase (detail), c. 650 BC, Rome, Villa Giulia