It has been mentioned here occasionally that, firstly, history is not exact, in that we cannot know precisely what went on in a given historical era, period, year, month, day or even instant. We make some sort of models based on what we are interested in, the evidence we have to hand, what other people have said and the general biases of our time.
Secondly, it has been observed that, in general, the population overall, and wargamers in particular, are not terribly good at critically assessing the sources and secondary materials they have to hand. Often, we accept a particular secondary source as being correct, and defend that against all comers. Unfortunately, the same sorts of errors and confusions which beset us as wargamers also affect the writers of our secondary sources, with some odd results.
For example, I have before me one of those Osprey compilation books entitled Alexander the Great at War (ed Ruth Sheppard, Osprey, Oxford: 2008). Now, this is a tome aimed fairly squarely at the war and military history brigade, of whom wargamers are, a part.
As such, there is some discussion of the Macedonian long pointy stick, known as a sarissa. According to this book, the sarissa came in two parts (p 81) to allow it to be easily transported. There was a front part, with the pointy bit on the end, and a back part, with a butt spike on it to balance the weapon and also allowing the whole thing to be dropped on a prone opponent to finish them off. The two parts were joined in the middle by a ‘coupling link or collar’, to make the whole eighteen foot long pike.
Now, I confess that I read this and was a little puzzled as to how it worked. I am no expert on ancient technology, but even with fairly simple modern methods I could not fathom how this contraption worked to make a pike which at least did not droop seriously from the middle onwards, or at worst did not simply fall apart at odd and probably (for say, a front rank pikeman) embarrassing moments. Given that the whole idea of a phalanx was to present a uniform array of the business ends of pointy sticks to the enemy, this seemed a little unlikely.
But still, there the theory is, along with a nice picture of a happy phalangite marching along with the two bits of pike over his shoulder. Not being one to doubt the evidence of my eyes, I simply filed the oddity in my mental pigeonhole and read on. After all, I do not usually read Ospreys for the text but for ideas as to how to paint my tiny warriors.
Next came into my possession another book, The Army of Alexander the Great (Stephen English, Pen & Sword, Barnsley: 2009). This is based on the author’s master’s thesis and, therefore, is kind of implicitly promoted as being a cut above the run of the mill populist sort of tome. Indeed, English has a go at some of these works in his book.
So, what does he say about the sarissa and its method of being transported? Well (p 19) he describes the infantry pike as being a long pointy stick with a sharp bit at the front, a butt spike to drop on people at the back (which also, he notes somewhere, can be thrust into the ground to brace the pike against onrushing opponents) and a tube which fits over the back of the pointy bit to stop uncooperative enemy from chopping off the business end.
He also mentions the idea that the sarissa was in two parts. His interpretation seems to be that the argument is that the pike was split in two lengthways, and the point, the butt and the tube were the three points where it was drawn together. However, he then does on to talk about using only the front part on its own, in bad terrain. There is, after all, a lot of speculation that phalangites did just this. Fortunately for my sanity, however, he dismisses both of these options.
Now, unfortunately for the world of Alexandrian studies, a complete sarissa has not been discovered. However, the heads, butts and tube things have been found and so all of these ideas about how the pike was constructed are built around these items. I have yet to run across a literary reference to pikes being dismantled for transport and, to me, it does seem inherently unlikely. Pikes, to maintain their threat need to be, as noted, uniform and not to fall apart at the drop of a hat.
Another piece of information which might be useful here is the later use of the pike in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, presumably, with better metalworking techniques, it would have been possible to make a pike in two halves to be screwed or bolted together as necessary. It might even have been possible to introduce a thread so the two bits could be screwed directly into each other, giving a better join than any coupling collars or whatever. I can also note, in passing, that pike heads tended to be long, to prevent anyone chopping them off, as well.
So far as I know, no seventeenth century pikes came in two parts, and this did not stop pikemen marching to war across the whole continent of Europe. As it is a literary truism that the ancients were far brighter and far fitter than we are, if the weedy English of their Civil War could carry pikes across the country, why not the Macedonians from Greece to India?
However, and here is the point, if I had relied solely on one source, the Osprey, I would now be extolling the virtues of wonderful Macedonian engineering which allowed the construction from two bits of wood and metal collar a entirely rigid and battle ready weapon.
Now, I am not really sure about any of this, but I am now fairly convinced of two things. Firstly that the sarissa was a single bit of wood which was simply carried by soldiers on the march (or, possibly, put into waggons, probably with a yellow rag on the end to indicate a long vehicle). Secondly and more importantly, not to rely on a single secondary source. For anything.