Since the era of the Minoitans, the Cretans were renowned archers; a fact that did not change even after the Achaeans and the Dorians’ arrival at Crete. Cleinias attributes the development of archery to the island’s topography, refering to the bow as «ideal» for Crete’s setting.
The first Cretan archer known to us is referenced to in Iliad and he is Meriones, Idomeneus’ partner.

The Dorians who invaded the island quickly adopted the Cretans’ archery-related habits and mixed them with their military training. The Cretans spent most of their time fighting amongst themselves, thus they do not seem to have played any major role in greek matters until the 5th century B.C. Being professional archers, the Cretans would have had far faster reload times as well as being more accurate and possibly having slightly longer ranges due to a lifetime of increasing natural draw strength. The accuracy and speed of aiming would be essential in special situations such as sieges where opponents could be closing in from all angles.

One of the earliest tales of their effectiveness is found in the story of the ten thousand, the Greek mercenary army stranded deep in Persia after their employer fell in battle. Forming a hollow square the Greeks marched to the safety of the coast.


Continually harassed on their journey the Cretans put up a solid fight, even scavenging and reusing Persian arrows and gathering materials on the journey to make new bows as needed. Cretans were also used to great effect by Alexander the Great, who knew the importance of selecting the best possible troops for each area of his army, and within the framework of the combined weapons precept he had developed, hired 500 Cretans archers under Eyrybwta as elite skirmissers for the army he would pass to Asia. Eyrybwtas was killed in the capture of Thebes, but his archers remained in the troop of Alexander and played a decisive role with their arrow fire during the Battle of Granicus, their achievements are also mentioned in the battles of Issoy and Gaugamela.

Though not often mentioned skirmishers often were tasked with overwhelming enemy elephants. though the Macedonian phalanx stopped them, Cretan archers likely played a huge role behind the scenes.

Since the campaign of Alexander Cretans have gained even greater fame and in the following centuries became the most important and most infamous mercenaries of Mediterranean.The constant clashes between the Cretan cities intensified in the 3rd century, the result was that after the end of the Cretan wars where thousands of well-trained and battle hardened Cretans archers looking for work.The Hellenistic kingdoms, especially the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, became their best employers, since they hired in mass prudential as «best Archers of the time». The Antiochos Alexander in his «Anabasis» had 2,500 Cretans archers with him.

The Romans knew that though they had the best heavy infantry in the world, they lacked skilled skirmishers, with the role traditionally going to the youngest and least experienced Velites. Cretan archers were utilized during the Punic wars though they largely perished at the battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae.Livy, in an abomination, makes a speech about the «storm of the Arrows» launched by the Cretans archers.
Julius Caesar knew the advantages of having elite troops thus he had Cretan archers in several of his legions (Sagitarii ex Creta, archers from Crete) and all the archers of the elite 10th legion were Cretans! He also utilized Cretan archers throughout his Gallic campaigns. They would have seen battle in Britain and fought in the unique battle of Alesia.

Roman sagittarius preparing to fire

At the great siege of Constantinople the dwindling Byzantine Empire still had access to a small amount of Cretan archers. Though the Ottomans won the battle the defenders, particularly the archers, put up a fierce fight and forced Sultan Mehmet’s troops to retreat from the breaches several times.

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A Medieval representation of the Cretan archer

Education & Tactics

Xenophon first mentions the red tunics worn by the Cretan fighters. The red color is associated with the «line warriors» in the Greek armies, so from this we conclude that the Cretans were not standard skirmishers. They were armed except from a bow with a sword, a small shield (propably a pelte) and a dagger, that is, they were equiped for a struggle, unlike the peltasts of the rest of the Greek armies, which were strictly for skirmishing .

The Cretans did not hesitate to engage in melee combat, they were also trained for such a hand to hand combat . The peltasts , who did not have armor, were often forced into disorderly retreat in front of the stormy raid of the wild Cretan archers with the short sword! Of course, against the heavily armed hoplites , the Cretans practiced skirmishing tactics.

The training of the Cretans was similar to  the Spartans, and the Doric cities of the island were those who kept the tradition of the Dorian warriors alive and are said to have inspired Lycurgus to create his own laws for Sparta.

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Spartans dressed with red tunics so their opponent could not see that they were bleeding

Young Cretans from the age of seven years were trained for war. As ancient historians give us, the children lived together, ate in common meals, trained in weapons , and were hardened to be able to protect their city . A basic parameter of their training was hunting too, in which the bow was a primary weapon, while they used the javelin very widely. With the rigorous military training, excellent warriors were produced, who were particularly skilled archers and javelinmen


The Cretan bow, according to the testimonies of the ancient sources, was of the type of «composite bow», probably constructed with the use of horns and offal. The horns that seem to preferred were those of «will animals «. The Cretan bow appears to have evolved from Eastern standards that were introduced early on the island. During the 4th century BC was introduced in Crete the Scythian bow, which evolved from the local craftsmen and was widely used in the coming centuries.
The bow used by the Cretans in the Hellenistic period was a deadly weapon, with a drastic range close to 200 meters. Their ammo were arrows with heavy, triangular iron spikes, which had particularly good performance in the piercing of the thorax. The bow along with the arrows was transported in a quiver , which hunged on the back or the shoulder.

Shield: The shield of the Cretans was a light pelti small and round, probably constructed from braided wicker branches or wood perhaps later used a bronze coating, . It usually brought to the outside a of one of the symbols that were popular in Crete, especially the labyrinth. Although it was a pelte had a porpaka to be fastened to the left arm and to allow the warrior to handle his bow. Besides, the Cretans held the bow with the left hand, the same one on which the shield was attached.

Armor: Initially the Cretans didn’t wear armor. They were more of a burden than help in the conditions of the island, after all, their capital tactic was skirmissing


Plutarch “Caius Sempronius Gracchus” Loeb Classical Library1920

Polyvios “Military Institutions of the Romans”

Pictures ;

Cretan Archers

The March of the Ten Thousand

Phalanx against Elephants

Spartans dressed with red tunics


© Konstantinos Manolakos in collaboration with HistoryMarche, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s authors and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the relevant author and HistoryMarche with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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