Here we see a Thracian peltast. The Greeks saw the importance of these light troops relatively late. During the Persian wars they noticed how strong the combination of heavy armed hoplites and light armed peltasts and archers was. Originally only the members of Thracian tribes were called peltasts, but later on the word peltast was given to a special form of infantry. Often they opened the battle by throwing their javelins at the enemy. Then they retreated behind the phalanx which was advancing in open formation. The phalanx switched to a closed formation once all peltasts were in safety, and attacked the hostile phalanx. The peltasts advanced again, and pursued the enemy once his lines were broken by the phalanx.
The equipment of the Thracian peltast.
The name peltast comes from the shield that the Thracian tribes used: the traditional pelte. It often was shaped like a partial moon, but it could also be oval or circular. It was made of osier and covered with the skin of a goat or a sheep. The usage of the pelte instead of the heavy hoplon, and the lack of any further armour, made the peltast much lighter and mobile than a hoplite, but it still gave him and advantage when he had to face lighter armed troops like archers in a man to man combat. Another advantage was that they were much cheaper to equip and maintain than a hoplite.
The peltasts were armed with a bundle of javelins. They are normally portrayed with only two javelins, but several descriptions of battles prove that he carried more than two in reality. The actual number depended on the length of the javelins which ranged from one metre to one and a half metre. The javelins were thrown in a very special way which enabled the peltasts to throw their javelins much further. He held the javelin lightly with his fourth and fifth finger, while the second and third finger were hooked around a noose which was attached to the javelin. When the javelin was above his head he released it and gave it a final swing with the noose. In the picture we see a typical Thracian peltast. He is wearing the characteristic high boots and cap made out of the skin of a fox. His colourful cape and tunic are pulled up and tied around his waist to give him more freedom to manoeuvre.
Peltast against phalanx.
During the Corinthian war the peltasts became so dangerous that they even were capable of fighting an unit of hoplites. The battle of Lechaien gives a good example of this. The Spartans escorted a convoy and met an Athenian group of hoplites. Once they had passed the Athenians they turned around to prevent that the Athenians would attack the convoy in the back. During this manoeuvre they exposed the unprotected right side of their phalanx to Athenian peltasts. The Athenian peltasts managed to break the Spartan phalanx, and the Athenian phalanx finished the job when the Spartans re-establishing their phalanx again on a small hill.
However, the peltasts had some important advantages during this battle. First of all they caught their enemy in the most vulnerable position, and there was no hand-to-hand combat between the different armies. Normally the losses would be high at the side of the peltasts once they got in hand-to-hand combat with a trained phalanx, and most likely would they not stand a chance, but this battle definitely has shown the increasing ineffectiveness of the phalanx against new and more versatile forces.