Marathon — Hoplite Combat. This week….



This week, as you may have noticed, I’m in Greece,  The first week I’ll be with friends and family recreating the world of late Archaic Greece at Marathon, near Athens.

A great many of the experiments we’ll be trying will involve issues of combat in the ancient world, and especially in the phalanx of the Greeks.

Experiments, you say?  So, if you play Rome Total War, or various other computer simulations; or if you play various tabletop games; or if you just read voraciously, in all cases, you may say ‘What don’t we know about hoplite combat?’

Sadly, the answer is, ‘Everything.’  There is almost no aspect of hoplite warfare that we ‘know.’  Let me tell you first why such arcane stuff matters to anyone beside reenactors and gamers.

Polibius said that the study of History, ‘Mankind has no better guide to action than the knowledge of past events.’  I tend to agree, especially in areas involving tangible results, like politics and warfare.  And more ink (and for all I know, blood) has been spilled over the armament and conduct and social status and training of Greek hoplites than almost any other subject in the ancient world.  Because, as evidence for how the past can teach us about the world in which we live, the hoplite is either a citizen soldier, member of a militia, who owns his own equipment and is self-trained; or he is a cog in a state driven machine; he is either a hardened aristocratic warrior in a city-state that makes war  and takes its main purpose from war, or he is an amateur soldier who never makes war in a society mostly at peace…

On and on.  Everyone wants the experience of Ancient Greece to back their own views on modern topics like standing armies, 2nd amendment gun rights, the utility of martial arts skills, the role of the citizen in society.  Did the foundation of democracy in Ancient Athens rest on the enfranchisement of Middle Class hoplites?  Was there always an ‘aristocratic elite’ that led from the front?  Did Athenian military prowess collapse when the elite no longer wanted to fight?  Or when the demos no longer wanted to fight?

Because Greece saw the birth of our modern world in so many ways; philosophy, art, democracy and politics, war… what we believe about Ancient Greece is pivotal to how we view ourselves, and how we imagine history to function.

That’s why it matters, all this complex stuff about the weight of an aspis and the weight of armour and the way you hold a spear.

Let’s ask a few questions.

What is a phalanx?  That may seem daft, but really, no one knows.  We accept much later sources (mostly from the 1st C BCE, or about 400 years too late for us) that the phalanx was a dense, and in fact, highly drilled body of spear men, with perhaps 8 men deep and as wide as the body could be formed.

OK, We accept that’s what they thought in 100 BCE.  But really, the word itself is full of meanings.  Any body of men can be a phalanx; in the Iliad, it’s just a group.  Classicists have suggested that the original meaning was a log roller; that the ranks of men resembled logs, on behind another.  But Xenophon (a source from 360 BCE, much closer) uses the word to describe several formed bodies, and to describe an orderly camp.

And did they drill?  Friends, there’s not a shred of evidence that Greek hoplites ever did drill.  In fact, our best source says that the Spartans practiced for war by hunting and dancing.  We do have some 1st C. BCE ‘manuals’ which may, themselves, be descended from 4th c. BCE manuals.  That’s great, except that another major issue…

…. Is ‘ Back in the Day’ Syndrome.  Which is to say, we have a terrible tendency, even among massively educated professional historians, to imagine that Hoplite combat in 330 BCE was just like, or pretty much like, hoplite combat in 490 BCE.  Or 530 BCE.  Because, you know, the combat of the US Infantryman in Afghanistan is/was just like the combat experience of his great great grandfather at Shiloh or Gettysburg.

Brief digression; not that, as a cultural historian, you couldn’t make some astute observations about relationships between the U.S. infantryman in 1863 and in 2008.  There are many things that are ‘American’ and some things that, even tactically, remain similar.  But you couldn’t get even a GLIMMER of what combat experience was like for the one from the other. Except the fear.  I’ll bet that’s constant.

We KNOW (we think we know) that the hoplite technology changed over time, sometimes quite rapidly.  Hoplites in 500 BCE wore more armor than those in 330 BCE (but there are exceptions) and carried a bigger shield (exceptions) and a shorter spear (exceptions) and sometimes a second spear which they threw (and pretty late in the period people are still throwing spears).  Helmets change; they become lighter and cover less of the face, and my own observation is that they stop covering the ears quite the same way… making it more possible to hear orders shouted.

Digression 2.  Some of the ‘exceptions’ noted above appear to be Alexander the Great’s famous Hypaspists, who appear to have been armed…like classical hoplites (some people disagree, of course).  In full armour with greaves, and carrying the full-size ‘rimmed’ aspis.  Of course, the source that says so is as late as all the other sources…  But if true, this means that the equipment of the ‘original’ hoplites of say, 430 BCE was still ‘valid’ on the 330BCE battlefield; perhaps even moreso in the hands of a few expert bodyguards…  It is easy to assume that military technology makes ‘progress’ and get’s better’ but that’s not always true, and the sarissa (long pike) may have been a mere product of the King of Macedon having crappy infantry.  (NB, the Great Captain, Cordoba, said that the longer a pike was, the less you trust your infantry.  He said that in 1494… but I bet it’s true…  he advocated 12 foot ‘pikes’ for ‘elite’ infantry.  Interesting, eh? And we don’t call him ‘The Great Captain’ for nothing….

See how this is not a soundbite issue?  So, there are basically two ‘hoplite theory’ camps; that of Victor Davis Hanson, who advocates the ‘citizen hoplite’ as a ‘middle-class farmer’ and for whom warfare is an ‘agonistic’ (that means, painful and sport-like) contest to be settled fairly against his peers without too much interruption of agriculture.  Now, I don’t happen to agree, but I will say that Hanson’s book ‘The other Greeks’ about Greek agriculture, and his book ‘The Western Way of War’ about what we owe to Greek ideas of ‘battle’ are amongst the best and most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.  I just think he’s mostly wrong.

Third digression:  because history is science.  You have to play with the data you have, and theories, and you have to listen to, appreciate, and take in the theories that maybe you don’t ‘like’ and compare them to the evidence, or you are a bad historian.  The world is full of bad military historians.  But some of the best books I’ve ever read are full of flaws, but brilliance too; and often, they move the ball forward.

Second ‘Camp’ is captained by Hans Van Wees, and he advocates a more tribal, loosely organized form of warfare between what are basically (I’m over-generalizing both camps) aristocratic elites with some slaves and archers and retinue thugs trailing away behind, as you see in the Iliad.  Hans Van Wees will say that there was no ‘Middle Class’ in Ancient Greece… that the property requirement for being a hoplite includes only what we would call the rich, or 1%; that hoplite equipment was very expensive.  He’d also argue that the Phalanx was pretty loosely organized in 490 BCE and only tightened up in the 4th century; that it still had archers in it; that individuals fought duels in the front line, and the whole thing looked more like African and New Guinea tribal conflict than we’re comfortable with.  No drill.  Very little close combat.  Lots of spear throwing, until the Spartans ruin everything, kind’a like the Zulus.

I disagree with his theory, too, but his article in the ‘Cambridge History of Ancient Warfare’ is every bit as thought provoking and excellent as Hanson’s books.

Van Wees feels that his argument would be partly vindicated if hoplite equipment were light and easy to wear; and if it provided good coverage for individual combat and spear fencing…

Hanson prefers to stress that agonistic quality, and he’d like hoplite combat to be a matter of discipline and endurance; strong men pushing all day in heavy armor, and the weak fail and give up.

That’s why reproductions of equipment matter.  That’s why we go field test.  Basically, the history of democracy is at stake.

And oh, by the way, I think they’re both wrong.  And right.  I don’t think, in fact, that heavier armour precludes spear fencing (ask any Chivalric Fighting Arts practitioner) and I don’t think that light armour suggests a lack of agonistic warfare.  And I think that the reality of warfare was too complex for simple theory; I’m not sure that any two hoplite fights were any more alike than any two battles of WWII.  Terrain, circumstance, weather…. tactics, political situation… come on.  Not to mention that we KNOW they wore the same armour to fight as marines on ships, where it was, pardon me, nothing but individual or small team combat.

Anyway, I doubt we’ll change the world this week, but we’ll work hard to get the scholars some new, better evidence.  For myself, I’ll run 1200 meters in full panoply, and hopefully, swim in it as well.  I feel that as a modestly fit 53 year old, if I can run and swim in my carefully recreated and weighted panoply, real hoplites could do such things.  And maybe this will provide evidence for a new, and better theory of hoplite warfare, and democracy.  I promise you it will give impetus to writing.  It always does!

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