Ancient History & Civilisation


Setting the Frame Chronologically

If there is nowadays a consensus that discussion of the Greek hoplite must start from Homer and the descriptions of fighting in the Iliad, then this is a fairly recent development. For most historians and Homerists of little more than a generation ago, Homer stood outside the issue and the Iliad’s battles would be mentioned only to be excluded from the discussion. There is an obvious analogy here with a bigger topic, one so closely linked with the hoplite as to be often thought inseparable from it: the rise of the polis. The same shift has occurred here: where there was once widespread agreement with Finley’s view of the Iliad and Odyssey, that “neither poem has any trace of a polis in its classical political sense” (Finley 1956: 39), it is common practice today to scrutinize both texts, theOdyssey especially, for features that betray the poet’s familiarity with elements of early polis society. Recent scholarship has detected a number of such elements there and indeed has held that, for the Iliad, the hoplite style of fighting is itself one of them.

In the specific case of hoplite warfare, this collective change of heart is, I think, relatively easily accounted for. It began with the appearance of Joachim Latacz’s Kampfparänese, Kampfdarstellung und Kampfwirklichkeit in der Ilias, bei Kallinos und Tyrtaios in 1977. I would not go so far as to say that, without Latacz, the old orthodoxy would have continued to prevail, and the Homeric evidence to be set aside; but I would maintain that the momentum and concertedness of this change in opinion derived from the publication of his book and, more especially, to its favorable reception on the part of historians. The prime contention of that book, that mass armies and mass combat play a far more important role in the battles of the Iliad than anyone had hitherto been prepared to admit, has won almost unanimous acceptance and, on its own, constitutes a major advance in the debate.

For Latacz, however, it served as the foundation for a series of more far-reaching inferences, which carry his argument far beyond the philological domain and progressively further into the historical one. At this point, radical dissent intervenes. It begins with a mainly philological issue: how far is Latacz justified in arguing that the picture of fighting in the Iliad, his Kampfdarstellung, is a homogeneous, consistent, unified, and coherent one? One critic who, at an early stage, gave a firmly negative answer was Latacz’s reviewer in Gnomon, Rüdiger Leimbach (Leimbach 1980). In his view, Latacz had quite failed to establish the coherence of detail of the Homeric battle scenes: his analyses tended to illustrate just the opposite qualities, of incoherence and internal incompatibility. For instance, the allegedly regular sequence of an engagement at long range, giving way to a phase of exploits by individual heroes, then to a mass engagement at close quarters, was simply not there in the text. A passage singled out by Latacz to exemplify the first phase of long-range engagement and specifically discussed at the Yale hoplite conference, Iliad viii, 60–67, gives an ideal illustration of this. This and other points were later to be taken up by historians and archaeologists, the present writer (Snodgrass 1993) and Hans van Wees (1994) included.

But we remained in a minority. Just as, on the philological side, most of the reviewers had reacted favorably, so most commentators on the historical implications took their lead from the late Kendrick Pritchett (Pritchett 1985), who followed the lead given by Latacz far beyond the point that we have reached so far. A useful roll call of these largely favorable responses has been given by van Wees (1988: 1–2, n. 3; supplemented in 1994: 14, n. 2): as we shall see, they include a number of historians and archaeologists. For Latacz and for many of his converts, not only was there a coherent Kampfdarstellung of massed battles, but it was historically a realistic one, rather than some kind of poetic construction; not only was it real, but it was based on a type of phalanx formation familiar from historical times; not only was it a kind of phalanx warfare, but it was the samekind of phalanx warfare that we know from later descriptions of the hoplite. This is the Kampfwirklichkeit of Latacz’s title: it goes without saying that, at almost every point, its validity depends on the integrity of the Kampfdarstellung that we were just now criticizing.

It will be apparent by now that, after the first, indisputable demonstration of the importance of mass armies in the Iliad, I question every subsequent stage in this sequence of arguments. The “consistency” of the poet’s battle descriptions seems to me largely imaginary. Even if it were genuine, it does not necessarily follow that the descriptions should be credited with the historical authenticity that Latacz confers on them: they might have been designed simply to fit the plot of the Iliad (as, in the main, they do, playing down but not entirely suppressing the effectiveness of the large forces arrayed on each side so as to highlight the deeds of individual warriors). But from this point on, the issues become increasingly historical ones: can the descriptions of mass engagements in theIliad be closely compared, let alone identified, with the evidence that we have for the early historical phases of hoplite phalanx battle?

To assert that they can, Latacz had to venture unusually far outside the purely philological sphere. The fact that he nevertheless convinced historians and archaeologists of high repute on this whole issue, up to and including the final step of identifying the hoplite phalanx in the Iliad, must be reckoned a powerful argument for the strength of his case. No doubt I remain in a minority in continuing to find in this mass conversion a source of amazement. I cannot understand how my historical and archaeological colleagues were lulled into overlooking what seem to be glaring contrasts between the two methods of fighting. These contrasts range from the higher conceptual level, in the multiple linkage of the hoplite phalanx with the condition of citizenship, to the lower levels of organization (the presence or absence of pipers) or of mundane accoutrements (the total dichotomy between shields of hide and shields of wood). I can only echo a phrase that we earlier heard from Paul Cartledge, “a world of difference.”

It is true that I have jumped directly to the last step in Latacz’s argument, the identification in Homer of the hoplite phalanx and the consequent denial of any post-Homeric “hoplite reform,” passing over many complex intermediate arguments. It might be asserted that his case could anyway stand without the support of these intervening steps: that is, even if the battle descriptions of the Iliad were confused and incoherent, and consequently lacking in all historical verisimilitude, the mere occurrence, even once or twice, of a descriptive passage recognizable as an account of the hoplite phalanx would be enough—enough to show (short of having recourse to the old tactic of denouncing such lines as later interpolations) that the hoplite phalanx was something present in the poet of theIliad’s experience. In some opinions, we do have one or two passages of just this kind, notably in book xiii (130–33, 339–43). We shall return to this issue of single passages later; but in any case, I do not think that it was this line of argument that won over so many distinguished scholars. Rather, it was a feeling of intellectual dissatisfaction (shared by myself) with the established view against which Latacz was rebelling: the view, enshrined in Lorimer’s classic article (1947: 111), that Homeric and hoplite fighting were two utterly different, sharply contrasting phenomena, the latter having fairly abruptly replaced the former in post-Homeric times; and that any Homeric passage suggesting otherwise was to be excised as a later interpolation. Like the denial of any trace of the polis in the Homeric poems, this doctrine had come to seem too absolute, too “pat.”

But next, I wish to move for a moment into a fully archaeological field: that of dedications of actual armor in sanctuaries. Here we have a class of evidence that is robust in itself, and central to the issue of chronology with which we are concerned: indeed, for the early chronology of the hoplite and the phalanx, it constitutes the firmest evidence that we have. From a date in the mid-seventh century BCE, it suddenly became common practice to dedicate, to Zeus at Olympia and to other deities elsewhere, specimens of the bronze armor of the hoplite. None of these items of equipment was altogether new, but never had they appeared in anything resembling these quantities. The highly protective bronze Corinthian helmet becomes a very much more frequent dedication, along with the less common bronze breastplate; more important than either, and more abrupt in the scale of increase in dedications, are the bronze facings and bronze armbands from the round, wooden hoplite shield. The figures in Snodgrass 1980: 105 today stand to be greatly enhanced by new finds and publications, particularly in the additional category of the bronze greave: Kunze 1991. Kunze’s periodization is slightly different, with the phases beginning and ending somewhat later: the marked surge in the dedication of greaves thus becomes clearly visible only from around the 630s BCE, rather than at the mid-seventh century, rising from about thirty-four examples in the “Early Archaic” phase to about eighty in the “High Archaic” (a phase of similar duration, extending perhaps from about 630 to about 560 BCE), dedicated at Olympia or Delphi. But some of the “Early Archaic” specimens—perhaps as many as fourteen—are specifically dated to the third quarter of the seventh century (Kunze 1991: 14, 20–21) so that the “surge” at the midcentury may have been comparable with those apparent in the other categories of armor.

Each item on this list—hoplite shield, breastplate, Corinthian helmet, cuirass, and greaves—had been seen on the battlefield for a generation or two before circa 650 BCE, and indeed, most of them feature in the battles of the Iliad. But when taken together, they comprise the first, and heaviest, standard panoply of the Greek hoplite, and there is good reason to see in this upsurge in dedication a significant step in the development of the hoplite. To explain it as a mere change in votive fashion would be to overlook the exact coincidence in time with a small group of Corinthian vase paintings, which give us our best iconographic evidence of this same, standardized heavy panoply, together with the first and clearest depictions of the phalanx.

It is important to realize that this “mature” phase of heavily armed hoplites, fighting in a phalanx, had an end as well as a beginning. Something over a century later, in the final generation of the sixth century BCE, there is a similar conjunction of archaeological (a falloff in dedications) and iconographic evidence, but this time demonstrating that armor was becoming lighter. Perhaps in the cause of increased mobility, the bronze cuirass began to be discarded in favor of lighter materials and the Corinthian helmet to be made of thinner metal, or replaced by less protective forms (though the greave evidently lived on). This lightened form of the panoply was to prevail permanently: the hoplite familiar from the Classical written sources was thus a different animal from his ancestor of the period between circa 650 and 525 BCE.

But this if anything increases the significance of that earlier phase: it is perhaps the most prolonged, stable, securely attested, and well-dated episode in Greek warfare. It is also the period of the widespread overseas exploits of the Greek hoplite (John Hale, this volume), in what might be called his “export model”; and, as a direct consequence, the period during which certain non-Greek peoples, most famously the Etruscans, first paid the Greek hoplite the compliment of adopting his equipment and imitating his formations. It is not the beginning of the hoplite’s story, but it provides a fundamental benchmark against which we should judge both earlier and later Greek warfare—including the warfare of the Iliad.

Each of the approaches to these problems that has been mentioned—the philological, the historical, and, less often, the iconographical—has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses, which in turn may have a chronological application; the weaknesses are often apparent at the point of junction with, or transition to, a different field of study. To take first an example of the philological approach: every discussion of the battle tactics of the Iliad, by comparison with those of the historical hoplite, must take account of the fact that the word phalanx occurs repeatedly in the poem, though almost always in the plural: I recall my own unease, many years ago, in seeking either to explain away this fact, or alternatively to use it as an argument against the then established orthodoxy. For the philologist, it is natural to attach greater weight to a terminological factor of this kind and, if pressed too far, this tendency becomes a weakness. The fact is that a given Greek word could, and often did, change its meaning through time: Peter Krentz (this volume) considered the interesting case of the verb ôtheo, which (like phalanx) makes frequent appearances in the battle scenes of the Iliad, but is also a basic feature in descriptions of Classical hoplite fighting. Even within a single period, Greek terminology is notorious for its failure to use the same word to denote a given thing in anything like a one-to-one relation: rather, it seems to revel in richness and variety of vocabulary. The Greek nomenclature of pot shapes, or of weapons, would provide clear examples. All of this means that too close a reliance on the terminology of literary descriptions can become a weakness of the philological approach: the mere presence of a word like phalanx (or phalanges) may mean little on its own. I am not suggesting that Latacz himself is vulnerable on this account, but I do suspect that this factor has played a part in persuading others.

But the historical approach has its weaknesses too. In this context, there is one tendency that I have found as prominent as it is unfortunate: the detachment from, or disregard for, the most recent shifts of opinion in philological scholarship. Historians and archaeologists are, I think, by now generally aware of the movement (already of some thirty years’ standing) on the part of philologists and others toward lowering the date of the completion of the Iliad and Odyssey, in essentially the form in which we have them, from the later eighth century BCE to the earlier seventh: indeed, some of them have themselves contributed to it. Its effect on the whole issue of the relation between hoplite fighting and the battles of the Iliad is potentially quite a profound one.

What I have missed altogether, however, is any reference to a more recent, and even more far-reaching, movement of opinion. I refer to the “evolutionary model” for the Homeric texts, which in its fully fledged form, first pioneered in the 1990s by Gregory Nagy, has today made such a rapid advance as to have reached “almost the status of orthodoxy” among the younger generation of American philologists, according to one of their number who does not himself accept it (Reece 2005: 52). The doctrine is conveniently summarized in a succinct, two-page outline that Nagy appended at the end of his paper in the volume New Light on a Dark Age (Nagy 1997: 206–7). According to this model, there were “five ages of Homer,” each showing progressively less flexibility and greater rigidity:

1. the most fluid period, with no written texts, extending from the second millennium to the later part of the eighth century BC

2. a more formative or “Panhellenic” period, still with no written texts, from the later eighth to the mid-sixth century BC

3. a definitive period, originating in the Athens of the Peisistratids, with potential transcripts being taken down at any of several points from the mid-sixth to the later fourth century BC

4. a standardizing period, perhaps with texts that were not mere transcripts, from the later fourth to the mid-second century BC

5. a most rigid period, with texts as “scripture,” from the mid-second century BC onward.

All this, but especially the description of the first two “ages,” poses a direct and obvious threat to any theory of consistent and coherent Homeric battle tactics, belonging to a single period. The most important feature for us is perhaps the continued absence of written texts down to the mid-sixth century and the fact that even the second stage is still merely “more formative,” not definitive. Yet in one respect, by bringing the first “age” to a close in the later eighth century rather than the seventh, this model restores some of its significance to a long-established, but now increasingly disputed, landmark: an important quality, namely, Panhellenic status, differentiates the second “age” from the first. At the same time, the model would undermine the recent fashion for detecting the latest diagnostic features in the Homeric Realien and using them to lower the date of the main composition of the epics from the eighth century to some point within the seventh, and so setting up a comprehensive terminus post quem for their consolidation into essentially the form that we know. Instead, the whole concept of “consolidation” becomes premature for this stage, and any such features may simply be assigned to a further stage in the development of the epics.

We may wish to reject the entire evolutionary model, but I do not think we can silently ignore its existence. On the positive side, the model opens the door to a variety of potential solutions to the problems that we have been discussing. An example might be the occurrence in the Iliad of single passages with distinctively hoplite overtones, which we were discussing earlier. Under the “evolutionary model,” it is no longer necessary to stigmatize such lines as “interpolations,” if the whole received text was still potentially exposed to the influence of the age of the hoplite: on the contrary, it may now be their extreme rarity that occasions surprise.

The ramifications of the evolutionary model of course extend very much more widely. New explanations may emerge, whether for long-standing textual debating points such as the description of the shield of Achilles in Iliad xviii, with its surprisingly advanced development, both in the society portrayed and implicitly in the techniques of artistic execution; or for notorious iconographic problems such as that posed by the “Euphorbos plate,” showing the fight to secure the body and arms of Euphorbos, with Menelaos apparently prevailing against Hektor in a way that not merely differs from, but flatly contradicts the narrative of Iliad xvii, 1–113. In these as in other cases, the main effect of the model may appear to be that of increasing the range of the uncertainties—not necessarily a bad thing.

The iconographical approach, in general, is perhaps the one whose weaknesses are most apparent to us. I content myself with quoting a couple of phrases from the paper published earlier by Adam Schwartz (Schwartz 2002: 54): “any attempt towards interpretation is bedeviled by the sheer amount of ambiguity inherent in such early iconography. There is no external criterion of control to iconography.” One might contest the last comment by saying that actual finds of objects, corresponding to those shown in the images, constitute a partial external control. But in general these comments are truer of the iconographical approach than of either the philological or the historical one.

None of these three approaches can in fact progress very far on its own, without recourse to the other two. Above all, this must not degenerate into a game of stone/scissors/paper, in which the “stone” of the textual evidence competes with the “scissors” of history and the “paper” of iconography. Our difficulty is that few of us can muster the skills necessary to judge authoritatively in more than one of these categories, let alone all three. We have instead to assess the reliability of the conclusions reached by colleagues in other disciplines; and the essence of my argument so far has been that we have sometimes fallen short in such assessments.

Yet my conclusion, in the light of the contributions to this volume intended to represent the full range of divergent views, and of the conference at Yale from which the volume sprang, is an optimistic one. I recall something said by Donald Kagan in the first session at Yale. He referred to the “search for self-differentiation” that once preoccupied the epic poets, but which today instead affects research—in that scholars tend to accentuate, rather than play down, the differences between their own views and those of colleagues. I agree: I think that the degree of consensus present in the current study of hoplites is greater than has often been acknowledged by the participants in that study. I would include myself, and this present article, in that judgment: it is more important that I share in the fundamental consensus, founded on Latacz’s work, that mass armies are the decisive force in the warfare of the Iliad, than that I reject every one of the later inferences that he bases on that insight.

Some of the apparent disagreements have turned out to be derived from simple misunderstanding. Thus, Hans van Wees did not deny the presence of mass combat in the Iliad, but that of massed combat, a different thing (van Wees 1994: 15, n.7); and Kurt Raaflaub (this volume) does notsupport Latacz’s identification of the close formations described in the Iliad with the hoplite phalanx. It is helpful to have these matters clarified, but what I argue is that there is a deeper level of convergence between ostensibly competing views.

I do not wish to overpress this point. But one man’s “hoplite revolution” may not differ all that much from what is merely a significant advance in the course of another man’s “evolution of the hoplite.” Nowadays, in fact, nearly everyone seems to accept some kind of gradualist account of the onset of the Greek hoplite, though we differ in the degree of gradualism that we favor, and in the chronological settings to which we extend it. Thus the nascent phalanx of the Iliad, even on Latacz’s own account, has some further developments to undergo before reaching the form recognizable from historical accounts; while, for Hans van Wees, these further developments had still not run their full course by the end of the seventh century BCE. A combination of these two views would extend the evolution of the hoplite over a century or more.

Against this trend toward gradualism, however, one substantial obstacle has remained: the adoption of the two-handled arrangement for the hoplite shield, that single, once-for-all advance, apparently widely and rapidly accepted. It is absolutely certain that this invention was in place by the early decades of the seventh century, and very likely that it had already happened in the late eighth. But was it desirable, or even practicable, to combine this new piece of equipment with any battle formation other than the fully fledged, close-order phalanx, whose members were uniformly armed with it?

Here a genuine conflict of views persists. Paul Cartledge (now joined by Greg Viggiano at this conference) has been prominent among those who champion the inseparability of shield and formation; Victor Hanson has brought home to everyone the features of weight and concavity that distinguish the hoplite shield from just any two-handled form; while Hans van Wees has been tireless in the search for other contexts of use for the two-handled shield. For now, I would only plead for flexibility in our interpretations. Is it not possible, even likely, that the developed form of the hoplite shield—heavy, wooden, concave, partly bronze-faced—did not appear immediately upon the invention of the double handles? Could it have been precisely this final form that introduced and characterized the slightly later phase of the “standardized heavy panoply” that I identified earlier? Certainly the decorated bronze arm armband, the most diagnostic surviving feature of the developed hoplite shield, begins to appear among the dedications only from this time. In that case, the earlier round, two-handled shields, though undoubtedly real and of similar dimensions, could have been made of different, lighter materials, and so perhaps been usable in a wider range of battle formations.

I note, too, how often those involved in recent discussion of hoplites have seen themselves as seeking compromises between different views, and I am happy to join their number. My paper has concentrated heavily on the beginning and the early phases of the age of the hoplite, to the detriment of the far better documented Classical period, let alone anything later. So let me end with a pointer in the direction of something that is very seldom discussed, no doubt because it is heavily deficient in written documentation and almost entirely lacking in iconography: the final disappearance of the hoplite.

Some may be tempted to say that the age of the hoplite had come to a close on the battlefield of Chaironeia in 338 BCE, when the hoplite phalanx met with immediate defeat and ultimate replacement at the hands of the Macedonian army. Yet the evidence shows that many elements of the hoplite system and, especially, of the enrollment of citizens for it, still remained in place in the Greek cities for generations after this; nor did the tactics and armor change everywhere overnight. This was not necessarily a token of localized backwardness or conservatism. Rather, as has been argued in an illuminating paper by John Ma (Ma 2000), the system was a central characteristic of the small intercity wars of the Hellenistic age. However much our literary sources may have neglected them in their preoccupation with the major clashes of the successor kingdoms, such wars, documented primarily in the epigraphic record, continued to occur and, for them, established systems were still found most appropriate.

A possible example of such a survival, apparently much regarded at the time although there are interesting differences between the various later accounts of it, is the story of Philopoemen’s reforms of the equipment and tactics of the army of the Achaean League. As told by Pausanias (viii.50.1), Philopoemen actually introduced the traditional phalanx tactics and equipment of the Classical hoplite to the Achaean army, till then entirely equipped as lightly armed: Pausanias makes this explicit by his use of the phrase “Argolic shields,” the time-honored designation for the large round wooden shield of the hoplite; his “longer spears” will then also presumably be those of the hoplite. But this is not quite how our other two sources, Plutarch (Philopoemen 9.2–3) and later Polyainos (Strategemata 6.4, 3) tell it. For them, the new equipment was that of the Macedonian phalangite: Plutarch implies this by having Philopoemen directly seek to emulate the superior arms of the Macedonians, while Polyainos explicitly uses the word sarisa for the longer spear that he now introduces. This latter version is the more likely to convince: the episode must belong in or close to the year 208 BCE, a time not long after the Spartans had abandoned the hoplite spear and shield in favor of their Macedonian counterparts (Plutarch, Cleomenes xi.2). But even so, the “last hoplites” of John Ma’s account (Ma 2000: 353–57) were still a reality in some Greek cities of this era. This gradual, protracted decline of the hoplite may even have some lessons to teach us about the other end of the story, when, I have argued, gradual change had also been the order of the day.

The disparities in the speed and direction of military development, whether in Archaic or Hellenistic times, as between different regions of Greece, serve to remind us how far the hoplite system fell short of being a Panhellenic phenomenon. The long lapse of time that is attested toward the end, with hoplite equipment still being in use many years after its critical limitations had been exposed on the field of Chaironeia, does at least warn us against the general dangers of any periodization that is too rigid and clear-cut. The hoplite system of fighting was a successful, but not a self-evidently irresistible, mode of warfare: the idea of an immediate and near-universal rush to embrace it still seems to me just as improbable as the notion of a “sudden death” for the system has turned out to be. Even in the Classical period, and surely in the early years too, it had to undergo the occasional serious setback, long before things deteriorated into any kind of steady eclipse. Whether politically or tactically, its greatest strength seems to have lain in defense, which might in certain circumstances limit its value. Admiration for it seems to have been widespread, but we may doubt whether it was at any stage unquestioning. Yet even when faced, toward the end, with evidently superior external methods of warfare, we see that it could still be found fully serviceable by some Greeks in more limited, internal contexts. All these factors, cumulatively, encourage me still to join in supporting a gradualist account of the advent of the hoplite.


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