Military history


Greece is a mountainous land, which lends itself to agriculture only in the valleys and in the few expanses of level ground to be found in the northern Peloponnese, Thessaly and along its western coast. Olive trees and vines can be cultivated on the slopes, where terracing, too, will yield fields. Grain, the other staple of Greek life, besides oil and wine, can be grown in quantity only in the wider spaces of the valleys or plains. The intense attachment of the Greek citizen-soldier to his smallholding, usually of fifteen acres or less, is thus easily understood. From it he drew both his livelihood and the surplus that allowed him to equip himself as an armoured spear-carrier and so, in turn, to take his place among those who voted for the city’s magistrates and passed its laws. Any threat to invade his fields, destroy his trees or vines, or trample or burn his crops therefore menaced not only his survival during a following winter of hardship but his status as a free man. Devastation, ‘laying waste’, was a recurrent feature of Greek city-state warfare, and the provocation it offered has long been thought to explain the novel ferocity of its battles. More recently the American classicist Victor Hanson has proposed an alternative interpretation. Raised in a California family of vine-growers, he came to doubt whether ‘laying waste’ had economic effects so dire as had been imagined. From his own experience, he knew that a vine, however mistreated, has an almost miraculous power of regeneration; even if cut to the roots, in the following spring it will throw out green shoots and by summer be rampant in growth. To uproot the vine, the only effective means of destroying it, takes time: he calculated that to put a one-acre vineyard, containing as many as 2000 vines, out of production would require thirty-three man-hours of work.13 The olive tree is even more resistant to attack; in maturity it is a hard and gnarled plant, which cannot be made to burst into flames simply by setting a fire at its base, while its thick trunk, which can reach a diameter of twenty feet, stoutly resists an axe. Like the vine it recuperates well, if not as rapidly, from lopping, and dies for good only if uprooted; uprooting is even more laborious in an olive grove than a vineyard.14 For an invading enemy to disrupt the agricultural cycle of a collection of Greek farms, therefore, it had to strike at a more vulnerable source of produce; that meant the grain fields, from which the loss of a year’s crop would entail want, the loss of two in successive years, after stores had been exhausted, starvation.15 Yet there were difficulties also about ravaging fields. In the spring the corn was too green to burn, while trampling, sometimes attempted by invaders who had horses with them, was both time-consuming and ineffective. After harvest, the ears would be stored in secure barns ready for threshing. Therefore only a brief interval presented itself when dry standing crops, readily inflammable, could be found waiting for the torch. It was as short as a few weeks in May.

The Greek field pattern, however, resisted rapid overrunning by a raiding-party bent on harm; Greek farmers generally embanked or walled their holdings, often the constituent plots as well, and did so even if they lived apart from their neighbours; as a result, ‘ravagers could not gallop wildly through the Greek countryside, spreading fire and ruin at will … Fences, hills, small orchards and vineyards all made progress slow.’16 In short, the territory of the Greek city states was defensible, so defensible as to make common effort for the defence of the whole a rational military choice. If the enemy, who in the nature of things came from close at hand and could not therefore keep preparations for war secret, could be checked at the border, during the brief span of time when he might wreak his worst, the farms of the landholders, whose product supported them as citizens and warriors as well as heads of families, might collectively be spared damage.

This analysis was widely accepted before Hanson began his studies, if not in the detail he supplied. To it, however, he added a transforming idea. Given the extreme brevity of time in which attack could be made effective in the Greek farming world — and, as he points out, at least eighty per cent of those we call ‘citizens’ of the city states were countrymen and not town-dwellers — and given also that the attackers left their own fields vulnerable to spoliation when they marched off on campaign, the highest premium was placed, or placed itself, in settling matters as quickly and decisively as possible.17 The ‘idea’ of military decision thus planted itself in the Greek mind beside those other ideas of decision — by majority in politics, of outcome by the inevitability of plot in drama, of conclusion by logic in intellectual work — which we associate with our Greek heritage. It is important not to advance effect over cause. The intellectual glories of Greece belong to an age at least two centuries beyond that when the Greeks began to fight in the massed ranks of the phalanx, in a narrow field of battle, shield against shield, spear against spear. Also, civilised though they were, they remained closely enough in touch with their past to have preserved the primitive passion for revenge, a response to insult which the great gods of their pantheon practised without remorse in the myths all Greeks knew by heart. As a result, suggests Hanson,

the Greek manner of fighting [may] be explained as an evolving idea, a perception in the minds of small farmers that their ancestral lands should remain at all costs inviolate — aporthetos — not to be trodden over by any other than themselves, land whose integrity all citizens were willing to fight over on a moment’s notice … most Greeks felt that revenge in the old form of pitched combat was the most honourable and expedient way of resolving an insult to their sovereignty. Their tradition, their duty, indeed their desire, was for a ritualistic collision, head-on with the spears of the enemy, to end the whole business quickly and efficiently.18

It may be also that another form of competition, whose origins the modern world finds in the Greeks, further helped to supply them with the idea of fighting for an unequivocal result on the battlefield. That was competitive athletics, and the associated contests of chariot- or horse-racing, boxing or wrestling which in 776 BC began to be organised among the established Greek states, at four-yearly intervals, at Olympia in the western Peloponnese, in the territory of the city of Elis; they were carried on uninterruptedly for more than a thousand years until AD 261. Competition at sport and games already had a long history in Greece; Homer depicts the heroes of the Trojan War engaging in two-horse chariot races, boxing, wrestling, weight-throwing and running at ceremonies held by Achilles ‘to accompany the burial rites of his comrade Patroclus, killed by Hector in individual combat before the gates of Troy’.19

Many other peoples had or were to develop similar customs: the Hopi of Arizona held races in which the runners symbolised clouds and rain in the hope that the event would bring one from the other during the growing season; numerous hunting peoples, like the North American Huron and Cherokee, devised games or tests of skill which prepared the players for the chase by either ritual or practical means; even the individualistic steppe nomads rode against each other in contests to carry an object over a winning-line.20 Yet, in general, competitive sport was alien to the horse peoples, especially if it involved rough physical contact, which the Greeks believed they associated with personal insult, if a contrived dialogue between Solon and a Scythian visitor to the Olympic games is reliable evidence. Carvings from tombs of the Egyptian New Kingdom show soldiers wrestling, but the competition is between Egyptians and Syrians or Numidians, who are represented as conceding defeat. It is not a depiction of struggle between equals, which the Greeks thought supplied games with their point.21 When Herodotus visited Egypt from Greece in the fifth century BC ‘he was astonished to find no organised games; [but] open competition in games is incompatible with such rigidly stratified societies as those of the ancient Near East, with their Pharaohs and other absolute monarchs at the apex, divinely sanctioned and sometimes gods themselves.’22

Games, particularly the violent games of boxing and wrestling, had their critics in the Greek world, whose objections were similar to those we hear today: that successful athletes were over-rewarded, set an example of asocial individualism, and suffered disabling injuries which unfitted them for active life. Plato flatly stated that the tactics of boxers or wrestlers ‘are worthless in wartime and do not deserve discussion’. His judgement was too idealistic. Harsh sports, fought for a clear-cut result, reinforced the Greek military ethic; and in any case, Greek warfare was itself so brutal that no simulation was rough enough to unfit men to bear its horrors.23

Greek warriors took their place in the battlefield ranked shoulder to shoulder in a compact mass, usually eight rows deep. After the eighth century they were equipped in uniform style, though with weapons and armour the individual supplied for himself; the cost of the equipment, particularly of his bronze helmet, breastplate or the greaves that protected his shins, was a costly charge on his income and could be borne only by a man of property.24 (The survival of bronze armour into the Iron Age is explained by the inability of contemporary ironsmiths to produce metal of sufficient malleability to form large sheets of an equivalent resilience; though iron was elsewhere already being used to armour soldiers with scales or hoops fixed to a leather tunic, and iron helmets appear to have been in common use in the Near East, neither provided the protection afforded by bronze.) Such protection was essential to the man who took his place in the phalanx — the word (literally ‘a roller’) is cognate with that for the finger, perhaps because fingers project like parallel spears from the hand — since the shock he had to withstand was not that of a sword or arrowpoint which might be deflected by a glancing surface but of a sharpened iron point, mounted at the end of a solid shaft of ash which, when thrust with all the muscular strength an opponent could muster, would penetrate anything but the best metal.

The man in the phalanx also protected himself with a round, convex shield, the hoplon, from which derives the word hoplite used to identify the Greek soldiers of phalanx warfare. It was made of wood reinforced with iron, measured three feet in diameter, and was suspended from his shoulder by a leather strap and manipulated by a grip for the left hand. The right hand was thus left free to couch the spear between elbow and ribs and drive the point at the man opposite in the enemy ranks. It is a famous observation, first remarked by Thucydides, that the phalanx in motion tended to slip to its right, as each man moved closer to the protection of his neighbour’s shield. In contact with each other, two opposed phalanxes might be seen to wheel gradually about an invisible axis under the collective force of this individual urge to self-protection.

Phalanx did not meet phalanx without the preliminaries that all Greeks felt necessary. Sacrifice was one of them. ‘For the Greeks no undertaking was without its appropriate ritual, giving assurance or approval or, at least, the withholding of hostility on the part of the supernatural powers … every stage of the process that led up to a clash of hoplite phalanxes on the field of battle was marked by attention to the gods.’ An army marching out to war drove sheep with it to be sacrificed at the crossing-places of rivers or borders, at camp-sites and eventually on the battlefield itself. This sphagia, ‘the rites of bloodletting’, may have been performed ‘in the hope of securing assurance by signs that the outcome would be favourable; it may have been a ceremony of placation; it may have been something much cruder, an anticipation of the bloodshed of the battle [which] marked its ritual beginning, offered in a spirit of appeal to the gods: “We kill. May we kill.” ’25 By the time the moment came to perform the sphagia, however, the hoplites had usually reinforced their courage by more than ritual. It was common practice for both sides to eat a ceremonial mid-morning breakfast before the clash of arms; this last meal certainly included a wine ration, perhaps a larger one than on normal days. Drinking alcohol before battle is an almost universal practice where wine or spirits are available. The hoplites would also have heard the exhortations of their commanders and then, immediately after the ritual slaughter of the sphagia, moved forward themselves, uttering the paean, the battle-cry reproduced by Aristophanes as a ululating ‘eleleleu’.

Whether the commanders took their place in the front rank is much debated; in the Spartan phalanx it appears that they did, as Homer has his heroes do in his descriptions of what is now called the ‘proto-phalanx’ in the Iliad. Thucydides, a veteran as well as a historian of battle, implies as much, for he says that the tactical subdivisions within the Spartan shield wall could be identified by the distinctive dress of the commanders standing in first line. That they chose the post of maximum danger chiefly reflects the strength of the warrior ethic in their society. Elsewhere, particularly at Athens, customs were different. ‘An officer class simply did not exist in classical Greek cities’ — military posts were as elective as civilian — and there was no tactical point in the leading men putting themselves at the front. Phalanx warfare was won not by encouragement by example, but by the united courage of equals in a terrifying, short-lived clash of bodies and weapons at the closest range.26

Hanson has brilliantly and imaginatively reconstructed this ghastly and wholly revolutionary style of warmaking. He discounts the significance of preliminary skirmishing by the light-armed infantry, propertyless men who could not meet the cost of armour, and equally that by the few, rich mounted warriors who may have accompanied the army. The Greek countryside, which could not carry a horse population, does not lend itself to cavalry action. Once the opposed phalanxes arrived at one of those few level sites which it was recognised provided the conditions for a test of strength — ‘once the Greeks go to war’, Herodotus wrote, ‘they choose the best and smoothest place and go down and have their battle on that’ — they wasted no time.27

Crossing a no man’s land perhaps 150 yards wide at a clumsy run, under a weight of armour and weapons of seventy pounds, the ranks drove straight into each other. Each individual would have chosen another as his target at the moment of contact, thrusting his spear point at some gap between shield and shield, and seeking to hit a patch of flesh not covered by armour — throat, armpit or groin. The chance was fleeting. As the second and subsequent ranks were brought up short by the stop in front, the phalanx concertinaed, throwing the weight of seven men on to the back of the warriors engaged with the enemy. Under this impact, some men inevitably went down at once, dead, wounded or overborne from the rear. That might create a breach in the shield wall. Those in the second or third ranks strove to open it wider with their spears, thrusting and jabbing from their relatively protected position at whoever they could reach. If it widened, there followed the othismos, ‘push with shield’, to widen it further and to win room in which swords, the hoplite’s secondary weapon, might be drawn and used to slash at an enemy’s legs. The othismos was the more certain method, however: it could lead to the pararrexis or ‘breaking’, when those most heavily beset by the enemy’s pressure began to feel the impulse to flight, and either broke away from the rear ranks or, more shamefully, struggled backward from the point of killing to infect their comrades with panic also.

Once the phalanx broke, defeat inevitably ensued. The opposing hoplites who found free space in front of them would aim to spear or cut down those who had turned their backs; ‘there was even greater danger from the entrance of both cavalry and light-armed skirmishers … now for the first and only time since the minor pre-battle skirmishing, it was possible for them to enter the battlefield and demonstrate that they were, after all, effective fighters as they rode or ran down the helpless prize troops of the enemy.’28Escape from the light-armed was difficult. The hoplite might throw away his shield or spear as he ran, but could scarcely divest himself of his armour in flight. Men would if they could; Thucydides remarked that after an Athenian defeat during the Sicilian expedition in 413 BC ‘more arms were left behind than corpses’; at the moment of choice between life and death the citizen-soldier would certainly discard even the costly body-armour which marked him out as a man of standing at home, if that offered survival.29Yet to do so might not greatly hasten his flight. After the mere half-hour or hour that the clash of arms had lasted, the hoplite was physically exhausted, perhaps as much by draining terror as muscular effort, and could not outpace the fresh light-armed men who harried his footsteps. The bold and well disciplined might make a fighting retreat in small groups; the philosopher Socrates, who survived the Athenian defeat at Delion in 424 BC, did so by taking a party under command and ‘making it clear even from a distance that if anyone were to attack such a man as he, he would put up considerable resistance’.30 Most men who left ranks that had been broken, however, simply ran for their lives, often to be cut down as they lumbered to safety.

It has been estimated that a phalanx might lose fifteen per cent of its strength by defeat, either through outright killing, death from wounds — typically brought on by peritonitis, following a penetration of the gut — or in the massacre which followed flight. The losses might, nevertheless, have been far greater had the winners pressed home their victory. Generally they did not. ‘Pursuit of fleeing hoplites was [not thought] crucial: most victorious Greek armies saw no reason why they could not repeat their simple formula for success and gain further victory should the enemy regroup in a few days and mistakenly press their luck again.’ As a result, ‘both sides were usually content to exchange their dead under truce’ — it was held a sacred duty by all Greeks that those who fell fighting should receive honourable burial — and then ‘the victors, after erecting a battlefield trophy or simple monument to their success, marched home triumphantly, eager for the praise of their families and friends on return’.31 Why, since Greek battle partook of such unprecedented ferocity, did Greek war lack what moderns would see as a justifying culmination in destruction of the defeated army? That it did not is a point on which Hanson is adamant: ‘Ultimate victory in the modern sense and enslavement of the conquered was not considered an option by either side. Greek hoplite battles were struggles between small landholders who by mutual consent sought to limit warfare [and hence killing] to a single, brief, nightmarish occasion.’32

We can propose two explanations for this strange incompleteness of Greek warfare in the classical age, one with very old roots, the other to which the novel character of the Greek polis had itself given birth. For all its deadliness, so alien to the primitives, with whose tentative evasive or indirect tactics we are now familiar, there nevertheless remained strong traces of primitivism in Greek warmaking. One was the impulse to revenge: Greeks may not have made war over wife-stealing — though even modern scholars accept that such an episode might have been the occasion, if not the deeper cause, of the Trojan War in the heroic age — but they may have considered invasion of a city state’s fields an affront as outrageous, in a different way, as the violation of tabu. If that were the essence of the provocation, it partly explains the immediacy of the hoplite response. The taking of satisfaction, also a very primitive emotion, may then explain why the response stopped short of Clausewitzian decision. It was already an extraordinary leap into the future for the Greeks to overcome the natural human dread of pushing personal exposure to its tolerable limits, and that is how their adoption of hoplite tactics ought to be seen: fighting face-to-face with death-dealing weapons defies nature, and they bore it only because all shared the risk equally, and sustained each other’s courage, as well as place in the battle line, by pushing shoulder against shoulder. After that risk had been undergone it ought not to surprise us that the survivors felt they had done enough. To press on from the battlefield, to run to ground those who had opposed them, had the exhausted hoplites’ powers allowed such an extra effort, would add an additional dimension to warmaking for which even the ever-open Greek mind might not have been ready.

Moreover, it is by no means certain that the idea of conquest in the modern sense was acceptable to the Greeks, at least as between Greek and Greek. The conflicts among the city states — Argos, Corinth, Thebes and especially Athens and Sparta — were real enough in the so-called ‘age of tyrants’ in the seventh and sixth centuries BC; even so, the object of warmaking was usually that of enlarging a league of allies rather than of subjecting a principal opponent to domination. From the earliest times, ‘the Greeks were always conscious that they were different from other peoples … Greek prisoners of war, for example, were not in theory to be enslaved, unlike “barbarians” … The great religious festivals of the Greek year, when people of many cities came together’ — the Olympic games pre-eminently — ‘were occasions to which only the Greek-speaker was admitted.’ For the Greeks, particularly for the Athenians and their Ionian cousins in Asia Minor who looked to the metropolis (mother-city) for inspiration, conquest was something imposed on others across the seas. They conquered widely, at least as much as was necessary to plant colonies on foreign shores; but at home, though they fought often and bloodily, they did not — with perhaps the exception of Sparta — seek to deprive each other of their acknowledged rights. By the sixth century, the city states were set in the direction of collective government; ‘oligarchies, constitutional governments or democracies spread everywhere.’33 While all states retained the institution of slavery, recent researches suggest that the proportion of slaves to freemen in the polis has been exaggerated. By the fifth century, for example, slaves in Athens were greatly outnumbered by free citizen-farmers; this explodes the supposition that Greek hoplites — except the Spartan — were set at liberty to wage war by the labours of the unfree in their smallholdings.34

During the seventh century Sparta had, through its remorselessly efficient military system, made itself an unchallengeable power in southern Greece; only through a pattern of shifting alliances could its chief rivals, Argos, Athens, Corinth and Thebes, hold it in check. But then, in 510 BC, the contest was heightened when Sparta directly intervened to attempt to set back Athens’s decisive espousal of democracy; this ensured the onset of a contest of principle, between its warrior élitism and the representative example offered by its principal rival, that lasted for more than a hundred years. Yet for much of this period Sparta and Athens were thrown into alliance by patriotic impulse. The rising power of the Persians, who by 511 BC had consolidated an empire that included the whole of Mesopotamia and Egypt as well as lands reaching up to the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers, led them on to attack the Ionian settlements in Asia Minor. These cities had earlier been subjected by Croesus of Lydia, then passed to Persian control, and in 499 BC, with Athenian support, they rebelled to assert their independence. Darius, the reigning Persian emperor, crushed the rebellion in 494 BC but was determined to deal with the root of the trouble, which he identified as emanating from mainland Greece. In 490 BC, at the head of a well-equipped army of 50,000, he took ship aboard the formidable Persian navy and landed in the plain of Marathon, thirty-six miles north of Athens. The Athenians at once marched out to oppose the Persian advance inland, joined by their allies from Plataea, but sent an urgent appeal for help to Sparta. The Spartans replied that they would arrive as soon as an impending religious ceremony had been completed. By the time their leading troops reached the scene of action, the battle of Marathon was over. The Athenians had destroyed one-seventh of the Persian host, for little loss to themselves, and the enemy withdrew into his ships.

This was the first direct conflict between the Greek phalanx and the more uncertain ranks of a dynastic Middle Eastern army, composed of subject soldiers of very uneven worth. Hanson has suggested how unnerving the enemy must have found the Greeks’ advance. He notes that Herodotus has Mardonios, the nephew of the emperor Darius and commander of the fleet that beached at Marathon, remark on the unnatural bloodthirstiness of the Athenians and their Plataean allies.

All the various contingents of the Great Army of Persia, with their threatening looks and noise, had a very different and predictable outlook on battle … But the Persians suffered from that most dangerous tendency in war: a wish to kill but not to die in the process … At Marathon they thought a ‘destructive madness’ had infected the Greek ranks as they saw them approach on the run in their heavy armour. Surely, as the outnumbered Greek hoplites crashed into their lines, the Persians must have at last understood that these men worshipped not only the god Apollo, but the wild, irrational Dionysus as well.35

The Spartans bitterly reproached themselves for their absence at Marathon, all the more because of the glory that victory brought to Athens. Nevertheless, they accepted that Persian aggression, with the threat it carried of extinction of Greek rights, obliged them to persist in their offer of assistance, and they proceeded with the Athenians to coordinate plans for resistance should the common enemy reappear. The Persians had not abandoned their determination to do so. Between 484 and 481 BC Xerxes, who had succeeded as emperor on Darius’ death, drew Carthage into an alliance that ensured the Greek colonists in Sicily would not come to their mainland cousins’ assistance, while completing elaborate logistic arrangements, including the building of a bridge of boats across the straits between Asia and Europe, to secure communications for the advance of his troops. At this news, many of the smaller Greek states sought to make their peace with Xerxes. Only Athens and the Peloponnesian states persisted in patriotic defiance. Sparta attempted to persuade Athens to send its forces south of the easily defensible Isthmus of Corinth into the Peloponnese to join those of the other cities in the Peloponnesian League. The Athenians, led by Themistocles, declined to do so, since that would mean abandoning their city; instead, they argued, their very strong navy should protect the seaward flank of a League expeditionary force, which would oppose the Persian advance much further north.

Reluctantly, for few of the allies wanted to send their troops out of the Peloponnese, Sparta fell in with Athenian strategy and agreed to hold a line where the coastal route from the plain of Thessaly passes through the defile of Thermopylae. Offshore the fleet, of which two-thirds was Athenian and under the direct command of Themistocles, inflicted a check (August 480 BC) on the Persian, which had suffered heavy losses in a gale; in the pass of Thermopylae itself Leonidas, the Spartan king, successfully blocked the Persian army’s advance, until by treachery he was taken in the rear. In an act of self-sacrifice that was to become a byword for hopeless courage, Leonidas and his bodyguard — ‘the three hundred at the pass’ — held on nevertheless, while the fleet disengaged, evacuated the population of Athens to the island of Salamis and awaited action. The rest of the League forces had by now retreated south of the Isthmus of Corinth, leaving Themistocles to demonstrate that the Persians might indeed be defeated by sea power. He, by a devious if forgivable exercise in misinformation, persuaded Xerxes that the Athenians would come over if the Persian fleet moved to action, thus tempting it into confined waters where its superior numbers, of some 700 against 500 fighting-ships, gave it no advantage. In a single day of fighting (probably 23 September 480 BC), the Athenians destroyed half of it, with the loss of only forty ships of their own, and forced the remainder to withdraw northward.

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