Hellenic Military Tradition

Page 1 of 2By Ace_Cataphract

Classical Hellenic military tradition can be traced through several periods. One period that isn't included is the period during which the Iliad was set, where warfare included chariots as battlefield transportation and masses of men with various degrees of armor fighting one on one fights amidst the larger battle around them.

The First period of warfare that is really well documented would be the period of Hoplite warfare. The evolution of the polis system in Greece led to the creation of a fairly large middle-class in ancient Greek states. It was not, however, only the middle class' responsibility to fight. Like later Rome, Greece's militaries were based on class. In the era of hoplite dominance, the poor would serve as peltasts, slingers, or archers who would be able to harass the enemy with cheap, ranged weaponry. It even may have been because of the fact that poor people could be very effective despite cheaper weaponry that the Greeks developed the notion that ranged weapons were dishonorable and unfair. There certainly isn't the same sentiment towards archers in the Illiad, with even Telamonian Ajax's younger brother being a renown archer and often in the front lines with his brother providing fire for the men.,

Another class was a much larger class- the middle-class. The middle-class fought largely as hoplites. The lower middle-class would afford only the basic panoply. The basic equipment of the hoplite would be a large hoplon shield, with some form of cheap adornments, a xiston spear, a helmet, and some cuirass. A xiphon sword wasn't a very pricey addition to the hoplite's arms, so even the lower middle class people would spend the extra bit of money for a sword. Heavier, far more expensive sets would include a muscled, metal cuirass, an ornate helmet, greaves for the shins, a hoplon made of superior quality materials, and a xiphon made of high quality metals, like iron.

The very rich, or those who owned enough horses that they could take it to war and not suffer from a lack of animals to do the plowing during the planting season, would be cavalrymen, who weren't very good, and were used to do very little. Greek cavalrymen were expected to be very good riders nonetheless. Xenophon's The Cavalry General describes Greek Cavalry, and they would be armed with javelins, a spear, and a longer sword made especially for cavalrymen. Their role was to harass the enemy and kill and capture routing enemies. It was basically the most comfortable job on the battlefield.

Rich people would often fight as Hoplites though. Hoplite warfare was the highlight of this period. Thousands of hoplites would set up in a phalanx formation and they would charge each other. The hoplites would do their best to keep their phalanx together during their charge. The two opposing lines would collide, and from there, it would become a grinding fight. The two lines would push against each other, with men in the rear lines pushing the men in front of them. All the while, those who could would stab with an overhand thrust (unlike the underhand thrust, which Hoplites in RTW incorrectly use) with their spears over the enemy shield wall, though in a phalanx battle, killing someone with a spear alone couldn't be done. Spears had fairly low quality tips, while armor was more high quality, meaning that spears often weren't very deadly, and their tips would bend. Also, if a soldier tried to remove his spear from a dead man, it could often snap. For this reason, most soldiers had a reserve spear, and if that failed them, they had their short stabbing sword. It wasn't as well made or effective as the gladius, but it was meant to be a last resort weapon, unlike the gladius.

The winner of the battle was often determined by one side's ability to keep their line together, to push the enemy harder (meaning that larger forces had a distinct advantage), and charge hardest in the beginning of the battle. Since in most phalanxes, the raw soldiers were often on the right flank, and the best soldiers were on the left, many battles were also decided by which army's right flank broke first. Spartans were feared throughout the ancient world for their discipline and excellent conditioning because it allowed them to charge in almost perfect formation at very high speeds, smashing the enemy lines from the beginning. An example of an exploit against the formation was later by Epamonidas the Theban who stacked his right flank with his elite Theban Band and made that portion of the line deeper than any other part of the line, then refusing his formation into an echelon shape, so that his vulnerable left wouldn't get into the fight. This allowed him to beat the superior Spartans by breaking their right flank before engaging them. The Spartans regrouped after routing and put up another hard fight, but were eventually defeated.

Hoplites were at their prime during the Persian Wars where they scored crushing defeats against largely superior Persian armies. Several instances were at Marathon where the Athenian army supposedly charged for one mile at the Persians and managed to smash their infantry into the floor, then wear them to pieces. Another instance was at Thermopylae where 300 Spartans and several thousands of their allies were able to kill a significant amount of the Persians in the narrow mountain pass. [Biased] Sources say that the 300 Spartans alone were able to kill 20,000 Persians. Though the Spartans were eventually defeated in a daring last stand with a few hundred close allies, that didn't leave them, they still managed to cause major damage to the Persian force and delay their advance for a long time.

Another example is when 10,000 Greek mercenaries recruited by Cyrus to take his throne from his brother Artaxerxes. The Greeks utterly routed the Persians on their side of the battle line and chased them for several miles before returning to the battle and realizing that the rest of Cyrus' army had been routed. Xenophon the Athenian then took command of the army and led them from the heart of Persia through miles of enemy territory back to Greek Asia Minor.

The decline of the era of hoplite dominance leads to the next era. The decline came thanks to several people, but most notably, Iphricates who first developed a modification to the hoplite. The hoplite was already changing because the peltast was becoming more used in battle, and hoplites had no chance to catch them, so some generals had several detachments of hoplites that were armed only with hoplons, swords, and spears to catch up to the peltasts. Iphricates came up with a panoply that included a much larger spear with much stronger tips, a slightly smaller hoplon, swords, and only leather cuirasses. This allowed hoplites to be more mobile and fight enemy phalanxes from farther away with their spears alone, and because the hoplon was only slightly smaller, they could still get into push fights with enemy phalanxes, and their spears were better constructed, so they could still charge and the tips wouldn't be easily damaged against enemy armor. He also gave the Peltasts a larger shield and better-made swords so that they could hold their own in close combat against lighter troops. Continued...

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