History of the Phalanx Hoplite

By MaximusDecimus

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Part 1 – Rise of the City State

By 700 B.C., Greek recovery from more than 4 Centuries of cultural obscurity was well under. Nearly 1000 small, autonomous communities now dotted the Greek-speaking world from southern Italy to the Black Sea. Population growth may have reached 2 to 3 percent per annum in some years. Colonies and trading posts were founded throughout the Mediterranean. Maritime commerce with Phoenicia and Egypt was renewed on an increased scale. Writing re-emerged, but was now based on an improved Phoenician alphabet, far more useful and accessible to the population at large then the arcane record-keeping Linear B script of the Mycenaean palaces. Written constitutions appeared in the great majority of the city states and their colonies, ensuring the spread of government by consensus of landed peers. The Greek countryside itself was no longer a pasture for sheep, goats, and horses, but now more often a patchwork of small 10-arre farms of trees, vines, and grain, often with an isolated homestead to house its ever vigilant and independent owner, a citizen who alone in the Mediterranean had clear legal rights to land tenure, property inheritance-and his own arms.

Just as Greek city states and their surrounding satellite villages grew to service the burgeoning agricultural community and to facilitate expanding trade, so too the hills outside the polis were gradually reclaimed and terraced. Growing numbers of omnipresent farmers wanted empty land wherever they could, whether on the mountains near the city state of through external colonization in pristine territory overseas. As land and property were dispersed to a new class beyond the control of aristocratic horseman as landed councils replaced aristocratic cabals, as livestock raising was overshadowed by intensive agriculture, as metalworking turned from the tripods of the wealthy to the arms and farming implements of middling agrarians, so too was the practice of Greek warfare made new.

Part 2 – Beginnings of the Hoplite

The evidence of this seventh-and sixth century military renaissance is piecemeal, but when taken as a whole is represents a revolutionary shift in the nature of conflict and society, the first emergence in European culture, or in any other culture, of a large group of average landowners who craft a military agenda to reflect their own agrarian needs. There were now novel words in the Greek vocabulary-polites, politeia, hoplites, mesos-for “citizen”, “constitution”, “hoplite militiamen”, and “middling man” to reflect radically new concepts, as an entire agrarian class now monopolized infantry service. Early Corinthian vases such as the so-called Chigi vase (650 B.C.), show armored spearmen advancing in lock-step to the music of flutes. At the Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries in Olympia and Delphi votive offering of bronze helmets, breastplates, and greaves reproduce-over 100,000 bronze helmets may conceivably have been dedicated between 700 and 500 B.C. The lyric poets Tyrtaeus, Callinus, and Alcaeus elaborate on the haphazard Homeric references to heavy infantrymen, with an accompanying creed that men are to fight side-by-side, toe-to-toe, shield-against-shield, against the enemy, winning in their ‘gleaming bronze and nodding crests’ glory for their families and state, rather than for themselves alone. Inscriptions on stone, stray graffiti and an oral tradition ever record the presence of such prized Greek and Carian mercenary infantry as far away as Persia and Egypt.

Consequently, in the seventh and sixth centuries most decisive fighting that put an end to disputes between developing Greek city states was by heavy infantry composed of farmers outfitted in bronze amour and thrusting spears. Intensively worked vineyards, orchards, and grain fields were now privately help, increasingly valued, and served an ever-growing population. If a community was self-supporting through, and governed by, it’s surrounding private landowners, then hoplite warfare, far better than fortification or garrisoning passes, made perfect sense: muster the largest, best armed group or farmers to protect land in the quickest ways possible. It was easier and more economical for farmers to defend farmland on farmland than to tax and hire landless others endlessly to guard passes-the sheer ubiquity of which in mountainous Greece ensured that they could usually be crosses by enterprising invaders anyway. Raiding, ambush, and plundering, of course, were still common-such activities seem innate to the human spices-but the choice of military response to win or protect territory was now a civil matter, an issue to be voted on by free landowning infantrymen themselves.

Part 3 – Early Phalanx fighting

As such, hoplite fighting through shock collision marks the true beginnings of western warfare, a formal idea now loaded with legal, ethical and political implications. Almost all these wars of a day between rugged and impatient yeomen were infantry encounters over land usually disputed boarder strips involving agrarian prestige more than prized fertility. Customarily the army of one city state, an Argos, Thebes or Sparta, met their adversary in daylight in formal columnar formation, according to a recognized sequence of events. The word phalanx means ‘rows’ or ‘stacks’ of men.

After divination, a seer sacrificed a ram to the god. The general made a brief exhortation, and then the assembled infantry prepared to charge the enemy. In minutes the respective armies packed together to achieve a greater density of armed men, who sought to crash together, sometimes trotting the last 200 yards between the two phalanxes. For the defenders it was often on the same soil their neighbors had worked a few days before. For the invaders, the farmhouses, orchards, vineyards and stone field walls were largely identical to their own plots back home. Once again a neighboring community had fashioned a force of armored columns to take or hold flatland, there was very little a like-minded rival could do other than to meet the challenge in about the same manner.

After meeting of phalanxes, farmers, blinded by the dust and their own cumbersome helmets, stabbed away with their spears, screamed the war cry, pushed on ahead with their shields and failing that, grabbed, kicked, and bit desperately hoping to make some inroad into the enemy’s phalanx, usually having little idea who, if any, they had killed of wounded. Success was at first gauged by the degree of motion achieved by the pushing of the ranks- the literal thrusting of a man’s shield upon the shoulders, side or back of his comrade ahead. There were few feints, reserve, encircling maneuvers, or sophisticated tactics of any kind in hoplite battle before the latter firth century.

Only the first three ranks of the eight row s of classical phalanx reached the enemy with their spears in the first assault. When they broke, they went hand-to-hand with swords and their butt-spikes. Later tactical writers stress just how important such front line fighters were in achieving and initial inroad. Once the phalanx ripped and stormed through the ranks of its adversary, the opponent often totally collapsed through panic and fright, perhaps not more than half and hour after the initial collision.

The short duration and sudden disintegration of battle are understandable if we keep in mind that combatants were squeezed together in columns, trapped in heavy bronze under the summer sun, mostly robber of sight and hearing, in a sea of dust and blood- the captives, as the historian Thucydides reminds us, of rumors and their own fears.

Still there were countless tasks for all infantrymen of the phalanx as it pounded the enemy. Hoplites initial ranks sought targets with their spears, while searching for protection fro their right flanks in the round shields of the men at their sides. Some struggled to step over the debris of fallen equipment and the detritus of the wounded and the dead at their feet, striving always to keep their balance as they pushed into the enemy spears at their face.

All the hoplites in the killing zone kept their own 20 pound shield chest high to cover themselves and the men on their left. All at once hoplites might feel steady pressure from the rear, dodge enemy spears points and friendly spear-butts jostling in their faces, stab and push ahead, adjusting for their comrades shoving from the left to find protection. They seek their own cover by nudging to friends shields to their right, and nearly trip over wounded bodies, corpses, and equipment that was lying at their feet.

Once the line cracked hoplites turned, scattered, and ran to prevent encirclement and probable annihilation, but few of the victorious pressed to chase and distance. Heavy infantry make poop runners, especially when the defeated threw away their equipment and sprinted to the hills. And under war practice of early city state warfare, there was not much desire anyway to kill everyone last enemy who spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, had common festivals, and enjoyed similar types of government by landowners. Again, the primary purpose was to acquire or take back the land and gain prominence, not to risk time and money to kill neighboring society of like farmers over the hill.

Part 4 – After the Battle

After hoplite battle, then dead were not desecrated but exchanged, in what Euripides called ‘The Custom of all Greeks’. Greek Painting and sculpture, reveal almost no mutilation of corpses in wartime context. A formal trophy was erected, and the victors marched home to celebration. The defeated begged for the remains of their comrades to be returned formally to be buried in a common grave on the battlefield or carried back home to a public tomb. If the battle was exclusively between Greek hoplites and before the fifth century, then rarely were the vanquished enslaved. Unlike the great sieges and later wars of annihilation against non-Greeks, in which thousands were sold off as chattels in consequence of defeat.

Part 5 – Influence on Culture

The Spartans must have had some idea of the butchery of hoplite fighting when they wore wooden ‘dog tags’ around their neck to identify them through the mangles mass of corpses. No wonder we hear of soldiers drinking before battle, a characteristic of pre-battle from Homer to Alexander the Greats march into Asia.

Such fighting between city states could be frequent but not necessarily catastrophic, once the cavalry missile-men were largely excluded from any integrated role in the fighting and the infantry combatants were uniformly encases in bronze. And while it is true that Plato, and other Greek thinkers felt war was a natural state of affairs in Greece, rather then an aberration from peace, their notion of war, was much different from our own.

Only the Persian and Peloponnesian conflicts of the Classical Age which began a second stage in the development of western warfare, conjure up anything like the modern idea that fighting is intended entirely to destroy armies, murder civilians, kill thousands of soldiers and wreak culture. In the first two centuries of hoplite fighting, it was enough every so often to kill a small portion of the enemy in an afternoon clash, crack his morale, and send him scurrying in defeat and shame from where he came.

The Greeks, then, for a brief time practiced a certain type of warfare in which fighting was frequent but did not seem to imperil the cultural, economical, and political renaissance of the Hellenic city state, even at the height of the hoplite age it was rare for more than 10 percent of men who fought that day to die. If anything, the sheer terror of hoplite battle, the courage needed to stare at a wall of spears across the plain, and the urgency for group solidarity in the confines of the phalanx gave the positive momentum to ideas of civic duties, and formed the emotional and spiritual substructure of much of Greek sculpture, painting, and literature. Nearly every Greek author, philosopher or statesmen, despite their education and often ‘elite’ status, served with their fellow citizens in the front lines on a battle. Thucydides, Xenophon, Pericles, Socrates, Aristides, Themistocles and others some time in their life wore amour, marched the field and killed another human- something historians and literary critics should always keep in mind when they asses the character and ideology of Greek politics, are, philosophy, and literature.

Because originally the battle line as composed exclusively of the landowning citizenry of various allied small city states- helmets mustered their phalanxes side-by-side in a long row- the course of a particular engagement and the ensuing hoplite casualties could often have enormous political and demographical ramifications. While General losses might be moderate, nevertheless particular contingents could be wiped out if they bore the brunt of a concentrated enemy thrust or were stationed opposite superior troops. Aristotle pointed out that radical democracy was strengthened in the mid fifth century when Athenian hoplites were away suffering massive casualties on their conquests- allowing the landless at home to force through more democratic reforms.

Part 6 – New Technology

Controversy still rages over the origins of such peculiar hoplite infantrymen, who were as suspicious of mounted aristocrats as they were of impoverished skirmishers, who in mountainous country fought exclusively on small plains, and who wore heavy bronze armor, in the Greek summer and early Autumn. Were the hoplites new weapons a technological response to existing mass fighting? Or were early hoplites a conservative and aristocratic force that gradually evolved from the mounted grandees and had little to do with the emergence of a constitutional polis?

Most likely it was the technology of the panoply and not the tactics of the phalanx that were new: novel weapons improved an old way of fighting. Dark Age soldiers had for many years fought loosely in mass formation in ancient Greece, in most cases under the direction of aristocrat leaders and clansmen. Gradually the spread of diversified, intensified farming in the eighth century created a shared ideology among new landowners, men in ranks who had begun to gain capital for weapons from their farming success. Which the same ingenuity by which they devised new approaches to traditional land use, the planters of trees and vines began to fabricate innovative bronze weaponry to improve their performance in the traditional melee of Dark Age battle. Shock troops with bronze armor and long pikes are hard to move off their land, harder still when they have enhanced their weapons for such fighting and turned their disorderly mass into ordered files and rows.

Aristotle suggests that hoplite fighting to be connected with the transition from mounted aristocracy to the rule of middling landowners, once hoplite armor refined the traditional mass into the cohesive ranks of the phalanx.