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CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
- The Greek "Renaissance" - Colonization and Tyranny
In this lecture, Professor Donald Kagan discusses the emergence of a new style of warfare among the Greeks, the hoplite phalanx. After discussing the panoply of the hoplite solider and the method of fighting, he argues that this style of fighting came about early in the life of the polis. In addition, he shows that the phalanx was almost invincible on the field. At the lecture’s conclusion, he answers several questions from students about hoplite warfare in the Greek world.
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 6 - The Greek "Renaissance" - Colonization and Tyranny
Chapter 1. An Introduction to the Hoplite Phalanx [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: We were discussing, in the broadest sense, the emergence and the development of the polisand specifically I had been telling you about Hanson’s theory about the development of the family farm and the individuals who worked the family farm as a critical element in that story. Now, that same individual who produced the economic wherewithal that would support independent individuals, who are not nobleman, and who could conduct their lives in an autonomous way and who fought ultimately — fought their way onto governmental bodies which allowed them to participate in the key decisions, political decisions, and all other decisions in the state that served the element of their character and of their place in the world. That is the one that I want to turn to today. Their role as soldiers, fighting for the common cause — and that common cause now being not an individual goal, not a family goal, but the goal of the entire civic community, which was coming into being and I suppose would have had to come into being, in order to have this role, fighting for one’s polis.
The style of warfare that emerges in this period, apparently for the first time, is what we call the hoplite phalanx and each half of that needs to be explained. Hoplite comes from the Greek word hoplites and hoplites is built around the wordhoplon which is the name of a kind of shield that the infantrymen, and we are talking about an infantry formation here, carried. You want to get out of your head the notion of a shield that’s a little thing that you can move around with one hand, like that, real easy; that’s not what it was. It was a great round shield about three feet across and it had — let me step out here so that I can show you. Can you hear me back there? Is that all right? Imagine a round shield of the size I’ve talked about and one of the things that’s important is that at the end of the shield, the right end from my perspective has a grip on it, but in the middle of the shield, there is also a kind of a loose piece of leather thong that you can put your arm through, so that the shield is resting in part on that grip and on the grip that you hold at this end. You need to do that to be able to control the shield that’s as big as that and as heavy as that, because it is made fundamentally of a heavy wood, typically covered by leather, sometimes with some bronze, a bronze sheet across the front of it as well. That is a very heavy thing and it will weigh you down after a while. It’s going to be really hard for you to maintain that grip on that thing all through the course of a whole battle, but that shield is the key, this hoplon which gives the name to the word hoplite, or hoplites, which is hoplite.
Phalanx means that these men, each man carrying his hoplon, are lined up first of all in a line, but that line is reproduced going back, so that you end with about — typically, a phalanx would have been eight men deep, eight rows deep, and that block of soldiers, however long it is, or is made up — is called the phalanx, which means something like roller. It’s because the phalanx would have looked, if you were up on a hill somewhere watching it go by, as though something was rolling across the plain as the men went forward and looking pretty formidable, so that anything in its way would be mowed down in the normal course of events. So that is what we mean by the hoplite phalanx. It’s a core of heavily armed infantrymen in a solid block.
Okay, when did this come into effect? I’m going to start out today’s talk by giving you what has been the standard and orthodox interpretation of how the hoplite phalanx worked, which, I think, again Hanson has given us the clearest and most useful account. But as you know already, from what you’ve read, this has come into great dispute in recent years and I’ll just say a little bit about the dispute before we get through today. But what I’m giving you is the old fashioned traditional interpretation. By that view, the phalanx would have come into being somewhere between about 700 and 650 B.C., which is to say after the earliest poleis are in business, and according to this interpretation, you really have them growing up together. Nobody could be exactly sure about how this process worked. One of the big arguments that is part of this story is when did this development of new way of fighting come about; rather quickly, over a matter of a few years, or did it stretch out over quite a long time. The most extreme critics of the traditional point of view would say over centuries, that you don’t get the full-blown hoplite phalanx that I will be describing to you, even until you get the fifth century B.C. But again, let’s take it in the traditional way.
Chapter 2. The Hoplite [00:06:33]
So, if you imagine this is growing up as the polis comes into being, let me describe what a hoplite was like and then try to describe what the phalanx was like and how they operated and what are some of the consequences of their coming into being. The hoplite himself is marked by, first of all, the shield and second of all, as we continue to think about his defensive capacities, he has a certain amount of armor to protect his body. He has on top of his head a helmet made of bronze, perhaps weighing about five pounds, these are approximate; they would have differed from person to person to some degree. A very important element, he would have had a breast plate made of bronze, perhaps as much as 40 pounds. He would have snapped across his shins, greaves, sort of like the shin guards that a catcher in baseball wears, also made of bronze. The shield itself, as I’ve told you is made of a heavy wood, covered by a leather or bronze sheet about three feet across, something in the neighborhood of 16 to 20 pounds worth of shield and gripped as I told you before.
So you want to think about his hoplite, when he has everything on and when the shield is in place, again let me sort of try to demonstrate this, he ought to be covered by some kind of defense from head to toe. The top is this helmet that comes up over his face and covers it pretty totally. It’s made of strong metal, it’s got very thin slits to be able to see straight ahead, covered up; everything else is covered up, a good one will cover your neck as well. It’s very hard to see very much and you can’t anywhere pretty much but straight ahead. You shouldn’t be able to hear very much either, and it mustn’t have been too delightful to breathe out of the thing, although your nose is free, but it’s covered by a nose piece. So there’s this guy with this helmet, it must weigh — I’m trying to think. I always want to — modern football helmets which are monstrous — I’m so old we used to play with leather ones without a face mask. What do they weigh? Got any football players here? I think they weigh a lot. I think they’re very heavy, indeed, but I don’t know how much they weigh. Anyway, if you imagine sort of putting on a modern football helmet, with that mask in front of you, you would begin to get an idea, only begin to get an idea of what it was like to have that bronze helmet on your head.
So there you are with that. Then you remember that you got shin guards down to your feet; you have this breastplate. Now, between your waist and your shin guard there’s some very delicate territory, and there’s no armor. That’s what your shield is for. Your shield should cover that territory. You want that shield up so that it pretty well meets your helmet, so it’s going to be at a certain distance but it will also go down to where it needs to go down here. If everything goes right your enemy won’t be able to penetrate you, but you should be aware that there are two places where you are relatively vulnerable for openers, and that is, if somebody can come in above your shield, your throat is going to be available to him, and if somebody can come in under your shield then your vulnerable area will be vulnerable indeed. So, those are places where you see people get wounded and killed, if that can be done.
One other very important thing to understand about this defensive problem and this is one of the debatable issues between the old guard and the traditional interpretation; I’m still giving you the traditional view. If you imagine that your hoplite is standing with his left foot slightly extended in front of his right, and we’ll see in a moment it pretty well has to be in order to deal with the spear that he’s grasping, and if he’s holding his shield as he must this far, then he’s got a half a shield sticking out in this direction so that he’s pretty well protected on the left side, but he’s got nothing protecting his right side. If somebody can come at him from this side, he is very vulnerable from there. Now, that’s a very important point, because why in the world would you give a shield of the kind I am describing, for a man to defend himself, if you imagine him standing by himself anywhere, if you imagine him any distance from the rest of the guys fighting alongside of him. This has been one of the major reasons for explaining the function of the phalanx as I will explain it to you.
Chapter 3. The Phalanx [00:12:09]
What are you going to do about the vulnerability on this side? Well, the answer is, in the traditional view, is that he was never meant to stand by himself. A hoplite only makes sense in a phalanx. A phalanx understood in this way only makes sense if you imagine very close order. Basically, ideally, the right side of my shield is being met by the left side of the shield of the guy to my right so that we make a solid block of soldiers able to defend ourselves imperfectly, but really essentially quite well. Obviously, some of us are going to get killed, some of us are going to go down and we’ll cope with that in just a few minutes, but if you think of us as a unit we have a way of maintaining our security, our safety, so long as we remain in the proper formation that I have been describing.
Let me talk about the offensive aspect of it. The idea of going into battle is not merely to avoid being killed; the purpose is to kill the other fellow. How do you do it? The hoplite has two weapons of which the most important by far is a pike, I guess, is what we would call it. It’s a spear that you don’t throw. It’s a spear that you thrust and it’s got a bronze point, which is the business end of the weapon. Its length might be anywhere from six to eight feet in length. I said bronze, but actually the tip was usually iron, but it could be bronze as well. In addition, it had a butt made also of bronze, which could be a lethal weapon. If I strike you in a vulnerable place with a stick that has a bronze butt on it, it could well kill you. It would happen because the spear itself was made of wood and that meant you can count on it often breaking in the midst of battle, in which case, if you have one end of it or the other you can still have a point that you can use to help yourself in this scrum that it is a hoplite phalanx battle.
Although I don’t quite understand — I should say, there’s many things about how the fighting went on which we can only attempt to imagine because we just don’t have films of ancient hoplite battles, I’m sorry to say. We have people inventing them, but even the ones that are invented aren’t very helpful, because it’s awfully hard to know how they did what they did. But I think we can imagine some part of it more easily than the other. What I was going to say is that you could, at least theoretically, strike with your spear in a overhand manner or you could strike with it in an underhand manner, the only thing is I don’t know how you do that underhand when you’re in the middle of a phalanx. So, I will be talking about the overhand stroke, which I find it easier to grasp. So, let’s see if I can, again, give you some sense of what this is like. Here’s a hoplite standing like this, and when he comes into contact with the opposing army, he will presumably strike down in this way. There are other things that he can do.
His shield, in addition to being a defensive thing, is also potentially an offensive weapon. He can belt you with that shield, and if he’s stronger than you are, or better prepared or more balanced than you are, he could knock your shield out of your hand. He could knock you back and open up a space, he could knock you down, and so you should imagine that there’s at least one chance to give a guy shot with the shield, and after that you could just be using it as something to press the other fellow back and you would meanwhile be whacking away with this in the most simple picture that you can have of how the hoplite would have conducted himself. The other weapon was a short sword that he kept at his side, which presumably he would not use so long as he had a spear, which was a better weapon. But if that broke, if that wasn’t available to him, he could turn to his short sword, which was a thrusting sword, not like the Roman short sword which was double edged and slashing. You had to stick somebody with this hoplite phalanx sword.
Now, that gives you the picture of the individual; I hope you can get some sense of what the phalanx might be like, but as I try to describe how the fighting really went, I always find it necessary to ask for some audience participation, so that you can get some idea of what it might have looked like in a very, very limited way. So, I would like to ask for some volunteer hoplites. The Greeks, as far as I know, did not allow anybody to be left handed in a phalanx; think about the problem. But we don’t care; you can be a lefty. Of course, the Greeks only allowed men to fight in the phalanx, but we are much more elevated than that. So, I could ask any of you who have the courage to come forward and fight in my phalanx? Nobody? Just come forward. I think we got more room here. Okay, why don’t I have the shorter people comes toward me and the taller people go into the back. I think this will make it a little easier for us, just line up next to each other. Right behind him in perfect order; the biggest guys in the back, go ahead. Make it a third row; there’s enough for a third row. Are we all set? Back up. Make sure you’re behind somebody, directly behind somebody. How many we got up front? Four? Have we got four? So we’ll have three in the back that’ll be all right. Get right behind that guy; you got to be — boy you got to be lined up. Now, get into your hoplite stance, left foot forward.
Okay, now when you’re fighting, if you’re fortunate enough, and the Greeks were sometimes fortunate enough to fight people who were not hoplites, like when the Persians came at them they fought hoplites against non-hoplites. Boy, that’s a nice day for a hoplite. The Persian infantry did not have heavy armor, they did not have that kind of a shield, they had wicker shields; fortunately, we have vase paintings that show us Persians. For one thing they’re not dressed like civilized people in a dress, they’re wearing pants. But their shields are made of wicker and they don’t have that kind of metal body armor and all that stuff. So, you could blow through that infantry like butter. Probably never that easy but really, you’re just not going to lose, and the truth of the matter is that hoplites beat non-hoplites in all battles that are fought on flat land in battles that the Greeks fight in.
I just want to tell you about — in Herodotus, he tells the tale about how the fighting went versus the Persians, and here’s the line he says, “Once the Greeks go to war they choose the best and smoothest place to go down and have their battle on that.” That wasn’t just because they sort of had an aesthetic pleasure in nice flat fields. That’s what you need for aphalanx, because to maintain the integrity of the hoplite line, you can’t have bumps and grooves, and trees and rivers in the way; it will break things up. So, they do, in fact, seek such a field. So if you’re fighting a non-hoplite infantry crowd, you’re in great shape. But what the Greeks spent most of their time doing was fighting each other, one hoplite phalanxagainst another hoplite phalanx.
So, you have to imagine that this thing started with these guys back in their camp and the other army back in its camp, and they both have to agree that they want to have a battle, for a battle to take place, and they will have picked a place that is flat where they can do what they’re doing. Usually, the battle took place over some land that was being contested on a frontier and they would go down to that area and pick a spot and there they would go and fight with one another. So now, the two armies are lined up. Here’s an interesting question: how wide is the line going to be? Well, that’s not an answer that is entirely at the disposal of the general, because he’s got two considerations that he has to worry about. One is, he can’t afford to have his hoplite line outflanked, because if I can come around and take care of this guy from this side, he is engaged with a guy who’s right opposite him, I can just kill him no problem at all. So, he has got to at least try to be equal with the guy who’s furthest on this side, and same with the guy on the other side. So, that means he’s got to make his line unless he comes up with some clever trick, the same size as the other guy.
Well, typically the two armies aren’t identical in size. So, if you’re going to try to be the same breadth across the field that’s going to affect how deep you can be, and depth as we shall see once we get started fighting is relevant in ways that we need to work out, but if one phalanx is eight deep and the other phalanx is 12 deep, the 12 deep phalanx has an advantage. So, numbers count, but it’s not an easy one-to-one question, various issues will determine who comes out ahead. Okay, now let’s make this first battle I’m going to describe for you to be as clear cut as we can make it, and it probably never was like that. Let’s imagine my army is the same size as theirs precisely, so that the line is the same size on both sides; therefore, also the same depth. So, we’ll just do this imaginary perfect battle. As the two armies approach each other, I should make it clear, they start out walking at a certain clip. By the way, it’s critical that they should stay in formation; nobody should get ahead of anybody else. How do you do that? With rhythm and in subsequent armies later in history, they used drums to maintain that technique. The Greeks did it by the playing of a flute like or oboe like instrument that played a military tune that had you marching forward at the right pace. That was very, very important.
So you’re marching forward at that pace, but now as you get closer and closer to each other, various items begin to affect your behavior. One is, I would think, fear. In fact, I know — fear. So, what do you do, supposing, if you feel like running? Can you boys in the first row run anywhere? You got seven guys behind you; that’s not even an option and that’s a very important aspect of the phalanx. That’s not even an issue. So, if you’re afraid, what are you afraid of? Well, the other guy has got people — I should have mentioned on the sidelines, one way or another, shooting arrows at you, throwing javelins at you, things like that. You want to get through that as fast as you can, and engage with the enemy. But there’s another reason why you want to get there fast is because, well by now, I should have pointed out that we know that before you started out the battle that your general gave you a meal and he also gave you plenty of wine, so that by the time you’re in this position, you’ve had a few and there’s — I mean, there’s a science to that too as perhaps some of you know. No you don’t. College students do not have a science of this at all, they just pour the stuff down their throats with the goal of becoming drunk as fast as they can. That’s barbaric in the technical sense.
I mean, the Greeks didn’t — Plato’s Symposium, all of these guys are sitting around having a drinking party. That’s all they do all night, but they also are talking and they’re talking very well as a matter of fact, and the goal of this conversation is, or of this party rather, symposium means by the way drinking together. So they’re drinking and they’re talking, and both of these are supposed to go on at the same time. And here’s the thing; the idea is to drink as much as you can without passing out and at the end of Plato’s Symposium everybody is out, except for Socrates who looks around and says, “oh well no more conversation everybody’s asleep.” Off he goes, and we know who won that one. Why could they do that?
Well, they weren’t ignorant undergraduates, but beyond that they drank wine, not those barbarian liquids that you drink, and also they mixed that wine with water, so that it shouldn’t get them drunk too fast. Think about how the world has decayed, since those days. So anyway, it still has its alcoholic consequences, and I like to think that the trick for these guys was to get to that level of inebriation before it affects your nerves and your physical ability to act. But it’s worked on your brain to the point where you get to that sort of what I like to think of that bar room militancy, whereby if a guy says, “would you pass the peanuts,” you say, “oh yeah!” I’d like to think that’s the ideal hoplite mode. So, I think that’s working on them, they want to get at those SOBs on the other side, and they want to kill them; that’s their mood. Well, all of that is working on both sides. And so that when they come together, they come together in a trot. You have to imagine they’re moving along quicker than you would by walking, so that they will go bang and we can see what happens.
However, there’s one other variable that you want to be aware of and that is, he knows he ought to be going straight ahead like that, but he also knows that his right flank is open. Well, he would love to be fighting at the edge of the Grand Canyon, so that he doesn’t have to worry about his right flank, but he’s out there in the middle of a field. Now, he knows that first step ought to be like this, but he’s only human, so the first step is like this, and so is the guy on the other end on that side. So, in fact, as Thucydides tells us beautifully in Book V, when the two armies actually hit each other they have already made a slight turn to the right. Everybody moves to the right, these guys move to the right, those guys move to the right and they’re smacking each other at something like that angle.
Chapter 4. Fighting Style, Casualties, Winning and Losing [00:29:47]
Okay so much for that. Now, here we go. I’m coming at this guy and what I want to do, if I can, I want to kill him. If I can’t, I want to knock him back, because what I really need to do is to get him out of the way. Let me imagine that I’ve been lucky enough to get you out of the way — you’re fighting him you can’t even look at me, but I can do that. But let’s face it. In order to kill you, I’d have to earn the privilege by knocking him back. Now, let’s imagine I’ve been very lucky and gotten to you — just get down on your knee. Imagine she’s very badly wounded or dead, but she’s out of it. Now, here’s where the ballgame can really be determined. First of all, let’s consider the man behind you. Is that you? Now, if you are standing there with your — by the way the first three rows have a chance of hitting each other. So, he’s banging away over somebody’s head at the guy on the other side, but you see this guy in front of you has just been knocked down. The blood is spurting out of her neck or her side or whatever and she’s groaning down there on the thing. What is your instinct? What’s your instinct? Tell me. Get out of here! They just killed this guy in front of me and they’re coming after me.
I always think of that wonderful scene in — how many of you ever saw the Longest Day? It is about D-Day; there’s a wonderful scene where this German officer comes down; he’s in charge of the defensive arrangements there at Normandy; he’s in a bunker, and he’s reporting back to headquarters and it’s dark, and suddenly there’s enough light that he sees suddenly on the horizon is 5,000 ships, the whole damn fleet. As he calls back and he says, “they’re coming, they’re coming.” They say, “how many?” He says, “thousands of them.” They say, “in what direction?” He says, “auf mich zu direct.” That’s the way it looks to him. So that’s what his tendency is, but if he does that, it’s very bad news for his city.
What he has been trained to do, what he knows he needs to do is to fight forward and somehow step over her, step on her, do whatever he has to do to fill this hole. He’s got to come forward and take the danger and take the blows and close the line. Because if not — now, I am in the situation where the guy next to me has beaten you up, but I can now get her and I can step in here, and the guy behind me can do the same, and so we can create a wedge in which we are doing the killing and they are doing the falling. If enough of that happens, after awhile some sense of what’s happening up front quickly works its way to the back, and there can be a moment, and there always is a moment in a hoplite battle, where the guys in the back say, “uh-oh we have lost this battle.” So, the guys in the back turn and run, which is the only thing you can possibly do once you feel our phalanx is broken. We can’t stand against them anymore and when you start running, the only thing the guys who are left up front can do is run.
Now, think of what it’s like to run with this in your hand. Can you make much speed that way? No, and speed is what you want. And so the big issue is — this is what you must never do, but this is what you got to do if your phalanx is broken. You got to drop your shield and run. Then I’m on the winning side, and what I want to do is kill as many of these guys as I can. However, there’s this great question of how far do the Greeks pursue in a hoplite battle? Thucydides has an interesting passage in there, in which he says that the Spartans win the Battle of Mantinea and Thucydides says that the Spartans did not pursue the hoplite. The Spartans never pursue their enemies very far. It’s as though he’s explaining, giving an answer to a question that somebody asked, “why didn’t the Spartans do better in that battle?” To which there could many answers at the Battle of Mantinea, but it seems there’s a much easier answer. Basically, the Greeks couldn’t pursue very hotly with infantry. They don’t want to throw their shields away, they want to keep their shields, so guys with shields are chasing guys without shields. So, they’re not going to chase them very far.
Now, another issue that emerges in discussion of these kinds of battles is the casualties. For a long, long time the general wisdom was there were not heavy casualties in hoplite battles — people calculating on what I was just talking about. But then an old Yalie who took this course when he was very young, and later became an ancient Greek historian, took the wonderfully outlandish device of answering this question. He simply took all the battles in Greek history that we have a record of, and which we know what the casualties were like, and counted and he concluded — anybody can check because there they are — that casualties could run as high as 15% at a hoplite battle. That’s a high casualty rate and many a military unit will break if they have that many casualties. Actually, what he finds is the winning side would lose about 5% and the losing side would lose maybe as much 15%, and so you get some idea. But don’t imagine that these were anything like bloodless or easy. They were bloody, although the actual amount would vary with the circumstances.
Now, you know the battle is over in a variety of ways. One, the enemy ran away; that’s pretty good. But for the Greeks it was very important that things should be really official. There were, and there’s a lot of debate about what I’m going to say next, there were protocols of fighting that were followed. Some people want to have these to be many and for them to be very binding, others want them to be very few and not very binding, and that’s an argument one can get into. But some things seem to be indisputable, for instance, if I say we won the battle I can prove that to you most of the time. Why? Because I now occupy the land that we fought on. Therefore, I can do what they did. Take a stick, bang it into the ground, hang on that stick a captured helmet, or a captured corselet, something that represents the military equipment that the losers had that were left on the field. We hang it up; that is called a trophy. The word trophy comes from the word that means to turn, trepho, and it means that this is the place where the enemy turned and ran. We own that property now, we own their equipment, and therefore we won the battle.
Another tangible way of understanding who won the battle and who didn’t, is we winners, because we own the field, we can pick up the casualties, take care of those who can be saved, bury the ones who have been killed; we don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. Burial is very critical. If you remember from reading the Iliad and Odyssey, it is absolutely critical in the Greek religion that people be properly buried, because if they’re not, then their shade goes on forever in misery and pain. They cannot rest quietly in Hades unless their body has been properly buried; so you got to do it. The losing side must come to the winning side and they must ask permission to pick up their dead and bury them. Typically, that is granted and they can then do it, but they are of course humbling themselves by making the request and coming down under the orders of the winners and taking their dead away and being buried. So it’s very, very clear who won and who lost and that’s — I think it’s a very important point because Greek hoplite warfare, which is the characteristic warfare of the Greeks from the eighth century on into the fourth, never loses its character as a kind of a game, in which there are winners and losers, and the winners are given the prize and the losers don’t get the prize.
It’s a contest just like everything else in Greek society and there’s a tremendous amount of pride that goes into victory and a tremendous amount of shame that goes into defeat. But we said the same thing about the Homeric heroes, didn’t we? Here’s the difference; they’re not fighting for themselves, they’re not fighting for their families, and only to limited extent are they fighting for their personal glory, their kleios; they are fighting for their city, and they will be honored by their city in victory or even in defeat, if they perform very heroically, and of course, what about if they were very shameful? What about if they run away? I think I want to save the illustration of that one until we talk about Sparta. What Tyrtaeus tells us very, very specifically how bad that is; it’s bad. So, you have this tremendous continuity between the sort of the honor code that was so dominant in the Homeric world, which has now been shifted to the larger unit, which is thepolis.
If you can see it, all adult males fought. I should back up; that’s not quite true. There’s an important point I didn’t make. Not everybody gets to fight in the hoplite phalanx. The town, the city, the polis does not provide the fighters with their defensive armor. They might sometime give them their weapons, but not their defensive armor. You can’t fight as a hoplite, in other words, unless you can afford to pay for your equipment and that excludes a goodly number of citizens who are too poor to fight in the phalanx. This becomes a very, very large issue because the notion that there should be a real connection between citizenship in the full sense and military performance is totally a Greek idea — I mean, the Greeks just totally accept that idea. Actually, later on at the end of the fourth century when Aristotle is writing his Politics, he makes really a very clear connection as to the style of fighting and the kind of constitution that you have.
He said very clearly, if you use cavalry as your major arm, your state will be an aristocracy. If you use hoplites, your state will be, what he calls a politea, a moderate regime. If you use a navy, your state will be a democracy in which the lower classes are dominant. So, there’s this real connection and that’s the way they really thought about it. So, what we will see as the polis is invented, moving away from aristocratic rule in the pre-polis days or in the early polis days — you will see a middling group of citizens who are, according to this interpretation, Hanson’s farmers who are also going to gain the political capacity to participate in the town councils, and who are the hoplites but it will exclude the poor, who will not have political rights. Most Greek states, just as they never moved beyond the hoplite style of fighting, never go beyond the oligarchical style of constitution which gives only hoplites political rights in the state. Okay, stay there because who knows, there are 20 million other things I might have said, but instead let me give you the opportunity to ask questions that you would like to raise, particularly if you want to ask about how they fought, as long as we have a phalanx here we might as well use it if we need too.
Chapter 5. Question and Answer on the Hoplite Phalanx [00:43:51]
Are there any questions? Yeah?
Student: How would they practice because weren’t they prominently farmers?
Professor Donald Kagan: The answer is they damn near didn’t. That is, you’ve got a very key point; there was very little military training. On the other hand, you don’t need very much. Think about it, what are the skills? What are the technicalities? If I’m the general and so I say — what do I say? Charge! Now we’re engaging each other, what do I say? Fight harder men! Now we’re in trouble and I say, don’t run away! There are no techniques, there are no maneuvers, there are no — you can’t do anything and so they didn’t practice very much, except one stunning exception, the Spartans. They were not farmers as we shall see, and therefore, they spent their lives practicing warfare. It paid off; they usually won. So, the answer is basically that the ordinary Greeks did not engage in very much practice.
Student: If they’re all fighting in this hoplite style, how do all of these great Greek military personas develop, who are famed for being such wonderful, individual soldiers, if there’s no real hand-to-hand, one-on-one?
Professor Donald Kagan: Well, there is nobody out there that you could see. Typically, we don’t have guys like that. The guys who are famous are the generals who get credit for putting together a nice formation when it’s not the simple one I’ve just given you. Just to be a little bit more plain about that. In the famous battle of Marathon, which I will tell you about when we get there, one of its features is that because the Greeks were numerically badly inferior to the Persians, they had this problem of covering the line. So, they could have thinned out their entire phalanx, but that would have given the Persians a chance to break through anywhere and everywhere, and so what Miltiades did was to make his wings heavier, deeper and very dangerously thin in the middle. It was a gamble. The gamble was our wings will crush their wings and turn in on them from behind and from the side, and set them a running before they break through our middle. As Wellington said at Waterloo, it was a damn near thing. The Persians broke through the middle but just before that, the Athenian wings crushed the Persian wings and set them running for their ships. So, everybody says what a genius Miltiades was. Similarly, in naval battles Themistocles at Salamis comes up with a clever device. So, you see what I’m driving at; we know those guys. You never really hear of Joe Blow who killed thirty-four guys in the phalanx. There must have been some guys like that but you just don’t hear about those fellows. Any other questions? Yeah.
Student: When do they just pull out their swords and start hacking?
Professor Donald Kagan: When they had no spear.
Student: So, the spears broke?
Professor Donald Kagan: Yeah, they would — these spears must have broken like mad. And so the thing to do, unless you have something else, you would go for your sword.
Student: It’s not like you go out and you start fighting people with just your body shield and you’re happy there.
Professor Donald Kagan: Always, oh yes always. You never, according to my understanding of this, you never, never want to be without your shield. That means, you never want to be away from your phalanx. This is disputed. This is exactly — these are the grounds on which this new school — one of the ways in which they argue otherwise. I’ll say a little bit about that, when I get through with phalanx. I just want to — yeah.
Student: What about projectiles?
Professor Donald Kagan: These guys don’t have any projectiles. However, there are light arm troops made up of those two poor to be in the phalanx, who do use projectiles and the projectiles are arrows, javelins, or stones thrown by slings. The trouble with them is none of them has any range. Think about that for a moment. Get out of your mind Henry V, forget the Battle of Agincourt. They don’t have — those men in Lincoln green with the enormous long bows, made out of good English composite whatever, who can fire the thing thousands of yards and penetrate and kill the French nobility. How many of you have seen Henry V in the Laurence Olivier version 1945? They got this miserable modern one with the sort of Vietnam like conditions that they have out there; it’s raining all through the God-damned battle of Agincourt. Great battle, it’s got to have sunshine, blue skies, terrific — well, never mind. They had very poor bows and arrows. They didn’t have the composite bow, didn’t have power. It would have had a hard time getting through the shields and it didn’t have any distance. But they were worth something because they did this. Actually, those guys would be useful, not so much, hardly at all during the scrum of the phalanx, but should one side be retreating. That’s where they do it harm. Once you throw your shield away and you’re running, anybody who’s got a weapon can take you out, and that’s what would have happened. Yeah?
Student: So, is it unlikely that someone like the fellow that was named begin with M. that we read about from the selection.
Professor Donald Kagan: Do you mean, Miltiades?
Student: No, the archer in the Iliad.
Professor Donald Kagan: Oh, in the Iliad.
Student: Is it unlikely that people would actually have been able to do anything like that?
Professor Donald Kagan: Yes, of course, the Iliad has various people who are very good archers, who could kill the other guy. I’m sure there were bows and arrows at that time, but they did not yet have the kind of armor that they would have in this time. So, they would have been more vulnerable and you wouldn’t have to have such a powerful bow. Of course Paris, isn’t he the one who kills Achilles, right? But Achilles, of course, he got him in the heel where he didn’t have any armor. Anything else? Yeah?
Student: I mean, isn’t it somewhat inefficient to load it really deep, because I assume if a spear is only six feet long, what are people in the back going to be doing?
Professor Donald Kagan: Very good yes, and that’s a big argument that nobody has a good answer for. The traditional answer is that these guys actually did press up against the rows in front of them and that this provided a momentum that gave the front line an advantage in beating the enemy facing them. You can see all kinds of troubles. Why didn’t the guys in the middle get crushed? I don’t have any very good answers for that and yet it is one part of the traditional explanation is this, and it’s a very important one and much debated, that at a critical time in the battle one technique would be one side would give one great big shove. The word in Greek is othismos, and if that was successful as it might be, it could knock down the lines of the front guys and get the other side running. There’s ancient evidence, there’s an ancient source for that, that says that’s what happened and that’s one of the things that we have to deal with. The critics of this point of view would say that’s impossible and inconceivable.
Another possible explanation of the significance of depth is, remember, our poor victim here. If you multiply her, then you want to have as much depth to fill in behind to close that hole as you can, so that that would make your phalanx more sturdy, because you could take more casualties without breaking, that seems reasonable to me. But again, I can’t imagine how these guys fought in these circumstances. I really can’t see it. I mean, it’s a pity we can’t kill people in experiments deliberately anymore, because we need to see how this works, but I can’t do it. But I do think that that makes a reasonable amount of sense. Anything else on the mechanics of our phalanx? Yes?
Student: How did they determine when two armies would charge each other?
Professor Donald Kagan: To charge each other, is that what you’re saying? Well, what happens is one army is invading the land of the other. So, it’s — In a way, it decided when the fighting is going to take place up to a point. Namely, it’s going to happen this summer, because we’re coming and it’s going to happen this week; it’s going to happen tomorrow, if you don’t run away. So, now, the defenders have to do it, in a perfect situation, I am marching towards their corn crop, grain crop, at the time just before the grain is going to be harvested. If we cut down that grain you don’t eat this winter. You get in front of the grain, when we say. So, that would be the classic way of determining how it works. It’s never — it probably wasn’t quite that easy but the invading side goes for something that the other side will have to defend and that determines when the fighting takes place. Yes sir?
Student: How long would most of these battles last?
Professor Donald Kagan: Hard to say. Hard to imagine anybody doing this for more than a couple of hours. So that would be my guess, but nobody knows for sure. But I think if you can imagine, up to a couple of hours would be about right. That’s worth mentioning, how long is a war? A couple of hours, because typically there’s just one battle; one side beats the other and that’s the war for now. Until we get, of course, this is early days, until we get to the Peloponnesian War when things change radically in fighting in general, but this is your standard. Yes sir?
Student: You had mentioned that the losing side casualty numbers were approximately about 15%?
Professor Donald Kagan: Yeah, it could be that bad.
Student: If you’re fighting for an hour or two hours, it just seems like that would be such a low number.
Professor Donald Kagan: Well, you got to realize that much of the time, until the phalanx breaks, there’s not a lot of killing that can go on. You can only kill just a few people while they’re still defending themselves in this manner. I have to believe that the bulk of the killing took place on the flight and so that’s why that works out.
Student: What do you do the rest of the time? Just push?
Professor Donald Kagan: If you’re not hitting, you’re pushing, that’s the theory.
Student: An hour?
Professor Donald Kagan: Or two. Yes?
Student: How do they decide who went in front and who went in the back?
Professor Donald Kagan: No, that’s right. They would have decided on the basis of what was most effective and you would not want old guys. By the way, how old are the people out there is a good question. Typically, the youngest guys are twenty, and typically the oldest guys are 45, but everybody was liable to military service in these states until they were about 60. So, you can imagine in certain circumstances there would be guys that old back there, but fundamentally it’s between 20 and 45. Okay, I would have thought that the front row would exclude the older people. You want tough guys up front; you don’t want your front line being broken. So, the guys up front are going — the younger you are, chances are you’re going to be more physically strong than older guys. Probably, though, you wouldn’t want to have the very youngest guys up front, because another thing you want is experience. People who have seen this before, done it before, lived through it, and now you can count on them not to run away, better than you can on a fresh recruit who’s never done this before. So, I would have thought — so you see I’m speculating to a certain degree, but I would have thought you would have guys 25 to 35 in the front couple or three lines, and then behind them younger men and then maybe the older men at the very back, or maybe because you wanted to be sure that that last row didn’t turn and run away too fast, you might have some who were not quite so old at the very back, but it’s all a question of what’s effective and why; that would be my thinking about that. Yes?
Professor Donald Kagan: In what? Normally. I say that a typical phalanx is eight; however, by the time you get down to the fourth century and people are doing all kinds of new and innovative things, we hear that the left wing of the Boeotian army at Leuktra was fifty men deep. Now, what are you going to do with that? But it’s clearly a fact. There were previous examples of people trying to have a deep wing that would do things, but if you take me back to my primitive phalanxhere about 600-650 they’re not doing that stuff yet. But I think that depth would have been determined by how many soldiers you had available. You would have made your phalanx as deep as you could, and once you had the width established. Yeah?
Student: Would the winner of the war slaughter the enemy that would fall behind or would they give them back?
Professor Donald Kagan: The question is would the defeated army — would the winning army kill all the defeated guys who were still on the battlefield at the time? It would vary. They could capture them. There’s a reason to capture them. You could demand ransom for them. So, there would be some inclination to capture men rather than to kill them. On the other hand, guys who were engaged in a fight of the kind we must imagine get very angry; these guys killed a buddy next to you. So, there would have been a certain amount of just furious killing going on, but I don’t think that would have been the way you planned the game. You kill enough guys to achieve your goal and if you’re still rational you take the rest prisoner. I think would be the way to go. Yes?
Student: What would stop an opposing army from flanking you?
Professor Donald Kagan: What would stop it would be — why didn’t they flank each other? Boy, if they could, they would. But the difficulty is, if you take your left flank and move it out here so you can flank this guy, one of two things has to happen to your army. Either you open a nice hole between yourself and the rest of your army, in which case somebody’s going to get very badly killed and you’re going to be on the run very soon, or you have to somehow communicate to the rest of the army, “everybody come over this way,” which will still leave that flank open to being flanked by the other side. That’s what prevents that from happening, we just don’t see that going on. Yeah?
Student: Was it just the Greek sense of honor and propriety that kept them from doing more creative sneak attack?
Professor Donald Kagan: It used to be thought before people were very careful — we know that they do every terrible thing in the world in the Peloponnesian War. Whatever the rules were before, they’re off when we get into the Peloponnesian War. There’s just no dirty trick that anybody fails to do if it can. But they surely must have done it before too. When you’re serious, any way to win will do, but mostly you could make a virtue of a necessity. The kind of battle I’ve been describing to you, a nice flat field, two armies coming at each other, there’s not much you can do in the way of trickery, and so you can take a high tone and say, anybody who fights any other way is a no good coward. In fact, we have some claim, and a Roman writer later on, that there was a treaty back in the eighth century B.C. between a couple of states in Euboea, that said they would never use missiles of any kind, because that was cowardly. The only legitimate fighting is man against man, shield against shield, chest against chest, everybody else is a pussy. So, I think that became — and whatever the reality was, that story was always being told, that’s the way for a man to fight; anything other than that is open to suspicion. Okay, thank you very much hoplites. A little hand for the hoplites.
Chapter 6. Closing Remarks and Critiques of Orthodox Interpretation [01:02:17]
Just a few more little details. The situation begins at — remember, the two sides are opposite each other in the field, probably in the morning. Each side conducts sacrifices in which they ask the gods for assistance in the battle, sometimes they hope that there will be a favorable omen suggesting they’re going to win. They have breakfast, they drink, and they advance typically to a battle song called the paeon which we have, what they sang. I don’t have the tune but I have the words. Does that sound like a good thing to march into battle? Sounds good to me, I like that. Then would come the battle. I talked to you about the pursuit, the aftermath. There’s just one more thing you need to know about this phalanxmode of fighting. When the phalanx fought against any other infantry formation the phalanx wins; from the time we first hear of Greeks fighting non-Greeks, when the Greeks have the phalanx, I think I’m right in saying they never lose a battle.
Finally they do in the, I think it’s the second century B.C., when King Phillip of Macedon has his phalanx fighting against the Roman legion and the legion wins, but believe me, it was no easy thing for the legion to win even in that battle. There was nothing automatic about that. So great was the military success of the phalanx that the King of Persia who was always getting into wars and hiring troops — whenever the kings could they hired Greek hoplites to fight for them. When prince Cyrus seeks to overthrow his brother right after the Peloponnesian War he signs up 10,000 veterans of the Peloponnesian War from the Peloponnesus, because with 10,000 Greek hoplites, he believes that he can conquer the Persian Empire and make himself king, even though the numbers are fabulous. And those Greeks marched 1,500 miles into the center of the Persian Empire, down into Babylonia, fight the army of the Persian king, defeat the army of the Persian king, but unfortunately the prince who led them down there is killed in the battle, making the victory rather pointless, because the whole idea was to make him king. So then you have Xenophon writing his Anabasis, The March Back, telling the story of how those 1,500 — those 10,000 Greeks rather got back home.
Just a word for the other side of the argument, I want to read you a quotation from Hans Van Wees, who is the leading critic of the traditional orthodox explanation I just gave you. Here’s one, “It is clear that the emergence of the hoplite was only the beginning of a lengthy process which certainly lasted more than a century, and may have lasted more than two centuries, leading to the creation of a close ordered hoplites only phalanx. The classical hoplite formation then was not the long lived military institution of scholarly tradition, but merely one phase in a history of almost four centuries of slow change towards ever denser and more cohesive heavy infantry formations.” I’ll read you one more of his statements, “Those who favor an early date for the emergence of the hoplite phalanx rely on one argument above all, the new type of shield adopted in the late eighth century, unlike its predecessors, could be used effectively only in an extremely close and rigid formation. Double grip shields thus presupposed or imposed an extremely dense formation. The tacit assumption is that hoplites stood frontally opposed to their enemies like wrestlers, rather than sideways on, like fencers, holding their shields parallel to their bodies, but artistic representations show that this is not how hoplites fought.”
I would say that the crux, the kernel of the critique, a lot of things you can argue about — The kernel of the critique lies in this assertion which derives its force from an interpretation of pictures on pottery. You can see I’m not too friendly to that interpretation, but it is being taken very, very seriously. So seriously, you fortunate Yalies, that they will be here on April 9 and 10 of 2008, an international conference on the subject of the hoplite phalanx and the emergence of the city state. It will be a classic Greek agonal confrontation, because among the other stars who are going to be engaged, Curtis Easton will be one of them, the main event will be a one-on-one between Victor Davis Hanson and Hans Van Wees. You’re all very welcome to come on that occasion. See you next time.
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