Monday, May 21, 2012

The Hoplite's Way

The Hoplite’s Way
                  “should we be ashamed to imitate the king of the Persians?  For they say that he considers that the noblest and most necessary arts are those of farming and warfare and he practices both most assiduously.”  Socrates, Oecononmicus 4.2-4       
Long before the Samurai came to personify soldierly valor the ancient Greeks had established a martial prowess second to none. Known as the Hoplite, Greek infantrymen have been immortalized for over 2000 years in the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, The Battle of Thermopylae and the Athenian victory at Marathon.
             By 700 B.C. Greece had evolved into an agrarian society largely dependent upon farming, fishing and trade.  Clan control of the land had disappeared and private ownership had become commonplace. Moreover farmers’ generous harvests of olives, grain and grapes-along with their byproducts- became the country’s richest exports and were sold throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean world.
            It takes fifteen years for an olive tree to bear fruit and forty for it to reach full maturity. More importantly though is the devastation of orchards and agricultural land resulted in famine and economic depression; far reaching consequences which drove the Greeks to the conclusion that it was better to have one tumultuous battle, instead of waging prolonged campaigns that destroyed farms and disrupted trade. Hence battlefield combat came to resemble a duel with its outcome deciding affairs between city-states. [i]
Advancements in metal-working allowed the Greeks to produce better armor and weapons than were previously used by their Mycenaean ancestors. In place of cow-hides and ill fitting bronze plate the Classical Greeks forged bronze helmets and corsets to protect both chest and head. They also developed a round shield called the Hoplon, that weighed 17 to 25 lbs, was constructed of wood and bronze and held in place by an armband and handgrip. It was from the hoplon that Greek infantry drew the name, Hoplite.
            The Hoplite’s weapons consisted of an 8ft spear that was used for thrusting either over handed into the enemy’s face and chest, or underhanded into the groin and lower abdomen. Also carried was a small sword known as the kopis that could be used for slashing and stabbing. Overall the Hoplite’s arms and armor weighed upwards to 50lb, quite an amount when one takes into consideration the extreme demands of battlefield combat.
With the rise of democracy citizen and warrior became one in the same in ancient Greece. And while most states gave little military training to their citizens, this was more than compensated for by the Phalanx.  The Phalanx was a formation in which the Hoplites stood shoulder- to- shoulder with shields overlapping, thereby giving extra protection and ensuring unit cohesion. Usually only the first three ranks of Hoplites were able to use their weapons during combat while those located behind kept their spears pointed skyward and pushed those ahead, thereby ensuring continuous forward movement, no matter how brutal the fighting became.
Despite its simplicity the Phalanx was a terrifying spectacle with all its Hoplites dressed in armor, their faces obscured by bronze helmets and a wall of spears protruding from a barrier of shields. And even though Greek armies were comprised of civilian militia, courage and a steadfast mind were considered vitally important to military success. This is because charging a Phalanx required the Hoplite to run head on into the enemy’s spears. There was no such thing as retreat or surrender; furthermore all killing was done face to face.

 Phalanx combat was conducted in four stages. They are:
  1. Moving forward
  2. Run in
  3. No man’s land
  4. Collision and collapse.
Moving forward was when battle lines were drawn.  Hoplite combat was often a formalized affair, one where armies from two opposing city states met at an appointed place, assembled formations and when the order was given moved towards one another at a steady gait.
            Run in happened after the Phalanx started moving. This is when the Hoplites began running to build up momentum so that the ensuing collision would both shock and awe their enemy. Any loss of forward movement meant the front ranks had faltered and that defeat was imminent. Therefore speed of advance and maintaining unit cohesion were of the utmost importance during this stage of combat.
            No man’s land was when the charge was well underway and sweat poured from the Hoplite due to the weight of his heavy armor. His breathing also grew labored and both vision and hearing became impaired due to a tight fitting helmet, clanging equipment and the inevitable cloud of dust generated by the trampling of so many feet. It was at this point that only those Hoplites in the first three ranks had any idea of how close they were to the enemy, or when the clash of Phalanxes would occur.
            Collision and collapse was when the two phalanxes collided. This is when the Hoplites in the first rank became engulfed in a mass of human bodies; men are screaming and dying, others are hacking and stabbing all the while those Hoplites in the second and third ranks have extended their spears over the shoulders of those in the first so that they can thrust into the face, neck, chest and groins of the enemy.  At this point both sides are intermingled with some Hoplites using spears while others fight with their kopis. To the Hoplites in the rearward ranks falls the job of maintaining forward momentum and if a stalemate occurs they ended it by exerting even more pressure on the front ranks.
            The fighting lasted until one side could no longer stand the pressure and ensuing bloodshed and at this point the Phalanx broke up and a route began. For the wounded there were two options. Those slightly injured survived while those struck in the abdomen, groin, chest or neck usually suffered a slow and agonizing death.
            Although considered simplistic Hoplite warfare was both physically and mentally demanding. Martial prowess, both on and off the battlefield, was given a high premium by the Greeks and the amount of courage it took for a Hoplite to charge into a wall of spears is the stuff of which legends are born. Theirs was a society which honored courage as is shown by Plato when he wrote: “A man who is stripped of his shield by a considerable exertion of force cannot be said to have flung it away with the same truth as one who drops it of his own act.  There is all the difference in the world between the cases.” (Plato XII 944C) This was the Hoplite’s way.

[i] This was not always the case as the Peloponnesian war and Alexander’s conquests show us. Ancient Greece has often been described as society in which peace was a mere interlude between wars. Similarly professional warriors did exit, the Spartans being some of the most notable while others became mercenaries and fought for Cyrus thereby helping him win the throne of Persia.

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