Ancient History & Civilisation


The Hoplite Narrative

Why Don’t We Know More about Hoplites?

There are few controversies in Greek history as spirited as those over the origins and nature of hoplite battle. The dilemma arises because we have few prose accounts of set battles before Marathon (490 BC). Consequently, it is far easier to take exception to a particular element of a general reconstruction than it is to risk offering a likely comprehensive scenario of the nature of the hoplite phalanx from meager evidence.

Surviving battle descriptions in later historians are fragmentary, and dependent largely on a prior oral tradition. Battle references to hoplites and/or mass fighting in Homer’s epics and the subsequent lyric poets remain subject to raging controversy. Poetical interpretations often require the sensitivity of a literary critic to distinguish realistic portrayal from expressions that are metaphorical, or predicated on the formulaic, metrical, and vocabulary rules of poetic expression. The net result is we know almost no details about either the strategy or the tactics involved in early battles from the eighth to early fifth centuries. The Lelantine Plain, the wars for Messenia, the battle of Hysiai, the so-called Battle of Champions, Sepeia, and a host of other engagements are now mostly mere names.1

Representation on vases and in stone often reflects the conventions of artistic genres. It is, after all, nearly impossible to portray a phalanx in its proper three-dimensional perspective in ceramic painting or even on temple friezes. Pots and sculpture are hard to date. The subject matter is far more often mythological in theme than historical.

Physical remains of arms and armor are invaluable sources of evidence. But after some 2,500 years, artifacts are often poorly preserved, especially those with leather and wood components. Their original weights and sizes remain inexact; and it is sometimes difficult to determine whether surviving specimens in dedicatory and ceremonial circumstances were typical or exceptional. Often given the scarcity of evidence, discussion of hoplite warfare is compressed over three centuries, inasmuch as we do know to what degree arms and tactics were roughly similar or at wide variance in the decades between, say, 700 and 350 BC. And when ancient military analysts talk in the abstract about the weapons, tactics, and problems of the phalanx, they usually do so in reference to the Macedonian-inspired formations of the late Hellenistic period—as the extant Roman-era works of tacticians such as Arrian, Asclepiodotus, and Onasander attest.2

Moreover, the nature of hoplite battle involves not merely a question of source materials and military history, but is deeply embedded in the central controversies of the rise of the polis itself: who were hoplites, and did they reflect or cause (or even, were they largely irrelevant to) the major social and economic changes of Greek history? Did hoplites and phalanxes prove central to the security of the small Greek city-states? Or, given the beauty of hoplite arms and the romance of phalanxes, has the later Western tradition exaggerated their importance, and forgotten the invaluable role of Greek horsemen, archers, and lightly armed troops? In short, major economic, political, social, and cultural interpretations of Greek history hinge on how we interpret often narrow controversies of hoplite fighting.3

The Emergence of a Grand Narrative

Despite scholarly disagreements about hoplites, there has emerged over the last two centuries of classical scholarship what I would call the “grand hoplite narrative.” This general consensus, with occasional qualifications, has found its way into most histories of Greece and runs along something like the following lines.4

Sometime in the late eighth century BC elements of the hoplite panoply began appearing in plenitude in Greece—prominently perhaps in the Peloponnese, but within decades throughout much of the Greek-speaking world. The concave round wooden shield, heavy bronze breastplate, greaves, and crested helmet, along with a thrusting spear with butt spike and ancillary sword, reflected a preference for fighting en masse in the phalanx. While the ensemble was often worn piecemeal and developed slowly, and while initially all sorts of differently armed warriors fought alongside hoplites, such heavy, cumbersome arms and armor eventually proved not only best suited for phalanx warfare but also disadvantageous for purely soloist fighters. The so-called hoplite panoply either reflected a desire to improve existing mass formations or, by the exceptional characteristics of such arms, began to prompt many of the novel tactics of phalanx warfare itself.5

By the mid-seventh-century BC at least, many Greek city-states fielded small armies of hoplite phalanxes that perhaps brought a stature to infantry warfare not enjoyed by either the wealthier and less numerous horsemen—or the more numerous and less wealthy lightly armed soldiers. Accordingly, the Greeks felt there were certain desirable conventions to hoplite battle, concerning its conduct and duration, that tended to mitigate the destructive nature of frequent warring among small city-states—even as they allowed that on occasion such moral protocols of heavy infantry combat were ignored or abbreviated in the heat of battle, or over the course of longer wars simply superseded by other strategies and tactics.6

Early hoplite battle, then, was conducted by infantrymen in cumbersome armor. Hoplites massed in columns several shields deep and collided with their opponents in some sort of shock battle, and perhaps after the fifth century, when equipment grew somewhat lighter, often at a trot or double-time. While there was chaotic and often vicious individual spear fighting along the front ranks, armies ideally tried to use their superior mass, solidarity, and cohesion to break apart the ranks of their opponents.

The round, double-gripped shield could provide its wearer only partial protection. Each hoplite found the right half of his body—especially his spear arm and shoulder—protected by the shield of the hoplite to his right. In some sense, the entire battle line was composed of fighters who simultaneously were both providing partial protection to, and receiving it from, their fellow hoplites at their sides. The greater depth of a phalanx was felt to provide commensurate increased—and desirable—thrust, even at the cost of taking more spearmen out of the initial collision and fighting in the killing zone. Accordingly, a hoplite ethos emerged stressing group solidarity and the need, as far as possible, to stay in one’s assigned rank, as the cumbersome panoply made solo fighting riskier to both self and comrade—and skirmishing clearly negated the advantages of heavy armor, the large shield, and long spear. Phalanxes, accordingly, were calibrated by the depth of “shields” rather than of “spears”—again a reflection of the emphasis on collective protective solidarity rather than individual battle prowess.

In the battle zones at the front of the two armies, spears often were broken, while the middle and rear ranks soon sought to force and push the frontline hoplites on through the enemy’s lines of shields. Elements of the phalanx usually advanced as a unit or collapsed together, often along tribal or regional contingents. Pursuit of the defeated was limited by both the weight of the panoply and the apparent reluctance to define victory by absolute annihilation of the enemy rather than the collapse of enemy advance and solidarity. Acknowledgment of the verdict of the battle was reinforced through a variety of rituals.7

The Greek islands, the horse-raising plains in Thessaly and Macedon, and tribal frontiers such as the mountainous regions of western Greece were, in terms of geography alone, less conducive to battle by hoplite phalanxes. But elsewhere on the small plains of the mainland the rise of hoplites is often associated with the simultaneous fruition of the Greek polis, especially the prominence of a broadening property-owning class, positioned somewhere in between the landless poor and the mounted wealthy.8

The prominence of hoplites in classical literature and art reflected both their utility on the battlefield—and a certain growing chauvinism of the middling warrior-citizen. There was certainly something visually arresting about the hoplite protective ensemble, from horsehair crest down to bronze greaves and even toe guards, enhanced when thousands of such armed warriors were arrayed in serried ranks—at least as we can tell from ancient literary descriptions and surviving vase paintings. And while the obvious combat limitations of heavily armed phalanxes were apparent to the Greeks as early as the Persian War, and all too real by the Peloponnesian War, city-states continued to invest in hoplite armies and often sought to defend or attack other city-states through decisive engagements, as the prominent hoplite battles of the fourth century attest.

Apart from reasons of military conservatism, and the general reverence for the autonomous property-owning heavy infantrymen, hoplite battle of some sort persisted for centuries from Archaic to Hellenistic times, quite apart from the social, political, and economical landscape of its origins. Few forms of warfare, after all, could concentrate so many fighters in such a small space to fight in such a decisive and public manner.9

The general notion that Greek warfare was both frequent and yet not genocidal; that there was ideally a preference for decisive infantry battle rather than extended skirmishing and inconclusive raiding; and that the Greeks accepted war as inevitable and a tragic element of the human experience was predicated at least in part on the ethos of hoplite fighting that usually offered clear-cut results, involved many of the voting citizenry, and did not result in a degree of casualties that would have ruined the city-state.

Currently, however, much of the above traditional hoplite narrative has been questioned. In what follows, rather than concentrate in depth on the myriad of individual controversies that have arisen recently, I briefly summarize some of the more contentious points of dispute, and hope to show that the traditional narrative best reflects our existing evidence as well as offering the most logical hypothesis about the nature of hoplite battle.10

Rich, Poor, Middle-Class—or Mixed Up—Hoplites?

Some critics have suggested that the notion of classical Greek hoplites as a distinct middling class—known in our sources often as hoi mesoi—is mostly a myth. Hoplite warfare, then, was supposedly instead mostly the domain of the upper classes that alone could afford armor; and fighting in mass formation is no reflection of an emergence of a new sort of Greek citizen.11

Yet the fact that the later Greeks themselves did not always recognize such a middle group in modernist terms as a clearly conceptualized “class”—or that the qualifications of mesoi at times were loose and fluid—does not negate its existence. Sometimes the argument for and against the presence of middling hoplites hinges on interpretation of Aristotle’s famous description in his Politics about the rise of the city-state and its connection with its hoplite citizenry (4.1297b16–24):

Indeed the earliest form of government among the Greeks after monarchy was composed of those who actually fought. In the beginning that meant cavalry, since without cohesive arrangement (aneu suntaxeôs), heavy armament (to hoplitikon) is useless; and experience and tactical knowledge of such hoplite systems (tôn toioutôn empeiriai kai taxies) did not exist in ancient times, and so power again lay with mounted horsemen. But once the poleis grew and those with hoplite armor became stronger (tôn en tois hoplois ischusantôn), more people shared in government (pleious meteichon tês politeias).

Note here Aristotle’s impression that the city-states were at first dominated by horsemen, since hoplites were in small numbers and did not fully employ the tactics of the phalanx (“cohesive arrangement”). But as population grew, and once heavy equipment and those who used it found their optimum expression on the battlefield, then government reacted accordingly to incorporate this new group (“more people”) of citizen-soldiers.

Aristotle’s sociology elsewhere in the Politics about classes is not systematic or even consistent. He often is imprecise (as are we moderns who naturally prefer a simplistic rich/poor political dichotomy in casual political discourse even as we privilege the all-American “middle class”) about the rich, poor, and middle classes. Nevertheless, Aristotle is also often unambiguous elsewhere in the Politics when talking about the relationships of hoplites to those who farm and own property (e.g., 4.1291a31–33), a common enough connection that echoes throughout Greek literature in diverse authors, in both implicit references and constant metaphors and similes.12

Equally importantly, middleness itself is reflected as a ubiquitous sociological ideal in Greek literature (e.g., cf. Phocylides: “Much good is there to the middle-ones; I wish to be midmost [mesos] in a city” [fr. 7.1–2]; cf. Euripides Suppliants, “the ones in the middle” [hoi mesoi”] are the “salvation of the city” [238–42]). Such generic idealization of the in-between is often naturally connected to the hoplite ranks that on the battlefield are framed at both ends by the mounted wealthy and the poorer lightly armed troops. In the rural sociology of the polis, they remain distinct from both the wealthy horse owners and the landless poor.13

Farmland is sometimes in Greek literature assessed by its potential to produce hoplites, emphasizing the natural generalized connection between those citizens who farm their own plots and those who fight in the phalanx. A variety of passages in classical authors equate farmers with hoplites and define them as the true measure of the city-states, as well as the generally held notion that the catalysts for most wars were disputes over borderlands among rival property-holding citizenries. The Spartan exception of having helots do much of their agricultural labor emphasizes the normal Greek belief that elsewhere farmers and hoplites were nearly synonymous: “Not by caring for our fields,” the singular Spartans brag, “but rather by caring for ourselves did we acquire those fields (Plut. Mor. 214a72).14

There is also the more practical argument of demography and landscape. Take Athens—generally not associated as a major hoplite power—where rough estimates of the citizen population, average farm size, and total arable land make it likely that there were nearly twenty thousand middling farm owners, about the accustomed number of the hoplite class. That hoplites may have been a minority of the resident citizens within the city-state does not negate either the fact that they formed a middling group, or that Greek city-states could field hoplite armies in the many thousands.

In contrast, if we were to believe that “the model hoplite was not the working man whose fitness for war derived from hard labor, but the man of leisure who owed his fitness to dedicated physical and mental training,” then we would have to assume that rather sizable numbers of the Greek citizenry—compare the some forty thousand hoplites who fought together at battles like Nemea—had enough capital not to work physically and the leisure to train for battle. Likewise there would be no reason for the constant references in (elite) classical literature to the connection between hard physical work on the farm or in the countryside and the readiness to fight.15

Was Greek Warfare Rare?

The common assumption of the hoplite narrative that Greek warfare was a relatively common event has been challenged recently on the odd basis that it is supposedly a fallacy hinging on a misreading of a single, though famous, passage in Plato’s Laws to the effect that all Greeks are engaged in continuous war against those of other city-states.16 At one point in Plato’s dialogue, Cleinias, a Cretan, quotes an anonymous Cretan lawgiver: “What most people call ‘peace’ is nothing but a word, and in fact every city-state is at all times, by nature in a condition of undeclared war (akêrutos polemos) with every other city-state” (Laws 626a).

The orthodox interpretation usually cites the passage as further evidence of the Greeks’ philosophical acceptance that periodic outbreaks of hostility were more to be expected than long periods of peace. Here the Athenian stranger and Cleinias are discussing the Cretan constitution—specifically, why the custom arose for group messes and the need for constant preparedness, given the perception of near-constant war. The explanation of a condition of undeclared war is not, as revisionists sometimes argue, followed by a sneer against the masses that are unaware of it, or an implication that ceaseless fighting was only a rarified theory. Instead the thought serves as a necessary explanation of why the anonymous Cretan lawgiver—as an authority responsible for the safety of the Cretan community—"established every one of our institutions, both in the public sphere and private, with an eye on war.”17

But more importantly, there are plenty of other abstract observations, across a wide chronological spectrum, that reflect a similar Hellenic view of war as a near-constant and natural state of affairs. Most famously, Heraclitus remarked: “War is both father and king of all, some he has shown forth as gods and others as men. Some he has made slaves and others free.” And in another—less often quoted—fragment, he reiterated that view of war as a natural state of affairs: “It should be understood that war is the common condition (xunon), that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife” (frgs. 53, 80). It would be hard to imagine philosophers referring to war as “common” if it were felt to be a somewhat rare occurrence.

The point of these observations, which, again, cover a large chronological continuum, is that generic conflict is seen by abstract Greek thinkers as almost natural—a ceaseless, omnipresent state that at any time can alter even the very status of the citizen and slave. In Xenophon’s Hellenica(6.3.15), for example, the Athenian envoy, Callistratus, matter-of-factly remarks in candid terms to his Spartan audience, “Moreover, we all know that wars are forever breaking out and being concluded, and that we—if not now, still at some future time—shall desire peace again.”

Given that there were probably over a thousand city-states without a unified federal state, but with poorly demarcated borderlands, and plenty of contentious landowners who could both vote and bear arms, the observations of Heraclitus, Plato, and Xenophon seem quite natural.

The Tragic Acceptance of War

There is a certain Hellenic resignation—perhaps even cynicism—that the state of war among the city-states is something commonplace and that men should accept it as inevitable. The particular allegiances between the city-states that for a time might deter a war pale in comparison to the larger bellicosity of the poleis, and indeed of human nature itself, that ensure wars of some sort are near constant. War was seen either as Xenophon’s natural state, or Plato’s undeclared reality, or Heraclitus’s king and father—or, in Thucydides’s words, a “violent teacher” (5.82), or in Pindar’s (fr. 15) formulation “a thing of fear.”

Again, these reflections seem natural given the absence of a Panhellenic federal state, the sheer number of rival city-states, the limited amount of arable land in Greece, and the geography of small habitable enclaves set off from one another by hills and mountains that form convenient borders—and given especially a pretechnological age among a relatively small population in which wars of massive annihilation were largely unknown. To take a modern example, while warfare between the three North American nations—Canada, Mexico, and the United States—broke out in the last two centuries on only two or three occasions, one might imagine a very different, European-like scenario had there been fifty different contiguous American sovereign countries, rather than unified states of a single nation.

While it is easy to suggest the classical Athenian experience of near-constant warring is either atypical of its own history or that of other poleis, it is nonetheless probably true that Athens warred three out of four years in the fifth century, and perhaps two out of three over a longer continuum. Likewise, the fourth-century Spartan state suffered severe social dislocations, given its almost nonstop deployment of its officers abroad in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. The ubiquity of martial scenes in ceramic art and on temple friezes and pediments emphasizes the general Greek sense that war was a near-natural state of affairs—born out in literary genres from Homeric epic to the Greek historians that are devoted to an explication of war.18

The Greeks accepted the tragic notion that while war was impossible to legislate away, outlaw, or prevent from ever again breaking out, there were nonetheless ways to prevent individual wars and to mitigate their severity—through deterrence, a balance of power, the creation of coalitions, constant preparedness, eternal vigilance, and, when fighting broke out, acknowledgment of certain limitations on hoplite combat. This acceptance of inherent bellicosity is well illustrated in the Theban general Pagondas’s speech before the hoplite battle of Delium (Thuc. 4.92) in which he outlined the need for constant vigilance against his Athenian neighbors, who were likely to be aggressive when they sensed weakness: “As between neighbors generally, freedom means simply a determination to hold one’s own,” and further: “People who, like the Athenians in the present instance, are tempted by pride of strength to attack their neighbors, usually march most confidently against those who keep still, and only defend themselves in their own country, but think twice before they grapple with those who meet them outside their frontier and strike the first blow if opportunity offers.”19

Again, this tragic acceptance of armed conflict is not an endorsement of war’s utility; nevertheless, it is antithetical to the modernist notion that human nature can be altered sufficiently—through greater education, training, and freedom from want—to ensure that war might be outlawed or eliminated entirely.

Fluid Fighting?

Some have advanced a different scenario of battle in which hoplites along the battle line fought at some distance from each other, in more fluid fashion, and in formations in which there was neither an initial collision nor a subsequent pushing to achieve a breakthrough.20

But once again there are general reasons to doubt this revisionism of the hoplite narrative, even as we concede that individual prowess in arms and bodily strength were highly desirable, and that matchups along the front ranks were frequent as both sides sought to fight their way into and break apart enemy formations. Being pushed often into an enemy line, while keeping the shield chest high to protect both oneself and the man on the left, does not preclude individual battle skill in stabbing the enemy, keeping one’s balance, and avoiding incoming blows. In collisions of massed ranks, inevitably hoplites often fought individual hoplites.

That said, there is a rich Greek vocabulary for a “breaking” of the ranks, a “storm” of spears, and a literal “push”—images of collective efforts used to describe hoplite battles in a wide variety of authors. It is hard to accept that the repeated references to theôthismos (the “push”), or its more frequent verbal forms (ôtheô), are merely figurative. Often supplementary vocabulary stresses the value of “density” and “depth,” which is logical when both sides seek to use their mass to force an opponent off the battlefield. Emphasis is often placed on muscular strength and the superior physicality of one side over the other; likewise the Boeotian armies are distinguished both by their tendencies to stack unusually deep and by the logical corollary of the superior physicality of their hoplites.21

In a war of shock and pushing, one would expect hoplite battles to involve an initial advance by running, or at least by advancing in double-time, and a subsequent frequent breaking of spears—and that is often just what we read in our extant descriptions. Indeed, at most major classical battles, hoplites are specifically mentioned as approaching at some sort of double-time or trot—often in contrast to the Spartans, who were singled out as unique in marching in step to battle to the sound of pipes. In general, the need to keep close in rank and protect the man to the left is likewise emphasized and alone rewarded with formal commemoration. The shield is frequently praised as a defensive weapon, one used in unison with those along the battle line, and as the most common measurement of phalanx depth. Flinging down the spear or sword is rarely seen as proof of cowardice; abandoning the shield always is—presumably because it imperils the integrity of the entire line of hoplites.22

If phalanx warfare were not a matter of shock and pushing, why then in a Mediterranean climate would skirmishing hoplites carry spears and large shields, and wear such heavy bronze armor—an ensemble not particularly suitable for more fluid individual combat—and not to my knowledge replicated with skirmishers in similar climates? And why, time after time, would Greek authors warn that such heavily armed soldiers could not fight well on rough terrain—given that gaps would appear in the ranks and files as infantrymen stumbled or tried to avoid obstacles on the battlefield? Would not gaps be natural and expected if battles involved little more than individual skirmishing?

If density of rank, shock of collision, and pushing were not critical to hoplite battle, would not hills and broken ground be welcomed as places where a less compact phalanx with its fluid-fighting men in armor might ambush and waylay others—or might not such terrain at least be considered largely irrelevant to the outcome? Thucydides’s famous statement of the night fighting above Syracuse, that even in daylight “each man hardly knows anything except what is occurring to himself “ (7.44.1) better fits the notion of heavily armored men in mass rather than fluid skirmishers.23

Note as well that commemoration for bravery and excellence in battle usually is awarded on the basis of group cohesion, and maintaining order. Prizes and awards are not accorded—as was true in more fluid fighting scenarios in regions such as Iberia, Scythia, or Thrace—to the number or nature of kills that individual warriors can tally. The impression we receive is that in hoplite battle it is either difficult or less important to record “kills,” but essential to preserve the integrity of the formation. That again is a reality hard to reconcile with the notion of armies grinding to a halt as they approached each other to allow individual warriors to battle and duel with an enemy of like kind.24

Analogies to either Macedonian phalangites or Roman soldiers or contemporary tribesmen who mass in formation only to advance in smaller groups and in greater fluidity are not convincing: Hellenistic phalangites, with much smaller shields on their neck or arms, used both hands to carry long pikes; Roman legionaries relied on throwing the pilum and the short gladius and employed single-grip shields.

Modern tribesmen with long spears who fought in fluid fashion usually did so in near-naked fashion. In contrast, I would imagine if anthropologists had discovered indigenous tribes in warm climates with odd Hellenic-like full suits of bronze armor, large, round, and concave willow shields, and thrusting spears, then they likewise would have recorded shock tactics similar to those of hoplite warfare. But such is not the case with modern lightly clad tribesmen who used spears.25

In addition, often battle narratives in Thucydides and Xenophon concentrate on entire contingents that advance or retreat collectively, and likewise either are annihilated or escape casualties as a whole. At Delium the Thespians are encircled and nearly wiped out in toto (Thuc. 4.96). At Nemea they meet the men from Pellene and both sides die in their places, suggesting a sort of death struggle between two mass contingents of colliding hoplites. At the same battle, the Spartans let entire contingents of the Athenians go by and then struck the unprotected sides of the retreating Argives (Xen. Hell. 4.2.16–23). Indeed, at Nemea, Xenophon talks of Athenian, Argive, Corinthian, Spartan, and Theban fighters who suffered collective fates—either near annihilation or almost no damage at all. At Coronea the Argives en masse run away, and the Thebans and Spartans hit each other as two identifiable contingents (e.g., Xen. Hell. 4.3.17). At Tegyra, the Spartans let the Thebans under Pelopidas come through an open lane, who then in turn collectively are broken apart. (Plut. Pel. 17.5). In the so-called Tearless Battle, entire formations of Arcadians collapse in unison from the panic of facing the Spartans (Xen. Hell. 7.1.28–32)—a sometimes frequent occurrence in hoplite battle that suggests a herd or group-like mentality of soldiers tightly massed, who may have decreased perception and are subject to rumor or blind fears of collapse—without ever seeing clearly the enemy himself.

The sense in many of these battles is not one of fluid stages involving small groups and pockets of individual duelers, where fatalities are roughly divided among warriors on both sides, but rather of collisions, collective retreats, and synchronized advances, in which entire columns of men attempt to keep close rank throughout the battle and thus seem to suffer terribly or escape losses altogether. Many hoplite battles have lopsided casualty figures that suggest not long episodes of individual combat, contingent on personal weapons prowess, but the sudden disintegration of units en masse, or in turn the near invulnerability of entire phalanxes whose enemies either flee or are caught unawares.

Was Hoplite Armor Heavy?

Key to the hoplite narrative is the notion that hoplite armor was heavy and cumbersome. What a hoplite soldier lacked in mobility, flexibility, vision, and comfort was more than offset by the protection offered by his panoply. Such metal, leather, and fabric protection, when used in proper concert with other similarly armed men, was felt to offer an ancient hoplite a reasonable chance of surviving spear, sword, and occasional missile attacks—and to ensure that the community usually did not lose large percentages of its male population in frequent hoplite fighting.

Recently that truism too has come under question, most notably by Peter Krentz, who reexamines the ancient evidence in concert with various calculations and modern conjectures to reduce the average classical panoply to less than 50 pounds.26 The Greeks, of course, themselves commented often on the weight, discomfort, and clumsiness of their hoplite armor—a ubiquitous theme throughout Greek literature (see Ar. Nub. 988–89; Eur. HF 190; Xen. Mem. 3.10.9–14). Elements of the panoply such as the double-grip and concave shield seem designed to lessen the burdensome weight of the shield on the wearer. Arm, thigh, and other peripheral items over time appear to be discarded rather than to be continually added to the panoply. Breastplates become lighter, not heavier.

We can only offer informed guesses about the exact weights of the ancient panoply, in part because it is almost impossible to calibrate at which stage of its evolution were particular hoplite battles conducted. Bronze thigh, shoulder, foot, and hand protection would add weight; composite corselets composed of linen in lieu of the bell cuirass would lessen it. Early Corinthian helmets seem heavier than the later pilos; metal shield veneers and blazons, along with padding, grips, and straps, would add to the weight of shield. There are few extant breastplates and only one known wooden shield, and the size and tastes of individual ensembles under combat conditions perhaps varied widely. Surviving samples have weathered and corroded over centuries, and we are not sure exactly the types and treatment of woods typically used for shields and spears. Modern replication of ancient Greek arms is indeed helpful, but there remain variances between contemporary and ancient modes of fabrication and metal use.27

That said, the current controversy over the precise weight of the panoply is not about whether we moderns regard hoplite panoplies to have been heavy—that seems to have been a given—but rather whether the ensemble is to be regarded as extremely heavy. If earlier estimates of 70 pounds prove to have been excessive, or wrongly predicated on exclusively bronze corselets and full three-foot-diameter shields of hardwoods rather than smaller sizes and lighter woods, it is still not altogether clear how an ancient hoplite of 120–150 pounds, with even nearly 50 pounds of offensive and defensive gear, could have fought deftly out of formation.

A Late Phalanx?

The grand hoplite narrative allowed that the phalanx evolved in a complex fashion from the seventh century to the fourth, in the same manner that the Corinthian helmet and the solid bronze breastplate gave way to lighter models, as the Greeks increasingly encountered a wide array of challenges abroad, and at home innovative commanders over the centuries experimented with both armament and tactics.

Current revisionism that the phalanx was a more recent phenomenon of the fifth century seems likewise mistaken. Of course, greater population, more state control, and accumulated battle experience made “classical” phalanxes larger and more sophisticated—along with a synergy of specialized light and mounted troops, and more elaborate tactics of advance and concentration of force.28

Still, there is no reason to think the classical phalanx was all that much different from its archaic antecedents, much less that it had become something altogether novel, rather than a logical outgrowth of what we would expect would have been the natural evolution from its archaic forebearers.

There are a number of pragmatic considerations that explain perceived differences in early and late formations. First, archaic hoplites at war are largely known from vase painting and poetry; their classical counterparts in contrast are described in prose accounts in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and the later historians and biographers. The latter offer more opportunity for detail, both of battle and tactics, in a way impossible in earlier epic and lyric poetry and vase painting. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that both the poet Tyrtaios and historian Xenophon, composing three centuries apart, alike speak of some sort of ôthismos. The scene of a line of hoplites portrayed on the Protocorinthian Chigi vase, dated around 650 BC, seems not that much different from a similar battle line sculpted on the Nereid monument in stone at Xanthos around 400 BC. On occasion it seems natural that hoplites can raid sanctuaries to employ arms for contemporary battle that must have been decades old, and should have been rendered obsolete, had phalanx fighting little pedigree and been a late development.29

Second, the logical connection between the known evolution in hoplite weaponry and the proposed idea of the phalanx proper first appearing in the fifth century is problematic. The traditional narrative often postulated that the introduction of heavy weaponry refined and improved earlier, less organized fighting in dense mass. As the polis grew larger and richer, phalanxes incorporated more hoplites, and warfare became more complex with greater maneuver and motion. In turn, armament in response gradually grew somewhat lighter and perhaps therein cheaper as well, often produced in “factories” by the state.30

But if instead phalanx warfare—that is, fighting in close formation—was a phenomenon mostly of the fifth century, followed by even more compact formations of the Macedonians, then are we to believe that earlier archaic hoplites with cumbersome arm and thigh guards, wearing the obtrusive Corinthian helmet and bronze bell corselet, fought as skirmishers in more or less fluid fashion, while their more mobile and lighter-clad successors belatedly discovered the advantages of fighting in solidarity and through shock? It would seem that the opposite sequence would be more credible—that as the phalanx suddenly coalesced and grew denser, began to rely on shock, and saw less fluidity, the crowded hoplites in the ranks would adopt more protective, not lighter arms and armor.

Finally, why would eighth- and seventh-century Greek warriors, fighting in loose formation and skirmishing, suddenly begin to fabricate heavy infantry arms and armor—only to discover their optimum usage over two centuries later? The hoplite panoply was not quite like any other set of arms and armament seen before or since. The notion that citizens would craft such armor only to fathom its ideal application three centuries after its creation is as unconvincing as it is unsupported by literary descriptions and artistic renditions. A modern analogy would be that in loosely organized games of traditional touch football where contact is forbidden and injuries are rare, a few players for some reason began appearing in heavy pads, helmet with face guard, and full body protection that hampered the very mobility that was vital to such a fluid sport. Then, after decades or even centuries of slogging about, they discovered that, while such cumbersome, hot, expensive, and heavy equipment kept putting them at a disadvantage in status quo light football, in time it could nevertheless prove especially apt for a new variation of brutal tackle football—though one unknown at the time they capriciously donned their original ensembles.

Deconstruction of Hoplite Battle

There is no typical hoplite battle, given regional variations, the nearly four centuries of development, and the leadership of later innovative commanders such as Pagondas, Brasidas, and Epaminondas. Nevertheless here are a few random observations on some well-recorded fourth-century hoplite battles that seem to confirm most of the elements of the traditional narrative—the attack on the run, the collision of mass formations, the frequent breaking of spears, and the subsequent role of mass and density of formations in deciding the battle.

The exceptionalism of the battle of Coronea was not, as often argued, just a result of an anomalous crash between Thebans and Spartans. Indeed, the mechanics of that horrific encounter were similar to the collisions found at other fourth-century battles. Otherwise, are we to assume that Agesilaus expected his hoplites in a split second to adopt a manner of fighting with which they had absolutely no prior experience?

Instead, what made Xenophon remark that Coronea “was like no other” battle of his time was the odd fact that the superior Spartan right wing, by its own volition, chose an optional, second-stage head-on collision against a similarly victorious Theban right wing—in a manner of sorts foreshadowing the right wing/left wing showdown of the best units at Leuctra (Xen. Hell. 4.3.16). Xenophon gives a brutal description of “shield to shield” fighting between Spartans and Thebans (Xen. Hell. 4.3.19), not because such crashes of arms per se were necessarily singular, but because, between two such evenly matched and lethal contingents, the accustomed impact of forces would, in this unique case, not so quickly result in the collapse of either side, but rather ensure a sort of mutual destruction. (And if fluidity were the norm, it would seem impossible that both mobile Spartans and Thebans could redirect, and retain rank and formation, to restart the battle ab initio.)31

At Nemea (394 BC) we hear of the advantage of weight that accrues to the The-bans in massing beyond even the agreed-on sixteen shields depth (Xen. Hell. 4.2.18). On the Boiotians’ right side, the Thespians and the men of Pellene hit each other head-on and are nearly obliterated (4.2.20). The victorious Spartans across the way are ready to strike the retreating Argives front-to-front (4.2.22). But instead they allow the enemies to go on by and then engage them on their unshielded right sides. Here again, note the sense of the collective, since the assumption is that all the retreating Argives have remained in rank and thus will suffer from a commensurately collective strike from the intact formation of Spartans.

At Leuctra there is the usual run of the non-Spartan side (dromô), and the subsequent hand-to-hand fighting (eis cheiras), before the superior density (puknotêta) and weight (baros/bareis) of the Thebans bring advantage (Diod. 15.55.2–4).

The phalanxes of the Boeotians and the Lacedaemonians at Mantinea (362 BC) hit each other head-on, and, owing to the density of the blows, both sides break a great deal of their spears (dia tên puknotêta tôn plegôn ta pleista suntripsantes; Diod 15.86.2). Their bodies almost become intertwined (sumplekomenoi de tois sômasi; Diod. 15.86.3). Progress for the Thebans follows the successful entry of Epaminondas’s Thebans, who charge in a tight mass (meta toutôn sumphraxas, eisebalen eis mesous tous polemous; Diod. 15.86.4). The army then seems to close to hand-to-hand fighting (tôn allôn eis cheiras erchomenôn; Diod. 15.86.4). Indeed the Boeotians use their density and depth to break through the ranks of the Lacedaemonians, like a trireme (ôsper trirêrê prosege, nomizôn opoi embalôn diakopseie (Xen. Hell. 23). Some of the enemy then panic as the Boeotians break through their phalanx (diekopse tên phalanga tôn polemiôn) as the “weight” of their formation seems to play the decisive role (to baros; Diod. 15.86.5). The battle then ends indecisively because, with the wounding of Epaminondas, the Thebans check their pursuit of the receding Lacedaemonians and each side claims a victory on one of the two wings.32

A Century-Long Orthodoxy

Finally, recent questions about hoplite war are too often framed as a revisionist questioning of an orthodoxy that grew up in the last twenty years among a “face-of-battle” group of scholars influenced by John Keegan and others.33 In fact, the orthodoxy of late eighth- to early fourth-century hoplites of a middling group of citizens, neither rich nor poor, colliding with like kind in heavy armor, finally pushing en masse in efforts to break apart the cohesion of an enemy phalanx, in frequent wars over borderlands, was established, in varying degrees, over a centuries-long tradition in scholarship by historians as diverse as F. E. Adcock, J. K. Anderson, H. Delbrück, Y. Garlan, A. W. Gomme, G. B. Grundy, J. Kromayer, W. K. Pritchett, A. Snodgrass, and dozens of others who had no allegiance to any particular ideology, approach, or politics, but rather drew conclusions from their own close reading of Greek texts, inscriptions, and representations on vase paintings and stone.

One of the oddest elements of the present controversy over the grand narrative is the explaining away of what Greek authors themselves thought in the abstract about hoplite battle—in a variety of genres and over hundreds of years.

To discredit the narrative, one must assume that Aristotle was wrong when he said that once early hoplite soldiers gained knowledge of orderly formation and deployment, and their numbers increased, they naturally began to take a greater share in the consensual government of the polis, and that hoplites were useless without cohesive arrangement (Pol. 4.1297b16–24); that Herodotus was in error when he made the Persian Mardonius ridicule Greek hoplite battle as “silly” (môria) for its emphasis on fighting openly on “the most level ground,” where both sides settled the issue by convention and mutual agreement (7.9.2); that Demosthenes was confused when he complained that the warfare of his own mid-fourth century did not resemble prior generations of hoplite armies that fought mostly seasonally, and did not count on the advantages of money, but followed customs and protocols (Third Philippic 48–52); that Polybius (13.3–6) was rhetorical when he complained that his ancestors avoided fraud, fought openly, accepted conventions, and settled their contests not with missiles but at close quarters, hand-to-hand—and that phalanxes have only one set time and place to fight, on clear and level ground (18.31.2–7).

The hoplite narrative has a long scholarly pedigree because it best accommodates both the extant literary and archaeological evidence about phalanx fighting and the larger social, economic, and political role of the hoplite. The narrative likewise makes logical sense about how most soldiers in unusually full armor might fight, both individually and collectively, and so it has withstood most revisionism. And while it is salutary always to reexamine the narrative’s components—the precise weight of the hoplite ensemble, the exact status and class of the combatants, the degree to which other nonhoplitic forces were employed, and the Greeks’ own views on hoplite battle—the main scholarly consensus of the last two centuries about hoplite battle is not likely to change.


    1. For brief discussions about the difficulty of reconstructing early hoplite battle, see Con-nor 3–29; Frost 183–86; Hanson 2000a: 40–45; Wheeler 125–26; and most recently, Whitby 53–84. For most of the mid-twentieth century there had been a reaction against the Sachkritik of Hans Delbrück (cf. 33–52) and other German scholars, who on occasion rejected ancient literary accounts if they were deemed at odds with what they felt were the logical parameters of battle as seen from contemporary military thinking. Yet more recently theorists in general have once again returned to frequent skepticism of ancient authenticity; cf. Hornblower 22–53.

    2. The problem of artistic representation of hoplites is often remarked upon; e.g., cf. Ahlberg 49–51; Cartledge 21; Pritchett 4.41; Salmon 91. There is still no consensus about how phalanxes might have been properly represented in cramped two-dimensional scenes on Greek black-figure vases. Early bronze sculptures of hoplites inform only about solitary figures; even temple friezes show largely only one side of warriors in linear battle. Scholars often fault the lack of clear-cut artistic expressions, but if they were themselves asked to paint a phalanx on a curved pot, or sculpt a row of fighting hoplites on a flat stone surface, the results of the more gifted might not be all that much different from what we often see in seventh- and sixth-century representations.

    3. Early hoplite battle, for example, has variously been explained as a populist assault of tyrannies that overthrew mounted aristocrats; as aristocratic infighting among a rather small elite; as the rise of a broader base of middling agrarians; or simply as militarily efficacious fighting without much class significance and carried on at times by various social groups. It is certainly true that the Greeks often exaggerated the actual strategic importance of hoplites, and considered their losses far more grievous to the commonwealth than the deaths of other warriors: cf., e.g., Thuc. 6.17.5, 6.72.5, where Alcibiades inflates the importance of hoplite armies; and for hoplite chauvinism, see Arist. Pol. 8.1326a; Thuc. 3.98.4.

    4. See most recently the grand narrative in Hunt 108–46. Cf. more of the standard view in Osborne 170–76. Perhaps the most traditional picture of heavily armed soldiers fighting en masse and pushing—as a reflection of a new agrarian class (e.g., “peasant-farmers”) with a novel social and economic agenda—is elaborated upon by Murray 159–80.

    5. On technology reflecting a preexisting tactical need versus the less plausible idea of it emerging ex nihilo to create new tactical possibilities, see Hanson 1991: 75–78.

    6. On hoplite rituals, see Connor 3–29, and Ober 53–71. I do not think that the acknowledgment of such ritual components to hoplite fighting negates the obvious fact that at all times and places people sometimes refuse to follow rules and protocols. That ancient Greeks early on in the sixth and fifth centuries often resorted to ambushes, missile weapons, night attacks, raiding, and skirmishing does not nullify the simultaneous hoplite ideal that looked down on such “alternative” weapons and tactics.

    7. The emphasis of ancient authors on the moral role of the hoplite shield—not as a tool of the individual fighter, but as central to the protection of both the man at the side and the integrity of the entire line of battle—is quite striking. Cf. Plut. Mor. 220a; Thuc. 5.71; cf. Plut Pel. 1.5 (a valuable reminder why states did not punish those who abandoned offensive weapons like the spear or sword); Eur. HF 190ff.

    8. For the role of geography in defining the parameters of the spread and commonality of hoplite warfare, see Hanson 2000b: 207–11. For those who believe that fluidity was central to hoplite battle, it would then be harder to see how geography would play much of a role in determining which areas were more likely prone to go hoplite. Indeed, the proverbial notions that hoplites were confined to particularly level and clear terrain, that their ranks and files reflected singular solidarity and interconnectability, that they did not undergo or need a great deal of weapons training, and that they had limited sensory perception—all make little sense if armored men dueled out of formation against like individuals. Fluid fighters might instead fight on far more rugged terrain.

    9. For a review of earlier scholarship that made the connection between the rise of hoplite warfare and an emerging farming class and/or middle class, see Hanson 1999: 476 n. 4; cf. 463 n.21. This idea of middling farmer hoplites goes back to the nineteenth century, and was embraced by a host of prominent scholars; see the survey of such prior arguments in Hanson 1996: 308 n. 4.

  10. For some examples of prominent recent critics of the grand narrative, cf. van Wees 2004: 1–2; and, in general, Krentz 2002.

  11. See most prominently van Wees 2004: 47, where his chapter subsection is titled “The Myth of the Middle Class Hoplite,” and argues mostly from the idea of supposedly common misinterpretations of Aristotle’s notion of the mesoi, centering on the above-mentioned passage in the Politics. (But see also van Wees 2004 elsewhere at p. 55: “The typical working-class hoplite was probably a small but independent farmer who owned about 10–15 acres of land (4–6 ha), worth 2,000 to 3,000 drachmas, and who could just about afford a hoplite panoply.”) For a good example of the standard middling agrarian hoplite view, see Raaflaub 1997: 57, “The land-owning farmers, from the very beginning formed an integral element, both military and politically, in the evolving polis. Owing to this triple role of landowners, soldiers, and assembly-men, they naturally became theessential part of the citizen body.”

  12. On the natural, moral connection between farming and fighting, and the borrowing of war metaphors from farming, see Xen. Oec. 5.7, 14; Arist. [Oec.] 1.1342b5–7. Cf. Tyrt. 19.16; Xen. Hell. 4.4.12; Aesch. Pers. 818 (thines nekrôn de kai tritospórôi). The reformist Plato’s call for more formal training (e.g., Resp. 2.374c), to his chagrin, assumes citizens normally were too busy to train extensively for phalanx battle. Van Wees 2004: 37, cites both philosophical calls for a break between agrarianism and hoplite service, and such realities in Sparta, Crete, and Thessaly—but that exceptionalism is more an argument against, not for, a widespread presence of a leisured or professional class of nonfarming hoplites in most of the city-states.

  13. There is a vast modern literature on “middleness” and plenty of ancient referents. See Rahe 42; Spahn 7–15, 174–82; the corpus of notable ancient examples on mesoi is collated in Hanson 2000b: 112–21.

  14. Farmland calibrated by its ability to raise hoplites: Arist. Pol. 2.1270a16; Plut. Mor. 414a; Theopompus FGrH 115 fr. 225; Dem. 23.199. Combined hoplite and agrarian chauvinism: Pl. Leg. 4.707c; Thuc. 3.98.4. 4.126. 6.17.5; Hdt. 5.97. Borderlands as the catalysts for hoplite battle: Hdt 5.49; Plut. Mor. 213e3; cf. Hanson 2000b: 214–18.

  15. The quote is from van Wees 2004: 55. On estimates of Attic acreage accounting for a large body of middle hoplite agrarians, see, in general, Jameson 1996.

  16. E.g., cf. the classic synopsis of Arnaldo Momigliano, “War was an ever present reality in Greek life…. War was the centre of Greek life…. The Greeks came to accept war as a natural fact like birth and death about which nothing could be done” (120).

  17. Cf. Pl. Leg. 626a. For the revisionist view, see, again, van Wees 2004: 3.

  18. For the proverbial frequency of war making by the fifth-century Athenians, see Chamoux 162; de Romilly 1968; Zimmern 354; and for reasons why democracies are so prone to make war so often, see Hanson 2001: 17–26. For the toll taken on early fourth-century Sparta by constant military service, cf. Hodkinson, especially 153–57. Kyra Orgill in an unpublished 2005 MA thesis at California State University, Fresno, attempted to quantify the years Athens was at war in the fifth century and confirmed the traditional view of a near-constant bellicosity. (cf. the abstract at

  19. Note also that Pagondas gives here a defense of the doctrine of preemption and assumes that city-states would naturally attack others considered weak; and likewise, a state always must consider hitting a presumed enemy first, before it has a chance to attack with greater lethality. For some ancient examples of preemption, or, in addition, more general preventative war, see the Spartans’ thinking that led them to invade Attica (Thuc. 1.118.2. 4.92.5), and Alcibiades’s call to hit Sicily before it attacked Athens (6.18.3)—and the Syracusan democratic leader Athenagoras’s recommendation for the Syracusans themselves to preempt: “It is necessary to punish an enemy not only for what he does, but also beforehand for what he intends to do, if the first to relax precaution would not also be the first to suffer.” (Crawley translation, 6.39.5). The common thinking is that even when war is not actually breaking out, there is a constant tension between states that requires eternal vigilance.

  20. The most prominent advocate of the “nonpushing” school is Krentz (see his essay and references in this volume), who emphasizes both the fluidity of hoplite battle, and the ubiquity of trickery and ambush in Greek warfare. But the dispute over the phalanx scrum is a long one, with a vast bibliography; see, for example, the review of the ancient and modern literature in Goldsworthy 1997; Krentz 2002; Luginbill 1994.

  21. On these terms of mass shoving, breaking a line, and the use of the mass in Greek, see Pritchett 4.65–74. I do not know why some see much significance in an ancient author’s choice of either the verb (ôtheô) or the synonymous abstract noun (ôthismos). For superior body strength and its role in battle, cf. Diod. 12.70.3, 15.39.1, 15.87.1; Plut Mor. 639e; cf. Theban depth: Thuc. 4.93.4; Xen. Hell. 3.2.13, 18; 6.4.12. On the need for hoplites to keep in rank and maintain order, cf. Lazenby 94–96.

  22. For battles where hoplites are said to have run toward the enemy, cf. passages collected at Hanson 2000a: 135–51. There is an entire corpus of moral literature surrounding the shield that emphasizes that it is the one weapon of the panoply necessary for the entire line (see note 7). In addition, cf. the more generic references to the need to fight together that assume some sort of cohesiveness on the battlefield that is hard to reconcile with individual dueling and fluidity (e.g., cf. the idea that without cohesive formation hoplites “are useless” [Arist. Pol. 4.1297b20; Xen. Oec. 8.4 ]). There are a surprising number of references to broken spears in literature (and in scenes in Greek art; cf., e.g., Hanson 1999: 244; Hanson 2000a 87–88; 164; 245n).

  23. In addition, there are the famous passages attesting to the unsuitability of the heavily armed hoplite fighting either in solo combat (Eur. HF 190ff; and cf. the ease of hitting someone while in rank: Xen. Cyr. 2.1.16–18) or on rough terrain that could break ranks and leave fully equipped soldiers at the mercy of lighter-armed and mounted troops (and, in contrast, the suitability of flat land for hoplite collisions): Hdt. 7.92; Polyb. 18.31.2–7; cf. 11.15.7–17; Arist. Pol. 5.1303b12. In recent years a number of groups and individuals have reconstructed hoplite shields, and remarked on the disadvantages of such equipment in staged fluid fighting, especially the double-gripped shield in comparison to more easily maneuverable center-grip shields: Note that on occasion, at battles like Delium and Nemea, it is remarked that atypically rough terrain (the ravines at Delium; the underbrush at Nemea) tends to bother hoplites and leads to unexpected and unwelcome surprises.

  24. For the nature of the aristeion, see Pritchett 2.276–90. Why arises the moral disdain for shield tossers—and those who leave the line of battle (cf. Hdt., or those whose cowardice endangers the line (Eur. HF 191–92)—in the collective martial ethos, if battles were determined by the preeminence of soloists? Cf. Aristotle (Pol. 7.1324b10–24) on the difference between nonpoleis societies who reward or emphasize individual kills—which de facto seems to me to suggest a contrast with phalanx warfare, where heavier armor, reduced vision, massed attack, and the need to keep formation would both make it harder to distinguish individual kills, and deprecate such knowledge in comparison with keeping the battle line unbroken and hoplites in rank protecting those at their right.

  25. Cf. the plates (XIV–XVII) in van Wees 2004 of near-naked tribesmen with long spears advancing to battle in fluid fashion—as if such unprotected warriors in any way shed light on early hoplite spearmen sheathed in bronze, linen, and wood. Would we expect New Guinea highlanders to do the same if encumbered with the hoplite panoply?

  26. See Krentz’s essay in this volume, where he comprehensively reviews various methods for adjudicating weights of the panoply.

  27. See again the arguments of Krentz, who would downgrade previous estimates of the hoplite panoply from about 32 kg (ca. 70 lbs.) to a high of 22 kg (ca. 48 lbs.). I do not know why Krentz believes that hoplite shields were rarely faced with bronze blazons, which in various manifestations appear ubiquitously in ancient literary accounts and in vase paintings.

  28. E.g., “There are in fact good reasons why the classical phalanx could only have emerged in the classical period” (van Wees 2004: 196). Note the key phrase “classical phalanx” in contrast to just “phalanx.” Yet, the “archaic” phalanx no doubt emerged in the archaic period, and the Hellenistic phalanx emerged in the Hellenistic period as well.

  29. Some examples of the longevity of hoplite weapons: Paus. 4.16.7, 8.21.1; Diod. 17.18; Plut. Pel. 12; Mor. 241F17; Xen. Hell. 5.4.8.

  30. There are a number of examples that refer to workshops that turn out arms and armor (Lys. 12.19; Diod. 14.43; Plut. Mor. 835B–C; Ar. Av. 491; Pax 1210ff; Dem. 36.11), and to the state or general in the field supplying weapons to hoplites (Diod 12.68.5, 14.43.2–3, 15.13.2; Thuc. 6.72.4, 8.25.6; Xen. Hell. 4.4.10; Aen. Tact. 10.7).

  31. On the notion that Coronea was unique and not representative of the collisions of other battles, see, for example, van Wees 2004: 188. When Wheeler (209) says that Xenophon disapproved of the crash at the second stage of Coronea and that such a collision made the battle unusual, he misses entirely the point of the passage. Again, what was exceptional about Coronea was that (a) Agesilaus chose, unlike at the second stage at Nemea when such a gambit was shunned, to hit an opposing contingent head-on when he had perhaps the safer option of striking it, as it passed by, in the flank; (b) the battle ended up pitting the best troops, formerly stationed on the right wing of each respective army, in a direct collision, ensuring not the flight of a weaker contingent, but unusually savage fighting not characteristic of the usual formula (outside of Leuctra) of the strong wing hitting the enemy’s weak counterpart. If we were to believe van Wees and Wheeler, Agesilaus chose suddenly to employ his phalanx in a manner in which his own hoplites would have had little, if any, prior experience.

  32. Van Wees 2004: 188–91 envisions a quite different scenario. Running is simply to curb exposure to missiles, and prompted mostly by psychological considerations that bring no real physical advantages: hoplites “must have slowed down in the last few seconds and ground to a halt within ‘spear-thrust.’ ” Frequent references to hoplite weight and pressure are “figurative.” And common examples of pushing, and the advantage that accrues from greater weight of the phalanx, refer to “psychological pressure.”

  33. So I do not understand what Wheeler (187) quite means by the rhetorical “This chapter’s assessment of archaic and classical Greek land combat will not assume the correctness of the ‘face-of-battle’ approach”—a term he never explicitly defines.


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