Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX F Land Warfare in Thucydides

©1. Classical Greek infantry fighting in mass formation was hardly original—Mycenean and Near Eastern armies had done the same for centuries. But the Greeks of the early (700-500 B.C.) city-states refined the earlier loosely organized mob into neat lines and files, with each propertied citizen now claiming an equal slot in the phalanx, a voice in the assembly, and a plot of land in the countryside.

©2. Hoplite infantrymen by the late eighth century B.C. had adopted sophisticated weaponry and armor to meet the new realities of formalized shock warfare. Their helmets, breastplates, and greaves were constructed entirely of bronze, reaching a thickness of about a half inch, providing them with substantial protection from the blows of most swords, missiles, and spears. An enormous and heavy shield—the aspis or hoplon—some three feet in diameter covered half the body and completed the panoply. But the hoplite still depended on the man next to him to shield his own unprotected right side and to maintain the cohesion of the entire phalanx. Thus military service now reinforced the egalitarian solidarity of the citizenry (4.126). The shield’s unique double grip allowed its oppressive weight to be held by the left arm alone, and its concave shape permitted the rear ranks to rest it on their shoulders. Because of the natural tendency of each hoplite to seek protection for his unshielded right side behind the shield of his companion on the right, the entire phalanx often drifted rightward during its advance (5.71). Outside of Sparta, the general—an amateur and elective public official—usually led his troops on the right wing to spearhead the attack; in defeat he normally perished among his men (4.44.2; 4.101.2; 5.74.3). Because of the limited tactical options open to a phalanx once battle commenced, complex maneuvers and tactics were problematic (5.66.2; 5.72) and therefore rarely attempted. Usually a phalanx simply tried to win the battle outright on the stronger right side before its own inferior left side collapsed and eroded the cohesion of the entire army (4.96; 5.72-73).

©3. Offensively, the hoplite depended on his eight-foot spear; should the shaft break, he might turn around what was left of its length to employ the reverse end, which was outfitted with a bronze spike. Each hoplite carried a small iron sword in case his spear was lost altogether. The phalanx usually stacked eight men deep (5.68.3), but only the spears of the first three rows could extend to the enemy—the rear five lines pushed on the men in front. If he kept his nerve and stayed in formation with his fellow fighters, the hoplite with his seventy pounds of armor and his long spear was practically invulnerable on level ground to cavalry charges and skirmishers alike—even in the most desperate circumstances impenetrable to any but other hoplites (1.63.1; 3.108.3). True, on rare occasions, heavy infantry could be defeated by mixed contingents (4.35.2-6), but almost always this turnabout was accomplished through ruse, manipulation of terrain, or ambush and encirclement (4.32.3-34.2; 5.10.3-8), not decisive engagement or shock tactics.

©4. This traditional practice of hoplite battle as Greek warfare persisted well into the fifth century B.C. Even then phalanxes continued to fight almost entirely over disputed land, usually border strips of marginal ground (1.15.2; 5.41.2), often more important to an agrarian community’s national pride than to its economic survival. Preliminary devastation of fields and rural infrastructure was sometimes used to draw reluctant opponents onto the battlefield or to shame them into submission (1.82.3-6; 2.11.6-8; 4.84.1-2; 4.88.1-2). But inflicting permanent damage to agricultural land was difficult, laborious, and time-consuming (3.26.3; 7.27.4), and thus ravaging was more often a formalized part of the more general protocols between city-states that governed the time, location, and conduct of such one-day wars (5.41.2-3; 5.47) than a realistic means to starve an enemy community. Campaigning was confined to the late spring and summer months and thus synchronized with the slack periods in the agricultural year, when agrarian infantrymen and their servile attendants (3.17.3) might be free from their planting and harvesting labors (1.141.3, 5; 3.15.2; 4.6.1; cf. 4.84.1; 4.88.1-2).

©5. The contrived and ritualized nature of Greek infantry fighting should not suggest an absence of mayhem and savagery. Columns eyed each other formally across flat plains, with bronze glittering in the summer sun, and their generals shouting a few words of last-minute encouragement (4.92; 5.69.1). After divination and sacrifice by the seer (6.69.2), hoplites often advanced at a trot from about two hundred yards, singing the paean or war-chant (4.43.2; 4.96.1). The initial collision was horrific, as each side stumbled blindly ahead into the enemy mass, attempting to create some momentum that might shatter the opposing formation into fragments (4.96).

©6. Hearing and sight by those in the ranks was difficult if not nonexistent (4.34.2; 7.44.1). The din of clashing metal and screaming men must have been earsplitting; dust, the crowded conditions of the battlefield, and crested helmets with small eye slots would have limited vision severely—indeed, mistaken identity was commonplace as uniforms and national insignia were usually absent (4.96.3-6; 7.44.7-8). Reports of gaping wounds to the unprotected neck and groin, involuntary defecation and urination, and panic abound in battle descriptions in Greek literature. Weight and steadiness in formation were crucial to hoplite success: the greater the cohesion and thrust of the column, the more likely it was for a phalanx to push itself over and through the enemy (5.10.5). Perhaps after not much more than an hour, the pushing ceased as one side collapsed and fled the field, allowing the exhausted victors to gather up their own dead and to strip the armor from the dead bodies of the enemy. One set of captured armor would be arranged on a pole and raised at or near the battlefield as a trophy or monument to the victors’ prowess (4.97.1; 4.134.2; 5.74); the disputed territory would usually be annexed. The vanquished would manifest their defeat by sending a herald (whose distinctive herald’s staff identified him) to request a truce in which they could return to the field to gather up the bodies of their own fallen (5.11; 5.74; 6.71.1). This request was nearly always granted, for the bodies of all war dead had to be respected and accorded proper funeral rites according to Panhellenic custom. Any failure to carry out these post-battle rituals was a profound offense against both gods and man that was harshly condemned. Yet abandonment and desecration of the dead by both friend and enemy did occur in extreme circumstances. The Thebans refused to grant a truce to the defeated Athenians as long as they occupied and profaned the shrine at Delium (4.97-99); the Ambraciot herald was so shocked and appalled when he learned of the annihilation of his compatriots at Idomene that he forgot to ask for a truce (3.113); and the demoralization of the Athenians during their retreat from Syracuse was exacerbated by their inability to care properly for their dead and wounded comrades (7.75).

Such a spear-butt spike, in this case taken as spoil from the defeated Lesbians and dedicated to the Dioscuri (whose temple at Athens is mentioned as the Anaceum in 8.93), is shown in Illustration 3.48.

©7. Despite the uniformity of weaponry and tactics there were qualitative differences among Greek armies. The more professional hoplites of Sparta, notorious for their red cloaks and deliberate advance at a walk to the music of flutes, gained a reputation for military ferocity and consistently maintained military supremacy on land (4.34.1; 5.9; 5.69.2-7). It was the agrarian hoplites of Boeotia, however, who characteristically charged in deep columns who ultimately proved of all Greek armies the most formidable on the battlefield (4.96). Argive, Corinthian, and Athenian hoplites, who were less well trained and often undependable, enjoyed mixed success (4.96.5-6; 5.10.8; 5.73.1; 8.25). Gradually cities began to form elite corps to ensure uniform, well-trained contingents with high morale who might form effective spearheads in battle and offer examples for emulation by their amateur counterparts (5.67.2).

©8. Athens and Sparta during the fifth century managed to circumvent many of the rules of hoplite fighting. The presence of thousands of indentured agrarian servants in Laconia and Messenia allowed Spartan infantry to be less worried over farmwork and thus free to campaign year round if need be (see Appendix C, ©3). Similarly, Athens’ imperial infrastructure overseas (see Appendix B, ©©10 and 11) supplied abundant capital and food, lessening dependence on her native ground (1.143.4-5; 2.13.1; 2.14.1; 2.21-22) and all the traditional encumbrances to absolute warmaking that agrarianism had entailed (2.20.1-2.21.3; 2.59.1-2). Dur-ing the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) the strategic limitations of war waged exclusively by phalanxes became unmistakable, and Thucydides clearly saw that the inevitable collision of Athens and Sparta—atypical poleis both—would have far-reaching effects on hoplite warfare in particular and the culture of the city-state in general (1.2-3). Capital, not courage alone, would prove the key to the victory (1.83.2; 1.141.5-143.2).

©9. In the new way of fighting of the Peloponnesian War battle was ubiquitous: in rough terrain, within mountain passes, during amphibious operations, and on long marches, cavalry, light-armed troops, and archers were needed to provide reconnaissance, cover, and pursuit against like kind (2.24-26; 3.1.2; 3.98; 6.21; 7.81-82). Peltasts (see Glossary) and other light troops—mostly highly mobile javelin throwers unencumbered by body armor—became especially prized once battle moved away from the plains and on to difficult ground (2.29.5; 2.79.4; 3.107-8; 4.11.1; 4.34.1-2; 4.123.4; 5.10.9). Horsemen, no longer mere ancillaries at the peripheries of hoplite battle (4.94.1; 5.67), often became critical to military success against a melange of enemies in a variety of locales (1.11.1; 2.31.3; 2.100; 4.44.1; 4.94.5; 6.70.2-3; 7.4.6; 7.6.2-3; 7.27.5). In the entire Peloponnesian War there were fewer than a half dozen battles decided by the traditional collision of phalanxes (4.43; 4.96; 4.134; 5.10-11; 5.66-73; 6.70). Far more Greeks were killed during sieges, mass executions, ambushes, cavalry pursuits, urban street fights, and night raids than in traditional hoplite battles.

©10. Just as often cities now chose to ride out a siege, so that the science of circumvallation—the construction of massive counterwalls to trap the citizenry within their own fortifications—became commonplace (1.64; 3.21; 5.114; 6.99). Athens enjoyed preeminence in storming fortifications (1.102.2) and expended enormous sums in lengthy though ultimately successful sieges (1.104.2; 1.65.3; 2.70.2; 3.17.3-4; 4.133.4; 5.116). So in the place of agrarian protocol and phalanx fighting, city-states in search of absolute victory applied capital and technology without ethical restraint and began to hire mercenaries, build engines, employ marines, and rely on missile troops (4.100; 7.29-30; 7.81-82). There was no longer a clear distinction between civilians and combatants (2.5.7; 3.50; 3.68; 5.32; 5.116). The census rubrics that had correlated civilian and military status were often ignored. Slaves, resident aliens, and foreigners entered battle side-by-side (2.13.6; 2.31.2; 4.28.4; 5.8.2; 7.57.2); the poor and rich citizenry themselves often were employed indistinguishably on land and sea with their participation determined solely on the basis of military expediency (3.16.1; 3.18.3-4; 6.43.1). But the breakdown of the old rituals—resulting in the enslavement of entire populations, the execution of captive adversaries and the enormous capital allotted to siege works and support troops—ensured the impoverishment of the victors and the defeated alike. Military efficacy came at the expense of increased barbarity (1.50.1; 2.90.5; 3.50.1; 5.32.1; 5.116.4; 7.29.3-5; 7.87.3).

©11. In a social sense, the growing importance during the Peloponnesian War of horsemen, archers, slingers, skirmishers, mercenaries, and naval forces in the city-state’s front ranks was antithetical to the whole idea of an agrarian community defended by its middling hoplite citizenry. So gradually military service of all types became divorced from social status and the values of an agrarian citizenry, and the original idea of the hoplites’ city-state was lost. No wonder that the nostalgic Thucydides could on occasion find poignancy in the destruction of hoplite infantry on both sides during the Peloponnesian War (3.98.4; 2.42-43; 4.40.2; 7.75; 7.87).

Victor Davis Hanson
Professor of Greek
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
California State University, Fresno

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!