The story of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the story of its ultimate failure, cannot be understood without relating it to the arms borne by the opposing sides. Technology, sometimes neglected in accounts of early history, played its inevitable part. The modern military historian, whether of the First or Second World War, hardly omits from his narrative such things as the development of the tank, radar, sonar, the fighter or bomber aircraft, the submarine, or the torpedo - to mention but a limited number of the devices with which one side achieved ascendancy over the other. To some extent the same was true of ancient wars.
No scientific analyst of warfare had yet appeared upon the human scene; there was no Clausewitz, and even Thucydides was long unborn. Wars could still be conditioned by ceremonials, and religious rites, such as the Spartans’ unwillingness to march at the time of a lunar festival. Over and over again in ancient history the modern reader is amazed to see how opportunities could be thrown away, or avenues of initiative left unexplored, because of some custom or religious taboo. We do not think like our distant ancestors. Nothing is going to prevent a modern army from advancing because it is the full of the moon - except that it might be inconvenient in a practical sense, whereas a murky night would be preferable.
The Greeks’ superiority in their arms was due not only to their more advanced technology but also to the fact that the type of warfare that had evolved amongst them had produced the heavily armoured hoplite. When one city-state engaged another, the crucial battle would usually be fought on a plain by citizen-soldiers. The enormous army of the Persians, culled from all quarters of the empire, embraced every form of weapon from the almost neolithic weapons of the Ethiopians to the comparatively sophisticated arms and armour of the Persian Immortals. The typical Greek army, curiously enough, was composed of a force which could only be effective in one fifth of the area of Greece. It may seem surprising that Greece, a country - as later generations have discovered - so suitable to guerrilla warfare, with lightly armed men holding down whole areas where heavy troops cannot move, adopted the set-piece battle somewhat akin to that of the Middle Ages and even later. The psychology which led to this type of warfare being the accepted norm probably derives from Homeric days where, as also in the chronicles of the Jews (with the notable exception of David and Goliath), armoured champions met one another in single combat with the opposing armies looking on. The mixed engagement between the armoured forces of both sides came later.
The Persians, too, came from a mountainous country, but even Xerxes’ spies and Greek collaborators can hardly have prepared him, or his army, for the real nature of the country he was about to invade. ‘Those who know the slopes of the limestone hills of north Derbyshire/ wrote G. B. Grundy,
will be able to appreciate to some extent the nature of the slopes of the Greek mountains. But they cannot realise it. The ruggedness is accentuated to an enormous extent by the effects of a climate which is almost rainless for two-thirds of the year, but for the remaining four months is liable to torrential rainstorms which sweep everything before them, and carry away from the hill-sides the earth which has been cracked and disintegrated by the intense heat of the summer season… . The rocks are closely set together. All are pointed and sharp. There is no soft vegetation on which to tread. What vegetation there is consists for the most part of low scrub some twelve to eighteen inches high, of which much is of a thorny character, and whose marked characteristic is that it will, when the wayfarer is making his way through it, support his foot at that moment in the step when support is most inconvenient, and let it through with an unexpected suddenness which is equally inconvenient and upsetting. Passage up, down, or along a Greek hill-side is a severe labour even for a man in light marching order, and cannot be maintained for any length of time under a Greek sun, unless the traveller follow the narrow goat tracks. This state of things, bad as it is, is sometimes complicated by the fact that the hill-sides are covered by thick bush, as, for instance, above Thermopylae, some ten feet high.
The narrow pass below the Hot Gates of the sulphur springs was a natural choice for men to stand and fight a battle in heavy armour.
The hoplite force, against which Xerxes was to throw the flower of his army, relied on two basic qualities, solidity and weight. The Spartans and their allies stood in a close, almost unbroken, wall of armour, the shield being held on the left arm, and each man protecting the right side of his neighbour. The hoplites thus presented a line of shields and breast-plates to the advancing enemy. Under normal circumstances, which did not apply at Thermopylae, the right-hand side was naturally the weak point, so the best troops were always put in this position of trust and honour. Thermopylae, however, was an ideal situation for a hoplite battle because this weak side was guarded by the sea.
In the battle that was to follow, the force under Leonidas stood firm in the opening phase. There was no need for them to do other than stand like a rock, and let the seemingly inexhaustible waves of the enemy break themselves to pieces on their spears and shields. Later, when advancing troops turned and ran, the Spartans adopted other tactics. They advanced at a slow step, and then broke into the rapid march, hardly a run but more like the slow determined movement of a rugby pack. This was part of their highly disciplined training and it was to enable them to dominate the battlefields of Greece. The same fifes that led them to war were also used to give orders during battle itself and - although we have no knowledge of the musical notation - it is attested by Thucydides that strict control of army movements was ensured by various notes of the fifes.
Although not so complete as that of the medieval knight, the armour of the hoplite was extremely heavy; far more so than that of most of his later successors on the battlefields of the world. The helmet in general use was of the type known as Corinthian, named after the city which is credited with having first developed it. In earlier days it had been made out of bronze and was beaten out of a single sheet of metal. The whole of the head, including the collarbone (so vulnerable to a sweeping sword-cut) was completely covered. The cheeks were also guarded by an extension of the lower rim of the helmet which left only a narrow slit, shaped like a T, for the eyes and nose. To protect the head from bruising or concussion there was an inner lining which was secured to the bronze or iron by leather laces that passed through a series of holes in the helmet. A legacy from the past was the horse-hair crest which ran along the line of the crown and was often made to seem even more formidable by being given a forward tilt. To beat a complete helmet out of a single piece of iron was a highly developed skill, requiring many hours of patience and expertise. Indeed, as with the ‘lost art’ of granulated gold, perfected by the Etruscans, it is doubtful if many modern workers in metal could achieve the perfection and the resilience of the Greek Corinthian helmet.
The principal parts of the body, the shoulders and trunk, were protected by a composite corselet. This consisted of two shoulder-pieces (again as a protection against the overhand cut of a sword or the descent of a spear or arrow) which were laced together at the chest. Chest and stomach were covered by one or two sheets of leather which extended down below the waist. This flap was usually, though not invariably, covered by oblong metal scales made of bronze. A number of vase paintings show Greek warriors arming for the fight in this style of corselet, but it would seem likely that in this case the Greeks had borrowed from their eastern enemies. A very similar type of body protection was worn by the Persians.
Another type of corselet, which it is possible that some of the Greeks wore at this period (armour, as in later centuries, may have passed down from father to son), resembled a bell. This consisted of two bronze plates, covering front and back, and laced together down the sides. Somewhat like the ceremonial armour to be found as late as Renaissance Europe, it was moulded to fit the torso and often carefully modelled to reproduce the shape of the chest and stomach. Below this hung a leather kilt to which were stitched protective oval or palm-leaf-shaped pieces of bronze similar to those in the more usual protective body-armour.
The other and indeed the main form of protection for the Greek hoplite was the shield. This had evolved from a crescent or round shield carried in earlier days (and still used by lightly armed troops) known as the pelta. Whereas this shield usually had a wickerwork base and was covered with leather, the hoplite’s shield was wood covered with bronze. In order to give the arm a firm grasp there was an arm-band (porpax) in the centre, through which the hand and arm were passed, the hand grasping a stout cord just inside the rim. This cord was separately knotted at about half a dozen stud points. If a cord should break, the hoplite could shift his hand around and obtain a further grip upon the next corded section. It was from this great round shield known as a hoplon that the Greek hoplites took their name. An average diameter of a shield was about three feet, although, to judge from one example (four feet across), shields, like the armour itself, were made to individual specifications. The outer cover of the shield, and almost invariably the rim, was made of bronze, wood only forming the base.
In Homeric and indeed much later days, the armoured warrior would have his personal blazon or device upon his shield. If the shield was primarily wooden, then this was attached in bronze to the wooden facing. Later on, this was engraved upon the bronze covering itself. As individual hand-to-hand combat declined and men became marshalled into organised and disciplined units, it was no longer necessary to know the personal identity of your opponent. Sparta (Lacedaemon) had forgone the self-aggrandisement of the personal ‘hallmark’ by the fifth century. What the troops of Xerxes would have seen as they approached the armoured Spartiates in the pass of Thermopylae was a row of almost identical round shields each bearing the same sign, the Greek A (Lambda or L) standing for their state Lacedaemon. In this way, the Spartans with their disciplined unity foreshadowed the organised regiments of later centuries.
In the first stages of any encounter the primary weapon of the hoplite was his spear. The shaft was either of ash or olive, and the typical spear used by the hoplite was about six feet long. It was not a javelin to be hurled, but was designed to form, like the Swiss pike of later centuries, a formidable fence against which the enemy would tear themselves to pieces. Bronze spear-heads have been found dating from as late as the fifth century, but the majority undoubtedly favoured the more efficient iron tip. Early vase paintings show hoplites armed with two spears but, by the time of Xerxes’ invasion, it would seem that one long spear was the principal equipment of the hoplite. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus describes a typical battle-line such as the Persians were to encounter at Thermopylae: ‘Standing foot to foot, shield pressed on shield, crest to crest and helmet to helmet, chest to chest engage your man, grasping your sword-hilt or long spear.’
The long iron sword, which had survived from the distant past, was still in use. Like the slashing sword of the Normans, this was a two-edged weapon. By the time of the Persian wars, however, a new type of sword had begun to emerge, one-edged, and designed for a cutting stroke. Although the heavy two-edged sword with its cruciform handguard and swelling blade still existed, it was gradually superseded by the smaller cutting weapon. For the hoplite, whose left arm was engaged in holding his shield, the shorter sword with a slightly curved blade (somewhat similar to a Gurkha kukri) was far more efficient. It seems very probable that the Greeks had adopted this from the Persians or other Eastern peoples. Snodgrass in Arms and Armour of the Greeks describes it as follows:
Both the cutting edge and the back were convex, weighting the weapon heavily towards the tip; the hilt had a handguard and pommel which projected on the cutting side only, and was frequently shaped like a sitting bird with the head serving as a pommel… . Harmodius struck down the tyrant Hipparchus in 514 b.c. with a sword of this type, and with its characteristic overhand stroke.
Although there is no definite proof, for bodies do not necessarily lie where the arms are found, it can be accepted that most of the armoured men who fought under Leonidas used a sword of this type. Spears would finally break, or be cut to pieces by advancing enemy swordsmen, but in the final stage of battle (although Thermopylae must be considered as having gone beyond what that was normally considered to be) it was the curved and relatively short cutting sword which held the line until the end of things.
Curiously enough, the Greeks had never regarded the bow and arrow as an important weapon in warfare. This seems strange, for clearly this very early method of killing beasts or men was a most efficient weapon. The bow is not very difficult to make, and even in a land where suitable wood is not easily available there was sufficient in Greece to make the ‘self’ bow, which is formed out of one piece of wood. In the Near and Middle East, on the other hand, the bow had long been established as the principal weapon for hunting and for warfare. Out of the Black Sea area of Asia there had arrived waves of invaders, horsemen who were skilled in the use of a short man-made bow. This was the famous and classic ‘Cupid’s Bow’, which has passed into literature and painting. When this bow was strung, but not drawn, it was kept, together with the arrows, in a special bow-case that hung over the archer’s back. This was the bow used by the famous Scythian horsemen which discharged arrow-shafts little more than eighteen inches long. The most efficient weapon that the Eastern peoples possessed in the war against the Greeks was the composite bow. This had originated in Asia, and was made out of strips of animal horn which were set into a wooden stave. Dried sinew was carefully flexed around the completed bow and the result was an easily portable weapon that suited horsemen and lightly clad troops. (As late as the Crusades, Arab horsemen with this traditional type of bow were to cause havoc among the armoured European knights.)
While the Greeks, quite apart from their corselets, wore greaves, carefully moulded to fit their wearer’s legs to protect them against a slashing blow under their shields, the Persians wore comparatively little armour. Although a warlike people, their methods of fighting, which had secured for them the largest empire in the world, had hardly required more than a leather corselet, proof enough against most dropping arrows and thrown spears. The javelin - which the Greek had largely abandoned in favour of the long pike-like spear -was still their principal weapon after the arrow. Only the famous Immortals, the 10,000 men comprising the king’s personal bodyguard, wore anything approaching the armour of the hoplite. Their leather corselets were covered with bands, or platelets, of bronze or iron. It was rare for them to have any head covering other than a loose cloth - rather like a burnous, designed more for protection against the sun than anything else - and they had never adopted the metal greaves for the legs, but wore skin trousers.
They carried a leather or wickerwork shield and, apart from the bow and arrow, used a dagger for close-quarter work. Although admirably equipped and trained for the type of warfare that they normally encountered - for instance, in their recent action against Egypt - they were not a match for the heavily armoured Greek hoplite. In the great plains of Asia, where mobility was all-important, they would easily have proved their efficiency and capability against any army that the Greeks could muster. But Thermopylae, the narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, was an area that might have been specifically designed for the kind of warfare for which the Greeks - and especially the Spartans - were trained.