As I have been reading through Victor Davis Hanson’s phenomenal work A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, I have been thinking back on the cultural connotations associated with Spartans and warfare in general.
Perhaps none is more prominent in recent popular culture than the movie 300, which is a heavily stylized account of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC in which King Leonidas of the Spartans led 300 Spartans to hold out against incredible odds to withstand a Persian assault.
Of course, there were more than just 300 Spartans defending the pass- there were also 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred Athenians, but who’s counting? 🙂
I won’t begrudge Hollywood its artistic license by any means, and neither is that the intent of this post. Battle scenes have to be exciting, and so a lot of liberties have to be taken. (And to be sure, 300 has some of the most exciting battle scenes in recent memory.) However, as I have been reading about how a Spartan phalanx actually operated, the truth is a lot further from the fiction, and in the end probably would not have made for a very good movie. In fact, it probably would have been a pretty boring movie. Here’s why.
The strength of the hoplite phalanx (Spartan or not) was in its heavy armor, depth and formation. While in 300 the Spartans bear their chests and thighs in sheer open bravado (which again makes for a great movie), in truth a hoplite would have been heavily clad in a bronze helmet, breastplate and greaves. (Later artistic depictions present a more idealized Leonidas, rather than actual fact.) The most exposed areas of the body would have been the neck and groin areas, since these crucial pivoting areas could not afford to be encumbered by armor.
Being made of bronze, a typical hoplite’s armor could weigh between 60-70 pounds, which does not leave a lot of latitude for individual dexterity. Combine that with a bronze shield that could weigh another 15-20 pounds and you have more of a tank than a agile killing machine.
Due to the sheer weight and bulk of the phalanx, the formation was critical to its success. As the shields were rounded, (unlike the later Roman introduction of box shields) each hoplite was vulnerable on the right side and thus relied on the soldier immediately to his right to fill in the gap with his shield, forming as tight a defensive seal as possible.
While in 300 we see scenes of individual Spartans rush forward to engage incoming foes, using dexterity and agility to outmaneuver their opponents, in all reality, if the Spartans had actually fought this way at Thermopylae, they would have played right into the Persians’ hands and lost almost immediately. An isolated Spartan would have been a dead Spartan. That the Spartan phalanx was able to seal the pass through its discipline and formation was its only saving grace as long as it lasted.
Since the phalanx was so tightly and deeply formed, up, it essentially functioned as a bronze wall. The Persians, whose largely mercenary forces did not adapt such techniques in their warfare, would simply rush forward and be bounced off. The strength of a well-formed phalanx, especially of the professional Spartan variety, was able to easily repel even cavalry charges. Larger animals such as elephants may have even been able to be driven back or made to think twice about a full on frontal assault.
But that is all phalanx against non-phalanx. What would a Spartan and Athenian phalanx encounter entail?
Greek vs. Greek
For the most part, both forces would look exactly the same. The same kind of armor, the same formation, the same tactics. In a pitched battle between opposing phalanxes, since the vulnerable area of the formation was to the left, the conventional tactic was to attempt to dominate the right side of the field before the left inevitably collapsed.
The phalanxes would not rush into battle full force (as carrying 70 pounds of armor doesn’t allow that) but would engage in a sort of surreal march towards the middle of the fray. Once engaged, the primary weapon was the thrusting spear. Unfortunately, the spear was not all that effective of a weapon, for a number of reasons.
Once engaged, the fighting conditions were so close and cramped that much of the thrusting force would have been mitigated by the lack of room to build up momentum. Additionally, bronze armor is not easy to pierce, and so what would have ensued would have been a chaotic mess of spears breaking, shields rattling against each other, soldiers attempting to surge forward, swords being drawn when spears were rendered useless, and in general just a din of hacking, thrusting and pushing.
Hoplite helmets did not have earholes, so it would have been impossible to hear anything, much less respond to commands or even really get a sense of one’s bearings. The phalanx relied on sticking close to each other, locked in place as tightly as possible, trying to win the fight to the right side. It was a sort of organic process where the soldiers had to feel the pace of the battle as much as anything else.
Once a side had won the rightward push, the conventional tactic was to try to swing in towards the collapsed left to bring the enemy to its knees. For all the hacking and thrusting and stabbing, the main goal was to essentially push the other phalanx over. It was almost like a backwards game of tug-of-war.
In watching all of this from a distance, it would have probably looked like a giant mass of men mostly pushing against each other. Not terribly exciting, especially for a movie.
When the left collapsed and the enemy has lost its formation, the battle was for all intents and purposes concluded. Engagements such as these rarely lasted more than an hour or two. There was still monumental confusion, as the dust and blood and sweat from the tumult could make it extremely difficult to get one’s bearings or even to recognize friend from foe. Friendly fire was not an unknown occurrence.
For the losing side, some might choose to stay and fight it out to the death, but in most cases it was a simple matter of surrender or retreat. For those retreating, escape was relatively easy- strip off your armor and a fully clad hoplite will not be able to overtake you. For those surrendering, in theory they could often expect leniency, although in the heat of battle it was always a gamble. To fight as a hoplite in a phalanx was a respected form of warfare, and the surrendering of hostages captured in battle was a standard way of wrapping up negotiations with one’s enemy.
The Body Count
As brutal and bloody as these engagements were, the actual death toll following such battles was surprisingly low. In straight up phalanx-against-phalanx pitched battles, the casualty rate even for the losing side was rarely over 7%. Granted, every life is of incalculable value, but in the (at least theoretical) system of pitched phalanx battles of the ancient Greeks there was a sort of underlying respect that one had for an enemy brave enough to face off in battle. Each knew the other was a farmer just as he was, was fighting for his land, had a sense of pride in his class and his military service, and thus hoplites were often willing to spurn gratuitous carnage. A victory could mean the end of hostilities without the entire population of a city having to suffer the devastating consequences of what would soon become common place.
As the Peloponnesian War dragged on, conventional phalanx engagements almost never occurred, but were welded into lighter forces as a sort of heavy infantry. Archers, cavalry and slingers were employed with more frequency, which lead to higher body counts both on and off the battlefield. A defeated hoplite could no longer run away from the battle, only to be cut down by an archer. As the situation for both sides became more and more desperate, the old ideas of honor and respect (in theory, if not always in fact) would give way to far greater brutality and butchery.
Pericles gambled that a pitched battle with the Spartans would bring Athens to its knees, but in the end it may have saved all of Greece a generation of devastation and indiscriminate death-dealing whose repercussions would never be absolved. Instead, new conventions of warfare were about to be developed that would leave a deep and indelible wound.