Never did he go forth to the place of gathering, where men win glory, nor ever to war, but wasted away his own heart, as he tarried where he was; and he longed for the war-cry and the battle.
In these verses of Homer we find the hero Achilles having what amounts to a temper tantrum. Agamemnon, having been forced by Achilles to return his bride to assuage a plague ravaging the Greeks, returns the favor by demanding that Achilles do the same. Furious, Achilles refuses to lead the attack on Troy, staying home to pout. In fact, Achilles’ rage is so great that he prays that the gods will grant the Trojans victory so that he will be vindicated.
But even though you can take the soldier out of the battle, you can’t take the battle out of the soldier. The time wears on and Achilles begins to feel the strain of being away from the war. After all, the battlefield is where honor and glory is won. A hero he has been and a hero he must be.
Eventually the Greek forces, on the verge of defeat, beg the aid of their champion. He relents and sails for Troy. Immediately his presence turns the tide, and even the gods’ assistance of the Trojans proves futile against the fury and power of Achilles. After killing the Trojan hero Hector, Achilles gains the glory he knows he was due.
For the ancient Greeks warfare was a matter of glory and honor. In the epics of Homer we find the elevation of the individual warrior- his exploits, though buttressed by the collective forces of his allies, are nevertheless thrown into stark relief against the din of the overall conflict. The hero is next to the gods- a chiseled physique, adroit with weaponry and filled with courage and a concomitant disdain of the fear of death. The struggle of the individual is for glory, for everlasting renown. In this manner, war is where one’s mettle is proved. The killing fields became imbued with a certain romanticism- battle is a glorious thing done by equally glorious men.
New Ways of War
With the rise of the city-state, a new form of warfare emerged. Whereas for many powers in the ancient world war was carried out by professional soldiers, (read: mercenaries) within the Greek city-state the army was comprised of land-holding farmers. They were not strictly volunteers, but serving in the phalanx was an expectation men carried upon them from birth until death, both civically and tribally.
During the hoplite period (600s- 300s B.C.) Greek warfare shifted its focus from the individual gaining glory to protecting one’s home, united on the front lines as a solid, unmovable group. Rather than undergoing an indeterminate series of engagements and skirmishes over the course of a campaign, the Greeks moved toward the single heavy infantry battle as the definitive battle.
The meeting of two heavily armed and armored phalanxes was brutal in its fighting and nightmarish in its environment, yet for a little over two centuries the Greeks preferred this form of combat to settle their disputes.
In a way, it is hard to understand why men would prefer to clash in such a hellish way, with spears thrusting, shields colliding, entrails bursting forth and blood flowing freely. Yet the very nature of Greek hoplite warfare, was reflective of the city-state and the forms of consensual government that were being established- instantaneous in resolution and definitive in outcome.
That most Greek soldiers (excepting the Spartans) were farmers is also illustrative of the way in which Greeks fought. As Greek society was highly agrarian, food supply was crucial. Unless farmers were constantly involved in the actual process of farming, famine and starvation could quickly envelop a people.
Because of this, most Greek warfare occurred in the summer, right before a harvest. Pitched hoplite battles were in many ways a product of the seasons- the very farmers who were fighting had to be back in time to harvest the crops. Thus, there was a very short window for battle- an army made up of farmers couldn’t be kept out on extended campaigns. This provided for the desirability of the single engagement, and one that would settle the matter, instead of interminable battles throughout the course of a drawn out campaign.
Fast and Furious
Owing to these circumstances, Greek battle needed to be over with quickly. And the Greeks added to this by the very nature of their armor. Most hoplites were outfitted in bronze armor consisting of a breastplate, helmet and greaves. Bronze is thick and heavy, and thus men weighing little over 150 lbs. ended up wearing an extra 50-70 lbs. of armor. Add to this another 16-20 lbs. from the shield and a hoplite simply could not engage in a long battle, let alone an extended campaign.
Most hoplites had servants along who carried the armor and supplies- the Hollywood portrayal of heavy infantry in armor on the march is simply fiction. It would be impossible for an individual- let alone an army of thousands- to walk for miles and miles over rough terrain in the middle of summer. Hoplites put off donning their armor until the last possible moment.
Again, the modern is almost dumbfounded at this- weren’t they afraid of ambush, light infantry attacks, cavalry charges, artillery?
While this did occur from time to time, (especially as the Peloponnesian War dragged on) most hoplite phalanxes met in engagements that were essentially an agreement between the two to fight in such and such a place at such and such a time.
Since the whole purpose of the phalanx was to stay together as a group, interlocked as tightly as possible, the only place they could function in this manner was on a flat plain. Rough terrain destroyed cohesiveness in the ranks. And as Greece is replete with rough terrain pocketed by flat plains, even the topography induced this manner of Greek warfare.
As both armies were as liable to attack by lighter and more mobile forces until they reached a place where the battle could occur, the use of cavalry and light infantry as supporting forces was unusual, generally reserved for skirmishing beforehand or mopping up those in retreat. In many ways these supporting forces were looked down upon in some ways, as if they weren’t brave enough to join the fray in the phalanx. Archers and slingers were reviled as soldiers who killed from afar and were unwilling to meet their enemy face to face.
In this way the opposing forces made their way to the battlefield, positioning their camps within sight of each other. (Perhaps only a few hundred yards apart.) Night assaults were almost never attempted (and nearly always resulted in disaster for the attacking force) but rather both forces preferred to fight in the morning after the morning meal.
Once the forces were aligned, the charge was sounded and the armies converged toward each other. The soldiers ran, hoping to have enough momentum at the point of collision to drive a spear through shield or armor. And it was actually a collision. While in other infantry engagements there is usually some manner of last-second flinching or turning aside to avoid the brunt of the impact, for the Greeks in the front ranks it was an all too inescapable reality.
The formation of the phalanx made flinching a non-option. As the ranks went eight deep, and the entire point of the back five ranks was to push forward on the ranks ahead, if a soldier did flinch he had only the prospect of being trampled beneath the force of his own army.
Once the battle commenced, the soldier had two jobs- he was to hold his position in the line, locking his shield and spear with the men next to him, and to never stop pushing forward. In some respects, he didn’t have a choice. After the forces collided, there was no longer defined ‘sides.’ Rather, it was now a sea of spears and swords, shields and sinews. The front three ranks were engaged in fighting, and the back five ranks pushed with their shields upon the backs of their allies, continually propelling them forward.
No More Heroes
Within this group dynamic, the whole notion of ‘heroes’ was unknown among the ranks of the phalanx for a number of reasons.
Firstly, an isolated hoplite was a dead hoplite. The Corinthian style helmet, aside from being extremely heavy and uncomfortable, allowed for very limited vision. Once the battle ensued and the dust of thousands of heavily armored soldiers’ feet was kicked up in the air, any further field of sight was essentially cut off. In the heat of the conflict one could hardly see more than a few feet in front. Even if a hoplite had notions of grandeur, it was impossible to know how many kills one had scored.
Secondly, the hoplite’s helmet had no ear holes, effectively cocooning the soldier within his own world. Because of this, highly coordinated attacks were almost unknown, as soldiers couldn’t hear or respond to commands anyway. In fact, probably the only thing they could hear was the deafened thud of bronze on bronze or the occasional battle horn signaling retreat.
Due to these circumstances, the hoplite’s survival depended on the very tactile feeling of the soldier next to him, which compelled individual hoplites to stay grouped together and in as tight a formation as possible. The main tactic of each phalanx was to open up a tear or gap in the enemy line and push further in, while keeping one’s own line as intact as possible with as few gaps as they could.
For the phalanx as a whole, a hoplite wanting to be a hero, wildly rushing into the fray, was more of a liability than an asset. While Achilles had taken Troy, in the phalanx he could be the death of them all. Even though a hole being torn in the enemy lines was a good thing, to rush forward could spell disaster. For the further an individual drove in, the more of a gap he left in his own line. If he advanced too far without the rest of his line, not only would he probably succumb to a quick death, he would also no longer be able to hold his position in the phalanx.
Even with this grueling type of battle, engagements rarely lasted for more than an hour. After all, the weight of the armor in the hot summer sun meant quick exhaustion and dehydration. In many hoplite conflicts, the battle outcome was decided after the initial clash, with the victorious army winning the push. Even in retreat there could be no heroes, for a single hoplite was an easy target for a well-placed spear or the cavalry who now could make their presence felt. During a retreat, a soldier’s best plan for escape was to stay in formation with what remained of the phalanx, or at least tightly knit with as many soldier’s as possible. While a single hoplite was easy prey for a single cavalry unit, a group could put up a much more imposing stance. (Socrates is said to have given off such a menacing pose during retreat that the enemy was unwilling to pursue, and thus he preserved the lives of the soldiers with him.)
Get It Over With
An hour of utter brutality thus marked the Greek’s preferred manner of fighting each other. In many ways it was the most efficient (if that word can be used) way of having war. During the time of the heavy infantry engagements, no side had the notion of destroying the other like the Greeks had done to the Trojans in times of old. After all, sieges were long drawn out affairs; not the type of war that farmers can fight. The single battle, the definitive infantry engagement left no doubt as to who had won, and everyone could go home.
Indeed, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War this is exactly what the Spartans had in mind. They would meet the Athenians on the field of battle and have their bloody hour in the hot sun. After the inevitable victory the bodies of the dead would be exchanged, the Athenians would agree to some kind of price to get the Spartans to leave, and the thing would be done. In many ways, Pericles’ decision to keep the army within the walls of Athens proved to be the catalyst for a long and costly war that would change the nature of warfare in Greece.
Even more, the horror of that hour left its fighters with no delusions of grandeur, no romantic notion of war. It was an unpleasant business reserved for one horrible hour in the summer. Bloodied and rusted armor passed down from father to son ensured that war’s glory was never removed from its gore.
Achilles was dead and would never be born again.
*Much of the information in the post is adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece.