Nemea, the largest Greek versus Greek battle of the fourth century, occurred on overgrown terrain.
In 394 BCE delegates from Corinth, Argos, Athens, and Thebes were meeting at Corinth to discuss the war with Sparta-they agreed that the Spartans had to be fought close to home, because Sparta was like a “river or a wasp’s nest,” best dealt with at the source. And then the delegates debated the questions of contributions, the supreme command, and the division of spoils. While they were still debating these issues, they learned that a Spartan army had arrived at Sicyon, twenty miles away. The allies hurriedly assembled their army at Nemea (about ten to fifteen miles southwest of Corinth) and awaited the Spartan army. The Spartan army was commanded by Aristodamos, a member of the royal family and the regent for Agesipolis.
The allies drew up their phalanx with the Thebans and Boeotians on the left opposite the Spartans, and all seemed ready for battle, but the Theban leaders refused to give the orders to advance because, they said, they had observed that the omens were unpropitious. Day by day, they continued to observe unpropitious omens, until the Athenians agreed to take their place. Then the generals declared that the omens were now propitious and the allied army should join battle immediately. The Thebans and Boeotians drew up their ranks twice as deep as normal, moved to their right (away from the Spartans), and pulled the whole phalanx with them. As they were moving, the Spartans charged.
The Athenians were completely outflanked and in disarray because of the Theban movement and they suffered heavy casualties. The Thebans, however, broke the phalanx of the Spartans’ allies and pursued them off the battlefield. The Thebans, and the other contingents with them, were convinced that they had won a complete victory. They formed up in columns, polis by polis, and marched back. Meanwhile, the Spartans halted their pursuit of the Athenians, reformed their phalanx, and advanced to their left.
The Spartan commander, Aristodamos, intended to push his phalanx in front of the enemy columns, cut them off, and force them to fight, but someone in the Spartan ranks called out, “Let the first go by.” Aristodamos accepted the advice and held the Spartan phalanx back, drawn up parallel to the enemy’s line of march, and then charged the columns, one at a time, first the Argives, then the Corinthians, and finally the Thebans and Boeotians. They put each column to flight.
The fifth-century contrast of diverse Athenian hoplite functions and Spartan perfection of the phalanx yielded to a different set of political circumstances after the Athenian defeat in 404. Despite large hoplite contingents in allied forces at Nemea (394) and Mantinea (362), Athens emphasized light infantry, mercenaries, cavalry, and smaller-scale employment of hoplites in amphibious operations, as the new age of mercenary captains like Iphicrates, Chabrias and Timotheus emerged. In the first third of the fourth century the chief protagonists for political hegemony, Sparta and Thebes, competed with rival tactical systems. Labelling the contrast as manoeuvre versus depth is too facile, for both exploited basic characteristics of the phalanx but in different ways.
The custom of placing the best troops and the general on the right flank coincided with the phalanx’s tendency to charge obliquely to the right, as Thucydides (5.71.1) noted at Mantinea (418). Consequently the rival right flanks of each army could emerge as victors in their respective sectors of the battlefield – a phenomenon already attested at Potidaea (431) and Laodicium (winter 423/2).128 Rival right flanks also prevailed at Delium (424), before a surprise Theban cavalry attack routed the Athenian right. Often the attacker’s right flank could get beyond the opponent’s left and envelop it, as Agis did to the Athenians at Mantinea and the Athenians to the Thespians at Delium. Success on the right permitted pursuit and plunder of the routed wing or wheeling to the left to advance at a ninety-degree angle to the original battle line and to attack the flank (the hoplite’s unshielded right side) and rear of the opponent’s right wing. At Mantinea, Agis chose the latter course of action, which set a precedent in Spartan tactical thinking.
Twenty-four years later at Nemea (394) the Spartans abandoned the direct advance altogether. Rather, the polemarchs moved the Spartan phalanx off to the right in column and wheeled it to the left to attack the Athenians at a ninety-degree angle to the original front. After routing the Athenians they advanced across the enemy’s rear to catch the victorious enemy centre and right in the flank. As the initial move in column to the right was an immediate response to what was almost a surprise attack (Xen. Hell. 4.2.19), it surely reflected doctrine, not a spur-of-the-moment decision.
The allies opposing Sparta at Nemea also knew the `lesson’ of Mantinea. In pre-battle negotiations about the phalanx’s depth the issue was not depth for pushing, but avoiding a deeper, shorter line that invited outflanking.
In fact the Thebans led the attack from the allied right by veering off to the right to encircle the Spartan allies on the left (Xen. Hell. 4.2.13, 18), but subsequently chose pursuit of the fleeing over wheeling left to move across the Spartan rear.
At Delium (424) – the earliest evidence – the Thebans were twenty-five deep, at Nemea somewhat deeper than the agreed-upon depth of sixteen, and at Leuctra at least fifty deep. Figures for depth are lacking for Coronea and Mantinea (362), although Epaminondas clearly constructed an extremely deep left similar to that at Leuctra (Xen. Hell. 7.5.22-3). The assumption (ancient as well as modern: Arr. Tact. 11.1-2) that Theban depth increased the attack’s weight in pushing seems erroneous: as noted earlier, depths beyond sixteen yield no increase in `the push’. At Delium the Thebans had the advantage of downhill momentum, and Xenophon’s sparse account of Coronea permits no conclusions. AtNemea the Theban emphasis on mass contradicts their intention to outflank the Spartan left – the same battle plan that the Spartans (with superior tactical sophistication) executed against the allied left (Xen. Hell. 4.2.18). Width, not depth, was required to overlap a flank. If Xenophon’s `100-deep Egyptians’ at Thymbrara are meant to represent Thebans, then a Boeotian blind belief in numbers and mass similar to what the Greeks attributed to the Persians, or (to cite a modern example) Napoleon’s reliance on bulky columns of attack in the later stages of his career, could be postulated.
Epaminondas does not clarify Theban doctrine: his massive left wing (of unknown depth) was hardly the decisive factor at Mantinea and his intentions at Leuctra lie mired in the controversies about tactical details. Epaminondas seems to have combined Theban mass with Spartan manoeuvre. Whereas the Spartans sacrificed their left to win on the right, Epaminondas made his left the preferred flank and spared his right altogether. Precedents for commanding from the left existed, but none were in contests of the magnitude of Leuctra or Mantinea. Concentration on the left not only pitted the Theban best against the opponent’s best, but also attacked the enemy’s command structure, if the opposing general could be killed or wounded – a factor in deflating enemy morale. For Epaminondas mass was not an end in itself.
Besides Spartan outflanking on the right and Theban massing on the left, a third method of breaking up the phalanx’s continuity appears at the end of the fifth century. In attacking in rough terrain, especially uphill and against light infantry, a phalanx could hardly maintain its continuity. Xenophon’s Ten Thousand used orthioi lochoi (`straight’ or `uphill’ lochoi), units of 100 men each in column with large gaps between the lochoi. 140 The practice, inspired by Spartan doctrine for responding to sudden threats to a marching column (Xen. Lac. 11.10), surely anticipates the break-up of the legionary phalanx into maniples when the Romans faced the Samnites and other hill peoples.
Fragmentation of the phalanx also appears in maintaining a reserve of infantry or cavalry in the rear to relieve exhausted troops in the phalanx or to surprise the enemy’s flank or rear (Onasander 22.1-3). At Solygea (424) a Corinthian lochos appeared suddenly on the Athenian right and routed it (Thuc. 4.43.4). Later the same year at Delium the Theban general Pagondas had two cavalry units circle a hill behind his line and hit the victorious Athenian right flank – the deciding move in the battle (Thuc. 4.96.5). Brasidas’ surprise attack on Cleon and the Athenians at Amphipolis (422) had an initial charge on the Athenian centre from one direction and a second contingent attacking later from another (Thuc. 5.8-10). The Ten Thousand’s attack on the satrap Pharnabazus in Bithynia (400) featured 600 men in three units of 200 each, each placed about 100 feet behind both flanks and the centre, 141 and at Thymbrara a reserve of 2,000 infantry and cavalry became Cyrus’ outflankers of the outflankers. 142 Clearly by the 420s the concept of a reserve was well known and even appears in Euripides’ Phoenician Women (1093-8) of 410 or 409. The timing for the insertion of reserves, however, often lay at the discretion of their officers rather than the commanding general.
Whereas Theban grand tactics focused on engaging only with the strongest part of the line, Spartan battlefield manoeuvres as developed at First Mantinea and the Nemea revolved around outflanking the enemy line and `rolling it up’ by defeating each contingent in turn. 48 In later battles there was still the same preoccupation with trying to take the enemy in flank or rear, but this was seen as something to be achieved by exploiting gaps caused by earlier frontal combat, rather than through pre-battle manoeuvre.