Alexander the Great crossing the Granicus River.
Greek warfare in the fourth century bc was based on the phalanx formation, made up primarily of heavy infantry known as hoplites (from hoplon, the weapons and accoutrements of war). The nature of warfare went back to early Hellenic times, when communities and later poleis (singular polis, city-state) were primarily agriculturally based and not in close proximity to one another. The male citizens were true militia: farmers first and soldiers when necessary. The soldier’s role depended on what weaponry and armor he could afford. Most owned a bronze helmet, breastplate, and greaves along with a round, concave wooden shield with brass or iron around the rim, which is usually described as no more than a meter in diameter. The standard weapons were a spear (some two to three meters in length) and a short sword.
Those who could not afford such array acted as peltasts, light infantry carrying the small shield called a pelte, whose weapons were slings or javelins and whose role was mainly skirmishing and support. John Lynn argues that the peltasts got little respect from the hoplites because they fought from a distance. The hoplite viewed such warfare as unmanly. Real soldiers fought their enemy face to face. There was also probably some class and economic discrimination involved. Still, the peltasts were becoming a more integral part of Greek forces and at times showed themselves to be important to a battle’s outcome. In 426 Athenian phalanxes at Aegitium took a severe beating from a force of Aetolian peltasts, and the Athenian general Iphicrates nearly wiped out a phalanx of Spartans near Corinth in 390. In spite of these successes, the peltasts remained a minor arm of the Greek military.
Cavalry was employed primarily as an auxiliary arm to aid the main infantry lines. When used, it was mainly for reconnaissance, screening the infantry as it deployed for battle, protecting the flanks during battle, and either pursuing a defeated enemy or covering one’s own retreat. The stirrup had yet to be invented, so using cavalry for shock was not yet considered. The city-state of Thebes was one of the poleis that did develop a fairly effective cavalry force. Sparta, however, fielded an inferior cavalry arm. In the Spartan military the hoplite was the soldier, so cavalry units were poorly trained and motivated. The wealthier Spartans raised horses but others rode them on campaign; according to Xenophon, “It was only when the ban was called out that the appointed trooper presented himself; then he would get his horse and such arms as were given him, and take the field on the moment’s notice. As for the men, on the other hand, it was those who were least strong of body and least ambitious who were mounted on the horses.”
The standard battle formation was the phalanx, a rectangle of hoplites usually (but not always) eight ranks deep. Contemporary accounts of ancient battles described phalanxes of more than fifty ranks, but that was rare. No author of the time gave any specific reason for phalanxes being of greater or lesser depth; it was often a decision of the individual phalanx leader to make as they deployed for battle. It may have been a matter of how individual units trained in their own polis. Still, units to a depth of eight ranks are described most often. Many factors would come into play when determining phalanx depth: whether the terrain covered the flanks, whether there was sufficient cavalry and light infantry to protect the flanks, the relative advantages of a narrow front for hitting power versus a wider front to prevent outflanking.
The ideal battlefield would be flat, open ground. The enemy armies approached the contest in an open formation, then tightened up as they went into battle, showing a series of almost-interlocking shields with spears protruding from above them. The troops would then break into a trot or run for shock. What happened next is a point of much scholarly debate.
The Greek word for the phalanx battle is othismos, meaning “shoving.” What, however, does “shoving” mean? Is it a figurative “pushing the enemy back”? Is it a literal tug-of-war in reverse, where the more mass on one side usually defeats the lesser mass on the other? Is it an individual shoving: the frontline soldier using his shield as an offensive weapon along with his spear or sword, pushing the man opposite him in an attempt to make him lose his balance? All these concepts have their advocates among historians, and all have ancient sources that support or contradict them.
There has also been some argument whether the othismos was constant throughout the battle or merely a final push as the enemy began to break. If it was indeed important to have the pressure from the rear, then the side to exert it first would have an advantage; hence, it would almost certainly have been used from the initial contact. In his article on the subject, Robert Luginbill writes, “Fatigue, terrain, casualties, skill, courage, and cowardice would doubtless all play a role in varying the amount of force imparted by the leading edge of shields, but whenever two opposing phalanxes ‘came to grips,’ the physical pressure of othismos would normally continue until one side literally pushed the other to the breaking point.” Others argue that the othismos came after the front ranks had fought each other with spears and swords. When one side began to gain the momentum, the shove would be the final maneuver to force the enemy’s retreat.
After reviewing the many conflicting views, Adrian Goldsworthy argues that the nature of the phalanx is as much psychological as physical. It is known that the most experienced veterans made up the front and rear ranks, putting the relative novices in the middle mass of men. After the initial violent contact, the front two rows would fight it out with their spears and, if need be, their swords. Given the weight of armor and exertion such fighting would entail, it would not be unlikely that the fighting would at times cease and the troops stop to catch their breath. The massed troops behind would give them the necessary encouragement to keep fighting (as well as block any path of retreat) while the veterans in the rear would make sure the rookies would hold their ground. Thus, to Goldsworthy’s mind, othismos may not have one simple meaning. It could have been the physical contact of individuals or units, or it could be the psychological impetus necessary to hit the enemy one more time until he breaks. Therefore, even if the phalanx did not smash the enemy at first contact, it could defeat them through attrition; in each case, depth of formation, combined with determination of the individuals within it, was of paramount importance. Also, if the initial contact did not result in one side breaking, the two forces could have paused to rest, replace wounded men in the front ranks, and charge again; thus, there could be multiple shoves in a battle until the side with the greater unit cohesion prevailed.
Goldsworthy also discusses a major question of practicality. Given the fact that all non-Spartan armies (less a few special units like the elite Sacred Band of Thebes) were militia with minimal training, maintaining a close formation while on the “run to contact” is impossible. Therefore, an initial mass shove would be strongly diluted by men running faster or slower than others. Thus the Spartans, by training to keep in step and advancing more slowly, tended to win their battles by maintaining their strong front.
By the time of Epaminondas, the Greek way of war had been in existence since the second half of the seventh century BC. Many wars were fought over that span of time but, as Chester Starr notes in his text on the ancient world, “The Greek states did not press severely and continuously upon one another … the states of Hellas rarely pushed their wars, in view of the difficulty of sieges, to the total destruction of a defeated foe.” Still, there were sufficient wars for citizens of all Greek city-states to have plenty of opportunities to become veteran soldiers, even though they remained primarily civilians. Only Sparta had a standing army.