The Nature of Hoplite Combat


It has been suggested that ‘you must understand the armies before you can understand the wars’. However, in relation to the conflicts of the Classical Greeks, previous scholarship cannot be further from understanding how the functionality of the hoplite affected the nature of warfare within the broader context of the phalanx and the engagements of the Classical world. The majority of work that has been conducted on hoplite warfare so far has primarily concentrated on the ‘who’, the ‘when’, the ‘where’ and the ‘why’ of hoplite wars and engagements. It has been only recently that scholarship’s focus has expanded to incorporate the ‘how’. Yet this final element is essential to the comprehension of how the hoplites of ancient Greece fought the battles they were involved in. It is only by comprehending the basic principles of hoplite warfare, gained through physical re-creation, experimental archaeology and ballistics testing, and then analyzing the results of these tests in conjunction with the literary, artistic and archaeological evidence, that scholarship begins to approach the concept of ‘understanding’ both the armies and the warfare of Classical Greece.

For more than a century and a half scholarship into the wars of the ancient Greeks has been based upon an incorrect interpretation of the available evidence. Often the literary evidence alone does not comply with the models of hoplite warfare forwarded by previous scholars. However this inconsistency has, for the most part, been ignored in the light of no other means of explaining the mechanics of hoplite warfare. The numerous debates among scholars demonstrate that, until now, the full nature of hoplite warfare has been far from fully understood. The reappraisal of the available artistic, literary and archaeological records, combined with physical re-creation and experimental archaeology, allows for the nature of hoplite warfare to be understood in a way never before explored and demonstrates that there was more to hoplite warfare than was previously imagined.

Hoplite warfare was far more than the frenzied, chaotic and disorganized brawl between two masses of heavily armed men bearing spears that it has commonly believed to have been. The elaborate organization of the phalanx into units and sub-units, combined with at least an elementary command structure, made hoplite warfare much more orderly and adaptable to the changing tactical conditions of the ancient battlefield. Hoplite armies could deploy at different depths, with the most common formation being that of eight ranks deep, depending upon the amount of terrain that was available for the army to be deployed in and the tactical requirements of the situation. Deeper formations were also used to provide rows of reserves should a hoplite army face a superior opponent.

Similarly, the interval between the ranks and files was also varied. The close-order formation of 45cm per man (or something akin to it) was the most common form of hoplite deployment. This order allowed the first two ranks of a phalanx to engage an enemy while being supported by the rows of reserves behind them. The close-order formation also allowed for the creation of the ‘shield wall’: an interlocking row of shields overlapping each other from the left, which left little part of the hoplite, or his formation, exposed to attack. However, these benefits came at a cost. The close-order shield wall could only be maintained at a slow pace by experienced hoplites when it was on the move, and even then only through the use of a cadence and/or a sung paean to keep the members of the phalanx in step. The offensive and defensive benefits of the shield wall came at the sacrifice of mobility. Less experienced hoplite forces could only maintain a semblance of the close-order formation due to their limited training.

The more open intermediate-order formation of 90cm per man facilitated movement but came at the cost of a weaker frontage across the formation and the inability of members of the second rank to reach the enemy with their weapons upon initial contact between the two sides. For many hoplite forces, this was the best type of formation they could hope to maintain and the decision as to what depth, and to what interval, a contingent of hoplites would be deployed was often left to the individual unit commander rather than to the strategos. However, hoplite formations were not merely limited to a simple block of ranks and files. Depending upon the tactical situation, hoplite formations could assume a variety of shapes so as to best utilize the terrain, a preconceived strategy and/or the perceived level, and expected direction, of any threat.

Fighting between two groups of hoplites was normally conducted with both sides ‘at spear length’ from each other as the nature of the common close-order phalanx prevented the formations from getting any closer. Examples of this style of fighting can be seen during the opening stages of the battle of Coronea (394BC), in the ‘Tearless Battle’ (368BC) and in Sicily (341BC). At this range the hoplites of the front ranks would have jabbed and probed their spears at their opponents from the underarm position; directing their attacks at the shield and upper regions of the helmet until a committed blow could be delivered against an opportune target, which may have either injured or slayed the opponent. This style of fighting would continue until one side broke and ran. The cause of this flight could be varied. Flanking attacks by other units could cause an opposing formation to scatter; a loss of a significant number of its members could also cause a phalanx to break; as could a generally low level of morale. In some instances, a combination of all of these elements was the contributing factor in the rout of one side or another.

On rarer occasions the characteristics of a hoplite battle were such that they allowed for the two sides to heavily collide against each other in a manner similar to that generally thought to have been the common form of hoplite warfare by modern scholars. When both sides were in a loose-order formation, either through deployment or due to the formation fragmenting during the course of a battle, the larger interval between the men of the phalanx allowed for a rapid massed charge to be conducted. When two formations clashed in such a manner, parts of the front ranks would become pressed against each other and a fierce contest of pushing and close-quarters combat would ensue as each side tried to drive the other from the field. This frenzied style of fighting can be seen in the accounts of the battles of Delium (424BC), Leuctra (371BC) and the later stages of the battle of Coronea (394BC). If neither side was able to break the opposing line, the formations would gradually separate to a distance where any weapons that had not been broken in the collision of the phalanxes could be employed to better use. The encounter would then ‘evolve’ into a contest ‘at spear length’ where factors such as the skill and morale of each side would determine the subsequent outcome of the battle. These two styles of hoplite combat, one involving close-order formations engaged ‘at spear length’ and the other involving loose-order formations colliding, pushing, separating and then fighting can be found in every literary account of a hoplite battle from the late eighth century BC to the third.

This is not to say that the methods of employing hoplite armies were static across the period in question. Rather, the tactics and strategies of the broader hoplite battle continually developed and evolved throughout the Classical Age from their Archaic origins. By the fourth century BC, as Cawkwell points out: ‘the art of war was developing so fast that every battle was in some sense novel’. The period of the Peloponnesian War, for example, witnessed an increase in the use of peltasts, cavalry, missile troops and other light skirmishers to directly engage hoplites, often from a distance where the offensive and defensive advantages of the phalanx could not be brought to bear. The most infamous uses of this style of fighting were on the island of Sphacteria in 425BC where harassing attacks by peltasts and archers resulted in the unprecedented surrender of Spartan hoplites, and in the loss of an entire mora of Spartiates to peltasts at Lechaeum in 390BC.

The increase in the use of missiles and other troops also resulted in a change in the overall nature of hoplite battles; from previously where two lines of hoplites had confronted each other to decide the outcome of an engagement, to a style of fighting where the phalanx was often used to keep the opposing lines at bay while skirmishers and mounted troops delivered the coup de grâce on the flanks. At Sardis in 395BC for example, the Spartan king Agesilaus attacked a formation of Persian cavalry with coordinated sorties by his own cavalry, peltasts and the phalanx. No longer was the morale of the hoplite, and his willingness to hold his place in line for an indeterminable length of time, of paramount concern to the outcome of a battle. The effective positioning and use of ranged weapons, light troops and cavalry often became the deciding factor in battles of the late Classical Age. The hoplite need to have only held his position long enough for these troops to make their attack and rout the foe.

The Peloponnesian War also saw an increase in the use of mercenaries and standing units, which allowed for protracted campaigns to be undertaken by men not beholden to an agricultural livelihood.8 Hoplite combat, for many, became a year-round profession. The rise of professional units contributed to the decline of Spartan military dominance on the battlefields of ancient Greece as other ‘standing’ armies, troops of mercenaries and commanders gained the experience, innovation and tactical adaptability to effectively counter any threat posed by the Spartan war machine.

However, many of these aspects belong to the broader realm of hoplite generalship, not to the narrower focus of hoplite combat. From the perspective of the individual hoplite, the techniques of fighting remained relatively unchanged throughout the entire Classical Period. The effective use of his weapons in the underarm and low stances, his ability to conform to any desired formation and the major offensive and defensive benefits that these characteristics bestowed, warranted no need to alter the way in which the individual hoplite fought within the confines of the phalanx. The Greek way of warfare, while later incorporating the use of other arms, remained based upon the use of the hoplite and the phalanx. However, like all styles of warfare throughout history, the fighting techniques of the hoplite were eventually outclassed; signalling the demise of the Classical Period. The age of the hoplite was superseded by the adoption of a new style of fighting, and the rise of a new military power, which adopted, adapted and refined the principles of warfare laid down by the Classical Greek hoplite: the sarissa-wielding phalanxes of Macedon.

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