The fifth century BC witnessed a fascinating struggle between two radically different ways of war. The Persian Empire, stretching from what is now Pakistan to Egypt and the western coast of Asia Minor, based its power on a great military innovation – cavalry. They were opposed by a much more traditional force, Greek infantry fighting in close order, a phalanx. Greece was a mosaic of small city-states which bickered with one another, usually over petty amounts of land on their frontiers. At the core of their modest armies were citizen-soldiers, called hoplites after their hoplon, a round wooden shield reinforced with a central boss and an edge-band of metal, about a metre in diameter and convex in section. It was so heavy that the soldier had to take its weight on his shoulder, rather than simply the arm, through a double strap. His weapon of offence was a spear, about 2.75 metres long, tipped with a metal point and equipped with a butt-spike, though he sometimes carried a sword or dagger. Such equipment was by no means cheap – it cost about 30 drachmas, a third of a year’s income for a farmer in Athens. Men of this status were the backbone, though by no means a majority, of the city population and by the sixth century only they were eligible to vote in the city assembly. Only the richest could afford the 100 drachmas to purchase the full hoplite array, which consisted of a splendid bronze helmet enclosing the face and decorated with a feather or horsehair crest, a bronze breastplate protecting the upper body, sculpted to emphasise the muscles of the torso, often with a leather hanging to cover the groin and thighs, and a bronze-covered shield.
According to Herodotus, when war came between Greek cities both sides sought ‘the smoothest and fairest plain that is to be found in all the land, and there they assemble and fight’. They lined up in a single massive unit, a phalanx, made up of files usually eight deep. The two sides then closed for battle, being careful to maintain a tight formation even when they began to run for the final collision in the last 100–200 metres. The result was a very intense form of close-order, close-quarter battle in which the front soldiers of the phalanx used their spears to stab under the shield at the enemy’s groin or over it at the face. ‘Both sides literally collided together, creating the awful thud of forceful impact at the combined rate of ten miles per hour.’ Then ‘each man pressed with the centre of his shield against the back of the man to his front’ in a great scrum, while those in contact with the enemy fought with whatever means came to hand – teeth and bare hands if necessary – in the confusion of the press, seeking out gaps in the enemy line. Whoever fell injured in this convulsion would either be trampled to death or dispatched by the strike of a butt-spike. Unless one side fled before the impact, casualties in a melee of this kind were very high:
After the fighting had ceased one could see that where they had clashed with each other the earth was stained with blood and the corpses of friends and enemies lay side by side. There were shattered shields, spears broken in pieces and unsheathed daggers, some lying on the ground, some stuck in bodies and others still gripped to strike even in death.
A collision of this intensity in the heat of a Greek summer was necessarily very short, and so exhausting that there could be no long pursuit. Nor was there much room for manoeuvre, because once the troops were packed into this close formation and launched into combat it was virtually impossible to change direction.
The portrayal of Greek warfare as purely an affair of hoplites is, to say the least, a simplification. Hoplites were never the only soldiers in Athens or the other Greek cities. In emergency, cities pressed poor men into service, often equipped as archers and slingers. Mercenaries, such as lightly armed Thracian peltasts, were used as javelin throwers, and Cretan archers were hired. Moreover, battle was rare. When a Greek army attacked a neighbouring state its first target was always the civilian population, whose dwellings and crops were devastated. As always, this served to feed the attackers and to undermine the will of the defenders. Of course it was very difficult for attackers to do permanent damage to olive trees and vines, while much corn was probably taken into the city where the farmer and his family sought refuge along with his livestock. But all primitive agricultural communities lived on the margins of starvation, and any loss, even simply wastage as a result of inevitable haste, could be disastrous; transporting bulky grain from homestead to city would in any case be difficult. If wastage were more than trivial, the consequences would be very serious because most of a family’s stocks were for future seed, so immediate loss could have long-term consequences. This is why battles were relatively rare and raids and devastation commonplace. Their effectiveness could be enormously amplified if the attacker established and maintained forts in the territory assaulted. Thus during the Peloponnesian War (432–404 BC) Sparta established a well-defended base at Decelea from which its forces terrorised the Attic plain around Athens. Greeks disliked set-piece sieges because citizen-soldiers had a natural reluctance to risk either the heavy losses entailed in an assault on a prepared and well-defended city or to support the high costs of logistical support for a sustained siege. But they were quite ready to seize a city by surprise and we hear of at least ten cities wiped out in inter-Greek warfare before the Persian wars of the fifth century, far more than the number of known battles in the same period. A city taken by storm was usually destroyed, its adult male population massacred and the remainder enslaved.
Like almost all who wrote about war, Greek writers, Herodotus amongst them, liked to emphasise its noble aspect: the valour of the hoplite, fighting honourably face to face and breast to breast against his enemies. They preferred to forget the sneaking around to surprise and destroy villages and cities, the bullying of peasants and the squalid destruction of their crops. In essence Greek warfare was very like that of the other peoples of the Mediterranean. The armies of the Greek city-states were mixed forces built around a core of its solid citizens, choosing to fight by ravaging, siege or battle as circumstances demanded. The phalanx of close-order infantry was a very ancient and widespread unit of infantry warfare, visible on the Stele of the Vultures dating from the third millennium BC. However, modern writers have regarded the Greek phalanx as something entirely original, and their picture of Greek warfare has carefully forgotten such activities as raiding or pouncing on unprepared small cities, and they have written archers, slingers and light infantry out of the script.
The reason for this one-dimensional picture of Greek warfare lies in a very special perception of general history. In the fifth century BC the Greek states fought off an attempt to conquer them by the Persian Empire. Herodotus presented this as the victory of Greek freedom over Asian despotism and many modern writers have swallowed this in its entirety. They argue that the military institutions of the Greeks sprang from the special democratic character of its city-states where citizen assemblies decided policy. Quarrels between cities were about land on the frontiers between them. Bloody though hoplite confrontations were, it has been suggested that the citizens perceived them as a rapid and efficient way of settling quarrels between states, and certainly better than drawn-out struggles in which severe long-term harm to the countryside and city might get out of hand. Moreover, the brutal violence of this clash of arms with its rigid subordination of the individual to the collective mass was possible because the citizens had agreed to this style of war and thus were bound to it by public commitment. In the words of a proponent of this view:
The Greeks of the city-states were the first people on earth to contract between themselves, as equals, to fight the enemy shoulder to shoulder, without flinching from wounds, and not to yield the ground on which they fought until either the enemy had broken or they themselves lay dead where they had stood.
Thus there was an inseparable connection between the culture of freedom and the manner of fighting – and it is this connection which forms the basis of the modern notion of a ‘Western Way of War’. This, it is suggested, was quite different to the warfare of any other people because democratic decision leads to a ruthless and amoral prosecution of war by the most effective means possible, a direct and brutal confrontation.
I think this is nonsense. Styles of warfare do not arise from democratic (or undemocratic) decisions, but from experience and brute material circumstance. The Greeks were farmers who worked the land on small plains around cities whose walls served as refuges in times of trouble. Because Greece is a poor land, the cities never produced a great aristocracy comparable to that of Egypt, the Mesopotamian cities or the Persian Empire, able to arm themselves and their followers in splendid style. There were richer men, but much of their wealth was devoted to building and maintaining ships which were vital for maritime cities like Athens. In sixth-century BC Athens the law gave equal treatment to ‘men who travelled in search of booty or for the purposes of trade’. Even a modest fleet was very expensive, absorbing resources which might otherwise be used for land warfare. Greek cities were certainly not egalitarian societies, but the mediocre aristocrats who led them were not very sharply distinguished from the better-off farmers. As a result, individual leaders had to seek support against their internal enemies in city assemblies, though only the substantial farmers had a real say in forming the policy of the city. The rich might, as individuals, ride to war, but they did not have the means to breed and sustain large numbers of horses. The farmers certainly could not afford such expensive animals on their small-holdings. The mountains, which everywhere hedged about the plains of Greece, were not a good environment for horse-rearing or for cavalry manoeuvre, so there was little real prospect of raising large bodies of cavalry or chariots. It would have been very difficult and expensive to build and permanently man fortifications to block the numerous passes which cut through the mountains between cities.
The people of Athens and the other Greek cities had little choice, therefore, but to become infantrymen, and as such they learned the same lesson as others much earlier: that close-order was the key to success in battle which was necessarily a close-quarter affair. The weaponry and armour useful in such fighting – spear, shield and helmet – was comparatively cheap and clearly more effective than missile weapons, though these too were used. In short, the Greeks reacted in much the same way as other city people by creating infantry armies led by local elites and fighting in close order. As always, the needs of battle shaped armies, even though battle itself was relatively rare and raiding much commoner. As long as Greek warfare was essentially small-scale there was little that was distinctive about it.
However, in the fifth century the Greek cities faced a new enemy, the Persian Empire. In the course of its attacks on Greece it became clear that the hoplite phalanx was a highly effective way of dealing with Persian cavalry. Moreover, Persia intended to destroy the Greek states and undoubtedly the fact that the hoplites were fighting for their cities and farms gave them the courage and the steadiness to stand, strengthened by fighting in the company of families, friends and neighbours. This had little to do with democracy and everything to do with survival. Hoplite warfare reached its highest perfection at Sparta, the most predatory and least democratic of the Greek cities. Its citizens were a military elite, whose youth was in constant training for war, for it was by force that they held down the helots who formed the mass of the population of Sparta. By the late sixth century the Spartan hoplites, distinguished by their scarlet tunics, long hair and fine equipment, were justly regarded as the finest soldiers in Greece. Under the pressure of the Persian wars the Greeks refined the phalanx into a tightly disciplined unit on the Spartan model, though they never completely neglected other arms. The Greek writers who give us our picture of hoplite warfare, Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, are describing the disciplined and developed phalanx as it had come to exist in their day, and projecting it into the past before the Persian wars.
The rise of Persia as a genuine world power was the most important event in the military history of the sixth century. The great civilisations in the Middle East, India and China, had developed separately. But Persian power extended eastwards into India and westwards to Thrace and Macedonia. The Persians were a steppe people of Aryan origin, settled under their Achaemenid kings in the modern Iranian province of Fars, for long overshadowed by powerful neighbours like the Medes of northern Iran and the Elamites. Under Cyrus II the Great (559–530 BC) they conquered both of these and destroyed King Croesus of Lydia whose kingdom dominated Anatolia. Sardis in western Anatolia became a Persian centre ruling the cities of the Ionian Greeks along the Aegean coast. In 539 Cyrus crushed Babylon, and incorporated its empire in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine into his own. He then conquered deep into Central Asia, including much of what is now Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. During this campaign Cyrus was killed, and power passed to his son, Cambyses II (530–522 BC), who seized Egypt which had been an ally of both Babylon and Lydia. Under Darius I (522–486 BC) the Persian frontier was advanced into India where Taxila, east of the Indus, formed a very important trading station and centre of Persian influence in South Asia.
The transformation of the modest Achaemenid kingdom of Fars into a world power was first and foremost the result of its having a brilliant leader, Cyrus II, who exploited discontent amongst the Medes to destroy and replace their king, Astyages. The neighbouring Elamite realm was much too divided to interfere and soon also fell victim to his ambition. This gathering of military strength enabled him and his immediate successors to conquer other powers and to draw the aristocracy into their service by offering a share of the fruits of conquest. Once established, the Persians adopted new methods of war which were highly suited to their empire. After about 800 BC, iron was very widely used for weapons in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but there is no evidence that Persia enjoyed any advantage in this respect. In fact, the art of iron production was already well known in the Mediterranean and India, although the Chinese only began to use it in quantity in the fourth century BC, probably because they had ample supplies of metals to make bronze and had developed great skills in its production. But the most obvious and most spectacular military development in the period 1000–600 BC was the rise of true cavalry, and it was in this arm that the Persians concentrated their strength.
It is somehow contrary to expectation that the horse was first used to pull the chariot rather than simply ridden. In fact there were good reasons for this. Riding a horse without some form of saddle is uncomfortable, and, if continued for any time, causes sores on both beast and rider. The true saddle, which raises the rider and protects the horse’s withers, evolved amongst the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe by the third century BC, but was adopted by settled peoples only in the early centuries AD. Various approximations, usually of leather and padded blanket, had to serve the purpose in the meantime. Harnessing to control the animal had been developed for chariots, but had to be modified. The essence here was to find forms of bit and snaffle which gave the rider control but did not inflict damage upon the beast. Amongst the settled peoples, armour and relatively heavy equipment had become vital in war, especially amongst the leaders of society who were the most likely to ride such an expensive animal as the horse. Therefore, before cavalry proper could appear, something substantially bigger than the steppe pony had to be developed to carry such weight. The chariot is driven by a team which may number up to four, but for the cavalryman the size of the individual horse is everything. Heavy animals could only be produced by selective breeding over substantial periods of time on specialist stud farms. From about 1000 BC, representations of mounted men become more common in the Mesopotamian lands and true cavalrymen appear in the neo-Assyrian period with the magnificent relief carvings of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC). Carvings from Assyria and Babylon probably focus only on the finest beasts, but they indicate that some reached 15–16 hands, much larger than the ponies (up to 12 hands) of the steppe peoples. But the sheer expense of producing and maintaining such animals limited the numbers and a force of 1,000 seems for long to have been unusually large.
At first their use in war was very limited. Horses were high-status transport for the rich. Horsemen were very valuable for reconnaissance, for raiding enemies, and for chasing off wandering peoples like the various Arab and other nomadic groups who swirled across the Middle East. Deployed for these purposes, cavalry were much more effective than chariots, which could not tackle rough ground. Because saddles were crude and there were no stirrups, the horseman, like the charioteer, was primarily a weapons system for delivering missiles, arrows or javelins, at ranges close enough to be effective while allowing the rider speed enough to escape. Man for man the horse-soldier enjoyed obvious advantages over the foot soldier of height, speed and weight, and horses bred for strength could carry well-armoured riders. But they could not charge into properly formed infantry whose massed weapons would hack them down. However, infantry which lost their close-order could be ridden down and destroyed individually. Movement across irregular terrain, panic induced by the psychological shock of the sudden appearance of cavalry, tiredness, indiscipline, all could cause gaps to appear in the infantry mass, and cavalry had the acceleration to drive into these gaps and open up formations. Infantry caught in the open plain could be isolated and forced into immobility, or harassed into mistakes if they tried to move, particularly by attacks on their rear ranks.