Homer: Weaponry and Command

The most distinctive and unusual item of military equipment mentioned in the Iliad is the Mycenaeans’ boar’s tusk helmet. Nothing like it had ever been seen by anyone living when the Iliad was written down in the eighth century; it was a genuine bronze age artefact, described in the Iliad just as it would have looked in the bronze age, yet no longer available for the poet to see for himself. The description of the helmet must therefore have been handed down by oral tradition from the bronze age. It was made principally between 1570 and 1430 BC, but was still in use two hundred years later.

Boars’ tusks were not easily come by, and many were needed to make just one helmet; it was only the aristocrats who could afford the leisure to go boar-hunting often enough to collect the number of tusks needed to make a helmet. A boar’s tusk helmet was a very expensive item and, once made, it became a family treasure. Homer confirms this; the boar’s tusk helmet belonging to Meriones was stolen from Boeotia by Autolycus, given by Autolycus to Amphidamas of Kythera, and then by him to Molos, the father of Meriones. By the time Meriones gave it to Odysseus it was a priceless heirloom. Only a few aristocratic warriors would have been able to afford these helmets; they were not exported, and must have been made to commission for specific princes, who were probably expected to supply the trophy tusks themselves. The helmet became a visual boast of the wearer’s prowess as a huntsman.

The vogue for making boar’s tusk helmets was over long before the Trojan War, yet remarkably there were some still in circulation then, two hundred years later. By then they must have been priceless heirlooms, whose origins were lost in the mythic past – and these are exactly the terms in which Homer describes them.

The ordinary Mycenaean foot soldier would have had nothing so elaborate as the boar’s tusk helmet, nor even the cone-shaped bronze helmet that other élite warriors wore. Most common soldiers at the time of the Trojan War probably wore simple leather helmets. These had a prominent ridge crest; they were made out of two pieces of leather sewn together to make the keel running over the top of the head. Some leather helmets may have had bronze disks or plates sewn onto them: that, is what we are being shown on the Warrior Vase.

The cone- or bullet-shaped bronze helmets were sometimes decorated with horse-hair plumes sprouting from the crown. An ivory depiction of a boar’s tusk helmet shows that it too had a socket for a plume. Schliemann found the remains of two bronze helmets at Troy. Although their lower parts had disintegrated, the corroded crests had survived well enough for him to be able to reconstruct them. They were made in two pieces, one permanently fixed to the crown of the helmet, the other, holding the horse-hair plume, attached to it with a pin; the plume was detachable.

In the Iliad we read of heroes duelling with spears, and though swords were definitely in use – every lancer would have had a short sword at his side for hand-to-hand fighting – the thrusting spear was still the weapon of choice. Some of these bronze-headed spears were very long and must have required a great deal of training and practice to handle effectively. Hector is described as wielding a spear ‘eleven forearms long’.

Homer gives us relatively little about tactics or the nature of command. The generals conferred at various points during the war. We are told that early on the Trojan leaders gathered outside Priam’s house to discuss strategy. We hear that when the Trojans were in disarray, having reached the Greek ships, the Trojan Polydamas persuaded a headstrong Hector to draw back:

Call the best of our captains here, this safe ground.

Then we can all fall in and plan our tactics well.

Hector saw the sense in this, told Polydamas to muster the captains:

I’m on my way over there to meet this new assault –

I’ll soon be back, once I’ve given them clear commands.

Even so, what followed seems little more co-ordinated than what went before, as Hector ranged among the ships looking for his captains, and stopped to rage at his brother Paris. Paris’s riposte in effect restates the prevailing spirit of command. He emphasized that all the Trojans were ‘right behind’ Hector and that he would not find them ‘short on courage’. There is no strategy here at all, just an injection of adrenaline. This runs parallel to accounts of Ramesses’ behaviour at the Battle of Kadesh. Instead of giving specific, rational orders, he inspired valour by example and shouting inspirational encouragement: ‘Take heart, my soldiers! You see my victory! Amon is my protector and his hand is with me.’

There is nevertheless a hint that though the commanders-in-chief shouted only inspirational generalities the generals gave more specific directions. At one point Agamemnon toured his generals, giving them and their troops a pep talk, first the two Ajaxes, then Nestor, and so on. After Agamemnon had passed, Nestor gave more specific commands to his combat units, each under captains (Pelagon, Alastor, Chromius, Haemon and Bias), who were responsible for carrying out Nestor’s tactical orders.

The Trojan attack on the ships caused Agamemnon to lose his nerve; several leaders were wounded and the defensive wall was breached. It was Nestor who gathered the Greek generals together to discuss tactics. Agamemnon advocated retreat. Odysseus questioned the quality of leadership, telling Agamemnon bluntly, ‘You are the disaster. Would to god you commanded another army.’

We also hear through the Trojan scout Dolon that Hector, the Trojan commander-in-chief, discussed plans for the next day’s battle during evening meetings. The Greeks held similar meetings; in some of them, Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, put forward ideas that the other Greek leaders disapproved of, and he was ready to back down. These ‘evening councils’ are very credible.

Homer nevertheless supplies little information about tactics during the battles. We hear of the two armies colliding and clashing; we hear of the Greeks sometimes advancing to the walls of Troy, and being beaten back to their camp at others. A great deal is left to brute force, courage and chance. There is little information about command, apart from the occasional shout of encouragement. The warrior élites are portrayed as taking all the initiative in hand-to-hand fighting, but there is no description of generals or other officers giving orders for the rest of the warriors to move forward or back, or adopt a specific formation. The general soldiery is described as moving forward or back, but moving as if in a tide rather than on instructions or commands from officers. If this is the way the battles were fought, with no commands given once battle was joined, the commanders were using their armies as blunt instruments, and, if so, it could explain why it took the Greeks a long time to achieve their goal. It seems that it was only in lulls in the fighting that the commanders could confer and decided on changes of tactic.

There is just one occasion, when things were going very badly for the Greeks, when a decision was made – evidently a revolutionary one – that the commanders should tour the battlefield and encourage and inspirit the warriors rather than losing themselves in hand-to-hand fighting. This is a look forward to a later style of command; eventually generals would watch battles from vantage points to get an overview and send officers onto the battlefield with instructions.

What Homer describes – the exploits of a handful of heroes – would be more appropriate to a small-scale raid in which perhaps a hundred men could act entirely individually. But the huge numbers involved, the 130,000 Mycenaean warriors implied in the Iliad, means that the commanders would have been far more usefully employed guiding and directing their troops. If, in fact, once battle commenced, there was an incoherent mêlée of hand-to-hand fighting, the style of fighting would have been similar to the one the Romans encountered when they invaded Britain; indeed it may be that the use of chariots and shouted insults during the Boudiccan revolt was a backward look to this earlier, bronze age way of fighting. I suspect that the warrior-heroes did in fact lead, encourage and direct those of their countrymen who were within earshot, so that there would have been patches of co-ordinated action, oases of purposeful (or foolhardy) action within the general mêlée.

What is missing from the Epic Cycle is any credit for the efforts, exploits and achievements of the huge numbers of ordinary soldiers involved. The official Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh praised the heroic exploits of Ramesses, who overcame enormous odds single-handed. It was Ramesses who commissioned the history and was in a position to inflate his own personal contribution to the battle, frequently at the expense of that of his own armies. After Troy, it was, of course, the Mycenaean officers who commissioned the poets and bards, and this socio-political fact is enough to explain the very high profile the princely heroes acquired in the Epic Cycle record of the war. The bards were merely boasting on their patrons’ behalf, and inevitably inflating the parts they played in individual actions and the outcome of the battle.

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