The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior I

The Peloponnesian War ended in 404 and closed out the fifth century with a surprise attack. Lysander, the Spartan, tricked the Athenians at Aegospotami, by attacking their vessels at a regular hour and then calling off his fleet. Once this had become an established procedure, the Athenians dropped their guard after the Spartans dispersed. Then, when most of the Athenians had scattered according to their usual pattern, he returned, attacked and slew the rest, and captured all their vessels. The fourth century was thus ushered in with the defeat of the Athenian Empire and a Spartan hegemony that took its place and lasted until the Battle of Leuctra in 371. Sparta found itself engulfed in the so-called Corinthian war from 395 until 387 against a coalition of four allied states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos, which were initially backed by Persia. Then the Boeotian or Theban war broke out in 378 as the result of a revolt in Thebes against Sparta; the war would last six years.

There was obviously no shortage of warfare in the fourth century, and all sides continued to fight with hoplites, but the conditions of military life were slowly changing. Gone was the era of short military campaigns that took place only during the summer after the harvest. Cities were now attacked by night, fighting took place year-round, and atrocities were committed against civilians. The prolongation of campaigns and a change in tactics set the stage for the professionalisation of Greek armies. Whereas hoplite warfare had not necessarily called for very elaborate training, the use of missiles and the tactics of staging ambushes required training at a higher technical level. When light-armed troops were utilised everything depended upon movement. Rapid changes of position, sudden strikes, speedy retreats and ambushes were all operations that needed to be carefully prepared with accurate intelligence. Because such operations had to be well directed and executed with speed and determination, it could mean training one’s own troops or hiring well-trained mercenaries.

The change from militiamen to paid fighters meant a change from amateurs to professional soldiers. Foreign mercenaries were expensive and could not usually be hired in large numbers, but citizens could be recruited and trained to perform the same specialised functions provided by foreign, light-armed mercenaries. Athens’ overseas expeditions in the fourth century were all carried out by mercenaries.

Light-Armed Troops and Peltasts

An increasingly important role was played by light-armed troops in the fourth century, and they became a significant factor in the conduct and the outcome of battles. Although hoplites mattered most in set battle on a large scale, war on land now had a place for other arms and other methods than those of the hoplite phalanx. Smaller tactical units gave a new manoeuvrability that had been impossible in traditional hoplite lines. These new troops became effective in gaining tactical advantage, usually through a sudden, surprise assault. Small striking forces became especially important in fifth-column operations.

There were several types of light troops, the most common being archers, slingers and peltast-javelin men.8 The peltasts became the most effective of the light-armed troops. Peltasts were a sort of mean between the extremes of heavy and light-armed men. They had all the mobility of light-armed troops, and yet sufficient offensive and defensive armour to cope, with a fair amount of success, with small bodies of hoplite troops (i.e. those not in set-piece battles). Using peltasts would increase the ability of Greek armies to stage surprise attacks and ambushes. The name peltast comes from the fact that they were armed with a pelte (Thracian shield). In place of a dagger, they might also carry a kind of scimitar, a curved sabre known as a machaira, which could be used to deal slashing blows. Peltasts were not much help in stopping a hoplite force head on; their main use was to protect the flanks of an advancing hoplite army against attacks from the light-armed troops of the enemy. The majority of Greek states had an organised body of light-armed troops. Athens was an exception until this was changed by commanders such as Iphicrates and Chabrias.

Although their weapons might seem simple, these light troops were specialist soldiers. Their way of fighting entailed a higher degree of specialisation than the relatively straightforward, spear-and-shield techniques of hoplites fighting in formation. The accurate use of missile weapons was a skill acquired and maintained only by regular and constant practice. For this reason, light-armed troops tended to be professionals. At first, they were foreign mercenaries recruited in Thrace, Crete and Rhodes; later, they were natives recruited locally from city-states. Athens was the first to transform some of the poorer citizens into light troops.

The Athenian general Iphicrates is credited by two ancient sources – Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos – with reforming the equipment of his hoplites. These military reforms have long been the subject of scholarly debate, but what is clear is that they were much better equipped to stage ambushes. Iphicrates did away with the large hoplite shield – the aspis – and replaced it with the smaller pelta. He also lengthened the sword (xiphous) and the spear (doratos). Of course, there were peltasts in use long before this time in other regions of Greece, but now the reform was coming to Athens.

The defeat of the Athenian hoplites by light-armed cavalry and peltasts at Spartolus, the successful defence by Acarnanian slingers of Stratus against Peloponnesian hoplites, or the destruction of Ambraciot hoplites by Amphilochian light-armed, not only reinforced the lessons learned from the experience in Aetolia and Sphacteria but also carried them still further. From the last phases of the Peloponnesian war and, continuing into the fourth century, armies began to contain significantly higher numbers of specialised troops than Classical ones had fielded. This included the growth of a corps of archers, the addition of light-armed troops, the rise of mercenary troops recruited largely from abroad, and the development of cavalry.

Generalisations about mercenary service can be misleading. It is commonly assumed that mercenary soldiers did not become a significant factor of Greek social and political history before the fourth century. In fact, however, Greek mercenary soldiers had been serving in armies of southeast Mediterranean powers since the Archaic Age. The reasons for soldiers becoming mercenaries and their terms of service vary. In Crete, for example, one would cite demographic developments and military traditions as well as socio-economic crisis. Another accusation that dogged military operations was that the systematic use of mercenaries encouraged a selfish inertness at home, a dangerous licentiousness in the free companies abroad, and that it diverted the energies of the ablest citizens from patriotic objects to the baser pursuit of plunder and military fame. The fact is, however, that soldiers did not take up this line of work because it was so lucrative. Service in places such as Persia and Egypt might be lucrative, but service in Greece proper was not. Soldiers in the fourth century accepted military service knowing that there was no money in it for them unless they looted, stole or won booty.

Hoplite Armour and Hamippoi

Another military innovation that occurred in the fourth century was the lightening of the hoplite panoply. Some hoplites were still sporting extensive metal armour in the mid-fourth century, but the overall trend of the Classical period seems to have been a progressive lightening of hoplite armour. This made hoplites more mobile and thus better able to cope with the challenges of difficult terrain, enemy skirmishers and ambushes. Lighter panoplies were also cheaper. Konrad Kinzel suggests that this enabled more citizens to equip themselves as hoplites and enjoy the attendant political status that went with this type of fighting. But were these troops really hoplites any more? Nick Sekunda also describes the shift in the use of armour plate in the late fifth century. He seems to think that armour all but disappeared as the Spartans were depicted wearing only a pilos helmet and tunic, no cuirass, greaves, etc. and Boeotian hoplites were all but naked. Does this indicate a change in battlefield tactics? The availability of materials? And were these soldiers still considered ‘hoplites’, i.e. heavy infantry? It certainly contributed to them being more mobile and able to counter attacks by light-armed soldiers.

Another military innovation of the fourth century was the introduction of hamippoi, a type of light-infantry corps that ran behind cavalrymen. The hamippoi were trained to fight alongside the cavalrymen. They would go into battle holding on to the tails and manes of the cavalry horses. Hamippoi were particularly useful in a straight cavalry fight, where they would hack at the enemy horsemen. One of their signature manoeuvres was to slip underneath the enemy horse and rip its belly open with a dagger. This certainly suggests that service in the hamippoi was not for the faint-hearted. In his pamphlet On the Duties of the Hipparch, Xenophon recommends that the Athenians raise a corps of such men from among the exiles and other foreigners in Athens, who had special reason to be bitter against the enemy. Xenophon saw their value as being able to deliver a surprise as he points out that they could be hidden among and behind taller mounted troops.

Hamippoi were first mentioned serving in the forces of the Syracusan tyrant Gelon, where his 2,000 cavalry were accompanied by an equal number of hippodromoi psiloi or psiloi who run alongside the cavalry. Hamippoi are found in the Boeotian army during the Peloponnesian war. When the Spartan army was reorganised some time after the Battle of Mantinea in 418, the 600 skiritai were not folded into the ranks of the morai but were converted into the hamippoi and fought alongside the 600 cavalry.

In short, as the fifth century progressed into the fourth, the trend was to lighten the armour of the hoplites and add soldiers from the lower classes, who could perform various new duties that required greater speed and manoeuvrability. This made ambushing more difficult and less likely if each side had mobile troops that could improvise.

The Generals in the Fourth Century

The need to develop specialised, light-armed troops encouraged the rise of professional generalship in the fourth century. The proper handling of such troops required something more than amateur leadership. Fourth-century generals had to recruit different types of soldiers, who used different types of weapons and tactics. W. K. Pritchett dedicates a chapter of the second volume of his comprehensive work, The Greek State at War, to this new breed of general. Their careers were made possible by the changing political and military circumstances, and new operating conditions dictated some new fighting techniques. The military commanders in the late fifth and early fourth centuries had to conduct military operations more and more independently, relying on their own skill and talent. They developed increasingly strong ties with their army rather than just their polis. The independence of fourth-century commanders was a function of long-term service abroad and of operating independently of their home authorities. How much freedom they enjoyed in the field can probably never be precisely determined, but those who were elected or appointed to office by the larger city-states seem to have discharged their functions with as much loyalty as similar officials in the fifth century.

Another motivation for the increased use of novel techniques and stratagems was that fourth-century military forces were sent out without being provided with money. The generals were expected to raise funds by plunder, by contributions from allies or even by foreign service. They and their troops seem to have had unlimited permission to plunder the enemy’s country. In the fifth century, mercenaries had been dismissed when the state lacked funds, but conditions had greatly changed in the fourth century. A great number of the stratagems that are collected in Polyaenus and assigned to Athenian generals of the fourth century have to do with the raising of money to pay their troops. Six of the stratagems preserved in Polyaenus on Jason of Pherae, for example, deal with means for securing funds.

Even with these new troops, staging an ambush was no easier to accomplish in the fourth century than it was in the fifth. Naturally, it was best done with soldiers who were trained by their leaders in the skills needed for such operations. This is where the light-armed troops, especially peltasts, excelled. Light-armed troops, unlike hoplites, were trained to be highly responsive and flexible. They had to be able to close with the enemy and kill quickly. Light infantrymen could be used to destroy the enemy on his own ground, make the best of initiative, stealth and surprise, infiltration, ambush and night operations. Iphicrates trained his light-armed troops by staging fake ambushes, fake assaults, fake panics and fake desertions so his men would be ready if the real thing happened. Light infantrymen were not tacticians; they could not respond mechanically to a set of conditions on a battlefield with a pre-determined action like a phalanx. Whoever led the ambush had to know how to use initiative, understand intent, take independent action, analyse the field of operations, collect intelligence and make rapid decisions. Initiative meant bold action and often involved risks. Initiative by the tactical leader may have been independent of what higher commanders wanted done to the enemy. The men such leaders worked with were soldiers trained to fend for themselves through hardship and risk in hostile, uncompromising terrain. Such operations built a greater degree of teamwork and skill than other types of infantry formations as a result of the stress put on adaptability, close-combat skills and independent action.

Fourth-Century Ambush

Greek literature in the fourth century contains much more information on ambush than its fifth-century counterpart. Even didactic works such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, while wholly removed from the context of real events, give lessons about commanding a Greek army. The ambush against the forces of Gadatas42 is a classic use of clandestine communications and the laying of an ambush among a cluster of small villages. We can also see a classic deception operation, where soldiers are arrayed along with the baggage train and the women to make their force seem larger than it is. Any enemy attack would have to make a wider circuit around them and thereby thin out their own lines.

We cannot always be sure of the dates or even the historicity of certain stratagems, but they all seem to describe generic situations that crop up again and again. One of the most common ways to stage an ambush, for example, was to attack an army on the march. Polyaenus gives an undated example of the detection of such an ambush. While leading his army, Tissamenus saw many birds flying above a particular place, but not settling on the ground, and he concluded that they shrank from settling because they feared men lying in ambush. After investigating the spot, he attacked and cut down the Ionians who were waiting in ambush. This is a much repeated story, with several Roman commanders using the same tactic.

Another piece of good advice was to be ready for an ambush whether you were expecting one or not. Polyaenus tells a story about Arxilaidas the Laconian who, around 370/69, was about to travel a suspicious road with his army. Pretending he had advance intelligence which he did not, he ordered them to advance prepared for battle because the enemy lay in ambush. But by chance a large ambush was discovered. He attacked first and easily killed all those in ambush, outsmarting them by his advance preparations.

Playing on the known habits of barbarian tribes was another common practice. Polyaenus relates several stratagems used by Clerachus against the Thracians, which presumably date from a time just prior to his entering the service of Cyrus. All illustrate the frequency of Thracian nocturnal attacks. This practice, according to Polyaenus, enabled Clearchus the Spartan to set an ambush for one of the local Thracian tribes, the Thrynians. He withdrew a little distance with a number of soldiers, and ordered them to hit their shields, as was the Thracian habit, putting all the Greeks in camp on alert. When the Thracians attacked, they expected to find everything in camp peaceful and quiet, but the Greeks were ready for them and they were beaten off with severe losses. When the Thracians sent envoys to negotiate a peace, Clearchus had the bodies of a few dead Thracians cut up and strung from trees. When the envoys asked about the meaning of the spectacle, they were told that a meal for Clearchus was being prepared! Such antics as these caused people to question the ethical aspects of Clearchus’ conduct, but his military qualities are beyond dispute. He displayed great military insight in critical situations and this meant using whatever tactics worked.

The instances of surprise attacks, night marches and ambushes gathered in this chapter show how common ambushes had become in Greek warfare. This included not only light-armed troops but also hoplites being used for manoeuvres off the regular battlefield. Against hoplites, the function of peltasts was so often harassment, and the night was the most advantageous time. Isocrates equated peltasts with pirates.

Pursuing a fleeing army was a tactic that also became more common because of the mobility of light-armed troops. Plutarch tells us that the Spartans thought it ignoble for the Greeks to kill men who were fleeing, and adds that this policy made enemies more inclined to run away than fight. The practical reason for doing this, however, was not a lack of morality but rather a tactic to avoid the kind of thing that happened after the Battle of Haliartus in 395. The Thebans pursued the Spartans into the hills, where the Spartans immediately turned on them and attacked back with javelins and stones. They killed more than 200 Thebans. Practicality played a bigger part in Greek military policy than moralising.

The shock over the effectiveness of these new soldiers and their new tactics became apparent when a detachment of peltasts won a brilliant victory over Spartan soldiers at Lechaeum in 394. The commanders Callias and Iphicrates, looking down from the walls of Corinth, could see an approaching mora of Spartan soldiers. The Spartans were not numerous and were not accompanied by any light-armed or cavalry. The Athenans commanders determined that it would be safe to stage an ambush with their own peltasts. They could aim their javelins at the Spartans’ unshielded side when they passed. Callias stationed his hoplites in the ambush not far from the city walls, while Iphicrates led the peltasts in an attack, knowing if they lost they could retreat more quickly. The Spartan commander ordered a group of the youngest soldiers to pursue the assailants, but when they did so they caught no one, since they were hoplites pursuing peltasts at a distance of a javelin’s cast. Besides, Iphicrates had given orders to the peltasts to retire before the hoplites got near them. Then, when the Spartans were returning from their pursuit, out of formation because each man had pursued as swiftly as he could, Iphicrates’ troops turned around and not only did those in front again hurl javelins at the Spartans but others on the flank also ran and attacked them on their unprotected side.

Having lost many of their best men, with their returning cavalry’s support, the Spartans again attempted to pursue the peltasts. Yet when the peltasts gave way, the cavalry bungled the attack by not pursuing the enemy at full speed but, rather, kept an even pace with the hoplites in both their attack and their retreat. Finally, not knowing what to do, the Spartans gathered together on a small hill about two stades distant from the sea and about sixteen or seventeen stades from Lechaeum. When the Spartans in Lechaeum realised what was happening, they got into boats and sailed alongside the shore until they were opposite the hill. The men on the hill were now at a loss as to what to do; they were suffering dreadfully, and dying, while unable to harm the enemy in any way, and in addition they now saw the Athenian hoplites coming at them. At this point they gave way and fled, some throwing themselves into the sea, while a few made it to safety to Lechaeum with the cavalry. The total dead from all the skirmishes and the flight was enormous; the Spartans had lost half their number in a skirmish with Iphicrates’ peltasts.

Iphicrates, the ambusher, had to beware of ambushes himself. Polyaenus reports that the Spartan harmost (military governor) set an ambush that caught Iphicrates off-guard while he was marching towards the city of Sicyon in 391. Iphicrates immediately retreated by a different, short, trackless route. He selected his strongest troops, fell on the ambushers suddenly and killed them all. He admitted that he made a mistake by not reconnoitring the area, but he exploited his prompt suspicion of an ambush well by quickly attacking the ambushers.

Iphicrates won several successes in the Corinthian war, such as the recapture of Sidous, Krommyon and Oinoe from the Spartans. Several scholars have seen the similarities in the tactics used by Iphicrates’ peltasts and those that the Aetolians had used against Demosthenes, or that Demosthenes in turn used against the Spartans on Sphacteria. The success of Iphicrates was a suggestive sign of the future which might be in store for the professional peltast. The fact that they could defeat the Spartans boosted their ego and was a blow against Spartan prestige. As Parke describes it:

This success of the peltasts … was sufficient to make Iphicrates’ name forever as a general. Moreover it conferred on this type of light-armed troops a reputation for deadliness in battle which they had never before enjoyed in popular estimation. To this new esteem may be attributed the frequent appearance of peltasts in all armies, especially in the Athenian, during the next half-century. Henceforth, they become the typical form of light-armed troops and superseded the less-clearly specified, earlier varieties.

Ambushing, at what some commentators consider ‘inappropriate times’, now became a habit. Of course, what other time than ‘inappropriate’ could an ambush be? Several surprise attacks are attributed to Iphicrates by Frontinus. In one, Iphicrates attacked a Spartan camp at an hour when both armies were accustomed to forage for food and wood.

Another ambush on which Xenophon provides fairly detailed information took place in 388 in the Hellespontine region. The Spartans sent Anaxibius to Abydos as harmost (military governor) to relieve Dercylidas. He immediately took the offensive against the Athenians and their allies. The Athenians feared Anaxibius would find a way to weaken their position, and sent Iphicrates with eight ships and 1,200 peltasts to the Hellespont. First the two commanders just sent raiding parties against each other, using irregulars. Then Iphicrates crossed over by night to the most deserted portion of the territory of Abydos, and set an ambush in the mountains. He ordered his fleet to sail northwards along the Chersonese in order to deceive Anaxibius into believing they had left the area. Anaxibius suspected nothing and marched back to Abydos, but made his march in a rather careless fashion. Iphicrates’ men in the ambush waited until the vanguard of hoplites from Abydos had reached the plain, and at the moment when the rearguard consisting of Anaxibius’ Spartans started coming down from the mountains they sprang the ambush and rushed to attack the rearguard. Anaxibius’ army formed a very long and narrow column and it was practically impossible for his other troops to hasten uphill to the aid of the rearguard. He stayed where he was and fought to the death with twelve other Spartans. The rest of the Spartans fell in flight. Only 150 hoplites from the vanguard still managed to get away but only because they had been in the front of the column and were nearer to Abydos. This makes the probable percentage of losses in the middle of the column somewhere between that of the totally destroyed rearguard and the twenty-five per cent of the vanguard. Iphicrates went back to the Chersonese with a successful operation behind him. This carefully planned ambush, and indeed Iphicrates’ victory, have been compared to a successful guerrilla operation. With the defeat and death of Anaxibius, the danger for Athens of Sparta getting supremacy in the Hellespont was over. Iphicrates continued to operate against the Spartans in these parts until the Peace of Antalcidas, after which he entered the service of the Thracian kings. When Iphicrates left for the Hellespont in 388, Chabrias succeeded him as commander of the peltasts in Corinth. Because he had served under Thrasyboulus in the Hellespontine region, he was probably trained in the use of peltasts.


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