Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.
Xenophon and the Anabasis
The Greeks also came to realise that hoplite warfare, although well adapted to the peculiar circumstances of fighting within their own country, was not capable by itself of facing circumstances of warfare outside Greece, or even in the lesser-known parts of Greece itself. One of the few mercenary armies about whose composition we have exact information is Xenophon’s Ten Thousand. Xenophon’s Anabasis provides an unparalleled wealth of information on Greek mercenary service overseas in the fourth century, and how mixed continents of Greek hoplites and peltasts worked together. The tactics and fighting methods of the peltasts in the service of Athens and Sparta differed in no way from those of the peltasts on the march of the Ten Thousand.
The Peloponnesian war had produced large numbers of exiles who were forced to hire out as mercenaries, and ten thousand such soldiers found themselves recruited by Cyrus in his bid for the throne of his brother Artaxerxes. Many of Cyrus’ troops had a background in non-traditional combat. Non-hoplites including peltasts, archers, slingers and cavalry made up almost a fifth of Xenophon’s army. Xenophon’s men developed a great proficiency at night marching, and the light-armed enabled them to set up ambushes and pursue a fleeing enemy. On the defensive side, the use of light-armed and peltasts allowed Xenophon’s army to safeguard its routes and protect against ambushes set for them.
Because Xenophon and his men were travelling through unknown territory, one use of ambush was to capture intelligence assets: ‘When the enemy was giving us trouble, we set an ambush. It allowed us for one thing to catch our breath, but besides, we killed a number of them, and we took special pains to get some prisoners for this very purpose – of being able to employ them as guides, men who knew the country.’
We see the intelligence gathering structure of the Ten Thousand very clearly in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After having quartered their troops in local villages, Democrates of Temnus was sent with a body of troops during the night to the mountains. The Greeks had heard that late-arriving stragglers had seen fires, suggesting a Persian presence. Democrates was sent because he had the reputation of having made accurate reports in many similar situations. Intelligence gatherers need to be brave, able to act alone without panicking and be accurate in their assessments. Indeed, Democrates is described as being able to discern what ‘facts were facts’ and what ‘fictions were fictions’.
When Democrates returned, he reported that he had not seen fires, but rather he had captured an intelligence asset – a man with a Persian bow and quiver, and a battle axe of the sort that Amazons carry. When this man was interrogated about where he came from, he replied that he was a Persian and was on his way to the camp of Tiribazus to get provisions. They asked him for information about the size of Tiribazus’ force and for what purpose it had been gathered. The prisoner replied that Tiribazus had his own forces plus Chalybian and Taochian mercenaries, and that he himself had made his preparations with the idea of taking a position at the next mountain pass, which had the only road through which the Greeks could be attacked. Once the generals heard this information, they decided to bring their troops together in one camp. They left a garrison behind under the command of Sophaenetus the Stymphalian and set out at once using the captured asset as a guide. As soon as they crossed the mountains, the peltasts pushed ahead of the hoplites and charged the enemy camp. The Persians were taken by surprise and simply fled. Some were killed, and twenty horsemen were captured as was Tiribazus’ tent with its silver-footed couches, drinking cups and his staff. Once the hoplites heard what had happened, they thought it better to go back to their own camp before it could be set upon by the Persians. They sounded the recall trumpet and went home.
We also see this type of operation when light troops set an ambush and captured ‘some of the stealing rascals who are following us’. From these fellows they learned about passages through the mountains. Knowing the geography was of crucial importance since attacking the Greeks in ravines or when crossing over bridges was a common Persian tactic.
Xenophon planned an operation that depended on taking the enemy by surprise. The mercenaries were faced with an enemy holding a mountain pass. Since the bulk of the mountain was apparently undefended, Xenophon suggested a night attack on an unoccupied section of it as a diversionary tactic. He goes on to say that in his opinion such a tactic would be perfectly feasible, since they would be neither overseen nor overheard.
When faced again with the difficulty that a pass was occupied, this time by the Chalybians, the Greeks mounted a night operation. Xenophon proposed that the mountain tops dominating the pass should be occupied by a separate detachment, which they did at night using hoplites and light-armed. The following day when the Chalybians marched up the road to the pass, the Greeks on the mountain top attacked them by surprise. Most of the Chalybians were blocking the road, but part of them turned to fight the Greeks higher up. The Greek hoplites and light-armed defeated their adversaries and gave chase. Meanwhile, the peltasts, who acted as shock troops, rushed towards the Chalybians in the pass. Normally in this type of ambush, hand-to-hand fighting would ensue, but when the Chalybians saw that their men in the mountains had been defeated they fled, leaving the pass free for the Greeks.
Not only was setting ambushes useful, but the mere faking of an ambush could be effective. As the Greek army descended to Trapezus, a Greek city in Colchian territory on the Black Sea, they were afraid of being pursued by the tribe of the Drilai. They pretended to set an ambush. Ten Cretan archers, commanded by a Mysian, attracted the attention of the enemy by flashing bronze peltai in the sun. The Drilai, thinking this was an ambush, kept at a safe distance. When the Greek army had gotten far enough away, the Mysian received the signal to run with his men at full speed to join them. Although the Mysian himself was wounded running down the road, his companions, who had sought cover in the wood bordering the road, carried him with them. The Cretan archers kept shooting at the enemy from a safe distance and thus reached the safety of the Greek camp.
After a voyage along the coast, the Greeks arrived at Heraclea, a Greek city on the border with Bithynia. Here the army split up. The Arcadians sailed straight to the Greek port of Calpe, disembarked at night and advanced against some Bithynian villages about thirty stadia inland. The Thracian Bithynians were completely taken by surprise and a large number of people were captured along with their cattle. It should be noted that these raids were done by hoplites with Thracian peltasts on the defensive.
While the Greeks were crossing to Europe, they enlisted with Seuthes, king of the Odrysian Thracians. Seuthes had been operating in the territory of the Thynians with a comparatively small army consisting of peltasts and horsemen. He feared a night attack from them, but with the Greek mercenaries he felt he could launch a surprise attack on them instead. At Xenophon’s request, the hoplites marched at the head during the night, followed by the peltasts. Seuthes brought up the rear with his horsemen, instead of riding in front. At daybreak, Seuthes and his horsemen rode out ahead to reconnoitre; he wanted to stop any wayfarers from warning the villagers. The rest of the Greeks waited, and followed the tracks of his horses. Since they found no footsteps in the snow on the mountains, they assumed they were not being tracked. Seuthes launched his surprise attack on the villages over the mountains. The initial surprise attack was successful. The Thynians, however, after being driven from their village, returned at night and attacked the Greeks. They threw javelins inside the houses, tried to break off the points of the Greeks’ spears with clubs, and set the wooden houses on fire. At dawn, the reassembled troops of Seuthes and Xenophon advanced back to the mountains. As the Thynians begged for mercy, it was left to Xenophon to decide whether or not he wished to take revenge on the Thynians for their night attack.
On a number of occasions the decision was made to capture a position by craft rather than by a pitched battle. Xenophon records a jocular exchange where the Spartans are accused of being trained as thieves from childhood, and they in turn accused the Athenians of being thieves of public funds. If the comparison of military trickery to stealing reveals any moral qualms on the part of officers of the Ten Thousand about using such tactics, it never prevented them from using them.
Most of the rules of ambush and surprise remained the same in the fourth century. Weather could still thwart even the best night operation. Such was the case in a night operation planned by Thrasyboulus in 403. He set out with seventy followers from Thebes and occupied the fort at Phyle, a fortress with a commanding position. The Thirty Tyrants set out from Athens to retake the fort, bringing with them 3,000 hoplites and the cavalry. The weather was fine when they set out, but heavy snow fall fell during the night. Thrasyboulos saw it as a direct intervention of the gods on his behalf. The subsequent Athenian retreat was impeded by the snow, and descending from their rocky fortress the exiles inflicted further losses on their opponents, and they captured a large part of the baggage.
Night Marches and Assaults
Night marches and surprise attacks continued to be common in the fourth century. Indeed, it was said that once the Arcadians decided to march somewhere, nothing could prevent them – not nightfall nor storms, nor distance nor even mountains. In 390, an important military event occurred when Iphicrates invaded the territory of Phlius. He set an ambush while plundering the territory with a few followers. The men from the city came out against him in an unguarded way, but he killed so many of them that the Phliasians, who had previously rejected having Spartans within their walls, sent for the Spartans and put the city and the citadel under their protection. Thus a previously democratic Phlius that had displayed both political and military dissidence towards Sparta in the late 390s now remained loyal to Sparta for the rest of the Corinthian war.
In 378, the Thebans, afraid that they would be the only ones at war with Sparta, hatched a plot. Pelopidas set up an ambush as a deception in order to deceive the Spartans into attacking the Athenians. He and Gorgias chose Sphodrias, a Spartan, who was a good soldier but had weak judgement and was full of senseless ambition. They sent to him one of their friends who was a merchant with money, and planted the idea that he should seize Piraeus, attacking it unexpectedly when the Athenians were off their guard. It was set up as a night attack. Sphodrias was persuaded, took his soldiers and invaded Attica by night. Sphodrias underestimated the distance and by dawn found he was only at Eleusis. There, the hearts of his soldiers failed them and his design was exposed. Plutarch says they saw light streaming from certain sanctuaries at Eleusis and were filled with ‘shuddering fear’. Having lost the advantage of surprise, they turned back and abandoning the attack ravaged the countryside a little, then retired ingloriously to Thespiae. This once again illustrates the necessity of using brave men for night missions.
Surprise can be deadly even when it is not planned. In 378, both the Athenians and the Spartans were operating with a contingent of peltasts in their service. The Spartan Cleombrotus marched with his troops to Plataea, taking a different route from the one through Eleutherae, which the Athenian Chabrias was guarding with his peltasts. In the Cithaeron mountains, Cleombrotus’ vanguard, made up of peltasts, came upon a contingent of 150 of Chabrias’ peltasts. The latter were taken completely by surprise and nearly all of them were killed.
Using peltasts is not a silver bullet, nor does it give one a monopoly over the use of surprise. Once a surprise attack is used, your enemies copy your tactics. In the spring of 376, Cleombrotus marched again with an army to Boeotia. Once again his peltasts went ahead to occupy the tops of the Cithaeron mountains overlooking the road. This time, however, the area had already been occupied by the Thebans and the Athenians, who were more alert than Chabrias’ peltasts had been two years before. When Cleombrotus’ peltasts reached the top of the mountains and were at close quarters with the enemy, the latter emerged from the ambush and killed about forty fleeing peltasts. Because of this disaster, Cleombrotus believed it was impossible to enter Boeotia, and therefore turned back without having effected his purpose.
Aeneas Tacticus reports a particularly deadly ambush in 376, in which failure to learn from one set of ambushes caused another set. The Triballi, a tribe from the area of mid-Danubian Thrace, made an inroad into the country of the Abderites and set ambushes, then started raiding the country around the city. The Abderites held them in contempt because of previous successful operations against them and made a hasty attack from the city with great force and eagerness. But the Triballi drew them into the ambushes. On that particular occasion, it is said that more men perished in a shorter time than had ever been the case, at least from a single city of similar size. The others, not having learned of the destruction of their compatriots who went out first, rushed to the rescue, cheering each other on, but fell into the same ambushes until the city was bereft of men.
Xenophon reports a night march with a double layer of secrecy in 371, during the truce brokered by Jason of Pherae after the Battle of Leuctra. When news had been brought of the truce between Sparta and Thebes, the polemarchs announced to their men that they should all be packed up after dinner because they intended to set out during the night in order to ascend Mt Cithaeron at dawn. Right after the men finished dinner, however, and before they could take any rest, the polemarch ordered them to set out, and as soon as it was dusk they led them away, taking the road through Creusis, because they were relying more on secrecy than on the truce. They proceeded with very great difficulty because they were withdrawing at night, in fear, and by a hard road, but arrived at Aegosthena in the territory of Megara.
In 370, relations between Orchomenus and Mantineia were strained. Sparta supported Orchomenus and dispatched Polytropus as general to Arcadia with 1,000 citizen hoplites and 500 Argive and Boeotian refugees. Agesilaus waited for Polytropus to join him with his mercenaries. The Arcadians marched against them and Polytropus fought off the attackers but perished in the fight. Diodorus estimated the number dead at 200. If horsemen from Phlius had not arrived just in time to stop the Mantineans from pursuing them, many of the mercenaries would also have been killed. Agesilaus thought the mercenaries would not join him now that they had been defeated, so he marched on Mantinea without them. Armies were sometimes easily surprised even by their own allies. A few days later, after a night movement, the horsemen from Phlius and the mercenaries who had slipped past Mantinea appeared in the Spartan camp early in the morning, causing great confusion at first because the Spartans thought they were the enemy.
In 370, the Thebans invaded Laconia. They crossed the Eurotas river by Amyclae and after four days the Thebans and Eleians advanced in full force along with the cavalry from the Phocians, Thessalians and Locrians who were serving in this expedition. Although the Spartan cavalry formed against them, they were very few in number. To help counter this imbalance, however, the Spartans had set an ambush with about 300 of the younger hoplites, which they hid in the Temple of the Sons of Tyndareus (The Dioscuri). When the Spartan cavalry charged, these men too sprang their attack and forced the enemy back. Eventually, the Thebans decided not to make another assault on the city, so departed on the road to Helos and then Gytheium, where the Spartans had their dockyards. The ambush gave the Spartans enough of an edge to achieve their objective of saving the city.
Night operations became a necessity in 366 during the Theban invasion of Phlius. The Phliasians survived by buying supplies from the Corinthians. But they had to provide a military escort for those who had to pass through enemy lines to get the supplies. While Chares was in Phlius, they asked him to convey their non-combatants (proxenoi) into Pellene. Having left the men at Pellene, they then went to the market, made their purchases and loaded up as many of the animals as they could, and departed by night trying in this way to avoid ambush by the enemy. Xenophon praises their endurance and patience, and admires them for pulling off this dangerous night operation to bring supplies to their hard-pressed city.
Another night attack in 362 is related by several ancient historians. Two groups of Arcadians came to blows, each side sent for outside help. The Tegeans called in the Thebans under Epaminondas, and the Mantineans sought help from both Athens and Sparta. Epaminondas was advancing with his army not far from Mantinea when he learned from local inhabitants that the entire Spartan force was plundering the territory of Tegea. Supposing that Sparta was stripped of soldiers, Epaminondas planned a night attack and set out towards the city. He ordered his troops to take their supper at an early hour, and a little after nightfall led them out straight to Sparta.
The Spartan king Agesilaus, however, anticipating the cunning of Epaminondas (Diodorus) or being informed by a deserter (Polybius), made preparations for a defence. He sent out some Cretan runners and got word to the men he had left behind that the Boeotians would shortly appear in Sparta to sack the city. They should not fear because he himself would come as quickly as possible with his army to bring aid to them. According to Diodorus, Epaminondas set out at night and took the city (Sparta) at daybreak. Polybius says he took the city by surprise. Epaminondas was disappointed in his hope, but after breakfasting on the banks of the Eurotas and refreshing his troops after their hard march he continued on to Mantinea, which would be left without defenders because the Spartans had run home to defend their city. He once again organised a night march and reached Mantinea about midday and found it undefended.
This is an interesting story because Diodorus and Polybius have Epaminondas shown attacking at night. This is in contrast to Polyaenus, where Epaminondas is portrayed as cultivating a reputation for never attacking before sunrise. It is thus difficult to appraise the historical value of the stratagem, because the only attested example in the historians of Epaminondas’ activity by night in the Peloponnesus is his march to Sparta.
Assaults and Escapes from Walled Cities
Assaults and escapes from walled cities were already an important part of warfare at the end of the Peloponnesian war. There are numerous examples of deceptions and tricks, in particular in the assaults on cities, where peltasts were used to great advantage. Much activity, therefore, was expended in the fourth century assaulting cities, or gaining access by stealth.
Storming towns at night was often a successful tactic. In 408, King Agis of Sparta was in Decelea with his army when he learned that the best Athenian troops were engaged in an expedition with Alcibiades. He led his army on a moonless night to Athens with 28,000 infantry, one-half of whom were picked hoplites and the rest were light-armed troops. There were also attached to his army some 1,200 cavalry, of whom the Boeotians furnished 900 and the rest had been sent with him by the Peloponnesians. As he drew near the city, he came upon the outposts before they were aware of him and easily dispersed them because they were taken by surprise. He slew a few and pursued the rest within the walls.
In 405, Diodorus claims Dionysius of Syracuse covered a distance of 400 stades and arrived at the gates of Achradine in the middle of the night with 100 cavalry and 600 infantry. Finding the gate closed, he piled upon it reeds brought from the marshes and burned the gates. His troops entered the town and captured the cavalry trying to defend the city. They were gathered in the marketplace, surrounded and cut down. Then Dionysius rode through the city slaughtering anyone who resisted.
Later in 404, Dionysius of Syracuse treated with humanity the exiles who returned, wishing to encourage the rest to return to their native land too. To the Campanians, he awarded the gifts that were due and then dispatched them from the city, having regard to their fickleness. These made their way to Entella and persuaded the men of the city to receive them as fellow inhabitants, then they fell upon them at night, slew the men of military age, married the wives of the men with whom they had broken faith and possessed themselves of the city.
From the same book of Diodorus we have an example of gates being opened by treachery in 395 at Heraclea. Medius, the lord of Larissa in Thessaly, was at war with Lycophron, tyrant of Pherae. After getting reinforcements of Boeotians and Argives, Medius seized Pharsalus where there was a garrison of Spartans; he sold the inhabitants as booty. After this, the Boeotians and Argives parted company with Medius. They seized Heraclea in Trachis, and on being let in at night within the walls by sympathisers they put to the sword the Spartans whom they seized, but they allowed the other Peloponnesian allies to leave with their possessions, no doubt in an attempt to weaken the Spartan alliance.
Plutarch, in his Life of Pelopidas, reports a plot from 379 when Thebes was garrisoned by the Spartans, to open city gates and stage a surprise attack. The Theban exiles took twelve men disguised as hunters, in short cloaks and leading hunting dogs. They entered the city at different points during the day. The weather changed to wind and snow. They made their way to the house of Charon, where they were changing into their armour when a messenger came from the polemarchs summoning Charon. At first, they thought they had been discovered. While the storm continued, a messenger from the Athenians brought a letter with details of the plot to Archias (the polemarch?). Instead of reading it, Archias, who was drunk, put it under his pillow and went to sleep. When the time came for the attack, the exiles went out in two bands, one under Pelopidas and one under Charon. They broke into various houses and killed leaders, raided shops for arms and at the break of day had control of the city without ever having engaged the 1,500-man garrison. Even Plutarch says that it was not easy to name a case where such a small number of men, so destitute, have overcome enemies so numerous and powerful. The subsequent political change was momentous. This is a clear of example of ambush as a force multiplier.
Mercenary service in Sicily found its high point under tyrants such as Dionysius of Syracuse. We see him using them during the siege of the Siceli at Tauromenium. Dionysius took advantage of the winter storms when the area about the acropolis was filled with snow. He discovered that the Siceli were careless in their guard of the acropolis because of its strength and the unusual height of the wall, so he advanced on a moonless and stormy night against the highest sectors. After many difficulties, both because of the obstacles offered by the crags and because of the great depth of the snow, he occupied one peak, although his face was frosted and his vision impaired by the cold. Still he was able to break through to the other side and lead his army into the city. The attempt, however, still did not work. The Siceli stormed out against him and pushed out the troops of Dionysius. Dionysius himself was struck on the corselet in the flight, sent scrambling and barely escaped being taken alive. Since the Siceli pressed upon them from superior ground, more than 600 of Dionysius’ troops were slain and most of them lost their complete armour, while Dionysius himself saved only his corselet. After this disorder, the Acragantini and Messenians banished the partisans of Dionysius, asserted their freedom and renounced their alliance with the tyrant.
Diodorus reports that in 397, when Dionysius was besieging the Motyans, he made it a practice to sound the trumpet towards evening for the recall of his troops and break off the siege. So once he had accustomed the Motyans to this practice, the combatants on both sides retired as usual. He dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the élite troops, who waited until nightfall then placed ladders against the fallen houses. Using these to mount the walls, they seized an advantageous spot, where they admitted Dionysius’ troops. When the Motyans realised what was taking place, they rushed with all eagerness to the rescue, but they were too late. They fought fiercely but, in the end, the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by the weight of their numbers.
In Rhegium in 393, the Carthaginians fled into the city after a loss of more than 800 men, while Dionysius withdrew for the time being to Syracuse; but after a few days he manned 100 triremes and set out against the Rhegians. Arriving unexpectedly by night before the city, he put fire to the gates and set ladders against the walls.
At Corinth in 392, Praxitas, the commander of a Spartan mora garrisoned at Sicyon, entered the long walls that connected Corinth to its port at Lechaeum, through a gate opened by the two Corinthian defectors, and he established a palisaded camp as they waited for reinforcements. On the second day, the Argives arrived in full strength along with the mercenaries under Iphicrates. Although outnumbered, the Spartans fought bravely, and then followed their victory with the taking of Lechaeum.
From Egypt in 362/1 we have the story of a night escape from a city. Having lost many men in their attack on the walls, the Egyptians then began to surround the city with a wall and a ditch, shutting in Agesilaus and his men. As the work was rapidly nearing completion by reason of the large number of workers, and the provisions in the city were exhausted, Tachos despaired of his safety, but Agesilaus, encouraging the men and attacking the enemy at night, unexpectedly succeeded in bringing all the men out safely.
Similarly, Diodorus reports an attack on the walls of Syracuse in 356/5. Nypsius, the commander of the mercenaries, wishing to renew the battle and retrieve the defeat with his army, which had been marshalled, during the night unexpectedly attacked the wall that had been constructed. And, finding that the guards had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor, he placed the ladders that had been constructed in case they were needed against the wall. The bravest of the mercenaries climbed on the wall with these, slaughtered the guards and opened the gates.
Another unsuccessful assault on a siege wall occurred in 357/6. Dionysius plied his mercenaries with strong wine and sent them on a dash against the siege wall around the acropolis. The attack was unexpected, and the barbarians, with great boldness and loud tumult, began to tear down the cross-wall and attack the Syracusans, so that no one dared to stand on the defensive, except the mercenaries of Dion, who first noticed the disturbance and came to the rescue.
Warfare in the Fourth Century
Despite the anecdotal form of many of our sources, we can see that warfare had changed in the fourth century. As G. T. Griffith pointed out many decades ago, it is not easy to imagine a time when soldiers were not a special class of men who made fighting their profession. The Greeks of the fifth century had no need for professional soldiers. The payment of a wage to fighting men ran contrary to the ideology of the citizen-soldier, i.e. hoplites. They were recruited from a class of men who could arm themselves and fight at their own expense. When Greek cities went to war, every man did what he could. As wars increased in number and intensity, however, the professionalisation of warfare followed. Thucydides writes that before the Peloponnesian war the Athenians devoted their bodies to their country. Later, patriotic enthusiasm would decrease and fighting was left to professional soldiers who received wages.
The use of public finance to pay soldiers transformed warfare by making it possible to mobilise more manpower for longer periods of time and so wage war on land and at sea with an intensity and persistence that had not been feasible in earlier generations. Military service became less and less remunerative especially because of the steep increase in the cost of living in the fourth century. From then on, wages had to be complemented with booty.
Athens had used mercenaries during the greater part of the fourth century and used them more freely than any other Greek city-state. Yet the Greeks were conscious of the incompatibility of their autonomy and the presence of foreign troops in a polis.
The rise of Hellenistic monarchies, combined with a large supply of mercenary soldiers available, meant that professionals and the techniques of war that they could bring with them would be many and varied. Battle became much more costly as the spirit of competition gave way to the desire for complete destruction. Wars were now made up of raids, commando attacks and guerrilla warfare whose heroes were peltasts and these techniques came to rival open combat.
There were always those who waxed poetic about the ‘fair and open battle’ of the past. Xenophon, in the Cyropaedia, has a character urge an attack upon a small and vulnerable group of enemy soldiers. Cyrus overruled him and said it would be better to wait for them all to assemble. If less than half of them are defeated, they will say the Greeks attacked because they feared to face the great mass of the enemy. If they do not feel defeated, there will be another battle. But is this really the Greek attitude towards fair play in war or a just nostalgic remembrance of times past when hoplite armies gathered their full forces on a plain, almost as if by appointment? Or, one might ask, what happened when the Greeks were faced with opponents who did not recognise the ‘rules of the game’? As the Athenians expanded their empire overseas, they found themselves fighting more frequently, in unfamiliar terrain as longer conflicts replaced seasonal and occasional clashes. Professionalism spurred on by the increase in scale, occurrence and duration of conflicts rendered operations more technical. Diversity of terrain favoured a new emphasis on cavalry and light infantry. It became necessary to co-ordinate different types of armed contingents and this made battles more complex than the head-on collisions of phalanxes. Mercenaries with professional skills, often recruited from non-Greeks, supplemented or replaced citizen levies. Generals did not just lead a charge; they had to out-think as well as out-fight the enemy.
Using light-armed troops and mercenaries for ambush was one of the strategies the Greeks adopted. As Griffith points out: ‘The mercenaries of the fourth century became standardised to a type, the type evolved by Iphicrates, i.e. the Iphicratean peltast.’ He believed they became so widespread that actual Thracians were driven from the market. There appears to be no mention by ancient authors of Thracian peltasts in the seventy years before Alexander. Griffith suggests that their disappearance was due to the improved Greek peltast.
Thus, when new circumstances arose, they demanded new experiments from the inventiveness of the Greeks. The Greeks had learned to make an efficient army suitable for service in other lands. Hoplites had to be supported by good light-armed troops and, if possible, by cavalry. The first half of the fourth century developed the military art along these lines, and the Greek hoplite force, in conjunction with these new groups using the tactics of surprise, speed and ambush, became one of the most effective military forces.
Fourth-century authors speak of deception, surprise and ambush constantly. It is clear from the works of Aeneas Tacticus that ambush was always considered a dangerous possibility. Aeneas assumes that ambushes will be a danger, and he recommends that defenders set their own ambushes. He tells a cautionary tale about how some officials used the citizens’ desire to ambush the enemy to bring in mercenaries and take over the city. He even recommends that defenders attack the invaders when they are drunk or when they are preparing dinner. He gives examples of disinformation leaked successfully to the enemy and anecdotes about tricks used to capture cities. He gives detailed instructions on how an army should sally from a town when enemy troops were in the surrounding area. He instructs that hoplites should leave town in separate formations in marching order since, if unordered groups leave in succession, there was a danger that each group would fall into an enemy ambush. Aeneas recommends that to avoid ambushes the available horsemen and light-armed precede the hoplites in order to reconnoitre and occupy the dominating positions in the area, so that the hoplites can be informed of the enemy’s movements in good time and hence avoid unexpected disasters.
Xenophon gives exactly the same advice about troop order. Both Aeneas and Xenophon were generals with extensive field experience. They were basing their advice on practice. It is not difficult to find examples. We see this when Agesilaus’ horsemen, during his campaign in Asia Minor, were riding to a hill in order to survey the terrain and they unexpectedly came upon Persian horsemen. With the order by which the horsemen and peltasts marched ahead followed by the hoplites, it is obvious that the peltasts and horsemen were always the first to engage with the enemy. Another example of this marching order can be seen in Xenophon’s Anabasis. His troops are in the territory of the Thracian enemies; in front of them are the Bithynians. He sends horsemen ahead and orders the peltasts to the hill tops and ridges. The practice at the end of the fifth century seems to have been the same as the fourth century, when Aeneas Tacticus was writing (c.360–350). Xenophon and Aeneas Tacticus have so much in common that classicist David Whitehead plausibly suggests that the two men knew each other and spoke together. The Greeks in Xenophon’s day considered deceiving enemies normal behaviour. Certainly, surprise attacks and ambush came under this heading. The Greeks were still using animal metaphors for ambush as they had in the Iliad. When Xenophon talks about men who deceive the enemy, he compares it to using decoy birds to lure birds into an ambush.
Fourth-century commanders such as Agesilaus became admired by later writers. Most of Frontinus’ examples are Roman, but among the Greeks he mentions one Spartan figure prominently. Of the twenty-one stratagems he cites, nine are attributed to Agesilaus. Polyaenus goes even further. For him Agesilaus was the central character and his thirty-three exempla extend over his entire career as a general.
Scholars like to point out that light-armed troops did not play a decisive part in any battle on Greek soil, except in two cases during the Peloponnesian war where hoplites were caught on ground unsuited to their formation and their tactics. This misses the point, however, that having light-armed troops made it easier to set up ambushes, spring surprise attacks at night or dawn and fall upon hoplites when they least expected it and were ill-prepared. The fact that hoplites themselves were lightening their armour suggests that they saw the changing conditions of warfare as the fifth century progressed.
Whatever sneering may have been done against light-armed troops before or during the Peloponnesian war, it soon became clear to commanders of Greek armies serving abroad in the fourth century that they could not reply solely upon heavily armed hoplite troops. Hoplites need the support of effective bodies of men whose armour rendered them more mobile. The demand for various types of light-armed soldiers had become greater as the Peloponnesian war progressed, and in the fourth century this need got greater as Greeks fought overseas against native troops skilled in these ways of fighting. Archers, javelin men, slingers and, above all, peltasts were found to be necessary. The predominance of a solely hoplite army was gone. The fourth-century Greek army had been remade as a co-operative effort by trained hoplites, peltasts and cavalry, many of them mercenaries and all obedient to a general.
G. B. Grundy was correct when he warned against reading into the fourth century a wholescale racial decay, physical and intellectual, and perhaps we might add moral because of the types of warfare used. Many writers believe the fourth century saw a ‘change in the ethos of warfare’, i.e. a moral decay. What we are seeing rather are military changes that reflect the reality of warfare in an age of overseas warfare, increased professionalism in the armies, the development of new fighting techniques, the development of a new leadership and the ability of the Greeks to divorce themselves from the hoplite paradigm. These were all brought changes to Greek warfare, but we can discuss them without suggesting that their world had become degenerate.
The idea that cleverness in warfare is ‘a luxury’ may be an opinion held by armchair historians, but not by generals in the field. Such attitudes are often attributed to great commanders such as Agesilaus and Alexander, but the fact remains that these commanders were expert military tricksters. Moralisers could continue to claim that victory by guile was no victory at all, but when an ambush killed all its targets the dead were very much defeated. A pass taken, information gained, an enemy surprised and defeated were all good things for both the general and the men in the field.