The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior II

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The Age of Light Armed Greek Warrior II

Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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