09 April 2014

The Map is Not the Territory: Herodotus and the Myth of Hoplite Battle

Another piece from the archives -- April 2003, believe it or not -- where it's just been gathering dust...

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There was an article in the New York Times last week, examining the books which have had the greatest impact of late in the White House. Last Autumn Dick Cheney read An Autumn of War by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, whom he later invited to dinner. Cheney told his aides that Hanson’s writings reflected his philosophy. In An Autumn of War Hanson wrote approvingly of the ancient Greek view of war as ‘terrible but innate to civilization — and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.’ He asserted that we were in an ‘outright bloody war against tyranny, intolerance and theocracy,’ and he called for going to war ‘hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.’[1]

Hanson has long argued that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central military act in ancient Greece. This ‘Hoplite Battle’ was a swift and decisive clash of well-armed social equals, fighting and willing to die in defence of their lands. These social equals, Hanson believes, relied not on ruse or cunning for victory, instead depending on their own courage, discipline, and martial skill. E.M. Walker, writing in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History elegantly explained that ‘To the Greeks a battle was in the nature of a duel; it was an agon, in which honour was satisfied and the pursuit ceased when the enemy acknowledged defeat by asking for a truce for the burial of his dead.’ Such battles were almost inevitably ritualistic, as W.R. Connor argues in his 1988 article on the symbolism of early Greek land warfare.

This model of hoplite battle generated by believers in a Greek way of war is well-known and generally accepted. 

The opposing armies would deploy on a plain, typically agricultural land at the edge of the invaded territory. Often organised by tribal regiments, arrayed in a line with the best men stationed in the front and rear ranks, the heavy infantry would be protected on the flanks by light infantry and cavalry. Omens would be taken, and sacrificial animals slaughtered in a ritual shedding of blood. Commanders would address their men, and the signal for battle would be given. Both armies would advance, covering the last hundred or so yards at a run. It seems unlikely that the two armies collided at full tilt, but when they met a giant melee of pushing and stabbing would begin. Men must have fallen, whether dead or wounded, or simply because they lost their footing due to pressure from behind. As men fell, gaps would have appeared in the front lines, which enemy hoplites sought to enlarge; eventually the pushing – the othismos – would enable one army to penetrate the enemy line. This breaching of the line, the pararrhexis – was a sure sign of defeat, and the army whose line had been broken would turn and run. The victorious army would generally not pursue for long, instead opting to make the battlefield its own; they stripped the armour from the enemy dead and gathered their own dead for burial. A victory marker, called a tropaion, would be erected at the spot where the enemy line had been broken and the enemy had turned and fled. The defeated army, having regrouped, would send a herald to request a truce to enable them to retrieve their dead: this request was an admission of defeat; indicating that the outcome of the battle had been accepted

The basic origins of this thesis are clear enough. In a famous speech he attributes to the Persian Mardonius,[2] Herodotus describes the Greek Way of War, noting that:
‘When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed.’ (Hdt. 7.9)
This passage from Herodotus is generally taken at face value and reinforced by passages from Thucydides,[3] Demosthenes,[4] and particularly Polybius [5] in order to gain an insight into the ‘Greek Way of War’.

The problem with these passages is that they all highly rhetorical; they are hardly sober reflections on the nature of contemporary warfare. The core passage from Herodotus is exceptionally complex, loaded with problems and ambiguities. Remember at all times that this speech surely does not represent anything Mardonius said; rather these words have been put into his mouth by the Greek Herodotus. Why? In the first place its main function is to show the heroism of the free Greeks, who are willing to die to defend their homeland; unlike, in this respect they stand in sharp contrast to the Persians, who like to fight their wars without unnecessary casualties. The Greek willingness to sustain casualties horrifies Mardonius; yet modern calculations suggest that in most Greek battles the defeated army would suffer perhaps 14 or 15 per cent losses, with the victor losing only one man in twenty. It is also odd to see a Persian being surprised at the Greek desire for decisive battle, since earlier in his account Herodotus shows the Persians as deeply exasperated by the Scythian refusal to face them in the open field; the Scythian scorched earth policy so infuriated the Persians that Darius supposedly wrote to the Scythian king to ask him to face the Persians in the open field (Hdt. 4.126). The historicity of this letter may be questionable, but of more interest is the fact that when it suited his purposes, Herodotus was quite capable of presenting the Persians as devotees of decisive battle.

It’s also odd that Herodotus represents Mardonius as seeing the Greeks as tactically inept and not inclined to use terrain to their advantage; think what happened at Thermopylae, one of history’s finest examples of the tactical use of terrain (Hdt. 7.201-228; Diod. 11.6-10). Is Herodotus simply saying that the Persians misunderstood the Greek capacity for flexibility in warfare?

Consider the passages from Demosthenes (9.47-52) and Polybius (13.3.2-7): both men are harking back to a Golden Age of Hoplite Warfare that may never have existed. Polybius appears to be talking about the Lelantine War, more than five centuries before his own day. And Demosthenes is praising the honourable methods of the old Spartan enemies, despite the fact that in the funeral speech ascribed to him by Thucydides, Pericles scorned those very Spartans for their reliance on stratagems and ruses! (Thuc. 2.39.1) The rhetorical content of both passages renders them automatically suspect. Even the passage from Thucydides (4.126.5-6), who at least knew what he was talking about, is not entirely safe. After all, it purports to represent what Brasidas said to inspire a force of troops who were relatively new to hoplite warfare, as they were feeling threatened by ‘savage’ Illyrians. It is hardly surprising that he would laud their method of warfare.

We need to keep these issues in mind, as when presented with a picture as compelling as that drawn by Hanson, it is all too easy to forget that this is a ‘model’ or an ‘ideal type’. It is a tool to enable us to gain understanding of Greek battle, synthesizing features which are common to many, but by no means all, Greek battles in an attempt to manufacture a mental construct which never ‘really’ existed. This does not mean that the model is useless, simply that we have to be careful how we apply it. There’s a school of ‘pop psychology’ called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, one of the central principles of which is that ‘The map is not the territory’. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of NLP, when it comes to Greek Warfare we should make a point of keeping in mind this distinction between maps and territories.

Consider firstly the claim that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central act of Greek warfare. This claim simply doesn’t bear serious scrutiny. It is, frankly, disingenuous to speak of ‘Greek warfare’ and ‘hoplite warfare’ as if the two were synonymous. In Thessaly, for instance, cavalry was the dominant military arm; this is hardly surprising when one envisages the Thessalian landscape’s plains and gently rolling hills (Plat., Leg. 1.625d); there appear to have been Thessalian hoplites, but they were less significant than the cavalry (Xen., Hell. 6.1.8-9). The ‘primitive’ Greeks in the mountains of western Greece, such as the Acharnanians, Aetolians, and Ozolian Locrians, fought as lightly-armed missile troops, specialising in skirmishes and ambushes (Thuc. 1.5, 3.94, 97-8). The Cretans and Rhodians were famous for their skills with the bow and sling, respectively. The Greeks of the island poleis may have been more inclined to naval rather than land warfare – after all, who were they going to fight? The Sicilian Greeks appear to have relied far more on their cavalry than on their hoplites; Thucydides’ account of the early stages of Athens’ doomed Sicilian expedition indicates that the Syracusan hoplites were inexperienced and ineffective, unlike their potent cavalry and missile troops.

It could be countered that although these states were all Greek, none of them was truly a mainstream Greek society. What of the Greeks in the ‘hoplite heartland’ of the Peloponnese, Central Greece, and Euboea? For states such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Plataea, and so forth, warfare generally meant hoplite warfare. But in some respects the very term ‘hoplite warfare’ seems meaningless. In the first place, as Louis Rawlings has argued, hoplite warfare did not solely consist of battles. Hoplites could on occasion fight as marines, and could serve a police function or perform garrison duties, as well as participating in raids and reprisals – effectively acts of guerrilla warfare.

In addition to this, the Hanson thesis assumes that Greek warfare followed an uninterrupted learning curve, where two centuries or more of ‘pure’ hoplite warfare came to an end with the Persian Wars, after which hoplite battle became more and more sophisticated over the course of the Peloponnesian Wars and the Theban Hegemony. Such an assumption is unwarranted, and is lacking in evidence, as there is hardly any evidence for how battles were fought before Marathon, and what little evidence there is appears to contradict Hanson’s idea. Furthermore, this thesis ignores cultural differences between various Greek states and assumes that all hoplite armies fought in an essentially identical fashion, which was not the case.

Consider the Athenian army, which appears to have been officially mobilised very rarely before the late sixth century. Scythian archers were a common subject on Athenian vase paintings in this period; curiously, on some vases they are shown as operating in association with the regular infantry, shooting from between the hoplites of the front ranks. They are reminiscent of the archers in the Iliad, relying on their comrades’ shields for protection (Hom., Il. 4.112-4, 8.266-72). It might seem unsafe to rely on Vase illustrations as evidence for Athenian warfare during the ‘Golden Age of Hoplite Battle’, but this notion of missile troops being deployed amongst the hoplites seems to have been a Spartan practice during the seventh century. Several passages from Tyrtaeus testify to the importance of missile troops in early Spartan warfare, notably when he exhorts them as follows:
‘And you, light-armed, squatting under a shield here and there, must throw great rocks and hurl smooth javelins while you stand close to the heavy armed.’ (Tyrt. Fr. 11.35-8)
Lest we be tempted to argue that missile troops were integrated into the Spartan army only in its early history, it is worth contemplating Herodotus’ somewhat cryptic statement that each Spartan at the battle of Plataea was accompanied by seven helots, while a single helot accompanied each hoplite of the perioikoi. These helots were equipped as light-armed missile troops, and were reportedly ‘in attendance’ on the hoplites, which probably indicates that they were not deployed simply on the flanks (Hdt. 9.10.1, 9.29.1). This is irreconcilable with the notion of hoplite battle as a battle of equals, with the disdain supposedly felt by hoplites for the use of missiles in battle, and with the basic notion of hoplite tactics being based on solid lines of heavily armed infantrymen.

Thucydides makes Pericles scorn the Spartans for their reliance on trickery, and their tactics at Thermopylae seem to defy everything that the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’ takes for granted. Herodotus claims that the Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae turned and pretended to flee, only to turn back and strike the Persians who had broken ranks and fallen into disorder in attempting to press their apparent advantage (Hdt. 7.211.3). Such a stratagem looks decidedly unGreek, foreshadowing the famous ‘Parthian Shot’ or even Mongol tactics. It might not be surprising that the Spartans should have been capable of such a manoeuvre, though, considering the fact that unlike the free citizen militias so feted by Hanson, they were in effect professional soldiers who engaged in a life-long training programme. Even the Athenian phalanx at Marathon, however, appears to have exhibited a degree of flexibility unimaginable for the phalanxes we read of in the pages of Thucydides and Xenophon; or at least unimaginable for their phalanxes as seen through the prism of our model of ‘hoplite battle’ (Hdt. 6.113).

If the Spartans and Athenians offer exceptions to the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, the Thebans stand out in blatant defiance of it. The hoplite infantry was indeed the dominant military arm in Boeotia, but the aristocratic cavalry played a crucial role in Boeotian battles, notably the Boeotian victory over Athens at Delium in 424 (Thuc. 4.90-6). The Boeotian cavalry pursued the defeated Athenians until nightfall; this murderous pursuit cost the Athenians dearly and was hardly in accordance with the spirit of ‘Hoplite Battle’ (4.96.8, 101.2). What’s more, the cavalry had been instrumental in the Boeotian victory, rather than just its aftermath. The Boeotian left wing had been under pressure from the Athenian right, so Pagondas sent two cavalry squadrons to support the beleaguered infantry. The cavalry rode behind a hill, staying out of sight, and appeared in such a way as to surprise the Athenians who broke and fled, thinking that a new army had arrived (4.96.5-6). Such reliance on surprise might seem contrary to the openness so characteristic of conventional model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, but it was clearly not regarded as dishonourable among the Boeotians: it seems clear that the Boeotian victory over Athens at Coronea in 446 was regarded as a heroic victory (3.62.5, 67.3, 4.92.6), despite being an ambush rather than a set-piece battle (1.113.2).

The notion of the ambush at Coronea being a decisive battle – and it surely was decisive – is an interesting one, as it forces the question of what Greeks thought of when they spoke of battle. When Greeks spoke of battle, did they automatically mean the set-piece hoplite battle as envisaged by Hanson, and apparently as indicated by Herodotus in his Mardonius speech? Hanson argues, following Pritchett, that the existence of an extensive vocabulary devoted purely to set-piece hoplite battles demonstrates the centrality of shock battle to Greek culture. The careful delineation of the set-piece battle's various stages and areas of the battlefield might support this thesis, but while this certainly might indicate how important shock battle was to the Greeks, it might equally mean nothing more than that that unlike other forms of military engagement, the pitched battle between hoplites had easily distinguished components. After all, the fact that an activity has its own jargon hardly indicates how important it was to the wider culture.

Such pitched battles were known as ‘drawn-ups,’ as ‘battles by agreement,’ as ‘battles in the plain,’ and as battles that were ‘just and open.’ The problem with this analysis is that with the exception of parataxis – ‘drawn-up’ – these terms are quite rare in our sources. This perhaps suggesting that the pitched battle was a far less frequent occurrence than modern writers would like to admit. There is no doubt, for instance, that the battle of Coronea in 446, as mentioned already, was a fully-credited battle, but it would be hard to use any of the terms Pritchett and Hanson cite to describe it. Or look at the battles of Sphacteria in 425 or Amphipolis in 421 – both battles were notable for the asymmetry of the opposing sides’ losses – for example, seven of Brasidas’ men fell at Amphipolis, as against 600 or so of Cleon’s – this asymmetry is attributed by Thucydides to neither battle being a pitched or drawn up battle (Thuc, 4.38.5, 5.11.2). But even the term parataxis was not used exclusively to refer to hoplite battles. Xenophon uses the term for cavalry formations (Hell. 4.3.5, 7.5.23), and Polybius uses it not specifically for Greek infantry encounters, but also for battles between Romans and Gauls (2.18.2, 2.26.8), Romans and Gauls and Etruscans together (2.20.2, 4), and Macedonian phalangites against Illyrians (2.70.6).

Other terms for battle are frustratingly vague, and are never applied in a manner exclusive to the pitched hoplite battle. The Homeric term ponos, used by Herodotus on occasion, really just means ‘toil’ or ‘struggle’ (Hom., Il. 6.77; Hdt. 6.114, 7.224.1), and the verb symballein, conveying the sense of ‘coming together’ is used to refer to battle in a vague sense by both Homer and Herodotus (Hom., Il. 3.70, 20.55; Hdt. 1.77, 1.82, 7.210.2). Kindunos, meaning ‘danger’ or ‘risk’, is used frequently by Polybius (1.33.4, 34.9, 2.28.9, 3.84.15), but again has no specific application to hoplite warfare, and even agon, which basically means ‘contest’, is usually applied to battles in a largely metaphorical way, whether by Phormio addressing his men (Th.2.89.8) or Polybius describing the battles of the Trebia or Cannae (3.71.5, 116.2).

The term mache is indiscrimately applied to battles of all sorts by Greek writers. It implies virtually nothing about the nature of the fighting which took place. Homer uses it constantly for mass fighting, but also occasionally for single combat (Il. 7.263, 11.255, 11.542). Herodotus describes pitched battles such as Marathon and Plataea as machai (6.117.1, 9.69.1), but also uses the term to mean simply a style of warfare, as practised by the Lydian cavalry, the Sagartians, or even the Greeks, in the Mardonius speech (1.79, 7.85.2, 7.9.1). Thucydides uses the term in a broad sense for the encounters at Sphacteria (4.39.1), Delium (4.93.2, 95.2, 101.1, 101.3), Amphipolis (5.11.2, 12.2), and Mantinea (5.74.1, 75.1, 75.4). This is particularly striking, when we remember that he specifically said that neither Sphacteria nor Amphipolis was a pitched battle; it might seem odd that he does not apply any more precise term than mache to describe Mantinea, say. Xenophon also uses this vague, generalised word when he writes of such classic set-piece encounters as the Nemea River, second Coronea, Leuctra, and second Mantinea (Hell. 4.2.23, 4.3.16, 6.4.8, 7.5.27); but also uses it in the famous ‘Tearless Battle’ of 368 (Hell. 7.1.32), even though this was not even a battle; no fighting took place, only the slaughter of fleeing Argives and Arcadians.

Where does this leave us? The ‘hoplite battle’ is to some extent a chimera; set piece battles took place on a surprisingly infrequent basis. Interstate warfare was indeed a commonplace of Greek life, but when we read that a battle took place, we should not automatically assume that it was a pitched battle between two similarly armed and trained groups of hoplites. Ancient rhetoric has led modern writers to ignore the evidence, and instead to force the facts that we have to fit a flawed and generalised theory. Herodotus’ celebrated description of the Greek way of war, although it is very useful for studying the ideology of what set-piece battles did take place, does not provide us with a microscope to scrutinise all ancient battle accounts. Rather, it is a distorting mirror, warping the way we study Greek warfare. Without Herodotus to lead us astray we might not have been tempted to assume a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of Greek warfare, and would have recognised that there was no ‘Greek Way of War’. Greece in the Archaic and Classical periods is best viewed as a military matrix, throwing up many variants on how heavily-armed infantry could be used in battle, with or without the assistance of cavalry, missile troops, or even ships.

University of Warwick, April 2003.

[1] Kakutani, Michiko, ‘Critic’s Notebook; How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy’, New York Times, April 5, 2003, Late Edition – Final, Section D, Page 7, Column 5.

[2] Yet wars the Greeks do wage, and, as I learn, most senselessly they do it, in their wrongheadedness and folly. When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed. Yet speaking as they do the same language, they should end this dispute by the means of herald and messengers, and by any means other than fighting; or if needs must that they war against each other, they should discover each where the strongest defence lies, and there make his essay. (Hdt. 7.9.2)

[3] Now as for these Illyrians, for those who have had no experience of them, the menace of their attack has terror; for their number is indeed dreadful to behold and the loudness of their battle-cry is intolerable, and the idle brandishing of their arms has a threatening effect. But for hand-to-hand fighting, if their opponents but endure such threats, they are not the men they seem; for having no regular order, they would not be ashamed to abandon any position when hard pressed; and since flight and attack are considered equally honourable with them, their courage cannot be put to the test. Besides, a mode of fighting in which everyone is his own master will provide a man the best excuse for saving himself becomingly. They think, too, that it is a less risky game to try to frighten you from a safe distance than to meet you hand to hand; otherwise they would not have taken this course in preference to that. And so you clearly see that all that was at first formidable about them is but little in reality, startling merely to eye and ear. If you withstand all this in the first onrush, and then, whenever opportunity offers, withdraw again in orderly array, you will the sooner reach safety, and will hereafter know that mobs like these, if an adversary but sustain their first onset, merely make a flourish of valour with threats from afar in menace of attack, but if one yields to them, they are right upon his heels, quick enough to display their courage when all is safe. (Thuc.4.126.5-6)

[4] But for my own part, while practically all the arts have made a great advance and we are living today in a very different world from the old one, I consider that nothing has been more developed and improved than the art of war. For in the first place I am informed that in those days the Lacedaemonians, like everyone else, would spend the four or five months of the summer “season” in invading and laying waste the enemy’s territory with heavy infantry and levies of citizens, and would then retire home again; and they were so old-fashioned, or rather such good citizens, that they never used money to buy an advantage from anyone, but their fighting was of the fair and open kind. But now you must surely see that most disasters are due to traitors, and none are the result of a regular pitched battle. On the other hand you hear of Philip marching unchecked, not because he leads a phalanx of heavy infantry, but because he is accompanied by skirmishers, cavalry, archers, mercenaries, and similar troops. When, relying on this force, he attacks some people that is at variance with itself, and when through distrust no one goes forth to fight for his country, then he brings up his artillery and lays siege.  I need hardly tell you that he makes no difference between summer and winter and has no season set apart for inaction. […] For so far as a campaign is concerned, provided, men of Athens, we are willing to do what is necessary, we have many advantages, such as the nature of his territory, much of which may be harried and devastated, and countless others; but for a pitched battle [agōn] he is in better training than we are. (Dem. 9.47-52)

[5] The ancients, as we know, were far removed from such malpractices. For so far were they from plotting mischief against their friends with the purpose of aggrandizing their own power, that they would not even consent to get the better of their enemies by fraud, regarding no success as brilliant or secure unless they crushed the spirit of their adversaries in open battle. For this reason they entered into a convention among themselves to use against each other neither secret missiles nor those discharged from a distance, and considered that it was only a hand-to-hand battle at close quarters that was truly decisive. Hence they preceded war by a declaration, and when they intended to do battle gave notice of the fact and of the spot to which they would proceed and array their army. But at the present they say it is a sign of poor generalship to do anything openly in war. Some slight traces, however, of the ancient principles of warfare survive among the Romans. For they make declaration of war, they very seldom use ambuscades, and they fight hand-to-hand at close quarters. (Polyb. 13.3.2-7)

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