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A Proposed Alternative to the Hoplite Debate


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This is a paper I wrote for a class in Ancient Mediterranean History. I examine the "hoplite debate" as described by Donald Kagan in "Men of Bronze" and recommend an alternative approach that combines the points of the orthodox and revisionists.

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A Proposed Alternative to the Hoplite Debate

  1. 1. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 1 A Proposed Alternative to the Hoplite Debate Mike Lally February 17, 2014 Empire State College Professor Denise Kawasaki History of the Ancient Mediterranean
  2. 2. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 2 A Proposed Alternative to the Hoplite Debate Since the establishment of a “hoplite orthodoxy” by George Grote in 1846 in his work: A History of Greece, a great debate has been waged by supporters of the “grand narrative” of the hoplite orthodoxy and those who seek to revise the thesis. Interestingly, both sides use the same original source material and archaeological findings to support their positions. I will explain both sides of the hoplite debate by briefly tracing each sides’ genesis and current evolution. I will focus on the most current scholarly work from each side most notably Victor Davis Hanson for the orthodoxy and Hans Van Wees for the revisionists. I will explain and highlight the source material and artwork both camps reference. Lastly, I will suggest an alternative approach that combines the work of Hanson and Van Wees and argue the term “revolution” is where the two camps being to entrench. I believe there was a gradual but continuously iterative change in hoplite arms, armor, adoption of the phalanx, an increase in wealth, a rise of a middling or middle class farmer, improvements in farming techniques and shifts from pasture farming to arable farming. The combination of these elements led to increases in political power of a new economic class, the middling farmer, and a rise of the polis in Ancient Greece. For the purpose of this paper, I will accept the definition of the hoplite orthodoxy detailed by Donald Kagan and Gregory F. Viggiano in their introductory chapter of Men of Bronze. The orthodoxy defines the early Greek polis as the result of a sudden change or “revolution” in military equipment and tactics which drove social and political “revolutions” in Greece. The authors state, “A central part of the thesis is that the change in fighting style was directly related to recent innovations in arms and armor. Second, the phalanx depended on the weight and the cohesion of heavily armed men who employed “shock” tactics in brief but decisive battles.
  3. 3. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 3 Third, it has been critical to identify the greatest number of hoplites with a middling group within the polis, which had the wealth to provide its own arms. Fourth, this middling group transformed Greek values.” (Kagan and Viggiano 2013, 1). It is curious and somewhat frustrating that historians and archaeologists on both sides of the orthodox debate reference the same source material in support of their arguments. They use Herodotus’ speech to Xerxes from General Mardonis’; Thucydides’ description of the Battle of Mantinea and Tyrtaeus’ military elegies to the Spartans. Both sides also reference the fighting style present in Homer’s Iliad to show the contrast between one on one battles between Heroic champions or duels of the Archaic Period versus the style of massed, close order formations in the Classical Period. The hoplite orthodoxy use Homer to show a clear break-point from a Heroic style of fighting as illustrated in one on one duels between champions to a more massed formation i.e. hoplite style of fighting. Homer describes massed fighting in Book 13. “Here were the best picked men detached in squads to stand the Trojan charge and shining Hector: a wall of them bulked together, spear-by-spear, shield-by-shield, helm-to-helm, man-to-man massed tight and the horsehair crests on glittering helmet horns brushed as they tossed their heads, the battalions bulked so dense, shoulder-to-shoulder close, and the spears they shook in daring hands packed into jagged lined of battle - .” (Iliad 13.152-159). To argue against the existence of the phalanx, the revisionists cite from Book 7: “He hurled – his spear’s long shadow flew and it struck Ajax’ shield, that awesome seven-layered buckler, right on the eighth, the outside layer of bronze that topped it off, through six hides it tore but the seventh stopped the relentless brazen point.” (Illiad 7:286-290)
  4. 4. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 4 As mentioned above, Herodotus writes of a conversation between General Mardonis and Xerxes in which Mardonis advises Xerxes on the fighting style of the Greeks: “And yet, I am told, these very Greeks are wont to wage wars against one another in the most foolish way, through sheer perversity and doltishness. For no sooner is war proclaimed than they search out the smoothest and fairest plain that is to be found in all the land, and there they assemble and fight; whence it comes to pass that even the conquerors depart with great loss : I say nothing of the conquered, for they are destroyed altogether.” (Herodotus 7.9) The orthodox accept this as a clear reference to hoplites and their tactics. Thucydides provides a comprehensive view of hoplite battle in his descriptions of the battle of Mantinea. The battle pitted Spartans against an alliance of Athens, Argos, Mantinea and Elis in 418 BC. Thucydides describes the opposing sides marching across the battle field: “After this they joined battle, the Argives and their allies advancing with haste and fury, the Spartans slowly and to the music of many flute players – a standing institution in their army, that has nothing to do with religion, but is meant to make them advance evenly, stepping in time, without breaking their order, as large armies are apt to do in the moment of engaging.” (Thucydides 5.70.2). The author continues, “All armies are alike in this: on going into action they get forced out rather on their right wing, and one and the other overlap with this their adversary’s left; because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next to him on the right, thinking that the closer the shields are locked together, the better will he be protected.” (Thucydides 5.71.1) The Spartan poet, Tyrtaeus, sings of the hoplite phalanx in his War Songs: “See, see, dismayed, the phalanx of the foe turns round, and hurries o'er the plain afar: while doubling, as afresh, the deadly blow, he rules, intrepid chief, the waves of war.” (Documents of the Hoplite
  5. 5. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 5 Revolution). And from his Spartan Creed, both sides in the debate reference the following selections: “For no man ever proves himself a good man in war unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter, go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.” And: “and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten, and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure, and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him. Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war. With a sudden rush he turns to flight the rugged battalions of the enemy, and sustains the beating waves of assault.” And lastly: “with wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing has transfixed that massive guard of his shield, and gone through his breastplate as well,” (The Norton Book of Classical Literature, 209). There are many archaeological findings that both sides reference to support their arguments on dating the hoplite revolution. In the case of the revisionists, they use the artwork to prove a gradual adoption of the arms and armor of the hoplite. There is a Protocorinthian aryballos from Perachora dated to around 650 BC. Lead figurines depicting Spartan hoplites were found in a Santuary of Artemis Orthia which are dated from 700 to 635 BC. Lastly, there is the Chigi Vase.
  6. 6. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 6 Discovered in 1881 in an Etruscan tomb, the Chigi vase is believed to be from the period of 650 – 640 BC. One of the friezes on the vase clearly depict a hoplite battle. The painting shows two opposing sides meeting just before the first clash or push or othismos, as Victor Davis Hanson’s refers to it, begins. The orthodox supporters argue that the painting presents a strong case for revolution or “sudden change.” The revisionist camps question the panoply. The hoplites carry two spears like a Homeric fighter. Swords are not represented. The painting also raises questions about the ranking of troops. It is not clear if the vase clearly shows a second rank or if the artist was simply trying to indicate many troops. A large focus of the orthodox view centers on the adoption of the large, double-grip hoplite shield. This type of shield protected the wearer’s left side but exposed his right flank. Thucydides refers to this when he writes about each man edging to the right as he marches to protect that flank as much as possible. The adoption of the shield essentially forced the adoption of the phalanx style of fighting. The phalanx was close-order, massed ranks of heavy infantry smashing into each other in order to exploit a gap or break in the line of the enemy. George Grote was the father of the Greek hoplite orthodox. Grote drew a distinction between hoplites fighting in close-order battle and the heroes of Homer who generally fought at long range. He referenced Thucydides’ Battle of Mantinea but did not feel Homer was relevant to his argument. He argues that along with a revolution in military equipment and tactics there was a civil revolution. Grote writes, “we pass from Herakles, Theseus, Jason, Achilles, to Solon, Pythagoras, and Perikles – from the ‘shepherd of his people,’ (to use the phrase in which Homer Figure 1 source: gal_aow_chigi_vase.jpg
  7. 7. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 7 depicts the good side of the heroic king,) to the legislator who introduces, and the statesman, who maintains, a pre-concerned system by which willing citizens consent to bind themselves.” (Grote II, 107). Grote also pointed to an emergence and rise of a new social-class – the “middling farmer.” In 1947, H.L. Lorimer, in her book, The Hoplite Phalanx with Special Reference to the Poems of Archilochus and Tyrtaeus, fully formed the Hoplite orthodox according to Kagan and Viggiano. The emergence of the hoplite shield with a central arm band (porpax) and hand grip (antilabe) caused an immediate change in tactics. This new type of double-grip shield required the tactics of a close formation. Lorimer based her thesis on the paintings on the Chigi vase. Two books written by Victor Davis Hanson analyze the orthodox side of the hoplite debate: The Western Way of War and The Other Greeks. In The Western Way of War, Hanson contemplates the change in fighting style from the Homeric age to the hoplite age. He agrees that hoplites were middling farmers and were fighting for and over farmland. They needed to protect the crops. Hanson takes it a step further, “The rationale of Greek battle between heavy infantry of the classical period cannot be that it was preventative to agricultural catastrophe but, rather, we must consider that it arose as a provocation or reaction to the mere threat of farm attack.” (Hanson 1989, 4). Hanson supports the idea that the new arms and armor of the hoplite mandated the need for the tactical phalanx. He argues against the revisionist idea of loosely formed troops that used their new shield to protect their right sides. To Hanson, the tactic was to smash a line of heavily armed men into the enemy’s line of similarly equipped infantry and achieve a push back or develop a tear in the enemy’s ranks. He presents four reasons why the first seconds of an ancient Greek battle resulted in a collision of soldiers running at each other. First, the men had no choice.
  8. 8. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 8 Eight (at least) ranks of heavily armored men on the run creates its own momentum. If you stop, you will be trampled by the men behind you. Second, the double-grip shield provided a very strong sense of safety. Hanson quotes Tyrtaeus regarding the safety of the shield – “his chest and his shoulders under the hollowed-out protection of his broad shield. (Tyrtaeus 11.24). Third, a possibility existed of missing an enemy’s shield and penetrating a small gap. This would give the hoplite the opportunity to get into the deeper ranks and cause mayhem. Lastly, there was the thought that the individual hoplite was running, smashing and pushing with people he knew. He stood in the line with his neighbor and brother. He could not let the group down. One of the most debated ideas that Hanson presents considers what happened after the initial clash of troops. He writes, “the initial collision of men and subsequent hand-to-hand fighting soon gave way to the othismos, the “push” of shields, as one side eventually achieved a breakthrough, allowing its troops to force their way on into and through the enemy’s phalanx.” (Hanson 1989, 169). Revisionists debate the existence of othismos and contend that fighters stood closer to 6 feet apart versus the tightly packed three feet needed for the linkage on shields presented by the phalanx. Hanson cites many ancient sources who wrote of the “push” including Xenophon, Thucydides, Herodotus, Polybius, Arrian, Plutarch and more. Hanson cites Thucydides summarizing hoplite battle as a “push of shields” (Thucydides 4.96.2) (Hanson 1989, 173). Hanson feels that the real social, political, economic and military issues in Ancient Greece were always concerning land. In his book, The Other Greeks, Hanson supports the ideas from the orthodoxy that the hoplites came from an expanding class of middling farmers and became a force that affected socio-political change i.e. the rise of the polis. However, as in The Western Way of War, he develops new ideas and in many ways, sets the tone for future debate.
  9. 9. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 9 Hanson ties the hoplite revolution to what Kagan and Viggiano refer to as an “agrarian renaissance” (Kagan and Viggiano 2013, 32). Hanson describes this renaissance happening towards the end of the Dark Age (8th century) where the was a population increase that was most likely supported by the following: “(1) a quiet revolution in agricultural technique and rural social organization in general, (2) an incorporation of new technologies and crop species, (3) an intensification of labor, or (4) – perhaps most likely – all three factors, which could coalesce to increase food production, and hence provide the prosperity needed to ensure that a new economic class, the independent small farmer, would be a permanent, rather than a transitory, fixture on the Greek landscape.” (Hanson 1995, 41). Hanson feels this agrarian revolution drove the military revolution of the creation of the hoplite phalanx. He rejects the theory that the phalanx followed the adoption of the panoply. He uses the references to mass combat in Homer’s Iliad to support his claim that the tactics of the phalanx existed before the complete adoption of the hoplite equipment. It is interesting that Hanson rejects both the gradualists and sudden change theorists but adopts his own take on the gradualist position. The revisionists argue against all aspects of the orthodox. They do not believe there was a sudden adoption of the panoply. Therefore, they do not believe in the sudden appearance of the phalanx tactics. They do not support the thinking of a rise of a middling class of citizen soldiers that gave rise to the polis. Many revisionists support a gradualist position on the adoption of the panoply and consequently the phalanx tactics. Gradualists also question the political role hoplites played in the rise of the polis. One of the original revisionists to the orthodoxy is Anthony Snodgrass. According to Kagan and Viggiano, “the first sustained challenge to the orthodoxy come with Anthony
  10. 10. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 10 Snodgrass’ seminal work from the 1960’s.” (Kagan and Viggiano, 2013, 35). In his work, The Hoplite Reform and History, Snodgrass weighs all the literary and artistic evidence and concluded “that the adoption of the ‘hoplite panoply’ was a long drawn out, piecemeal process, which did not at first entail any radical change in tactics.” (Snodgrass 1965, 110). Snodgrass dates a fully developed phalanx at 650 BC. By doing this, he eliminates the hoplite citizen soldier from having any impact in the rise of the polis. He concludes, “the Greek hoplite entered history as an individual warrior, probably in most cases an aristocrat. The adoption of the phalanx meant that he was joined by men, for the most part substantial land-owners, who had come not to seek a way to political power nor by any wish of their own, but because they were compelled to. These men, however stout-hearted as warriors, are not likely to have become, all at once, a revolutionary force in politics.” (Snodgrass 1965, 122). Snodgrass does not accept the “sudden change” theory of the orthodoxy. He accepts the creation and growth of a class of middling farmers. But he does not feel they were a political force. “Hoplites, in short, were an instrument before they became a force.” (Snodgrass 1965, 122). Hans Van Wees takes the lead in the current revisionist debate. In The Homeric Way of War: The ‘Iliad’ and the Hoplite Phalanx (I and II), Van Wees argues for the reduced role of the phalanx as an instrument of military and therefore political change. In a footnote to Part II, he concludes: “I do not believe that the introduction of the double-grip shield greatly accelerated the growth of the phalanx formation.” (Van Wees 1995, 155 note 100). Van Wees analyzes the use of weapons in the Iliad and Attic Geometric vase paintings to prove his conclusion that the transition of the adoption of the phalanx happened over a long period of time and was much slower. He does not recognize a clear cut (sudden) break between the styles of the Homeric champions and the hoplites. For example, regarding spear thrusts versus spear casts there are 79
  11. 11. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 11 mentions of thrusts or 38.3% of total spear usage versus 87 spear casts mentioned or 42.2% of total spear usage. (Van Wees 1995, 144). Van Wees attempts to explain the fighting styles represented in the Iliad by supporting the idea that Homeric champions actually used arms and armor similar to that of the hoplites but used them in an open formation. He concluded that both heroic fighters and massed infantry are present in Homer. Champions pick out other champions to fight while the open order infantry skirmish about throwing spears, javelins or stones. According to Van Wees, open order and closed order fighting happened simultaneously. Van Wees does offer somewhat of a compromise regarding hoplites. He allows for the presence of massed fighting of both styles – Homeric and hoplite. However, he dates the shift to the phalanx to after the 7th century. This effectively supports the revisionist argument that there could not have been a shift in power from aristocrats to a rising middling farmer class. Kagan and Viggiano summarize Van Wees position: “Mass combat did not lead to political changes.” (Kagan and Viggiano 2013, 46). There was no hoplite-led political revolution. Van Wees cites two of the surviving fragments of poetry by Tyrtaeus to prove that the poet was not writing about a phalanx. First, “those who dare go into close range and towards the front line fighters, while staying together, die in smaller numbers” (F II.11-13) is used to support Van Wees’ concept of both heroic fighters and massed infantry being present at the same time on the battlefield. Van Wees also uses Tyrtaeus to draw a connection between the types of massed fighting Homer describes, “And you, light-armed, squatting under a shield here and there, must throw great rocks and hurl smooth javelins while you stand close by the heavy-armed.” (F II. 35- 8). Van Wees argues that fighting took place at close range and long range at the same time.
  12. 12. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 12 Van Wees does concede the idea that an agrarian revolution took place as Hanson argues. However, he places it in the 3rd century BC – two centuries later than Hanson. This supports his theory that there was no rise of a hoplite middling class farmer that gained more and more political power and affected a change in the style of government. In the introduction to Men of Bronze, Kagan and Viggiano wrote they had hoped to conclude the orthodox debate definitively with all parties accepting one side or the other. The reality is that both sides dug themselves in deeper to their positions. I propose a third option that merges both sides of the debate together. First, I would like to drop the term “revolution” along with the “sudden change” approach. Second, I would like to accept the term “evolution”. There was gradual change taking place over hundreds of years. It started with the collapse of the Mycenean kings/beginning of the Dark Age and ended with the Macedonian Phalanx. Lastly, I suggest we examine an iterative approach. If we accept the type of combat Van Wees feels was taking place in the Iliad, that of both open and closed order fighting happening at the same time, we can start each iteration by saying that over time, fighters gradually moved from the common ranks of skirmishers to the front ranks or promachoi. As they gradually adopted the double grip shield and other pieces of the panoply, they gradually started adopting hoplite close order battle tactics. First, one Homeric champion fought next to his brother in arms. Two heroic champions fighting side by side lead to a third and then to a fourth until fully ranked heavy infantry were fighting in a phalanx. In order to afford the cost of the hoplite panoply, new wealth had to be created. This wealth was being created by a new economic class, the independent middling farmer. As farming techniques increased as Hanson describes, new wealth was being generated. More wealth
  13. 13. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 13 allowed for the purchase of armor and double grip shields. More double-grip shields lead to more and more infantry closing ranks and developing the phalanx tactics. Along with wealth creation and the honor of the placement in the ranks of the promachoi came voting rights. The hoplite was a combination of militia man, business man and voter. This The rise of the hoplite farmer lead to changes in the political structure and the rise of the polis. This process was constantly iterating over the course of a few hundred years. New wealth lead to new hoplites which lead to deeper ranks of phalanx and a voice in government for the middle class. This iterative cycle continued over and over again until the arrival of the Macedonian sarissa phalanx of Alexander. Figure 2 Iterative Hoplite Cycle Pressures on Land Use Evolutions in farming techniques creation and growth of the middling farmer class wealth creation increase adoption of hoplite panoply increase in usage of double- grip sheild infantrymen closing ranks phalanx militia man, businessm an, voter rise of the polis
  15. 15. A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE TO THE HOPLITE DEBATE 15 References “Documents of The Hoplite Revolution, c. 750 - 650 BCE” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. . Accessed January 31, 2014. Grote, George. 1846. A History of Greece. New York. Hanson, Victor Davis. 1989. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Knopf. Hanson, Victor Davis. 1995. The Other Greeks. Free Press. Herodotus. 1992. The Histories of Herodotus. Everyman’s Library. Homer. 1990. The Iliad. Penguin Classics. Kagan, Donald and Viggiano Gregory F. 2013. Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece. Princeton University Press. Knox, Bernard. 1993. The Norton Book of Classical Literature. Norton. Snodgrass, Anthony. 1965. The Hoplite Reform and History,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 85. Accessed January 12, 2014. Strassler, Robert B. 1996. The Landmark Thucydides. Free Press. Van Wees, Hans. 1994. The Homeric Way of War: The ‘Iliad’ and the Hoplite Phalanx (I). Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 41, No. 1. Cambridge University Press. Accessed January 23, 2014. Van Wees, Hans. 1994. The Homeric Way of War: The ‘Iliad’ and the Hoplite Phalanx (II). Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 41, No. 2. Cambridge University Press. Accessed January 24, 2014.