by Victor Davis Hanson
Military History Quarterly
[Delium will appear this week in a five part series: 1)The Battle, 2) The Aftermath, 3) Armor and Ranks, 4) Innovation and the Battlefield, 5) Coalition Warfare]
Part IV: Innovation and the Battlefield
The discipline of hoplite warriors allowed them to use their civilization’s highest technology and craftsmanship. The three-foot-diameter shield — sometimes known as either the aspis or hoplon — covered half the body. A unique arm grip and handgrip enabled warriors to hold its oppressive weight by their left arms alone. Draw straps along the inside of the shield’s perimeter meant that the hoplite could still retain it, if the hand were knocked from the primary grip, a common mishap given the shield weight and constant blows of massed combat. The shield’s strange concave shape permitted the rear ranks to rest their shields on their shoulders.
Anyone who has tried to hold up fifteen to twenty pounds with one arm, even without the weight of other armor, amid the rigors of battle, can attest to the exhaustion that sets in after only twenty minutes. Yet, the hoplite shield was an engineering marvel: the round shape allowed it to be rotated in almost any direction even as the sloped surface provided more wood protection from the angled trajectory of incoming spear points.
Worse than the weight of such arms and armament was the sight of hundreds of enemy spear points approaching, which ancient authors sometimes compared to the bristles of a hedgehog. That sea of oncoming iron explains why such an unusually large shield was necessary, as well as the peculiar need for the ranks and files to be compact and dense, to deflect jabs from all angles and directions. Again, the aim was not to rack up kills through individual prowess — the polis Greeks deprecated those who kept such scores, such as the Carthaginians, as “barbarians” — but to keep the spear level, the shield high, and the body in rank, and then to defend, push, and kill anonymously, as the collective body moved ahead in rank and formation.
Still, there were grave problems with the round shield. Its circular, rather than rectangular, shape ensured that the body was not entirely protected: every soldier by instinct needed to lean to his right to find cover in the left part of his neighbor’s shield.
To kill and maim, the hoplite depended on his spear. Should the shaft break, he might turn around what was left of its nine-foot length to employ the reverse end, which was outfitted with a bronze spike, sometimes called a “lizarder” (saurotêr). Some hoplites stumbled and fell, only to be stomped on by oncoming infantry who slammed their upraised spears downward, the butt-spike providing the coup de grâce as it smashed through the unfortunate fallen man’s back plate.
Hoplites carried a small iron sword in case the spear was lost altogether. Vase-paintings often show broken shafts; references to “hand-to-hand” fighting at Delium probably meant slashing with swords or stabbing with butt-spikes. Because of the congested nature of the fighting, hoplites were hit repeatedly from all sides. However, lethal strikes were mostly aimed at the unprotected groin and neck. Wearing hoplite armor in battle was in some sense the equivalent of placing bull’s eyes over one’s unprotected throat and genitalia.
At Delium, Pagondas’ spirited hoplites thought they could best their adversaries without being flanked, with the assurance that cavalry and rough ground protected the margins of the battlefield. The modern military dilemma of column or line, depth in contrast to breadth (or power versus maneuver), also first arose in the Greeks’ search at battles like Delium for the proper ratio within their phalanxes. The problem remained unsolved well into the nineteenth century, as Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo tore apart the massed ranks of the French Old Guard.
Those who stacked deep, like the Syracusans and Thebans, in the manner of the later Macedonians, usually had superior cavalry to guard their exposed long files. In the same manner, George S. Patton repeatedly urged his division commanders to plow ahead without worrying about their flanks; but then he was protected by superior air support, the modern equivalent of cavalry.
If the hoplite kept his nerve and formation with his fellow fighters, then his seventy pounds of armor and the length of his spear made the hoplite on level ground invulnerable to cavalry charges and skirmishers alike. Even in the most desperate circumstances, his line was impenetrable to any but other hoplites, as long as every man (a parastatês or “one who stands side-by-side in rank”) did not waver and held his shield up and his spear out. At Delium the nearly twenty thousand unarmed or lightly armed auxiliary fighters dared not attack either side’s phalanx while in formation. When the victorious Athenians on the right ran from the sudden appearance of cavalry behind the hills of Delium, it was largely on the impression that it presaged the arrival of another infantry army.
Hoplites marched out screaming the war cry eleleu! or alala! Blinded by the dust and their own cumbersome helmets that had no cutouts for the ears, they stabbed away with their spears, and in unison pushed on ahead with their shields, sometimes grabbing, kicking, and biting, desperately hoping to make some inroad into the enemy’s phalanx. Dust, the crowded conditions of the battlefield, and crested helmets with small eye slots would have limited vision severely. Usually, they had little idea whom, if anyone, they had killed or wounded. Mistaken identity was commonplace, as troops lacked distinctive uniforms or insignia.
Usually, within an hour the pushing (ôthismos) ceased, as one side collapsed and then fled the field. The exhausted victors stripped and returned the dead, and erected an ostentatious trophy as testament to their prowess. Often they annexed the disputed territory from the defeated. There are no instances of two-day pitched battles in the manner of a Shiloh or Gettysburg, much less a weeks- or months-long holocaust like a Somme or Verdun. Instead, a Solygia, Delium, Mantinea, or the fight outside Syracuse was probably over in a few minutes. During some 27 years of war, Greek hoplites fought in pitched battles probably no more than four or five hours in the aggregate.
Terms of deprecation like “leaving the ranks” (lipostratia) and “trembler/fleer” (tresas) referred to those who fled the phalanx or showed manifest signs of fright. The classical Greek language had in addition at least two specific terms of aspersion just for jettisoning the hoplite shield — rhipsaspis (“shield-tosser”) and apobolimaios (“throw-awayer”) — an act that threatened the integrity of the phalanx and revealed the hoplite’s worry about his own survival, rather than the group’s. These public slurs were serious and they stuck, haunting a man for the rest of his life. Aristophanes in his comedies was merciless to the Athenian popular leader Cleonymus, who tossed away his shield to save his life at Delium. Three years after the battle, his infamy had become a stale joke, repeated ad nauseam in front of several thousand Athenian theatergoers.
In the same manner, the young Plato was probably ashamed that his stepfather Pyrilampes had also run at the first sign of trouble at Delium and was captured by (and later ransomed from) the Boeotians. In contrast, his teacher Socrates’ fortitude became a subject of table talk for an entire generation at Athenian dinner parties.
Panic and fear were ubiquitous on the battlefield, given the curtailment of sight and hearing, and the ever-present danger of panic among such large mobs. Rampant slaughter could on occasion occur, but careful analysis reveals an economy in pitched fighting. The real killing occurred well off the hoplite battlefield. Throughout the entire war, Athens lost little more on average than two hundred hoplites a year. Of the 5,470 hoplites who died fighting, the vast majority fell in skirmishes, sieges, and at sea, not in hoplite battle; and that total was less than half that of those heavy infantrymen who perished from the plague alone.
If hoplite battle was a story of each right wing winning as its left lost, then total victory was determined only by a second phase of the battle — by how quickly and effectively the triumphant right could turn a hard left and hit its counterpart in the flank. Sometimes such a collision could lead to only more death and stalemate as the two best wings slammed head-on and found their adversaries a different sort of folk from the inferior troops whom they had each just routed.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson