Delium: The Battle Only One Man Wanted–Part III

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 III: The Armor and Ranks

What was the carnage like in battles like Delium? Enemy or ally, Pagondas’ Boeotians or Hippocrates’ Athenian hoplites all alike donned helmets, breastplates, and greaves that were hammered out of bronze, reaching a thickness of about a quarter-inch to half an inch, providing substantial protection from the blows of most swords, missiles, and spears but at a terrible cost in weight, discomfort, and heat. Thousands on both sides of the battle line owned almost identical armor.

The entire ensemble might cost a citizen-soldier well over a hundred drachmas. That was the equivalent to about three months’ wages. Later in the war, small factories — like the shield-works in Athens run by the family of orator Lysias — could turn out the standard wooden elements of the panoply en masse. As the war became more desperate in its second and third decades, the old idea of hanging up inherited ancestral arms over the hearth was becoming passé; the state armed thousands of the poor, regardless of their particular social status. Most fighters now fought as skirmishers or marines rather than traditional hoplites arrayed in the formal ranks of the phalanx. Sometimes hoplites ditched the breastplate and Corinthian helmet altogether. Instead, many wore conical caps (piloi) and leather jerkins and fought increasingly against lightly armed troops rather than other hoplites in pitched battle.

Surviving examples of either wooden shield cores, or the thin bronze veneers that went over the wood — at the Vatican museum, the Athenian agora, and the sanctuary at Olympia — reveal real craftsmanship, reflecting pride in private ownership, as well as the small size and stature of the wearers. Until the Peloponnesian War, owners donned armor mostly only in times of national muster. The panoply’s weight and design made them almost useless for hunting or skirmishing, or for much of anything other than pitched battle.

But individual soldiers who put on all the hoplite’s armor in addition to their heavy shields were cumbersome, often easily surrounded and ambushed by those quicker and lighter-clad, who in the bargain gained some psychological satisfaction from killing their hoplite betters. Some of the most notable of Athenians, for example, the generals Cleon, Laches, and Lamachus, were killed wearing heavy armor when fighting in fluid formation or in retreat, most probably by skirmishers or peltasts.

Since the advent of gunpowder, moderns have tended to deprecate the idea of body armor. The fiery offensive arts have for some six centuries overshadowed the much older sway of personal defense, so much so that surviving panoplies in modern museums seem ridiculous to the modern eye. Nevertheless, the age-old tension between attack and defense is not static. Only recently has an emphasis on body armor returned, as scientists at last have discovered combinations of synthetic fibers, plastics, ceramics, and metals that can withstand even the onslaught of high-velocity, metal alloy bullets and shrapnel fragments that can strike the body with incredible force and numbers. Ironically, the catalysts for Kevlar helmets, bulletproof vests, and assorted insertable ceramic plates are somewhat similar to those that led to heavily armored hoplites: such protection can save lives, and the value of each combatant is now prized in a way not true of previous wars of the twentieth century.

The grotesque shield insignias, the incised artwork on the bronze breastplates and greaves, and the masklike appearance of the horsehaired crested helmets all indicate that elements in the drama of hoplite battle were almost eerily ostentatious. Certainly, the equipment only heightened the psychological terror of the formal meeting of two phalanxes. Recall that both like-armed armies formed up in similar columns, stared at each other across the battlefield, and lowered spears on command. Panic could scatter columns before battle even began.

For that very reason, the Spartans polished their bronze shield veneers to a high shine, wore long scarlet cloaks, draped their oiled and braided hair over their shoulders, and painted bright lambdas (for Lacedaemon [or Sparta]) on their shields. It was a stunning visual effect if one can believe ancient accounts that enemies sometimes turned tail and ran rather than endure their slow, measured march to the killing zone, to the music of pipes. Even when surprised by the sudden appearance of a large enemy coalition force, as at Mantinea, the Spartans never lost their nerve. There they walked right into the enemy wall of spears, quite in contrast to the noisy “sound and fury” of their adversaries.

In the actual fighting, the hoplite depended on the man next to him to shield his own unprotected right side and to maintain the cohesion of the entire phalanx. Throughout his history, Thucydides makes the point that close-ordered ranks offered mutual protection — implying that rote technique was critical since men were not freelancing as individual warriors but knew that their own spearing needed always to be done in concert. Later writers stressed the importance of agility that might be formally learned by mastering set moves and war dances, but we are still not sure whether such individual skills were advocated for the pursuit or retreat, or simply to help hoplites attack within the confines of ranks and files.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any other form of fighting in which so much rested on the support of the men in the ranks. When the Spartan general Brasidas invaded Illyria in 423 B.C., he reminded his hoplites that their discipline and interdependence made them far more formidable warriors than the bellowing barbarian rabble they faced. Thucydides credits Brasidas with thinking the Greeks differed from the barbarians precisely in the manner in which they preferred to fight, as if their group discipline on the battlefield was the dividend of Hellenic civilization. The Illyrians, Brasidas scoffed to his men, “are not what they seem” since they “have no regular order” and are no different from “mobs.”

Of these supposedly preeminent Greek warriors, the Spartans were by far the best. Their domination was not due to their physical strength (here the agrarian Thebans were far more formidable), numbers (Athens could field more hoplites), or equipment (shields and body armor were almost uniform in size, shape, and construction the Greek world over). Instead, the Spartan mystique was a product of singular discipline, organization, and the ability to stay in rank. Order was a premium quality when the typical hoplite of the phalanx was subject to tremendous pressures from every direction. Men were pushing at his back, comrades in line were crowding him to the right, and rows in front presented an impenetrable obstacle. Buffeted by the force of armored bodies, the hoplite also dodged incoming enemy iron, the sharp bronze spear-butts of friends in front bobbing in his face, and razor-sharp spear points of the ranks to the rear darting over his neck and shoulders. All the while he trudged over fallen wounded and dead hoplites, friend and foe, often both sons and fathers.

Our present-day notion of Western military discipline — marching in time, advancing and retreating on command, preserving formation, and finding mutual protection within files and ranks — started with the Greek phalanx, was passed on through the Roman legions, and survived in medieval Swiss, Spanish, and Italian columns and tercios of pikemen to find its way into the gunpowder age with European mastery of drill and volley fire.

With the onset of firearms, the Europeans had the prerequisite traditions to use guns most effectively in cohesive masses, firing in unison and in accordance with group protocols. That legacy from the Greeks, of defining courage as staying in rank rather than counting individual kills, seems to have been as important for the survival of the Western tradition as the much more heralded ideas of democracy and rationalism, although that heritage is for the most part underappreciated today.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This