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When Push Comes to Shove: How One Greek Hoplite Army Beat Another

Updated on May 17, 2017
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Daniel has a bachelor's degree in history and likes to focus his research on military history as well as Ancient Rome and Greece.

The Chigi Vase is from the seventh century BC and helps us better understand how Greeks fought, and is also a major source of contention among historians, however this article focuses primarily on the fourth century so the vase is a bit more accurate
The Chigi Vase is from the seventh century BC and helps us better understand how Greeks fought, and is also a major source of contention among historians, however this article focuses primarily on the fourth century so the vase is a bit more accurate | Source

Introduction

There is much debate and ambiguity about what actually happened when two Greek hoplite armies met on the battlefield in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, specifically what determined one hoplite army to win over the other. By examining the primary sources, mainly Thucydides and Xenophon, historians are able to reconstruct the basics of the battles conducted in these two centuries. However, these reconstructions and ideas on how battles were fought are highly debated among scholars. Aside from the basics themes of battle that occurred in nearly every ancient Greek battle, the purpose for the outcome and the victory of one army over another is debatable. The specifics, mainly the push (othismos) the actual formation of the phalanx and spacing, are debated among historians that generally form one of two opinions: the word othismos was either used literally and one massive push won the day, or othismos was used figurately and referred to the gradual gain and loss of ground during combat. This article will argue that Greek phalanxes were generally more open than most historians claim, and that the othismos was not one mass shove that determined the outcome of the battle, rather it was meant figuratively as the continual gaining and losing ground of an army.

The typical Greek phalanx consisted of hoplites in a mass formation with all depending on their fellow hoplites around them. The average length was about eight men deep, and cavalry and light armed troops would accompany the phalanx.
The typical Greek phalanx consisted of hoplites in a mass formation with all depending on their fellow hoplites around them. The average length was about eight men deep, and cavalry and light armed troops would accompany the phalanx. | Source

The Phalanx

We know that by now hoplite armies fought in phalanxes with each hoplite depending on the shield of the hoplite to their right to completely protect themselves as the hoplite shield covered the left half of their body more than the right. We also know that depth was an important part of the hoplite phalanx with most phalanxes being eight men deep (Thucy. 4.94, 5.68, 6.68), with some exceptions such as the Spartans at Leuctia (Xen., Hell., 6.4.12) and the Thebans and Boeotian’s who averaged twenty-five to fifty men in depth (Thucy. 4.93, Xen., Hell., 6.4.12). The depth of the phalanx served mainly to provide the ability to flank the enemy, or prevent an attack on the flank, as well as a more debated topic of pushing or replacing the frontlines. The threat of an attack on the flank, as seen in the Spartans preparation and debate on their depth before the battle of Nemea (Xen., Hell., 4.2.13), naturally paired with the fact that due to the hoplite shield’s lack in protection on the hoplite’s right side, the right wing of the phalanx was weaker. This pairing constantly played a vital role in a commander’s decision on how to conduct the battle as they would often place their best warriors on the right wing (Thucy., 5.71). This would cause armies and commanders to be extra cautious and concerned with the affairs of their right wing, which usually caused them to strengthen it to the point where nearly every army ends up overtaking the enemy’s left with their own right (Thucy., 5.71). The last aspect of ancient Greek hoplite battles that historians agree on is the importance of the victor to allow the defeated to gather their dead. This is expressively written in nearly every account of battle from Thucydides and Xenophon with the exception of the battle of Delium in which Thucydides mentions the importance of the fact that the Boeotian’s refused to allow the Athenians to gather their dead after the battle, a sacrilegious act that seemed appropriate for the Boeotian’s since the Athenians invaded their territory and sought refuge on sacred ground (Thucy., 4.97). This is the extent of which historians generally agree upon the conduct of battle between ancient Greek hoplite armies. The reasons for one army to be victorious over another are debated among scholars, however this paper will first present some tactics that gave one army an advantage, then argue that the othismos was used figuratively and that phalanxes were not as tight as some historians claim.

Orders and Tactics

Naturally the study of any battle must include a study of the tactics used by the armies involved, along with an analysis of which tactics worked and why. G.L. Cawkwell argues that battles had stages in which hoplite formations would open and close throughout the battle (Cawkwell, (1989) 375), however this argument has been heavily criticized as many historians claim that it would be impossible to coordinate and give orders to open and close a formation (Hollaway (1982) 94). While it would be nearly impossible to open and close a formation during combat, Cawkwell indicates a valid point that it was possible for orders to be given and an army to move in the midst of battle. During the battle of Mantinea in 418 BCE King Agis orders his left flank to extend further, while other troops fill in the gaps, so that they would not be outflanked (Thucy. 5.71) While the polemarches refused to obey the orders and move their men, for which they were exiled from Sparta, the very mention of Agis giving such orders, and the punishment for disobeying, shows that it was common for a leader to maneuver his forces while engaged in battle. This also shows evidence for the use of tactics and adaptability of the forces during battle. The main Greek hoplite tactic was to somehow win on the right flank, which is the most vulnerable, so that they can then surround the enemy on the enemy’s left flank. This is seen in the battle of Nemea in 394 as the Spartans extend so far that they completely engulf the Athenian left (Xen., Hell., 4.2.19-22).


Greek cavalry units carried a much longer spear for attacking infantry units at a distance, and some carried multiple spears to throw. While they were not yet shock troops, they could inflict serious damage to infantry.
Greek cavalry units carried a much longer spear for attacking infantry units at a distance, and some carried multiple spears to throw. While they were not yet shock troops, they could inflict serious damage to infantry. | Source

Cavalry

The second tactic that Greek armies used to their advantage was the use of cavalry. Generally cavalry is used to fight off other cavalry units, rather than integrating them with the overall battle as seen in the battle of Leuctra when the Theban cavalry beats the inferior Spartan cavalry at the beginning of the battle but are not mentioned again until after the battle is over (Xen., Hell., 6.4.10-14), but when armies do use cavalry against infantry units the outcome is usually favorable for that army. At the battle of Delium the Boeotians used cavalry as a shock unit when Pagondas was able to take two squadrons of cavalry unseen and charge the Athenians where they were beating the Boeotians (Thucy., 4.96). At this battle the Boeotian cavalry was also used in the more common method of cutting down those who are slow to flee. Another way Greeks used cavalry in this manner was to harass hoplites who were not in a large formation, as seen before the battle of Leuctra (Xen., Hell., 6.4.9) and during the Sicilian expedition (Thucy., 7.77).

One Big Push?

The main tactic that many historians argue was the decisive factor in hoplite battles was one mass-shove in an attempt to break through the opponent’s lines. While most, if not all, historians agree that broken ranks and disorganized hoplites are easily defeated by an intact formation, the question is whether or the word othismos, translated to push, was used by ancient writers in the literal or figurative sense. To determine if othismos was used to literally mean pushing against an enemy to break their lines, one must look at the practicality of pushing in combat. The main aspect of hoplite combat that must be taken into consideration when determining the use of othismos is how individual hoplites fought. Using figural representations as evidence for the striding stance, Hans Van Wees argues that hoplites stood at an angle with their left shoulder against their shield with their right shoulder behind them to minimize exposure to the enemy as well as provide an efficient striking stance (Van Wees (2000) 128-30). Robert Luginbill also agrees with this proposed stance, however he uses this stance as evidence that hoplites could push on the right shoulder of the hoplite in front of them to add force to the overall othismos without pushing the forward hoplite off-balance (Luginbill (1994) 53-4). However, this simply makes little sense in that pushing on the shoulder which a hoplite uses to thrust his spear would only serve to detriment his combat effectiveness as he is now constricted in his movements. Even with Luginbill’s proposed explanation, he does not explain how a hoplite would be effective with a shield being pushed into his shoulder, or back, as well as an opponent’s shield being pressed against their own shield. Realistically this would only lead to hoplites being pinned between their allies and their enemies without being able to efficiently thrust and therefore be an easy target. A more reasonable explanation is given by Van Wees as well as Peter Krentz. Both argue that hoplites most likely allowed six feet between them and the hoplites to their sides. This provided enough room for the hoplite to effectively use his weapons as well as a space small enough to prevent an opponent from getting to the hoplite’s side since they would be within spear thrusting range from the next hoplite (Van Wees (2004) 185-6) (Krentz (1985) 51-3). During his description of the battle of Mantinea Thucydides claims that “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 he will be protected” (Thucy., 5.71), however as has been shown throughout Greek history, including Homeric warfare, the situation dictates the tightness of a formation. Krentz argues that while hoplites seek protection from their neighbor they still need room to fight and defend themselves, which is why they would rely on their armor. The hoplite’s armor gave them confidence in their protection which allowed them to open their formation to six feet spacing, where Phillip’s Macedonian formations were much tighter due to a lack of armor (Krentz (1985) 52).

Modern day reenactors attempt to perform an othismos, however notice the lack of maneuverability among those in the first rank, as well as the fact that both ranks more or less dissolved and are more of a mosh pit.
Modern day reenactors attempt to perform an othismos, however notice the lack of maneuverability among those in the first rank, as well as the fact that both ranks more or less dissolved and are more of a mosh pit. | Source
Here we see a more open formation that was probably more practical since it allowed hoplites ample room to fight as well as decent protection from being a spears length away from an ally.
Here we see a more open formation that was probably more practical since it allowed hoplites ample room to fight as well as decent protection from being a spears length away from an ally. | Source

Enough Space to Push?

With the issue of spacing concluded to hoplites having an average of six feet between each other, the next issue is the purpose of depth in a formation. Aside from being flanked some historians believe that more depth provides more force for the othismos, specifically Luginbill argues that the only reason for depth is for a greater push as he argues that only the front-rank fights while the others contribute with their weight (Luginbill (1994) 55). However, Van Wees points out that if this was the only purpose of depth then the larger force would always win, which there are numerous examples disproving this such as Mantinea and Anapus River. Krentz furthers this argument by claiming that the depth of an army was to provide more spears in the fight, more bodies to replace those killed in the front ranks, which there was enough room in a formation to remove bodies from battle (Van Wees (2004) 189), as well as the psychological factor since a large force would drive fear into their opponents (Krentz (1985) 58) (Krentz (1994) 47).

Push! (Figuratively of Course)

Since spacing and weapon usage made it impractical to push against your fellow hoplite against an enemy and depth did not serve solely to apply physical pressure, it is reasonable to conclude that othismos was used by ancient historians in a figurative sense. To push in an ancient hoplite battle must refer to the gradual gaining or losing of ground. Even in the Illiad Homer used the word othismos when historians generally agree that Homeric warfare was fought in very loose formations (Homer, Illiad, 569, 655). While fourth and fifth century hoplite combat required close, hand to hand fighting, and there are references to shields being pressed against shields (Thucy., 4.96, 5.71) (Xen., Hell., 4.3.19) othismos referred to a gradual gaining of land and therefore forcing the enemy to lose land or “push” them back. This can be seen by the fact that charges conducted by armies about to clash was primarily to close distance to prevent missile fire and generally were either a fast walk or a run that ended before hoplites were in spear thrusting distance so they could reform their ranks since an open formation would be quickly defeated (Xen., Hell., 4.3.17) (Van Wees (2004) 188). Once engaged hoplites did press shields against their enemies, as shown above and by the Thessalian faint where a hoplite jumps back when pressed against therefore allowing the attacker to fall forwards (Van Wees (2004) 188), however the primary sources never allude to one mass shove, but rather mostly describe the gradual driving of an army to gain ground against an opponent. The Spartan push in the battle of Mantinea is described as an “advance” and “press” (Thucy., 5.73), the Thebans “pressed” the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra (Xen., Hell., 6.4.14), and most famously the battle of Coronea mentions shoving, head-on crashing, and breaking through (Xen., Hell., 4.3.19). Alone these examples may support one mass shove, but paired with the evidence above they show the reader that hoplite battles were determined by head on fighting between individual hoplites and once a large enough group of hoplites were successful in their individual competitions they were able to advance into the ranks of the enemy therefore “breaking their ranks” and being able to “push” them back.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Greek hoplite battles in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE were determined by tactics and the outcome of individual (one on one, two on two, three on three, etc.) head on head hoplite combat which in turn would lead to one group of hoplites effectively making their way through the ranks of their opponents and therefore pushing them back. One could even argue that routing hoplites were pushed even though they were losing ground by their own movements rather than physical pressure. The charge conducted between armies would end before shields clashed as a loose formation from disorganized running would have led to certain death, not to mention charging straight into enemies with spears awaiting a charging hoplite. The spacing between hoplites allowed enough room for the proper use of their weapons as well as a reliance on their neighbor for protection, which therefore made it near impossible to push against fellow hoplites to push back an enemy, all while effectively using their spears with a shield in their back and/or shoulder. Othismos referred to the gradual gaining ground of the winning force and the gradual retreat of the losing force as happens in every battle throughout history on land and on sea.

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