When I first began reading of the ancient world as a child, I was mystified by the collapse of the Greek city-states and the fall of Rome. How could such a thing come to pass? It seemed perfectly reasonable that Egypt, Sumer, and the Hittite kingdom should have come and gone, but not Periclean Athens or Caesar’s Rome. Even today, when I occasionally teach an ancient-history class, I do not begin to identify with the peoples I am lecturing about until I get to Greece. “Then, suddenly, I see Western man. Ever since I was old enough to read, to imagine, to long for adventure, I saw myself standing with Leonidas at Thermopylae or shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow hoplites at Marathon, fighting the Persians. I never saw myself standing with the Egyptians to repel the Hyksos invaders or locked in battle alongside my fellow Sumerians against the dreaded Amorites. My Greek heroes should not have followed the path of these other peoples. But they did. Their very success eventually caused them to become expansionist and imperialist, and their reach finally exceeded their grasp.
Despite the great contributions of the Egyptians and the Sumerians, for me it all begins with the Greeks. This is not as bold an assertion as it sounds, even in today’s climate of multiculturalism and hypersensitivity. Try reading the quintessential example of early Mesopotamian literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a strange tale—parts of which could be the product of a bad hallucination. I doubt many will identify with Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Utnapishtim. Then pick up the Iliad and the Odyssey. Instantly, you are transported back in time to the Peloponnese, to the Aegean, to Troy. We not only recognize Achilles, Patroclus, and Odysseus; we know them. Western man has arrived. So, too, have honor, courage, devotion, duty, loyalty, and justice. Not that these virtues were entirely absent from the cultures of earlier peoples; but they certainly were not the cynosure that they became among the Greeks.
The Greeks developed what has been called the Western way of war—a collision of soldiers on an open plain in a magnificent display of courage, skill, physical prowess, honor, and fair play, and a concomitant repugnance for decoy, ambush, sneak attacks, and the involvement of noncombatants. A battle is a test of brains and brawn and guts, but within parameters designed to emphasize honor and to protect the innocent. Said Alexander the Great when he was advised to launch a surprise night attack against the Persians: “The policy which you are suggesting is one of bandits and ttheves, the only purpose of which is deception. I cannot allow my glory always to be diminished by Darius’ absence, or by narrow terrain, or by tricks of night. I am resolved to attack openly and by daylight. I choose to regret my good fortune rather than be ashamed of my victory.”
There was also no honor for the Greeks in fighting from afar. An archer or a javelin thrower who launched his weapon from a great distance was not held in high esteem, because he could kill with little risk to himself. Only those who clashed with sword or spear, defying death and disdaining retreat, were honorable.
The surrender of the surviving Spartans at Pylos during the Peloponnesian War says much about the Greek attitude. Under Demosthenes, the Athenians won a great victory, partly by the use of javelin throwers and archers who killed dozens of Spartans. One Spartan survivor said that arrows would be worth a great deal if they could pick out the brave men from the cowards. Without question, the indiscriminate manner of death from distant warriors left the Spartans bitter; this was not a fight of real men. Plutarch says that a battlefield death was of no concern to a Spartan unless “it was caused by a cowardly bow.” In the Iliad, Diomedes says to Paris: “If you were to make trial of me in strong combat with weapons, your bow would do you no good at all nor your close-showered arrows.” Strabo, a first-century A.D. geographer, records seeing an ancient inscribed pillar which forbade the use of arrows or missiles of any kind on the battlefield.
By the beginning of the seventh century B.C;., the Greeks of the city-states had firmly established their manner of battle. By mutual agreement, heavily armed and slow-moving infantry, massed together in formation, sought battle on an open plain to determine victory or defeat in a few bloody hours. This meant that the hoplite class, the armored warrior, became all-important. This also meant that war would be conducted mostly by the middle class, not by horse-mounted aristocrats whose cavalry would play a very secondary role or by poor folk who could not afford to supply their own weapons and armor as required.
Hoplite battle was brutal and personal. Armed and armored hoplites advanced in their phalanxes and fought to the death. their battlefields were scenes of furious fighting and carnage that usually consumed not more than an hour or two. Every man was pushed to the limits of his physical and psychological endurance—and then it was over, not to be repeated for a year or more.
The hoplites went into battle not for fear of punishment or in hopes of plunder and booty, as did the subject peoples of the Oriental empires. The hoplites were the middle class of the Greek city-states who owned property—usually farms—and voted. They fought to defend their liberties and home and hearth. They fought side by side with neighbors, brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins. They were related by race, blood, language, religion, and tradition, and by property ownership and democracy. This meant that they did their utmost to demonstrate courage, side by side with their comrades, and that they had a vested interest in the outcome—they stood to lose everything. A loss for subject peoples, on the other hand, often meant simply a change of rulers. Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, said that the hoplites “would rather perish in resistance than find salvation through submission.”
Greek citizens were called up for military service from the city-state’s muster role, beginning at age 18. They remained eligible for duty until they reached 60. It was not unusual for men in their 30’s and 40’s to serve as frontline hoplites. No less a figure than Socrates served in several wars, fighting well into his 40’s. He fought his last battle at Delion in 424 B.C. when he was 46 years old. He was one of the few who held his ground and avoided the general panic during the Athenian defeat.
The Greeks thought that a man was at his physical peak in his ?0’s. The Armenian lawgiver and statesman Solon called that the age when “every man reaches his highest point of physical strength.” Add experience to the mix, and we can see why hoplites in their 30’s and early 40’s were considered the most valuable. The frontlines were often manned by well-conditioned greybeards. Said the poet Tyrtaios:
This is indeed a foul thing, that the older man falls
Among the forefront and lies before the younger
His white head and his grey beard breathing out hisstrong soul in the dust,
Holding in his dear hands his groin all blood).
Many men of property and social standing served as hoplites and fought into their 40’s—and a few into their 50’s. Glaukon was 50 when he served as general at Samos and, later, at Coreyra. Pyrilampes was 56 when he died at Delion in 424 B.C. Andocides (the elder) was 60 when he served at Samos. Phaidros (the son of Kallias) was nearly 70 when he fought at Styra in 323 B.C. Generally, the more veterans in the ranks, the better the army. Spartan armies usually had two generations of veterans. It was common to see fathers and sons in the ranks and not rare to see grandfathers and grandsons fighting side by side. Two thousand years later, the same was true of the Gaelic clans of Ireland and Scotland. John Prebble, in The Battle of Culloden, says, “Brother fought beside brother, father by son, so that each might witness the other’s courage and valour and find example in them.”
Young men had the advantage of speed but not necessarily endurance or strength. Old men had the invaluable advantage of experience; their presence steadied the ranks. They would not falter in the fiercest of fights, and they set an example for the young warriors. Androkleidas, a partially crippled Spartan warrior, summarized it best when he was questioned about his battle-worthiness: “But there is no need of running away, but rather to stay put where I am to fight against those who are arrayed against me.”
The Greek hoplites—young and old—fought in the phalanx. A box-like formation, usually eight ranks deep, the phalanx worked something like the serum in rugby. The men in the front ranks led the assault, and those in the rear pushed. Xenophon, a student of Socrates and a hoplite, suggested that the strongest fighters be positioned at the front and the rear of the phalanx and the weakest in the middle “in order that they might be led by the former and pushed by the latter.”
The key to a successful use of the phalanx was a tight formation. In the heat of battle, it was critical for men to stay in rank and to persevere—despite wounds and fatigue—in order to maintain the integrity of the phalanx. During battle, it was necessary to tighten the formation constantly. There was also a tendency for the phalanx to drift to the right; the hoplites held the shield with their left hand and the spear or sword with their right. Their right sides were thus more exposed, and therefore they tended to thrust or slash in that direction. Rigorous training, high morale, and deep camaraderie were necessary for the phalanx to work effectively. When it did, it was an awesome killing machine. Polybius, comparing the Greek phalanx to the Roman legion, said that “nothing can stand in the way of the advance of the phalanx, as long as it maintains its customary cohesion and power.”
Hoplite armies usually did not attack cities. They were ill equipped for the task, lacking battering rams and artillery, and could not afford the time and expense of a long siege. Moreover, most of the time, there was no need. When an invading army crossed the border of a city-state, the defenders usually marched out from their walled cities for a battle on some nearby plain. They simply could not allow an enemy to occupy their farmlands. Timing was nearly everything for an invading enemy. It was best to arrive right at the beginning of the harvest, burn your enemy’s barley and wheat, defeat him in battle or cow him into submission, then hurry home to harvest your own crops.
Victor Davis Hanson, a farmer and the author of several fine works on Greek warfare, has argued that the idea of agricultural devastation during the Greek hoplite wars has been greatly exaggerated. While fires are easy enough to set, trees and vines usually recover quickly. Cutting vines is not unduly difficult, but pulling out rootstock is. Chopping down trees—especially the solid trunks of the mature olive tree—is a backbreaking and time-consuming task.
If great agricultural destruction was not the norm, why did the Greeks not simply wait out the invading enemy behind the walls of their cities? First of all, a loss of a harvest could cause considerable suffering if food storage was inadequate. However, far more important to the Greek hoplite were his honor and pride. Could he huddle behind the safety of walls while an enemy was parading over his fields—the same fields his father and father’s father had farmed? No, enemy hoplites in his fields were an invitation to fight that could not be refused.
In many ways, battle was a kind of ritual: An enemy army of hoplites appeared; the cry went up for the local forces to organize; a level, open plain was chosen; and the opposing phalanxes collided. The bloodshed usually ended quickly. The one battle was usually the war. Perhaps this explains why it was easy to draw a citizen army out of a city. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the Greeks could not seem to resist a call to battle with an enemy stomping about on their turf.
When the hoplite armies clashed, casualties were not usually as high as you might expect. The warriors’ armor—a bronze breastplate, a helmet, and greaves—kept them fairly well protected. They also carried a shield, the hoplon. If the momentum of the battle—and I use the word “momentum” in its most literal sense—began to go decidedly one way and the losing side was able to maintain unit cohesion and the integrity of each individual phalanx, then a fighting withdrawal was possible and casualties minimized. However, if cohesion disintegrated, great slaughter could result. Because the Greek hoplite armies were well disciplined, great carnage was normally the exception rather than the rule.
Moreover, Greeks generally thought it unseemly to slaughter their fellow Greeks once a battle had been decided: Better to save defeated Greeks for battles against barbarians. Upon learning that his Spartans had not only defeated but annihilated an army of Corinthians, a fourth-century king of Sparta remarked, “Woe to you, Greece, those who now have died were enough to have beaten all the barbarians in battle had they lived.”
For more than two centuries, the hoplite citizen-soldiers of the city-states fought each other. The rise of Persia and her invasion of Greece would change all that. The fights against the Persians were not ritual clashes between Greek city-states but wars to save the Greek world—the Western world—from Oriental despotism. The wars left Athens—or the city-state of Attica—the preeminent polls in Greece. During the last year of the second war with Persia, Athens formed the Delian League, an alliance of several city-states pledged to a united offensive and defensive action. Athens gradually transformed the league into a maritime trading empire (with herself as the principal beneficiary) and eventually extended Athenian hegemony over most of the city-states in the league.
Sparta, meanwhile, began to think that Athens, if unchecked, would soon extend Athenian hegemony over all of Greece. In response, she formed her own alliance. War between the two great powers finally erupted. Although the immediate cause was a dispute between Corcyra and Corinth, and Sparta and Athens were brought into the war because of entangling alliances, Athenian imperialism was principally responsible. Ironically, Athens had set herself on a course of imperialistic expansion through her leadership in successfully stopping Persian imperialism.
The Peloponnesian War was not a single clash of hoplite armies from two city-states on an open plain but a protracted war of attrition for an empire fought on plains, in cities, and at sea. It ended disastrously for Athens and marked the beginning of the end for the Greek city-state and for Hellenic civilization. Until the Peloponnesian War, the armies of most city-states had been composed of citizen’s militias called upon only occasionally and only for a single battle. Protracted wars called for professional soldiers, not farmers or artisans volunteering to serve as hoplites. The hoplites willingly fought to preserve their liberties and to defend their kinfolk and land. Fighting to build empires was foreign to them, something that characterized Oriental tyrannies.
America, too, once had citizen-soldiers who fought to defend liberty and kinfolk and to protect hearth and home—not to build an empire. Since World War II, we seem to have forgotten this simple tact, as Athens did following the Persian Wars. Her great victories led to empire-building, power, and glory but ended in disaster not only for Athens but for classical Greek civilization. I suspect that historians will one day look back at the United States and conclude that America’s great victory in World War II led to empire-building, power, and glory but also marked the beginning of the end for the United States—and, ultimately, for Western civilization. Our reach now exceeds our grasp, and long ago we stopped fighting to defend our land and people.
I recall President Lyndon Johnson saying, in 1964, that he would “not send American boys 10,000 miles away to do what Asian boys could and should do for themselves.” I also remember thinking, when Johnson shortly thereafter reversed himself, that those who voted to go to war in the Greek city-states went to war themselves. Those decisionmakers served as hoplites, even if they were in their 30’s or 40’s—or possibly older. It was, to me, the ultimate democratic value: Those who commit us to war stand in the van, shoulder-to-shoulder with other citizen-soldiers, facing the enemy. I alway’s reckoned that LBJ would have allowed Asian boys to do for themselves if he would have been required to leave the White House to hump the hills of I Corps with a baseplate strapped to his back, accompanied by Dean Rusk packing a mortar tube and bipods, and Robert McNamara lugging ammo boxes.