By Periklis Deligiannis
Earlier related article: HOPLITE TACTICS: THE HOPLITE PHALANX
The attack of the hoplite phalanx started with the hoplites of the three or four first ranks (lines) holding their spears horizontally facing the enemy. Thus three or four spearheads prevented the enemy from reaching the frontline of the phalanx. The hoplites of the rear ranks behind the third or the fourth one, were holding their spears in an inclined position in order not to injure with their spearheads the fellow hoplites of the front ranks and to have their sauroterae* directed downwards so that they could kill the wounded enemies lying in the ground, when they were marching over them. The main purpose of this inclined position of the spears was to intercept the missiles of the enemy light infantry (javelins, arrows, stones etc.).
The battle started with the two opposing hoplite phalanxes marching the one against the other. The approach to the battlefield was accompanied either by war anthems, the paeans – as the armies of Spartans and other Dorians used to do – or by war cries. When the hoplite armies approached each other at a distance of about half or one stadion (89 or 177 meters), the hoplites began to run in order to collide with the enemy. This is what the Athenians and the Plataeans did at Marathon against the Persians. The Spartans were an exception to this general rule because on the contrary they were marching in close quarters until the moment of the collision, and at a synchronized march, the pace of which was given by the sounds of pan-pipes. These tactics of the Spartans aimed to the terrorizing of the enemy army through their demonstrated collectedness and apathy. Some researchers have hypothesized that the armies of other Doric cities as well followed the same tactics when approaching the battlefield.
The first stage of a hoplite conflict was the ‘doratismos’ that is to say the hard spear strokes between the first ranks of the warring phalanxes. The wooden shafts of several spears were broken during the fierce combat. The opponents were approaching so close that their shields were soon touching each other. The spear was now more difficult to use in such a limited space, for this reason the hoplite often used to abandon it and draw his sword. This was the phase of the combat called ‘othismos’ (the push). A key element of the othismos was the unbearable pressure on the enemy phalanx with the surface of the shields of the promachoi (the hoplites of the front lines), with their swords and also with the spearheads of the fellow hoplites of the rear ranks who could strike the enemy phalanx thanks to the long wooden shafts of their spears. The hoplites of the rear ranks used to push the ones of the front lines in order to strengthen their pressure on the enemy formations. Physical strength was crucial during this fight.
The aim of othismos was the ‘pararrixis’, that is to create a split and thereby a gap on the opposing phalanx. The split usually led to the dissolution of the enemy formations and the disorderly retreat of their hoplites. In an earlier related article, I’ve described the other basic method of destroying a hoplite phalanx, being its flanking and encirclement. Especially the powerful Lacedaemonian (Spartan) hoplite formation was able to achieve a split on the enemy phalanx and simultaneously outflank it. This double blow on it led to its total destruction; thereby the victories of the Spartans were usually overwhelming when they wanted to be.By the time of the Greco-Persian Wars (490-479 BC), the Lacedaemonians often achieved victory without even needing to fight Mêlée with the enemy. Their legendary militancy sometimes led the opponent hoplite phalanx to be self-dissolved before they manage to reach it.
However when the rival hoplites had the boldness to confront the Spartans (which they usually did), they usually did not gain anything more than a moral victory of courage. Sooner or later the Lacedaemonian hoplites were able to prevail and win the battle thanks to the high level of their training and endurance. It is characteristic that for three centuries –from the battle of Hysiae (669/8 BC) until the battle of Leuctra (371 BC) – the Spartans never experienced defeat in a typical hoplite battle (ambushes and hit-and-run tactics excluded). The army of Sparta raised hoplite warfare to its colophon.
The southern Greeks did not hunt up the defeated enemy in order not to break the ranks of their phalanx. The Southerners generally considered that the battle was decided when one of the two opposing phalanxes managed to occupy the battlefield. On the contrary the northern Greeks, especially the Macedonians, considered an enemy to be truly defeated only if they managed to come after and kill or capture a significant part of his army, a task fulfilled by the Companion (Hetairoi) and Thessalian cavalry and the Macedonian hypaspistae. That is why the Macedonian victories usually ended up in the general massacre of the opponents.
The south Greek practice against a defeated enemy posed the moral element of magnanimity but the method of the Northerners was more logic because it prevented the recovery of the enemy for a considerable time. In fact, the informal rule of generosity towards a defeated opponent was applied only between Greeks, because they considered that Greek blood should not be unfairly poured: if the opponent was ‘barbarian’, probably could not hope in the mercy of the victor. The southern Greeks massacred again and again the Asiatic and Egyptian warriors during the Persian wars. About a half century later, Alexander’s Macedonians and Thessalians massacred in the same massive way the warriors of Darius, Porus, the Malavas (Malloi) and other Asiatics. The same was applying in the treatment of the prisoners of war, at least until the Persian Wars. If the POWs were Greek, they were generally exchanged between the two belligerents or released by the end of the hostilities. If the prisoners were not Greek, they were ending up into slavery.
The official admission of defeat was the formal request of the vanquished from the winners, to collect their dead from the battlefield. But before that, the winners were conducting the ‘skyleusis’, that is the collection of the arms and armors of the fallen enemies as booty. Part of it was used to construct a victory trophy, called ‘tropaion’. The tropaion looked like a monument but it was not a permanent construction due to the aforementioned policy of respect between Greeks. The tropaion could be a permanent monument (for example, made of marble) when the vanquished were non-Greeks.
Sauroter: the brazen point of the back ending of a hoplite spear.
(1) Herodotus: Histories.
(2) Xenophon: The Polity of the Lacedaemonians.
(3) Plutarch: Parallel Lives.
(4) Diodorus: Historical Library.
(5) Hammond N.: A History of Greece to 322 BC, Oxford 1959.