A hoplite clash, one of the most murderous encounters of ancient warfare (Australian Historical Association Ancienthoplitikon of Melbourne).
By Periklis Deligiannis
The conception of hoplite warfare (and tactics) is one of the greatest “revolutions” in world military history. Most scholars regard it as important as the invention of the saddle with stirrups, which made the heavy armoured cavalry ascendant in the battlefields, or the invention of firearms which changed forever the nature of war.
The abandonment of the organization of the tribe-state by the southern Greeks and the progress of the institution of the Greek city-state and the socio-economic changes that followed this fundamental change had progressed significantly in the late Geometric period. The new conditions that followed, led to the invention of hoplite warfare and the corresponding new kind of warrior, the hoplite. There is a great controversy among scholars, about which was the southern Greek territory where the new battle system first appeared. The Argives, the Thebans, the Spartans or the Mantineians are denominated or implied by various ancient writers as the inventors of hoplite warfare. The strongest opinion among scholars is claiming that the hoplite phalanx first appeared in a state – or in a group of neighboring states – of eastern and/or southern Peloponnese, in Doric or Arcadian territory. Corinth, Sicyon and the small city-states of Argolis should be excluded from the potential inventors of the hoplite phalanx, because their citizen-warriors have adopted it under the influence of the Argives of the tyrant Pheidon. Athens and the rest of Attica should be excluded also, for similar reasons.
It is often considered that the new fighting formation appeared on the battlefield during the Messenian wars or during the war between Sparta and Argos, perhaps at the decisive showdown of the battle of Hysiae (669/8 BC). It is worth to note one important point: Argos is denominated almost always in the ancient references and in the modern theories on the conception of the hoplite fighting system. That city-state was especially strong during the 8th-7th centuries BC, and the hoplite shield was known in antiquity as “Argive” (Argolic) shield. The above mentioned may provide an advantage to the Argives as potential inventors of a “primitive” form of the hoplite phalanx. The neighboring cities would have received the new fighting formation from them and would evolve it in different ways until the final convergence of all the variations to the classic type of the hoplite phalanx. A modern scholar proposed the Argives of Pheidon as the first who used hoplite formations, in Hysiae against the Spartans. His point of view was advocated by strong arguments.
The theory that hoplite warfare was conceived in the island of Euboea, in the Lelantine fields between Chalcis and Eretria during the endless wars between these city-states, is also strong among scholars. The Chalcidean-Eretrian wars began with the destruction of the city of Leukanti (Old Eretria) by the Chalkideans, possibly with the military aid of Thebes, about 825 BC. Both Chalkis and Eretria had mainly Ionic population but their aristocrats and the noble champions (‘promachoi’) of their armies were predominantly Avantes, a Greek people that lived in Euboea from the Mycenaean period, before the coming of the Ionian immigrants in the island. Homer’s Iliad describes the Avantic military tactics, which are very similar to hoplite warfare. It should moreover be noted that Euboea had been a major producer of weapons during the 8th and 7th centuries BC and maintained its Avantic fighting tradition. The theory of the conception of hoplite warfare in Euboea or in neighboring Boeotia, is advocated by an ancient reference that the Spartans were taught the use of hoplite tactics by a Theban, during the First Messenian War. Thebes is located close enough to the Lelantine fields of Euboea and was almost always interfering in the wars between Chalcis and Eretria, supporting the second after 825 BC.
The Thebans were always considered among the most likely inventors of the hoplite fighting system, which they possibly passed to Euboea and the Peloponnese. The fertile valley surrounding the city of Thebes, provided the wealth for the maintenance of a warlike aristocracy which could experiment unperturbedly on new combat systems, tactics and weapons.
Hoplite helmet of the Thraco-phrygian type, 4th cent. BC.
By inference, what probably happened is that the hoplite phalanx was invented and created through a process of “polygenesis” over a wide area (with a possible basic role belonging to Argos) combining the first city-states. All the states of the area from Boeotia and Euboea to the Southern Peloponnese contributed with their individual ideas in the shaping of the final form of the hoplite phalanx. Soon, the new way of war spread to the Greek cities of Asia Minor, Italy and Sicily, and was used almost everywhere by the Greek colonists across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, from Emporion of the Iberian peninsula to Dioscurias of Transcaucasia. In addition, the hoplite phalanx was adopted by several foreign nations: the Carians, the Lycians, the western Lydians, the Etruscans, the Umbrians, the Elymians, the Latins, the early Romans and others.
Despite its success, hoplite warfare did not prevail in all the Greek territories. Aetolia, Acarnania and Thessaly never adopted the institution of the authentic city-state. For this reason, the Aetolians, the Acarnanians and the Thessalians adopted the hoplite phalanx only in a limited degree and not in its classic form. Macedonia and Epirus never split into city-states which were conclusively related with hoplite warfare and tactics. King Philip II’s Macedonians developed a new powerful battle formation: the Macedonian phalanx of pikemen. His son, Alexander the Great, and Pyrrhus of Epirus developed it in a thrashing battle formation until it finally replaced the already obsolete hoplite phalanx (3rd century BC).
(1) Herodotus: Histories.
(2) Xenophon: The Polity of the Lacedaemonians.
(3) Plutarch: Parallel Lives.
(4) Diodorus: Historical Library.