These warriors are often described as “hoplites”, but there’s something rather strange here. Hoplites – as they are commonly defined – fight with a single thrusting spear and have a sword as their sidearm. On the Chigi Vase, swords aren’t indicated. And if you look carefully, you can see that the warriors not only hold a spear overhead, as one might expect, but they hold another spear in their left hand, the same hand with which they grab the handle near rim of their shields.
The spears that they are holding in the left hand are a little difficult to see when you focus on the figures themselves, because the shafts that overlapped the warriors were painted after the rest of the pot had been fired. This means that the clay slip (i.e. “paint”) used here was more vulnerable to wear and tear and has flaked off over the course of many centuries. The tops and bottoms of these spears are more clearly visible than the shafts if you focus on the areas above the helmets and below the shields.
If you look at the far left, we get a clear view of the spears in question: two are placed side by side, and one is clearly a lot shorter than the other. These are strange hoplites then: they fight not only with a thrusting spear, but also with a javelin. If anything demonstrates how precarious it is to use the term “hoplite” when referring to spearmen of the pre-Classical era, this is surely it.
The type of battle scene shown on the Chigi Vase is extremely rare in Archaic Greek art. There is a wall-painting from a roughly contemporary temple at Kalapodi that depicts a similar scene, even though the reconstruction is largely based on the Chigi Vase (see Lloyd 2017, pp. 250 n. 47). Of course, in archaeology the next turn of the trowel may yield another vessel or fragments of a wall-painting that depicts something similar, but it would still be an uncommon type of scene.
Despite all of these caveats, the battle scene on the Chigi Vase is regarded as proof that warriors fought in phalanx formation already in the seventh century BC. In fact, it is one of the cornerstones of the orthodox view. This interpretation was popularized by H.L. Lorimer in an article published all the way back in 1947. After all, all the men in this scene are bunched together, and the two armies are clearly on the verge of meeting shield with shield, spear with spear. This must be a depiction of the hoplite phalanx in action, right?
Well, not quite.
At this point, it should be stressed that the Chigi Vase is an example of Corinthian art. The artist who decorated this object didn’t do so in the first place to create something that was meant to be historically accurate: the scene of these warriors is an artistic creation, no doubt based on reality (e.g. the armour, weapon), but distinctly not a one-to-one representation. It’s a painting, not a polaroid.
Still, the argument goes that the Chigi Vase depicts a phalanx, so let’s unpack that. If you study the entire frieze instead of focusing on the clash in the centre, you’ll notice that if this is supposed to be a phalanx, it’s rather a disorganised one. The warriors are split into distinct groups or lines of men; they don’t form a single, cohesive block of fighters.
Indeed, at the far left of the frieze, some of the men are still arming themselves. Elsewhere, others hurry to catch up with their comrades. Hans van Wees wrote about this scene that “one may wonder whether the lines of men in the picture are meant to be strictly single lines at all, rather than schematic depictions of dense clusters of warriors” (1994, p. 143). It’s also possible that the scene incorporates different moments: an arming scene at the extreme left, men rushing to the battlefield, and then the clash in the middle. The best argument against this interpretation is the fact that the different lines are not of the same length. The scene remains, at its best, ambiguous.
Most likely, we are not looking at two phalanxes, but rather at two forces advancing upon each other in “waves”, with each “wave” consisting of several men formed up more or less line abreast. This is a way of advancing across the battlefield known from at least two passages in the Iliad (e.g. Il. 4.422-432, 13.795-801). Movement in waves has also been remarked upon by Henk Singor in his PhD thesis on the Archaic Greek hoplite (1988, pp. 16-19), which is sadly only available in Dutch.
Ancient artists were perfectly capable of depicting warriors arranged in a tightly-knit formation. An excellent example, predating the Chigi Vase by almost two millennia, is the Sumerian “Stele of the Vultures”. Here, warriors are shown arranged in clear lines, with overlapping shields and spears. Clearly, the Sumerians had this whole formation thing figured out at an early stage.
A similar battle-scene as that on the Chigi vase is depicted on a Middle Protocorinthian aryballos (Berlin 3773). Here, groups of men advance and fight, while a few of the warriors have fallen to their knees and are about to get slaughtered by their opposite numbers. This scene incorporates the groups of men familiar from the Chigi Vase and then repeats the motif, creating a somewhat disorganised and perhaps realistic feel to the proceedings.
The scene on this small vessel incorporates events that happen after the two sides have met in combat. The so-called “Macmillan” aryballos, dated to Middle II to Late Protocorinthian, depicts a similar scene, with fallen warriors being dispatched by their foes. The scene includes men engaged in single combat amidst the general melee (London 1889.4–18.1). Again, it is like the Chigi Vase, perhaps even made in the same workshop, and shows us what may have happened after the two forces met in battle.
None of these Corinthian vessels depict what could reasonably be referred to as “phalanx warfare”. But there is one element in the battle scene on the Chigi Vase that warrants closer scrutiny: among the warriors on the left-hand side of the scene we find a solitary fluteplayer. Proponents of the idea that this scene depicts a “hoplite phalanx” have drawn attention to this fluteplayer. They compared it to a description of the Battle of Mantinea – which happened in 418 BC or more than two centuries after the Chigi Vase was made! – in Thucydides (5.70):
After this the two armies met, the Argives and their allies advancing with great violence and fury, while the Spartans came on slowly and to the music of many flute-players in their ranks. This custom of theirs has nothing to do with religion; it is designed to make them keep in step and move forward steadily without breaking ranks, as large armies often do when they are just about to join battle.
Does the fluteplayer on the Chigi Vase, like the Spartan pipers, dictate the rhythm to which the warriors advance? Thucydides makes clear that the cited use of the flute was something peculiar to the Spartans of his day. Other Greek armies did indeed advance into battle singing war-songs or by raising a paean (song of praise), but the Spartans appear to be the only ones who used flutes in the Classical era. It’s also clear that the Spartans were unusual in marching in lockstep towards the enemy. How likely is it that a Corinthian painter working for the export market chose to depict Spartans in a period well before Sparta dominated the Peloponnese?
The notion that the battle scene on the Chigi Vase depicts the Greek “hoplite phalanx” in action is dubious for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the notion of both hoplites and phalanxes – let alone the phalanx tôn hoplitôn! – is anachronistic in and of itself. If we are to try and understand the past, we must do so on its own terms, not by projecting ideas back onto the more remote past. In short, a teleological approach is not the way forward.
Furthermore, seeing the Chigi Vase as typical of anything is hazardous, because the object is clearly anything but ordinary. It has virtually no parallels, certainly not for the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Despite having been made in Corinth, it was unearthed in a tomb in Etruria, which further suggests that we should be very careful about the significance of its scenes in a Greek context. These points are usually ignored in traditional accounts of the Greek warfare.
And finally, focusing on the battle scene of the Chigi Vase does the object itself a disservice. It goes too far to go into great depth here with regards to the interpretation of Greek vases, but the notion that different scenes on the same vase can be regarded in isolation from each other is suspect. For a reading of the Chigi Vase that considers all the different figured scenes as forming a coherent whole, a type of “manual” for the young aristocrat, please refer to Hurwit’s 2002 article published in Hesperia.
(With apologies to René Magritte.)
Pertinent are the answers that Dr Roel Konijnendijk (Iphikrates) provides in this thread on Reddit.
Suggested reading includes:
Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.