Greeks fighting dirty

Warfare in Classical Greece

Our idea of the Greek way of war is changing. My book sets out a new interpretation of the iconic hoplite’s battle tactics.

Written by Roel Konijnendijk on

How did the Greeks in the age of Pericles and Plato fight their battles? What did they expect a pitched battle to look like? What do we learn about their society and its values from the way they dealt with enemy armies in the field? These are questions worth asking, because the way we think about Greek warfare has radically changed in recent years, and few things we thought were obvious are still certain.

Throughout the twentieth century, the consensus among scholars was that Greek warfare took the form of a deliberately restricted ritual. When war was declared, Greek armies got together at a prearranged time on an open plain to fight a fair and honest battle between homogenous armies of heavily armed infantry (hoplites). According to this model, there were no tricks or complex tactics, no non-hoplite troops, and no aims beyond the achievement of putting the enemy to flight. Both sides deployed in the same way, and battles tended to follow an identical sequence with predictable results.

The intention of this ritual system was to reduce the violence of war to a single moment, to ensure total fairness, to minimise loss of life, and to decide the final outcome of wars without the need for protracted campaigns or the destruction of whole communities. In sum, scholars assumed that the second-century-BC Greek historian Polybius told them the exact truth about warfare in the Classical period (Polyb. 13.3.2-5):

The ancients (…) did not consider a success either glorious or secure if they had not broken the spirit of their enemies by fighting openly. They therefore came to a mutual understanding not to use hidden or far-shooting weapons against each other, and held the opinion that only the outcome of a battle fought hand to hand, foot to foot with the enemy, was really decisive. This was also why they would proclaim their wars to each other, and their battles, and announce when they proposed to fight, and the place where they were to deploy for battle.

If you sense that all this sounds rather artificial and unlikely, you are not alone. Since the late nineties, studies criticizing the traditional model have come thick and fast; recent scholarship has demolished the case for a way of war bound by moral rules. The model of ritual hoplite battle is grounded in just a few generalizing passages like the one above, on which entire theories of society, politics and warfare were built.

New interpretations

Revisionist scholars like Peter Krentz, Hans van Wees and John Dayton – among others – have shown that these passages are not actually trustworthy; they are moralising propaganda or deceptive lies, and there are precious few of them against an avalanche of contrary evidence. It is easily proven that Greeks actually didn’t prearrange their battles, actually did use light infantry and cavalry, actually tried to ambush each other or attack by surprise – in other words, that they did all the things they supposedly detested and banned. With this, the model of identical hoplite armies crashing into each other at a mutually agreed time and place was discarded.

But it hadn’t yet been replaced with anything new. The revisionists didn’t try to characterise what did define Greek methods on the battlefield. While they were right to argue that there isn’t really a “typical” battle that set the rules for all the others, it’s possible to see patterns in Greek approaches to battle: habits and customs shaped by the socio-economic and practical military context in which they fought. This is the theme of my book, Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History (Leiden: Brill, 2018), based on my doctoral dissertation.

Simply put, my argument is that the Greeks were bloody-minded pragmatists in war, and pursued the total destruction of the enemy. But they had very limited means at their disposal to achieve this. The factor I focus on is training – or rather, the complete lack of it, and the consequences of the stubborn amateurism of free Greek citizens. I expand on older discussions about whether the Classical Greeks knew formation drill or weapon proficiency training, and show that there is absolutely no evidence for it, with Sparta as a qualified exception; the Greeks didn’t just lack systematic collective training, but actively resisted it, and the few authors advocating it – the Athenian philosophers Xenophon and Plato – found their advice unheeded.

As a result, the hoplite armies of Classical city-states were clumsy masses of ill-disciplined militia that simply weren’t capable of grand manoeuvres or tactical masterstrokes. Moreover, these armies consisted of the citizen body itself, and the troops were not expendable. Tactical plans had to focus on keeping them alive, sometimes more than on actually winning the battle. The result of these conflicting priorities is a system of tactical thought and practice that appears very simple on the outside (especially when you just look at what they did in battle), but actually reflects serious efforts to leverage imperfect means to achieve far-reaching goals.

Battles in Classical Greece

So how did these battles between untrained hoplite militias unfold? The new model I put together is not a blueprint for all Greek battles, but rather a reflection of what we typically see them do when they chose to fight. In most ways, this model is the direct opposite of the one that scholars have so long taken for granted.

First, the Greeks did not prearrange a time and place for battle. Far from it; they tried to fight from a position of the greatest possible advantage. Trickery, surprise attacks and ambushes were common. Manipulation of the conditions of battles fought “in the open” is a feature of 2/3 of surviving battle descriptions. Battles did not began with a formal challenge, but when either side decided it had begun, which could be when the other side was still eating breakfast.

Second, they did not exclude non-hoplite troops; in fact, their deployment for battle seems to have been shaped by their awareness of the hoplite’s vulnerability to missile troops and cavalry. There were too many cases in Greek history where isolated groups of hoplites were driven to despair and ultimately demolished by more mobile enemies. Battle plans therefore tended to focus on carefully securing conditions in which the fight could be reduced to a quick and decisive hoplite-on-hoplite encounter - not because it was an ideal, but because unsupported hoplites in protracted engagements would be at a crippling disadvantage.

Third, they did not let each battle play out according to a fixed tactical template, as modern scholars have long thought. It is wrong to claim that the phalanx was always roughly the same depth, or that the general was always to be found on the same flank, or that cavalry was not allowed to play any major role. Each battle plan was a response to a particular tactical situation and several basic templates existed for generals to choose from, the main ones being an encirclement of the enemy’s left wing or the direct assault on their best troops in an attempt to shatter the line. These plans remained simple only because hoplite militias – Spartans aside – were stubbornly incapable of doing anything more sophisticated.

Finally, until about 2002, nobody questioned that the Greeks did not pursue a fleeing enemy, since they supposedly found it unfair to stab a running man in the back. Several scholars have since noted that this is clearly untrue, and that they pursued their enemies all the time, and with gleeful abandon. I take this argument much further, pointing out that they didn’t just pursue their enemies often, but always, and that they seem to have treated this as the specific purpose of fighting a battle in the first place. The pursuit is the single most common element in surviving battle descriptions, and often we are given details about who did the chasing and how many men were killed. This tells us a great deal about what Greek battles were about. The aim was not simply to break the enemy, but to destroy them.

Taken together, this model overthrows the old one in detail, painting us a radically different picture of the Classical Greeks. It was already known that they were not the gentlemen duellists previous scholarship thought them to be; but when the sources are taken seriously, what they actually show is quite the opposite. Greek states fielded ill-prepared amateur armies that tried their best to destroy each other utterly. They were, in a word, pretty bad at war – but they tried hard and fought as dirty as they could, because they fought to win.