Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Crowd othismos model

If you've read the paper below then you already know this, but I will summarize the key points and contrast them with the other two alternative views (simplified of course).

Orthodox view: Othismos is literally a mass pushing match with the aim being to push opponents back until the cohesion of their battle-line breaks. In the most widely proposed form, the clash of hoplite phalanxes progressed along the following pattern: Both phalanxes charged at a slow run from about 200 meters apart. Hoplites move directly into shield-on-shield contact from the charge using the momentum to smash their shields together like rams and stabbing with spears underhand like cavalry lances. Spears are often shivered and opposing ranks become to some extent interlaced. This is followed by intense infighting with swords as ranks reform through a process not well explained and the ranks behind the front-rankers begin to push forward. It is this pushing phase that is labelled “othismos” (pushing) and the pushing is done side-on to the man in front with the left shoulder in the bowl of the shield. This othismos continues until one side gives way and collapses. Once one side collapses the victors pursue (but not too far) and the losers sustain many casualties.

Heretical view: There are many variations of this, so I shall present it as I think most consistent with the hoplite panoply. The progress of battle differs from the orthodoxy in that there is no running charge directly into combat. They note that the run would cause disorder in the ranks that this would be counter to the whole idea of forming ranks in the first place. Combat occurs at spear's length, perhaps with shields overlapped, perhaps not, in a phase known to the Hellenistic Greeks as doratismos. Fighting might then progress to infighting with shield-bashing on an individual, uncoordinated scale. While the front-rankers and the one or two ranks behind them fight, the men to the rear provide only moral support and make ready to step over their corpses to take a place in the battle line. The advance of the phalanx is figuratively labelled “othismos” as we might speak of an armored "push" of tanks and mechanized infantry. Fighting occurs until one side gives way due to mounting casualties and morale failure. As before, the losing side suffers as the victors pursue.

Othismos-crowd model: This view incorporates elements of both of the above. In my view there is a running charge from a couple hundred meters as in the view of the orthodoxy, but with spears held up overhand. This does not lead directly into othismos, for there is no crash of hoplites seeking to use momentum to bash into their foes, and thus no interlacing of opposing ranks. Front ranks pull up from the charge prior to shield contact with their foes, then close to the approximately 5' distance from their foes that reflects the reach of the dory, entering doratismos as in the heretic's view. They then spear fence en masse as envisioned by the heretics, but at a spacing of something less than 1 m frontage, their aspides just overlapped. Only the second rank uses their spears in support of the front rank.
At some point there is a shift in phase to fighting at less than spear range. Closing to less than spear range would be natural if a hoplite’s spear was broken, for he would then find himself with the choice of standing in the ranks unable to reach the enemy, leaving the ranks to move in close, or staying in the ranks, but pressuring the men beside him to move in as a group. As more spears are lost this urging in close magnifies until the line moves. This describes how the move into close range could emerge without any central command, but it is possible that men were purposefully led into close range fighting.
It is possible to move from advance to othismos without a spear-fencing stage, but it is unlikely that this occurred as the more recent formulations of the orthodoxy put forward, with men running into each other in an uncoordinated manner. In order to maximize force, the men must pack their files tight before they hit the enemy phalanx rather than run in directly from the charge. Spartans would have had an easier time of this due to their slower advance.
However it occurs, when the opposing units are in close contact, the rear rankers close up behind those in front for physical support. The weapons used by hoplites are well designed for this type of fighting over the top of the shield rims. The ranks continue to tighten until the men are belly to back with the men in front and behind. How long this takes can vary with training in a polis or over time, but eventually this compact mass enters the othismos phase of battle. If the opposing front rankers are already shield to shield, then the progression to othismos is gradual and fluid. If they are at a distance, then there is a short and shuffling charge by the whole mass (as seen in the videos on this site). The two phalanxes now function like crowds, generating intense force as they push against each other. Men in the middle of the mass do not control their own movement, but ride the waves of flesh, all the while fighting and defending with sword or broken spear in their upraised right arm. The pressure is enough that these men would be asphyxiated without the aspis. If shields break under the pressure men die, unless they can breathe within the bowl of the overlap of the man to their right's shield. There may be lulls in the combat where the opposing phalanxes loosen this tight level of packing due to exhaustion, the front men may still be fighting or they too may pull apart. Eventually one side gives way and the same pursuit seen in the other models occurs.

As you see, my model incorporates the possibility of extended initial doratismos with literal othismos. My othismos is a far more brutal thing than that described by the orthodoxy. The momentum of men charging at 5 mph produced forces that are similar to the maximum seen in the crowd-crush. More importantly, individual collisions are also instantaneous, lasting a few miliseconds, while the pressure within crowds can be maintained for extended periods and is far more lethal. Men pushing side-on with the shoulder in the shield cannot generate the enormous crowd-like crushing forces that men pushing belly to back can. As the pressure builds, side-on men will collapse to belly to back if there is room to, and if there is no space between them and the men beside them, then they are vulnerable to asphyxia since their diaphragm is not in the belly of the shield.

To a buzzard circling the battlefield othismos would look like this, with only the rear rankers able to push sideways.

If we compare a side-on to belly to back postures of hoplites n the phalanx, you will see the difference in the density of the crowd packing, though the side-on man have a more narrow frontage. Under pressure these sideways men will collapse to face forward, absorbing the force of the men pushing them from behind instead of transferring it to the man in front of them. The pushing forces generated by a crowd can be greater than the smashing force of an initial running collision of shields, and there is no disruption of order from interlacing front ranks.

As I am able I will add more comparative details of the mechanics. So far I have not leaned heavily on primary sources, but I am putting together a post in which I shall interpret the words of ancient authors to support my position, just as both the heretics and orthodoxy have used alternate interpretations of many of the same quotes to support their position and rule out the other.


Anonymous said...

to be quite honest, this is by far the most likely and realistic scenario i have come across to date. The key issue, as has been described, is 'crowd dynamics' this same situation can be seen time again in just modern real world examples such as police riot lines, football crowd patterns, infact anywhere where large groups of people are forced forward as one unit or at least in a common direction.
As a Tactical method, you are quite correct in stating that the sheer force and momentum created from a belly to back formation and the ultimate transition to belly to back even if a group where previously side is preferable and inevitable.
I feel, with this in mind, that it was exactly for these reasons that the Macedonian Sarrissa had come into creation.

Anonymous said...

Interesting presentation. And it seems extremely plausible too.

In your examination of original sources make sure that you consider the fact that hoplites were indeed found crushed in between their fellow men. Also wounds to the groin, neck and thighs were common enough to suggest a front to back stance (back to belly). Interesting though, there is mention of a hoplite who was pierced through both of his legs. May this is suggestion of a side stance or merely a lucky shot from somebody on his left/right.

But on the other side, the hoplon was a heavy piece of equipment which might suggest that the hoplite was using his shoulder to sort of "hang" the shield in front of his body. Take in consideration the fact that an average Greek was about 5'5'' tall and maybe 150-170lbs heavy which suggests that the weight of their panoply was disproportionally larger than what it would be to a modern "reenactor"

Also, how does your model account for the larger area in need of protection (the front). It seems natural that a hoplite will simply shift his body such as to cover his entire mass. The easiest way to do this is through a shoulder to shoulder stance.

Just a few of my thoughts.

P. M. Bardunias said...

Anonymous 1:

I'm not sure what role you had in mind for Sarissaphoroi, but perhaps we agree that the sarissa were employed specifically to prolong the spear-fencing portion of battle by denying the enemy the ability to move into othismos- he would have to "push" against sarissa points and the aspis was not proof from penetration of spears.

The other way to prevent othismos is simply to not push against it. This requires giving ground so it is not always an attractive option.

P. M. Bardunias said...

Anonymous 2:

"Interesting though, there is mention of a hoplite who was pierced through both of his legs. May this is suggestion of a side stance or merely a lucky shot from somebody on his left/right."

Are you thinking of Philopoemen at Sellasia? He was facing light troops if I recall.

"But on the other side, the hoplon was a heavy piece of equipment which might suggest that the hoplite was using his shoulder to sort of "hang" the shield in front of his body."

I addressed this in one of my posts. Hoplites surely rested their shield rims on their shoulder when not in active combat, but that was an incidental benefit not the driving force beind the form of the aspis. In othismos the shield is easy to hold for it is plastered to your upper chest, shoulder and thighs by the pressure between hoplites.

"Also, how does your model account for the larger area in need of protection (the front). It seems natural that a hoplite will simply shift his body such as to cover his entire mass. The easiest way to do this is through a shoulder to shoulder stance."

This depends on which phase of combat we are describing. Prior to the tightening up of the rear ranks there may be room for this, but as files close up this is no longer an option. Remember though that they are being protected by the overlap of the shield to their right, fighting over the "v" formed by the overlappung shields. What is really lost in othismos is the ability to duck your face behind your shield rim.

I thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analyses. But there seems to be a flaw. Well, flaw might be harsh, but i mean: a neglected factor.

What prevents the belly-to-back phalanx from falling tipping over on to their backs? I mean, with the forces present in such pushing - it would be impossible for an upright standing person (with feet parallel) to stand firm against a shoulder-to-shoulder (or as i like to call it "a boxer-stance") whose feet would naturily be a stable triangle form?

P. M. Bardunias said...

This is a question I get a lot, and it is a good observation.

Hoplites only stand straight up because they are squeezed into that stance by the weight on their back and front- just as you would be in a tight crowd. These men, even standing straight up cannot fall backwards if they are in any rank but the last because they are being supported by a man or more behind them. The last rank, and probably the last few, are not subject to the same pressure because they have no, or reduced force pushing them. They then are free to adopt any stance they wish. This could be a 3/4 stance, like a boxer's stance, or it could mean they simply lean forward to the extent that their bodies form an acute angle with the ground and are very difficult to push back. Probably both at times. See my cartoonish diagram above.

The key here is that when not standing belly to back they do not transfer force from behind them efficiently, but since there is no one behind them this does not matter.

Although I describe the men as standing up, they are in fact leaning forward. This lean is how they generate force towards the front. Were they to be stood up all the way, and pushed back on their heels, they would in fact be adding their mass to the push of the enemy phalanx. Luckily the way our bodies bend forward easier than backwards makes this more difficult, but it may have occurred.

In essence the front end of both phalanxes is like a giant pendulous battering ram that is being driven by the rear half of each phalanx into the other, adding mass more than actually generating force.

A related question I get is why doesn't the front rank of the enemy simply step back so that the hoplites fall forward?

This is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the whole crowd mechanic operates. There can be no crowd unless there is something to push against that generates enough force to block its forward movement. In the case of hoplites, another crowd of hoplites, in which the front rank cannot step back because there is no room. In order to have the front rank free to step back, all the men in the file behind him must step back first. With each man that does, the pressure decreases on the front man, and on the enemy phalanx. By the time you get to a single rank of men standing before a phalanx, they are no longer in othismos and no longer acting like a crowd. Thus even if the front man were to step back and draw the foremost rank forward, the second ranker is no longer being pushed forward with enough force to cause him to stumble forward as well. Under such loose conditions, the fight between the front rankers is essentially a paired combat with some support and jostling from behind. This is the way most linear formations of infantry have fought throughout history, and not othismos.

I have been building up for a post on stances and the way they held their spears that will make this clearer. I'll post it soon.

Anonymous said...

I have a question: Did either of the groups even want to end up in othismos? Because to me it doesn't seem to have any benefits. In my experience on SCA fighting, piercing trough or flanking enemy line are the most effective ways, as you cause chaos in the enemy lines while having control of your own. In othismos you just push steadily, without actually piercing the enemy line. Is it just to wear out the opponents phalanx?

Anonymous said...

Why would either line charge at a run if they were going to stop short and fight only w/ the spear? Makes no sense. You would expect a slower approach - because why bother? However, all non-Lakedaemonian armies charged at the run.

Aristotle said that hoplites were worthless without good order. But, what need good order if you were going to stop five feet apart and fight w/ spears. You would have the opportunity to dress your ranks during the spear fight. Nor do I see disorder in the ranks being a serious disadvantage during a lengthy spear fight.

P. M. Bardunias said...

I seem to have missed a question, so here's a late answer:

"I have a question: Did either of the groups even want to end up in othismos?... In othismos you just push steadily, without actually piercing the enemy line. Is it just to wear out the opponents phalanx?"

Remember that the line of the phalanx was made up of many subunits (taxeis) linked together (parataxeis, is what Herodotus calls the phalanx line). The whole line is not uniformly pushed back in othismos, but a string of many unit-unit matches are contested. It at the unit level that the lines are broken. We know that the whole line need not even be engaged in battle, as at Leuktra, or that the various units in the line could have different success. Units can be left standing while those around them runn off, as happened at Delium, and most battle ended with a victory on the right by alternate armies, meaning that in the center somewhere a unit held while that beside it broke.

As to why you would do it, disjointing the enemy line is the goal, then what faster or safer way to do so than to physically push them out of alignment? A battle of attrition until one side breaks due to morale loss is far more dangerous, ensuring more casualties for you even if you win.

P. M. Bardunias said...

"Why would either line charge at a run if they were going to stop short and fight only w/ the spear?"

Many of the ancient tacticians comment on the fact that the stress of waiting for battle is worse than that of actually fighting. This would peak as you are moving towards possible death. To "get it over with" men move faster and have a tendency to run. Also, it is harder for any man to turn an runaway if he is caught up in the herd of advance.

"However, all non-Lakedaemonian armies charged at the run."

You have hit on the exception that proves the rule. Spartans, who had the discipline to march slowly into battle, did so, while others ran. So, yes marching in good order is better for both spear fighting and pushing, but hard to achieve.

The one thing that I hope I have conveyed by now is that there is no benefit to running into battle if you intend to push en mass. I can stand a line 4 ranks deep up against a charge of deep ranks and you will not break through on the initial collision because you will not arrive together.

"Aristotle said that hoplites were worthless without good order. But, what need good order if you were going to stop five feet apart and fight w/ spears."

The hoplite line was mutually supporting, so if your line has gaps, then the enemy will always bring more spears to bay than you will and you will have many men who are unsupported on one or both flanks.

"You would have the opportunity to dress your ranks during the spear fight."

Dressing ranks actually engaged in combat is probably impossible if you need to rely on the commands of officers, but ranks can spontaneously reform after contact as men fill in available space. This is surely what occurred as hoplites slowed their advance to spear range with the enemy.

Dan said...

Mr. Bardunias,

I think that you are probably correct (however we shall never really know for sure) about the front to back positioning of hoplites in a phalanx during the othismos. Thucydides famous comment of phalanxes edging to their right in order to seek protection from their neighbor's aspis would seem to me to confirm this. A sideways (or striding) stance would not leave a right side unprotected by a hoplites own shield.

I understand the reasoning on why (most) hoplites ran (or at least trotted). However, I do not see them pulling up from the run ~5 feet short of the opposing line to fight w/ the spear. It still does not seem reasonable to me. I think if the front ranker tried to pull up short, the seven other guys running behind him would probably run him over or at least bump into him making it difficult to take on his opponent.

I think that they continued their run into contact (shield to shield) w/ the opposing line. A hoplite flat on his back must have been much easier to kill than one on his feet. This is not to say that both sides entered into the othismos directly. Both phalanxes were at their most fluid at the end of the charge. This would be the phase known as the doratismos. The front rankers (and possibly the second rankers) would fight it out w/ spear or sword. This would continue until ranks 3 - 8 could line up closely behind the front ranker and then begin the othismos. The side that could accomplish this first would have the advantage - at least to start.

Hence, the Spartans would not only be able to absorb a running charge in their compact formation [I agree w/ you on that also], but also begin the othismos much sooner than any opponent - thereby giving them a large advantage. Recall that the opponent's phalanx would still be in a fluid state. I believe that a hoplite being pushed backwards can not fight nearly as effectively as one who is holding his ground. So not only is the Spartan phalanx advancing (winning the othismos) but fighting opponents who can not fight as effectively. I think that this is what Thucydides is referring towhen he said that the Lakedaemonian troops fought their battles long and stubbornly.

The Spartans were unbeatable for 200 years because they could keep their nerve (due no doubt to there extensive training)where a militia could not. Hoplites from all other states were militias, as the Spartans themselves delighted in pointing out.

Just my opinion. : )

Anonymous said...

"the aspis was not proof from penetration of spears."

I cant imagine a spear piercing a thick wooden shield, without a cavalry charge behind it. Especially if the hoplites walked into battle.