Monday, October 4, 2010

The (mis-)understanding of Xenophon's fictional battle of Thymbara

There is a section of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia that is often invoked as evidence against the occurrence of Othismos in hoplite combat and to demonstrate the uselessness of deep files in such pushing matches. It occurs during the fictional battle of Thymbara and the lines seem pretty clear when read in isolation:

Xenophon, Cyropaedia 6.3.20
“And how are the Egyptians drawn up?” asked Cyrus; “for you said ‘with the exception of the Egyptians.’”
“The brigadier-generals drew them up—each one ten thousand men, a hundred square; for this, they said, was their manner of arranging their order of battle at home.
22] “And do you think, Cyrus,” said one of the generals, “that drawn up with lines so shallow we shall be a match for so deep a phalanx?”
“When phalanxes are too deep to reach the enemy with weapons,” answered Cyrus, “how do you think they can either hurt their enemy or help their friends?
23] For my part, I would rather have these1 hoplites who are arranged in columns a hundred deep drawn up ten thousand deep; for in that case we should have very few to fight against. According to the depth that I shall give my line of battle, I think I shall bring the entire line into action and make it everywhere mutually helpful

Xenophon surely knew what he was talking about when it came to hoplite battle and he clearly states the uselessness of such depth. Reading this section alone, I would have a hard time supporting a notion of othismos that brings the force of deep files to bear.

But there is more a bit further on that rarely gets cited along with the above:

Xen. Cyrop. 6.4.17 The infantry that you will fight against, you have fought before—all but the Egyptians; and they are armed and drawn up alike badly; for with those big shields which they have they cannot do anything or see anything; and drawn up a hundred deep, it is clear that they will hinder one another from fighting—all except a few.
Well, here again he reiterates the uselessness of great depth in a phalanx, But…

18] But if they believe that by rushing (ὠθοῦντες) they will rush us off the field, they will first have to sustain the charge of horses and of steel driven upon them by the force of horses; and if any of them should hold his ground, how will he be able to fight at the same time against cavalry and phalanxes and towers? And that he will have to do, for those upon our towers will come to our aid and raining their missiles upon the enemy will drive them to distraction rather than to fighting.
The translator has chosen the word “rush”, but you may recognize the root of Othismos in the actual word used (in bold), thus “push” and “pushed” (or perhaps crowded). Xenophon is clearly stating that the deep phalanx can push his shallow Persian phalanx from the field. The reason he is confident it will not happen is his use of combined arms against it. The first two ranks of the Persians simply have to slow the Egyptian advance while the rear ranks rain down missiles (Interestingly this is a similar mechanic to both the actual Persian tactics and the later Roman Fulcum). He even has set towers on the field to shoot down into the ranks while his cavalry is supposed to hit them in the flank and rear before they can in fact push the Persians from the field.

As he describes it, the battle plays out in just this fashion:

Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.1.33] Here, then, was a dreadful conflict with spears and lances and swords. The Egyptians, however, had the advantage both in numbers and in weapons; for the spears that they use even unto this day are long and powerful, and their shields cover their bodies much more effectually than corselets and targets, and as they rest against the shoulder they are a help in shoving. So, locking their shields Together, they advanced and showed.
34] And because the Persians had to hold out their little shields clutched in their hands, they were unable to hold the line, but were forced back foot by foot, giving and taking blows,

So here the Persians get the worst of doratismos, but eventually are “pushed” back by a line of locked shields that are better designed for physical pushing, until…

until they came up under cover of the moving towers. When they reached that point, the Egyptians in turn received a volley from the towers; and the forces in the extreme rear would not allow any retreat on the part of either archers or lancers, but with drawn swords they compelled them to shoot and hurl. 35] Then there was a dreadful carnage, an awful din of arms and missiles of every sort, and a great tumult of men, as they called to one another for aid, or exhorted one another, or invoked the gods.
36] At this juncture Cyrus came up in pursuit of1 the part that had been opposed to him; and when he saw that the Persians had been forced from their position, he was grieved; but as he realized that he could in no way check the enemy's progress more quickly than by marching around behind them, he ordered his men to follow him and rode around to the rear. There he fell upon the enemy as they faced the other way and smote them and slew many of them.

The Egyptians are surrounded and ultimately surrender.

To understand this passage, we need to look not only to the context within this book, but to Xenophon’s recent experience. He wrote this book after the Theban 50 rank phalanx at Leuctra and most likely after the 50 rank phalanx at Mantinea as well. These extra deep phalanxes had made resistance in othismos against them futile. In effect, these are the ultimate expression of othismos, but also very vulnerable.

The Thebans had been experimenting with deep phalanxes since at least Delium, where Pagondas formed 25 ranks deep in order to force his way through the Athenian phalanx. They habitually formed in more than 16 ranks and apparently violated a treaty during the Corinthian war designed to force them into a maximum of 16 ranks so as to lengthen the allied battle-line and avoid being flanked by the Spartans. We don’t know the depth at Tegyra, but perhaps the Sacred band did not need extra depth against a foe who erroneously allowed them to break through their battle-line because they assumed the Thebans were attempting to escape the field. They may have had the second phase of Coronea in mind, where Xenophon chided Agiselaos for the bloody battle that ensued when he headed off a retreating Theban formation (probably 25 ranks deep). At that battle they broke through the Spartan center eventually as well, but were spent and routed.

The culmination of all of these experiences with depth was the Theban 50 rank phalanx at Leuktra/ Leuctra. It was not a “column”, as is often stated, any more than a 16 rank taxis was a column, but something like an 80 by 50 rectangular taxis. Hoplites did attempt to engage from marching column on occasion and things did not go well. The 50 rank taxis at Leuctra and Mantinea proved unstoppable, but in no way simply steam-rollered the Spartans from the field. The mechanics of pushing en mass require this to be a slow process and problems of packing within the ranks of each phalanx and moving in unison ensure that there could be a give and take of ground of the type that we read about in accounts of the battles. But a ratcheting advance of the great Theban mass was always likely to win in the end.

Xenophon knew all of this and as an astute general could see the weakness of the extra-deep phalanx to flanking maneuvers and the inability of missile troops to shoot over the deep mass effectively. Thus he does not attempt to do more than slow the Egyptian (Theban) phalanx, while shooting into the mass with missiles both from the rear ranks and down from mobile field fortifications. I’m tempted to think he would have presaged the Spartan tyrant Machanidas’ use of artillery against the phalanx had he not set his book in the Persian past. While he is slowing and distracting them, his cavalry envelops them from the rear and secures victory.

The obvious weakness of the ultra-deep phalanx to flank attack rendered the whole tactic something of a trick that was impossible to carry out against a forewarned and properly armed foe. Already at Mantinea it is possible that the death of Epameinondas was no accident of battle, but indicative of the Spartans hitting the unsupported right flank of the Theban formation. Their inferiority in cavalry compared to the Boeotians rendered outflanking around the left flank unlikely. I generally follow Plutarch’s version of the death of Epameinondas where he is killed by a Spartan sword, but Ephorus, via Diodorus, has him felled by javelins. If there is any truth to the latter it perhaps reflects a Spartan mirror (precedent?) of the thinking of Xenophon’s fictional tactics.


Scott Rusch said...

Dear Dr. Bardunias:

I've been wanting to join your pheidition and comment on your very interesting work here, but it's tough to find the time these days. I'm going to have to go back and check Krentz and Cawkwell; I'm surprised they missed this passage. I should point out, by the way, that the combat section cited is 7.1.33ff., not 6.3.33ff. My own approach is to treat othismos as a tactic, not the sole or invariable method of hoplite combat, which could run from monomachia (in flight/pursuit situations, combat aboard ships or on wall-tops, etc.) to doratismos (individual fighting with spears or swords while closely-formed in a phalanx or line of promachoi) to othismos (joint mass shoving). What happened depended on training, situation, and inspiration.

Re your statement: "The obvious weakness of the ultra-deep phalanx to flank attack rendered the whole tactic something of a trick that was impossible to carry out against a forewarned and properly armed foe," I would disagree to this extent: it all depended on what the column had as flank guards. At Delium, Nemea, and first phase of Coronea the column had an entire hoplite army on one flank, and cavalry on the other. At Tegyra, Leuctra, and perhaps also second phase of Coronea it had cavalry. It will have been the 200 Theban cavalry at Tegyra that kept the polemarchs from simply surrounding and destroying the Sacred Band. Cleombrotus seems to have been prepared for a repetition of this at Leuctra, since he stationed his cavalry in front of his phalanx. He was not prepared to see it routed into his phalanx, of course.

Don't know if you're aware of it, but it has been proposed that the Cyropaedia was intended to suggest reforms for the Spartans: Paul Christesen, 'Xenophon's "Cyropaedia" and Military Reform in Sparta,'
The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 126 (2006), pp. 47-65. It's available on JSTOR, but I can send you a pdf if you don't have access. It focuses on the idea of turning the Peers into cavalry and making the Perioecs and Helots into heavy infantry, but of course the Egyptian phalanx stands in for the Thebans, so Xenophon will have been offering tactical solutions as well.

In this regard, you could have given a little more love to poor Abradatas and his fellow drivers of scythed chariots. Xenophon gives these a lot of prominence, and may well have thought them a good counter to the deep column, provided they received the necessary protection and were used properly. The fact that they proved ineffective at Cunaxa did not mean they had to be ineffective, and in fact Pharnabazus had used them successfully against Agesilaus.

Xenophon Hellenica 4.1: [17] But on one occasion, while the soldiers were getting their provisions in disdainful and careless fashion, because they had not previously met with any mishap, Pharnabazus came upon them, scattered as they were over the plain, with two scythe-bearing chariots and about four hundred horsemen. [18] Now when the Greeks saw him advancing upon them, they ran together to the number of about seven hundred; Pharnabazus, however, did not delay, but putting his chariots in front, and posting himself and the horsemen behind them, he gave orders to charge upon the Greeks. [19] And when the chariots dashed into the close-gathered crowd and scattered it, the horsemen speedily struck down about a hundred men, while the rest fled for refuge to Agesilaus; for he chanced to be near at hand with the hoplites.

So if Xenophon did mean this work to provide lessons for the Spartans, it is entirely credible that one of those lessons was the use of scythed chariots against deep columns of hoplites.

Guess that's all I have for this. Hope you find it interesting; I would hate to be caddished.

Sincerely yours,

Scott Rusch

P. M. Bardunias said...

Scott, I'm just Paul. Thanks for coming and grab a bowl. I've fixed the citation.

My own approach is to treat othismos as a tactic, not the sole or invariable method of hoplite combat

Then we would be largely in agreement. The only reservation I have about labelling othismos a "tactic" is that I do not think it had to be specifically ordered, like a charge, but could "emerge" or spontaneously arise from the actions of the mass of hoplites simply closing. But in a broad sense, yes, othismos was a phase of hoplite battle that need not occur at all nor be desisive in a battle. It surely was not the obligate starting point of a battle, though a phalanx might enter it quickly under the right conditions.

I would disagree to this extent: it all depended on what the column had as flank guards.

First, I refuse to call it a column. Doing so immediately conjures images of undeployed columns of route which cause all sorts of misunderstandings. It was simply a deep phalanx and functioned like a 16 or 25 ranks phalanx.

The deep phalanx had two flanks to worry about, because its joint with the taxeis of normal depth to the right was a weak point as the deep phalanx pushed back the enemy.

I mentioned that with such inferior cavalry, the Spartans could not hope to outflank the Thebans. Moreso because at Mantinea the Thebans set light infantry among the horse. Even thought the horse of the day could not stand up to hoplites, the threat of attack in the rear if the hoplites roll up the line could be prohibitive. But this can be negated with proper planning. One way would be to do as the Thebans had done, and later Ceasar would at Pharsalus, and stiffen your lesse quality cavalry with infantry to screen the movement of your hoplites.

it has been proposed that the Cyropaedia was intended to suggest reforms for the Spartans

I've read it, and I was skeptical because there is no way that 4th century Spartans could be coerced into forming an elite cavalry of the remaining homoioi. Spartan culture was too biased towards the values of line infantry to get the Hippeis back on their horses in Xenophon's day. But that does not mean Xenophon, cavalryman that he was, believed this or was wrong that it would have made tactical sense. I don't think we see a Spartan battle led from horseback until Machanidas at the end of the 3rd century BC.

I am also sympathetic to the notion that Xenophon was writing not for Spartiates, but to present Spartan military thought to a wider Greek audience. Or perhaps to present his military "expertise", much of it gained from Spartans, as other probable mercenary commanders like Aneas would do. Reading Xenophon is often like reading De Saxe. He is alternately precognizant and fantastical.

I can't escape the fact that countering the Theban formation at Leuktra must have been the hottest topic in phidition for almost a decade. I'm as inclined to think that Xenophon is passing what he learned as much as teaching.

P. M. Bardunias said...


if Xenophon did mean this work to provide lessons for the Spartans, it is entirely credible that one of those lessons was the use of scythed chariots against deep columns of hoplites.

I've been discussing the use of chariots in this context a lot recently, and I admit to being a bit torn over them. My usual take on any anumal charging close-formed, steady infantry is that they will not do so. But the chariot adds an elemnt of inertia that makes the whole something beyond a simple animal. As you mentioned the scythed chariot was negated at Cunaxe and later by Alexander by simply getting out of the way and making lanes for them to pass. The fact that they did take the path of least resistance rather than turning into the mass of the phalanx tells us something about the limits to their ability to be forced into collision.

The incident with the 700 men who are scattered by chariots may not be directly applicable to formed hoplites, Agiselaos' hoplites have no fear on arrival, but it may have stuck in Xenophon's mind as an example of the destructiveness of the chariot. Even to a man of Xenophon's experience, the chariots may simply have seemed like a better idea than they turned out to be in actual fact.