Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Reinstating the Hoplite": Adam Schwartz and the failure of the orthodox view of othismos

A few months back, I promised a review of Adam Schwartz's "Reinstating the Hoplite: Arms, Armour and Phalanx Fighting in Archaic and Classical Greece". In this post I am going to specifically address Section 3.4, Othismos. I’ll restate that this book is a remarkable resource. If you own only one book on hoplite combat, own this one. Much of the book is a filtering and restatement of arguments put forth in a series of papers that make up the great “Heresy-v-Orthodoxy” debate, meticulously footnoted. If you have read all of these papers, then much of this book will not seem novel, but it is nice to have all of this in one place and Schwartz’s commentary is often quite insightful.  His description of othismos is a weakness of the book.

This section begins with a description of othismos as “a common effort, ostensibly by a common push…of the entire phalanx…into the enemy in order to drive them back”, following Hanson’s usage. I agree with this definition and we will need to keep it in mind as we go forward, for Schwartz deviates from it in important ways in his presentation. Following the prevailing notion, which you now know to be incorrect if you have been reading my previous posts, he goes on to describe men hoplites in othismos:

The hoplites in the front stemmed their left shoulder against their shield and thrust it against the shields and bodies of the enemy with all their might; and the ranks behind them in turn stemmed their shields against the backs and right side of the man in front in a ¾ stance, as it were.

In this way, a tremendous pressure could be generated and conveyed through the entire phalanx from the rearmost rank, its force increasing on the way.

 Right away, Schwartz has unwittingly presented us in these two sentences with contradictory mechanics. This is the most glaring problem with the current portrayal of othismos, and the focus of my campaign to correct our understanding. You cannot both stand at a “¾ stance” and sustain “tremendous pressure”. A ¾ stance is one in which your body is held at a diagonal behind the shield, which is facing flush to your foes. The arm is bent, with the arm and body forming an acute angle. This is the natural stance for just about all combat sports, from Asian martial arts to renaissance fencing. Hoplites probably stood this way when engaged in spear fencing. I will do a full post on stances and weapons grips used in hoplite combat at a later date, but for now it is important to understand that in this pose, the only thing holding the shield away from the front of your body is the strength of your arm and shoulder. Were I to grab you by the right shoulder with one hand and the shield with the other and try to force your shield to touch your chest, it is easy to see that very little of your musculature resists my pushing.

Now, even the biggest weight lifter cannot resist “tremendous pressure” with the strength of his arm and shoulder alone. Remember that less than 10 men can generate 1,000 lbs of force or more. So if we take the description of men at ¾ and apply anything approaching the force that can be generated by files of hoplites, the end result will be that the hoplites collapse into the bowl of their shields, chest to underside of the shield rim. Once they collapse into the shield in this way, they occupy less space than they did in the ¾ stance. Thus, as the file closes in there is no room to move back into ¾ stance again unless the files spreads out.

This is important because the current orthodoxy posits a stance with the left shoulder inside the bowl of the shield, pushing on the inner shield-face. Many have interpreted Arrian, the Roman tactician, describing this in a section of his Tactica (16.13). Arrian of course was not a hoplite and the passage in question does not exist in earlier sources for his tactia. He did on the other hand live at a time when Romans formed shield-walls, later called a fulcum, wherein men with very different, single gripped, shields may well have pushed standing sideways at far lower pressure than a hoplite with an aspis could survive.

If we toss out the ¾ stance when pushing, then we can also eliminate the notion that the depth of the aspis was to allow the shield to be rested on the shoulder while pushing. I won’t go on here, but look back to my previous posts to learn how hoplites stood with their shields and a further examination of why the “shoulder rest” function was a side benefit and not the purpose for the depth.

At 3.4.2, the book moves on to describe arguments for and against a literal othismos defined as above. This section is a good distillation of the various viewpoints, but in rebutting the opinions against othismos, Schwartz goes awry. He specifically addresses two arguments: 1) the tremendous force generated by deep files of men would cause a squeeze that would be “distressing to contemplate” in Fraser’s words (1942), and 2) the great pressure would impede weapons usage.

Schwartz is failed here by his reliance on Franz (2002). I must be clear that Franz wrote in German, a language I do not read, so I am only commenting on Schwartz’s translated quotations from that work. With that in mind, what is attributed to Franz shows a lack of understanding of how force is generated in groups of pushing men. He is quoted as writing:

The mass pressure was not achieved by the weight of the warriors, but by their muscles…the mass of the hoplites played a relatively minor role. It came into play chiefly when brief, thrusting impulses were transmitted from one warrior to another.

Schwartz focuses on this and tells us that it “corrects a common enough oversight in the othismos debate.” In fact, Franz, via Schwartz, is propagating a misunderstanding of crowd forces while at the same time being represented as an authority on the subject. Mass is the most important factor in transmitting forces through dense crowds. It is through “leaning” and resting your weight on the man in front, more than “pushing with the legs” that force adds cumulatively in crowds. Members of crowds stand for the most part upright and lean into each other with the upper body angled to some degree. The amount of pressure that can be generated in pushing with the legs is restricted by the angle the legs make with the ground- the closer to perpendicular the less pressure you can generate, with an optimal angle at something acute like 45 degrees depending on how well your feet grip the substrate.

This is important because, as we have seen in crowd data that I presented previously, high pressures within crowds can be maintained for long periods of time. It is in fact the duration of pressure even more than the sheer amount that causes asphyxia in crowds. So, contra Schwartz, the pressure in ranks of hoplites would be “impossible to resisist” without an aspis to protect the diaphragm. His mention of armor as protection against asphyxia, even if true (some reenactors of ECW push of pike battles tell me that the breast and back does help) becomes problematic when we consider the rise in the era of deepest ranks of the organic corslet, sometimes called “tube and yoke” or linothorax.

Schwartz further quotes Franz about what occurs in crowds:

When people behind sense that the pushing does not bring about any immediate advantage, they stop pushing. The result is a kind of reverse thrust.
This statement shows a fundamental difference in a “crowd” of pedestrians and a “crowd” of hoplites in othismos. The hoplites want to generate lethal levels of forces, while crowds do so only accidentally. If we start from the definition of othismos presented at the beginning of this post, then the goal of opposing ranks is to produce the maximum pushing force that they can. What he describes is true for pedestrian crowds, and this behavior is also why we don’t see othismos in every other battle-line in history. Once the front of the file gets squeezed to their limit, they push back on their own men, causing the file to open. In hoplites this did not happen until the pressure became enormous because of their ability to withstand being squeezed without suffocating.

An analogy to what happens between men in Franz’s depiction would be you walking down a hall and pushing against a closed door. If the door does not open, you stop pushing, the feedback telling you it is locked. But if you know the door is locked and your goal is to break down the door, then you do not stop pushing even when the same exact feedback tells you it is locked. You push harder in order to bust it opened. This is what hoplites did. Their “crowds” were meant to push against resistance and overcome it.

Schwartz touches upon this in mentioning crowd disasters, but does not connect the crowd of hoplites to the type of crowd that ends in deaths from asphyxia because he cannot describe why hoplites could survive this. My own examination of the aspis’s role in protecting against crushing of the diaphragm can. There is no reason to expect a group of motivated pushing hoplites to be “like any other crowd moving in a particular direction.”  They are intentionally attempting to generate the maximum sustained force against their opponents, and could generate sustainable forces far in excess of those which occur accidentally in crowds of similar size.

A bit further on, he discusses that othismos could not last long. This has been an objection of many: “How can you push for an extended period?” The answer again comes from an understanding of crowds. Pressure can be maintained within crowds at rock concerts for long periods.  Force will vary over time, but not in the quick oscillations Schwartz envisions.  There could be "lulls", the force reducing as men simply unpack to catch their breath, perhaps even pulling completely apart and engaging at spear range again.

At the end of this section, following the prevalent notion of hoplites charging directly into othismos, he brings up the fact that many units charge, even when occupying positions of superior height. He portrays them as abandoning tactical advantage for momentum. I won’t dwell on this, but Polybios specifically describes the problem with not charging downhill during the battle of Sellasia (2.68), and it has nothing to do with momentum for othismos.

The second objection he addresses is that weapons cannot be used in othismos. He quotes Cawkwell’s statement that men would “better be able to use their teeth than their weapons”. I’ve addressed this at length, and I was glad to see that Schwartz also saw the utility of the short sword in the press of othismos. He correctly sees the limitations of the spear in othismos and presents the overhand grip as the exclusive strike for use within the phalanx as well. I’ll delve into that deeper in a future post.

He also does a great job of showing the folly of van Wees’s notion that the aspis cannot be used to push because it was held up at a slant and only the bottom rims would collide. Obviously, the men would simply collapse into their shields as they push and Schwartz points this out. Unfortunately, he did not see that this same logic applies to men standing at ¾ stances as I described above.

He also twists Xenophon (Cyr. 7.1.33) to mean that the aspis was rested on, not against, the shoulder. The clear reading of the passage is that the shield was rested against the shoulder/upper arm, and this can certainly be read as a description of the way I portray hoplites as resting the rim against the front of the shoulder, on the broad shoulder piece of the organic corslet. Note that some depictions show these stiff shoulder pieces extending wider than the shoulder, so if you push with the shield on the shoulder the stiff pad gets jammed into your neck!

Section 3.4.3 is an examination of the morale effects of added ranks, which are in no way incompatible with othismos, but works alongside it. In 3.4.4, he discusses the need to maintain cohesion. Goldsworthy’s notion of depth as a means of maintaining cohesion in the presence of broken terrain is mentioned, but as I have shown previously, there is no record of 25 or 50 rank phalanxes deploying from this depth into a shallower, broader line. Unless these men are meant to stand idle until the front ranks somehow break through, getting more men into the area is not helpful unless they can move to a shallower formation and engage the enemy.

He describes the Argive predilection to run too early into the charge and notes that this tore holes in the formation between them an adjacent units. Interestingly, he goes on to describe Spartans foregoing the charge, but does not seem to realize that this too must result in gaps between them and adjacent units that did have a running charge. The whole line cannot have arrived simultaneously against the enemy line if part walked and part ran. This has been overlooked by everyone to my knowledge.

Following the common model of othismos, he mentions hoplites charging 50 m (later 20-25m) in order to impart “a maximum of penetration power at the collision”. The real cause of the charge has more to do with the “tremendous nervous pressure” he also describes, because it takes only a few yards to achieve the “ramming speed” suggested by the orthodoxy. Any distance in excess of that simply causes fatigue and a loss of cohesion for no gain of momentum. In fact, the whole notion of a charge like an un-horsed medieval knight imparting maximum pressure is a fallacy, as I have previously demonstrated. Dense packing is far more important for a strong and sustainable force even if it occurs at slow speed.

It is in the final section, 3.4.5, that Schwartz’s portrait of othismos falls apart. He again draws on “observations of crowd behavior” to portray othismos as a “phenomenon occurring at intervals”. He applies what I is think a wildly inappropriate reference on Spartan leaders having trouble keeping the rear ranks from pushing forward to initiate the charge to show that rear ranks could push forward when locked in combat. I do believe that they did push forward within the file, but this reference cannot be applied. Cavalry were famous for “chomping at the bit” to rush into the charge as well, but there is not corresponding push when engaged in combat.  Using an innapropriate reference gives ammo to the foes of othismos.

Inexplicably, he abandons the ¾ stance, where men push their shields into the back of those in front, for Luginbill’s “T” shaped, side-on stance where men push into the side and right shoulder of those in front. Then he has the file leaders being propelled into the enemy ranks by the file behind them “killing left and right”. Far more likely is getting “killed from left and right”. More importantly, the overlapping of shields within each succesive rank make any single file pushing through the stacked ranks and out of formation, then into the enemy’s overlapped ranks, unlikely.

He states that: “Such othismos may have occurred in short bursts, and at random intervals, as the rear ranks felt they might help their comrades by applying pressure. And not all 7 ranks need to participate in shoving simultaneously…” This is a radical departure from Hanson's “a common effort, ostensibly by a common push…of the entire phalanx…into the enemy in order to drive them back”. In fact, what he goes on to describe is nothing unique to hoplites. Romans and pretty much any linear formation in ranks surely had disorganized pushing by eager men behind the front ranks. This interpretation makes “othismos” so common in the history of warfare that it hardly warrants a special term in the Greek context. This commonality also goes a long way towards unraveling all of the arguments for the form of the panoply being derived from the need to be effective in the “push”. Any Roman with a scutum could do what Schwartz advocates and frequently did.

Part of the problem is that Schwartz is in a bit over his head. I do not say this disparagingly. I applaud him for attempting to bring in concepts from crowd mechanics even if he ultimately does not sufficiently understand them. A statement that hoplite battles were “essentially chaotic” is ironic, because I agree with him, but my understanding of chaos is clearly far different from his own. The phrase “no one to direct the movements of the enormous organism” is so close to what I believe the truth, but we need to add an understanding of how order emerges from seemingly ‘chaotic’ interactions within groups. The study of how this occurs through what is called self-organization will ultimately yield a clearer understanding of hoplite combat. Groups of men, like flocks of birds or schools of fish, can achieve a great degree of cohesion and coordination through simple interactions between men in a bottom-up fashion, and do not require the top-down direction of generals for much of what occurs in combat. Thus, we do not need “a referee with a whistle” as Holladay (1982) said would be needed to move from one phase to another. Such “phase transitions” can arise simply from the interactions of individual hoplites in the absence of specific orders.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sword use in Othismos

In an earlier post, I wrote that hoplites in the crowd of othismos could strike with short swords over their shields into the necks of their foes in a truly brutal manner. I happened to find an image that shows what this strike would have looked like and where it would have been delivered. Obviously the artist is not depicting othismos, but the arm position of the hoplite and the insertion point, along side the neck into the chest cavity(but on the left), are similar.

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.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Helena Schrader and revolting Helots

Recently, a friend of mine, Helena Schrader, who has written many novels set in ancient Sparta with an eye towards dispelling much of the mirage that has been built up around Spartan history, asked me a question on something I posted on her website. I decided to turn her question into a guest spot, giving you both her initial question and my response. Many of you have already followed the link from my site her hers, and I recommend those that have not done so take the opportunity now. She has a new trilogy coming out centered on Leonidas's life.

I mentioned a Helot revolt in 490 BC that may have been the real cause for the Spartan delay that left Athens to face the invasion alone. Her question was as follows:

“What evidence is there for a helot revolt in 490? I have heard it hypothesized that there might have been a helot revolt to explain Sparta's delay in responding to the Athenian plea for assistance against the Persian invasion. But I was not aware of any literary or archeological evidence that supported this thesis. On the contrary, I recently read an account that stressed that no other explanation for the Spartan delay than the one reported by Herodotus (6:106) (waiting for the full moon) was needed. Personally, I have been speculating about another possible reason for the delay - Cleomenes' madness and an internal dispute about who should lead the Spartan army sent to aid Athens. The kings were supposed to command, and Leotychidas does not appear to have been active - or trusted? - as a commander. Cleomenes was going mad - or possibly still in Arkadia. I think internal disagreement about who to put in command might have made it impossible for the Spartans to react promptly, but the desire to keep internal disputes secret made them give the Athenians the excuse of a religious festival. Any way, if you have some strong indicators for the helot revolt, however, I'd be very interested.”

There is one direct reference to a revolt of Helots in 490BC. Plato (Laws 698 D-E) includes the line:

“but when they sent out embassies in every direction to seek aid, all refused, [698e] except the Lacedaemonians; and they were hindered by the war they were then waging against Messene, and possibly by other obstacles, about which we have no information, with the result that they arrived too late by one single day for the battle which took place at Marathon.”

Now, Plato has something of a reputation for paying more attention to his Rhetoric tutors than his history lessons, so of itself his statement is less than compelling. There is a whole suite of circumstantial evidence to back up Plato’s assertion, that in total make an argument that some believe is sufficient to prove a revolt, while others remain unconvinced. Drs. Lazenby and Cawkwell believe in the revolt, while as of the time of his book Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History, which I draw from for this entry, Dr. Cartledge was agnostic.

First, at Olympia the Spartans dedicated spoils from a war with the Messenians. Pausanias writes that this was dedicated after the second Messenian revolt, which would be the revolt in 465 BC, following the devastation of Sparta by earthquake.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, (5.24.3)
“On the right of the great temple is a Zeus facing the rising of the sun, twelve feet high and dedicated, they say, by the Lacedaemonians, when they entered on a war with the Messenians after their second revolt. On it is an elegiac couplet: “Accept, king, son of Cronus, Olympian Zeus, a lovely image, and have a heart propitious to the Lacedaemonians.”

L. H. Jeffery (JHS, LXVI 1949) showed that the way in which the letters were formed in the dedication could not have been used as late a 465, thus there must have been a “messenian war” before this, but not so early as the first revolt in the early 7th C.

Second, there is a tripod dedicated at Amyclai by Callon to success in a Messenian war. “There are also bronze tripods. The older ones are said to be a tithe of the Messenian war” (Paus. 3.18.7). Callon is thought to have been active at around the turn of the 5th C.

Third, we have a statue dedicated to Zeus, again noted by Pausanias (4.33.2) “The statue of Zeus is the work of Ageladas and was made originally for the Messenian settlers in Naupactus.” But Ageladas worked in the early half of the 5th century and not as late as 460.

Fourth, Anaxilas, an early 5th century Tyrant of Rhegium in southern Italy along with a group of Messenians seized and Zankle in north-eastern Sicily and renamed it Messene in 489-88 BC (E. S. G. Robinson, JHS LXVI 1946).

Fifth, Aristomenes was a Messenian hero from Andania (Paus. 4.14.7). He has been variously dated to the initial subjugation of Messena in the late 8th c, the first revolt some 40 years later, and by the Hellenistic poet Rhianos in his Messeniaka to the late 5th century. A web of evidence including the lives of supposed descendants that has become known as the “Rhianos Hypothesis” supports this later date. For example we are told one of his daughters married Theopompos of Heria, who was an Olympic victor in 284 and 480 BC.

Lastly, there are dedications by ” Messenians” at Delphi in the early 5th century. These and the various instances of the movements of Messenians to colonies could reflect an uprising and its later defeat by the Spartans. Why there should be an uprising at this time is easy to imagine. Surely the Messenians knew by 491 BC that the Persians were coming. One wonders, if the revolt is fact, if it was coup of the Persians or their allies.

There is one last possibility I should mention. Cleomenes I gained the Agiad throne in about 520 BC, and was perhaps one of the most interesting Spartans Kings. As was common with Spartan royalty, he was often at odds with the Spartan legislature. Spartan Kings were severely limited in their power when not on campaign with the army. What they did have were powerful factions within the citizen body politic. More than most, Cleomenes I was ruthless in his politics. His actions led to the famous dethroning and defection of Damaratus to the Persian King’s court.
Later, at a moment of political weakness, his foes attacked, leading him to flee to Arcadia- perhaps by way of Sellasia not Thessaly. There he appears to have been rallying the Arcadians. His modern advocates look to this as a great panhellenic gesture in preparation for facing the Persians. Perhaps I am less generous, but the examples of Damaratus, Lysander, Cleonymus, and his namesake Cleomenes III, all make a direct use of this Arcadian base as a pawn in a power play for Spartan power likely. Remember, this is the man who once famously termed himself an “Achean” in an Athenian temple. If he was rousing Arcadians, is it impossible that there was also some intrigue with Messenians?

Perhaps it was this revolt that prompted the Spartans to bring 7 helots for every Spartan hoplite to the battle of Plataea. Keep your friends close, but your revolting subjects closer…

Further reading:

Sparta and Lakonia: a regional history, 1300-362 BC, Paul Cartledge, Psychology Press, 2002

Cleomenes, G. Cawkwell, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 46 (Nov., 1993)

Discrepancies in olympiad dating and chronological problems of archaic Peloponnesian history, Pamela-Jane Shaw, Volume 166 of Historia. Einzelschriften, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003

Kleomenes, Marathon, the Helots, and Arkadia, W. P. Wallace, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 74 (1954)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Quantitative Evaluation of Hoplite Combat

For years now I have advocated that those interested in hoplite combat should make greater use of reenactors who put a great deal of time and money into acquiring an authentic hoplite panoply. Many groups of reenactors exist all over the globe, and I know memeber of many of them. In discussing various hoplte topics with them, one thing is clear: if you ask any two reenactors the way hoplites did something, you'll get three opinions. The fundamental problem is that all the conclusions they draw are based on anectdotal evidence. This does not make any of them wrong, even when they disagree, but the lack of standardization makes comparing between them almost impossible. Often we can't know exaclty why they had different experiences.

It has long been a goal of mine to assist groups of reenactors in generating quantitative data on various aspects of hoplite combat. This would be hard data, numbers that we could crunch to provide a true comparison between individuals and between hoplite reenactment groups.

There are many elements of hoplite combat that need to be tested, but my main concern is the safety of reenactors, thus no othismos for the time being. I've attached an image that could serve as a first attempt at a standardized test for hoplite groups. This set-up is a basic stabbing test. The data will give us a rate of striking for a hoplite in formation. I think this rate can be fairly well correlated to the offensive potential of hoplites engaged in doratismos. By altering the size of the target and requiring more accuracy, we can simulate strikes that would "kill" or wound. Because we are simulating group combat, at least three men side by side are needed to create a hoplite bounded on both flanks by other men. For our purposes only the central hoplite can be have his strike number recorded, for only he in flanked by others.

Within this basic set-up, we can alter a variety of variables:

Duration of test period: stamina
Size of target (moving target): accuracy
Grip type: underhand or overhand
Number of ranks in the phalanx
Lateral inter-hoplite spacing
Fore-and-aft spacing
Number of ranks stabbing forward at targets (1, 2 or 3)
Striking while under physical pressure from rear ranks of various length files
Change focus to record the striking rate of the second or third man in the file

Here is a second simple test. This one is to quantify the loss of cohesion that we all know occurs as a phalanx advances rapidly in close order. You simply measure the distance between a point on any adjacent hoplites in rank or file- I suggest the left foot. Then you have the formation advance at whatever speed and in whatever formation you wish to test. The men are made to stop at some signal, a horn or simple shout is preferable to a demarkation so that it is harder to predict. Then you simply remeasure the distances between hoplites. The deviation between each pair from their original spacing is a measure of a loss of order. From there you can ask if they became tighter or looser. The test can be repeated varying the with different starting formations, individual advancing posture, distance, and speed of advance, etc.

I've got a few groups signed on for some testing and welcome any who seek to join. Whatever we are able to do I will run appropriate statistics on and we'll try to publish someplace so that we can all refer to it. Obviously a large number of individuals being tested is good to control for variation between hoplites, but I'd like to get multiple groups involved as well if possible. I welcome discussion on this experiment and hopefully we can plan other experiments as well.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Schwartz and Mathew on Hoplite Combat

I just received Adam Schwartz's "Reinstating the Hoplite: Arms, Armour and Phalanx Fighting in Archaic and Classical Greece". It is an excellent resource, and a good rebuttal to many of the weak points of Hans Van Wees "Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities." Unfortunately, he passes over some of Van Wees better ideas and propagates mechanics for othismos which you should recognize as flawed if you've read through my previous posts. There is not all that much new in the book, and some of the the newer elements are subject to logical flaws, but as a review it is an excellent resource if you can afford to add it to your shelf.

The book is most useful to me in that he provides passages from German works that have been opaque to me until now. One of these is a book by Franz (2002) that actually discusses crowd behavior, though once again confusing the manner in which force is generated in crowds. Still, I would have cited him in my 2007 paper had I known he even broached the topic.

I'll do an in-depth review of this book at some point. Perhaps comparing where I agree with him and where Van Wees and Goldsworthy are correct.

The second work that has come into my possession is a paper by Chris Mathew, "When Push Comes to Shove: What was the Othismos of Hoplite Combat?" I have corresponded with Chris in the past, a hoplite reenactor and a very nice fellow. I was very pleased to see a reenactor working for his Ph.D. and looked forward to his input into the debate. Unfortunately I cannot agree with most of his views on hoplite battle. His main assertion, that hoplites fought with the dory using what I and others have termed the "high underhand" grip, is surely incorrect. As with the book above, I will try to do a full review of this paper in the near future. I think his main problem is that he was working within the paradigm of the "charge directly into othismos" crowd. The formations he describes are well suited to defeating such a charge, but taken out of that context can be shown to be quite ill suited to hoplite combat.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Syssition to Phitidion

Change has come to Hollow Lakedaimon. You will note that we are no longer the online syssition, we have laconized to the online Phitidion. Phitidia is what the common messes were called at Sparta, so I have broken down and made the change though I do like the sound of syssition much more. Here's what Plutarch had to say:

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus chapter 12:

(1) As for the public messes, the Cretans call them andreia, but the Lacedaemonians phitidia, either because they are conducive to friendship [philia] and friendliness, or because they accustom men to simplicity and thrift, for which their word is pheidô. But it is quite possible, as some say, that the first letter of the word phitidia has been added to it, making phitidia out of editia, which refers merely to meals and eating. (2) They met in companies of fifteen, a few more or less, and each one of the mess-mates contributed monthly a bushel [medimnos] of barley-meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds [mnai] of cheese, two and a half pounds of cheese, two and a half pounds of figs, and in addition to this, a very small sum of money for such relishes as flesh and fish. Besides this, whenever any one made a sacrifice of first fruits or brought home game from the hunt, he sent a portion to his mess. For whenever any one was made late by a sacrifice or the chase, he was allowed to dine at home, but the rest had to be at the mess. (3) For a long time this custom of eating at common mess-tables was rigidly observed. For instance, when King Agis, on returning from an expedition in which he had been victorious over the Athenians, wished to dine at home with his wife, and sent for his rations, the Polemarchs refused to send them to him; and when on the following day his anger led him to omit the customary sacrifice, they laid a fine on him.

(4) Boys also used to come to these public messes, as if they were attending schools of sobriety; there they would listen to political discussions and see instructive models of free behavior [eleutheria]. There they themselves also became accustomed to sport and jest without scurrility, and to endure jesting without displeasure. Indeed, it seems to have been especially characteristic of a Spartan to endure jesting; but if anyone could not bear up under it, he had only to ask it, and the jester ceased. As each one came in, the eldest of the company pointed to the door and said to him, "Through that door no word goes forth outside." (5) And they say that a candidate for membership in one of these messes underwent the following ordeal. Each of the mess-mates took in his hand a bit of soft bread, and when a servant came along with a bowl upon his head, then they cast it into this without a word, like a ballot, leaving it just as it was if he approved of the candidate, but if he disapproved, squeezing it tight in his hand first. (6) For the flattened piece of bread had the force of a perforated, or negative, ballot. And if one such is found in the bowl, the candidate is not admitted to the mess, because they wish all its members to be congenial. The candidate thus rejected is said to have been 'kaddished' [kekaddisthai], for kaddichos is the name of the bowl into which they cast the pieces of bread. (7) Of their dishes, the black broth [zomos] is held in the highest esteem, so that the elderly men do not even ask for a bit of meat, but leave it for the young men, while they themselves have the broth poured out for their meals. And it is said that one of the kings of Pontos actually bought a Spartan cook for the sake of having this broth, and then, when he tasted it, disliked it; whereupon the cook said, 'O King, those who relish this broth must first have bathed in the River Eurotas.' After drinking moderately, they go off home without a torch; for they are not allowed to walk with a light, either on this or any other occasion, that they may accustom themselves to marching boldly and without fear in the darkness of night. Such, then, is the fashion of their common messes.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Unfounded Objections to Othismos

The biggest objections to othismos dissapear when you accept my definition of othismos only occuring at crowd-like densities and understand how crowds push:

"Battles were long, men can't push that long."

The crowd cannot do anything fast. As soon as it starts to advance it begins to lose cohesion. Once this occurs it cannot transfer force through the ranks effectively. That is not to say "pushing" stops, but by my definition, the type of pushing done by the first few ranks with not transfer of force from deep in the file is not true "othismos", but the same shield bashing and pushing seen in a clash of any group of close-in fighters such as during Roman battles. For the most part in the Crowd-Othismos men are simply standing and leaning. It is exhausting, perhaps moreso mentally than physically, but no more than active weapons duelling. The phalanx does not advance like a steam roller, but like a ratchet, with perdiodic loosening and tightening of the ranks. When a rapid advance does occur, like it must have as one side gave way, it was only the front ranks pushing and even they were doing more "herding" like we see with riot police and crowds, than pushing in the sense of othismos.

An advance in true othismos can only occur through shuffling steps until one side gives way. As they begin to rout, they reduce the pressure on their foes that the othismos-crowd requires.

"Men can't fight and push"

When authors envisioned men bent over like rugby scrummers I could understand this objection. In the Crowd-Othismos, men are standing upright, and but for the extreme close range, their right arms are free to do whatever they wish with them. Obviously at this range you cannot use your dory against the man ahead of you, but the dory is some 8' long, not an Iklwa. It could not be used at any range approaching shield on shield contact. Swords, broken spears, fists, foot-stomps/hooks and teeth would be the order of the day.

"Twelve ranks of Spartans could not resist 50 ranks of Thebans for more than a few moments and yet we know that this phase of battle lasted for some time, with the Spartans even gaining ground to pick up their fallen King."

Not a problem when we understand that coordination of the crowds movements is what adds force in the othismos. There is only so much coordination you can get out of a file of 50 men. Even with a deep phalanx you probably can't get much more than 8-12 ranks perfectly coordinated. Thus, each side produces a forward thrust of about the same size at any given moment. As we wrote above, the depth acts like a wall behind your back. If you are pushed back, it forces all your ranks to tighten and become de facto coordinated to resist being moved. Twelve ranks of Spartans could push back the Thebans, but at a great disadvantage. The figurative "uphill battle" could only end one way.

I'll note that my distinction of pushing at different densities, with othimos only occurring at the tightest packed is not something that the Greeks would have made. They only speak of battles coming down to pushing, they did not disect the process and probably did not undertand it any better than a college kid rushing a stage at a rock concert. To them the whole process was one event.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Three Myths of Othismos

As you can tell by now, I am an advocate of a literal pushing othismos. Because of this I am frustrated by some elements of the pro-othismos arguement as it is currently put forth. I've mentioned these problems previously, but they bear repeating:

Myth 1: "The rim on the aspis evolved as the shield became heavier to allow the weight to be borne on the shoulder as well as the arm."

If you look at the cross-section of an aspis, it is clear that the rim section is far thicker than the core of the face of the shield. Thus a substantial portion of the weight of the shield is in the very rim that they would hypothesize grew to ease the carrying of said weight! A rimless aspis is no heavier than many other single grip shields. Sure, there are images that show the hoplites hanging the shield of their shoulder by the rim, but there are far more showing hoplites with their Corinthian helms pushed back, and I doubt many would support fighting with them in this position. Hanging the aspis by its rim on the shoulder simply takes advantage of the profile, which evolved for a very different purpose.

Myth 2: "Hoplites pushed en masse with their bodies side-on, their left shoulders in the bowl of the aspis, pressing into the back of the man in front."

The illogic of this one becomes apparent if we try to envision a file doing so. Clearly this can only work for the second ranker pushing the first ranker. Beyond that the men's backs are perpendicular to the men behind them! The could push into the right shoulder of the men in front, but that renders weapons play impossible- something the side-on stance is supposed to allow. The other problem is that at anything approaching maximum pushing force for a file, the men would collapse into the bowl of their shields in any case and be square to the foes as they should be.

Myth 3: "Hoplites charge rapidly to add momentum to othismos."

This one is counterintuitive, so I don't blame them for not foreseeing it, but a slow packed advance generates more force, faster than a series of single men impacting like rams. With no need to move to othismos directly from the charge, an extended period can occur of spear fencing prior to a pushing occurring. This eliminates a major difference between the pro- and anti- push crowds.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An image of Othismos

I happened upon an image of othismos as I describe it in my crowd-othismos model: men packed tight belly to back, not pushing side-on. This is an frame from the Discovery Channel's War and Civilization that can be seen on youtube.com. Here we can see the type of packing that must occur. Yes, I know the shields are terrible. You can see that in this environment the overhand grip on the spear will provide a much broader range of motion than even a high underhand grip. You'll also see that at this range the dory is useless for fighting in the front rank against your immediate foe. There is no way to choke up on the shaft far enough to bring an 8' spear to bear on the rank ahead of you. Thus, either the first rank used swords, or fought past the men in front, aiming deeper in the enemy ranks.

Another thing you can see is why I think the shields must overlap right over left, i.e: the man on the left comes up behind the overhanging shield of the man to his right. In the image below, the arrows show a weak point in the shield-wall when overlapped left over right as under the top arrow. The reason this joint gives way is that the portion of shield off to a man's left is easier to push back than the portion to the right. The flange to the left acts as a lever on the hoplites arm, while the right side, if forced back, is pushed into his body.

Now look at the lower arrow and you will see that pushing here only tightens the bond between shields and strengthens the wall, forcing both shields back into the body of the hoplite on the left.