Monday, October 6, 2014

Christopher Mathew's flawed analysis of the mechanics of hoplite combat: 1

I find myself having to dispel some of the new myths put forth by Chris Mathew's analysis of the mechanics of hoplite combat that formed his Ph.D. thesis and was first presented in the article:

When Push Comes to Shove: What Was the "Othismos" of Hoplite Combat?
Christopher A. Matthew
Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte
Bd. 58, H. 4 (2009), pp. 395-415
Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
Article Stable URL:
And later in the book Storm of Spears:

There are serious flaws with his analysis and even more with his presentation.  He contacted me early on in his studies, and in the interest of full disclosure I must tell that myself and few others attempted to steer him away from the mistaken path he was on. 

I have been largely away from Ancient Greek topics for over a year now due to other demands on my time, but now that I have come back I am finding far too many online discussions where his portrayal of hoplite combat has taken root.  I am loathe to enter into what must be a deconstruction of his thesis because he is a dedicated reenactor of ancient hoplites.  For years I have been suggesting that he is exactly the type of researcher that those writing histories of Greek combat must heed.  Reenactment can be, when done well, experimental archaeology.  When it is it must conform to the ethics of a scientific experiment and honestly assess alternate views.  In this Mathew's work fails.  I assume these are honest mistakes, scientists make them all the time, but the bias he brings to his analysis is all too glaring in his presentation.

When his book came out, the general consensus I received from the many hoplite reenactors I correspond with was that the analysis in Storm of Spears was flawed based on their experience and his notions failed to convince the hoplites at the Marathon gathering.  I had hoped that by now members of these other groups would have shot down the mistaken ideas, but I see now that perhaps they do not have the reach to disseminate their ideas as efficiently as Mathew does.  I am not sure that I do either, but I will give it a try.

Before I step into the debate, here is an assessment of Mathew's use of percentages of vase depictions as evidence for the exclusive use of an Underhand grip for the hoplite spear.  The author is my friend Fred Ray, who has written some really interesting books on hoplite battle.  If you are reading this blog, then you should give them a look:

I will note that I have no financial tie to these books, but I did give some advice on certain topics.

Here is Fred's review that her was kind enough to share with us on Hollow Lakedaimon:

Storm of Spears (2012, Pen & Sword Military) by C. Matthew:

Some Observations Regarding the Analysis of Artistic Images


Matthew’s analysis of artistic portrayals in support of his core theory that hoplites within classical phalanxes did not normally engage in shock combat using over-arm strikes with their primary weapon (the thrusting spear) appears to be fundamentally flawed.  One can readily accept his contention (p. 20) that a majority of the figures evaluated (an estimated 243 [71%] out of a sample of 340 in which the grip could be determined) show a weapon with a centrally located point of balance.  One can also easily buy the assertion (p. 21-23) that these devices are much more suitable for throwing than the sort of thrusting spears designed for shock combat that were common to classical phalanx battle.  These latter favored a rearward grip (p. 8-11).  Such ideas find further backing from the information cited on length in which the data sub-set of weapons held overhead (and dominated by central grips) has a notably shorter average (p. 23-24).  This is consistent with devices that can be thrown effectively and contrasts with longer averages for sub-sets dominated by weapons having rearward grips and therefore better suited to thrusting (p. 14).  The observation offered that sauroters best associated with simple thrusting spears (p. 4-5) are more common on images of longer/rear-grip weapons (p. 22) also backs this argument.  Matthew’s proposal (p. 31-33) that a majority of the images in the artistic record portray archaic or mythological figures using weapons other than single-purpose thrusting spears thus appears sound.  However, while this bodes well for his contentions (p. 23, 38) that past evaluations treating these weapons solely as thrusting spears are likely in error, it does not lend support to his linked assertion (p. 38) that essentially all fighting with the thrusting spear used under-arm methods.  Indeed, the image data presented actually appear to disprove that particular concept.

            Accepting that an apparent 243 (86% of the 60% fraction held over-arm plus half of the 40% fraction held under-arm [p. 16]) among useable images involve center-grip weapons other than those traditionally employed in classical era shock action, only analysis of the remaining 97 figures (those with rearward grips indicative of a single-purpose thrusting spear) are relevant to the frequency of hand-to-hand techniques used by classical Greek spearmen.  Of these, 29 (30%) display an over-arm grip while 68 (70%) show an under-arm grip.  Given that an over-arm grip would have no real value outside of its possible employment in shock combat, every image showing that approach with a simple thrusting spear (unsuitable as a missile) must therefore have been meant to portray a man engaging in (or preparing to engage in) shock fighting.  But figures displaying an under-arm grip could well be doing something else - advancing while putting minimal stress on the spear-arm or resting that arm during a lull in battle for example.  This meshes with Matthew’s simulation data (p. 122-125) that shows an under-arm pose to be less tiring during combat.  Also agreeing, if we discount the possibility (though it is strong in my opinion) that the antique, center-grip weapons might be dual-purpose spears useful for shock combat and are instead solely missile weapons, is that those 68 figures holding center-grip weapons under-arm (28% of the center-grip total) must be resting their throwing-arm in a similar fashion.  This means that we can count only those figures with an under-arm grip that are also shown in the very midst of a shock fight as truly secure examples of under-arm thrusting.  Unfortunately, we are given no value for this (or a table of rawer information from which it might be derived).

As a result, given only the image data provided by Matthew, one must conclude that an over-arm technique for shock combat appears at least 30% of the time (that value being the case should all of the images with under-arm grips describe ongoing shock actions).  And this could rise to as high as 100% (in the highly unlikely case that none of the under-arm images show ongoing shock actions).  Therefore, with a technically possible 30-100% range for its portrayal, the over-arm method for spear-fighting appears to find rather convincing support within the artistic record as presented by Matthews, instead of being completely ruled out as he asserts.

If we reject for argument’s sake that some (or all) of the center-grip weapons in the images are multi-purpose spears and assume them to all be missile weapons (“javelins” per Matthew’s terminology), then we might use them as an analog for a more  refined guess at the likely percentage of over-head thrusting on display.  There are 243 images with mid-shaft grips and 68 (28%) of them are under-arm poses not suitable for missile combat (where one could not throw the weapon in hand).  This suggests that only 175 (72%) of these images truly represent men actively engaging at the instant shown.  If the same ratio is applied to figures with thrusting spears (rear-grip weapons), we can calculate that 41 among those shown in under-arm poses are also engaging in shock action.   (This adds that under-arm fraction to the 29 in over-arm stances suitable for nothing but shock combat to reproduce the 72% share of combat stances in the center-grip analog.)  This would mean that there are 29 figures (40% of the rear-grip total) making over-arm strikes and 41 (60%) striking under-arm (interestingly, a mere inversion of the 60/40 ratio in favor of over-arm use cited by some in considering that all images were showing shock combat poses).  Of course, before taking this kind of estimate “to the bank,” one must again remember that it excludes all consideration of dual-purpose spears being on display.  Also, it must be viewed in the context that of the 480 figures initially studied by Matthew, only 340 (71%) provided useful data.  These were then reduced to 97 (20%) potentially relevant to the specific question under review and only 70 (just 15% of the original total) could then be applied to the investigation’s bottom line when all was said and done.  As such, even rather modest biasing of the sample pool by the forces of chance in rendering 140 (a full 29%) of the original 480 figures useless (precisely twice the number available for the final calculation) could well have had quite a significant impact on the conclusions reached.)    

            We should further consider that even the foregoing rather more “over-arm friendly” view of the artistic record might underestimate the frequency of that method’s true employment.  This is because very few (if any) of the studied images are likely to be portraying the “othismos” stage of phalanx combat in the “literal” (i.e. physical) sense.  Here, hoplites would have been pressed “belly-to-back” in a manner unsuited for the side-on views commonly employed in ancient artworks.  And an over-arm utilization of the thrusting spear might well be the most practical method during othismos.  There is wide acceptance that such literal othismos is explicitly referenced in several of our most detailed descriptions of phalanx battles (per Matthew’s note on p. 237).  And though Matthew considers it rare on the basis of these being few in number, it remains likely (in my opinion) that similar episodes of literal othismos developed in a much higher count of more poorly documented actions featuring similar tactical dynamics.
 -  Fred Ray