Sunday, 11 September 2022

On War II

  A work of art or war?

This post is a continuation of the previous post, titled, 'On War'. Rather unimaginatively I have entitled the second post in this unbidden and often forbidden series: 'On War II'. In my ignominious first foray, I made a series of unsupported and sweeping statements concerning how our stone age ancestors engaged in armed struggle with fellow man. I also mentioned that the Western concept of war, as initially practised by the Ancient Greeks, was somehow different from how most cultures conducted warfare. I also noted that the Greek mode of organised fighting went against human nature's innate preservation instincts. I would now like to advance a few observations and ideas on why this form of armed struggle became predominant amongst the Ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek warfare developed its characteristic form during the 7th century BC. Individual warriors were called 'hoplites' after the large round shield carried into battle (the hoplon). In addition, the hoplite wore a cuirass of bronze and or layers of linen glued together; bronze greaves to protect the lower leg and the highly characteristic bronze helm. The Greeks were armed with a long spear, of 8 feet in length, and a short, 'stabbing and cutting' sword. The hoplite stood shoulder to shoulder with his comrades and thrust his spear overhand or underhand depending on his position within the ranks. Due to the great length of his spear, those men in the second and third ranks could extend their spears past their comrades in the front rank. This disposition made the replacement of those killed in line relatively easy and without loss of cohesion.  

The Greek phalanx existed as a dynamic interlocking whole. Each man faced the enemy warrior to his front and would try to aim his spear at any exposed areas of flesh whilst his opponent did the same. Each warrior relied on his companions left and right to perform the same dance of death. Engagements were short-lived and it has been estimated that the battle proper did not last longer than 30 minutes. Fighting in heavy armour, in the sun, and under conditions of constant controlled terror could not be maintained for long. When a battle line eventually broke, the army would lose cohesion and it is only then that the actual killing would occur. However, it was a rare occasion, when Greek was contesting with Greek, that wholesale destruction of the beaten army would follow. Modern estimates suggest that the casualty rate never exceeded 15%.  The victorious hoplites rarely pressed the defeated for long and were usually content with their triumph and possession of the battlefield.   

A hoplite army was mainly/manly composed of heavy infantrymen, as described. Cavalry was never a significant component of the army. Greece never had the grazing capacity to support a large horsed contingent. Light infantrymen also played a role prior to the clash of their heavier armoured brethren and would trade missiles (javelins and sling stones/lead pellets) with light infantrymen of the opposing army. This group consisted primarily of young men without the means to support the expensive arms and armour required of the classical hoplite. Once a formation broke and fled, lightly armoured men would chase down the encumbered enemy hoplite. In these circumstances, the defeated hoplite would often discard their heavy shield and spear. For a hoplite to draw a sword was considered a mark of desperation.    

Hoplite battles had a regularity, constancy and ferocity about them that may seem strange, at first consideration, but are readily explainable given the circumstances under which the Ancient Greeks laboured. The Ancient Greeks were a disputatious folk and agreeably fond of fighting amongst themselves, often to their overall detriment. Their civilisation centred upon the city-state and each city-state was fiercely independent. And to maintain their independence, a military force, for defence and aggression, was required. The military force was maintained through a 'militia system', the only notable exception, of course, was Sparta. Therefore, freeborn men (generally, although not exclusively, georgic tillers of the sod) who were able to purchase their military equipment and trappings were expected to muster, when called, to undertake their military duty. In contrast to modern professional armies, the Greek armies were distinctly middle class. To be called to arms was an honour and an obligation unto your polity. The Greeks would come together as an affiliated 'nation' only in times of a serious external threat, for instance as occurred during the Persian wars of the 5th century BC. A coming together of several cities, often termed 'leagues', to form a military alliance was a pragmatic expedient to prevent domination of the isthmus by a single state. Not all leagues were primarily military in nature but could reflect commercial, religious or ethnic considerations  The various leagues formulated over the centuries are worthy of a post unto itself- if I can be arsed (Arse).

As for the peculiarity of the Ancient Greek mode of war, modern historians have proposed a number of ingenious ideas worthy of note. Greece is a mountain-dominated country and suitable arable land is limited and a highly desired resource. One goal of a warlike expedition into enemy territory would oft be directed at destroying the enemy's crops.  If the invading army could achieve this aim, this, of course, could lead to serious famine in the succeeding year. Crops to be destroyed would be put to the fire- for some reason I find this concept strangely alluring. Moving on. It seems that grain crops, (in Greece at least) prior to harvest, are only dry enough and therefore combustible for a few weeks in May. After harvest, the ears of corn would be stored, and concentrated, in easily defended barns and silos. Consequently, if an enemy could be kept at bay, from ravishing the fields, for just a brief period, the worst effects of their despoilation would be averted. Also to be taken into account is that, the aggressors' fields would be vulnerable to destruction whilst their war band was off a rollicking as there would be insufficient armed men left behind and available for their own defence. All this taken into consideration, would place a premium on a rapid and decisive outcome. For the Ancient Greeks, the nature of the land, the people and the intractable cultural environment telescoped war into a nightmarish but brief affair. The fact that the temporal dimension of war was short favoured a brutal decisive clash. A desultory, low-key extended strategy would not do and therefore we see an evolution of warfare unrivalled in sheer ferocity. The frightfulness was self-limiting. Once the din and clash of arms subsided both protagonists seemed content, and no further military action would occur for that year. After the battle, a truce would be called and the all-important ritual of tending to the fallen could be undertaken without fear of interference. The victor would errect a cairn of triumph and war would be over for this season. How civilised.

The Romans were the natural heirs of 'Greek War'. They were willing students and thus embraced and nurtured the Greek concept of 'innate horror' of the set piece battle with relentless gusto. But they did not practise the Greek concept of limited war or military restraint. For the Romans, the nastiness continued unabated and Western warfare lurched into/unto a new adventurous landscape of supreme terror, where the enemy could expect no respite, temporal or otherwise.  As a continuation in this seminal and singular series, I will now turn to contemplate the phenomenon that was Ancient Rome, at war. This post will be the penultimate in my trilogy, in four parts, 'On War'.  May the Gods that look over such madness forgive me. 


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this, enjoyed both. Also enjoyed your forays into the world of the bow. Both very interesting.

  2. Fascinating!
    (BTW, para3 has causality instead of casualty)


    1. Thanks Ed- will amend forthwith. Spellification has never been my forte.

  3. Great blog my friend, you really have something to say. Thinking of ancient greek strategies and tactics, PARMENIDES OF ELEA (Greece 540-480 BC) comes into my mind - comtemporary of the Xerxes-wars, founder of the Academy of Elea, and same time a leading politician of the city-state Elea. For 500 years, Elea has belonged to the federation of the Hellenic polis, and unusually has not taken part in a single war during this time, which is not least due to Parmenides’ pacifist credo: “Walls are better than armies, diplomacy is better than walls”. Already 500 BC He used logical-analytical reasoning as an empirical method to deal with the most important and complicated essential questions. Ah, yes, and with politics too. Cheers, man.