Men of bronze

When I first saw a copy of Men of bronze I was tickled by the blurb on the back cover: “This is the new hoplite book everyone has been waiting for–” it begins.  Yes, everyone!  But the blurb continues: “punchy, stimulating, up-to-date, and full of excitement and contention, like a hoplite scrum.”  And this blurb is actually slyly funnier than you might think, as one of the points of contention that the papers in the book debate is the nature of hoplite warfare, and whether it was really, as many historians have held for the past 100 to 150 years, a gigantic shoving match very much like a rugby scrum.

Men of bronze is actually a collection of papers presented at a conference, and so some are fairly technical.  I have seen several of the authors’ books, as some also write more “popular” works of history, while others are names I have only seen in journals and footnotes (not that I read a lot them, though I had an intense period of interest in that during the late 1990s/early 2000s).  Anyway the battle lines are drawn between the received view — the “hoplite narrative” — which holds that hoplite warfare consisted of tightly organized, tightly packed lines of heavily armed citizen-soldiers who fought in ranks with shields overlapping, and mainly thrusting with spears.  (There is disagreement about whether the spear was held overhand, underhand, or a combination, but otherwise the narrative is pretty much monolithic.)  These masses would clash, supposedly having come at each other at a run or at least a steady march, and literally shove back forth, leaning into their shields, or the ranks in front of them, while stabbing with spears until one side or other gave way and broke, at which time their would be some slaughter, but not necessarily a massacre.  This is the basic framework upon which is built the modern “hoplite narrative”.  The “hoplite narrative” as presented in this book adds some additional details about how political change informed the development of these tactics, and also some ideas about the “rules of engagement” embodied in this form of warfare, all popularized by Victor Davis Hanson (hereafter “VD”) who presented this narrative in a now classic book.  His contribution, I think, is the idea that the Greeks of the seventh to fifth century BCE developed a method of warfare that was uniquely tied to the rise of democracy, and almost a “moral” form of warfare as it imposed rules which limited the carnage of battle to the combatants, with few civilian casualties.  If you are astute, you have probably already noticed how politically charged this sort of claim is, and will not be surprised that VD has a secondary career, apart from Classics, writing cranky political columns everywhere from National Review to the Washington Times.  (Yes, the whole spectrum from arrogant right wing to batshit crazy right wing!)  His columns often use analogies from ancient Greek history to illustrate the rightness of neoconservative policies and the Satanism of anyone to the left of the political center (assuming, as VD appears to, that the center is exactly where it was in the 1950s).  But drawing the wrong lessons from history when discussing modern issues does not mean he also draws incorrect conclusions about ancient history! In fact, back in my academic days, I delivered a paper for a philosophy symposium that took VD’s ideas about hoplite warfare for granted, and having not really followed the academic debates for the last ten or fifteen years, I began reading this book with the assumption that the establishment view of hoplite warfare (the “hoplite narrative”) was basically correct.

Painting by G. Rava, also used as box art for wargaming minis. This looks like a very traditional idea of the hoplites in action, just before coming into contact with enemy.

However, reading these papers (ok, reading some and skimming others that got a little too technical with archaeological data or etymology) has made me think the traditional “hoplite narrative” is a gross and misleading simplification.  The alternative presented in most of the papers seemed too extreme (to wit, that hoplites fought in a loose formation, even skirmishing), but these “revisionists” raised many interesting points that VD — in the final paper which was presumably supposed to be offered as a “rebuttal’ — largely ignores or distorts.  I am not sure if VD did not have access to their papers when preparing his comments, or if he just prefers not to address the arguments on their merits.

It is truly fascinating to read the experts spin the very fragmentary bits of information really have about hoplite warfare (and especially about its rise) into competing narratives.  For one thing, VD and the traditionalists put a lot of stock in the use of the term “othismos” to describe battles.  The word apparently means “pushing” or “shoving,” and if taken literally it sure sounds like the two lines of troops are shoving back and forth.  The only problems with extrapolating from the this term to the actual battlefield practice are: (1) the term is not really used that frequently — I think one critic mentions three uses in the 300 year period, (2) by all accounts, Greek battles were not uniform at all anyway, so one battle account hardly can be applied to many others, and (3) the term might be used more figuratively, as when we say tanks “clashed” in WWII — we don’t mean they literally crashed into each other.  It is perfectly comprehensible as a figurative term, if it means one side “pushes” the other from the battlefield in the sense that they are routed, defeated, etc.  The written accounts of battle in Greek sources are somewhat ambiguous, as they don’t describe things in the detail historians (or wargamers) would like, so this sort of debate will no doubt continue.

Another issue the critics point to is the archaeological evidence.  The physical remains of Greek arms and armor suggest that the traditional claims that the hoplites carried 60-70 pounds of equipment is simply wrong.  Their shields were NOT the solid bronze discs you see in movies like The 300 — they were of very light wood like willow and had a very thin (but still quite strong) plate of bronze on the front and perhaps leather on the back.  Overall, the best estimates seems to be that the shields were in the range of 6 to 8 kg, which is certainly very heavy but many hoplites carried no more than the shield, a helmet, a short sword, and a spear or two.  The full panoply of helm, shield, cuirass and greaves, plus weapons, was probably in the 50 pound range, but that would be the maximum and rather uncommon.  Now if the lighter hoplites carried something like 30 pounds of equipment (many cuirasses were linen or leather rather than bronze, if worn at all), that is still pretty heavy, especially for a smallish man of 120 to 140 pounds as many ancient Greeks would be, but it is a far cry from the crushing weight the traditionalists have assumed.

This detail from the “Chigis vase” is one of the better iconographic “supports” for the traditionalist viewpoint. But if we panned back we’d see it gets less clear that the central image is a “othismos”. Also, as the hoplites all carry two spears, it seems likely that spear-throwing could be part of the battle plan…

The iconographical remains are more important, if only because they are much more common than the scanty remains of arms, but also because they depict the arms in use.  Unfortunately, much like later artists, there is reason to suspect the Greek artists tended to use some anachronisms — putting “modern” 6th century arms on heroes and scenes of greater antiquity.  The traditionalists and critics both seem to take advantage of the anachronisms to filter out some details of the depictions on vases, reliefs, and mosaics, while accepting the other parts that fit their pet theories.  Again, not being an expert myself, I can’t say who is correct here, if either.

Another view of the Chigi vase.

In fact Men of bronze has mainly convinced me that both takes — the traditional “hoplite narrative” and the revisionists who think hoplites skirmished — are partly wrong.   The crazy thing is that even the ancient sources speak of open order and close order formations, with intervals of 6 feet and 3 feet per man, and these were pretty clearly used according to the situation.  So to some extent the debate is pointless — it’s as if the scholars are just so focused on their part of the debate, and their theories, that they are missing the larger picture.  (Revised title: Men of bronze, feet of clay?)  That of course is nothing new in academia, but it is still eye-opening to see these issues brought to light, and a fascinating read.

Published in: on March 4, 2014 at 11:42 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I really hate when modern political thinkers try to superimpose modern political views, paradigms and structures on Athenian democracy. :/

  2. I’ve always been a fan of history, and I’m always fascinated by how biases shape how we see it. It really is way more subjective than most people realize.

    Do you listen to the Hardcore History podcast by any chance? If not I highly recommend it.

    • Thanks, I don’t listen to any podcasts actually, but I think my brother recommended that one to me too!

      • It’s really great. He approaches it as a fan of history, rather than a true historian, so it’s like listening to a good friend ramble about some really cool stuff that happened in history.

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