Friday, December 17, 2010

Spartan Armor and the Phalanx

We’re still on Toynbee and there is much more to discuss.

The Phalanx was the superior close order battle formation of antiquity until the time of the Romans. Its soldiers wore heavy metallic armor and carried thrusting spears and swords for attacking the enemy at close quarters. While the armor would have been useful in single combat, it became much more lethal in formation.

The origin of the phalanx is not known, but when adopted by the Greeks it became superior to any alternative from the time of Marathon to 197 B.C, when the Greeks were defeated by a Roman javelin and sword army.

Historical evidence suggests that the hoplite armor (chest corslet, helmet, and greaves) developed at about the same time (circa 650 B.C.), and that the phalanx resulted from the armor, not the reverse. The shield predated the other equipment and is of particular importance because the way its use evolved over time.

Originally the shield was carried with the left hand only, but when metal was added to make it stronger, it became too heavy for one hand. The Mycenaeans were the first to add a telemon (strap) which passed over the shoulder and helped support the shield. Later, the Greeks developed a more efficient design by fitting a metal strap (porpax) on the inside of the shield. The hoplite passed his arm through the porpax and then gripped the handle. While the single grip shield offered protection of any part of the body, the hoplite shield could only protect the left side. Also with the left hand unavailable, the hoplite would have to use a thrusting spear in his right hand. Perhaps these limitations pointed to the need for a battle formation that offered protection for the individual while creating a powerful offensive weapon.

The historical evidence is that the porpax shield was adopted first by Corinth in the early seventh century B.C. and Sparta soon after. Geometric pottery displays the hoplite shield as early as 750 B.C, but hoplite tactics are not shown in geometric art. An artifact called the Chigi vase (circa 650 B.C.) is one of the first examples of pottery displaying a phalanx formation.

And then we have the poetry of Tyrtaios, referenced in a previous post, who described the Spartans in battle. Remember he is contemporary to the Second Messenian War.

"For those who, remaining beside one another, dare to go into the hand-to-hand fight and the front rank, fewer die, and they preserve the people behind them. But of men who have begun to tremble every excellence is lost, and no one would ever finish speaking all the ills which happen to a man if he suffers something shameful. For attractive it is to split from behind the back of a fleeing man in hostile war, but shameful is a corpse lying in the dust with the head of a spear driven through its back.

But let a man, having taken his stride, remain in his place, firmly set upon the earth, biting his lip with his teeth and covering thighs and legs below and chest and shoulders with the wide belly of his shield. In his right hand let me brandish a might spear, and let him move the dread helmet crest above his head. By doing mighty deeds let him learn to make war, and let him not stand apart from the missiles holding his shield. But let someone going into the hand-to-hand fight with long spear or wounding with sword take an enemy man, having placed foot against foot and leaned shield against shield, crest to crest, helmet to helmet, breast to breast, drawn close let him fight man to man, taking hold of the haft of his sword or his long spear.

And you, the unarmed ones, crouching beneath a shield, one on one side, another on the other, throw great rocks and cast smooth javelins against them, standing near the fully-armored men."

This is a picture of frightened Spartan hoplites trying to survive – not men Leonidas would admire. We’re getting an early picture of Spartan tactics before the Lycurgian reforms had taken hold.

We know that the Spartans fought poorly in the battle against the Argives in 669 B.C, so at some point after that (perhaps 650 B.C.), the decision was made to re-distribute land and build a real army. Unlike the changes to the government, the Spartan battle tactics took time to develop. Generations would have to pass through the agoge before the fighting machine was tuned. The Spartans were defeated at Tegea in the first quarter of the sixth century, but triumphant against the Argives in 544. Finally the Spartan phalanx had achieved superiority.

In my last post we discussed the Ephor Khilon who was in power circa 550 B.C. He is said to be the statesman who ended the Spartan pattern of conquest in favor of a league of allies (later the Peloponnesean League). His approach was grounded in the reality that Sparta could not both control the Helots and conquer the peninsula. The Homoioi would be needed to control the Helot lands so their marching off to foreign battles would have to be reserved for emergencies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

‘’Historical evidence suggests that the hoplite armor (chest corslet, helmet, and greaves) developed at about the same time (circa 650 B.C.)’’ Please forgive me but I don’t understand this one..Bronze armor goes back to Mycenean era.Corinthian helmet and bell curiass however were developed somewhere in the Dark Ages,or after, lets say 700 BC..

‘’Also with the left hand unavailable, the hoplite would have to use a thrusting spear in his right hand.’’ – Shiled is among the most powerful weapons of the hoplite since spear could probably survive only the beginning phase of combat.Other parts being brute wrestling,killing with swords,shields,helmets,rocks,hands...

‘This is a picture of frightened Spartan hoplites trying to survive’ That was a picture of LIGHTLY ARMED troops,not the full warriors-hoplites by any means.You severely misunderstood the probably poor translation. I would not go so far sir to call those Messenian war era men cowards Leonidas would be ashamed of..And second Messenian war probably came after reform of 650.

I will also furiously disagree that they fought poorly before 6th C..First of all Spartans were by far most successful in disciplines of strength in Panhellenic games at the time and later as well,and strength (lifting,wrestling,sprint) was absolutely necessary for hoplite combat,and it was almost the only thing that decided who won and who lost... Secondly 669 Hysiae is mentioned only once, by a controversial author almost a millennium after the battle!?!? Never before,not by Herodotus,Xenophon,Thucydides??? No archaeological finds.Nothing..It may have never happened,there is no proof except his doubtful testimony...And Tegean chains is the episode of the overconfident therefore severely outnumbered Spartans.If they took it seriously outcome might be different.By the way Herodotus says ‘ALL other wars with Tegea at the time were succesfull’’

I would also argue on Spartan achieving superiority and remaining there (Although I agree with 650 being date of new reform,and 550 being date of the peak of Spartan strength that lasted until wars with Tegea,Argos in 470)..Spartans were not invincible after 544 either.