Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Greek Phalanx and Its Influence Over Politics in Archaic Greece

The word Phalanx conjures up images of the formidable Greek battle formation and its impact on warfare over half a millennium. Designed to be impregnable through its reliance on a structure of unit strength made up of equal parts, the Phalanx anticipated every power formation in the future of battle including the modern tank.

Lost in the military view of the Phalanx, however,  is the impact it had on the development of the Greek political system. Indeed, it was also the social leveling force in Greek society that helped push the Polis into being and sowed the seeds of modern government.

Our story begins in the Greek Archaic period (800 to 500 B.C.) which saw the development of the Polis as a stable political institution. But to get to a Polis, we must first weave together the threads of government and war.

The phalanx was not invented by the Greeks. The earliest example of the formation was depicted in a Sumerian stone carving from 2,500 B.C. The word phalanx was first used by Homer to describe combat in an organized battle line as distinguished from combat between individuals. Trouble is we don’t know what kind of formation Homer was describing, so we can’t know if our concept of the Phalanx dates from his time.

In the time before the Phalanx, Greek battles were disorganized affairs consisting of two opposing armies running at each other in a line. Once the Greeks perfected it, the Phalanx became the default battle formation ancient armies, until the Romans developed the maniple.

Its political importance is based on the following scenario. At the time the Phalanx came into being, Greek cities contained a mixture of wealthy, poor, and those rising in economic status -- an emerging middle class. Ruling kings realized that they could build an army around larger military formations because more men could now afford to buy the necessary equipment. We can only speculate about the chicken and egg here. Did the kings coerce at first and then later the hoplites figured out how to leverage political power, or did the hoplites refuse to fight unless they were given political rights? I suppose we can imagine a case where the initial formations were small coerced units which grew in size when more independent men decided to participate.

Accurate data pinpointing the advent of the Phalanx is elusive. Written evidence is non-existent so we have to rely of archeology to guide us. The following image, referred to as the Chigi vase, dates from around 650 B.C.


We might ask how long the phalanx existed before it was painted on vases, but any answer is only a guess. Certainly the artists had to be interested in the subject and capable of representing it before it was first rendered. Unfortunately, the many attempts to validate the dating by translating the two dimensional formations on pottery into a three dimensional representation of the Phalanx have not met with much success.

The design of the Phalanx required that all hoplites operate as a single unit, meaning that each soldier had an equal, and important role, in the army’s success. Since everyone was an equal, each had the right to demand political authority when the war was over, because he had made an equal contribution to victory. This demand for political authority eventually manifested itself in the strengthening of the legal code, which protected the rights of the lower classes, and increased their participation in the apparatus of government.

With the advent of the phalanx, arms buried with the dead went out of favor because they lost their value as a status symbol. The new middle class could afford the weapons that would make them equals.

This article was originally posted 8/21/09.

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