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Legion vs Phalanx Read Along 1.2: Not Your Father’s Phalanx

Are we all recovered from the holidays? I think I am. I am also starting to recover from the head cold I managed to acquire during them (how exciting) so let’s get back to this.

Section 1.2 covers the changes in the phalanx and the hoplitai who fought in them. So before we begin, because your humble host is an enormous dork for the Ancient Greek language, let’s work with some terms.

The word “hoplites” (???????) is singular! It is one heavy infantry soldier, and pronounced hopLEETayss. If Sparta had achieved cultural dominance we would call that soldier a hoplitas (???????) instead. But Athens won the battle for cultural dominance in Attika and the Peloponnesos, if not the Second Peloponnesian war, and so that soldier is a hoplites. When you have a bunch of them to form up in a phalanx (??????) then you have a bunch of hoplitai (???????), pronounced hopLEETeye.

When we think of a hoplites, most of us think of someone like this:

A mannequin clad in a bronze cuirass molded to look like a muscular naked upper body, a short chiton that ends at the knee, and bronze greaves. It also wears a crested helmet and carries a spear and a large shield.

And indeed for the Persian War (480BCE) and the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War (431BCE) this is pretty accurate, although by the time of the second Peloponnesian War the muscle cuirass was out and the bell cuirass, which was not so finely sculpted, was in. As was the linothorax, armor made of layers of linen fabric glued together. However as the old aphorism goes, generals always start out fighting the last war and end up fighting the next one. By the end of the Second Peloponnesian War (around 402BCE, that sucker dragged out) hoplitai had ditched the heavy body armor and carried just the sword and spear and the greaves, with just his chitoniskos or exomis on his body (the distinction between these garments was entirely whether the cloth was fastened on two shoulders or one — Ancient Greek clothing consisting entirely of rectangles of cloth folded and draped around the body and then belted and pinned in place).

A hoplite in a blue exomis fastened on his left shoulder, surrounded by depictions of his sword, shield, and various other equipment.

Whether or not hoplitai ever actually fought naked is a matter of some contention and probably outside the scope of our current argument, although I will happily wrangle in the comments and explain all the reasons I think they probably didn’t, with bibiliography.

Myke asserts here that the linothorax came in with Iphicrates as one of his innovations in the 4th century BCE, but textual and artistic evidence actually places the introduction of the linothorax in the 7th or 6th century BCE and its high point around the Persian Wars in the early 5th century BCE. Iphicrates may well have revived the use of the linothorax, but it had been invented, used widely, and discarded once already by the time he came around in the earlyish 4th century BCE.

There’s a lot about weaponry here, too, and I don’t want to recap the whole chapter — Do we want to wrangle about the nudity of Greek soldiers? Drag Myke in here to ask him for his source on the assertion that Phillip II of Makedonia was the eromenos (young lover) of a Greek general? I might ask him for that one on Twitter, actually, it sounds like something Herodotos would report.

How was this chapter for y’all who aren’t obsessive Ancient Greek language dorks?

3 thoughts on “Legion vs Phalanx Read Along 1.2: Not Your Father’s Phalanx

  1. My big disappointment was Myke declining to engage the “othismos” debate. I understand (could be it’s own book, wasn’t essential to the story he’s telling) but I’d really love something like an hour long podcast follow-up discussion.

    Personally, I enjoyed the digression through the historical roots of the phalanx. It probably was not strictly necessary (I can only imagine an editor’s reaction) but I believe the extra context (the idea of giving men long spears and standing in a line was here long before the Romans and remained long after) will provide a nice counterweight for explaining how truly different the Roman method seemed. I do wish there had been some extra discussion about non-European methods (for my own personal enlightenment, not because it’s pertinent to the topic at hand.) In fact, if anyone has any references they’d like to recommend…

  2. 1. Damn, I’ve been pronouncing “hoplites” wrong for yeeeeears

    2. Linothorax linothorax linothorax! I’m so excited that one of my favorite forms of ancient armor came up in this discussion. I have Prof. Aldrete’s book on it… somewhere. Unfortunately I am also about to be descended upon by houseguests for several days and am working on a nasty little cold, so finding it is going to take a few days.

    1. Hah, found it. It’s called “Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery” by Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, and Alicia Aldrete

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