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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?

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Legion vs Phalanx Read Along 1.1 “Who Would Win In A Fight?”

Myke covers A LOT of ground here in Section 1 chapter 1! A lot. This is also the bit you really, really need if you want to have, well, a modern shepherd’s hope in hell of understanding what is going on in Book II of Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Hi, I’m Andrea. I go by NeolithicSheep over most of the internet because I’m a shepherd and amateur historian concentrating in zooarchaeology, that is the study of animals in the archaeological record. I’m also a dab hand at quite a lot of experimental archaeology, and my sheep are nearly identical to the very first sheep to reach Britain at the dawn of the Neolithic. I’m training my first ox these days. Anyway! Assassin’s Creed Odyssey rekindled the interest in Classical Greece I’d had when I was a teenager, and I’ve started learning Classical Greek again, which led me to Xenophon’s Anabasis, which led me to “what in the actual hell is going on here?” A twitter friend asked Myke Cole to recommend a Greek edition of Anabasis for me, which is how I found out about him and his new book, and that’s how we’ve all ended up here.

And there’s so much fascinating stuff going on just in the first chapter! Although mentions of Frank Miller’s 300 make me grumble, because now everyone “knows” that it was Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae — in actuality, per Herodotus it was Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, Demophilus and his 700 Thespians, and around 400 Thebans. Also probably 900 either helots (Spartan slaves) or perioikoi (free non-citizens who performed skilled labor in Sparta). The early mention of Miller’s rendition of Thermopylae ties in very nicely to the later discussion of historiography!

There’s also a lot to chew on in terms of the objectivity of historians and what ancient historians thought they were doing, the context of the battles we’re going to look at later, and then the section titled The Fundamentals of Ancient Battle is especially meaty if you want to know what was happening on any battlefield that featured a phalanx. It’s also important to keep in mind when we read the word “cavalry” that the soldiers were using their horses to get somewhere then jumping off and fighting. Mounted combat techniques weren’t quite there yet.

So hey, where do we want to go? We’ve got a lot to chew on and we’re not even specifically talking the phalanx yet! That’s the next chapter. I’m game to complain about Frank Miller in the context of historiography, mutter direly about the erasure of the fact that non-citizen Spartans outnumbered the 300 Spartiate soldiers 3 to 1 probably and ALSO got wiped out at Thermopylae, etc etc. Maybe also introduce yourself if you’re feeling froggy?

Oh and a note: I tend to transliterate on my own. Myke does a great job with his transliterations in the book! But neither he nor I are generally using what you’d normally see outside of academic circles when using Greek terms, because we’ve ditched the problems that came when we inherited most of those terms via Rome.