Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by James Baikie
Ancient Greece by  James Baikie

The Soldier-State of Greece

ONCE upon a time, so Herodotus, the gossipy old Greek historian, tells us, there were twelve kings in Egypt, eleven of whom united to banish to the marshes the twelfth, Psammitichos by name, because they were jealous of him. Now Psammitichos (his real Egyptian name was Psamtek) consulted an oracle of the gods as to how he might best be revenged on the eleven; and the oracle told him that when brazen men came out of the sea he would find vengeance on his adversaries. And so it befell that while Psamtek was doubting in himself what this should mean, a pirate-ship was driven by stress of weather on the coast of Egypt, and certain Ionians and Karians, in bronze harness, landed from her, and began to plunder the land. And when news of these brazen men from the sea was brought to Psamtek, he knew that the word of the oracle had come to pass, and, taking these Ionians and Karians into his service, by their help he overcame his enemies, and made himself king of all the land of Egypt.


Brazen Men from the Sea

And with that we may leave King Psamtek and his brazen men from the sea; for I have only told you of him in order to show you what it was about the Greek soldier that struck all the other nations of the ancient world with wonder and fear, and made him the terror of the battlefield, so that a mere handful of Greek hoplites turned the tide of many a fierce conflict, and drove great hosts to flight. It was not that the Greek was braver than other races; there were no braver men than the Persians, who yet were beaten so often by the Greeks. It was not that they had such skilful generals, for the average Greek general was no great master of the art of war.

It was first, that the Greek, long before most other races, had learned the meaning and the power of discipline, and, next, that the Greek alone—why, it is difficult to explain—realized the value and the power of armour. Clad in his brazen panoply, the Greek heavy-infantryman was as superior to the ordinary warrior of his time, Persian or Egyptian, as the steel-clad knight to a common, leather-clad billman, or one of Cortes' hidalgoes to a feather-bedecked Mexican warrior. A solid line of Greek heavy-infantry was a rock on which wave after wave of barbarian courage broke itself in vain.

Later, the time came when Philip and Alexander of Macedon developed a real army of professional soldiers, strictly disciplined and well armed; and when that happened, the very best troops of the old Greek states proved powerless to withstand the shock of the phalanx and the Macedonian lancers, just as the Macedonians, in their turn, had to yield to the iron ranks of the Roman legions. But, before that time, the old Greek territorial, Spartan or Athenian, had done the work appointed for him in the world, and done it well. It was the brazen men of Lacedæmon and Athens, at Marathon and Platæa, who settled that Europe was not to be ruled by Persian satraps, but was to be free to work out her own destiny.

Well, then, what did these old Greek soldiers look like, how were they armed, and how were they marshalled, in the days when the Hellene was the first-class fighting man of the world? Suppose we take a look at a young Spartan soldier, as he receives the summons to join his platoon, and march out with the rest of the army to defend his fatherland or to attack its enemies. I have chosen a Spartan because the Spartans were just as easily first among Greek soldiers as the Athenians were first among sailors; but what I have to tell you would apply, with only slight differences, to any of the other states of Greece.

Young Kallikratidas, then, has got notice to join his "Enomoty" (what we would call his platoon) to-day, carrying three days' supplies. Let us watch him as he equips himself in the harness of what the Greeks called a "hoplite," and we call a heavy-infantryman. First of all, he puts on a leather jerkin, fitting close to the body, but without sleeves. From the belt of the jerkin there hangs down all round a number of thick leather thongs, studded with bronze. These reach halfway to the knee, and are meant to protect the lower part of the body and the thighs. Next, he has to put on the greaves, which defend the legs from the knee downwards. They come before the cuirass, because it is not very easy to stoop when you have a bronze corselet on. The greaves are padded leggings of light bronze plate, which open at the back, and are fastened by straps and buckles below the knee and above the ankle. Now comes the cuirass. It is a breastplate and backplate of bronze, which is buckled round the body by means of leather straps, and is finished off by broad metal shoulder-flaps. A stout leather belt, quilted with bronze, goes round the waist over the cuirass, and holds everything together. The helmet completes the body armour. There are several different types of helmet worn, but Kallikratidas prefers that known as the Corinthian helmet. It has a nose-piece and two broad and deep cheek-pieces, so that when it is drawn down over the face nothing can be seen except the wearer's eyes and mouth. Generally, of course, it is worn tilted back on the head, and is only drawn over the face when going into action. The helmet is topped with a heavy crest of crimson horse-hair.

Kallikratidas throws his sword-belt over his shoulder and hooks on the sword. It is a short, straight blade about 20 inches in length, pointed and double- edged. He slips his left arm through one of the loops inside the curve of his shield, and grasps the other loop in his left hand. The shield is a big oval, about 4 feet long, made up of several thicknesses of bull's hide, studded and bossed with bronze, and with a bronze rim round it. The centre of the buckler is painted with a big "V", the old-fashioned Greek "L", standing for Lacedæmon. The young soldier takes in his hand a seven-foot spear of ashwood, tipped with steel, slings over his shoulder a haversack with three days' rations of meal, salt, onions, and garlic, and he is ready to join his platoon—a striking and formidable figure as he clanks off to the gathering place.

Let us follow him there, and see the arrangements of a Spartan army. His enomoty is 36 strong; four of these platoons make a Pentekostys—what we would call a company; and four pentekostyes make a Lochos, which you may consider as roughly equal to a battalion. The lochos, generally of about 500 spears, is commanded by a Lochage, who has authority over the lieutenants and captains who command the smaller units; and above the lochages comes the Polemarch, or General, who may be, and very usually is, one of the two Kings of Sparta.

Now, it is this system of small platoons, with subaltern officers, making up companies and regiments, each with its own rank of commander, that has helped to make the Spartan army so efficient. The other Greek states have no such system. Each tribe, in an Athenian or a Theban army, makes a regiment of its own, with no subdivisions, and so the unit is far too bulky and clumsy to be easily handled; and the words of command, which in our army are passed along quietly and quickly from platoon to platoon, have with them to be shouted down the ranks by the general's heralds. So our line is a far more supple and flexible thing than theirs, and, even if the worst happens, and the line gets broken, our compact regiments, or even companies and platoons, stick better together than the unsubdivided line of the other states. One other advantage we have: the Spartan is perpetually drilling. The carrying and the use of arms is the whole business of his life. And so Kallikratidas and his companions are not only hardy athletic men—the average Athenian is probably quite as good as any of them in that respect—but they use their weapons with the ease, like second nature, that comes from constant practice; and all their movements are carried out with a rapidity and orderliness that nothing but constant drill can give.

The heavy-armed free Spartan citizens are the backbone of the Spartan army. There may not be a very great number of them—two or three thousand would be considered quite a respectable army; but then each citizen has several heavy-armed slaves of the class called "helots" in the field with him, so that, just as a lance, in the Middle Ages, meant a knight and four or five well-armed men-at-arms, so a Spartan hoplite meant a heavy-armed citizen, and a group of auxiliaries as well. In addition to the line of spearmen, there will be light troops, bowmen, and slingers on the wings, and a small body of cavalry. The cavalry is not of very much account, for the riders have neither saddle nor stirrups, and sit only upon a cloth fastened with a tight girth. Consequently they can only strike with the weight of arm and lance, instead of putting all the weight of horse and man into the thrust. If a Greek knight were to charge with couched lance like a knight of the Middle Ages, he would be sent flying over his horse's tail by the force of his own onset.

Neither do we set much store by the light-armed infantry. Bowmen and slingers are rather looked down upon, and have generally comparatively little to say in the decision of a battle. Later on, Iphikrates, the Athenian captain of Free Companies, will show us that light-armed men, capably led, may be more than a match even for a Spartan regiment of heavy-armed spearmen; but the Spartan is the father of all Conservatives, and sticks to the old ways to the last, just because they are old.

When our army comes face to face with the enemy we shall form up for battle. It is a simple business, with no refinements of manœuvring. The line is formed, eight or twelve deep, as the case may be, and there will be a good deal of squeezing towards the right flank, for the men on that flank know that their right side is unshielded, and so try if possible to out-flank the men opposite them in the enemy's line. Meanwhile the enemy is doing the same thing on his side, so that the lines wriggle about for a little before we settle down fairly opposite one another. Then our king makes sacrifice of a goat, the flutes begin to play the Song of Kastor, and we all march forward in step, singing our war-song, and gradually quickening till we are charging at the double.

The two lines of heavy bronze-clad men meet with a crash, and for a while we sway backwards and forwards, thrusting and parrying, trying our utmost to break the opposite line. There is no great slaughter at first, for the close lines and the heavy armour make killing difficult; but by and by the lines begin to get mingled, spear-thrusts and sword-cuts get home, and men are falling faster. Now the line opposite seems to be melting away, and Kallikratidas and his companions drive ahead with renewed eagerness. Soon the enemy is quite broken up, and his spearmen are fleeing for their lives, some of them throwing away their heavy shields as they run. The battle is ours; but before we have pursued very far the trumpet calls us back again, for the Spartans consider it "neither gentlemanly nor Hellenic to cut and slay those who yield and retire."

To-morrow our opponents will send in a herald asking permission to take up and bury their dead under truce; and when we have buried our own, and set up a trophy of captured arms, we shall march home again victorious.

Such is a battle between two Greek armies—one of the simplest things in the way of tactics that you can imagine—a simple case of two lines of armoured men pushing at one another with spear, sword, and shield, till one line gets broken, or loses heart and runs away. The great merit of the Spartan soldier was that of all the Greeks he dreamed the least of running away. He preferred to be killed; and that dogged courage of his made him almost invincible on the battlefield, so that most armies that had to face him were half-beaten before the battle was joined, at the very thought of meeting Spartans.

So for generations the Spartan remained the War-Lord of Greece, until at last there came into the head of Epaminondas, captain of the host of Thebes, the idea that the old line-to-line business was not the last word in warfare. When he and his Thebans faced the Spartan line on the field of Leuktra, he changed the whole tactics of battle. Holding back a great part of his line, merely to watch the troops opposite them, he formed the rest into a column fifty deep, and flung this solid mass of bronze-clad men upon the right wing of the twelve-deep Spartan line. Bravely as the Spartans fought, they were overwhelmed by sheer weight, their line broken in twain and driven from the field. The lesson was clear, but not clear enough to the stubborn Spartan mind. Nine years later Spartan and Theban met again at Mantineia. Epaminondas played the game of Leuktra over again without a variation; and the Spartans showed that they had learned nothing by their first defeat, and Mantineia ended as Leuktra had done.

It was the end of Sparta as a great military power; and the soldier-state of Greece fell from its high estate because of sheer stupidity. Her men were as brave and well trained as ever; but all their bravery was thrown away because they were commanded by men whose generalship was no better or more adaptable than that of a respectable drill-sergeant. Victory in the future was to go to armies that could manœuvre, as well as fight stubbornly and die bravely.

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