Chapter XIII. The Armed Forces of Athens.
But the warrior's main protection is his SHIELD. With a strong, large shield you can fight passing well without any regular body armor; while with the best outfit of the latter you are highly vulnerable without your shield. To know how to swing your shield so as to catch every possible blow, to know how to push and lunge with it against an enemy, to know how to knock a man down with it, if needs be, THAT is a good part of the soldier's education. The shield is sometimes round, but more often oval. It is about four feet by the longest diameter. It is made of several layers of heavy bull's hide, firmly corded and riveted together, and has a good metal rim and metal boss in the center. On the inside are two handles so that it can be conveniently wielded on the left arm.[*] These shields are brilliantly painted, and although the Greeks have no heraldic devices, there are all manner of badges and distinguishing marks in vogue. Thus all Theban shields are blazoned with a club; Sicyonian shields are marked with the initial "Sigma" (S), and we note that the Athenian shields are all marked Alpha (A).[+]
[*]Earlier Greek shields seem to have been very large and correspondingly heavy. These had only a single handle; and to aid in shifting them they were swung on straps passed over the left shoulder.
[+]This last is a matter of safe inference rather than of positive information.
90. The Weapons of a Hoplite. - The hoplites have donned their armor. Now they assume their offensive weapons. Every man has a lance and a sword. The LANCE is a stout weapon with a solid wooden butt, about six feet long in all. It is really too heavy to use as a javelin. It is most effective as a pike thrust fairly into a foeman's face, or past his shield into a weak spot in his cuirass. The sword is usually kept as a reserve weapon in case the lance gets broken. It is not over 25 inches in length, making rather a huge double-edged vicious knife than a saber; but it is terrible for cut and thrust work at very close quarters. Simple as these weapons are, they are fearful instruments of slaughter in well-trained hands, and the average Greek has spent a considerable part of his life in being taught how to use them.
91. Infantry Maneuvers. - The final trumpets have blown, and the troops fall into their places. Each tribal "taxis" lines up its "lochoi." The Greeks have no flags nor standards. There is a great deal of shouting by the subaltern officers, and running up and down the ranks. Presently everything is in formal array. The hoplites stand in close order, each man about two feet from the next,[*] leaving no gaps between each division from end to end of the lines. The men are set in eight long ranks. This is the normal "phalanx"[+] order. Only those in front can actually lunge and strike at the enemy. The men in the rear will add to the battering force of the charge, and crowding in closely, wedge themselves promptly to the front, when any of the first rank goes down.
[*]The object would be to give each man just enough distance to let him make fair use of his lance, and yet have his shield overlap that of his neighbor.
[+]The "phalanx" is sometimes spoken of as a Macedonian invention, but Philip and Alexander simply improved upon an old Greek military formation.
It is an imposing sight when the strategos in charge of the maneuvers, a stately man in a red chlamys, gives the final word "March!"
Loud pipes begin screaming. The long lines of red, blue, and orange plumes nod fiercely together. The sun strikes fire out of thousands of brandished lance tips. The phalanx goes swinging away over the dusty parade ground, the subalterns up and down the files muttering angrily to each inapt recruit to "Keep your distance:" or "Don't advance your shield." The commandant duly orders the "Half turn:" "Left" or "Right turn:" "Formation by squares," and finally the critical "Change front to rear." If this last maneuver is successfully accomplished, the strategos will compliment the drill sergeants; for it is notoriously difficult to turn a ponderous phalanx around and yet make it keep good order. The drilling goes on until the welcome order comes, "Ground arms!" and every perspiring soldier lets his heavy shield slip from his arm upon the ground.
92. The Preliminaries of a Greek Battle. - Later in the day, if these are happy times of peace, the whole phalanx, so bristling and formidable, will have resolved itself into its harmless units of honest citizens all streaming home for dinner.