Chapter XIII. The Armed Forces of Athens.

85. Military Life at Athens. - Hitherto we have seen almost nothing save the peaceful civic side of Athenian life, but it is a cardinal error to suppose that art, philosophy, farming, manufacturing, commerce, and bloodless home politics sum up the whole of the activities of Attica. Athens is no longer the great imperial state she was in the days of Pericles, but she is still one of the greatest military powers in Greece,[*] and on her present armed strength rests a large share of her prestige and prosperity. Her fleet, which is still her particular boast, must of course be seen at the Peireus; but as we go about the streets of the main city we notice many men, who apparently had recently entered their house doors as plain, harmless citizens, now emerging, clad in all the warrior's bravery, and hastening towards one of the gates. Evidently a review is to be held of part of the citizen army of Athens. If we wish, we can follow and learn much of the Greek system of warfare in general and of the Athenian army in particular.

[*]Of course the greatest military power of Greece had been Sparta until 371 B.C., when the battle of Leuctra made Thebes temporarily "the first land power."

Even at the present day, when there is plenty of complaint that Athenians are not willing to imitate the sturdy campaigning of their fathers, the citizens seem always at war, or getting ready for it. Every citizen, physically fit, is liable to military service from his eighteenth to his sixtieth year. To make efficient soldiers is really the main end of the constant physical exercise. If a young man takes pride in his hard and fit body, if he flings spears at the stadium, and learns to race in full armor, if he goes on long marches in the hot sun, if he sleeps on the open hillside, or lies on a bed of rushes watching the moon rise over the sea, - it is all to prepare himself for a worthy part in the "big day" when Athens will confront some old or new enemy on the battlefield. A great deal of the conversation among the younger men is surely not about Platonic ideals, Demosthenes's last political speech, nor the best fighting cocks; it is about spears, shield-straps, camping ground, rations, ambuscades, or the problems of naval warfare.

It is alleged with some show of justice that by this time Athenians are so enamored with the pleasures of peaceful life that they prefer to pay money for mercenary troops rather than serve themselves on distant expeditions; and certain it is that there are plenty of Arcadians, Thracians, and others, from the nations which supply the bulk of the mercenaries, always in Athenian pay in the outlying garrisons. Still the old military tradition and organization for the citizens is kept up, and half a generation later, when the freedom of Athens is blasted before Philip the Macedonian at Cheroneia, it will be shown that if the Athenian militia does not know how to conquer, it at least knows how to die. So we gladly follow to the review, and gather our information.

86. The Organization of the Athenian Army. - After a young "ephebus" has finished his two years of service in the garrisons he returns home subject to call at the hour of need. When there is necessity to make up an army, enough men are summoned to meet the required number and no more. Thus for a small force only the eligibles between say twenty and twenty-four years of age would be summoned; but in a crisis all the citizens are levied up to the very graybeards. The levy is conducted by the ten "Strategi" (at once 'generals,' 'admirals,' and 'war ministers') who control the whole armed power of Athens. The recruits summoned have to come with three days' rations to the rendezvous, usually to the Lyceum wrestling ground just outside the city. In case of a general levy the old men are expected to form merely a home guard for the walls; the young men must be ready for hard service over seas.

The organization of the Athenian army is very simple; each of the ten Attic tribes sends its own special battalion or "taxis," which is large or small according to the total size of the levy.[*] These "taxeis" are subdivided into companies or "lochoi," of about an average of 100 men each. The "taxeis" are each under a tribal-colonel ("taxiarch"), and each company under its captain ("locharch"). The ten strategi theoretically command the whole army together, but since bitter experience teaches that ten generals are usually nine too many, a special decree of the people often entrusts the supreme command of a force to one commander, or at most to not over three. The other strategi must conduct other expeditions, or busy themselves with their multifarious home duties.

[*]Thus if 3000 men were called out, the average "taxis" would be 300 strong, but if 6000, then 600.

87. The Hoplites and the Light Troops. - The unit of the Athenian citizen army, like practically all Greek armies, is the heavy armed infantry soldier, the HOPLITE. An army of "three thousand men" is often an army of so many hoplites, unless there is specific statement to the contrary. But really it is of six thousand men, to be entirely accurate: for along with every hoplite goes an attendant, a "light-armed man," either a poor citizen who cannot afford a regular suit of armor,[*] or possibly a trusted slave. These "light-armed men" carry the hoplites' shields until the battle, and most of the baggage. They have javelins, and sometimes slings and bows. They act as skirmishers before the actual battle: and while the hoplites are in the real death-grip they harass the foe as they can, and guard the camp. When the fight is done they do their best to cover the retreat, or slaughter the flying foe if their own hoplites are victorious.

[*]The hoplite's panoply (see description later) was sufficiently expensive to imply that its owner was at least a man in tolerable circumstances.

88. The Cavalry and the Peltasts. - There are certain divisions of the army besides the hoplites and this somewhat ineffective light infantry. There is a cavalry corps of 1000. Wealthy young Athenians are proud to volunteer therein; it is a sign of wealth to be able to provide your war horse. The cavalry too is given the place of honor in the great religious processions; and there is plenty of chance for exciting scouting service on the campaign. Again, the cavalry service has something to commend it in that it is accounted MUCH SAFER than the infantry![*] The cavalry is, however, a rather feeble fighting instrument. Greek riders have no saddles and no stirrups. They are merely mounted on thin horse pads, and it is very hard to grip the horse with the knees tightly enough to keep from being upset ignominiously while wielding the spear. The best use for the cavalry perhaps is for the riders to take a sheaf of javelins, ride up and discharge them at the foe as skirmishers, then fall back behind the hoplites; though after the battle the horsemen will have plenty to do in the retreat or the pursuit.

[*]Greeks could seldom have been brought to imitate the reckless medieval cavaliers. The example of Leonidas at Thermopyle was more commended than imitated. Outside of Sparta at least, few Greeks would have hesitated to flee from a battlefield, when the day (despite their proper exertions) had been wholly lost.

The Athenians have of course the Scythian police archers to send into any battle near Athens; they can also hire mercenary archers from Crete, but the Greek bows are relatively feeble, only three or four feet long - by no means equal to the terrible yew bows which will win glory for England in the Middle Ages. There has also come into vogue, especially since the Peloponnesian war, an improved kind of light-javelin-men, - the "Peltasts," - with small shields, and light armor, but with extra long lances. In recent warfare this type of soldier, carefully trained and agile, has been known to defeat bodies of the old-style over-encumbered hoplites.[*] Nevertheless, most veteran soldiers still believe that the heavy infantryman is everything, and the backbone of nearly every Greek army is still surely the hoplite. He will continue to be the regular fighting unit until the improved "phalanx," and the "Companion Cavalry" of Philip and Alexander of Macedon teach the captains of the world new lessons.

[*]Especially the Athenian general Iphicrates was able to cut to pieces a "mora" (brigade) of Spartan hoplites, in 392 B.C., by skillful use of a force of peltasts.

89. The Panoply of the Hoplite. - We have passed out one of the gates and are very likely in a convenient open space south and east of the city stretching away toward the ever visible slopes of gray Hymettus. Here is a suitable parade ground. The citizen soldiers are slipping on their helmets and tightening up their cuirasses. Trumpets blow from time to time to give orders to "fall in" among the respective "lochoi" and "taxeis." There is plenty of time to study the arms and armor of the hoplites during these preliminaries.

A very brief glance at the average infantryman's defensive weapons tells us that to be able to march, maneuver, and fight efficiently in this armor implies that the Athenian soldier is a well-trained athlete. The whole panoply weighs many pounds.[*] The prime parts in the armor are the helmet, the cuirass, the greaves, and the shield. Every able-bodied citizen of moderate means has this outfit hanging in his andronitis, and can don it at brief notice. The HELMET is normally of bronze; it is cut away enough in front to leave the face visible, but sometimes a cautious individual will insist on having movable plates (which can be turned up and down) to protect the cheeks.[+] Across the top there runs a firm metal ridge to catch any hard down-right blow, and set into the ridge is a tall nodding crest either of horsehair or of bright feathers - in either case the joy and glory of the wearer.

[*]Possibly fifty or more - we have no correct means for an exact estimate. [A note from Brett: Looking at web sites where reconstruction of the armor has been done and estimates made (ca. 1999) there seems to be a consistent top end of 70 pounds. Scholarly circles (e.g. Rudolph Storch of the University of Maryland) seem to lock the estimate more tightly, with the consensus saying that a fully armored Hoplite carried between 60 and 70 pounds. Most of this weight seems to be in the cuirass, which in some cases was linen and weighed only 10-15 pounds (the actual thickness is unknown, so the broad range of weight estimate covers the minimum to maximum reasonable thickness). For reference, a modern (2000) soldier is generally limited to 50 pounds of gear when fighting and 70 pounds when marching.]

[+]The "Corinthian" type of helmets came more closely over the face, and the cheek protectors were not movable; these helmets were much like the closed helms of the medieval knights. The Spartans, in their contempt for danger, wore plain pointed steel caps which gave relatively little protection.

Buckled around the soldier's body is the CUIRASS. It comprises a breastplate and a back piece of bronze, joined by thongs, or by straps with a buckle. The metal comes down to the hips. Below it hangs a thick fringe of stout strips of leather strengthened with bright metallic studs, and reaching halfway to the knees. From this point to the knees the legs are bare, but next come the GREAVES, thin pliable plates of bronze fitted to the shape of the leg, and opening at the back. They have to be slipped on, and then are fastened at the knees and ankle with leathern straps.

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.

Our curiosity of course asks how does this army act upon the campaign; what, in other words, is a typical Greek battle? This is not hard to describe. Greek battles, until lately, have been fought according to set formule in which there is little room for original generalship, though much for ordinary circumspection and personal valor. A battle consists in the charging together of two phalanxes of hoplites of about equal numbers. If one army greatly overmatches the other, the weaker side will probably retire without risking a contest. With a common purpose, therefore, the respective generals will select a broad stretch of level ground for the struggle, since stony, hilly, or uneven ground will never do for the maneuvering of hoplites. The two armies, after having duly come in sight of one another, and exchanged defiances by derisive shouts, catcalls, and trumpetings, will probably each pitch its camp (protected by simple fortifications) and perhaps wait over night, that the men may be well rested and have a good dinner and breakfast. The soldiers will be duly heartened up by being told of any lucky omens of late, - how three black crows were seen on the right, and a flash of lightning on the left; and the seers and diviners with the army will, at the general's orders, repeat any hopeful oracles they can remember or fabricate, e.g. predicting ruin for Thebes, or victory for Athens. In the morning the soldiers have breakfast, then the lines are carefully arrayed a little beyond bowshot from the enemy, who are preparing themselves in similar fashion. Every man has his arms in order, his spear point and sword just from the whetstone, and every buckle made fast. The general (probably in sight of all the men) will cause the seers to kill a chicken, and examine its entrails. "The omens are good; the color is favorable; the gods are with us!"[*] he announces; and then, since he is a Greek among Greeks, he delivers in loud voice an harangue to as many as can hear him, setting forth the patriotic issues at stake in the battle, the call of the fatherland to its sons, the glory of brave valor, the shame of cowardice, probably ending with some practical directions about "Never edging to the right!" and exhorting his men to raise as loud a war-cry as possible, both to encourage themselves and to demoralize the enemy.

[*]It may be suspected that it was very seldom the omens were ALLOWED to be unfavorable when the general was really resolved on battle.

93. Joining the Battle. - The troops answer with a cheer then join in full chorus in the "Pean - " a fierce rousing charging-song that makes every faint-heart's blood leap faster. Another pean bellowed from the hostile ranks indicates that similar preliminaries have been disposed of there. The moment the fierce chorus ends, the general (who probably is at the post of danger and honor - the right wing) nods to his corps of pipers. The shrill flutes cut the air. The whole phalanx starts forward like one man, and the enemy seem springing to meet it. The tossing color, the flashing arms and armor, make it a sight for men and gods. If the enemy has a powerful archery force, as had the Persians at Marathon, then the phalanx is allowed to advance on the run, - for at all costs one must get through the terrible zone of the arrow fire and come to grips; but if their bowmen are weak, the hoplites will be restrained, - it is better not to risk getting the phalanx disorganized. Running or marching the troops will emit a terrible roaring: either the slow deep "A! la! la! la!" or something quicker, "Eluleu!" "Eluleu!" and the flutes will blow all the while to give the time for the marching.

Closer at hand the two armies will fairly spring into unfriendly embrace. The generals have each measured his enemy's line and extended his own to match it.[*] With files of about equal depth, and well-trained men on both sides, the first stage of the death grapple is likely to be a most fearful yet indecisive pushing: the men of the front ranks pressing against each other, shield to shield, glaring out of their helmets like wild beasts against the foeman three feet away, and lunging with their lances at any opening between the hostile shields or above them. The comrades behind wedge in the front ranks closer and closer. Men are crushed to death, probably without a wound, just by this hellish impact. The shouts and yells emitted are deafening. There is an unearthly clashing of steel weapons on bronze armor. Every now and then a shrill, sharp cry tells where a soldier has been stabbed, and has gone down in the press, probably trampled to death instantly. In this way the two writhing, thrusting phalanxes continue to push on one another at sheer deadlock, until a cool observer might well wonder whether the battle would not end simply with mutual extermination.

[*]Any sudden attempt to extend your line BEYOND the foe's, so as to outflank him, would probably have produced so much confusion in your own phalanx as to promise certain disaster. Of course for an inferior force to accept battle by thinning its line, to be able by extending to meet the long lines of the enemy, would involve the greatest risk of being broken through at the center. The best remedy for inferior numbers was manifestly to decline a decisive battle.

94. The Climax and End of the Battle. - Boot look away now from the center, towards the two wings. What the generals of BOTH contending armies have feared and warned against has come to pass. Every hoplite is admirably covered by his great shield on his left side; but his right is unprotected. It is almost impossible to resist the impulse to take a step toward the right to get under the cover of a comrade's shield. And he in turn has been edging to the right likewise. The whole army ahs in fact done so, and likewise the whole phalanx of the enemy. So after a quarter of an hour of brisk fighting, the two hosts, which began by joining with lines exactly facing each other, have each edged along so much that each overlaps the other on the right wing, thus:

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What will happen now is easy to predict with assurance up to a certain point. The overlapping right wings will EACH promptly turn the left flank of their enemies, and falling upon the foe front and rear catch them almost helpless. The hoplite is an admirable soldier when standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades facing his foe; but once beset in the rear he is so wedged in by the press that it is next to impossible for him to turn and fight effectively. Either he will be massacred as he stands or the panic will spread betimes, and simultaneously both left wings will break formation and hurry off the field in little better than flight.

Now will come the real test of discipline and deliberate valor. Both centers are holding stoutly. Everything rests on the respective victorious right wings. Either they will foolishly forget that there is still fighting elsewhere on the field, and with ill-timed huzzaing pursue the men they have just routed, make for their camp to plunder it, or worse still, disperse to spoil the slain; or, if they can heed their general's entreaties, keep their ranks, and wheeling around come charging down on the rear of the enemy's center. If one right wing does this, while the hostile right wing has rushed off in heedless pursuit, the battle is infallibly won by the men who have kept their heads; but if both right wings turn back, then the real death grapple comes when these two sets of victors in the first phase of the contest clash together in a decisive grapple.

By this time the original phalanx formations, so orderly, and beautiful, have become utterly shattered. The field is covered by little squares or knots of striking, cursing, raging men - clashing furiously together. If there are any effective reserves, now is the time to fling them into the scale. The hitherto timorous light troops and armor bearers rush up to do what they can. Individual bravery and valor count now to the uttermost. Little by little the contest turns against one side or the other. The crucial moment comes. The losing party begins to fear itself about to be surrounded. Vain are the last exhortations of the officers to rally them. "Every man for himself!" rings the cry; and with one mad impulse the defeated hoplites rush off the field in a rout. Since they have been at close grip with their enemies, and now must turn their ill-protected backs to the pursuing spears, the massacre of the defeated side is sometimes great. Yet not so great as might be imagined. Once fairly beaten, you must strip off helmet and cuirass, cast away shield and spear, and run like a hare. You have lightened yourself now decidedly. But your foe must keep HIS ponderous arms, otherwise he cannot master you, if he overtakes you. Therefore the vanquished can soon distance the victors unless the latter have an unusually efficient cavalry and javelin force. However, the victors are likely to enter the camp of the vanquished, and to celebrate duly that night dividing the plunder.

95. The Burial Truce and the Trophy after the Battle. - A few hours after the battle, while the victors are getting breath and refreshing themselves, a shamefaced herald, bearing his sacred wand of office, presents himself. He is from the defeated army, and comes to ask a burial truce. This is the formal confession of defeat for which the victors have been waiting. It would be gross impiety to refuse the request; and perhaps the first watch of the nigh is spent by detachments of both sides in burying or burning the dead.

The fates of prisoners may be various. They may be sold as slaves. If the captors are pitiless and vindictive, it is not contrary to the laws of war to put the prisoners to death in cold blood; but by the fourth century B.C. Greeks are becoming relatively humane. Most prisoners will presently be released against a reasonable ransom paid by their relatives.

The final stage of the battle is the trophy: the visible sign on the battlefield that here such-and-such a side was victorious. The limbs are lopped off a tree, and some armor captured from the foe is hung upon it. After indecisive battles sometimes both sides set up trophies; in that case a second battle is likely to settle the question. Then when the victors have recovered from their own happy demoralization, they march into the enemy's country; by burning all the farmsteads, driving off the cattle, filling up the wells, girdling the olive and fruit trees, they reduce the defeated side (that has fled to its fortified town) to desperation. If they have any prisoners, they threaten to put them to death. The result, of course, is frequently a treaty of peace in favor of the victors.

96. The Siege of Fortified Towns. - If, however, one party cannot be induced to risk an open battle; or if, despite a defeat, it allows the enemy to ravage the fields, and yet persists in defending the walls of its town, - the war is likely to be tedious and indecisive. It is notorious that Greeks dislike hard sieges. The soldiers are the fellow townsmen of the generals. If the latter order an assault with scaling ladders and it is repulsed with bloody loss, the generals risk a prosecution when they get home for "casting away the lives of their fellow citizens."[*] In short, fifty men behind a stout wall and "able to throw anything" are in a position to defy an army.

[*]In siege warfare Oriental kings had a great advantage over Greek commanders. The former could sacrifice as many of their "slaves" as they pleased, in desperate assaults. The latter had always to bear in mind their accountability at home for any desperate and costly attack.

The one really sure means of taking a town is to build a counter wall around it and starve it out, - a slow and very expensive, thought not bloody process. Only when something very great is at stake will a Greek city-state attempt this.[*] There is always another chance, however. Almost every Greek town has a discontented faction within its walls, and many a time there will be a traitor who will betray a gate to the enemy; and then the siege will be suddenly ended in one murderous night.

[*]As in the siege of Potidea (432-429 B.C.), when if Athens had failed to take the place, her hold upon her whole empire would have been jeopardized.

97. The Introduction of New Tactics. - Greek battles are thus very simple things as a rule. It is the general who, accepting the typical conditions as he finds them, and avoiding any gross and obvious blunders, can put his men in a state of perfect fitness, physical and moral, that is likely to win the day. Of late there has come indeed a spirit of innovation. At Leuctra (371 B.C.) Epaminodas the Theban defeated the Spartans by the unheard-of device of massing a part of his hoplites fifty deep (instead of the orthodox eight or twelve) and crushing the Spartan right wing by the sheer weight of his charge, before the rest of the line came into action at all. If the experiment had not succeeded, Epaminondas would probably have been denounced by his own countrymen as a traitor, and by the enemy as a fool, for varying from the time-honored long, "even line" phalanx; and the average general will still prefer to keep to the old methods; then if anything happens, HE at least will not be blamed for any undue rashness. Only in Macedon, King Philip II (who is just about to come to the throne) will not hesitate to study the new battle tactics of Epaminondas, and to improve upon them.

The Athenians will tell us that their citizen hoplites are a match for any soldiers in Greece, except until lately the Spartans, and now (since Leuctra) possibly the Thebans. But Corinthians, Argives, Sicyonians, they can confront more readily. They will also add, quite properly, that the army of Athens is in the main for home defense. She does not claim to be a preeminently military state. The glory of Athens has been the mastery of the sea. Our next excursion must surely be to the Peireus.