Let’s go deeper today into the nature of ancient warfare. What was it like for the individual fighter … and what effect did that have on everything else in society?
I ask this because so much of how you and I feel today—assumptions about ourselves and about life that we absolutely take for granted—comes directly from ancient warfare, ancient codes of honor, ancient ideals and virtues.
Here’s a quote from one of my favorites, the poet and mercenary Archilochus of Paros:
“Be brave, my heart. Square your shoulders to the enemy
and stand fast among the man-killing spears.”
This was the Greek way, what the great scholar Victor Davis Hansen calls “the Western way of war.” Meaning the way we in the West still view conflict and honor.
The Persian way was different, that is, the enemy that the Spartans would face at Thermopylae.
Warfare in the East—Persia, Media, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt—was often mounted warfare using missile weapons: flung spears and javelins, bows and arrows, slings that shot stones and lead sling bullets. The East was horse country. The vast open plains in Persia and Media and Lydia and Egypt lent themselves to mounted warfare. A man on foot in armor didn’t stand a chance in that country. The idea of coming to close quarters made no sense. Better to stand off at a distance and shoot arrows or sling lances.
The sons of Persian nobles were taught
“to draw the bow and speak the truth.”
That was the Eastern ideal. And, it must be said, it’s an honorable and noble way of warfare and of life.
Now let’s look at the Greek way. In a mountainous country, with few open plains, with often barren rocky soil that possesses few pasturelands where horses could be raised, a whole different way of warfare evolved.
Consider the armor and weapons a typical Greek warrior bore. A helmet of bronze with a single slit or pair of eyeholes to see through, a breastplate of bronze of thick leather, shin guards called “greaves,” a short sword on a baldric, and an eight-foot spear with a “butt spike” for stabbing the enemy who had fallen. In other words, about thirty pounds that the Persian didn’t have to carry.
But the central piece of armor, around which everything else including the code of honor that the Greeks would pass down to us, was the shield. Called an aspis or a hoplon, from which comes the name of the soldier, a hoplite, literally a “shield soldier.”
The shield was round and concave, three feet across. It was made of thick heavy oak. Here’s a breadboard from my own kitchen. Oak, just like a Spartan aspis. You can stab this with all your strength with a butcher knife, hack at it with a meat cleaver. You won’t make a scratch. A shield of oak like this, faced with bronze, could stand up to the stoutest spear, to arrows, even to y flung javelins. But it was heavy. Sixteen pounds. Carried on a forearm sleeve of the left arm with a grip cord for the left fist. Porpax and antilabe.
Why am I going into such detail on this? Because the Greek code of honor, our heritage today, derives from the demands of this shield.
A quotation from Plutarch:
Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the man who loses helmet or breastplate in battle but punish with death the warrior who discards his shield?
Because helmet and breastplate are worn to protect the individual alone but the shield is borne for the protection of the whole line.
The shield was not borne in isolation. It was part of a united, cohesive front. Shield, shield, shield, shield … each one overlapping the one next to it, presenting a solid, impregnable wall to the foe. The phalanx.
The horse warriors of our Native American West—the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, the Blackfoot, the Crow—evolved a style of warfare that was not dissimilar from the Persians and Medians and even the Scythians. It was a warfare of individual champions. Each man competed with the others for who could perform the most spectacular deeds of courage.
The Greek way was the opposite. There’s a story of the Spartan warrior Aristodemus, the lone survivor of Thermopylae, who was sent home before the battle because an eye infection had rendered him blind. He recovered, but he felt such shame that, at the next battle against the Persians, he fought like a wild man. Everyone agreed, afterwards, that no other on the field had performed such prodigies of courage as Aristodemus. But the judges did not award him the prize of valor. The declared that he rushed around like a man possessed, seeking death. This violated the Greek ideal, the ideal of the phalanx, the ideal that the unit is more important than the individual.
In Greek warfare, as the front of one army advanced toward the foe, it had a tendency to drift to the right. Why? Because each man in fear sought to get into the shelter of the man’s shield next to him.
Again and again, this phenomenon is reported in the ancient sources.
It was said, in contrast, that the Spartans .with their lifelong training in marching discipline and close-order drill, did NOT drift to the right. Their advance was uniform, cohesive, straight forward, with no wavering and no breaks in the line. On no few occasions, the enemy would drop their shields and run away, while the Spartans were still a hundred yards, two hundred yards away. The sight of the Spartan advance was that terrifying.
It would be a challenge to judge the courage of 300 Spartans facing hundreds of thousands of Persians against Sudanese Dervishes with broadswords charging a British square armed with Martini Henry’s (or substitute examples of your own).
Perhaps the common factor is that both the Spartans and the British trained to rely -and support – the man on their left and to the right, and this knowledge made them fight harder in the knowledge they were not fighting alone. And keeping to the east-west concept, let me suggest the best example of the value of fighting as a single unit was the 13,000 1st MarDiv Marines fighting their way back from the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. “We’re coming out as Marines,” Gen O.P. Smith told McArthur, “and we’re bringing our wounded and our dead with us.” S/f
I’ve long appreciated Victor Davis Hanson’s clarity and insight. I like that his wiki bio lists his occupation as: “Professor (Emeritus), author, farmer.”
The realism with which you write about the period makes me pretty sure something of your consciousness lived there.
VDH is one of my favorite writers/thinkers I’ve read since being introduced to him by the Adjutant General of the Utah Army National Guard. MG Brian Tarbet led an Officer Professional Development dinner that I was fortunate enough to attend. In his remarks, he mentioned a quote from VDH. I looked him up, and read him nearly as frequently as this blog.
Below is a link to an article VDH wrote in 2009 titled, “Thoughts About Depressed Americans”. My favorite quote from this article is,
“For the present I think that we have enough social service bureaucrats, enough consultants, enough PhDs that will lecture how race/class/gender has made us, our air, our dogs even, so unfair. WE SIMPLY ARE THIRSTY FOR THE UNAPOLOGETIC DOER, who never says he’s sorry for himself or his country or his ancestors, but instead thinks and plans how he can build something better and leave it for others — the age old agrarian commandment “make sure you leave a better farm than you inherit.” Where are they all, in the grave?”
I capitalized the sentence that resonated so deeply with me.
Here is the link to the complete article: http://victorhanson.com/wordpress/thoughts-about-depressed-americans/
Oh–and to echo your last statement–I’m pretty sure Mr Pressfield, in another incarnation, walked those fields 2500 years ago as well…
These posts are always *so* interesting and thought provoking. Thanks, Steve for the time and work that you’ve put into them.
Yes – that’s just what I was going to comment. I really appreciate the time you take to make these, Steve!
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