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Origins of phalanx warfare

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Aurelian Ambrosianus View Drop Down
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  Quote Aurelian Ambrosianus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Origins of phalanx warfare
    Posted: 13-Nov-2005 at 03:04
    Good day to you all, im just new here. so pardon the slackness of my question. I was recently reading "the western way of war" by Victor Davis Hanson and i just wondered about his conclusions and specultaions on  phalanx  warfare. In the view of Hanson's hypothesis, the phalanx was designed to be a simple yet effective means of battle that allowed 'wars' to be fought in small-scale without any major casualties. Why did the greeks developed the phalanx at all? surely there were other ways of warfare that could be utilised by a democracy?...

There is again the question of 'simplicity' usually associated with phalanx warfare. Hanson claims that this simple kind of warfare could allow the greeks to "go home for dinner" after a battle. the simple nature of battle in ancient greece is somehow a bit shaky for me, why could the greeks(except for the slight movement to the right experienced by a phalanx brought about by seeking protection) not think of a thousand elaborate methods or maneuvers to flank or even avoid the enemy in battle to seek a more strategic position instead of facing the enemy in the front.

I also want to know how the phalanx was developed. HOw did warfare in ancient greece evolve from chariots and duels between strong men into the shield and spear wall of the phalanx.?...

If you have any ideas or theories pls. do not hesitate to enlighten this poor mind...thank you...
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  Quote Yiannis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 13-Nov-2005 at 05:47

Welcome, your mind is certainly not poor at all, since you raise legitimate questions.

Greeks never used chariots during warfare. The terrain was not suitable for them. Chariots were only used to transfer the noble warrior-kings to the field of battle, where they would set down and fight. I Imagine them as something close to feudal lords, each one leading a group of followers who would be fighting around them and usually disperse in case their leader was killed.

This kind of war was developed into the phalanx warfare when the social-economic conditions in Greece changed. Thorax and iron weapons became affordable by free farmers who were the backbone of the phalanx. The rest are explained in Hanson's book.

But when it comes to your question "why didn't the opponents tried to flank the phalanx instead of a head-on collision" the answer is "of course they did". The thing is that if you have two neighboring cities, fighting it off for a couple of disputed fields, they're most likely to be equipped in the same manner and therefore bound to fight in a similar way. More over, in order to flank the phalanx (which was indeed somehow inflexible) you have to actually move your own accordingly, not an easy task on the field of battle! You have to do it without having your own formation disintegrated, avoid the flak protection of the opposite phalanx (psiloi - usually archers, javelineers or slingers) and then you could be reasonably sure that your opponent general would have anchored his threatened left or right to a natural barrier, like a creek or a forest.

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  Quote Aurelian Ambrosianus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Nov-2005 at 02:37
 Thank you yiannis, you've sure enlighten a lot of dark areas. But there are still nagging questions in my head . These relate to the tactics and weaponry of the classical age in greece, by which i mean from Archaic period to the peloponessian war.

Again there is the question as to the perpetuation of hoplite warfare. Surely ther would be other geographically isolated areas in greece that would have developed a different ideology as to that of athens or sparta that would in turn affect their style of warfare. Would not these other states develop another kind of warfare, one that would either counter the hoplite formation or one that would be unique and successful enough to be used in the mountainous terrain of greece( one that would require a lot of mobility and flexibilty, perhaps?) It's as if all the city-states and towns in greece were able to agree on the same kind of warfare. And one could not think of any other better alternative up until the battle of leuctra.

Another question is of the gradual evolution of waging war in greece into  hoplite warfare. Why would the greeks develop a kind of warfare that required a suitable-sized,unbroken piece of flat land to fight and die in spite of the adversity of their abundant mountainous terrain in the greek mainland. Couldn't they have noticed that the hoplite warfare could only work properly on almost rare pieces of land(e.g. Leuctra,Plataea, plains of eurotas)...

Just wondering if any of you guys could answer some or if not all of these questions, i'd be happy to accept arguments and counter-statements,thank you....
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  Quote Alkiviades Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Nov-2005 at 03:06

It all boils down to the nature of the city states. Georgios Steinhauer in his "warfare of the ancient Greeks" talks about the social and political parameters - and the practical implementations - that led to the specific way of waging war unique to the Greeks (at least before others adopted it from them).

One must understand the buildup of the city states:

The average city state was an organization that barely could sustain itself. The land wasn't extremely rich, and the only way to get a surplus of food, goods etc. was to snatch the neighbors stuff. But the main point is that the cities didn't have to wage war to survive, they just were better off if they did. This is crucial, as it leads us to our next conclusion.

The city states are operating, as far as warfare goes, in a sense of self-preservation, more than anything else. Remember, the community can survive without having to resort to large scale plundering and destruction of other settlements. So, what would we best than to ensure that nobody destroyes anybody?

The half-ceremonial way of hoplite warfare is specifically suited for this. One could argue that it developed simultaneously to the rise of the "middle class" (free landowners with only a relatively small piece of land, artisans and the rest) to the focal point of the polis institution. A comparison with the less developed Greek areas (Macedonia, Epirus and to an extend Thessaly) where the middle class never gained much leeway and the land was held by few and powerful aristocrats) is very revealing.

So, the Greeks could survive without plundering their neighbours. The location of the city states allowed them to operate more or less without the threat of small outside threats (unless something big was thrown at them - like the army of Xerxes), so what they had to deal with was the threat the neighboring communities (other city states) represented. A limited threat, nevertheless.

The hoplite warfare, before the Peloponessian war, was a type of warfare tailored to those needs. The people manning the phalanx were precisely the middle class, the men who actually ruled their cities. The short campaings and result from a single, decisive battle suited the needs of an agrarian society without a standing army: they campaigned, sought the enemy, faced them in a pitched battle, won/loose, collect their dead and return home.

I'd need to write a book to fully illustrate the adoption of the warfare the very nature of the city states and to the change of conditions that led to the change of the hoplite warfare in the second half of the 5th and first half of the 4th century, but I hope this gives you some food for thought at least.

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  Quote Yiannis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Nov-2005 at 06:25

An interesting thought is to consider this in the frame of a Democracy. So the citizens are at the market arguing if they should attack another city or not, they vote "yes" and then, the same citizens, have to go home, arm themselves and materialize their decision! I don't know about you, but I find this fascinating!!! Or the opposite example, the army of Xenothon, which was in essence a "marching Democracy", where the Hoplites would vote for their next actions and the generals would report their actions to the assembly of the Hoplites and could be deprived of their authority or even punished by them.

 

The basis of a democratic state is liberty. Aristotle, Politics

Those that can give up essential liberty to obtain a temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Benjamin Franklin
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  Quote Alkiviades Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14-Nov-2005 at 08:28

Ah, yes "a marching democracy" - an extremely fascinating concept. I think "the ten thousand" (Myrioi) are one of the very few examples the world history is presenting in that context and the only people that could create such a thing were the democracy-obsessed ancient Greeks

Interesting to note that even the hoplites coming from not-quite democratic states (most Greek city states, contrary to popular belief, were aristocratic oligarchies or shifted between oligarchy and democracy) had the excactly same set of values and ideals to allow them to operate in such a way.

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  Quote Aurelian Ambrosianus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Nov-2005 at 02:34
    Thanks to all of you, alkiviades and yiannis. those words to give me some more food for thought and a whole lot more to munch on too.
 
    Same as the both of you, I find the values and the principle of hoplite warfare as somewhat unique to the greeks and their city-states. The greeks in the classical age were bound to some socio-economic status quo that defined their governments and their warfare. Even if they were separated by the political boundaries set by their own city-states, they respected and agreed to the same rules of warfare.

I do not believe anyone in the modern world could at at least live up to a decision they made in a democracy-based government, unlike these greeks have done in practicing what they really believed in...In the view of these characteristics of hoplite warfare, i think that greeks followed what others would call "romantic warrior crap". And to think that this same kind of warfare would eventually influence, what hanson says, the underlying principles of western warfare up until the current era: a quick,honorable,effective battle on a proper battlefield recalling vaguely the ideals of democracy.

If you ever publish a book on this topic, alkiviades, i'm gonna buy it somehow with my eager savings.. count me as your first fan...
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  Quote Alkiviades Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Nov-2005 at 03:47

A, thank you Aurelianus, you are too kind. Hope you can read Greek though, cause I have already proposed a relevant subject ("Evolution of hoplite warfare in the aftermath of the Peloponessian war") to my publisher. His first reactions weren't very encouraging ("don't you think it's a bit too specialized") but I can only hope. I have to finish my treatise on the Conquistadores first, but after 3 or 4 months I might be able to start it.

A brief note. I believe the "western warfare" comes directly from Rome - here we see all the concepts of the modern armies. The Greeks influenced the Romans, of course, but the latter had a more practical approach and they certainly lacked  the rather anarchistic approach of the Greeks to the subject of pre- and post-battlefield discipline (or lack thereof), the Greek's aversion to a standing structure (election of the officers by the Demos or the fighting men was the norm in Hellas) and the Greeks determination of deciding on the war they'd wage. But the Romans adopted the concept of decisive battle, on a suitable battlefield,  the idea of limited warfare, the close-formation of heavy infantrymen, the vague references to "republic" (the Roman version of democracy - a more practical aristocracy, actually) and freedom and many other Greek "inventions". The Greek model was rendered obsolete by a Greek army, nevertheless: Philip's and Alexander's army was everything the Greek army was (in the underlying concept, that is) but without the democratic implications and the suitability for defensive, mainly, purposes. Alex's army was the first moden army in the sense that it upheld those principles we talked about, but utilized them as means and not goals - means to get a favourable outcome, that is. An army suited to conquest. Such an army cannot be a real citizen army, I believe. But that's only me, I guess

I'd say, the ancient Greek army was simulated only once in modern history: in the pre-Stalin (Tchuchasevski, actually) Red Army of the USSR in the 1920s. The only modern army without standing structure, with communal decision-making pre-battlefield, with questioning of the (temporary) officers and with full political control over any operational aspect of it. Stalin got rid of it in the early 30s, because he needed a "real" army to wage war with and "protect the revolution"

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  Quote C.C.Benjamin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29-Jul-2008 at 11:34
I found this in the Forum Highlights area, so it may be an extremely old thread I'm resurrecting here.

I think the origins of phalanx warfare are grounded in several causes, the political environments, as detailed above, and the evolution of actual battlefield tactics.

The phalanx is not a new development - the Sumerians used it thousands of years before.  It is like the sabre-toothed tiger; it's evolved and become extinct several times because, in its element, it is a very effective method of warfare.

A phalanx is a very stable way of infantry fighting.  Thermopylae happened because a phalanx of men was very difficult to overcome face-on.  When threat of barbarian invasion always looms on the horizon, you need a method of war that allows you to win consistently.

If your opponent is simply screaming and charging head-long at you, waving his axe, there is nothing better than a wall of spears and shields for them to collide with.  It absolutely minimises your own losses while piling up their own.

When armies became professional, as under Phillip and Alexander, the phalanx was still an essential tool of war as it was a sturdy base by which to pin their army and hammer it in the flanks with cavalry or skirmishers.

The phalanx evolved because it was an effective method of war.  I think the social effects are secondary to that fact.
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  Quote dexippus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 31-Jul-2008 at 05:20
We should be very cautious in linking phylanx warfare with democracy. Remember, only the upper echelon of a polis could afford the expensive armor and weapons required for hoplite combat. The hoplite census included only about a quarter of Athens' citizen body, and in Athens hoplites were associated with Oligarchary (particularly during the oligarchic revolution of 411). Since most hoplites were successful farmers of middling means, they may have had more sympathy for aristocratic landowners than for the lower orders of the demos. Naval warfare, which relied on unarmed rowers, was seen by ancient commentators as the military justification of democracy, not upperclass hoplite warefare.
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  Quote Count Belisarius Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15-Aug-2008 at 20:19
Originally posted by Yiannis

 

Greeks never used chariots during warfare. The terrain was not suitable for them. Chariots were only used to transfer the noble warrior-kings to the field of battle, where they would set down and fight. I Imagine them as something close to feudal lords, each one leading a group of followers who would be fighting around them and usually disperse in case their leader was killed.

 
On the contrary, the Minoans used chariots for shock charges Three hundred and forty chariots were found in an ancient stable grouped together, chariots which were expensive to repair and maintain make it somewhat unlikely that they would have that many chariots together and used them only as prestige vehicles.  


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  Quote Yiannis Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02-Sep-2008 at 12:50
Originally posted by Count Belisarius

On the contrary, the Minoans used chariots for shock charges Three hundred and forty chariots were found in an ancient stable grouped together, chariots which were expensive to repair and maintain make it somewhat unlikely that they would have that many chariots together and used them only as prestige vehicles.  
 
Minoans? I think not but of course I might miss something. Can you please provide the sources because I have never heard of the Minoans using chariots nor I have seen any depicted in their art.
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  Quote rider Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02-Sep-2008 at 16:29
I can't believe that. The landscape of Crete is a bit too rough for chariots-.. 
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