The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece
Victor Davis Hanson
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The Greeks of the classical age invented not only the central idea of Western politics--that the power of state should be guided by a majority of its citizens--but also the central act of Western warfare, the decisive infantry battle. Instead of ambush, skirmish, maneuver, or combat between individual heroes, the Greeks of the fifth century b.c. devised a ferocious, brief, and destructive head-on clash between armed men of all ages. In this bold, original study, Victor Davis Hanson shows how this brutal enterprise was dedicated to the same outcome as consensual government--an unequivocal, instant resolution to dispute.
The Western Way of War draws from an extraordinary range of sources--Greek poetry, drama, and vase painting, as well as historical records--to describe what actually took place on the battlefield. It is the first study to explore the actual mechanics of classical Greek battle from the vantage point of the infantryman--the brutal spear-thrusting, the difficulty of fighting in heavy bronze armor which made it hard to see, hear and move, and the fear. Hanson also discusses the physical condition and age of the men, weaponry, wounds, and morale.
This compelling account of what happened on the killing fields of the ancient Greeks ultimately shows that their style of armament and battle was contrived to minimize time and life lost by making the battle experience as decisive and appalling as possible. Linking this new style of fighting to the rise of constitutional government, Hanson raises new issues and questions old assumptions about the history of war.
phalanxes of hoplites that figure so frequently in the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon. And as soon as we can begin to impose a dimension of time upon the accounts of ancient historians, we prepare ourselves also to make calculations about the speed at which phalanxes moved, the distances they covered in maneuver, and all the other factors that transform an ancient source from a literary record to a scientific text. The second reason for which I delight in Victor Hanson’s book is that it
does not seek merely to define and calibrate the acts of Greek warfare. It goes further, much further. It seeks to show that Greek warfare was different in kind from the warfare that preceded it; that it was different not merely in technique but in ethos; and that its ethos pervaded Greek life, culture, and politics—and thus our own, too. What Hanson suggests—utterly convincingly, to my view—is that the Greeks of the city-states were the first people on earth to contract between themselves, as
the porpax and antilabe, which for the first time distributed the weight all along the left arm rather than concentrating it at the hand and wrist alone. These innovations made it possible to hold such an otherwise clumsy thing for the duration of battle. Yet it is usually forgotten that this grip also had severe drawbacks for the men in the field. Overall body movement was impaired as the left arm—for most men the more awkward and weaker one—had to be held rigidly, stuck out in front of the body
or social circumstance or even age, were first of all lifelong hoplites of their city, liable to fight and die without exception during any summer of their lifetime. One Menexenos, for example, was killed at the battle of Olynthos in 429 when he was at least forty; Kephisophon in 341 was in his mid-forties while on duty at Oreos, Skythos, and Byzantion; Glaukon was fifty when he was general at Samos and later on he served at Coreyra; Pyrilampes, who fell at Delion in 424, was fifty-six. Nor was
contingents. Diodorus claims that nearly ten thousand men were cut down from the rear. (15.72; cf. Xen. Hell. 7.1.31) Besides the pursuit of hoplites, there was even greater danger from the entrance of both cavalry and light-armed skirmishers. During the initial battle these auxiliary corps were kept largely out of the fighting since they had no chance of pressing an attack against their betters who held the firm line of hoplite shields. But now for the first and only time since the minor