Thursday, October 31, 2013


Donald Kagan, Gregory F. Viggiano (ed.), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xxv, 286. ISBN 9780691143019. $35.00.

Reviewed by Matthew A. Sears, The University of New Brunswick (

Version at BMCR home site


Aristotle famously linked military organization and tactics to political developments within the Greek polis. Specifically, in the earliest post-monarchical times, aristocrats and their horses dominated both the battlefield and the state, whereas once the hoplite phalanx, with its greater numbers of cohesive soldiers, gained preeminence, a greater number of people gained a share in the state's government (Politics 4.1297b16-24). That military practices reflect far more than the realities of the battlefield – indeed being intertwined with politics, society, and culture – is beyond serious dispute. What is a matter for debate, however, is the extent to which politics, society, and culture play a role in military affairs, and vice versa. In the case of ancient Greek, and especially hoplite, warfare, this debate concerns two further questions: when, how, and why hoplite equipment and tactics emerged; and how exactly the hoplite phalanx operated on the battlefield. The present book, stemming from a 2008 conference held at Yale, gathers essays from several of the leading participants in the "hoplite debate" and, rather than offering a solution to the many issues involved, presents each side clearly and concisely so that the reader gains an understanding of the debate's terms, ramifications, and personalities.

In the last several decades scholars have marshaled serious challenges against what was once agreed to be the "orthodox" position regarding Greek hoplite warfare: namely, that a sudden revolution in tactics brought about by the invention of the double-grip hoplite shield in the early Archaic period led to massive social and political changes throughout Greece. This orthodox view stemmed ultimately from Aristotle's observation and gained widespread acceptance in the English-speaking world in the years following the hugely influential article by H. L. Lorimer published in the 1947 volume of BSA (though, to be sure, the orthodox view had existed in various forms well before Lorimer). The fullest and most recent catechism of hoplite orthodoxy came in the form of Victor Davis Hanson's The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (Berkeley: [1989] 1998) and The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: 1995). Drawing inspiration from John Keegan's The Face of Battle (London: 1976), Hanson provides a rich account of the nuts and bolts of hoplite warfare, especially the experience of the hoplites themselves, and the most comprehensive theory concerning how the hoplite phalanx and the independent farmers of which it was constituted revolutionized the polis and laid the groundwork not only for political egalitarianism, but the very concept of Western citizenship. Beginning with Anthony Snodgrass in the 1960s, who systematically analyzed the hoplite equipment dedicated at sanctuaries such as Olympia, the supposedly sudden revolution in arms and tactics has increasingly given way to a more "gradualist" approach. Peter Krentz has devoted much work to showing that the mass-shove and other canonical elements of massed warfare are implausible on their face, while also reevaluating hoplite equipment to suggest that the soldiers were in fact much less heavily armed than traditionally thought and therefore capable of operating outside of the densest formations. Hans van Wees has argued that the warfare depicted in the Iliad, once thought to epitomize the sort of heroic and aristocratic fighting to which the hoplite phalanx represented a sudden and decisive break, was not in fact much different, if at all, from the Archaic phalanx. Van Wees offers the nebulous formations of Papua New Guinean warriors as a modern analogue to Homeric and Archaic warfare. He further argues that the "middling" yeoman farmer central to Hanson's thesis did not exist in any great numbers during the Archaic period, and thus could not have had the sort of socio- political impact that Hanson and others postulate. All of these scholars – Hanson, Snodgrass, Krentz, van Wees, and several others holding various positions on the phalanx – have contributed to this book. It is perhaps an understatement that none seems to have been convinced by the arguments of the others.

Following a preface and introduction outlining the aims of the original conference and giving a brief overview of the book's chapters, Donald Kagan and Gregory F. Viggiano in Chapter 1 provide a very useful synopsis of the hoplite debate. This chapter traces the debate from Grote in the 19th century to the present day, and will prove valuable to anyone wishing to get up to speed on past and current developments in the study of hoplite warfare. For Chapter 2, Viggiano teams up with Hans van Wees to offer a brief outline of the various iconographic sources for hoplite warfare, concluding that very little of the evidence is unambiguous, a fact that explains the persistence of sometimes diametrically opposed views among scholars. Paul Cartledge, in Chapter 3, introduces the rest of the essays by framing some key terms of the debate, and expressing his approval of the rise in what he calls "polemology," that is, the holistic study of ancient Greek warfare that takes into account broader Greek society instead of merely battlefield tactics and equipment.

For Chapter 4, Anthony Snodgrass traces the various ways that Homer has been treated as evidence for the phalanx, before returning to his important study of Greek arms and armor. Snodgrass attempts to highlight the hidden similarities between even the most seemingly opposed views of the phalanx, as he restates his own gradualist position.

Kurt Raaflaub in Chapter 5 explores the possibility of "Orientalizing" influence on Greek warfare, concluding that the phalanx and its equipment really were uniquely Greek developments. The single-grip round Assyrian shield might have influenced the double-grip hoplite shield, but even this is far from certain.

In perhaps the most contentiously argued piece in the book, Viggiano uses Chapter 6 to restate the orthodox view. For Viggiano, the phalanx could only have operated in massed formation, and the hoplite class must have been instrumental in first propping up tyrants against the old aristocracy, and eventually pushing for full equality for themselves. Though many valid challenges are raised by the revisionists, Viggiano maintains that no single revisionist thesis offers a satisfactorily complete alternative to the orthodox model. At the end of the chapter, he presents his own, very detailed, postulation of how and when the phalanx took hold throughout Greece, bringing in specific actors such as Pheidon of Argos and Cypselus of Corinth. Viggiano's reconstruction is interesting, though perhaps far too detailed in light of the evidence.

In Chapter 7, Peter Krentz restates many of his arguments against the plausibility of the hoplite mass-shove and the heavy weight of hoplite equipment. Most interestingly, Krentz traces the scholarly history of orthodox ideas, showing that some ideas (such as the weight of the hoplite shield) have been passed on from generation to generation perhaps with too little critical evaluation. Krentz poses some very serious challenges to the view of the massed phalanx, though he could have done more to state exactly how hoplites fought in battle, if indeed they were not as densely packed as once thought.

For Chapter 8, Adam Schwartz defends the orthodox view of the extreme weight and unwieldiness of hoplite equipment, especially the shield. Schwartz insists that even a shield at the lower end of the estimated weight would be a considerable burden, especially considering the smaller relative size of ancient Greek soldiers. Schwartz and Krentz use much of the same pieces of evidence, including even the experiences of modern re-enactors and riot police, yet their conclusions stand at opposite poles.

John R. Hale in Chapter 9 presents the first real alternative to the orthodox view of hoplite development, positing that mercenary service abroad, especially in the Near East, was decisive for the rise of the hoplite and the phalanx. In contrast to the nearly continuous action that a Greek solider would encounter in the employ of Assyrian or Egyptian rulers, the sporadic and small-scale battles in the Greek homeland were an insignificant sideshow. Hale makes two very interesting suggestions: that the round hoplite shield was developed to suit the needs of sea-borne troops making beach landings, and that the energetic and entrepreneurial spirit of these early mercenaries led to the values associated with the polis.

In Chapter 10, Lin Foxhall offers an overview of the evidence from survey archaeology. After usefully outlining the methods and aims of surface survey, she argues that the results of surveys throughout Greece tell against the rise in cultivation of marginal lands, a phenomenon that was essential to Hanson in formulating his views on the importance of small farmers.

In Chapter 11, Hans van Wees challenges the notion that there was a "middling" class of hoplite-farmers in the Archaic period, showing that the evidence points only to two classes, namely leisured farmers who could afford to have others do all the necessary labor, and everyone else, who often had to hire themselves out as labor. Van Wees's interpretation of the evidence is indeed compelling. He then offers the only full alternative to the orthodox model concerning hoplites and the development of the polis. For van Wees, the early polis was really a republic of gentlemen that offered equal rights to no more than 15 % or so of the total population. The larger phalanx, known from Classical sources, incorporating a larger share of the polis arose only in the very late 6th century.

Victor Davis Hanson uses the last chapter to restate the orthodox position, urging that the sources really do indicate that hoplite warfare was the rule for Archaic poleis and was foundational for the rise of Greek civic-mindedness. It was also a densely massed affair characterized by shoving. He concludes by reminding us that the orthodox position is no mere flash in the pan, but rather a view that has been held, more or less, for over a century. This fact by itself should afford orthodoxy no small consideration.

As mentioned, this book is geared to presenting the parameters of the hoplite debate in the clearest possible terms, a goal in which it succeeds. Anyone charged with teaching about hoplite warfare and its role in Greek history, let alone anyone doing original research on the subject, will find this book useful and necessary. Can anything be said concerning which argument or set of arguments from the book are most convincing? I am sympathetic to the claim made by Hanson, and reiterated forcefully by Viggiano, that the revisionists, while perhaps highlighting genuine weak spots in the orthodox argument, have failed to offer a comprehensive theory of their own. Hanson and Viggiano maintain that the orthodox position still presents the most plausible account of all the evidence. Van Wees is the only revisionist in this volume, with the possible exception of Hale, offering a more or less comprehensive account of the rise of the phalanx and its role in socio-political developments, though I still find the dense, mass-shove image of hoplite battle itself to be more convincing than van Wees's alternative of loose and fluid formations. Where van Wees succeeds most is in his reappraisal of the evidence, or lack thereof, of the middling yeoman farmer in the Archaic period. Van Wees' conclusion that there were really only two classes in Archaic Greece –leisured gentlemen farmers and everyone else – seems to me inescapable. In short, the socio-political effects and importance of the hoplite phalanx as suggested by the orthodox view seem increasingly uncertain, despite the fourth-century remark by Aristotle, while the orthodox picture of how hoplites actually fought continues to make the most sense in light of the evidence.

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