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Hoplites, 300, and the Face of Battle

It's only been a good two weeks and here's another podcast. It must be the festive season... For this episode author Paul Bardunias joins Marc DeSantis, Mark McCaffery, Lindsay Powell, Angus Wallace and yours truly for a chat about hoplite warfare with reference to popular culture, but mostly history.

8 thoughts on “Hoplites, 300, and the Face of Battle”

  • Justin Swanton

    One question on phalanx depth: the standard hoplite line seems to have been about 8 men deep though it was often deeper. To what extent were the extra ranks there to supply reserve spears to the men in front (besides supplying the push for Othismos and cheering the front rankers on)? How many times in the sources is there mention of spears getting broken and their wielders (presumably) needing replacements?

    • Jasper Oorthuys

      Hi Justin,
      Good question! Offhand, I can't think of any descriptions of men feeding their spears forward, though there are descriptions of men fighting with swords and broken spears. So if they did, it may not have been very effective...

    • Paul Bardunias

      While it is true that 8 ranks are common, 12 is the common Spartan depth by the 4thc, and we also regularly see 16 ranks employed by poleis such as Syracuse, Athens, and of course Thebes. Xenophon describes the process of forming 4 ranks, perhaps for use against less shock oriented foes. Thebes, following the lead of Pagondas at Delium, began forming in 25 or 50 ranks. We must look to the reasons for forming at different depth. There is always a trade-off between forming deep and adding shock or othismos value and forming wider to keep from getting out flanked. For example, before the battle of Nemea, Thebes allies try to get them to form no deeper than 16 in order to keep the battle line longer.
      In the othismos study I did, we saw a plateau in pushing force as you add more men in files. Over 12-16 men in file, you get very little added force for each new man added.
      Rear ranks moved up over the dead bodies of the men in front, but we know of no system to rotate tired men back. There are many images on vases of broken spears and a number of references. Here is a nice scene from Euripides Phoenissae:
      [1390] Eteocles, in kicking aside a stone that rolled beneath his tread, exposed a limb outside his shield, and Polyneices, seeing a chance of dealing him a blow, aimed at it, and the Argive shaft passed through his leg; [1395] the Danaid army, one and all, cried out for joy. And the wounded man, seeing Polyneices’ shoulder bare in this effort, plunged his spear with all his might into his breast, restoring gladness to the citizens of Thebes, though he broke off the spear-head. [1400] And so, at a loss for a weapon, he retreated step by step, till catching up a splintered rock he let it fly and broke the other’s spear in the middle; and now the combat was equal, for each had lost his lance. Then clutching their sword-hilts [1405] they closed, and round and round, with shields clashing, they fought a wild battle.

  • Paul McDonnell-Staff
    Paul McDonnell-Staff December 23, 2017 at 5:40 am

    Despite the theories of my good friend Paul Bardunias and others, there really was no such thing as Othismos for all sorts of reasons, as readers of AW XI.4 or VI.1 will be aware, not to mention that modern experiments show mass shoving to be physically impossible.

    Keep in mind too that hoplites did not fight 8 deep ( typically), this was the depth in 'open' or normal order ( 6 ft per man frontage). The phalanx doubled up, to half depth in 'close' order and fought ( typically) 4 deep( 3 ft per man frontage or 'shield-to-shield'). As any modern police riot expert will tell you, a line 3-4 deep suffices to keep back a rioting crowd, and cannot be broken through generally ( surprising as that may seem).

  • Paul Bardunias

    Paul, as far as I know I have the only data on anything like a realistic test of othismos with reenactors pushing in full panoply. Its easier to cut and paste from Hoplites at War:

    "A compression sensor was affixed to a large tree with bailing wire. A test hoplite pressed his aspis against this sensor and pushed. Once his individual level of mass transferred was recorded, the next hoplite in file pushed against the back of the foremost man and the new value recorded. This process was repeated for a total file length of ten hoplites and run in three bouts to derive an average mass transfer for each length of file. In this initial set of tests, hoplites were instructed to push in the crowd-like manner described by Bardunias (2007), forming up belly-to-back with the aspis supported against the left shoulder, upper chest, and left thigh. Average pushing weights are shown on the graph, but the maximum force generated by a single file of ten men was 247 kg (544 lbs). This is surely an underestimate of ancient reality in that a lone file like this must spend some of its energy on maintaining lateral stability and not falling out of line. In the large masses of men within an actual phalanx, files standing alongside would have forced centrally located files into alignment and eliminate their need to expend energy staying in line. And, indeed, when a shorter file of six men pushing against a compression sensor as above was flanked on each side by six man files and all pushed together, mass transferred through the central aspis reached 368 kg (811 lbs).

    Contrary to Matthew’s claim that neither the aspis nor its holder could survive such a press, it should come as no surprise that not a single re-enactor hoplite was lost during our testing. Moreover, the aspides being tested had to support pressures approaching a half a ton and transfer it through a 1 x 2in (2.5 x 5cm) metal sensor to the tune of over 400lbs/ Yet, though the sound of grunting men and creaking shields loudly filled the air, not a single aspis was deformed and those involved testified that their aspides allowed them to breathe even at the height of the crush."

    These were some of the best reenactors in the game, you know most of them. All were converted to this being physically possible at least. Even 4 men can produce over 120kg in this manner, and sustain it for long periods.

    • Paul McDonnell-Staff
      Paul McDonnell-Staff February 18, 2018 at 9:03 am

      Yes, I've seen the videos on You-tube, and to my eye they are very unconvincing !

      What you duplicated is the 'tree pushing' invented by (IIRC) the author Steven Pressfield in a fiction book! Hardly a "realistic test" to see whether a phalanx of thousands in a line a mile or more long could push in unison 'en masse'.........

      When your single file first pushed against the tree, it promptly collapsed sideways, as one might expect. Then a second file was used to prevent this - but it too should have been pushing forward. Nor are phalanxes packed shoulder to shoulder, without which there is no lateral support.
      Next, your figures. You have your file leaning into an immovable object ! This does NOT simulate what happens in an ‘elastic’ collision between two files of men, neither of which are ‘solid’. The forces transmitted must be considerably less than your figures....
      What you did demonstrate is that Matthew is dead wrong (yet again – I think it a truism that anything Mathew says is automatically wrong! LOL!) and that ‘pushing’ is possible as you say.
      But as a good scientist, you know that just because something is ‘possible’, doesn’t mean it is necessarily so, and the overwhelming evidence is still there that armies of thousands in phalanx did not indulge in concerted ‘pushing en masse’.

  • Paul McDonnell-Staff
    Paul McDonnell-Staff February 17, 2018 at 8:15 am

    Yes, I've seen the You-tube clips of these tests. What you forgot to mention was that your file promptly collapsed sideways - unerstandable because unlike a Rugby scrum the men are not 'bound on' to one another. In your second version you had to have a second file alongside shoring them up - when in fact that second file should also be attempting to push forward, and would also collapse sideways. The fact that it took three files to transfer force through the middle file speaks for itself. Moreover, for some reason your hoplites had to join the file one by one instead of all shuffling up together. Joining one by one is impractical.

    Most damaging of all, we never hear in our sources of hoplites doing anything like this. Not to mention that 'Othismos' doesn't refer to physical pushing - it's a mistranslation arising in the 19 C.

    As for pressing against trees, that is pure fiction, invented (I.I.R.C) by the author Steven Pressfield.

    There are many other reasons why this whole thing is a myth, and I refer readers to the issues of AW in my first post.
    As a good scientist, I am sure Paul is acutely aware that just because something is 'possible' ( and the YouTube clips look pretty unconvincing to me) doesn't mean that's the way it happened. Where is the evidence ?

  • Paul Bardunias
    Paul Bardunias April 12, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    You have been misled Paul. That is not my video you saw and it is not spliced in order.  We had one trial out of a dozen single file tests where two men slipped out of file. The trial where this happened was not the first, but rather one of the last. There was no problem with lateral stability, the single collapse happened because a man slammed forward as he joined the file in a manner that is the opposite of what I say hoplites did.  Such instantaneous, uncoordinated thrusts add nothing compared to the sustained force of the group. 

    The two files were added not because the single file collapsed, but because hoplites did not fight in single files.  In a real phalanx, every file but the right and left are bound by flanking files.  We wanted to see if flanking files allowed men to spend more energy in pushing rather than staying in file, and to see how force was transferred through the overlapping aspides when men were formed in close order (around 60cm frontage).

    The sensor on the tree had nothing to do with Gates of Fire.  We in fact also did tests where I held the sensor between a pair of opposing aspides, but this was too dangerous (for me) as the files got longer and my arm was between them.  We needed something to fix the sensor to and bolting it to a shield face was no practical.  You are also wrong on the physics involved here. If you are applying force and not moving forward or backward, then whatever opposes you is pushing back with equal and opposite force.  It does not matter if it is a tree or a file of men, if no one is being driven back, then the system is one of equal and opposing forces.

    You also misunderstand why we added men one by one.  This was a specific test to be able to asses how much force each man added to the file.  We were in fact testing files of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, and in some cases up to 12 men. Interestingly, force plateaus by the time you get to 12 men. After that each man adds very little force. We also did tests where the promachoi set his shield to the force meter and the rest of the file closed up as one, all of the 3 file tests were like this.

    Lastly, I have always maintained that without a time machine we will never know for sure if they pushed, but I can now say with authority that all of the common arguments against othismos are no longer valid:

    "Men could not generate force this way" or as you often said that such crowd forces can "only be generated when bounded by walls."  I have shown that men in panoply could generate great force by pushing in files. No walls needed.

    "The shields could never sustain such force." Nary an aspis was crushed.

    "They would be crazy to do this because their own front ranks would be crushed." We showed men survive such a crush due to their aspis that protected their diaphragm.

    "You can't fight and push!  It says they fought and pushed!" Your right arm is quite free to use in a crowd-like press.

    "Ptah! If they pushed, 50 ranks of Thebans would have just rolled right over 12 ranks of Spartans." In fairness, Hanson predicted this, but we demonstrated exactly how you get diminishing returns as you form longer files.

    “You can’t push very long.” Since you are mostly leaning forward, you can sustain force.

    And lest we let the other side off:

    “Men pushed side-on like a reverse tug-o-war.” This turns out to be substantially weaker than pushing as a crowd.

    “Hoplites charged so as to add momentum to othismos.” This in fact does not add to the force of the group- and as you noted in the one failure actually destabilizes the file.

    As to what othismos means, I suggest readers take a look at your article and my article from the Marathon anniversary issue and decide whose interpretation they prefer. See I just plugged two issues Jasper!​

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