A storm of spears (review)

This is a review of Christopher Matthew’s book A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War, published in 2012 by Pen & Sword Books. The book is based on Matthew’s PhD thesis. It aims to reassess existing models of hoplite warfare by adopting a more hands-on approach, recreating the weapons and armour used by hoplites and then performing various tests with them in order to see which models can be dismissed and which can be retained.

Some initial criticism

Despite the hands-on approach, the book is still very focused on ancient written sources, especially Classical authors (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon). Homer and Tyrtaeus are sometimes mentioned or cited, often to contrast specifically with the Classical sources. Matthew has little eye for diachronic developments aside from bold strokes: Classical authors describe massed infantry fighting in phalanxes, whereas Homer offers a model for “heroic” combat in which individual champions fight singly. The latter strikes me as particularly old-fashioned considering the work done by Hans van Wees in particular, who is cited frequently on other matters.

Discussion of the archaeological evidence is strangely limited (a tomb from Vergina, examples drawn from secondary sources), with a heavy reliance on the material remains of arms and armour unearthed at Olympia. This in itself would not be a problem, provided that we know what selection criteria were employed by Matthew. Alas, these criteria are nowhere stated outright. A curious example of this lack of method occurs in the very first chapter (“The hoplite spear”), in which there is the beginning of a detailed discussion on types of spearheads before Matthew settles for the type of spearhead that Snodgrass claimed was used as the “hoplite spear par excellence”, in the face of the great variety of types of spearheads (see table 1 on p. 4).

Further problems can be noted when we turn to Matthew’s use of the iconographic record (mostly vase-paintings): Matthew states to have used “a test sample of 188 illustrated vases” (p. 15), but nowhere does he state the chronological range or provenance of these vases. Are they all Attic? Do they cover the Archaic and Classical periods? We are not told. The few vases that are illustrated in the book are all Attic and range from ca. 540 BC to 310 BC, with the obvious exception of the Chigi Vase (Corinthian, ca. 640 BC). Only in the course of the book does it become clear that Matthew focuses more narrowly on warfare of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and the suggestion is that hoplite warfare as such did not exist in the Archaic period.

A chapter-by-chapter review

These criticisms notwithstanding, this is still a useful book for any student of ancient Greek warfare, offering very detailed discussions on virtually all aspects of “hoplite warfare”, especially for the Classical period. The first chapter (“The hoplite spear”) is a useful, hands-on look at the spear, even if I think the discussion on tapered spear shafts – seemingly based on one Attic vase-painting of the mid-fifth century BC – is a little dubious.

Chapters 2 (“Wielding the hoplite spear”) and 3 (“Spears, javelins and the hoplite in Greek art”) contain Matthew’s most valuable contributions to the field of ancient military studies. In the second chapter, Matthew analyses how the spear was held and suggests that there were three main postures: overhead, “low” and underarm; a possible fourth posture is the so-called “reverse” posture. In the overhead posture, the thumb points away from the spearhead, whereas in all other postures the thumb points ahead.

We thus arrive to Matthew’s key point, namely that spears in overhead position were intended to be thrown. This is expanded upon in chapter three, where the iconographic evidence is discussed in slightly more detail. This treatment is valuable, and I agree wholeheartedly that the Chigi Vase does not show the Classical phalanx, but instead is representative of an earlier form of warfare in which the men throw javelins (with throwing-loops!) at the enemy before closing with thrusting weapons. I am especially happy to see another mention of Hans van Wees and Peter Krentz’s distinction between “mass combat” (as seen in Homer) and “massed combat” (as in the traditional hoplite phalanx) on p. 29. I am not convinced by Matthew’s argument that all spears in overhead position should be considered javelins, though.

Sparkes is cited on p. 19 as stating that the study of vase-painting has focused on connoisseurship: Matthew leaps on this as proof that few people have actually studied Greek art from a military point of view. This is utter nonsense, and I don’t only say that because I happen to have written on the subject (e.g. an article published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal Babesch). Just to cite a few examples, ignored entirely by Matthew, perhaps because they are chronologically outside of his purview: Gudrun Ahlberg’s Fighting on Land and Sea in Greek Geometric Art (1971) and Peter Greenhalgh’s Early Greek Warfare: Horsemen and Chariots in the Homeric and Archaic Ages (1973) both are heavily focused on the artistic evidence.

The remaining chapters expand on the groundwork laid out in the first three chapters. Chapter 4 (“Bearing the hoplite panoply”) offers a good discussion of stances and battle damage, even if I think he gives Hans van Wees short shrift here: I know for a fact that he is not as dogmatic as Matthew’s interpretation perhaps suggests. In particular, his suggested ideal stance for hoplites (“oblique”) does not strike me as all that different from what Van Wees has written.

Chapter 5 (“Repositioning the spear in ‘hoplite dril’”) tackles the problem of changing the grip in combat and serves to underline Matthew’s argument that spears held overhead were supposed to be javelins or were “heroizing”. Chapters 6 (“The reach and trajectory of attacks made with the hoplite spear”), 7 (“The ‘kill shot’ of hoplite combat”), 8 (“Endurance and accuracy when fighting with the hoplite spear”), and 9 (“The penetration power of the hoplite spear”) offer valuable hands-on discussions of various aspects of hoplite warfare. The use of the sauroter (“butt-spike”) as an offensive weapon is dismissed in chapter 10 on good grounds, but I would have preferred to have seen this discussion placed in a temporal context.

Chapter 11 offers a conclusion c.q. summary of the preceding chapters. Matthew then discusses phalanxes and formations in chapter 12 and the othismos in chapter 13, before summarizing those results in chapter 14 (“Conclusion: the nature of hoplite combat”). Chapter 12 suggests that hoplites could be deployed in a wider variety of ways in the Classical period than has hitherto been assumed, and strikes me as somewhat needlessly argumentative. Chapter 13 concludes that both the literal and the metaphorical interpretation of the othismos are both correct, with the former being more rare. This seems rather weak to me, and I remain unconvinced that there ever was a real, physical shove at any point in a battle between two Classical phalanxes.

Concluding remarks

Extensive notes and a relatively brief bibliography round out the book. Despite its problems, especially methodologically, this is a useful contribution to the field of Greek warfare. Matthew’s points on the position of the spear in combat and the interpretation of overhead spears as javelins are perhaps too rigid, but the various tests and hands-on approach to the material are interesting and point the way for similar studies to be conducted in future. 

Matthew is said to be writing a similar work on the Macedonian phalangite, which I look forward to reading in due course.

Updates (25 July 2016)

Have a look at this YouTube video for a visual reply to a statement Matthew made regarding the reach of a spear in overhead position (with reference to an article in Ancient Warfare V.4, but it ties into chapter 6 of this book, too). Briefly, Matthew claims that the reach of a spear in underarm position is longer than in overhead position, which the video shows not at all to be the case: reach is fine with overhead thrusting, too. 

And while I’m at it, you might also want to have a look at the answers posted in a thread over on Reddit asking “How good is Christopher Matthew’s scholarship?” It includes lengthy replies by Paul Bardunias and Fred Ray, as well as another Ancient Warfare contributor who shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize. 

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