Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Leonidas the Soldier - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

At the start of the month I discussed Leonidas long career in the Spartan Army prior to Thermopylae. Leonidas was probably already a mid- to senior-ranking officer by the time his brother Cleomenes attacked Argos in 494 BC. 

In the below excerpt, the Battle of Sepeia is described from Leonidas' perspective. 

The enemy was still apparently adjusting their lines—trying to strengthen the center, perhaps? Or perhaps some men were just losing their nerve. As on Kythera, some of the Argives started to shout insults. Leonidas could see their open mouths, red and black holes framed by bared teeth between the bronze of their cheek-pieces. Their eyes were lost in the dark holes cut in their helmets. Their noses were protected by the bronze hanging down between the eye sockets. The open mouths were the only part of their faces that was still human. Shouting like this, however, made them look bestial. 

Meanwhile, the Argive rear ranks were beating their spears against their shields, creating what they evidently thought was a threatening clamor. It reminded Leonidas of the chattering of giant teeth—and suggested that the rear ranks were not pressing in as closely as they should. 

“Ready spears,” Leonidas ordered. The first three ranks reversed the grip on their spears and raised them to shoulder height. 

The Argives could take no more. With a wild roar they started rushing the Spartan line, screaming inarticulately with rage and to give themselves courage. 

Although running robbed the Argives of their cohesion, a body of heavily armored men could still run over almost anything in their path. To stop from being bowled over, Leonidas ordered his own men to pick up their pace and lean into the attack. After that order, it was up to the front ranks. He dropped back to advance with the fifth rank, and it was from here that he heard the crash of shield on shield in an uneven, ragged crunching noise that staggered many men on both sides. 

The Spartans recovered first. They put their weight behind their shields, thrusting their left shoulders forward as they drew their spears back, and then started jabbing downward at the enemy’s second line. The length of the spears meant that men in the front rank aimed for the enemy’s second or third rank, while the men in the second and third ranks aimed for the men in the enemy’s first and second ranks. Three deep, the spearheads sought eyes and throats, while the Argives pushed back, grunting and thrusting their spears, likewise seeking Spartan flesh. 

The clash had ended all forward momentum, and the supporting ranks pressed up close behind the front ranks, the entire formation compressing. Here and there a man went down, and the man behind had to step into the gap, over the dead or wounded body of the man ahead. Elsewhere spears broke. When this happened in the Spartan ranks, the disarmed man defended himself with the splintered remnants until the man behind could hand forward his own spear. This man, in turn, received a spear from the man behind him, all the way to the back, where the man in the last rank could shout to the helots for a spare. 

The Argives did not seem to have a similar system. When their spears broke, they tossed them away and drew their swords. Argive swords were longer than Spartan swords, but this only encouraged false hopes of reaching the enemy. One after another Argive hoplite was killed trying to use his sword, and in so doing dropping his shield guard enough to allow Spartan hoplites to spike him fatally. 

The killing had been going on for almost a quarter-hour, and what had been dry earth with sparse, scratchy grass had slowly turned into a morass as blood, urine, and shit soaked into it from the dead, dying, and wounded. Leonidas looked over his shoulder for Kyranios without really expecting to find him. If he’d been here, he would have already given the order. So he nodded once to the piper and ordered the advance. 

At once the rear ranks lowered their heads, leaned forward, and pushed, their shields jammed into the backs of the men in front. They dug in their feet and started shoving forward as if they were pushing a wagon mired in the mud. The impetus from the back moved the front ranks forward without them having to exert a great deal of effort. Leonidas knew. He’d been there. The rear ranks carried them forward much as a wave lifts a ship onto a beach, while the front ranks concentrated on the grim business of hammering down the enemy with their spears. 

The Argives were giving ground at last. Not a lot. They were resisting hard. But their front rankers were shouting again—this time with alarm. Leonidas saw a man at the outside edge of the Argive formation glance back and start to shout something—probably an order for the rear ranks to close up—but a spear pierced his throat, cutting off his words. His head, heavy with the helmet, flopped back, and then the body crumpled. The Spartan who had killed him stepped forward over the body, and the men from the middle and rear ranks, one after another, stabbed downward with their spear butts until the corpse was left behind in their wake as they continued forward, a lifeless, bloody rag.

They had advanced almost ten paces now, and Leonidas moved forward with the line, abreast of the middle ranks, the youngest five cohorts of active-service rankers. He looked left and right. Kyranios seemed to have disappeared into thin air. He noted, too, that the Pitanate Lochos was not recognizable as a body anymore, but the Limnate had clearly pinned down a large body of Argive troops before the woods. Then Leonidas realized that the Amyclaeon and Conouran regiments were also on the field, busy sealing off the flanks and back of the woods, where the bulk of the Argive army appeared to have fled. 

Leonidas turned back to the task at hand. The Mesoan Lochos was slowly gaining momentum. Leonidas sensed more than saw that the Argive rear ranks were starting to break and run. “Keep up the pressure!” he called out once, and the piper repeated the order, condensed to “Harder!” 

Even without orders, the Spartan phalanx sensed the change in the Argive resolve. It was picking up the pace. Soon the Argive rear ranks had thinned so much that the front ranks had lost support. The Argive front ranks started to buckle and go down, not from wounds but from the sheer weight of the Spartan wall of flesh. They screamed not in pain but in terror, knowing what would follow. The Spartan front ranks did not bother with Argives who had fallen; they left these to the middle rankers. The latter jabbed and stabbed into groins, intestines, and bowels as they dispatched the men already knocked down by the front ranks. 

By now the Mesoan Lochos had advanced a hundred paces, leaving a carpet of bleeding, sometimes still writhing and whimpering, bodies behind them. For a split second Leonidas was horrified by the number of Spartans strewn behind—until he realized that the red that dominated the field came not from Spartan cloaks, but blood-soaked Argives. 

A moment later, the Argive line broke. 

“Hold!” Leonidas shouted instantly, halting the instinct to pursue before it could become more than a ripple in the line of bronze. He moved forward to the front rank, which stood absolutely still on his left. He could hear the rasping of hundreds of men gasping for breath. They were dripping sweat so profusely from their exposed limbs that it was a wonder he couldn’t hear it like the trickle of a stream. Here and there the line swayed slightly, probably from men with wounds in their legs or feet. 

He gave the order for the wounded to fall out and the rest to stand at ease. “Catch your breath!” he ordered verbally, not bothering about the pipes, now that the din of battle had paused in their immediate proximity. He prowled along each rank, making sure that his orders had been obeyed and that wounded men had relinquished their places to fit men. He ensured that the rear ranks adjusted for the losses forward so that the depth of the files was roughly equal again. Only then did he return to the front rank and order “ready.” The men dropped helmets and took up their shields and spears again. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Making of a Hero VI - Leonidas, the Soldier

No, this is not about Thermopylae. This is about Leonidas’ entire military career. 

First and foremost, Leonidas was one of the few Spartan kings, who was a professional military man. Unlike the Spartan kings before and almost all the Spartan kings after him, Leonidas “enjoyed” the complete program of military training imposed on Spartan citizens from boyhood through ten years of active service, and a lifetime in the reserves thereafter. Thus, Leonidas was one of the only Spartan kings as familiar with every formation and drill employed by the Spartan army as his troops, and as adept with the use of weapons as his fellow citizens. Equally important, having been an ordinary ranker, he knew exactly how they thought, felt and reacted. Leonidas was as much a soldier as he was a commander. This was a significant advantage. It was what made other Spartan commanders like Brasidas and Lysander effective as well.  

Nor was his experience confined to the drill-field.  Sparta in the late archaic was not a city perpetually at war (though readers of Steven Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire can be forgiven for being misled into believing this). Nevertheless, in Leonidas’ lifetime Lacedaemon was engaged in a number of significant military campaigns. Thus, while Leonidas never fought the more than 20 campaigns Pressfield fantasizes about, he would have gained first- and second-hand experience from a more limited number of wars. 

First, when Leonidas was still a child or youth (depending on his date of birth), Sparta made an unsuccessful attempt to drive the tyrant Polycrates out of Samos.  Notably, this required the deployment of a considerable force by sea and involved a forty-day siege as well as an assault in which some of the Spartans managed to break into the city, but were then cut off and killed. The rest returned.  The failure and the loss of life must have been the topic of many discussions in syssitia across the city for many years of come – probably with recriminations and a lot of “Monday-morning-quarterbacking.” Leonidas, as a young Spartan male serving in the syssitia as part of his upbringing, would undoubtedly have listened avidly to the accounts of this campaign as told by the veterans, who took part.

Roughly ten years later, Leonidas’ half-brother Cleomenes undertook an invasion of Attica, again by sea.  Once again, Sparta’s expeditionary force was defeated and driven back to their ships, this time by Thessalian cavalry.  Leonidas was by this time very likely in his late teens, if not already a young man. Conceivably, he even took part in this expedition, but if so only in a subordinate capacity as an ordinary ranker. Whatever his age and role, Leonidas would have learned a valuable lesson, at least second hand, about the capabilities of cavalry and the advisability of not underestimating it.

Cleomenes undertook no less than three additional campaigns against Athens.  In the first, he successfully dislodged the Athenian tyrant Hippias, but in the second, in which he sought to drive out Cleisthenes and restrict Athenian democracy, he found himself bottled up on the acropolis by the outraged Athenian masses and had to negotiate a truce to withdraw – with his tail between his legs. Given the small and evidently informal nature of these first two campaigns (Herodotus suggests both campaigns were conducted with small volunteer forces), it is unlikely that Leonidas was an active participant in either of these expeditions. 

Burning from the humiliation of his defeat, however, Cleomenes called up the full Spartan army and the allies of the Peloponnesian league.  Spartan law at this time, however, did not allow the full army to deploy outside of Lacedaemon without both kings in command, so Cleomenes was accompanied on this third campaign against Athens by his co-monarch Demaratus.  Demaratus was not as enthusiastic about invading Attica as Cleomenes – and nor were the Peloponnesian allies. Cleomenes’ army got as far as Eleusis, but there the Corinthians drew the line. They had no quarrel with Athens, and they refused to continue. Demaratus sided with the Corinthians. The allied army disintegrated, and the conflict between Cleomenes and Demaratus hog-tied the Spartan army as well. The Spartans had no choice but to return, undefeated but humiliated again.

Leonidas was almost certainly present with the Spartan army during this last campaign against Athens. Depending on his date of birth, he might already have been a junior officer.  Regardless of his military rank, as Cleomenes half-brother and heir apparent, he almost certainly knew what was going on in the command tents, if not directly, then indirectly.  While the campaign would have provided him with no combat experience, it would certainly have taught him a great deal about operations involving multi-national forces -- a lesson that would be very important for his later life.

The next major military campaign of Leonidas’ lifetime was the campaign against Argos that culminated in the dramatic Spartan victory at Sepeia. This campaign again involved the entire active Spartan army, so Leonidas’ participation is almost certain.  Significantly, it also contained a nautical component: the Spartan army was ferried across the Gulf of Argos from Thyrea in Lacedaemon to Nauplia in the Argolid. There followed a massive confrontation with the full Argive army that was at least as numerous if not larger than the all-Spartiate force facing it.  Although the Argives had learned how to read the Spartan signals, Cleomenes cleverly took advantage of this to mislead the Argives into thinking the Spartans were standing down for a meal. As soon as the Argive phalanx broke up, he attacked. The ensuing slaughter allegedly deprived Argos of a generation of fighters, but Cleomenes singularly failed to follow up his battle-field victory with the occupation of the undefended city of Argos. The “lessons learned” for Leonidas would have started with the flexibility of deployment offered by seaborne transport, and included the importance of intelligence (the Argive familiarity with Spartan signals),  and, of course, the advantages of surprise.  

What Leonidas thought of his brother’s slaughter of prisoners and the burning of a sacred wood is unrecorded, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume he shared popular Spartan opinion – and this was to put Cleomenes on trial for treason.  The accusation was that Cleomenes had taken a bribe not to take Argos when it lay undefended before a victorious Spartan army -- probably because the prosecution could think of no other plausible explanation for squandering such a splendid opportunity to subdue their traditional enemy after over two hundred years of bitter hostilities.  Herodotus specifically says that Cleomenes was charged by his “enemies” and that he was acquitted because he convinced the ephors that he could not get favorable signs from the gods.

By this time, Lenoidas was probably already married to Gorgo, and he was Cleomenes’ heir.  It is unlikely that he would have been counted among Cleomenes’ enemies.  It is almost equally improbable that he approved of Cleomenes behavior. Cleomenes was acquitted of taking a bribe and he defended himself with weapons (the will of the gods) against which the ephors were helpless; that is not the same thing as saying his actions were applauded even by his supporters.  Furthermore, Leonidas will have taken careful note of the fact that failure to exploit a victory could put a king in jeopardy.

The next significant military engagement of Leonidas’ lifetime was one in which Sparta played no direct role and yet it may have been the most decisive military moment in Leonidas life prior to Thermopylae: the Battle of Marathon. To summarize, Leonidas very probably led the two thousand Spartiates that arrived in Marathon after a dramatic forced march that enabled them to cover the distance from Sparta to Athens in less than three days -- but one day after the decisive battle had been fought. He would have toured the battlefield in company with Athenian commanders and fighters, gleaning a great deal of information about the Persians, their weapons, armor, tactics and morale.  He would also have gained considerable respect for Athenian (and Plataean) fighting capacity.  Leonidas would have seen first-hand at Marathon that Greek hoplites could withstand Persian missiles and Persian cavalry and inflict dramatically higher casualties than they suffered. However, it would also have left a psychological scar: the sense of having come too late.

And so we come to Thermopylae. Leonidas’ determination to deploy when he did, even if he could take only 300 Spartiates with him was, I believe, dictated by his experience at Marathon. Leonidas, who undoubtedly appreciated the military importance of Thermopylae and Artemisium, was determined not to come too late a second time. 

This is not the same thing as believing he was undertaking a suicide mission.  Leonidas had every reason to believe that the force he took north was sufficient to hold the Pass until, with the Karneia and the Olympic Games over, Sparta and other cities could deploy their main forces. Leonidas did not, after all, march north with just 300 men. In addition to the Spartiates, he had perioikoi troops, allies from the Peloponnesian League, Thespians, Thebans and Phocians. Leonidas had between 6,000 and 7,000 Greek hoplites at Thermopylae, a pass that at that time narrowed down to a cart track at two places.

To be sure, Leonidas allegedly knew from the Delphic oracle that his own fate was sealed. He presumably expected to die, but there was no reason to assume his death would be futile. On the contrary, Delphi had promised to save Sparta, if one of her kings fell in battle.  Leonidas most likely believed (or wanted to believe) that although he would die, his army would be victorioius.  Nor did he expect all his accompanying Spartiates to die with him. He took only the fathers of living sons with him was not because he expected them all to die, but because he expected some of them would die but couldn't know which ones. He did not want to risk the extermination of even a single Spartiate family -- not when he had so many men to choose from.

Leonidas’ tactical competence at Thermopylae has been questioned primarily because of his failure to put Spartiates on the mountain trail by which the pass was turned.  The argument is that he failed to take the risk to his flank/rear seriously, and the positioning of Phocian troops on this critical route was amateurish. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. But even with hindsight, it is not completely convincing that Leonidas should have risked splitting his already very small force to send, say, 100 Spartiates to guard what was essentially a goat-trail.  Furthermore, one thousand men out of a force just six to seven thousand strong represents a very significant commitment of troops available. This suggests that Leonidas took the threat seriously indeed. To imply that a hundred Spartans would have been better than a thousand Phocians reflects modern fascination with the Spartan military myth, but can hardly be considered a serious military assessment. Leonidas’ evident assumption that the locals with the greatest stake in a successful defense of Thermopylae and the best knowledge of the terrain would be the best defenders of the flanking path is more convincing than modern dismissals of such logic. It is tempting to judge a strategy by its result; that is not always fair.

Otherwise, Leonidas appears to have developed a highly effective strategy for defending the Pass, one that effectively neutralized the superiority of numbers on the Persian side and enabled a comparatively small number of defenders to hold the overwhelming might of Xerxes army for two days. Although –- or rather because -- Herodotus does not give us the casualties of the first two days, we can presume that they were not inordinate. The defense of the “Middle Gate” which was wider than the “Eastern” or “Western Gates” appears to have given the Greeks the optimal opportunity to reduce Persian pressure but bring sufficient numbers of their own troops to bear. Equally impressive, Leonidas evidently welded the diverse contingents together and succeeded in getting them to cooperate.  Herodotus says that the allies fought in relays, or turns, so that the troops from each city had time to rest, refresh themselves and tend their wounds between taking their turn at the front. While this sounds logical and reasonable, it is far from self-evident. It would also have required considerable skill in execution -– or each change would have produced confusion that the Persians could have exploited.

Leonidas' military career is described in books II and III of the Leonidas Trilogy.

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