By Ioannis Nioutsikos
The 300 movie certainly cannot be considered as an accurate depiction of ancient warfare. However, if we look past the zombie-like Persian warriors whose eyes glowed in the dark, and were armed with samurai swords, there is one historical fact that even this absurd film could not overlook: the Ancient Greek phalanx way of fighting. In this article I present the concept of the so-called “Hoplite Revolution”, or, in other words, how a change in the conduct of war fosters the creation of a new political structure.
The first depictions of warfare in Ancient Greece come from the Homeric epics, especially Iliad. The center of political organization in the Homeric Age was the oikos [house], defensible strongholds governed by a basileus [king]. The conduct of war was based upon the ability of the basileus to mobilize his followers. The extremely high cost of purchasing a panoplia [the metal body armour], however, meant that only a few wealthy could afford it and created an armed aristocratic elite. The method of fighting in the Homeric Age was the heroic mode: one-to-one clashes between the elite leaders of each side, in which their mass armies of common people played a secondary role.
From the 8th Century BC the social model started to shift from the small oikos to the city – state of polis. This had become possible through the advances in cultivation technology that led to a significant increase of population. The density allowed more parts of land to be cultivated, creating a middle-class of farmers who owned their land, sharing the identity of belonging to the same polis. Their decent wealth and the new iron forging techniques made them capable of acquiring their own metal weapons and panoplia, in order to defend their fields from other polis.
These developments in the social, political and economic fields transformed the conduct of war radically. War ceased to be the task of an elite, and every land-owner was admitted as hoplite. The battle was not characterized anymore by personal duels, but was fought by the phalanx: dense formations of hoplites equipped with bronze armour, clashing into open field.
The phalanx was the army’s main fighting force. It was constituted of heavy armored infantry, equipped with a large round shield, a spear and a short sword. The most important piece of equipment was the shield; not only did it protect the one carrying it, but its large size provided protection to the fighter on his left as well. Thus, the key behind the phalanx‘s success was discipline. If the hoplites stuck together, their formation was impossible to be penetrated by archers, cavalry or chariots. Fighting was strictly regulated; no one, even the aristocrats and kings, was allowed to break the ordered formation and put the group in jeopardy.
The ancient societies were “timocratic”. Political rights were linked to one’s military and economic ability. As the polis started to depend more to a large number of hoplites for its defence, it had to merit them political rights of citizenship. Or as Aristotle noted, “But when cities increased and the heavy armed grew in strength, more had a share in the government, and this is the reason why the states which we call constitutional governments have been hitherto called democracies.” This diffusion of political power is called the “hoplite revolution” or “reform” since it is more likely to have occurred gradually.
Nowadays, many scholars have ceased to consider the “hoplite revolution” as the sole factor explaining the transition to democracy. Some even argue that the sense of equality existed into the very birth of the polis. Despite these views, the Hoplite Revolution theory still retains some value in explaining how the method of warfare can instigate changes in the political field.
Indeed, in the case of Athens, the equality in the phalanx became the impetus for a more egalitarian society with more people gaining political integration. With the reforms of Cleisthenes, this equality was standardized, and the citizen-soldier became the backbone of the Athenian democracy. Kurt Raaflaub actually believes that the hoplite influence was stronger in Sparta, where the citizen – hoplites were recognized as homoioi [peers] and their voice ought to be heard at the assembly called Apella. Despite being an oligarchic polis, the constant threat by the helots dictated the structure of the society in a communal basis. Thus, in Thermopylae Xerxes faced not only a stronger military formation but also a coherent group of free men defending their polis.