Month: February 2017

Month: February 2017

Some Thoughts on “Hoplites at War”

The cover of "Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE" ISBN-13 978-1-4766-6602-0

Paul M. Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray, Jr., Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE. McFarland and Company: Jefferson, NC, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4766-6602-0 (paperback) 978-1-4766-2636-9 (ebook). 233 pages.

In 1989 Victor Davis Hanson threw a match into some scholarly tinder by publishing a book which was both very readable and obviously flawed. Since no two scholars could agree about which parts of his book were incorrect, this has lead to thirty years of argument about just what happened on Greek battlefields. Unlike most scholarly debates, this one has fascinated people outside the university who follow the debates and try to push forward their own theories. Some of them have gone on to graduate school, others organize re-enactments and backyard tests, and a few write books. One of these amateur contributions is Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE by Paul Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray. That is an ambitious title for a book of 233 pages, and the preface is bold too:

In this book, we make use of traditional sources, but combine those with cutting-edge (apt for a book on warfare!) science … We hope the result provides a comprehensive source on hoplite warfare that will advance key debates for modern scholars, while entertaining the general reader. … [what we present here] is an assessment of what we firmly believe to be most probable based on all evidence at hand.

While this book’s reach exceeds its grasp, I think it contains some important ideas.

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Photographs Showing How a Helmet is Made

22 black and white photos of a helmet being worked from a simple plate of steel into a visored and polished and engraved and gilt form
Series of steps in the construction of a close helm in the Greenwich style of about 1580 by Daniel Tachaux. Photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1915, as reprinted in Robert Douglas Smith ed., Make All Sure: The Conservation and Restoration of Arms and Armour (Basiliscoe Press: Leeds, 2006) p. 108 publisher’s website

I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.

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The Size of Achaemenid Armies

In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.

I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.

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