When the Spartans Turned and Fled
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Categories: Ancient

When the Spartans Turned and Fled

Monty Python shows how it is done! Image courtesy of http://www.billdamon.com/ (Internet Archive)

An article by Roel Konijnendijk and Paul Bardunias reminded me of one of the passages which made researchers rethink early Greek warfare. Plato’s dialogue Laches discusses the nature of courage and the value of education or training. Laches, a gruff soldier, has just defined courage or manhood in the way Athenians in Plato’s day usually defined it: as the ability to stay in the place assigned to you and defend yourself. Plato’s Socrates can think of some counter-examples:

Soc: (191A) Presumably that man is courageous, the one you describe, the one who remains at his post and fights the enemy.

Lach: Yes, that is what I am saying.

Soc: And so am I, but what about someone who fights the enemy whilst fleeing, rather than remaining at his post?

Lach: Fleeing in what sense?

Soc: Presumably in the sense that the Scythians are said to fight whilst fleeing, no less than they do in pursuit, and Homer, in praise of the horses of Aeneas, says (191B) that they knew how to pursue and also to flee, very swiftly, hither and thither. And he praises Aeneas himself for his knowledge of flight and he refers to him as a “counsellor of flight”.

Lach: And rightly so, Socrates, since he was referring to chariots, and you are talking about the Scythian horsemen, but although the cavalry fight in that way, the hoplites, at least those among the Greeks, fight in the way I am describing.

Soc: Except, perhaps for the Spartans, Laches. (191C) Indeed they say that when the Spartans, at Plataea, came across the men with wicker shields (hoi gerrophoroi), they were not willing to remain in position and do battle with them, so they fled, but once the Persian ranks had broken, they turned around and fought, just as horsemen do, and so won the battle of Plataea.

Lach: That’s true.

Soc: Well this is what I meant earlier; that I am responsible for the fact that you didn’t answer properly, because I did not ask the question properly. Indeed I wanted (191D) to find out from you, not just who are courageous among the infantry, but also among the cavalry, and the entire warrior class, and not only who are courageous in battle, but also amidst perils at sea, and who are courageous in the face of disease or poverty or political issues.

translation adapted from https://www.platonicfoundation.org/platos-laches/

Socrates noticed that this kind of courage is the courage of an Athenian hoplite, but it is not the courage of many other kinds of soldiers, let alone the courage needed to face different dangers. Horsemen in his world darted in to shoot an arrow, hurl a spear, or chop with a cleaver, then turned away before the enemy can respond. They did not stand and fight. And the way Socrates and Laches believe the Spartans fought at Plataea is very different than the way they fight in 60 years later in Thucydides or 100 years later in Xenophon. Herodotus also tells a story that at Thermopylae, the Spartans kept pretending to run away then turning around to kill the Persians (Herodotus 7.211). Where Xenophon’s Spartans move slowly with even step and keep together, Herodotus’ Spartans are much more mobile as individuals and small groups. This passage is one of the many which convinced most of us that the kind of warfare which Thucydides describes had not been established hundreds of years earlier, but had emerged sometime in the fifth century BCE.

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Further Reading: Konijnendijk, Roel / Bardunias, Paul M. (2022) “The Face of Battle at Plataiai.” In Andreas Konecny and Nicholas Sekunda (eds.), The Battle of Plataiai, 479 BC (Phoibos Verlag: Vienna, 2022) pp. 211-242 https://www.academia.edu/77994737/The_Face_of_Battle_at_Plataiai

(scheduled February 2022)

Edit 2022-05-27: s/Konijendijk/Konijnendijk;

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