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Phalanx Warfare in Ancient Greece

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  • 0:06 Early War Tactics
  • 1:54 Design of the Greek Armies
  • 4:14 Design of Phalanx Warfare
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture compares phalanx warfare to its hit-and-run predecessors, drawing distinctions between hit-and-run skirmishing and decisive warfare. It examines the cultural, political, and geographical features of Greece that made phalanx warfare possible and necessary, and it describes the hoplite gear and mentality.

Early War Tactics

Imagine you're walking alone down a deserted street. Suddenly, a crazed maniac emerges and comes wielding a knife at you. There's an iron pipe nearby that might make a handy weapon. On the other hand, that guy looks pretty crazy, and that knife looks pretty rusty. So what do you do? Do you flee the murderous lunatic, or do you risk death, take up a weapon, and face him in hand-to-hand combat? Chances are you're going to flee.

Why? Because your brain says 'that's an incredibly dangerous situation to be in! I'd rather be further away!' This is your basic fight-or-flight mechanism. It is as old as life; even fish have it. Because it is so old, it is very difficult to overcome. Getting people to stand and fight hand-to-hand is incredibly difficult.

Now, imagine that after fleeing, you find a gun. Would you keep fleeing, or would you pick up the gun and fight your enemy from a distance? Chances are you're going to stand and fight. Why? Because it's a lot easier to be brave from far away.

Horse archers reflect the prehistoric style of fighting best suited to the fight-or-flight instinct
Ancient warfare

This was the logic behind Bronze Age and prehistoric war: don't get hurt. Fight from a distance. This method is epitomized in the apex warrior of the age, the horse archer. The horse archer is unarmored, he avoids hand-to-hand combat, he practices hit-and-run techniques, and he's very individualistic. This method of fighting appealed to the basic fight-or-flight instincts by allowing people to be brave from afar without ever having to close ranks and duke it out hand-to-hand.

Design of the Greek Armies

The Greeks tried something new. Rather than working with the fight-or-flight instincts, the Greeks sought to overpower the instinct for flight. They did this in several ways: they got their boys used to hand-to-hand combat at an early age with boxing and wrestling competitions,

They rewarded military service with political power and citizenship, and they glorified battle and military prowess. These Greek political and social values instilled a powerful system of discipline and honor on their citizens. At the core of this system was a simple but profound concept.

The polis is more important than any individual.

This is a big difference from the empires of the East, in which it was an individual, be it the lord, king, or emperor, who was of the utmost importance. Any city or province besides the capitol was no more than part of his domain. In those empires (as throughout much of Western history), political power was usually reserved for aristocrats. They had the wealth to supply their own horse for battle and were therefore able to participate in these hit-and-run tactics across a wide, flat empire.

In the mountains of Greece, horses were not nearly as useful in battle. And unlike centralized empires, single city-states could not afford to raise and maintain an army. To protect against incursions, city-states instead depended on their citizens to take up arms and defend the state. Instead of pay, they gave these citizens rights and political power unheard of in the empires of the East. These citizen soldiers were called hoplites.

These hoplites wore heavy bronze breastplates and greaves. They also wore a bronze helmet that protected most of the head but only allowed its wearer to see straight ahead. Hoplites carried a short sword and a long spear. Yet what makes a hoplite a hoplite is his hopla, a large, round, wooden shield worn on his left arm. All in all, this gear weighed about 70 lbs. That's a lot of weight to carry strapped around you on a broiling summer day in Greece; it's certainly not good for the hit-and-run tactics of the horse people. Overburdened, unmaneuverable, and barely able to see, a lone hoplite is a sitting duck. But line them up in a row, 8 deep, and suddenly these ducks have teeth.

Design of Phalanx Warfare

Lined up behind shields and armed with long spears, Greek soldiers formed a phalanx
Phalanx formation

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