300 vs the real Hoplite

In the final podcast of the year we find ourselves between issues of the magazine so Mark suggested the title ‘300 vs the real Hoplite’.

The gang are joined by Paul Bardunias author of ‘Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 bc’.


There are 6 comments

  1. Justin Swanton

    One question on phalanx depth: the standard hoplite line seems to have been about 8 men deep though it was often deeper. To what extent were the extra ranks there to supply reserve spears to the men in front (besides supplying the push for Othismos and cheering the front rankers on)? How many times in the sources is there mention of spears getting broken and their wielders (presumably) needing replacements?

  2. Paul Bardunias

    While it is true that 8 ranks are common, 12 is the common Spartan depth by the 4thc, and we also regularly see 16 ranks employed by poleis such as Syracuse, Athens, and of course Thebes. Xenophon describes the process of forming 4 ranks, perhaps for use against less shock oriented foes. Thebes, following the lead of Pagondas at Delium, began forming in 25 or 50 ranks. We must look to the reasons for forming at different depth. There is always a trade-off between forming deep and adding shock or othismos value and forming wider to keep from getting out flanked. For example, before the battle of Nemea, Thebes allies try to get them to form no deeper than 16 in order to keep the battle line longer.
    In the othismos study I did, we saw a plateau in pushing force as you add more men in files. Over 12-16 men in file, you get very little added force for each new man added.
    Rear ranks moved up over the dead bodies of the men in front, but we know of no system to rotate tired men back. There are many images on vases of broken spears and a number of references. Here is a nice scene from Euripides Phoenissae:
    [1390] Eteocles, in kicking aside a stone that rolled beneath his tread, exposed a limb outside his shield, and Polyneices, seeing a chance of dealing him a blow, aimed at it, and the Argive shaft passed through his leg; [1395] the Danaid army, one and all, cried out for joy. And the wounded man, seeing Polyneices’ shoulder bare in this effort, plunged his spear with all his might into his breast, restoring gladness to the citizens of Thebes, though he broke off the spear-head. [1400] And so, at a loss for a weapon, he retreated step by step, till catching up a splintered rock he let it fly and broke the other’s spear in the middle; and now the combat was equal, for each had lost his lance. Then clutching their sword-hilts [1405] they closed, and round and round, with shields clashing, they fought a wild battle.

  3. Justin Swanton

    Thanks for a quick reply Paul :-).

    I take the point about needing deeper lines to supply more force to the Othismos push, but what interested me is the fact that the rearward ranks all had their spears with them. If they brought spears to the battle there must have been a reason for it, and the only reason I can think of is that those spears served as reserve armament for the front two or three ranks who actually used them in combat. Thus the pre-othismos sparring contest would go on between the two opposing lines until one of them began to run out of spears, which seems to suggest that spears broke fairly easily in a battle.

    I’m also thinking of the phalangite phalanx that didn’t use othismos but did deploy deep and did have all ranks armed with sarissas. Those sarissas would have served no purpose (except as a little protection against missile fire and I don’t think they were meant exclusively for that) unless the rear rankers passed them to the men in front as their front-rankers’ sarissas were broken or perhaps dropped. I’m minded of Alexander looking around for a spare lance at the Granicus when his was broken, but his nearby companion also had a broken lance – and that’s just from spearing unarmoured cavalry.

    I’ve bought and am currently reading Hoplites at War BTW. I might have a way of resolving the two apparently conflicting accounts of Sepeia.

  4. Paul Bardunias


    Thanks, hope you enjoy the book. This is one of those things that makes sense, yet we never hear of it. One thing to remember is that at any moment, a rear ranker could end up needing his spear to fight as the phalanx crumbles. He might be very reluctant to part with it. It would make more sense for rear rankers to carry two spears if this were a needed function- they did for much of the archaic period, one to throw, so they obviously could. My guess is that they did not do this, and the breaking of spears, rather than the running out of them, is what led some men to close shield on shield to use the sword, which could lead to othismos. By the 4thc the dory was very long, and rear balanced to give even greater reach. An 8-9 foot dory had the reach of a 12′ mid balanced spear, and that is about as big as a one handed spear can get. Such a spearman could not hit a man who is shield on shield with him and safely under his spear. The spearman would have to drop his spear and go to the sword as well. Getting past the spear is another matter, and not easily done. But we know they did somehow because we know they could wind up shield on shield.
    Xenophon mentions a number of times how bad the cavalry dory is and how often it breaks. One reason for this is that in cavalry combat, they are putting a lot more lateral stress on the spear. In the phalanx, everything is forward and back unless a man twists after being struck. With cavalry they are constantly moving past each other.

  5. Justin Swanton

    Hi Paul,

    If I remember correctly, the rear ranks were the first to break if the phalanx crumbled. For as long as the phalanx holds, the front ranks stay in the fight and the middle and rear ranks have nothing to do with their spears. Question then is why do they have them?

    Alexander’s experimental phalanx had, if I remember correctly, 4 ranks armed with sarissas and the remaining ranks armed with bows, which makes sense if there’s no need to replace the sarissas in the front ranks, but this kind of phalanx didn’t go beyond the theoretical stage. Why didn’t it?

    What was that battle in which Roman legionaries tried cutting off the ends of the Macedonian sarissas with their swords? That suggests that infantry faced with a phalangite phalanx would naturally tend to try and neutralise the phalanx by breaking its sarissas, which would probably be partly successful and require fresh sarissas being passed to the front.

    Question: if a spear is rammed with full force into a hoplon shield, just how firmly is the point embedded in the wood of the shield? Is there a comparison between this and Roman javelins getting stuck in Gallic shields and being difficult to remove? I’m theorising that a spear stuck in a hoplite shield in this manner could, with a twist of the shield, be torn from the spear wielder’s grip or even broken. Have the reenactors tried it?

    I agree there is no clear mention of rear rankers acting as arms suppliers to the front ranks, but that in itself doesn’t invalidate the idea. It could just be one of those things the authors didn’t think of mentioning.

  6. Paul Bardunias

    Probably only the first two lines fought. The third can reach past the first two, but it is very awkward. While it is true that all such formations break from the rear, the formation can reach a tipping point where the whole breaks almost simultaneously.
    We must be careful mixing sarissaphoroi with hoplites in this discussion, because they are very different creatures. To give you another example, Persians had lines of only one or two ranks of spearmen backed by archers. It is this Persian barricade to defend the archers formation mixed with shock attack sarissaphoroi that Alexander was attempting to bring together. Xenophon presages this mixed formation. Like all bastardized formations, this would have been weaker than either at its intended role. If the mixed phalanxes do not charge, then the old-style Persian will out shoot it. If they do charge, then the old-style sarissa will out fight it. Four ranks by the way is the minimum I would bring into shock combat. Not only do you need to replace fallen men, and perhaps resist pushing, but as you billow forward or back, you may need to fill spaces in the line (a curved line with two end points is longer than a straight line with the same end points).

    There are a number of instances of enemies attacking the sarissa points directly. It is a testament to how difficult it was to get past a well ordered sarissa hedge. Cleonymus had some success having his men simply grab them. Thracians were known to wield clubs to break off spear heads. Again, it makes sense to pass weapons forward, but I know of no record of it. Consider that if you lose your sarissa, you can simply become a “sword and buckler” man in the protected front of your fellow sarissa.

    I have tested what happens when a spear hits poplar. A sharp dory will stick in a poplar board if dropped from waist height. If you hit a board full force, you will become stuck. If your foe twists, he could break he shaft, or perhaps more likely, bend the blade. Many who have test-fights with dull or padded weapons are missing much of what actually occurs. My friend Christian Cameron once told me how very sharp swords literally bind momentarily as they bite into each other. This caused me to retry all of my tests with razor sharp weapons. The results are very different. No shield prodding with a razor sharp dory if you don’t want to bind up.

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