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Thread: Greek Killing Machine

  1. #51
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    Originally posted by Felix Wang
    The spear was used overhand while in a phalanx formation, as best we can tell. (By the way, other cultures do show spear/shield formations which clearly are not overhand - such as the Sumerians in the Vulture Stele. The Greek portrayal should not be dismissed as convention without some explanation.) A 6-8 foot spear, held overhand in its mid-third, is a weapon that can be used to stab downward at a man who is very close in front of you. The spear is above the packed bodies, not among them as it would be if held underhand.
    Yes, but does this not argue against the othismos?

    Taking cavalry uses of spears as an analogy, you have overhand use by relatively light cavalry, in ancient and mediaeval times, compared to the mediaeval couched lance heavier cavalry tactics. The force of the charge is important when the spear is held underarm; when overarm, you are more using the strength of arm and back.

    I would have thought (dangerous phrase) that overarm use would not be helped and may well be hindered by having people pushing at you. That would suggest either no othismos, or at best that doing damage with weapons was incidental to the battle if the othismos is key. But why adopt a less useful weapon? Surely a short sword would be of more use to the front ranks - push into the enemy with the shield and thrust into gaps.

    Of course there may be economic or cultural reasons coming into play too, preferring spears to swords.

    Indeed, the famous description of phalanxes shuffling towards the right as they advance (as each man edges under the shield of his comrade to his right) clearly indicates there was room between the men.
    In rugby, a key factor in the scrum is to get as solidly wedged together as possible, as this really helps generate power. A loose scrum is pushed apart in no time.

    Staying neatly in line to maximise the thrust of 8 men pushing seems very inconsistent with the front man drifting to the right. Wouldn't this tend to push the whole thrust off-axis, and defeat the purpose?

    The paean has the same role regardless of formation, I should think. It would provide some measure of tempo, and might well help the troops march in time.
    Doesn't the paean get sung immediately before the advance to contact, while the army is standing still? I suspect more that it is a psychological measure, with religious overtones. You sing the paean to the gods before battle, but you try to do so as lustily as possible to cow the enemy.

    The whole othismos thing smacks slightly of the "knights' swords were crude crowbars" school of Victorian thought, to me.

    It seems to be inconsistent with over-arm spear use and the known lateral spacing of the files. It would seem to be much more effective if the phalangites were to dispense with spears and pack themselves together as densely as possible - weapons and tactics do tend to get into arms races, so if battle goes to the best pushers then surely this aspect should be emphasised as far as possible, and hindrances to it dropped.

    It also completely fails to explain why 50 ranks were better. I would submit that it's the psychological aspect - that mass of men is very daunting and so the enemy recoils from it. If you're at the back at the front line starts retreating you may start to worry that the battle's lost and so leg it; if you're at the front, there are 50 of the enemy facing you personally and your back-up's heading off, there is some incentive to disengage.

    It's positive feedback, a self-fulfilling prophecy - the side that convinces the enemy that it is likely to win is likely to have no enemy left facing it. The depth of formation, the lustiness of the paean, reputations of armies and generals, fatigue, hunger, and so forth all contribute.
    Never give a sword to a man who can't dance

  2. #52
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    I think a problem with this debate is the either : or scenario. In any form of battle using lines of men, the object is to break the opposing line, whether through penetration, flanking, artillery etc. Given the heavily armoured nature of hoplites and the comparatively "soft" iron of the swords and spears (although no doubt notably harder than bronze), it would have been damned difficult to get a stab in when the lines held. It is no fluke that most fatal wounds were to the neck or groin, neither of which were partciularly easy to get at at any rate. While the lines were pushing towards the enemy, they were no doubt trying to cut their way through the line, but given the difficulty of this, it must have been combined with brute force. A problem with the sports analogys (bearing in mind the provisos mentioned by those posters) is that a battle line of hoplites would have extended for hundreds of meters, and there were different micro-environments of combat along that line. A full line of hoplites could hardly expect to penetrate another full line, but as an enemies resolve or troop numbers diminished in a section of the line, brute force could be used to drive home the advantage. This may be why troops of different experience and skill were differentially distributed along the line of battle. The left wing was notoriously the weakest as men sought shelter behind the shield of fellows to their right, resulting in the whole line of battle shifting along.

    There are of course accounts of different sections of both line being broken simultaneously, inidcating that morale and discipline were also of extremely high importance (as in any time period or battle).
    "If your bayonet breaks, strike with the stock; if the stock gives way, hit with your fists; if your fists are hurt, bite with your teeth" (Dragomiroff, c.1890)

  3. #53
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    Taking cavalry uses of spears as an analogy, you have overhand use by relatively light cavalry, in ancient and mediaeval times, compared to the mediaeval couched lance heavier cavalry tactics. The force of the charge is important when the spear is held underarm; when overarm, you are more using the strength of arm and back.
    This is incorrect. The spear when held underarm was not couched, as a late medieval knight would do. The imagery is perfectly clear on this point. Whether the hoplite held his spear above or below, it was driven by his arm; except that from above he has gravity to assist him. He also has the spear poised to strike above the enemy's shield; if held underarm he tends to strike right into the enemy's shield. Also, the spears didn't disappear once the lines were in contact; and as I mentioned previously a spear held overhand can still be used even in very cramped conditions. Try it - with a broomstick or whatever; when held overhand you can bring the point on line even right in front of your face. It can't be done with a spear held underarm, not in a crowd of bodies.

    The whole othismos thing smacks slightly of the "knights' swords were crude crowbars" school of Victorian thought, to me.
    I believe that othismos apsidon is in fact a classical Greek phrase. This is not a case of invention by people living millenia later and thousands of miles away; the phrase was used at the time, by the men who performed it.
    NEM. PERV.T QUI N.N LEG.CERT.RIT

  4. #54
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    It also completely fails to explain why 50 ranks were better. I would submit that it's the psychological aspect - that mass of men is very daunting and so the enemy recoils from it.
    Except I am not sure that anyone can tell the depth of a formation on flat ground once the marching, dust and noise have started. The shields form a continous front across each row - I can't see how you can tell if 20 rows or 30 rows or 50 rows are coming at you. It would seem the last 10-20 rows of a Theban phalanx could easily have been used elsewhere on the battlefield, like the flank. Alternatively, the Thebans could have made up the last 20 rows with slaves armed with sticks - and no one up front could see the difference.

    By the way, I would suggest that having 50 men pushing is different from having 10 men (or so) pushing - which could be a real physical advantage.
    NEM. PERV.T QUI N.N LEG.CERT.RIT

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