PHALANXES AND CHARIOTS
The new hoplite tactics are well known to Homer who stresses the point that it is only the Greeks that know how to use them and that this gives them an advantage over the Trojans. The contrast between the silent and well-organized Greek phalanxes and the howling mob of Trojans (Iliad IV. 430) resembles the later descriptions of the battles between Greeks and Persians. Homer describes the hoplite tactics as a novelty used on certain occasions and combined with the heroic type of warfare. For this reason some scholars have found a support to their contention that Homer is an archaeologist describing a past age: he lives in an age of hoplite tactics but tries to describe the individual warfare of ancestral times. Followers of the analytic school classify as later strata all passages mentioning hoplite tactics. But far from being contradictory and imprecise in matter of battle techniques, Homer is exact and observant; ancient Greeks always considered him an authority on tactics. He reveals a perfect awareness of the impact of the new tactics on the style of warfare of his champions. In Book XII of the Iliad, when the Trojans reach the ships in the Greek camp, the Greeks in desperate straits organize themselves in phalanx:
The valiant Hektor confronted with these tactics shouts with indignation:
But the age of the heroes and of their helping gods is past, since Hektor, although .
The same episode is repeated in a more watered-down form in Book XV: here again the Trojans threaten the Greek ships, the Greeks organize themselves in phalanxes, and the might of Hektor vainly breaks itself against them.
There is no doubt that Homer sympathizes with the heroic type of warfare and likes to sing about it, but he is not blind to the facts. Scholars who insist that Homer is an archaeologist, or who see the poems as an anthology of passages written in different historical periods, fail both in terms of historical and of esthetic criticism. The apparent contradictions in Homer are due to the fact that he was a conservative, in the sense that he was speaking for a social class whose position was then threatened by a political and technological revolution. It is the deliberate assertion of the value system of a crumbling social order that constitutes the peculiar pathos of Homeric poetry.
The hoplite tactics were bringing about a political revolution because they meant the creation of a new class of warriors at a social level intermediate between that of the aristocratic heroes and the rabble of their followers. In heroic warfare the champions engage in individual combat, while the followers stay behind and throw missiles. The function of the followers is mainly that of providing a line to which the champions can withdraw for safety. In hoplite tactics on the contrary, the number of fighters becomes important; the phalanx needs a rather large number of men of equal skill; this skill does not need to be as great as that of the aristocratic heroes trained since childhood, but has to be superior to that of the mass of the heroes' followers. This point is well emphasized in Homer.
Homer stresses the point that the soldiers who are organized in phalanx are the better ones selected from the mass of the followers. In the two episodes in which the Greeks organize themselves into phalanxes to save the ships, this point is made clear: the members of the phalanxes are said to be "selected best men" (aristoi krinjente|s) in Iliad XIII 127, and in XV 295 ff. the mass of the army is sent back while "the best men" .bi (aristoi) form the phalanxes. Homer also notices the discipline needed in the phalanx tactics: the members of the phalanx march in silence strictly obeying the orders of their leaders, while behind them the mass is wildly shouting. Homer also stresses the point that the number of the soldiers fighting in phalanx is greater than that of heroes engaging in individual combat (XV 467). This is an important point because it brought about the enlargement of the number of the people having political rights and the transfer of power from the aristocracy to the oligarchs. According to Mireaux the rebellious behavior of part of the army in the assembly of Book II of the Iliad is to be explained by the fact that the heroes are now confronted with the power of the phalanx fighters who have detached themselves from the mass of the followers.
The relation between military transformation and social transformation is well indicated by the shift in the meaning of the word falagc and promaxoi in Homer. Basically promaxoi means the champions who engage in individual combat in front of the followers, whereas the falagce|s are the lines of the followers in the rear; but it also happens that a part of the followers are promoted to the rank of promaxoi and the term falagce|s comes to be applied to these selected ones whose lines come in contact with the enemy.
The new meaning of the term .bi promaxoi has been missed by scholars, even though an exact comprehension of this term is essential to the interpretation of Tyrtaios. Tyrtaios sings of the new hoplite tactics, but in a period in which these tactics had not become generalized. He appeals to the youth to detach itself from the rear ranks and to come forth as promaxoi to fight in phalanx formation. As in Homer the phalanx tactics are so new that they have not yet brought about a change in the armament: the phalanx of fighters still use the big shield and the long lance, good both for thrusting and for throwing. As in Homer the phalanx is followed by a second line of non-organized fighters. Tyrtaios specifically points out (fr. 11 Edmonds) how soldiers organized in phalanx can resist a much larger unorganized mass of enemies (andrwn plhjun). He mentions light-armed soldiers that scattered through the lines of the phalanx-fighters and, protected by them, throw missiles at the enemy (line 35-39): since this particular tactic was used by the Assyrian phalanx, one may conclude that in Tyrtaios' time the phalanx was still a recent imitation from the Assyrian warfare.
Tyrtaios describes a stage of development of the phalanx that is contemporary to that described by Homer. His language is so similar to that of Homer that it is a hopeless task to decide in terms of philology whether Homer has influenced Tyrtaios, or Tyrtaios Homer. The important difference is that Tyrtaios sings of a system in which the phalanx formation has become the only important technique of warfare and in which a new class of promaxoi has completely superseded the heroic warriors. One can conclude that Tyrtaios is a contemporary of Homer, but sympathizes with the social order linked with the new tactics. In this matter one must consider the very intriguing hypothesis of Mireaux that Homer's description of Thersites, "the audacious," is a satire of Tyrtaios.
The hoplite tactics are both more expensive and more economical than the heroic tactics of warfare: more expensive because an effective phalanx requires the participation of a much larger mass of skilled and equipped first-line fighters (promaxoi), and less expensive because these fighters do not need the heavy armor of the heroes and require a less specialized training. In Homer as in Tyrtaios the phalanx fighters still carry the large shield and the long spear. The hoplite armor is considered an inferior sort of armament. When the Greeks have to resist Hektor's onslaught against the ships and resort to phalanx tactics that need a larger number of promaxoi|, armor must be found for those that could not afford their own: "Let us put on the best and biggest shields in the camp, and cover the heads with the most shining helmets, and seize the longest lances we can find . . . If there is a stauch fighter who has only a small buckler, let him give it to some worse fellow with a larger shield and take his." (Iliad XIV 370-374). Leaf considers the idea of this passage as "extraordinary" and suggests it is a very poor addition. But in the second half of the seventh century B.C. it was realized that the small round shield and the short thrusting spear not only were sufficient, but more fit for phalanx fighting. It is clear from the Homeric description that the heroic armor forced slow movements on the heroes. The hoplite armor that had been considered an inferior form of armament became the standard one. Two studies of the archaeological evidence by Wolfgang Helbig indicate that the hoplite armor had been known in Greece since Mykenaian times and was used during the Dark Ages. But it came into general use only in the course of the seventh century B.C. Obviously the aristocrats resisted the introduction of such a cheap sort of armor, an armor well fit for the poor wretches who had to fight as mercenaries. The new cheap armor that came to be made of iron (whereas the heroic armor was of bronze) allowed the hiring of large masses of mercenaries. Hoplite warfare meant the ruin of the old aristocracies who were not sufficently numerous to form a phalanx. Only a revolution in the political organization of the poleis by broadening the franchise allowed the creation of a hoplite army of citizens, not of mercenaries. The need to have a body of hoplites caused Greek cities to spread the political and economic power over a larger body of citizens. But in the period of transition from aristocracy to oligarchy, hoplite formations could be obtained only by the hiring of mercenaries. It was this situation that gave their chance to tyrants.