A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare
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A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare

Reconstructing the Physical Experience of War in the Classical World

Conor Whately

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eBook - ePub

A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare

Reconstructing the Physical Experience of War in the Classical World

Conor Whately

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How can we attempt to understand the experience of those involved in ancient battles, sieges and campaigns? What was the visual impact of seeing the massed ranks of the enemy approaching or the sky darkened with their arrows? How did it feel to be trapped in the press of bodies as phalanxes clashed shield to shield? What of the taste of dust on the march or the smell of split blood and entrails? What of the rumble of approaching cavalry, the clash of iron weapons and the screams of the dying? The assault on all five senses which must have occurred is the subject of this innovative book. Sensory history is a new approach that attempts to understand the full spectrum of the experience of the participants in history. Conor Whately is the first to apply the discipline in a dedicated study of warfare in the classical world. He draws on literary, archaeological, reconstructive and comparative evidence to understand the human experience of the ancient battlefield in unprecedented depth.

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Part I

The Greek World

Chapter 1

The Battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE)

The story begins in the eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE). Athens and Sparta were at peace, and a wide variety of Greek city states were allied with Achaemenid Persia. Cyrus the Younger, a pretender to the throne, enlisted many thousands of Greeks in his quest to overthrow Artaxerxes II, the then shahanshah (king of kings) of Persia. The two sides, the rebel Persians and their allies under Cyrus the Younger on the one hand and the imperial forces on the other, met at Cunaxa, not far from Babylon in modern day Iraq, in early September of 401 BCE (see Image 3). The outcome was a victory for the incumbents – Artaxerxes II would continue to rule until 358 BCE – and a crushing defeat for the pretender, or at least its leader, Cyrus. While, under different circumstances, this battle would have had a minimal impact on the historical consciousness of the wider western Mediterranean, among the Greeks on the losing end was Xenophon, a prolific Athenian author and commander who had a soft spot for Sparta. Xenophon and his countrymen had to march through enemy territory from Iraq back to Greece, and though they lost many men on the way, Xenophon succeeded, so living to tell the tale. This is the story of Xenophon’s Anabasis, or Journey Upcountry, which includes a detailed account of that very battle.1 While there are all sorts of things we could say about the sensory experiences of the campaign, in this opening chapter I will focus specifically on the battle at Cunaxa and the experience of combat.


The Anabasis, written in Attic Greek, is full of drama and tragedy. The Greeks, understandably, serve as the focus of the action, and Xenophon details several Greek contingents, including soldiers from Boeotia, Achaea, Arcadia, Thessaly, and Sparta among others.3 These soldiers were, by and large, infantry, with some 10,000 or so heavily armoured hoplites, and some 2,500 or so of the more lightly armed peltasts. In fact, Xenophon’s fighting force is usually known as ‘the Ten Thousand’.4 Although Xenophon’s literary artistry hasn’t been at the top of anyone’s list for a long time, recent readers have been paying more attention, or have at least been more aware of the skill he deftly wields.5 For instance, an important part of Xenophon’s technique is his focalization on the Greeks in this battle, which draws attention to their actions and exaggerates their importance at the expense of the rest of the participants.6
While Xenophon’s account is the most famous description of the battle and the campaign, we also have the account of Diodorus Siculus, or Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote an encyclopaedic universal history of the world as he knew it in the first century BCE. Like Xenophon he wrote in Greek, and he included much of the same information, but also some different material, some of which is preferable to Xenophon’s. For instance, both writers claim that the two armies, those of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, were massive. Xenophon, however, claims that Cyrus had an army about 200,000 strong, while Artaxerxes had one nearly 1,000,000 strong.7 Though still large, Diodorus’ figures, apparently based on the earlier source Ephorus, are a little more believable: he claims that Artaxerxes’ force numbered closer to 400,000.8 Diodorus, who relied heavily on the works of others, used Xenophon’s description of the battle as the foundation for his own, and then supplemented it with some other, now lost, material, including accounts by the aforementioned Ephorus as well as Ctesias.9 Plutarch too, for that matter, in his biography of Artaxerxes, includes the odd incidental detail, and makes explicit reference to aspects of these lost accounts.10
What we don’t have is much in the way of explicit archaeological material specifically from this battle. There are all sorts of physical remains from Greek soldiers and even some from other battlefields. We know what sorts of things Greek soldiers wore and what they used in battle. We have visual representations of this too on the abundant iconographic evidence of Greek pottery, though much of this is a century or more earlier in date. There is often the odd statue, like the hoplite from Dodona at the Antikensammlung in Berlin (Image 4). One of the most striking artefacts from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is a Corinthian Helmet complete with skull, which is said to hail from the Battle of Marathon. Even more spectacular, perhaps, are the remains of the dead from the Battle of Chaeronea, fought in 338 BCE between a Greek and Macedonian army (Image 6). That battle is often held out as the last stand of Greece – they lost. One of the most famous groups to perish in the fighting were from the Sacred Band from Thebes. A number of skeletons were buried together, and by some reckoning these were the remains of members of that group, interred after the battle.11 The direction from which they received their wounds implies that they were attacked from above, by cavalry, which some say is purported to have happened to the Sacred Band in the battle. While this varied and assorted archaeological evidence from Greek warfare is not specific to Cunaxa, chronologically (and by ancient standards) it’s not far off. It can tell us something about the experience of hoplites in battle in the Classical age.

Greek Soldiers and Warfare12

Hoplites were some of the most famed warriors/soldiers of the ancient Mediterranean world.13 Traditionally, they were middle-class soldiers with agrarian backgrounds, who paid for their own equipment. Some of the most distinctive aspects of these soldiers were their heavy bronze breastplates, their concave shields (the aspis or hoplon), and their greaves. They often restricted their fighting to warmer times of year, though not always. Another distinctive feature was their helmet, which over time came in a few different shapes and sizes, with arguably the best known being the Corinthian helmet.
As noted, battle in the Classical era, from the Achaemenid Persian invasion of Greece to Philip’s victory over the Greeks, was usually restricted when it came to the time of year. Most argue that Greek soldiers were amateurs, who spent a good part of the rest of their lives attending their farms. As a result of this, they could only leave their crops for so long; hence the restrictions.14 Along the same lines, service was restricted to certain members of the population because you needed to have the requisite financial requirements to buy the necessary equipment, the purchase of which was incumbent on the individual. It also seems to have been the case that citizenship was an important requirement for would-be soldiers, especially in places like Sparta that fought hard, often brutally and ruthlessly, to restrict access to full citizen status.15 Indeed, by many accounts, citizenship became ever more exclusive in Greece over the Classical period. Sometimes, however, desperate times could lead to exceptional circumstances. During crises, all able-bodied citizens over the age of 18 could be called upon to line up in the formed ranks of the hoplite phalanx,16 which the evidence implies was largely a Classical era phenomenon.17
Besides their weapons and their armour, the hoplites were well known for the distinctive formation in which they fought, the phalanx, which was a closely packed, serried formation. Because of its reliance on infantry with little training and the vital role that the integrity of the battle line played in its effectiveness, there is good reason to suppose that, in many circumstances, battles would be sought on wide and level plains. This sort of topographic environment made the success of the phalanx all the more likely. What’s more, when Greeks fought against Greeks, foes were usually fighting in similar formations, and both sought out similar locations, though some of these widely held assertions have been challenged.
The origins of the phalanx are murky. Some see it as a product of the Archaic Age in Greece (800–479 BCE) and describe the arrival of the hoplite and its use of the phalanx as a revolution in warfare.18 More recent research, however, points towards the emergence of the phalanx and the hoplite in the Classical era, from about 479 BCE on, that is from the second Persian invasion of Greece.19 It seems too that it wasn’t until late in the fifth century BCE that the term phalanx, though dating back to Homer, started getting used regularly, with Xenophon himself a key arbiter of this change.20 Whether changes in equipment led to the development of the phalanx or vice versa is less clear.21
A closer look at the hoplite and the phalanx allows us to consider in more detail the first sensory aspect of this battle: touch. The typical phalanx included lines of closely placed men, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, with similarly arrayed men in front of them and behind them – unless they were positioned at the front or at the back. It’s very likely then that if you were a hoplite standing in the middle of the formation, you might just about feel the men standing around you, though it would depend on the particular circumstances. Like many aspects of Greek warfare, there are plenty of debates about the spacing between soldiers.22 Though, when first arrayed, there likely would have been a few feet separating one hoplite from another on all sides, if the formation was surrounded and the men hemmed in, it mightn’t take long for the men to be standing literally shoulder to shoulder.
Sometimes, however, touch might play a deliberate role in how a hoplite performed. A significant part of the phalanx’s effectiveness was attached to the employment of an action called the othismos, or shove. Its character is obscure. Some see the othismos as a literal shove, along the lines of the pushing of one group of rugby players against another in a scrum, others see the push of the phalanx as something metaphorical. If the othismos was a literal shove, then this would obviously have involved a fair amount of touching. In this scenario, the hoplite soldier would push against the back of the man in front of him, and in turn he would feel the push of his comrade behind him, with shield pushing upon back. The men at the front would push against their foes, in many scenarios an enemy phalanx, and hope to push it back. If this happened, it could lead to the opposing men breaking up their own formation and so leaving them more susceptible to enemy attack. If those being pushed on the other side also lost their balance, they might conceivably stumble back into each other, so causing them to bunch up. In this case they would feel the physical weight of their fellow-soldiers.23 All that said, serious doubts have been raised about this push or shove, and so we shouldn’t put too much faith in it occurring in this battle, or any for that matter.
Hoplites weren’t the only types of troops who fought in Classical Greece, even if they were the most famous. There were also archers, cavalry, and light infantry, though they weren’t as prestigious and, depending on the place, not used as often. In Athens, the hoplite was more prestigious than the cavalry, a reflection of who served as hoplites. That said, hoplites were also the least professional of soldiers, amateurs, unlike, by comparison, the members of the Athenian navy. For some Greeks like Xenophon, all the hoplites needed to perform well was their bravery and fitness. Given their amateur status and particular approach to combat, hoplites often had to rely on the support of those other troops, especially the light infantry and the cavalry, who were themselves instrumental in the most destructive phase of battle, the rout.24


As you might expect in the description of a battle in which the author, Xenophon, played a role, his account is not without its probl...

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Stili delle citazioni per A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare
APA 6 Citation
Whately, C. (2021). A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare ([edition unavailable]). Pen and Sword. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2740858/a-sensory-history-of-ancient-warfare-reconstructing-the-physical-experience-of-war-in-the-classical-world-pdf (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Whately, Conor. (2021) 2021. A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare. [Edition unavailable]. Pen and Sword. https://www.perlego.com/book/2740858/a-sensory-history-of-ancient-warfare-reconstructing-the-physical-experience-of-war-in-the-classical-world-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Whately, C. (2021) A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare. [edition unavailable]. Pen and Sword. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2740858/a-sensory-history-of-ancient-warfare-reconstructing-the-physical-experience-of-war-in-the-classical-world-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Whately, Conor. A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare. [edition unavailable]. Pen and Sword, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.