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Hoplite Warfare

It is five weeks or so until the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. Yes, I have a book coming out…

I’m reading—well, really re-reading—Victor David Hanson’s “The Other Greeks” on agriculture and Greek Society in the Archaic. A fine book, full of rants and political bias—well written, gripping, interesting, both as a look at the formulation of thought in one of our finest conservative commentators, and as an insightful look into how farming helped build ancient Greek culture.

But there is a funny part. Hanson builds much of his argument on the notion that modern Classicist academics have little or no understanding of ancient agriculture (or any other form) and thus cannot understand the driving force of the agrarian polis. Okay. I buy that. But Hanson himself has no understanding whatsoever of war and warfare—how it works, what drives men to do it, how men kill each other—either from a Martial Arts perspective or from a modern, but applicable, military perspective. And this renders the “warfare” part of his book–well, somewhere between suspect and silly.

Can you imagine a society in which men spend some time–ANY time–engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat—where they DON’T practice their warrior skills? Hanson wants us to believe that all that equipment (70 pounds, he claims) was to allow a total amateur—a man with no military training and no interest in any such—to go fight. His farmers are too busy farming to learn to keep themselves alive in the Storm of Bronze.

I grew up in farm country–on a farm. Every boy I knew (and many girls) spent every spare moment shooting rifles. Sometimes pistols, shotguns, and in our family, a light Finnish Anti-Tank rifle. We did NOT spend every spare moment reading up on farming—that’s what 40 year old farmers and their wives do. Young people practice for hunting and war. It is FUN.

Or put another way—if warfare took so little practice, how exactly did the Spartans decide to master it—and NOT to farm, so as to have more time to practice for war?

Shakes his head. Absurd argument, that only a non-warrior could make. (Couldn’t resist, since Prof. Hanson takes a lot of shots at non-farmers.) I’ll close with a simple thought/WMA experiment. I have very little experience as a spear fighter (a little, but not much). Admittedly, I’m a life-long fencer and Western Martial Artist. I went into my back alley with a hoplite spear and an aspis, set up opposite my pell, and drove my spear point—EVERY TIME—into the tau shape I’d drawn on the pell to represent my opponents helmet. Because I practice and have point control. Could I do it in combat? Probably not as many times—but frequently, yes, because I’m well-trained.

My point is that I’d kill an awful lot of untrained farmers, and their supposed 70 pounds of equipment wouldn’t save them for an instant, nor would the workings of the phalanx. I can reach over the shield and put my point into the unprotected face. Done. Then I need some training to keep ME from burying my face behind my shield—to make me keep my head up so I will keep rifling out my spear attacks and not ducking. Wait, this sounds like modern military training…

It sounds like war. And my assertion is that every free, propertied 17 year-old boy in Greece was practicing for it endlessly. For fun.

Maybe farm kids in Prof. Hanson’s valley in California aren’t as prone to marksmanship and hunting and war as farm kids in upstate New York. But I doubt it…

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth. Otherwise, a great book, and I recommend it. That’s not sarcasm.