Perilous Glory chronicles the ascendancy of Western military power in world history. Military historian, John France dedicates a chapter of his book to a comparison of the competing styles of warfare of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Both styles of warfare were well adapted to distinct geographical settings, and both were notably hamstrung operating outside of those settings. The Persian military relied on cavalry mobility whereas their Greek counterparts utilized heavy infantry hoplites.
“Like almost all who wrote about war, Greek writers, Herodotus amongst them, liked to emphasise its noble aspect: the valour of the hoplite, fighting honourably face to face and breast to breast against his enemies. They preferred to forget the sneaking around to surprise and destroy villages and cities, the bullying of peasants and the squalid destruction of their crops.
“Bloody though hoplite confrontations were, it has been suggested that the citizens perceived them as a rapid and efficient way of settling quarrels between states, and certainly better than drawn-out struggles in which severe long-term harm to the countryside and city might get out of hand. Moreover, the brutal violence of this clash of arms with its rigid subordination of the individual to the collective mass was possible because the citizens had agreed to this style of war and thus were bound to it by public commitment.
“For the Delian League became an Athenian empire. Athens meddled in the politics of the Delian cities to favour democratic regimes, and planted colonies of Athenians in their lands where they formed military bases. The tributes from the League and the taxes upon foreigners trading with Athens created enormous incomes which could be used to pay towers for the fleet and to support strong armies. Here was the Athenian culture of leisure and greed at work.
“The Persian wars and then the long quarrels of the Greek city-states created a kind of military laboratory in Greece, stimulating ideas and new developments. The most obvious effect of this was the development of the hoplite phalanx. It became the very embodiment of close-order, a tight mass of men working together, able to resist enemies with their hedgehog of spears and to threaten them by sheer weight and momentum. However, this was only really achieved as the citizen-soldier was superseded by the professional soldier.
“The Greek front was not all that vital to the Persian Empire, and it managed to regain Anatolia by an adroit diplomacy which exploited the quarrels of the Greeks. The priority for the Persian Empire was speed of movement and the ability to fight in other places, especially on the long Asian frontiers where cavalry was the most useful arm. No power can be strong everywhere and in every aspect of war, and the Persian army was no exception to this general rule. And when they wanted heavy infantry, they could always hire them at need from the quarrelsome city-states of Greece whose mercenaries were perfectly willing to serve for money.
*All excerpts have been taken from Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power, Yale University Press.
Horses and Hoplites – John France
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