Tag Archives: book review

A Storm of Spears

Storm SpearsWriting a historical novel takes an enormous amount of research.

In the first book in The Wandering King series, Summer, Harvest, War, I included a suggested reading list in the back.  I am indebted to many of the authors listed, particularly the ancient writers Herodotus, Pausanias and Homer for my source material.

The second novel in the series, With This Shield, owes a debt of gratitude to an Aussie named Dr. Christopher Matthew and his book A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War.  Matthew’s work provided the basis for how my Spartan characters fought in the phalanx.

In chapter two of With This Shield, “The Art of War,” when Portheus and Theokles are teaching the men of Croton how to fight with shield and spear, I relied heavily on Matthew’s research.

A New Spin on an Old Fighting Style

Classical scholars have been battling for generations over how the ancient Greek hoplites engaged in combat. Matthew does an incredible job of analyzing hoplites’ weaponry, armor, stance, spacing and attack methods to provide fresh insights on the debate and provide some startling new conclusions.

For instance, he questions whether or not the phalanx attacked at a run or a walk.  At the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus claims the Athenians ran a mile before hitting the Persian line.  Was this even possible?  Matthew provides convincing evidence that the phalanx was more effective when it attacked at a much slower pace as it enabled them to move in a close order.  Attacking in a tight mass, shoulder to shoulder, allowed them to bring more spears to bear on the enemy.

As soon as a wall of hoplites begin running, they naturally spread out.  So it becomes impossible for a phalanx to charge at a run in close formation.  All of which makes a great deal of sense.

He also provides new insights as to why the phalanx could be arrayed anywhere from four to twelve ranks deep.  The accepted view was that the deeper the formation, the heavier the weight of the charge.  The hoplites in the rear ranks, pushed the men in the front ranks forward, resulting in a mighty crash of shield against shield and a rugby-like scrum.

Matthew refutes this belief.  He states that since the phalanx did not attack at a run there was no deafening collision, no scrum.  So there was no need for the men in the rear ranks to push against the men in front of them.  Instead, the depth of the phalanx merely meant that the men who fell in the front ranks were replaced by the men behind them.  The deeper the phalanx, the more replacements you had during the battle.

Instead of the battle involving a lot of pushing and shoving, Matthew claims the hoplites maintained their orderly rows, kept an arm’s length away from the opposing shieldwall, and calmly attacked one another with their spears.  All of which is an entirely new viewpoint.

Are Matthew’s Findings the Gospel on Hoplite Warfare?

Matthew examines the ancient sources, along with what recent scholarship has written, then tests these theories by using Greek hoplite re-enactors to find out how things actually worked.  When providing his conclusions, he is not afraid to contradict well-respected historians like Victor Davis Hanson and others.

What Matthew taught me, was how hoplites stood together, how they held their shields, how they moved forward and the various methods in which they could have wielded their spears.  All of which found its way into the pages of With This Shield.

As much as I admire Matthew’s new approach to hoplite warfare, I find it hard to buy into all of his conclusions.

He provides his findings from a scientific, almost sterile laboratory analysis. Real soldiers hardly perform under such conditions. Sure, it might make sense for the phalanx to walk toward the enemy, but that takes out the human element.  Soldiers are not laboratory mice.  If you’re being pelted by arrows and sling stones, you may very well be forced to run to avoid catching an arrow in the throat.

The primary assertion that Matthew makes, that I question, is how hoplites wielded their spear.  Greek art shows them using three primary attacks:  the overhead thrust, underarm thrust and underhand attack.  According to the author, by studying these various attack methods using re-enactors, he claims it would have been impossible for the ancient infantryman to hold his spear aloft over his head for long periods of time.  They simply would tire faster.  Matthew shows that the underarm thrust actually has a longer effective kill range.

Chigi_vaseOverhead Spears really Javelins?

In making his argument that the Greeks did not use the overhead thrust with their spears, he claims that all of the ancient pottery showing ancient warriors holding their spears aloft – are not spears at all – but javelins.  They are not thrusting spears, aiming at their opponent’s throat, instead they are throwing javelins.  I find this hard to swallow.

The famous Chigi Vase (shown here), depicts hoplites holding their spears aloft, using them to strike downward at the enemy.  Are they wielding spears or throwing javelins?  According the Matthew they’re throwing javelins.  Is he right?  You be the judge.

It might make more sense for hoplites to attack using the underarm thrust.  They might have a longer kill range, but do humans ever behave in an entirely logical fashion?

The Spartans trained constantly.  What if they didn’t tire so easily?  What if using the overhead thrust to go for the enemy’s throat was a more effective way of killing your opponent?  What if the overhead thrust – because it was so difficult – brought kudos upon the soldier?  What if using the underarm thrust was for amateurs and the overhead thrust was for professionals like the Spartans?  This is the approach I choose to use in With This Shield.

Conclusions

The ancient sources do not comment on these issues, so we are left to try to figure out on our own how hoplites really fought.  I admire Matthew’s ability to take a step back from the accepted assumptions, and look at hoplites from a fresh new perspective that is based on experiments with live re-enactors.

However, they are re-enactors, not real soldiers engaged in battlefield conditions. When you really come down to it, we’ll never fully understand the ancient mind or how the ancient soldier fought. Though I imagine Matthew’s book will provide plenty of discussion for classical scholars for years to come.

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