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Unfulfilled Potential? The Skirmisher in Greek Warfare ca. 431-362 B.C.

John Friend

Unfulfilled Potential? The Skirmisher in Greek Warfare ca. 431-362 B.C.

Scholars have long recognized that from the Peloponnesian War onwards lightly armed infantrymen (peltasts, javelin men, archers, and slingers) gained more prominence in inter-polis conflicts (e.g. Best 1969). The non-agonal nature of contemporary warfare necessitated that no Greek army was complete unless it contained a sizable contingent of light troops (Xen. Oec. 8.6; Poly. Strat. 3.9.22). But if an assessment was to be made of their contribution in terms of defeating hoplites, with the exception of notable victories at Aetolia in 426 B.C., Sphacteria in 424 B.C., and Lechaeum in 390 B.C., success was apparently infrequent, if not rare. This paper proposes that a plausible explanation for light troops’ comparative lack of success can be found in examining their limitations within the battlefield environment, building upon previous observations of how different arms such as cavalry constrained their freedom of action (e.g. Anderson 1970).

The fighting manner of missile-wielding skirmishers is well understood. In contrast to hoplites they fought singly without order (Thuc. 4.126.5-6), depending upon their individual skill to harm their enemies at a distance (Xen. Cyr. 2.1.7, 11) and taking advantage of their superior mobility to escape the inevitable hoplite pursuit (Xen. Anab. 6.3.8). These qualities, however, made light troops difficult to control, at the very time when the increasing complexity of military engagements was placing heavier demands on commanders (cf. Wheeler 1991). It will be argued that the Thebans did not defeat Phoebidas the Spartan on account of incompetence or unfamiliarity with light infantry tactics, but because he was overwhelmed by the necessity of personally leading his peltasts and managing the Thespian hoplites whom he assigned to provide close support (Xen. Hell. 5.4.41-2). It is further suggested that Phoebidas rather than Iphicrates the Athenian, whose discipline was atypical by Greek standards (e.g. Front. Strat. 3.12.2-3), was more likely to have been the norm for Classical warfare.

The ancient sources also make it clear that hoplites, so long as they remained in formation and were not on rough ground, could march their way out of trouble, even if they were heavily outnumbered by light troops and had no effective means of retaliation (e.g. Xen. Anab. 7.8.18-9). Alongside an examination of the penetrative ability of various kinds of missiles and an analysis of the defensive capability of the hoplite panoply, particularly the aspis (Gabriel and Metz 1991; Schwartz 2009), the paper will discuss how light troops were seemingly unable to exploit the weaknesses of their slower moving opponents, such as the unshielded side or the vulnerable rear (e.g. Thuc. 4.32.3; Xen. Hell. 6.5.13). Indeed, by investigating the mechanics of throwing the javelin in battlefield conditions (Gardiner 1907; Connelly 1998) we can gain an understanding of why peltasts, for example, lacked the necessary firepower to destroy a hoplite formation.

Session/Panel Title:

New Studies in Asymmetric Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World

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