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Xenophon and the Unequal Phalanx: A 4th-Century View on Political Egalitarianism

Simone Agrimonti

In recent years, scholars have frequently discussed the egalitarian nature of the Greek polis, trying to define the real breadth of the phenomenon. Among them, Josiah Ober (Ober 2010) has devoted particular attention to the theme. He argues that the polis was characterized by a set of rules and conventions that enabled citizens to have equal opportunities in the political life of the community. This “rule egalitarianism” did not apply to economic or social life, but was limited to the political sphere. The existence of these egalitarian traits was, according to Ober, one of the main reasons for the success of the polis, which granted Greece considerable wealth.

The hoplite phalanx has often been considered a highly egalitarian system too. Aristotle (Pol. 1297b), who was convinced of the existence of a direct connection between a state’s armed forces and its political structure, was the first to link the phalanx to the equality-based polis. Modern scholars have usually agreed in describing this military structure as egalitarian, defining it “a republic of equals” (Detienne 1968) or a “mass formation of heavy-armored equals” (Hanson 1996). Only recently has Hans van Wees (van Wees 2004) challenged this position in a study focused on the military functioning of the phalanx.

In this light, beyond purely military considerations, ancient authors’ ideas on the hoplite phalanx can shed light on political thinking. In this paper I show that Xenophon provides us with an interesting view on polis egalitarianism in the 4th century BCE. He devotes significant attention to equality between citizens on military campaigns, with a particular focus on hoplites. Through the analysis of three different passages, I demonstrate that, according to Xenophon, equality between citizens in arms had serious limitations and traits of individual soldiers needed to be taken into consideration and exploited for tactical purposes. Understanding Xenophon’s conception of the relationships between different citizen-soldiers will give us a valuable clue on how these relations were perceived in antiquity; this will, in the end, enable us to reconsider our idea of the Greek polis as strongly egalitarian.

The three passages I examine in this paper have not yet received sufficient attention. The first and most relevant one comes from the Memorabilia (3,1,8-10), in which Socrates is discussing some tactical notions with a young Athenian. The most appropriate way to deploy hoplites, the two conclude, is to deploy the best men in the first and last lines and to put all the less reliable soldiers in the middle. In this way, these less brave men will be led by those in front of them and pushed by those behind. The two then go further, specifying that the hoplites in the first line should be the most ambitious ones, those who are ready to risk their life to distinguish themselves. This view reoccurs in a passage from the Cyropaedia (6,3,25). Cyrus, discussing his battle plans, says that a deployment in which the best men are not put in the front and rear ranks is useless. A useful comparison comes from the Hipparchikos (2,2-5), Xenophon’s handbook about the organization of the Athenian cavalry. While he is describing how to organize the squadrons, Xenophon suggests that the strongest and bravest men should be appointed as file leaders, while the horsemen at the end of the line should be chosen among the old and most cool-minded soldiers.

According to Xenophon hoplite service in the phalanx highlighted personal features and differences between citizens, thus setting a limit to political egalitarianism.

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Athenian Unity?

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