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Phalanx warfare: Closing of the ranks
#45
OH NO! NOT AGAIN !
Aaaaaa....rgh! There are two horrible myths about Hoplite warfare that just won’t lay down and die, despite all the evidence being out there, and plain as a pike-staff. The most recent is the existence of a corselet supposedly called ‘linothorax’ and made of glued linen. Its latest manifestation is the Aldrete et al book, discussed elsewhere. If it became widely accepted it would set back the study of hoplite armour nearly 50 years !

The other is the dreaded ‘Othismos’, concerted pushing by hoplites as a tactic, which is equally spurious ( despite my good friend Paul Bardunias attempts to revive it). Both are 19C theories, and frankly, laughable.
Yet here we are ( again!) talking of ‘Othismos’ in the sense of a pushing or shoving phase of Hoplite combat as if it were an established fact. IT IS NOT! Such a thing never existed.
For the time being, I shall leave aside the ‘practical’ reasons why this tactic is impossible, and look purely at the literature. Paul Bardunias skips very lightly over the literature in his latest article on the subject on his blog site here, an epitome of an article ( The  Storm of Spears and Press of Shields) he wrote for “Ancient Warfare” magazine’s special ‘Marathon’ issue :
http://hollow-lakedaimon.blogspot.com.au/
scroll down to the entry for June 20 2014......

The whole ‘concerted shove’ school of Phalanx fighting came about through a total misinterpretation of various snippets in our sources, and one in particular in Thucydides – the 19 C scholars who studied Classics immediately thought of Rugby scrums, since they’d all played ‘rugger’ at Public School. Incidently, this illustrates the error of interpreting something in terms you are familiar with – a common mistake. As Paul B. recites, this ‘Rugby scrum’ school of concerted shoving in ‘close order’ became known as the ‘Orthodox’ school of Phalanx fighting, as espoused by the likes of Hanson Luginbill and Schwartz. Naturally a ‘Heretical’ school grew up championed by the likes of Van Wees,  Krentz and Goldsworthy, advocating spear fighting in a sort of skirmish ‘open order’. Both schools are utterly wrong, and they are just like the tale of the blind philosophers asked to describe an elephant. In the words of Shakespeare;  “A plague on both your houses” [Romeo and Juliet]. As described in this thread and told in Xenophon, hoplites generally operated in ‘normal’ or open order[6 ft frontage], and closed up to half-files in ‘close order’[3 ft frontage] to fight. But this was not ‘Othismos’, a concerted shove for that is NOT what the word means! In fact quite the opposite, as we shall see.

Let us start with the LSJ definition:
‘othismos’ is a noun and means:-
“the jostling, struggling, of combatants in a mêlée, “Περσέων τε καὶ Λακεδαιμονίων . ἐγένετο πολλόςHdt.7.225; ἀπικέσθαι ἐς . to come to close quarters, Id.9.62; “. ἀμφὶ τὰ θύρετραX.An.5.2.17; “ περι᾽ τὰς πύλας . καὶ πνιγμόςPlb.4.58.9, cf. Anaxandr.33.7: metaph., “. λόγωνdispute, altercation, Hdt.8.78, 9.26.”
.....the very opposite of an organised concerted shove! ( and just how could that be done and co-ordinated on a phalanx frontage typically a kilometre or so long??) If we wanted a single word definition ‘scrimmaging’ might fit well.
The word occurs over 60 times in our sources, overwhelmingly in a Roman context – yet no-one suggests that Romans used a concerted ‘pushing’ tactic. The main user is the late Roman writer Procopius, who uses the term over a dozen times. Plutarch uses it in a Roman context more than a Greek one, as well as others such as Cassius Dio (half a dozen or so times) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as well as Appian,Polybius and Josephus.
I won’t recount every usage, or this post will turn into a book. I’ll simply try to give a flavour of the usage of the noun ‘Othismos’.

Herodotus uses the word 4 times, twice in a military context[VII.225 and IX.62], and twice metaphorically to describe heated verbal arguments.[VIII.78 and IX.26]. Neither of the Military contexts describe hoplites in a ‘shoving match’. The first is the scrimmage around the body of the fallen King Leonidas at Thermopylae against Persians. The second is the  scrimmage/close quarter fighting when the Persian fence of pavises is pushed over at Plataea. No Hoplite v Hoplite shoving against each other.

Thucydides uses the word once. At [IV.96.2] describing the battle of Delion he uses the phrase ‘othismos aspidon/ ὠθισμὸς ἀσπίδων’ scrimmaging shield to shield, but if ‘othismos’ means shoving shield to shield, why does he have to specify ‘shield to shield’?

Xenophon in his Anabasis uses the word just once to describe the jostling and struggle of panicked troops trying to get through a gate, Polybius also uses it in this way ( and no other). In fact the word is used more frequently to describe jostling/struggling of crowds to get through doors and gates than in battle contexts. Plutarch [Timoleon 27] uses the word to describe the Carthaginians crossing the river Crimisus in ‘tumultuous disorder’.

It is significant that Xenophon, a hoplite general and therefore knowledgable knows the word but never uses it to describe  a ‘shoving phase’ of a battle. ( though he does use the verb form to refer to physical shoving at close quarters, a.k.a in the vernacular ‘shield bashing’, as at Koroneia, referenced by Paul B. above: “...and setting shields against shields they shoved, fought, killed, and were killed. Finally, some of the Thebans broke through and reached Mount Helicon, but many were killed while making their way thither. “
....which doesn’t sound at all like a concerted ‘shoving phase’ but rather a desperate hand-to-hand struggle.

Astute readers will have observed that in both those references, Xenophon refers to the opposing sides coming within “spear thrust”[IV.3.17]
Now as the opposing armies were coming together, there was deep silence for a time in both lines; but when they were distant from one another about a stadium, the Thebans raised the war-cry and rushed to close quarters on the run. When, however, the distance between the armies was still about three plethra, the troops whom Herippidas commanded [ the former ‘Ten Thousand’ mercenaries], and with them the Ionians, Aeolians, and Hellespontines, ran forth in their turn from the phalanx of Agesilaus, and the whole mass joined in the charge and, when they came within spear thrust, put to flight the force in their front.[ so no concerted shoving] As for the Argives, they did not await the attack of the forces of Agesilaus, but fled to Mount Helicon.”
....and  c.f the similar account in Xen “Agesilaos”. (“....coming within spear thrust)

This ‘jostling/struggling’ in some disorder can also be used of ships and cavalry.....

Well, this post is now over a thousand words, so I’ll stop here before it turns into a book. Suffice to say that ‘Othismos’ doesn’t mean ‘concerted shoving’ as referred to by the ‘Orthodox’ supporters or Paul B. and nowhere is a ‘shoving phase’ of battle described.....
"dulce et decorum est pro patria mori " - Horace, ODES
(It is a sweet and proper thing to die for ones country)

"No son-of-a-bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country" -GeorgeC Scott as General George S. Patton
Paullus Scipio/Paul McDonnell-Staff
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RE: Phalanx warfare: Closing of the ranks - by Paullus Scipio - 09-14-2016, 10:37 AM

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