Theories on Development

The development of the hoplite battle experience is not as clear cut as one might think. If we are to follow the evidence given to us in the literature of Homer, then we believe that during the “Dark Age” or “Age of Heroes” (1150-750 BCE), combat and warfare was more focused on long range weaponry with the use of missiles and other thrown objects. In addition to that, there were single-combat fights amongst the heroes of the era. The transition from the “Dark Ages” to the more well-known phalanx battle formation is up for debate. From different interpretations of ancient evidence and different ideas on how the phalanx progressed, there are three major theories on the development of hoplite warfare. The first theory is Gradualism. This model was founded by Anthony Snodgrass and provides a step-by-step development of the hoplite battle experience. The second theory is Rapid Adoption, developed by Paul Cartledge. As the name implies, this theory states that the transition to hoplite warfare was rapid and happened over a short period of time. The third and final major theory was developed by Hans van Wees, which is an Extended Gradualism theory that has a basis around gradualism but doesn’t believe it could have happened in the short manner of time that Snodgrass’s theory does. (Donald Kagan)

Anthony Snodgrass’s gradualist theory has a few key points. Possibly the most significant point is that the hoplite battle development only progressed as a result of the individual development of weaponry and defense. To clarify, what he means is that the phalanx and hoplite formations within battle did not develop on its own. It could not have developed until the double-gripped shield was developed, and the creation of the hoplite spear along with the corinthian helmet and other equipment. (Snodgrass) Furthermore, gradualists also look at the individual people of the hoplite revolution, and how they played a part in the switch to phalanx-style fighting. Overtime, wide-spread use and creation of equipment would allow even the farmer to have access to hoplite equipment. This would discount an immediate-adoption theory, as all farmers around the different Greek city-states would need to acquire this equipment which would take time. (Snodgrass)

Paul Cartledge’s rapid adoption theory counters Snodgrass’s theory regarding limited development due to equipment by analyzing the double gripped shield. Rapid adoptionists state that the lack of mobility that is brought on by a double gripped shield gives reason to believe that the open-spaced combat of the dark ages was completely gone by the time the shield was introduced. They argue that close-quartered combat warfare must have been the way of warfare because the double grip shield could not be used at all otherwise. The shield would work with the soldier to the left and right to defend each person. According to this theory, most if not all Greek city-states had established the phalanx formation by 650 BCE. (Donald Kagan)

The third view, developed by Hans van Wees, builds off of gradualists but instead spaces it out over a longer period of time. Extended gradualism argues that the development of the phalanx started in the Dark Ages and the period of Homer, not in the individual fighting but the mass formation of men. Hans van Wees’s argument disagrees with gradualists in that the development of the phalanx started earlier and culminated in the complete phalanx later, which means it by default disagrees with rapid adoption theory. Extended gradualist’s argue that hoplites didn’t fight in a unified cohesion until the 5th century BCE. This is over 150 years after the time mark that rapid adoptionists choose. They also argue that the farmer-hoplite didn’t become a crucial part of the revolution until the middle of the 6th century. This shows the drastically longer time frame for the hoplite revolution that extended gradualists argue for. Hans van Wees also looks deeply at iconography. Van Wees points out that renditions on vases showing soldiers in phalanx formation does not mean that the phalanx was universal at that time. He points out the heavy, double-gripped hoplite shield but also points out the javelins being carried by some of the soldiers. He believes this shows a transitional phase of hoplite battle from the missile-throwing Dark Ages to the tight, phalanx formations of the Archaic Age. (Donald Kagan)

Just as it is with most debates, the true answer likely doesn’t lie with one specific model. Instead it probably is a mixture of two, if not all three. The likelihood of the Hoplite revolution happening in an extremely quick period of time is unlikely, because as extended gradualists argue, the revolution would have needed the support of the farmer-hoplites, who would not have had the means and capabilities to acquire hoplite equipment at the drop of the hat. On the other side, it is quite unlikely that open-field battle continued for a long period of time with the introduction of the dual-gripped, larger hoplite shield. While this doesn’t mean that, as rapid adoptionist’s state, the phalanx formation formed immediately with the invention of the shield, it does make the idea of a long, gradual change to phalanx seem unlikely. Extended gradualists look at ancient iconography from the time period and correctly point out the different equipment from different eras. Furthermore, they fairly analyze that to be a sign of a transition between the different forms of battles. The correct answer to the development of hoplite warfare most likely is a combination of these three models.

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