The Othismos

[4] Hoplite warrior preparing for battle

[4] Hoplite warrior preparing for battle

One of the most highly debated aspects of Hoplite warfare is the othismos that occurred when two Hoplite armies clashed on a battlefield.  Although the term “Othismos” has multiple meanings, they all focus around the word “push”.  The debate to this day, is if it was a literal push by the armies or more of a figurative one.

[5] The Othismos

[5] The Othismos.

The “orthodox view” or the “literal model” argues that the othismos was literally a giant push between the two armies(see Mathew 2009, 395).  The hoplites pushed shield against shield to wear down their enemy and break through their lines.  This take on the othismos is often compared to a scrum in the game of rugby.  Realistically, a mass push by two opposing armies is impractical.  The force from the ranks pushing from behind the front rank would render the hoplites in the front useless (see Krentz 1985, 50).    The “heretical view” or the “figurative model” claims that the combat was done at a distance and the othismos push that is described is more of a figurative push to drive their enemies off the battlefield (see Mathew 2009, 396).    Although both views can be right in their own way, it is often argued that neither can be completely correct.

Xenophon, an Athenian historian and soldier, described Spartan and Theban phalanxes colliding at the battle of Coronea in 394 BC where the opposing forces were “shield against shield” and the same was described by Thucydides at the battle of Delium in 424 BC (see Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 4.96).  This is an example of the phalanx using the Othismos in the literal way.  However there are many accounts that focus the Othismos on being more of a figurative push, and “shield against shield” describes the shield wall that occurred from the formation in which the hoplites were standing in.  Some battle accounts, such as at the ‘Tearless Battle’ in 368 BC state that the Spartans inflicted their first casualties on the Argives once they were in range of their spears (see Xenophon, Hellenica, 7.1.31).   This suggest that until that moment, the armies had not touched each other, so a literal push could not be possible.  The othismos at this battle seems to be a metaphorical push.


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