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Arbela and the Man Who Would Be God
The Greeks had to go imperial to make it stand up.
This was something that Demosthenes, like many liberals insulated within the circle of his own rightness, failed to understand. He was a genius and he spoke in the name of an admirable ideal; the ideal of democracy, that the state is the collective will of all its individual components, achieving the united decision through free discussion. What he failed to see was that even in Athens this remained an unattained ideal, a precarious balance subject to destructive forces both from above and below, from within and without.
The achievement of Athens in the arts, philosophy, every intellectual pursuit, was magnificent and the democratic ideal was always present, but she was no more of a real democracy than Renaissance Florence, where there was also intellectual achievement. Democracy was in the hands of a small body of citizen voters, an island in the vast sea of slaves, metics, and unnaturalizable residents of exterior origin. There was a fatal inconsistency in Demosthenes' doctrine; his banner might more accurately have read, "Democracy—for Athenians only." Athens differed from Sparta, frankly an oligarchy, only in cultivating things of the spirit and in placing fewer restrictions on the personal habits of the individual. To be sure, this subtended enormous cultural differences, but they were not political differences, and the important decisions were made in the political field.
By its self-imposed limitations the Athenian democracy was incapable of real co- operation with any other state. It could form alliances, but only on a strictly temporary basis and in the face of imminent danger. It could take a place in no organization larger than itself, for this would involve the recognition of exteriors as equals, and the whole theory of Athenian democracy was that no one else had reached or could reach its own level. When Athens formed a league, it was the League of Delos, and its members were subjects. They were admitted to the sacred company of Greeks, the only civilized people in the world, but as second-class Greeks, like the lumpish Boeotians or the soft Corinthians.
This was not merely provincialism; there was in it a certain pride of attainment, and the general view, both at the time and since, has been that the attainment was very real. The narrowed view of democracy, however, did deprive Athens of one of the specific advantages of democracy—its defense mechanism. A monarchy or a dictatorship is in a very happy position at the beginning of a war; it has unified command, the co-ordination of all efforts to a single purpose, and unlimited control of resources. But the experience of the ages has been that in the long run these do not overmaster the resilience of democracy, its ability to adopt on a temporary basis whatever variations from the norm of practice may be needed for military efficiency, and the ease with which ability makes its way to the top through the looser structure of a democratic organization. In the closed circuit of Athenian democracy ability did not find it easy to reach the top or to stay there, and nobody thought of looking for it in a slave or a metic. Resilience was wanting; Sparta, organized for total war, had more of it.
The defense mechanism is always necessary. That of the Greek city states as a group grew out of the very thing that made their democracy imperfect—the common recognition of all as Greeks, possessing the homonoia, and having a common duty to help each other against the great, menacing world of the barbarians. The mechanism worked reasonably well for a time, thanks to several factors. One of these was psychological: the devotion of every Greek to his own city, his own group; his relation of mutual reliance within that circle to the homonoia, and its relation to him. Two factors were technical: the development of good iron armor, good iron spears and swords; and the fact that these were made to a common pattern, permitting the employment of groups of identically armed men as units. One was tactical: the fact that out of their mutual reliance the Greeks had learned to march in step.
The last came to the fore at Marathon in 490 B.C., and at Plataea in 479 it was decisive. In both battles the Asiatics, strong and courageous men, made their fight in the manner tribesmen usually do, in little knots of ten or a dozen, rushing one part of the line or another. At the point of contact they were always outnumbered by the Greek infantry, all in line, they were outreached by the long pikes, they could not get through Greek armor when they did close and, with light targets that would keep out an arrow but not much more and no body armor, had little defense of their own. At Marathon the Persians were driven in rout; at Plataea they were crushed, and even that cavalry which was the pride of Persia could make nothing of the hedge of spears.
Yet Thermopylae, Salamis, Marathon, Plataea were not decisive battles. In each case they decided nothing but that Greek civilization would not be submerged this time, and they determined nothing but the fact that the Greeks had developed a highly superior tactical technique. The Greek victories were backed by nothing so permanent as the fact that the conquest of Indians by whites in America was supported by a technology which could produce muskets and swords. Persians as well as Greeks could manufacture iron armor and eight-foot pikes and train men to use them; the Persians were quite as capable as Greeks of learning how to march in step, and some of them did when they found what a good trick it was.
Even devotion was no monopoly; and in the century that followed Plataea the Greek kind began sensibly to decline through the long series of conflicts that collectively bear the name of Peloponnesian and Corinthian wars. The citizen- soldier turned out to save his home, but as it began to require almost daily salvation over a period of years, he became more of a soldier and less of a citizen, and in the intervals of peace that spaced with those of combat, he tended to find he had no home and became a mercenary.
It is unnecessary to go into the complicated history of that century. But the main line is clear: Greece was gradually succumbing to Persia, not by force of arms—which had been defeated—but from the political impact of a system which could digest small units into larger ones. Under Xenophon, 10,000 Greeks marched through Asia Minor without anyone's being able to stop them, but they were mercenaries in Persian pay. When Sparta established her hegemony in the Greek world, it was overthrown among the islands at the Battle of Cnidus in 394 by a Greek fleet; but the fleet was paid from Persia and at least technically under the command of a Persian satrap. In the "King's Peace" of 386 the Greek cities of continental Asia Minor were turned over unconditionally to Persia, and perpetual Persian interference in Greek affairs was recognized as a right. Sparta, Thebes, and even Athens successively took Persian money for the furtherance of projects which in the long run could benefit only Persia.
That is, for all the formidable character of their armies and the skill with which they were used, the Greeks had found no answer to the Persian system of government, its way of life on high levels. They were becoming adsorbed to it, and the process would become absorption as soon as Greek internal conflicts had produced sufficient weaknesses. The collective defense mechanism of the Greek culture was failing and had, indeed, already failed.
In 367 a younger son of the King of Macedon, named Philip, was sent to Thebes as a hostage to guarantee the good behavior of his father's turbulent little kingdom toward the Greek cities along the coast. Thebes spoke for them because she was enjoying a brief period of leadership. Four years before at Leuctra the Thebans had inflicted an utterly astonishing defeat on one of those hitherto invincible Spartan armies, killing the king who led it and ending Sparta's lordship in continental Greece, as it had earlier been lost among the islands.
The whole air of Thebes at this date was electric, and there must have been a good deal of discussion of how the Theban farmers had pulled off their incredible feat. It was due to their general (and leading statesman) Epaminondas, people said. Confronted by that Spartan army, the very announcement of whose approach produced utter despondency in his home city, he did not draw out the hoplite infantry in parallel order, as the custom was. Instead he ployed the best of his men into a massive column, fifty men deep, on the left wing, and flung it well forward before the rest of the armies could close. This huge battering-ram of men sheared through and crushed the Spartan right, and all the Spartans not left on the ground were soon going somewhere else.
It was as simple as that to most of them. Probably the fifteen- year-old boy from Macedon was one of the few who saw that it was not quite as simple as that, that before the huge block of Thebans made contact there had been some sharp cavalry fighting in the wings and the Theban horse, which was always very good, had driven off the Spartan cavalry, which was always very weak, then turned in on the flank of the enemy line just as the Theban battering-ram struck it. It was the sort of observation the fifteen-year-old boy would make; he belonged to a race whose princes made war their only profession, partly through force of circumstances and partly because they liked it.
The Greeks generally regarded Macedonians as not quite in the homonoia; barbarians who had acquired a veneer of Greek culture and spoke a Greek dialect. In fact, they were mainly Dorian Greeks who had stopped off in the plain of the Haliacmon during the great southern movement of the tribes and intermarried a little with the original inhabitants. The inter marriage was nowhere near as extensive as that of the southern- going Dorians with the Achaeans who preceded them, and the Macedonians never did participate in the movement from the eighth century to the fifth, in which the city states developed various forms of aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. Politically Macedon was intensely conservative; it kept the old king-and-council system and the people thought of themselves as Macedonians, not citizens of the towns of Pella or Larissa. This was one of the things that made them un-Greek.
Philip's Theban visit lasted three years. He returned to Macedon, was given a small and remote province to govern, and proceded to grow up a vivid, rip- roaring blade, with a strong taste for women (he rather rapidly accumulated six wives) and a still stronger one for wine. There is something very like the Vikings about all the Macedonians, and most especially about Philip; the hoopla attracted attention, and nobody noticed that underneath it he was making some rather remarkable alterations in the army of his province, or that no matter how much of a hang-over he had in the morning he was out drilling with the troops.
In 359, when Philip was twenty-three, his elder brother, King Perdiccas, was killed in a fight with some Lyncestian highlanders, leaving an infant son and a formidable harridan of a queen mother, who had been regent before and wanted to be again. This sort of thing was not new in Macedonian history, and all the surrounding hill tribes—Illyrians from the west, Lyncestians and Paeonians from the north, Thracians from the east—moved in to collect the usual plunder from the cities of the plain while the royal family was weak. A Macedonian king—again like a Viking—was supposed to be a military leader; the council of higher nobles asked Philip to take the crown, a step doubtless encouraged by his own previous arrangements.
He bought off the Paeonians and Thracians by money payments, drove out the Lyncestians with the normal local levies, and secured the support of Athens (temporarily dominant in Greece) by ceding any right he had to their revolted colony of Amphipolis; the rest would have to wait. That winter Philip opened up a gold mine at Mount Pangaeus to fill up his treasury, a key event, then sent to south Greece and Greek Italy for technical experts, and began organizing and drilling his army.
The completion of that last process took years, and owed something to what he had learned from the Thebans and a good deal to what he heard from people who were not Thebans; but the essential elements in it were Philip's own, and the most essential of these were that it was the first standing army in the world, based on universal service, and that it was the first army in the world that did not take local levies just as they came, but deliberately trained for and combined all arms.
The core of this new model was the phalanx of heavy infantry; they were armed with a longsword and a spear, the sarissa, considerably longer than the usual Greek model, between twelve and twenty feet, according to which source you choose. They were trained to stand at three-foot intervals, but could close up to receive cavalry. For mobility the Greek hoplite's breastplate was discarded in favor of a leather jerkin, but he kept the shield and helmet. They were divided into regiments of 1,536 men, and Philip gave this phalanx weight by arranging them sixteen men deep instead of the eight or twelve of the normal hoplite formation.
One of the weaknesses of the pre-Philip block of infantry was its flanks; to cover those of his phalanx Philip attached a corps of his own invention, the hypaspists, later very famous as the "Silver Shields." They were spear-and- sword men, but the spears were shorter and the shields lighter than in the phalanx; a corps of maneuver, which could extend or mass. For skirmishing and light work there were archers and javelin men, still more mobile; the latter chiefly Agrianian tribesmen from the hills, the former mostly hired out of Crete, which had a great reputation as a nursery of bowmen.
But the heart of the army and its striking force was the heavy cavalry, the hetiaroi, or "King's Companions." They had helmet, shield, breastplate, and spear, but as stirrups were not yet invented the spear was used for thrusting and not as a lance. Service in the Companions was honorific, and most honorific of all was to be a member of the squadron of 250, which always rode on the extreme right, the post of greatest danger, and was known as the Agema, or "King's Own." Finally Philip had heard that among the Greek cities of Italy they had machines that would batter down the brick and timber walls that surrounded most cities; he imported engineers from that area and had them set up a mobile siege train, the first in history.
All these formations were kept with the colors until they had very thoroughly learned their drill, making route marches of thirty-five miles a day with full kit. By the spring of 358 the king had 10,000 trained infantry and 600 of the Companion cavalry and turned on the hill tribes which had been such a nuisance. The Paeonians collapsed after one not very hard fight; the Illyrians were strong enough to stand a battle in the formal Greek style, and Philip showed them something new in military tactics. He held his left refused while the hypaspists and phalanx closed on center and right, and when a satisfactory stage of front line confusion had been produced, charged on his left with the Companion cavalry and nearly wiped out the enemy.
Excerpted from The Battles That Changed History by Fletcher Pratt. Copyright © 1956 Doubleday & Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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