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With CAM 222: Salamis 480BC well into production, I am now researching Plataea, the battle that finally drove the Persians out of Greece in 479.  This is, without doubt, one of those "battles that changed history" (more precisely, battles where history would have been changed if the other side had won!).  In terms of forces engaged it was a bigger battle than either Gettysburg or Waterloo, it lasted 11 or 12 days, and it was an equally "close run thing".  In it, hoplites were pitted against superior numbers of lighter-armed, more mobile Asian infantry and cavalry, employing missile tactcs against their close-quarter style of combat.  There were also hoplites and heavier, northern Greek cavalry fighting with commitment on the Persian side.  The crucial intervention early in the battle  of the Athenian archers, the only ones in the Greek army, is clearly documented, but the contribution of the huge body of non-hoplite troops, who outnumbered the hoplites by thousands is only hinted at.  Helots, the serf underclass of Sparta, fought in the battleline with their masters.  Others screened the Greek flanks and guarded the supply line.  With the surrounding land, nearby towns and Attica to the south devastated, supplies had to be brought up from Corinth and the Peloponnese, a logistical challenge far beyond the experience of any commander or contingent in the Hellenic Alliance.  Plataea is a really interesting and important battle with much more to it than the two land battles that preceded it, Marathon and Thermopylae, but nobody has written a book on it, in English, or, as far as I can tell, any other language, yet...

Because the source materal is so sparse and fragmentary, the reconstruction of any ancient battle depends on a fair amount of informed speculation.  The scale and complexity of Plataea certainly add to the challenge of the task!  I came across an article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, published in 1964 but read by N Whatley as a paper to the Oxford Philological Society in 1920 and presenting arguments "first written down in rather different form in 1913".  Its title is "On the possibility of reconstructing Marathon and other ancient battles".  Whatley declares at the outset that he is sceptical "about the possibility of reconstructing the details of these battles and campaigns with any certainty", but he still acknowledges the value of the exercise and is clearly fascinated by it, and sets out sound principles ("certain Aids": less complicated times...!) that all engaged in it should apply. 

His First Aid is "the study of geography and topography of the theatre of war".  What makes this statement of the obvious more interesting are Whatley's reflections on it which he sums up with the remark that topography "gives good negative results" , for example, "If a particular move is rendered absolutely impossible by the nature of the country, that move (unless there has been an earthquake since) never took place".  The specific example he then gives struck me as a bit of a challenge: "An examination of a scaled map of the Straits of Salamis shows decisively that the battle of Salamis never took place as Herodotus described it..."! 

However, I found my response in his Second Aid: a priori deduction is only to be used "with the greatest caution".  The a priori argument here is that no admiral would have committed so many ships to battle in so tight a space (the effort of fitting the best part of 800 triremes drawn to scale into the battle area on Map 5 of CAM 222 illustrated this, most graphically!).  But, in his Second Aid, Whatley sternly warns against the common assumption "that generals never make mistakes...  [or] do idiotic and irrational things".  The Persian navy was commanded by a landlubber king surrounded by landlubber princes, and didn't have a single Persian ship in it, so ignorance and inexperience were major factors at that level..  Secondly, whether or not double-cross intelligence played a part, there was plenty of justification for thinking that the Greeks would not put up a concerted fight.  Whatley warns equally sternly under this heading against a second common assumption, "that there are certain great military principles that have been fully understood in all ages".

Whatley calls his Third Aid sachkritik, of which "reality check" is a fair translation, I guess.  It overlaps with his First and Second Aids and shares with topography the limitation that it can give good negative results (if it was impossible, it was not done) but cannot prove a positive (if it was possible, it was not necessarily done).  As an example, he cites with approval the father of the modern discipline of military history, Hans Delbruck's demonstration that Xerxes' army could not have numbered the legendary five million because, if it had, the tail of the column would just about have been leaving Sardis as the head arrived in Athens (I haven't done the arithmetic myself, but I take his word for it!).  Whatley has some good general things to say about "the problem of numbers in ancient armies" and how to arrive at a reasonable count, with exact numbers (which ancient commanders generally wouldn't have known either) rather less important than a good idea of the relative strengths of the opposing forces.  The question of numbers overlaps with topography in the challenge of representing units on a map (or bird's-eye-view) - "It is easy enough [after agonising about space between individuals...] to draw little squares representing troops on the map, but it is extraordinarily difficult to make these squares correspond to the facts and realise how immensely they should increase in size the moment they are put in motion".

"The Fourth Aid is what I think I may call the Sherlock Holmes method... (it) consists in a combined use of the three Aids I have previously mentioned together with an ingenious selection of statements from ancient authors of different periods and a subtle interpretation of them".  I prefer to think in terms of a Distressed Jigsaw Puzzle method.  It is one of those 1,000-piece monsters, perhaps a detailed old-master landscape, but the cat has been comprehensively sick on the lid of the box and, inside, there are only about 50 random pieces, some of them just bits of sea or sky.  One or two of the pieces may possibly fit together, but there is an awful lot of space to fill-in in between.  Whatley gives sound advice on this core reconstruction activity: for example, guard againt letting a particular theory govern the selection or rejection of pieces of evidence, and avoid "excessive ingenuity".  His illustration of the latter is nice: "Compare the very elaborate causes which are now usually alleged for the Peloponnesian War and contrast any ancient war which has not attracted many historians, where it will be found that people are still allowed to go to war for quite simple reasons and to fight in quite simple ways".

"The Fifth and last Aid consists in making the most through study from all sources of the armies engaged, their strategy and tactics, their weapons and method of using them, their system of recruiting and organization, their officers and staff."  At a general level, this, like the First Aid (topography), is a statement of the obvious, certainly as far as Osprey readers and writers are concerned, and, of course, overlaps with the Second (sachkritik). Here Whatley stresses the importance of looking at the Greeks and Persians "from the point of view of one another": what did they know and expect of each other?  The Aid has to be applied thoroughly. Whatley criticises Delbruck (quite probably a bold thing to do in the 1920s!) for not being thorough enough in his application of it to the Persian War: "He is a historian of wars throughout the ages and has thus realised that in any age you must understand the armies before you can understand the wars. Unfortunately he is not a reliable Greek historian and his excellent method is spoiled". Returning to Plataea, there is intriguing evidence that the evolution of hoplite warfare into its relatively well-documented "Classical" form was not yet complete in 480/79, the date that defines the end of the Archaic period.  Weaponry seems to have been less standardised and tactics more fluid, the former evidenced by vase paintings, the latter harking back to descriptions of combat in Homer. Indeed, some of our conceptions of the phalanx, men standing shoulder to shoulder sheltering their neighbour as well as themselves with their shields, and the ranks behind pushing those in front, may be the result of too literal interpreation of language that is metaphorical.  It is quite hard to visualise how an eight-foot spear, pointed at both ends, could have been wielded effectively in a phalanx that was bound together like a rugby scrum without doing at least as much damage to friends as to enemies! 

I strongly recommend reading Whatley's article in full.  It is reprinted in Everett Wheeler's The Armies of Classical Greece, a hefty (and heftily-priced) collection of a wide range of important articles (including "The Zulus and the Spartans: a Comparison of their Military Systems", high on my must-read list!) and is also available as a download.   However, I hope I have managed to give some flavour of the wisdom with which Whatley explores the proper application of his Five Aids, and also of his writing's vintage charm. I think it's going to be good to have Whatley around as I start serious work on CAMPAIGN Plataea 479BC


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william posted on 3 Feb 2010 15:23:00
I think there's an interesting debate to be had here, Hugo - I would certainly agree that "Ancient Military History" is different from military history written about the modern era and other more recent periods with their infinitely richer store of source material and evidence. But I would not agree that it is any less "proper" (though I think someone did write somewhere "It's magnificent but it's not military history", but maybe that was about something else)! I think I might also argue that "conjectural reconstruction" is a large and necessary element of any writing in military history.....

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