Supplementals: God of War – Sparta, Warfare, and Mythology (Pt. 2)

Part II

Warfare – Phalanxes, Phalangites, and Hoplites

By: Staff

With the upcoming release of God of War: Origins Collection for the PlayStation 3, gamers will have the chance to relive Kratos’ half-decade-long journey in just three releases: God of War: Collection (includes updated versions of the first two PlayStation 2 releases), God of War III, and God of War: Origins Collections, which brings together and updates both PlayStation Portable releases (Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta). But for those who are looking to get into or go back and enjoy the journey of the infamous scarred Spartan warrior in his quest of revenge against the gods, there is a world behind the material and ethereal worlds of God of War.

Just as important as where Kratos comes from, it’s who he has to interact with. Unlike most mortals, Kratos often finds himself talking to and battling the gods. The Greek pantheon is one of the most popular and recognized of any culture, due not only to some of the more entertaining stories involving cannibalism, heaven-spanning battles, and general pettiness, but also from their adoption by the Romans. Zeus and Jupiter, Athena and Minerva, Poseidon and Neptune, whether from movies, books, or games, it’s hard not have run across at least a passing reference to them.

To fully explore the world of God of War, I’ll be touching on Sparta and the Spartans; warfare, notably the phalanx, a popular military formation that peaked in antiquity during the Hellenistic Age; and Greek mythology. Thanks to the work of Edith Hamilton, Plutarch, and Thucydides, among others, there is a wealth of information available for the curious out there—and, no doubt, future laconophiles.

“The man who wants to rule many men must fight many.”
– Agis, Son of Archidamus, Fifth-century Eurypontid king [1]

II. Warfare – Phalanxes, Phalangites, and Hoplites
It wasn’t enough that the Spartans lived regimented and austere lives, for a people as warlike as the ancient Greeks, any claims to land or resources had to be backed up by force. The numerous city-states that dotted the land, from Pella in Macedon to Athens in Attica to Corinth on the Isthmus of Corinth, were notoriously prickly about their boundaries and, as such, were constantly at war with one another. The ever-shifting alliances, which often took the form of leagues, kept a unified Greece at bay and were what would later give the Romans a license to strip them of their independence. In a world of near-constant warfare, a city-state had to have the mettle to back up its words.

Sparta might have been and continue to be renowned for its citizens’ combat prowess, but all of the city-states had long-standing martial traditions. This was necessary due to the combat formation that came to be popular in the ancient world, particularly among the Greeks: the phalanx. While the phalanx can be used to describe any disciplined formation of phalangites, soldiers in a close square- or rectangle-like formation, it was the Greek hoplite that made it so deadly: soldiers adorned with a large, heavy shield, seven- to nine-foot spears, and panoply that would see the well-to-do encased in bronze. But the phalanx had been a staple of eastern battlefields long before the hoplite grinded one another into submission, with Sumerian and Egyptian armies employing dense, rectangular formations of soldiers in ordered ranks. There was another difference between the armies than just their armament, and that’s that Greek soldiers tended to be land-owning citizens who brought their own arms and armor and were called to take to the field until infirm or of sufficiently old age.

While not all citizens could afford a bronze breast plate and greaves, there did, however, exist a staple kit among the land-owning citizen-soldiers: the large round hoplon and lengthy one-handed spear known as a dory. The hoplon had an ingenious strap that allowed for the weight to be better distributed across the wearer’s body, which also offered for a better footing when used offensively, and it was of sufficient size to cover large portions of the wearer’s body as well as of the man next to him. However, it’s because of the fact that the hoplon did not completely cover the wearer that the phalanx tended to drift to the right when in motion, due to each person seeking the protection of their neighbor’s shield. This drift was well known in antiquity, and it would often be used as part of a commander’s tactic when confronting an enemy. Another effect of the hoplon offering cover to multiple soldiers is that it makes the unity of the phalanx all the more important; a person breaking rank not only brought shame to their family, but they also endangered the integrity of the formation by removing some of their compatriots’ protection and causing gaps for the enemy to exploit.

The phalanx was the mainstay of Greek armies for centuries. But even then, most city-states adopted the use of light-armed troops, long-range troops, and cavalry to augment their forces, giving their armies the flexibility that the phalanx lacked. The Spartans were famously disdainful of all such cowardliness, much to their detriment: the Battle of Lechaeum during the Peloponnesian War saw the faster, more mobile light-armed troops of Athens defeat a force of more cumbersome Spartan hoplites. In fact, it was Alexander the Great’s use of combined arms, in conjunction with the evolution of the arms (exchanging a smaller shield for the larger sarissa) and his famous luck, that saw him carve a path of victory throughout the east. But before the Macedonian king, Theban victory, and Roman interference, Sparta was indeed a formidable foe, often taking their position on the crucial and vulnerable right wing of the battle line to ensure that it held against both the enemy and the pressure of their allies.

“Children have to be tricked with dice, but men with oaths.”
– Lysander, Commander during late fifth and early fourth centuries [2]

To properly understand how the phalanx operated, and just how difficult of a formation it was to maintain, being that in our case it is a group of heavily armed soldiers with limited visibility and just as limited hearing, few books are effective as Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Sandwiched in-between his remarks on the modern armed forces’ unfortunate adoption of the ancient Greek’s desire for the one Decisive Battle, in a time when armies are not made up of citizens needing to return to tend their crops, is a myriad of details on how soldiers were armed, how they coped, how the phalanx functioned on the march and in combat, and just how crucial cohesion was to maintain both effectiveness and morale.

The assumptions made about phalanxes are not always borne out, and sometimes they are proven so in the most interesting ways. Addressing such issues as endurance, types of injuries, and fear (Aristophanes’ remark as war being a release “upon the legs” is forever burned in my mind), The Western Way of War is an essential book in properly understanding why and how the Greek hoplite fought.

Within the genre of historical literature, the Landmark series is, without a doubt, one of the finest lines that anyone is likely to run across. Lavished with detailed and informative maps, footnotes, and sidebars, the first in the series was on Thucydides’ groundbreaking history of the Peloponnesian War: The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. I was hesitant to place the work in Warfare alone as so much of it is helpful for understanding both the Spartans and the Athenians, but as this is a work on one of the most devastating wars in antiquity, in Warfare it goes. But please bear in mind that the additional material added to help the reader further understand Sparta’s government, mindset, and position within the Greek world is so rich that this is an absolutely essential piece for anyone wanting to understand Sparta.

Thucydides was an Athenian general who took part in the war, and who was later exiled due to his inability to hold Amphipolis from the Spartans. During his nearly two decades in exile, Thucydides compiled one of the first grounded histories of a conflict, free of the gods’ interference and full of details about the factions, politicians, and policies that ignited and continued the war. Using eyewitness testimony, interviews, and interpretations of speeches—a common approach in antiquity, given that there were no stenographers to handily record all that was said in the assemblies—he attempts to connect the how’s and why’s of the events that culminated in what would be one of history’s most infamous wars. The 27 years of fighting would see the previous semi-formal warfare of prior days devolve into savage massacres that resulted in entire cities and populations being wiped out and usher in the end of Greece’s Golden Age. Thucydides finds a welcomed home with modern readers as his political rather than moral approach fits well with contemporary histories. However, it’s with the extra material that the Landmark releases include that makes this already invaluable work all the more indispensable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a more recent work on the Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Professor Kagan is a giant in the study of ancient Greece, and his work provides a nice, updated account of the war. His style is informative yet casual, making the material easy to understand for those new to the period, and he offers counterarguments and criticism of Thucydides’ work that are worth exploring. Yale has been kind enough to put up an entire semester’s worth of his lectures on ancient Greece on Youtube as well, found here, which are highly instructive and enjoyable.

Osprey’s The Spartan Army (Elite) is, like all Osprey releases, to be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the occasional hiccup, this is the most readable of all the suggestions, and it provides plenty of handy illustrations for the casual reader to get a better idea of Spartan gear. Their red cloaks, lacquered armor, and even their prized lipped mugs are detailed in art, photographs, and text. There is even some discussion as to whether the Spartans introduced the concept of the division (“mora”) into European warfare, as they offer the earliest example of units (divisions) comprised of both cavalry and infantry that were capable of independent operations. This is undoubtedly a fun read, and a nice summation that will help get the curious up to speed before diving into the more detailed works listed above.

“Cities shouldn’t be fortified with stones or timbers, but with the valour of their inhabitants.”
– Agesilaus, Fourth-century Eurypontid king [3]

Next up: Mythology – The Way of the Gods


[1] Plutarch. “Sayings.” Plutarch On Sparta. Penguin Classics, 1988. P. 124.
[2] Plutarch On Sparta. P. 149.
[3] Plutarch On Sparta. P. 114.
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