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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 11

The Climax and End of the Battle


    Boot look away now from the center, towards the two wings. What the generals of both contending armies have feared and warned against has come to pass. Every hoplite is admirably covered by his great shield on his left side; but his right is unprotected. It is almost impossible to resist the impulse to take a step toward the right to get under the cover of a comrade's shield. And he in turn has been edging to the right likewise. The whole army ahs in fact done so, and likewise the whole phalanx of the enemy. So after a quarter of an hour of brisk fighting, the two hosts, which began by joining with lines exactly facing each other, have each edged along so much that each overlaps the other on the right wing  ... What will happen now is easy to predict with assurance up to a certain point. The overlapping right wings will each promptly turn the left flank of their enemies, and falling upon the foe front and rear catch them almost helpless. The hoplite is an admirable soldier when standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades facing his foe; but once beset in the rear he is so wedged in by the press that it is next to impossible for him to turn and fight effectively. Either he will be massacred as he stands or the panic will spread betimes, and simultaneously both left wings will break formation and hurry off the field in little better than flight.

    Now will come the real test of discipline and deliberate valor. Both centers are holding stoutly. Everything rests on the respective victorious right wings. Either they will foolishly forget that there is still fighting elsewhere on the field, and with ill-timed huzzaing pursue the men they have just routed, make for their camp to plunder it, or worse still, disperse to spoil the slain; or, if they can heed their general's entreaties, keep their ranks, and wheeling around come charging down on the rear of the enemy's center. If one right wing does this, while the hostile right wing has rushed off in heedless pursuit, the battle is infallibly won by the men who have kept their heads; but if both right wings turn back, then the real death grapple comes when these two sets of victors in the first phase of the contest clash together in a decisive grapple.

    By this time the original phalanx formations, so orderly, and beautiful, have become utterly shattered. The field is covered by little squares or knots of striking, cursing, raging men—clashing furiously together. If there are any effective reserves, now is the time to fling them into the scale. The hitherto timorous light troops and armor bearers rush up to do what they can. Individual bravery and valor count now to the uttermost. Little by little the contest turns against one side or the other. The crucial moment comes. The losing party begins to fear itself about to be surrounded. Vain are the last exhortations of the officers to rally them. "Every man for himself!" rings the cry; and with one mad impulse the defeated hoplites rush off the field in a rout. Since they have been at close grip with their enemies, and now must turn their ill-protected backs to the pursuing spears, the massacre of the defeated side is sometimes great. Yet not so great as might be imagined. Once fairly beaten, you must strip off helmet and cuirass, cast away shield and spear, and run like a hare. You have lightened yourself now decidedly. But your foe must keep his ponderous arms, otherwise he cannot master you, if he overtakes you. Therefore the vanquished can soon distance the victors unless the latter have an unusually efficient cavalry and javelin force. However, the victors are likely to enter the camp of the vanquished, and to celebrate duly that night dividing the plunder.


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