Why were Greek Hoplites so effective, and why did Asiatic powers failed to copy them?

Nov 2013
99
Indonesia
#1
Greetings historians

I recently has started reading a lot about the Greco Persian Wars, and I've noticed that even before the Ionian Revolt and all the subsequent events usage Greek mercenaries were already prevalent throughout the Mediterranean, and as the years rolled on toward the conquest of Alexander these men seemed to have an almost complete monopoly on violence throughout the region. Practically any foreign monarch who sought success in fighting with or against the Persian empire would seek the assistance of hired Greek hoplites, whether in the form of pure mercenary bands or subsidized 'allied troops'. Strangely though, it did not seem that any other power managed to successfully copy the battle-winning hoplite model (the Persian did try with the Cardaces, without much success).

This baffled me, since in my observation there was nothing inherently special about the way the Greeks fought; armored heavy infantry wielding spear and shield was nothing new in ancient Middle East. Certainly the Greeks (especially the Spartan) introduced improved drill and formation fighting ability, but I imagined this should not be hard for other cultures to copy, since after all a lot of part-time citizen soldiers managed to more or less master the requisite skill. In terms of the technology of their equipment I don't think the Greeks were in any ways superior (in the sense that the technology to produce Greek armor and weapon were available to other Middle Eastern cultures of the time, certainly on average Greek hoplite were better equipped than foot soldiers of any other powers), and even if they are military equipment were even easier to transmit cross culturally than fighting style. Certainly we do not have to go over the argument that the Greeks have superior mental strength compared to the Asiatics; even Herodotus himself admitted that the Persians were just as brave and physically capable as the Greeks were. I imagined given the large numbers of Greek mercenary captains available, any local ruler could train a bunch of his peasants to make a suitable force of imitation hoplites. Phillip of Macedon certainly did so later. For the Persians, who heavily relied on citizen soldiers as the foundation of their military power at least during the early part of the empire, this would be greatly advantageous.

So what was I missing? I realized that the authentic Greek hoplites were middle class men unlike typical peasant infantry, and so might have some inherent morale and physical development advantage, but I'd argue so were the Persian sparabara. Unlike English longbowmen or Turkish horse archers, the requisite skill set needed for Greek hoplites warfare did not seem to be difficult replicate, or even unique for the region. Was it because hiring Greek mercenaries were just cheaper, given the poverty of Greece compared to other regions during Antiquity? Certainly I could understand that some rulers prefer reliable mercenaries to possibly rebellious indigenous soldiers. Or were there simply too great a cultural gap for hoplite warfare to be successfully implemented into other cultures? The evidence from later period did not suggest so, the Ptolemies machimoi were later highly effective, and indigenous recruits formed excellent European-style infantry in 19th century India.

Thanks
 
Mar 2013
1,566
Australia
#2
Well one of the features of war is propaganda. Maybe you need to give that more credence.

As for one warrior being better than another, although no great believer in what I would call the Spartan myth (i.e more myth than real) there is probably some substance to the idea of a professional army rather than one that went back to crafts, aristocracy or farming after the battle.
 

Mrbsct

Ad Honorem
Jul 2013
2,629
USA
#3
Hiring is often more efficient than copying, especially with the military structure of the Persians. The Persians were no proffesional systematic army. Troops were drawn all over the Empire from different satraps relying on the fighting style of their certain culture.

What makes a hoplite, a hoplite? Just having a Hoplon and a Dory? The spear is a Persian primary weapon, and one could argue the Persian shield is even more effective since it gives more coverage. One thing stands out for the Greeks. Its warrior culture and terrain. Persian soldiers did not have the unifying warrior culture shared by the Greeks nor the same uniform drills preformed by its spearmen. Also the terrain of Greece gives just a small band of Hoplites the capablity to hold a chokepoint.

I wouldn't necessary say failed. Hoplites would be phased out by Phalangites and Pealtasts due to both effectiveness,quanity and cost. The Chinese had shieldwall formations rather early in the feudal states. But when the crossbow came out, formations started to loosen up and become more light.
 
Jan 2014
46
Athens, Greece
#4
Greetings historians

I recently has started reading a lot about the Greco Persian Wars, and I've noticed that even before the Ionian Revolt and all the subsequent events usage Greek mercenaries were already prevalent throughout the Mediterranean, and as the years rolled on toward the conquest of Alexander these men seemed to have an almost complete monopoly on violence throughout the region. Practically any foreign monarch who sought success in fighting with or against the Persian empire would seek the assistance of hired Greek hoplites, whether in the form of pure mercenary bands or subsidized 'allied troops'. Strangely though, it did not seem that any other power managed to successfully copy the battle-winning hoplite model (the Persian did try with the Cardaces, without much success).

This baffled me, since in my observation there was nothing inherently special about the way the Greeks fought; armored heavy infantry wielding spear and shield was nothing new in ancient Middle East. Certainly the Greeks (especially the Spartan) introduced improved drill and formation fighting ability, but I imagined this should not be hard for other cultures to copy, since after all a lot of part-time citizen soldiers managed to more or less master the requisite skill. In terms of the technology of their equipment I don't think the Greeks were in any ways superior (in the sense that the technology to produce Greek armor and weapon were available to other Middle Eastern cultures of the time, certainly on average Greek hoplite were better equipped than foot soldiers of any other powers), and even if they are military equipment were even easier to transmit cross culturally than fighting style. Certainly we do not have to go over the argument that the Greeks have superior mental strength compared to the Asiatics; even Herodotus himself admitted that the Persians were just as brave and physically capable as the Greeks were. I imagined given the large numbers of Greek mercenary captains available, any local ruler could train a bunch of his peasants to make a suitable force of imitation hoplites. Phillip of Macedon certainly did so later. For the Persians, who heavily relied on citizen soldiers as the foundation of their military power at least during the early part of the empire, this would be greatly advantageous.

So what was I missing? I realized that the authentic Greek hoplites were middle class men unlike typical peasant infantry, and so might have some inherent morale and physical development advantage, but I'd argue so were the Persian sparabara. Unlike English longbowmen or Turkish horse archers, the requisite skill set needed for Greek hoplites warfare did not seem to be difficult replicate, or even unique for the region. Was it because hiring Greek mercenaries were just cheaper, given the poverty of Greece compared to other regions during Antiquity? Certainly I could understand that some rulers prefer reliable mercenaries to possibly rebellious indigenous soldiers. Or were there simply too great a cultural gap for hoplite warfare to be successfully implemented into other cultures? The evidence from later period did not suggest so, the Ptolemies machimoi were later highly effective, and indigenous recruits formed excellent European-style infantry in 19th century India.

Thanks
Here is an excerpt from Herodotus where the exile Spartan king Demaratus was speaking to Xerxes:
That’s how the Lacedaemonians are: they’re as good as anyone in the world when it comes to fighting one on one, but they’re the best when it comes to fighting in groups.
I suppose the difficulty with copying the Greek phalanx was that this type of fighting required a quite long training together, and the development of a team spirit for achieving synchronization of movements. Perhaps, such a military training, which had to take place far from home for several months, was not in the culture of other people of that time.
 

Nostromo

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,501
Queens
#5
I suppose the difficulty with copying the Greek phalanx was that this type of fighting required a quite long training together, and the development of a team spirit for achieving synchronization of movements. Perhaps, such a military training, which had to take place far from home for several months, was not in the culture of other people of that time.
Interesting thread!

I was under the impression that most hoplites (unlike Spartans and later Macedonians) did not spend much time on training, and were more concerned with farming. They couldn't afford to be away from their farms for too long. Maybe the fact the Persian army was more dependent on cavalry and archers and less on heavy infantry resulted in them not having quality spearmen.

But I too am curious as to why the hoplites were so hard to copy.
 
Last edited:
Nov 2013
99
Indonesia
#6
Hiring is often more efficient than copying, especially with the military structure of the Persians. The Persians were no proffesional systematic army. Troops were drawn all over the Empire from different satraps relying on the fighting style of their certain culture.

What makes a hoplite, a hoplite? Just having a Hoplon and a Dory? The spear is a Persian primary weapon, and one could argue the Persian shield is even more effective since it gives more coverage. One thing stands out for the Greeks. Its warrior culture and terrain. Persian soldiers did not have the unifying warrior culture shared by the Greeks nor the same uniform drills preformed by its spearmen. Also the terrain of Greece gives just a small band of Hoplites the capablity to hold a chokepoint.

I wouldn't necessary say failed. Hoplites would be phased out by Phalangites and Pealtasts due to both effectiveness,quanity and cost. The Chinese had shieldwall formations rather early in the feudal states. But when the crossbow came out, formations started to loosen up and become more light.
Well, the Persian actually did have a warrior culture quite similar to the Greeks, which was why I refer to the Achaemenid as relying on citizen soldiers during the early part of the dynasty. While it's true that the Persian army contained levies from all parts of the empire, the core of the army and its mailed fist during the early Achaemenid period was composed of ethnic Persian and Medes, and they did form something of a standing army, supported by land grants. These elite troops could be very effective indeed, at the battle of Marathon they broke through the thinner Athenian center.

The spear was indeed one of the Persian main weapon, but their emphasis on the bow was practically absolute, when you considered that in a Achaemenid baivarabam only the first rank carried a spear and a spara, and all the other nine ranks were archers.

What's curious was that the hoplite model of warfare actually remained effective until the very end of Achaemenid period, with the Persians themselves hiring large numbers of Greek mercenaries to form the solid core of their armies. Why they didn't train their native sparabara to fight in the same way instead baffles me.
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,587
#7
How many battles do we know of recorded other than Greek sources?

Basically what I mean is that Persian Empire was both rather large and lasted awhile and while Greeks both in Anatolia and Greece were a significant area of contest to Persian hegemony that area was more unique in that we have relatively significant written records.

Then Alexander's conquest seems to prove the point of Greek superiority in arms but I wouldn't be surprised if Alexander being born Persian wouldn't have used the Persian style of war to great effect though without a father like Philip and the hard won security and prosperity to afford building a near professional army for conquest probably not quite as spectacular.
 
Last edited:
Mar 2013
1,566
Australia
#8
Born Persian?

I assume you meant born under Persian control? (my Macedon history is a bit light so I'm not sure that even that is the case?).
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,365
#10
Greek hoplites were succesfull, for what, a couple of centuries at most.. The persians were there before and came back after Alexander's conquest (which was based more on combined arms and cavalry).... and stood up to the romans (which the greeks could not defeat)

I also suspect these troops were expensive to maintain, slow to move and required a confined battlefield (otherwise they could be outmanouevered by more agile units). Not good for a large empire....In fact after Alexander's death, it is the greeks who adapted to the persians style by incorporating all kinds of "exotic" troops (including elephants) in the successor kingdoms

So I am not sure that they were as desirable as greek propaganda would have it.
 

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