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Greek citizen armies: from the 7th century BC

The citizens of the Greek city states are free men - mainly small farmers, or merchants and artisans in the city. They have a strong collective impulse to protect their shared patch of territory, which is often not much more than a single valley among the hills. Each man, enlisting for military service, provides his own equipment.

The rich come on horses; they are few in number because Greece has relatively little grazing. The poorer citizens arrive with minimal equipment; they will be used as light infantry, in skirmishes before and after a battle. But the majority bring sturdy armour, including a heavy shield, the hoplon, from which these soldiers take their name. They are the hoplites.

The armour of the hoplite is a bronze helmet (the famous Greek helmet with a long narrow bridge down the nose), a corselet from shoulders to hips (usually in leather with bronze over the chest), bronze grieves (guarding the shins), a round shield (wood reinforced with iron), a long spear with a sharpened iron tip and a short double-edged iron sword.

Variants of this equipment can be found at this time in other armies. The hoplites are revolutionary not for their equipment but for the way they use it - massed together in the famous Greek phalanx (which has Mesopotamian origins).

The phalanx is a slow-moving but almost irresistible force, with a lethally sharp front edge. It consists of a solid block of men, usually eight ranks deep but often more. Each rank marches close behind the one in front. The first three ranks hold their spears horizontally, pointing them forward, so that three staggered spear points precede each man of the front rank. The men in the rear hold their spears upright in readiness.

Each hoplite is protected partly by the shield of the man to the right of him. It is in his interest to make sure that he keeps safely behind it, and this gives the phalanx its only vulnerable characteristic. The left of the line tends to fall back and curve away.

Greek tactics: 7th - 4th century BC

Greek battlefields are usually flat and open, chosen for the convenience of the hoplites. The engagement, invariably brief, begins when the phalanx trundles into action. Keeping close formation, the hoplites run slowly forward in their heavy armour, yelling a morale-boosting battle cry.

If the enemy's main force is cavalry (as with a Persian invasion), the phalanx is unlikely to be penetrated, since the horses will shy back from the wall of spears. But if the opposing force is another phalanx, running forward at the same speed, the clash is titanic, as the front lines meet and many fall - either wounded or simply overwhelmed by the weight of armour crashing in from both sides.

The first aim of every hoplite, as the opposing ranks meet, is to jab his spear point through the opposing shields to find any gap of flesh unprotected by an enemy's armour - such as neck or armpit. But if the opposing ranks break, the spear is abandoned for the hoplite's other weapon - the short two-sided sword, with which he will attempt to slash the unprotected top or back of an opponent's legs.

Once disaster has turned into flight, the weight of the hoplite's armour becomes a major disadvantage. Now the Greek light infantry, poor relations to the hoplite, come into their own, pursuing and spearing the defeated.

The phalanx undergoes a few tactical developments over the centuries. Its tendency to drift backwards on the left is brilliantly exploited in the 4th century by Epaminondas (see the tactics of Epaminondas). Preliminary assaults on the opposing phalanx by slingers and archers become standard practice. And Alexander the Great increases the weight of the phalanx by doubling its depth to 16 ranks and arming the hoplites with spears of 6 or 7 yards (6 metres) in length - enabling the first five ranks to use their spears in the initial charge.

But these are only modifications. The next real advance in European infantry tactics must wait for the Roman legions.

Meanwhile in the east...: from the 5th century BC

The might of Rome dominates much of Europe, west Asia and north Africa for four centuries or more. But even before the start of the Roman period China - in its isolation - has developed a military machine which no rival in the west could match.

The power of the kingdoms of China derives not only from the sheer size of the armies (it is said that two of the kingdoms in the 5th century BC are capable of mobilizing more than a million men), but also from weapons unknown in the west (the crossbow) and from organization in the field. The Terracotta army of Shi Huangdi gives a vivid image of a Chinese army in battle formation.

The Roman legions: from the 4th century BC

In the early years of Rome's history Roman soldiers form up for battle in a Greek phalanx, but by the 4th century a distinctive tactic is beginning to emerge in the deployment of the Roman legion.

The essence of the change is the division of the army into companies of 120 men, known as maniples. Each maniple is formed up on the battle ground as a block 12 abreast and 10 deep. Instead of the serried ranks of the Greek phalanx, the soldiers stand about 5 feet apart within each maniple; and the maniples are deployed on the field like three rows of squares on a chessboard (each black square a block of men, each white square open space).

In the first shock of battle each maniple knows that there is a space behind into which it can fall back. By the same token a maniple of the second or third rank has space in front, where it can move to give support. And enemy forces may be enticed into a space between maniples, where they can be attacked from both sides. This is very different from the rigid once-for-all clash of two solid phalanxes.

In keeping with this more open role, the weapons of the Roman foot soldier are gradually modified.

Arms of the Roman legionary: from the 4th century BC

In a Roman army the long heavy spear of the Greek hoplite is replaced by a javelin. The Roman foot soldier flings this as soon as he is in close contact with the enemy. He then gets to work with his short thrusting sword, the most characteristic weapon of the Roman legionary.

The Roman helmet is simpler than the Greek version, with more of the face exposed. And the Roman shield is rectangular, with a slight curve so that it hugs the body. Held edge to edge above the head, these shields can form a roof to protect soldiers carrying out a siege - the famous Roman testudo or 'tortoise'.

The foot soldiers in their maniples form the centre of any Roman line of attack. Cavalry and light infantry give support on the wings, particularly in the later centuries. It is a military system which proves well suited to conquer and control most of Europe, north Africa and much of the Middle East. The legions, and the great network of Roman roads which they build and march upon, are the backbone of the empire.

But by the 4th century AD there is a military threat of a kind unfamiliar to the legions - heavy cavalry, which Rome's horses and horsemen are at first ill-equipped to confront.

Heavy cavalry: 3rd century BC - 4th century AD

The cavalry, deriving as a military force from the nimble tactics of mounted nomads, have traditionally depended on speed. A quick assault against clumsy infantry can be followed by an equally rapid escape. Armour for the horseman's body is neither necessary nor possible, given the size of early horses. But a heavily armoured cavalry would have clear and different advantages. It would be like a much more powerful version of the infantry, while retaining the mobility of mounted troops.

Such a desirable addition to an army requires strong horses. In Persia, a developed region exposed to nomad raiders from the north, such animals are deliberately bred from about 300 BC.

The new breeds of horse spread gradually westwards, north of the Black Sea, into the Ukraine and eastern Europe. They are used by the Goths, and are possibly a factor in the crushing defeat of a Roman army by the Visigoths at Adrianople in AD 378. The Romans subsequently rely heavily on Gothic mercenaries for their own armies, so the heavy cavalry becomes increasingly a central element in any successful force.

By now a saddle on a wooden frame, raised in front and behind to form a secure seat for the rider, has replaced the earlier saddle cloth - probably from about the 1st century AD. But one element is still needed to give the heavy cavalryman his full potential. This is the stirrup.

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