The Battle of Marathon
Mon May 25 11:56:16 2009
Herodotus (6.112) describes the rapid advance of the Athenians across eight stadoi (about a mile) to meet the Perisans at the Battle of Marathon. There has been an almost constant debate about this description. Did the Athenians run to meet the Persians? Did they run in formation? Could they hold their formation over eight stadoi at that pace? In parallel rows, on rocky ground, carrying a 9 foot doru?
I have no doubt that they were up to the challenge physically. Any society that used hemerodromoi (“all day runners”) is probably up to the athletic demands. I just don’t see how citizen hoplites with minimal training can hold formation in rows several hundred feet long for almost a mile at a run. The interval between ranks is not really the problem. I think the issue is the distance between men in the ranks. To work well, a hoplite formation needs to interlock shields which means less than two and half or three feet per man.
You cannot widen the formation across several thousand-foot ranks. You would end up with unfillable gaps everywhere. You could split each rank into two for the run and reform before contact. But that seems complex and dangerous if the timing is off or something goes wrong. I cannot in any way imagine running in formation with shields locked.
To get some idea of the complications we can look at Asclepiodotus book Tactics. This was probably written in the first century BCE and describes the phalanx tactics for well-trained, heavily-drilled, full-time professional soldiers, not the part-time citizen hoplites of four centuries earlier.
He describes three systems of intervals: 1) Open order–where the distance from right shoulder to right shoulder is 4 cubits (6 feet)–is probably used for marching and maneuver. 2) Compact formation–where the distance from right shoulder to right shoulder is 2 cubits (3 feet)–is used “when we are marching the phalanx upon the enemy.” 3) Locked Shields–where the distance from right shoulder to right shoulder is 1 cubits (18 inches)–is used “when the enemy is marching on us.” (Asclepiodotus, Tactics, IV.3)
The transition from a looser formation to a tighter formation occurs through moving the second rank forward. So four ranks of open order formation could form into two ranks of compact formation and then one rank of locked shield formation. To move into compact formation “the spears must be elevated, so as not to interfere in the turnings.” (Asclepiodotus, Tactics, XII.9)
Running might be possible in open order formation, but that is not a great fighting arrangement. Locked shields is a stationary and defensive formation. Compact formation is used for advancing but seems to me too tight for running, especially with spears forward. Changing from open to compact formation in front of enemy line seems like a recipe for confusion and disaster. I think the closest we can realistically come to running would be something like a double time march in compact formation.
What surprised me when I looked at the Greek is that nowhere does Herodotus use the verb “run.” Dρόμῳ, the word in question is a noun. The verbs are about going forward (to battle) and what the Persians see.
Herodotus uses the Greek word δρόμῳ three times in in two sentences at the beginning of his description of the battle of Marathon. Dρόμῳ is a dative noun. The noun can mean race, contest or course. Used with motion verbs it usually means the action is carried out “at a run” or very rapidly. This is the first thing that comes to mind reading the two sentences. However, as this idea of running in formation has been so problematic for so long, isn’t it possible that other interpretations might be preferred?
Interpreted as race, it may not necessarily mean running, but acting quickly and rapidly. Interpreted as contest, it could suggest their antagonism and opposition. Interpreted as course, it is sometimes used idiomatically to show focus, direction and determination. Greek hoplites are known for their determination and focus, but not necessarily for rigorous training or their ability to accomplish complex maneuvers in the field. These other interpretations seem more likely than running more than eight stadioi in formation with full panoply, but I will have to defer to those with greater facility with the language.