The best strategy is to win
Tue Jun 16 22:17:57 2009
As the right side of each hoplite is covered by the shield of the man on his right, hoplites tend to move as close to that man as possible for the best protection. As Thucydides points out, with thousands of hoplites each seeking maximum protection their lines invariably shift to the right. The Battle of Mantinea began, in typical hoplite fashion, with the facing lines each moving to the right and eventually extending beyond the opponents left flank.
The Spartan commander Agis, ordered the Sciritae on his left to break off and cover the Spartan left flank. Aristocles and Hipponioidas would then move over and fill the gap. This level and complexity of manoeuvre had never before been attempted. Aristocles and Hipponioidas were unable, possibly intentionally, to execute the shift. Many believe that this a brilliant strategy that would have succeeded. I tend to agree with Donald Kagan that such a move was dangerous at best, and likely catastrophic for a hoplite army of the period and that Aristocles and Hipponioidas may well have saved the day for the Spartans.
There are many examples before the Battle of Mantinea where encirclements have lost and forces that are flanked or have gaps have won. Perhaps the best thing in early ancient warfare is not to have the best plan but to be big, brutal and probably most important, don’t have an accident. The Spartans throughout their history rarely seem to win through finely executed battlefield tactics but rather through rigorous training, determination and strong unit cohesion.
I don’t think we can project backward our obsession with carefully formulated plans and precision command control. I don’t think ancient battles were won by finesse, even if historians give them credit for brilliant stratagems. The only real brilliant stratagem is winning. If you win, whatever you did is genius. If you lose, your brilliant plan is forgotten. What we are left with is survivorship bias.
Thucydides describes the rather elaborate command control structure and we have to keep in mind that the mechanisms for communication are drums, flutes and yelling, not radio or sat phone. It is easy for messages to be confused, misunderstood or late. When it comes right down to it, in a hoplite battle moving straight ahead is probably always the best strategy. It helps to preserve unit cohesion (the way to win) and prevent accidents (the way to lose).
This kind of simplicity has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you don’t have to be very good to be effective. Small states can build a comparatively large citizen militia and still preserve significant manpower for other economic ends.
The disadvantage, as we see when the Greeks come up against Philip of Macedon, is that it is no match against full time professionals supported by an economy almost entirely oriented toward warfare.