Oblique attack at Leuctra

Tue Jul 14 11:09:43 2009
I am not convinced that an oblique formation really works in hoplite warfare. In a hoplite battle you are only coming in contact with spears from the first two or maybe three rows. So there is no increase in “firepower.”

I can see how more rows could help out in the case of casualties or broken lines. But four or five more rows should be good enough to cover most problems. That leaves us with the standard eight row hoplite formation. I don’t see how adding additional rows of men (up to fifty!?) can increase the strength or concentrate the force–they are not using guns or other projective weapons–we still have only about three rows of spear points brought to bear on the enemy.

Is it psychological? Was it just coincidence? What’s the real advantage?

Plutarch suggests that the battle was won not through the brilliant oblique attack of Epaminondas but through the failed attempt to envelop the Theban left flank. This late maneuver left the Spartans disorganized and out of battle order at the time the Thebans reached them.

They were opening up their right wing and making an encircling movement, in order to surround Epaminondas and envelop him with their numbers. But at this point Pelopidas darted forth from his position, and with his band of three hundred on the run, came up26 before Cleombrotus had either extended his wing or brought it back again into its old position and closed up his line of battle, so that the Lacedaemonians were not standing in array, but moving confusedly about among each other when his onset reached them.

Plutarch, Pelopidas 23

I think we come to so many of our conclusions about great tactics by looking at winners and asking what did they do? Less often we look at loser and ask what they did, sometimes it is the same. I wonder if we would come to any conclusions if we made a great chart of all winners and losers and their tactics. I suspect the conclusion we would come to is that there are too many other factors involved and simple tactics have little statistically significant effect. (But then, I haven’t made the chart yet).

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~ by severalfourmany on July 14, 2009.

6 Responses to “Oblique attack at Leuctra”

  1. Weight maybe? But it could have been psychological.

  2. I would have to agree. Greater mass, and the bonus view of fifty lines of spears…

  3. But how is greater mass going to defeat your opponent? If everyone is pushing forward isn’t it just as likely to crush your front ranks as it is to do anything to the enemy?

  4. From Xenophon VI.iv: “…with the rest, under pressure of the mass against them, began retreating; and the left wing of the Lacedaemonians, seeing the right borne down in this way, also swerved.”

    Hard to picture though. You have a point, that it doesn’t seem that shoving would really be such a good idea. Many have tried to explain just what happened during a hoplite battle; I don’t think that we really know.

  5. I think my “rugby with spears” metaphor holds. As the more powerful/massive force pushed through, the folks in the rear would kill those underfoot with the lizard killers. If you were on the losing end, you either died standing, or tripped over the person behind you and got stuck soon after, or screamed for the guys behind you to cut you some slack and turn an run.

  6. It sounds plausible. Most vase painting depicts something that appears to have much more space and movement, but that could just be an artistic convention.

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