Poetry and war are joined in this; both are fame businesses. The same epithets are attached to these fame-seeking heroes across the whole enormous continent: he was "man-slaying" in Ireland and Iran, and "of the famous spear" in Greece and India. He stood as firm and immovable in battle as a mighty tree in Homer, Russian and Welsh. Like the Greeks, Irish heroes raged like a fire. In Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Vedic and Irish, that rage could emerge as a flame flaring from the hero’s head. Proto-Indo-Europeans saw the great man as a torch. Across the whole of Eurasia his weapons longed for blood, even while this blood-seeking vengeance wreaker was to his own family and clan, wherever they might be, the "herdsman of his people" and their protective enclosure. There were no city walls in this world; the hero himself was their protection and their strength.
From one end of Eurasia to another, men stand like trees, but enemies are also felled like trees, in the way a carpenter or woodsmen would fell them. When death arrives, a darkness comes on the hero. Life itself for the Proto-Indo-European consciousness is inseparable from light, especially the light of the sun, and that is the energy the heroes share with the universe. For all of them, courage is not something that appears casually in everyday life. Only when battle summons them, and when the noise of battle reaches up to heaven, as it does in all these daughter traditions, does courage appear and the hero find himself "clothed in valor."
Posts Tagged ‘Greek’
[Bronze Age] weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight in the pommel counteracting the weight in the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death terror. A sword is only useful if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight. Some of the most beautiful decorated swords are found scarcely used, ceremonial objects to be carried in glory. But most of the rest show the marks of battle; the edges hacked and notched where another sword clashed onto them, worn where those edges were resharpened for the next time.
Early inhabitants of Crete may have believed that the kingdom of snakes enjoyed a special affinity with the gods; they seem to have known, for instance, that snakes, when called upon by the gods, carried out demands. Snakes came to people with messages; they stood as portents, executed miscreants, or indicated actions to be taken or avoided. In due time, gods were known to take the form of snakes in order to inflict good or evil upon mortals, and mortals were careful in dealing with snakes.
Agamemnon’s kingdom was typical of its times; it was less a state than an estate, that is, it was essentially a big household. The royal palace had grand staterooms but most of its space was devoted to workshops, storerooms, and armories. It was a manor that produced luxury goods for the wanax [an ancient word for king used by Homer] to trade or give as gifts. Raw materials for the workshops were siphoned off the king’s subjects as taxation.
More important, from the military point of view, the palace produced bronze breastplates and arrowheads, manufactured and maintained chariots, and stabled horses. The wanax controlled a corps of charioteers and bowmen and possibly one of infantrymen, too. In any case, as powerful as he was, the wanax probably had no monopoly on the kingdom’s military force.
The royal writ was strongest on the king’s landholdings, concentrated around the palace. The rest of the territory was run by local big men or basileis, each no doubt with his own armed followers. The wanax could muster an army and navy out of his own men, but for a really big campaign he would need the support of the basileis. In short, the wanax was only as strong as his ability to dominate the basileis, be it by persuasion or force.
Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.
The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.
Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.
…The wine of ancient Greece did not taste anything like the wine we know today. It was thick like syrup, and was often heavily flavored with honey, thyme, aloes, and juniper berries. Most people today would find it awful. Even then they had to water it down to avoid toxic intoxication….
For the ancient Greeks, psyche was not a thing but a process, a dynamic continuum and relationship among humans, gods, and nature. The Greek notion of psyche was one of radiating but personalized fields that cross-fertilized all structures of reality, making archetypes available to men, and making intimate the universal patterns found in nature and story alike. As Charles Hampden-Turner observes about the Greeks in his splendid book Maps of the Mind:
They walked with Truth [Apollo] and Beauty [Aphrodite] at their sides. They raced with daemons of excellence, the spirits of past athletes running beside them, urging them on. They travelled with Hermes, danced and drank with Dionysius, and sailed the seas under the guardianship of Poseidon. They fought for the rights of married women, children and the home with the tenacity of Hera and harvested the crops with Demeter beside them… The concept of psyche gave the Greeks their infinite love and delight in nature and an extraordinary courage in exploring it. Into every nook and cranny of the world the spirits of gods or heroes had already ventured. Men crossed the seas in the path of Odysseus, entered labyrinths of mind or nature wherein Theseus had already slain the Minotaur…
By perceiving psyche as a resonance phenomenon, a radiant field of living energies that include gods and cosmic principles, the building blocks of mind, myth, and nature, the human being has the capacity within his or her mind and body to become an instrument through which the world can be re-created and the soul of humankind can touch the creative Source of all becoming.
How different indeed was the psychological world of these Greeks from our own. We in the present day persist in looking for cause and effect and remain monotheistic (having one god or supreme principle), monophrenic (having one personality), and monocular (having one way of seeing) in our epistemology. We tend to think that everything can be known in a straightforward, linear fashion. All we need do is accumulate enough facts and look at them rationally and the truth—of which there is only one—will reveal itself….
But the Homerically-inspired Greek mind, which found its finest flowering in the Athens of Pericles, was polycentric (having many centers), polytheistic (having many gods), polyphrenic (having many selves), and polyocular (having many ways of seeing), conceiving of many different causes—all of which provided a rich weave of explanation. They viewed reality as a field of unity in diversity with the One, deriving its Oneness only from the interconnecting patterns of the many.
Philip [of Macedon], Alexander [the Great]'s father, said that it is better to have an army of deer commanded by a lion than an army of lions commanded by a deer; Alexander himself told his men that their greatest advantage was that their leader was Alexander. Alexander lived and practiced what modern (Western) military theorists teach to their pupils as the principles of war. The principles were developed out of an analysis of Napoleon's campaigns and today are supposed to guide military officers in the practice of their profession and to guide historians in their analysis of campaigns and leadership. The principles are (in order of importance): the objective, the offensive, surprise, mass and economy of force, security, unity of command, maneuver, and simplicity.
The number and order of the principles varies across countries and cultures. For a sample, see the Wikipedia entry for the Principles of War.
Victory in ancient battle did not go to the ‘big battalions’, as the processes of combat were very different to the mutually devastating firepower duels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [C.E.]. Fatalities from missile fire or mêlée seem to have been remarkably light until one force turned tail and exposed itself to one-sided slaughter. When victorious armies did suffer significant losses, these were usually concentrated in parts of their force that had given way before the eventual triumph. Hence, raw numbers were much less important than fighting spirit and a fearsome reputation, as good troops could stand firm even against great odds and could sometimes panic less-resolute adversaries into flight even before physical combat was joined. By far the most important variable in the model is troop quality, to reflect this psychological factor and also to show how good troops like Spartan hoplites and Roman legionaries could use their superiority in drill and discipline to achieve tactical advantage.
…Although combat did not involve heavy mutual fatalities, it does seem to have revolved around shorter-term attritional mechanisms such as wounds, exhaustion, psychological strain and ammunition depletion, so the distinction between fresh troops and those who have become ‘spent’ becomes a key means of tracking the progressive loss of resilience.
Neither Persians, Greeks, nor Chinese [circa 500 B.C.E.] achieved any marked improvement over the engineering techniques which had been employed by the Assyrians. Fortifications had, in fact, progressed about as far as available means would permit; the art of siegecraft had failed to keep pace. Save for a few exceptional instances of surprise, ruse, or betrayal, walled cities or fortresses were impervious to everything but starvation.
Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.
A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the [Kabbalah], is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.
There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century [C.E.] the alchemist [Zosimos] wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art—gold—comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century [C.E.], a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.
If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.
There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.
Sieges—whether Sparta’s successful attack on Plataea or Athens’ ruination of Melos—were often not explicable in a traditional strategic calculus of cost versus benefits. After all, what did the possession of Plataea do for the Spartan cause? How was Athens made more secure, wealthier, or stronger by taking Melos? The rent from the farms of the Athenian colonists who settled in the surrounding countryside after the city fell could hardly have paid the cost of the long siege. Nor would the sale of captives into slavery recover the expenses of the besiegers. Instead, the efforts to storm recalcitrant cities seemed to confer enormous psychological implications on the reputation and competence of the two powers. Letting Plataea defiantly stand apart from Thebes or Mytilene boast of its independence was seen as a contagion that could weaken the entire system of alliances that had grown up after the Persian Wars.
Before Thales [of Miletus], those seeking answers as to how or why things occurred in the universe invariably referred to the gods. Divine interventions caused earthquakes, changed the seasons, played with the lives and health of puny mortals, and so on ad infinitum. People had only a hazy idea of the shape of the earth and the surrounding cosmos. Many believed the earth was flat and round, floating boatlike on an all-encircling ocean. They then added to the disk of earth sitting in its ocean-saucer some form of pillars or supports (the Egyptians placed them at the cardinal points and anthropomorphized them as the arms and legs of the sky goddess Nut), holding up the dome of the heavenly firmament which sun, moon, and stars traversed in a regular manner. Outside this cosmic eggshell some placed water, which could descend from above in the form of rain and snow or well up from below in springs, lakes, and wells. But what was all this actually composed of? What was the fundamental matter? Before Thales, and for many after him, the answer to this question was invariably divinity. Call it soul, spirit, or god, the fundamental matter was divine, untouchable, metaphysical.
Thales, however, preferred water. Water is, after all, fundamental: It can be solid, liquid, or gaseous, and without it there can be no life. Right up until the nineteenth century [C.E.] scholars believed that life could generate itself spontaneously in water. As the early metallurgists had discovered, even metals could be reduced to liquids with sufficient heat. And with the seasonal inundations of the great rivers of the ancient world—the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates—water created earth in revitalizing silt deposits and islands in the deltas of these great rivers.
But this is where Thales made his great leap. He asserted that earthquakes were the result of waves, disturbances in the water on which the earth floated, and not the acts of irate gods. This was one of the greatest revolutionary ideas of all time.
Of course today we know that earthquakes are not caused by ripples on a cosmic ocean, but it is Thales’ idea, not his conclusion, that matters. In attributing a natural phenomenon to mechanics and not gods, he took the universe out of the hands of divinities and claimed, extraordinarily, that everything was understandable, knowable. The furious sea god Poseidon was no longer shaking the planet as he strode across it. Something physical was making the world shake. This idea alone marks the beginnings of science.
Hoplite technology was craftsmanship at its highest. The three-foot in diameter shield, sometimes known as either the aspis or hoplon, covered half the body. A unique combined arm- and hand-grip allowed its oppressive weight to be held by the left arm alone. Draw straps along the inside of the shield’s perimeter meant that it could be retained even should the hand be knocked from the primary grip, a common mishap given the shield weight and the constant blows of massed combat. The shield’s strange concave shape permitted the rear ranks to rest it on their shoulders. Anyone who has tried to hold up fifteen to twenty pounds with a single arm, even without the weight of other armor amid the rigor of battle, can attest to the exhaustion that sets in after only twenty minutes. Yet the hoplite shield was an engineering marvel: the round shape allowed it to be rotated in almost any direction even as the sloped surface provided more wood protection from the angled trajectory of incoming spear points.
‘Warrior’ and ‘hero’ are synonyms, and the main theme of a warrior culture is constructed on two notes—prowess and honour. The one is the hero’s essential attribute, the other his essential aim. Every value, every judgement, every action, all skills and talents have the function of either defining honour or realizing it. Life itself may not stand in the way. The Homeric heroes loved life fiercely, as they did and felt everything with passion, and no less martyr-like characters could be imagined; but even life must surrender to honour. The two central figures of the Iliad, Achilles and Hector, were both fated to live short lives, and both knew it. They were heroes not because at the call of duty they marched proudly to their deaths, singing hymns to God and country—on the contrary, they railed openly against their doom, and Achilles, at least, did not complain less after he reached Hades—but because at the call of honour they obeyed the code of the hero without flinching and without questioning.
The Bronze Age generally thought of war as a divine drama of law enforcement: war punished criminals who had offended the gods. The Hittites gave this conception a twist and imagined war as a lawsuit before the gods, who would favor one of the plaintiffs with victory. To the Greeks, Paris [of Troy] had twice violated the gods’ laws, first by committing adultery and second by abusing his host’s generosity. Menelaus’s fellow rulers had a clear responsibility to avenge the gods by going to war against Troy unless Helen and the treasures were returned. Anything less would expose themselves to divine punishment.
In the two great battles of the Peloponnesian War, at Delium and Mantinea, one sees the very beginning of the Greek infantry tactics of deep columns, reserves, integrated cavalry units, adaptation to terrain, and secondary maneuvers, which would only accelerate in the fourth century [B.C.E.] under Epaminondas and come to fruition with Philip and Alexander. Hoplite battle in the Peloponnesian War began a slow transformation, from phalanxes rather artificially deciding wars to hoplites becoming part of an integrated force of horsemen, light-armed troops, and missile troops that could win theaters of conflict on the basis of military efficacy rather than traditional protocol.
Ancient peoples were deeply religious. In the Bronze Age, for example, Hittite and Egyptian accounts regularly give the gods a role in military campaigns. No Hittite scribe would think of recording a victory without thanking the gods for having marched in front of the army and thereby having granted the king success. No ambassador would swear to abide by a treaty unless an assembly of the various gods had witnessed it. In his poem about the battle of Qadesh (1274 [B.C.E.]), Pharaoh Rameses II declares that the god Amun spoke to him and sent him forward.
Even in the rationalistic heyday of classical Greece—and later—gods and heroes were commonly seen in the heat of battle. Sometimes their mere presence provided encouragement to the soldiers. At other times, divinities gave specific military advice. And sometimes they even fought! At the decisive battles of Marathon (490 [B.C.E.]), Salamis (480 [B.C.E.]), Aegospotami (405 [B.C.E.]), and Leuctra (371 [B.C.E.]), for example, contemporaries thought the gods and heroes took part.
…As a group [the Greek hero-kings of the Iliad] represent the Bronze Age art of war. Their hands were battle-wise with blood and calloused from stealing cattle. They could trample the enemy like a carpet under their feet or calm the heart of a nervous army under attack. They knew horses like a stable hand and ships like a boatswain, but most of all they knew men and how to lead them. They could be as smooth as the ghee-and-honey paste with which Assyrians cemented rows of mud brick or as rough as the gnarled limbs of an old olive tree. They knew which soldiers to reward with silver rings and which to punish with prison or mutilation. They could inspire the men to follow on foot while they rode in their chariots and to compete for the honor of fighting bravely in their presence.
They could break an enemy’s lance or deceive him with words. They knew how much flour it took to feed an army and how much wood was needed to burn a corpse. They knew how to pitch camp or launch a fleet, how to debrief a spy or send out an informer. They could draw a bow and split a copper ingot like a reed or hurl a spear and pierce the seam in an enemy’s armor. They shrugged off mud and snow, towering waves or buckets of rain. They could appraise lapis lazuli with a jeweler’s eye or break a merchant’s neck with a hangman’s hands. They could court a milkmaid or rape a princess. They relished ambushes after dark and noontime charges. They feared the gods and liked the smell of death.
A very vivid description of a hands-on leader in a brutal era.
To rule, after all, is to have power, whether over things, over men (by other men or some god), or over men and gods together (by Zeus). But the bardic formulas sometimes add a little touch that is extremely revealing. In five instances anassein is qualified with the adverb iphi, ‘by might’, so that king’s rule (but never the householder’s) becomes rule by might. This must under no circumstances be taken to imply tyranny, forcible rule in the invidious sense. When Hector prayed for his son to ‘rule by might in Ilion’ ([The Iliad, Book] VI 478), he was asking the gods that the boy succeed to the throne, not that he be endowed with the qualities of a despot….
Iphi quietly directs attention to the limits upon the parallel between head of a household and king. One critical test lay in the succession. The kings, like Hector, were personally interested in pushing the family parallel to the point at which their sons could automatically follow them on the throne as they succeeded them in the oikos. ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ That proclamation is the final triumph of the dynastic principle in monarchy. But never in the world of Odysseus was it pronounced by the herald. Kingship had not come that far, and the other aristocrats often succeeded in forcing a substitute announcement: ‘The king is dead! The struggle for the throne is open!’ That is how the entire Ithacan theme of the Odyssey can be summed up. ‘Rule by might’, in other words, meant that a weak king was not a king, that a king either had the might to rule or he did not rule at all.
The Greeks…are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; the Hebrews, on the contrary, on God’s. Never would we have heard from a Greek such words as those of the sorely beaten “blameless and upright” Job, addressed to the god who had “destroyed him without cause” and who then came at him in the whirlwind, boasting of his power.
“Behold,” pleaded Job, “I am of small account…I know that thou canst do all things…. I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Repent! Repent for what?
In contrast, the great contemporary Greek playwright Aeschylus, of about the same fifth-century [B.C.E.] date as the anonymous author of the Book of Job, puts into the mouth of his Prometheus—who was also being tormented by a god that could “draw Leviathan out with a fishhook, play with him as with a bird, and fill his skin with harpoons”—the following stunning words: “He is a monster…. I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes.”
The few demigods, such as Aineias, who receive miraculous rescue [in the Iliad] are saved only by the direct intervention of a patron divinity, not by any special ingredient of their own semidivine nature. The flesh of the demigods is wholly vulnerable, the blood is the blood of mortals, the pain of injury that of ordinary mortal men, as is the inevitability of death. Nothing the men have inherited from their divine parents is itself protective; what saves them is the physical removal from the danger of the battlefield. The vividly evoked vulnerability of demigods such as Aineias will also have bearing upon the nature, and limitations, of the epic’s most outstanding demigod—Achilles.
The Olympians of the Iliad know everything about the mortals they look down upon; Zeus himself is eurúopa, “far-seeing,” a direct legacy of his origins as the all-seeing God of the Bright Sky, to whose celestial vantage the events on earth are laid bare. Rarely indolent, usually zestful and opinionated, the extended family of Zeus aggressively engages with the mortal world. In disguise, the Olympians move, speak, and act freely among men, partaking of the human experience. There is nothing about the men and women at Troy that the gods do not know, even to foreknowledge of their individual fates.
By contrast, despite the busy flow of divine activity that drums through their lives, the Homeric heroes and heroines know very little about their gods. Few could claim to know what a god looks like, as most encounters take place with the deity in disguise. There are exceptions: Helen famously recognizes Aphrodite, despite her masquerade as an old servant woman, by the “round, sweet throat of the goddess / and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining.” Likewise, Poseidon’s disguise as the seer Kalchas is betrayed by his footprints: “‘this is not Kalchas, the bird interpreter of the gods,'” Aias the son of Oïleus says to Telamonian Aias, “‘for I knew / easily as he went away the form of his feet, the legs’ form / from behind him. Gods, though gods, are conspicuous.'”
By and large, however, the men at Troy fight in a kind of fog of existential ignorance, never knowing where or who the gods are or what divine activities and plans already under way may affect their own actions. Nor do they know what they must do for their supplications and prayers to be received. A very few incidents appear to suggest that Zeus, at least, punishes the wicked, which, if true, would furnish some minimal guidance for gaining his favor and avoiding his wrath. Menelaos, for example, rants at the Trojans for taking Helen away: “‘wretched dogs, and your hearts knew no fear / at all of the hard anger of Zeus loud-thundering, / the guest’s god, who some day will utterly sack your steep city.'” On closer look, however, in this and other such cases, it is clear that punishment is to be meted out by Zeus only in his capacity as patron of a specific institution: he is Zeus Orkios, “Zeus who upholds oaths,” or Zeus Xenia, the god of guest friendship. Zeus’ loyalty, then, is in fact to himself in his particular cultic aspects, not to a principle of overarching justice.
The cult of the hero was a unique feature of Greek religion. The mortal hero was the chthonian counterpart of the immortal gods. By the end of the eighth century [B.C.E.], the grave of an outstanding warrior would occupy a place of honor in most of the poleis. A constant reminder of the superior race of mortals who had lived in the heroic age, the hero was revered as a demigod. Now that he was dead, he lived a shadowy life in the depths of the earth, but his spirit was still an active presence in the community; the qualities that had made him so exceptional lived on. But his death had filled the hero with rage, and an unpredictable, disturbing aura emanated from his grave, which people passed in reverent silence. Unlike the gods, who lived on the heights of Mount Olympus, the mortal hero was close at hand. The rites at his tomb were designed to appease his anger and enlist his help. Worshipers visited his shrine without garlands, unkempt, with hair unbound, yet each polis was proud of its hero, who symbolized its special qualities. His grave was often placed next to the temple of the patronal deity, as its dark, chthonian complement.
The Macedonian cavalry [of the fourth century B.C.E.] was not markedly different from the Greek cavalry. In particular, the Thessalians were comparable in individual and unit capability. The employment of the Macedonian cavalry was what made it superior to anything seen prior, or for a millennium afterward. Boldness, vision, and exquisite timing, derived from the inspired and personal leadership of Alexander, were the characteristics of Macedonian cavalry success. Several battles illustrate the distinctive employment of Macedonian cavalry: Philip II‘s decisive victory at Chaeronea, and Alexander III’s string of victories at Granikos, Issus, and Gaugamela. These battles became the model for the employment of cavalry that other armies tried to emulate into the twentieth century [C.E.]
Alexander [the Great] was a military genius. No other ancient commander was so quick to understand and defeat his enemies’ plans, so quick to analyze a problem and grasp the solution—and, not coincidentally, no other ancient commander was as well educated as Alexander, by the greatest soldier and diplomat of his age, [King] Philip [of Macedon], and by the greatest philosopher, humanist, and scientist of any age, Aristotle. In every aspect of warfare Alexander outthought and outfought his enemies. He enunciated his military objective in the simplest and most forceful terms: he would meet Darius on the battlefield, fight him, and kill him. He forced Darius to react to him, and although Darius and the Persians chose where to fight, Alexander seized the initiative by doing the unexpected—by attacking in the evening instead of the morning at the Granicus or by maneuvering off the prepared battlefield at Gaugamela. He brought together a large enough force to defeat the Persians but kept it small enough to be supplied and to be mobile. As bold as he was in the attack, just so cautious was he in securing his troops against attack. He was the complete commander.
Each member of the Greek phalanx brought his own weapons and armor, an expensive and weighty proposition made largely of rust-free and easy-to-cast bronze—a quarter-inch-thick breastplate and helmet (thirty and twenty pounds respectively), greaves to protect the lower leg (three pounds apiece), a round wooden shield three feet in diameter (twenty pounds), an eight-foot thrusting spear, and a short secondary sword—a total of about seventy-five pounds, far more burdensome than the Sumerian equivalent. This was heavy infantry with a vengeance, so heavy that the most common cause of death in battle was getting knocked down and trampled. The very weight and imperviousness of this armor conditioned the whole nature of Greek phalanx warfare, slowing it down to a crawl and insuring that victory would come not through tricky maneuvers but sheer stubborn pushing.
The Iliad is not just a glorious poem—it is a textbook, and was taken as such throughout the history of the ancient world. How should you defend a gate? Like Telamonian Ajax. How should you follow up an attack? Like Hector, “flame-like,” when he drove the Danaans back on their ships. How should you handle your most powerful weapon? Not, presumably, as Agamemnon handled Achilles.
It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others. And because the heroes were warriors, competition was fiercest where the highest honour was to be won, in individual combat on the field of battle. There a hero’s ultimate worth, the meaning of his life, received its final test in three parts: whom he fought, how he fought, and how he fared…. The Iliad in particular is saturated in blood, a fact which cannot be hidden or argued away, twist the evidence as one may in a vain attempt to fit archaic Greek values to a more gentle code of ethics. The poet and his audience lingered lovingly over every act of slaughter: “Hippolochus darted away, and him too [Agamemnon] smote to the ground; slicing off his hands with the sword and cutting off his neck, he sent him rolling like a round log through the battle-throng.”
…But what must be stressed about Homeric cruelty is its heroic quality, not its specifically Greek character. In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy. While a battle is raging only the poet can observe Agamemnon’s feat of converting Hippolochus into a rolling log. The other heroes are too busy pursuing glory for themselves. But a trophy is lasting evidence, to be displayed at all appropriate occasions. Among more primitive peoples the victim’s head served that honorific purpose; in Homer’s Greece armour replaced heads. That is why time after time, even at great personal peril, the heroes paused from their fighting in order to strip a slain opponent of his armour. In terms of the battle itself such a procedure was worse than absurd, it might jeopardize the whole expedition. It is a mistake in our judgement, however, to see the end of the battle as the goal, for victory without honour was unacceptable; there could be no honour without public proclamation, and there could be no publicity without the evidence of a trophy.
Greece was coming back to life, but the people remained in a spiritual limbo. A few elements of the old Minoan and Mycenaean cults remained: there was, for example, a sacred olive tree on the Acropolis. But the thirteenth-century [B.C.E.] crisis had shattered the old faith. The Greeks had watched their world collapse, and the trauma had changed them. The Minoan frescoes had been confident and luminous; the men, women, and animals depicted had been expectant and hopeful. There were apparitions of goddesses in flowery meadows, dancing, and joy. But by the ninth century [B.C.E.], Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its gods dangerous, cruel, and arbitrary. In time, the Greeks would achieve a civilization of dazzling brilliance, but they never lost their sense of tragedy, and this would be one of their most important religious contributions to the Axial Age. Their rituals and myths would always hint at the unspeakable and the forbidden, at horrible events happening offstage, just out of sight, and usually at night. They experienced the sacred in catastrophe, when life was turned inexplicably upside down, in the breaking of taboos, and when the boundaries that kept society and individuals sane were suddenly torn asunder.
The Iliad describes one small incident in the Trojan War—a quarrel, a bitter clash of egos, between Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, captain of one of its squadrons. Once he felt that his honor had been impugned, Achilles endangered the entire Greek cause by withdrawing all his men from the fray. In the course of the ensuing conflict, Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, was tragically killed by Hector, son of King Priam of Troy. The Odyssey was set after the war and described the ten-year voyage of Odysseus, who had to journey through many strange lands until he was finally reunited with his wife in Ithaca. In both poems, Homer celebrated the excitement of battle, the joy of comradeship, and the glory of the aristeia, when a warrior lost himself in a “victorious rampage” and became an irresistible force, sweeping all before him. In war, Homer seemed to suggest, men lived more intensely. If his glorious deeds were remembered in epic song, the hero overcame the oblivion of death and achieved the only immortality that was possible for moribund human beings.
Fame was thus more important than life itself, and the poems show warriors desperately competing with one another in order to acquire it. In this quest for glory, every man was out for himself. The hero was an egotist, obsessed with questions of honor and status, loudly boasting about his exploits, and prepared to sacrifice the good of the whole to enhance his own prestige. There was no kenosis, no self-surrender; the only way a warrior could “step outside” the confines of self was in the ekstasis of killing. When possessed by Ares, god of war, he experienced a superabundance of life and became divine, losing himself in aristeia and slaughtering anything that stood in his way. War was, therefore, the only activity that could give meaning to life. Every warrior was expected to excel, but to be the “best” (aristos) meant simply to excel in battle. No other quality or talent counted. In the heightened state of aristeia, the hero experienced a superabundance of life that flared up gloriously in contempt of death.
In India, priests and warriors alike were gradually moving toward the ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence). This would also characterize the other Axial spiritualities. But the Greeks never entirely abandoned the heroic ethos: their Axial Age would be political, scientific, and philosophical—but not religious. In presenting a warrior like Achilles as the model of excellence to which all men should aspire, Homer seems to have nothing in common with the spirit of the Axial Age. Yet standing on the threshold of a new era, Homer was able to look critically at the heroic ideal. He could see a terrible poignancy in the fate of the warrior, because in order to achieve the posthumous glory that was his raison d’etre, the hero had to die. He was wedded to death, just as, in the cult, he was confined to the dark chthonian regions, tortured by his mortality. For Homer too, death was a catastrophe.
The Iliad was a poem about death, its characters dominated by the compulsion to kill or be killed. The story moved inexorably toward inevitable extinction: to the deaths of Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, and the beautiful city of Troy itself. In the Odyssey too, death was a black transcendence, ineffable and inconceivable. When Odysseus visited the underworld, he was horrified by the sight of the swarming, gibbering crowds of the dead, whose humanity had obscenely disintegrated. Yet when he met the shade of Achilles, Odysseus begged him not to grieve: “No man has ever been more blest than you in days past, or will be in days to come. For before you died, we Achaeans honoured you like a god, and now in this place, you lord it among the dead.” But Achilles would have none of this. “Don’t gloss over death to me in order to console me,” he replied, in words that entirely discounted the aristocratic warrior ethos. “I would rather be above ground still and labouring for some poor peasant man than be the lord over the lifeless dead.” There was a fearful void at the heart of the heroic ideal.