The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes

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The paean was a hymn which was sung on various solemn occasions. It was no doubt calculated to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy and certainly seems to have had this effect on Asiatic forces. But the paean was adopted by the Ten Thousand, although their leadership was largely Spartan. Xenophon recounts one amusing incident when the women whom the soldiers took along with them as mistresses joined in the battle cry after the paean had been sung.

The ululating battle cry was distinct from the paean. The latter was sung when the enemy were still at some distance. The battle cry was raised at the moment of entry into battle. A slogan for identification purposes was also used and was circulated before an engagement in the manner of a password. He, too, believed in the use of mercenaries and was glad when reluctant conscripts from subject Greek cities bought themselves out. The money thus raised could be used to pay for keen professional soldiers and good horses.

Unlike the Spartan commanders of an earlier generation, Agesilaus believed in cavalry. Agesilaus, however, placed much more reliance on cavalry than did Xenophon. Indeed, he had more at his disposal. He scored one notable victory during his march through Thessaly to confront the rebellious Greek states who challenged him at Coronea in BC. The cavalry which he had assembled in Asia easily overcame the Thessalian cavalry ranged against it. The Thessalian cavalry was the best in Greece, but Thessalian horses were no match for Asiatic breeds.

Agesilaus was eminently flexible both as a strategist and as a tactician. When operating against Tissaphernes in Asia Minor, he deceived the enemy by an ingenious double-bluff. His intention of attacking Lydia was proclaimed with such an obvious eye to publicity that the enemy took it for a feint and concentrated in Caria to the south.

The offensive, however, was made against Lydia, as Agesilaus had from the first intended, and in the absence of any planned defence was easily pressed home. This very unconventional Spartan king was equally ready to buy off his enemies or to fight them, employing either method freely as circumstances dictated. His swift return from Asia to Greece was expedited by opportunitism of this kind.

The tactics which Agesilaus adopted at Coronea exhibited a mixture of traditional usage and innovation. Argive allies had already retreated.

When they attempted to rejoin the Argives by a southward march to Mount Helicon, Agesilaus, wheeling round, made a frontal attack on them. But he was unable in this way to break their line. He therefore withdrew and reformed his army in open order, allowing the Thebans to pass through the gaps in the hope of attacking them on the flank. The flank attacks, however, were not very successful and the Thebans reached the mountains in good order.

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Agesilaus remained in possession of the field, but he had not destroyed the enemy. Xenophon criticizes Agesilaus for attempting a frontal attack on the Thebans in the first place. If he had been content to wait, he could have attacked their flank as they made their way southward, at moment of his own choosing and to his advantage. Later, in the days of Theban supremacy when enemy forces had occupied Spartan territory, Agesilaus, with courage and resource, successfully organized the defence of Sparta itself, though the city had no permanent walls or impregnable citadel such as most Greek cities possessed.

Indeed, the Spartans had always relied on fighting their wars on enemy territory. But on this occasion they fortunately had at their head a man well qualified to deal with unprecedented situations. After the collapse of Thebes, King Agesilaus, at the age of 80, again led mercenary forces abroad, first into Asia then to the Nile Delta in support of Egyptian rebels against Persia.

The rebels in Egypt quarrelled between themselves and Agesilaus was left in no very dignified position, hiring himself to one side against the other in a petty war. Even here, however, he demonstrated his flair for military stratagem. Being besieged by a vastly superior number of inexperienced troops, he allowed them to construct a wall and trench around his own encircled forces.

When the circumvallation was complete but for a short gap, he suddenly led a sally through the opening. The enemy, for all their superior numbers, were hindered by their own ramparts from attacking him in the flank or rear. The Greek force with its Egyptian allies was not only extricated but inflicted losses on the besiegers, who were hemmed in between their own trenches.

Agesilaus died at the age of 84 on the way home from Egypt. There seems to have been something unhappily circular in the defence economy over which he presided: mercenary expeditions raised money by which the Spartan state was enabled to hire more mercenaries. However, it may be pleaded that Agesilaus was in fact trading military expertise for manpower. His skilful operations had to some extent concealed the serious decline in the fighting potential of the Spartan citizen army. The development of new forms of warfare had been itself an admission that the supremacy of the Spartan hoplite phalanx was at an end.

Since the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan army had been substantially remodelled; this in itself reflected a decline in numbers to the fully enfranchised citizens who formed the backbone of the heavy infantry. The decline could in some degrees be paralleled by population decline in other Greek states, but apart from all general tendencies Spartan military strength had also been seriously affected by the losses suffered in as devastating earthquake which occurred as far back as BC — before the Peloponnesian War had even begun.

The Spartan army in the fourth century consisted of six battalions morai. Each of these was under the command of the polemarch and, according to contemporary historians, consisted of or perhaps men. Both citizens and non-citizens served in it. Within the mora , there was subdivision into smaller units, as previously with the lochos. During the Corinthian War, a Spartan mora , after escorting a contingent of allied troops back to the Peloponnese, was intercepted in the Isthmus and routed with crippling losses by the Athenian commander Iphicrates.

In numerical terms, casualties of out of a total strength of men, which on this occasion the unit contained, were extremely serious.

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The strategy and tactics of Iphicrates were even more significant; his victory was gained against hoplites by the use of light-armed troops. The action, however, was still more reminiscent of Sphacteria. The Spartans were overwhelmed by missiles and never allowed to come to grips. At Sphacteria, Spartan lack of foresight, combined with some bad luck, had produced the fatal situation, but Iphicrates was the deliberate architect of his own victory, which vindicated to the full his new strategic and tactical concepts of light-armed warfare.

Another great professional commander of the fourth century BC was Chabrias the Athenian. He was distinguished for the resistance which he offered to Agesilaus in Boeotia during the Corinthian War. Expecting to be charged by the enemy, he ordered his men to kneel down and present their spears, with shields resting on their knees. Agesilaus was deterred from making the attack.

Perhaps well-chosen ground, as much as the kneeling posture, deterred him. But Chabrias, honoured with a statue, was at his own request portrayed by the sculptor in a kneeling position such as he and his men had adopted on the battlefield.

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In fact, kneeling statues soon became fashionable even among victorious athletes. Chabrias, in the course of his long military and naval career, had a fine record of patriotic service, but this in no way prejudiced his thoroughly professional outlook. He served with Agesilaus in Egypt, where he was put in charge of the Egyptian navy while the Spartan king commanded the land forces.

Agesilaus was disappointed, for he had expected to command both by land and sea. However, there is no suggestion that either of the two men, while campaigning as comrades-in-arms under the same Egyptian monarch, was in the least troubled by the thought that they had previously encountered each other as enemies on Greek battlefields in their own land. The efficient organization and equipment of light-armed troops was an important fourth-century development. When one speaks of light-armed troops in the context of Greek military history, the term includes javelin-throwers, archers and slingers.

Of these, javelin-throwers had the longest tradition of service in historic terms. They came to be called peltastai from the type of shield which they carried: the pelta , as importation from Thrace. Pisiastratus, autocratic ruler of Athens in the sixth century BC, had enlisted a mercenary corps from the Thracian hinterland after a period of exile in those regions; Athenian familiarity with the pelta seems to have dated from that time.

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The pelta was a small buckler made of animal skins stretched over a wicker framework. It had no metal fittings or trimmings and was light enough to be held in the left hand, without forearm support. Characteristically, it was formed in the shape of a broad crescent moon, but the word also applied to other shapes made of the same light material.

The javelins which the peltasts carried were fitted with leather loops about halfway down the shaft. The first and second fingers engaged the loop, while the shaft of the javelin, supported on the hand, was gripped by the thumb and remaining fingers.

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This enabled the thrower to exert greater leverage and added to the force with which the missile was launched. Peltasts, like other combatants, also carried a sword originally short or dagger in case of emergency, although they did not normally count on coming to sword strokes with the enemy ranged against them. Both the construction and use of bows and arrows varied considerably in Greece. In Crete, the practice of archery had been maintained since the earliest times, but in the rest of Greece it had generally been neglected.

By the fourth century, the use of Cretan mercenary archers had become common. Before the Persian Wars, the Athenians had employed Scythians in the same capacity; but the Athenians, according the Herodotus, had no archers at the battle of Marathon. The most common type of bow in ancient Greece was a composite fabrication, but bows consisting of a single flexible wooden staff, like the English longbow, were in use outside Crete.

Horns, united by a core of pliant wood, might certainly have provided an effective bow. But other evidence suggests a less simple process of manufacture, involving strips of horn, wood and dry gut — apart from the bowstring, which was normally made of gut or sinew. Among the Scythians, not only the fabrication but also the use of the bow was complicated. The Scythian, although holding the bow in his left hand, normally contrived to rest his arrow on the left side of the bow when taking aim. Moreover, the archer usually held the arrow on the bowstring between the first and second fingers of his right hand using his first three fingers to draw the string — the conventional Mediterranean loose.


Scythian arrows were short with small bronze tips, unlike the heavy arrowheads of the Cretans, but in his capacious quiver the Scythian carried both his bow and a great many diminutive arrows. Different usages prevailed among archers in different parts of the Persian empire. In some of the hill tribes that Xenophon encountered, archers gained extra leverage by bending the bow against the foot.

The arrows of some tribal archers were so long that they could be gathered and used as javelins by the Greeks. Persian arrows were shot from longbows. It was perhaps possible, even with the short Cretan bows, to draw the long Persian arrows to the ear, if not to the right shoulder. Greek archers normally drew the bowstring only to the chest.

Unlike the Cretan archers, the Greek slingers from Rhodes, when properly equipped, had the advantage of their opposite numbers in Asia.

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes

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