Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience

By Victor Davis Hanson | Go to book overview

6

THE GENERAL AS HOPLITE

Everett L. Wheeler

In the first confrontation of legion and phalanx King Pyrrhus of Epirus faced the Romans at Heracleia in 280 BC. The Epirote initiated contact by personally leading a cavalry charge. His gleaming, highly decorated armor immediately marked the king in a display of valor equal to his reputation. ‘Most of all,’ Plutarch says,

while offering his prowess and physical presence to the contest and stoutly fending off opponents, he did not blur his power of calculation nor even lose his presence of mind. Rather he managed the battle, as though viewing it from afar, running from one spot to another and bolstering those seeming to be overpowered. 1

Pyrrhus’ penchant for heroics typified his career, a striving to equal the fame of his alleged ancestor Achilles, who from at least the late sixth century BC, if not from Homer’s own time, symbolized the ideal warrior. 2 Yet Plutarch’s description goes beyond the Achilles model in painting Pyrrhus as the ideal general: conspicuous armor, physical prowess in combat, but also the bolsterer of morale and the battlefield manager (cf. Polyb. 10.13.1-5). Pyrrhus showed mastery of the dual functions of generalship which had evolved from Homer’s period through the fourth century—leadership in its most literal sense, the physical act of leading; and command, incorporating administration, management, analysis of situations, and oral directives, chiefly mental and verbal properties. 3

The role of the general in the hoplite battle experience of Classical Greece is significant for the evolution of generalship—the transition from warrior chief to the general of Pyrrhus’ mode. Scipio Africanus’ reported quip that his mother produced a commander (imperator) not a warrior (bellator) illustrates the distinction, as does Iphicrates’

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