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14/10/2017- Blended assets: The Iphikrates Hoplitai

This month we are going to try to figure out what was exactly that kind of relatively foggy (you might say like all antiquity warriors types that were summarily described by ancient authors). Was it the precursor of the Macedonian phalanx, the Thureophoroi, a modernized Ekdromoi or just a glorified peltast ? These guys also only are identified by their creator, Athenian general Iphrikrates, which led us to do some short bio in the process.

Various references from across the web

About Iphrikates

Unfortunately for us, Iphrikrates never had Plutarch's attention for his "lives" -at least so far we known of, but he appeared at least in the latter's Moralia... Instead, he was portrayed by Demosthenes, his bio written by Cornelius Nepos (see below), and his tactics were dissected in Book 3 of Polyaenus "Sixty-three Stratagems of Iphicrates".

So let's begin: Ιφικράτης (Approx. 418 BC-353 BC), before being an Athenian general, was the son of a shoemaker (perhaps a reason he gave so much importance to his men footwear?). He strived in 4th century BC, after the Peloponnesian war, which were as much destructive than military creative for the Greek world. Without this 27 years epic (431 BC – 404 BC) almost two generations, there would be no macedonian phalanx, and alexander of Pella would never be "the great", nor the Persian conquest justified. Fact is, when the latter was about to end, Iphicrates was just a young lad, a "kouroi", 14 years old. He heard about the battles, but testified of Athenes's -his city- demise, vividly remembering the national drama that was the death of Pericles and the plague, the feats of Alcibiades, the verve of Demosthenes, but also the bitter victory of Peloponnesian League led by Sparta (with Persian gold). This war saw the apparition of many new troops aside the classic hoplites, which saw their kit being lighter in the process. The Ekdromoi was perhaps the pinnacle of these field experiments (see later), the reformed marine infantry (Epibatai) had its glory hours, and the peltast, the most common mercenary, proved more versatile and useful than ever.

There is not much mentions about him as a young officer. We only know he was tall and of strong complexion and led from the front (just like Philip of Macedon and moreover his son, will do), by the example. This helped him establishing the harshest discipline, which was necessary following his reforms. As an officer, he commanded mercenary troops, hoplites and peltasts, and rose through the ranks in these troubled times, up to generalship. At some point, later in his carrer his reformed mercenary army numbered 12,000 and was loyal to a point. He won all his engagements, took many cities and no less than crushed a Spartan mora (batallion) which was not small feat. This was celebrated in all the greek world. At some point his reputation was such that he was invited to train Egyptian troops. Although his loyalty by marriage to his father-in-law Odrysian King Cotys, made him siding with him against his motherland about the Thracian Chersonese (which had Athenian-controlled silver mines), he was pardoned later but condemn to a heavy fine. We don't know if he died in Athens or Thrace, but his legacy had a profound influence on Philip of Macedon, which modelled his sarissa-bearers in the very same way, with a light kit and strong discipline and training. At some point, this also influenced the Romans (the Fabians were trained also by him or with similar methods). His consummated art of war was as skillful and imaginative as his reforms and led to tactics that Sun Tsu would not disown.

Iphikrates reforms:

The best way to decribe it is to just take for granted Nepos description. So his reforms were targeted at hoplites, that he made lighter:
-Smaller & lighter Pelta shield instead of hoplon: both hands freed (attached to the forearm)
-Linen (or other textile/leather) cuirasses
-Thracian boots instead of bare foot/leather boot+greaves
*Heavier Armament:
-Longer spear, two handed. Probably 4m, 4.50m but less than sarrissas (5-7 m)
-Longer sword (kopis or machaira instead of xiphos? or longer xiphos)
*Better training:
They gained in agility what they lost in protection. So emphasis on training was mandatory to improve versatility and effective close-quarter combat, drill and manoeuvers for a more agressive tactic. Perhaps it's a refelection on the use of heavier peltasts, which fought alongside hoplites. These reformed peltasts (heavy helmet, greaves, light shield, linen cuirasses and boots) were also precursors of the Thureophoroi. These heavy pelasts could have been named "epilektoi" (picked up).

Reflections about the Iphikrateans:

Before these reforms, mercenary hoplites fought like hoplites did since their apparition roughly three centuries before. By 450 BC they were still quite heavy, having bronze cuirass, articulated bronze groin plates (instead or pteryges) corinthian helmets infamous for providing bad hearing and limited vision, arms and foreleg bands, and bronze greaves. They were as much heavily armoured as medieval knights, wearing perhaps 15 kgs of armour less the hoplon, in wood but covered with bronze, for a total of 20 kgs at the least. He also had to carry a 3m long dory and xiphos sword at his side. Needless to say, agility and complex manoeuvers were not the order of the day. Instead, hoplites packed together in a phalanx and just advanced towards the enemy. Combat between city-states was famously ritualized. It happened over border disputes, on a few chosen spots in Greece (the rare that were large enough and flat) citizens marching and singing at the sound of the pean, and when in battle just pushing forward in a rugby pack fashion (with the difference of using spears!), until the enemy pack crumbled and routed. So they were relatively few casualties and the fight were short. The idea was to get off early in the morning to be back a day after in the evening, or be away for a week at the most, and of course between sports festivals, religious events, and harvests and in the bright season, ideally spring. Iphikrates had a mercenary, therefore professional army and was given the simple task to win whatever the means; So he just professionalized his army and changed its gear for more effectiveness. And it paid off, as shown by the defeat he inflicted on the Spartans. But his is still the subject of scholarly debate.

How effective they were?

-The Battle of Lechaeum (391 BC) was a decisive victory for Athens, part of the Corinthian war, against its arch-rival Sparta. By then they were two Athenian commanders in Corinth, Iphicrates (which commanded peltasts) and Callias, which commanded hoplites. Iphikrates was informed by the passage of a mora, or 600-men strong Spartan regiment past the city unprotected by either peltasts or cavalry. He took the initiative, get his peltasts (or Iphikratean peltasts ?) and ambushed the whole force. After flinging javelins, a group of Spartan was detached in pursuit, and the peltasts just retreated, then came back throwing more javelins in the back of the spartans that just renounced and marched back to their formation. This hit-and-run slaughter was repeated several times. Eventually the Spartans were driven back to a hilltop overlooking Lechaeum, and prepared boats for a possible retreat; Upon seeing the arrival of Callias hoplites, and peltasts get into boats as close as the hill they could. Seeing them surrounded, the Spartan fled to the boats, loosing 100 to 200 more men in the rout. In the end, less than half of the mora (about 250 men) was destroyed an Corinth lost. Iphikrates however used the strenghts of his peltasts, which never apparently went in close quarters or used phalanx.

Were these peltasts equipped the Iphikratean way? We just don't know, but they certainly were very well trained to achieve these tactics. It is also quite possible that these "iphikrateans" were a kind of versatile infantry, which can just pick javelins instead of a 4m pike and therefore adopt required tactics depending of the terrain and configuration, without changing gear, with a general gifted enough to see tactical possibilities and seize opportunities. Tremendous flexibility that impressed and seduced foreign observators.

This feat was however surpassed by Thebes, when its famous sacred band at Battle of Leuctra (371 BC) Epamindondas launched a strengthened Theban left flank and broke the Spartan formation, then routed the army after defeating Spartan cavalry. But this was a classic hoplite contest, despite innovative tactics.

Thracian influence?

That possibility sure can't be ruled out. Iphikrates by 387 BC assisted Seuthes, king of Thracian Odrysae. He recovered his kingdom against Cotys, but after peace was signed, perhaps impressed by his enemy, he passed an alliance, marrying his daughter. He would later in life side with his father-in-law in the Chersonese. A pure professional, he was at one point hired by the Persians to reconquer Egypt. The long time he spent with Thracians, fighting against other thracians, and recruiting his own mercenaries there (Thrace was then the main supplier of peltasts) he also had time to study their tactics and weaponry. The Thracians were not used to pitch battles, preferring hit-and-run tactics, and only engaging close combat against similarly equipped infantry. Only nobles were given substantial, heavy armour, but heir combat mode was still largely individual. The dreadful romphaia was their weapon of choice, whereas most of the peltasts used javelins and only had a sica (short falx), akinakes (long persian dagger) short spear, axes, maces and captured equipments.

We known near to nothing about internal, tribal thracian wars fault of records, but we do have some elements through the battles foughts by the Greeks, notably the Macedonians (which fought celtic, illyrian, and thracian invaders due to their northerly position). At one point before introducing drastic reforms, Philip II of Macedon was almost killed in battle against the Triballi. Did they used combined-arms tactics, using pikemen and peltasts in a "pike-and-shot"-like formation ? The fexibility and versatility of Thracian peltasts probably inspired the Athenian general a great deal. However we know he introduced his reforms after he returned from service in the armies of the Persian king, in 374 BC. So Persian influence could have counted too. The famous boots he pushed for adoption in his army could have been inspired by Thracian foxskin boots, but they apparently were specific and knowledge of shoemaking probably helped to design a boot that was easy to easy to untie and light. It was so strikingly original that they were called "iphikratids" afterwards, and became a classic of Greek equipment.

Iphikratean reforms by Diodoros, 15.44

"Hence we are told, after he had acquired his long experience of military operations in the Persian War, he devised many improvements in the tools of war, devoting himself especially to the matter of arms.1 For instance, the Greeks were using shields which were large (megalais aspisi) and consequently difficult to handle; these he discarded and made small oval ones (peltas summetrous) of moderate size, thus successfully achieving both objects, to furnish the body with adequate cover and to enable the user of the small shield, on account of its lightness, to be completely free in his movements. After a trial of the new shield its easy manipulation secured its adoption, and the infantry who had formerly been called "hoplites" (hoplitai) because of their heavy shield (aspidon), then had their name changed to "peltasts" (peltastai) from the light pelta they carried. As regards spear (doratos) and sword (xiphous), he made changes in the contrary direction: namely, he increased the length of the spears by half, and made the swords almost twice as long. The actual use of these arms confirmed the initial test and from the success of the experiment won great fame for the inventive genius of the general. He made soldiers' boots that were easy to untie and light and they continue to this day to be called "Iphicratids" after him.2 He also introduced many other useful improvements into warfare, but it would be tedious to write about them"3

Reform of the Marine Infantry, Xenophon (Hellenica, 6.2.13-14)

He described "as soon as he was made general, Iphikrates went to work vigorously on manning the ships and saw to it that the captains did this work too". These Athenian Marines were likely lightened, left without greaves and using a pelte instead of an hoplon, the ship's balustrade providing some protection. However they also likely used long spears, even long boarding pikes, and light body armour. It is likely that they almready tested the idea of two-handed spears before this configuration was adopted on land.

Iphikrates by Cornelius Nepos:

Get straight to the source. Notice the most important point in bold. All we know is drawn from this. Iphicrates eminent for skill in military discipline, I.----His acts in Thrace, at Corinth, against the Lacedaemonians, in Egypt, and against Epaminondas, II.----His abilities and character, III.

I. IPHICRATES of Athens has become renowned, not so much for the greatness of his exploits, as for his knowledge of military tactics; for he was such a leader, that he was not only comparable to the first commanders of his own time, but no one even of the older generals could be set above him. He was much engaged in the field; he often had. the command of armies; he never miscarried in an undertaking by his own fault; he was always eminent for invention, and such was his excellence in it, that he not only introduced much that was new into the military art, but made many improvements in what existed before. He altered the arms of the infantry; for whereas, before he became a commander, they used very large shields, short spears, and small swords, he, on the contrary, introduced the pelta instead of the parma 106 (from which the infantry were afterwards called peltastae), that they might be more active in movements and encounters; he doubled the length of the spear, and made the swords also longer. He likewise changed the character of their cuirasses, and gave them linen ones instead of those of chain-mail and brass; a change by which he rendered the soldiers more active; for, 359 diminishing the weight, he provided what would equally protect the body, and be light.

II. He made war upon the Thracians, and restored Seuthes, the ally of the Athenians, to his throne. At Corinth 107 he commanded the army with so much strictness, that no troops in Greece were ever better disciplined, or more obedient to the orders of their leader; and he brought them to such a habit, that when the signal for battle was given them by their general, they would stand so regularly drawn up, without any trouble on the part of the commander, that they seemed to have been severally posted by the most skilful captain. With this army he cut off a mora 108 of the Lacedaemonians; an exploit which was highly celebrated through all Greece. In this war, too, he defeated all their forces a second time, by which success he obtained great glory.

Artaxerxes, when he had resolved to make war upon the king of Egypt, 109 asked the Athenians to allow Iphicrates to be his general, that he might place him at the head of his army of mercenaries, the number of whom was twelve thousand. This force he so instructed in all military discipline, that as certain Roman soldiers were formerly called Fabians, 110 so the Iphicrateans were in the highest repute among the Greeks.

Going afterwards to the relief of the Lacedaemonians, he 360 checked the efforts of Epaminondas; for, had not he been drawing near 111 the Thebans would not have retreated from Sparta until they had taken and destroyed it by fire.

III. He was a man of large mind and large body, and of an appearance indicating the commander so that by his very look he inspired every one with admiration of him. But in action he was too remiss, and too impatient of continued exertion, as Theopompus has recorded. Yet he was a good citizen, and a person of very honourable feelings, as he showed, not only in other transactions, but also in protecting the children of Amyntas 112 the Macedonian; for Eurydice, the mother of Perdiccas and Philip, fled with these two boys, after the death of Amyntas, to Iphicrates, and was secure under his power. He lived to a good old age, with the feelings of his countrymen well affected towards him.

He was once brought to trial for his life, at the time of the Social war, 113 together with Timotheus, and was acquitted.

He left a son named Menestheus, whom he had by a Thracian woman, the daughter of King Cotys. When this son was asked whether he had more regard for his father or his mother, he replied, "For his mother." As this answer appeared strange to all who heard it, he added, "I do so with justice; for my father, as far as was in his power, made me a Thracian, but my mother, as far as she could, made me an Athenian." 361
CATW depiction of an Iphikrates Hoplites. They are given a peltast capability of throwing javelins AND phalanx

Other sources

Ueda-Sarson, Luke, The Evolution of Hellenistic Infantry, Part 1: The Reforms of Iphikrates
Mattew, C. (2015) An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action, Pen and Sword

Previous entries

Kardaka The thureophoroi