Ancient Greece Revisited – The Way of the Shield

Ancient Greece Revisited – The Way of the Shield


When the first American ships appeared
off the coast of Japan in 1853 they found a land frozen in time. Their arrival marked the end of “Sakoku” the self-imposed isolation that had closed the country off
to any foreign influence preserving its culture unchanged
for a total of nine generations. As they walked through this strange island one of the first things to catch
the sailors’ attention was the total absence of modern firearms,
guns and pistols back in the USA, kids as young as five could be seen training
with old American styles six-shooters but the Japanese seemed to know nothing
more powerful than a sword. What the American sailors could
have never imagined however was that before the United States
was even a country … the Japanese were producing some of the best rifles and cannons
in the whole world but mysteriously chose to forget … … all about them their production forbidden
by royal decree their warriors the mighty Samurai choosing to remain forever
faithful to “Kendo” The Way of the Sword Exactly why this occurred
remains uncertain but at least one hypothesis suggests that although superior modern firearms just didn’t fit inside of a culture of warrior-nobles and so, they were willingly forgotten leaving behind nothing more than a word “teppo”, that a local shouted when he noticed the pistols
on the sailors’ waist. And if the Samurai can be said
to have followed … the way of the sword then the Greek “Hoplite” the soldier who fought in the tight formation
of the Phalanx followed … the Way of the Shield. Because more than the weight
of their metal these two weapons
carried something far greater. They carried the most crucial ideals of the
cultures that forged them for battle. Reading from Homer’s first epic:
“The Iliad” or even watching it on film
through Hollywood’s “Troy” starring Brad Pitt there is little to suggest that those
semi-barbaric warrior kings who fought for nothing but glory would eventually morph into those
highly sophisticated citizens who populated Greek cities
during classical antiquity. But even in Homer’s own lifetime,
at the dawn of the 8th century BC and as the “Age of Heroes”
sang it’s dying song a cultural revolution
was well underway one that would see the emergence
of a new institution that spread like wildfire
throughout the Greek world. It was called “polis,” or city-state a community as independent
as Switzerland is today with cities like Athens and Sparta
being perhaps the most memorable examples. These “polis” became the first
communities in human history where people came together to create
common laws by which to live by. Laws that were independent
both from religious scripture and the will of divinely ordained kings. Together with this radical transformation
in government came a new way of fighting. One that would reflect the ideals
of citizenship … in the battlefield. It was called the “Phalanx” a tight formation of heavily
armoured “shock troops” who used the power of
“othismos,” or thrust to push against the lines of its enemy until a break would open
in one of the two rival camps forcing it into a “tropi”, a turning back,
signalling its defeat. The soldiers of this phalanx
were not warrior-kings like Achilles but free citizens who participated as equals
in the management of their city. Each paying for his own armour privately while training part-time
along with his daily job. Surprisingly, and instead of the
half-baked mass of amateurs the result was the most effective military machine
the world had ever seen. One that would prove its worth
by defending Europe twice against the consecutive
invasions of Persia an empire that could
draw resources from across Asia and could maintain an upper class of
professional warriors dedicated solely to training. But even by ancient standards
and for most of their history Greek city-states remained
relatively poor, and so … their citizens had to raise
their new battalions from the only
material they had available… themselves! As they stepped to fill the ranks,
citizens became known as hoplites a word that derives from “hoplon” which in modern Greek
simply means “weapon” but was originally used to describe
the main weapon that a Greek soldier dependent on: his shield. Hoplite meant “shield-bearer” as he was baptised after the weapon that defended him,
together with his City This shield was a round
piece of wood three feet in diameter, covered
with a thin sheet of bronze. It occupied the entire
left arm of each soldier while simultaneously, and as long
as he stayed in formation it protected a part
of his comrade’s right. Used correctly, and by soldiers brave enough
to keep the lines from breaking the shield became the critical link both physical and spiritual
to a chain of trust where each soldier could expect to keep
half of his body protected by the man standing on his right while protecting the man on his
left in return. It was the same chain of trust,
that cities needed during peacetime because in the absence of divine rulers,
so typical of Asian kingdoms the Greeks needed to be constantly alert and keep each other free. As the poet Alcaeus puts it: “Neither stone nor timber makes polis but the men who know
how to keep themselves safe.” As we all know from history of course this radical experiment and self-rule
didn’t exclude the use of slaves who composed an increasing
amount of the population Nor did it come with a notion
of gender equality with women being as
far from voting rights as children were And yet, it was exactly those who enjoyed
freedom the most free adult men who were also asked to take up arms
and defend it. In the culture that quickly developed
within the walls of Greek city-states the notion that you could be called
to war at any given moment was never challenged
even by the most radical of thinkers. And Socrates himself is heard
chastising a friend who was out of shape saying that, one must always keep his body ready
to serve the city when the time comes as he himself had done in
numerous battles. And during their short but glorious history the Phalanx and the city it protected stood side-by-side
as expressions of the same idea an idea that we might call
“political freedom” but of a type that was
definitely not about inclusion. An “aristocratic egalitarianism” perhaps an equality among those who
bear arms and protect it. An equality, that despite what we said initially
about the remoteness of Homeric heroes still echoes in the freedoms
demanded by warrior-kings who stood as equals
against a faceless mass of peasants and slaves
that Homer cared so little about Likewise, and within the lines
of the Greek phalanx hoplites stood in the context of an equality
that was unparalleled for its time with each soldier wearing
the same type of armour while young and old
marched, fought and died together so much that a fallen
helmet could reveal the head with its first
beard as easily as it could … with a full set of white hair. There is an old saying
that refers to Sam Colt the man behind the modern revolver
as seen in Western Films that says that … “God created man,
bu Colt made them equal.” And it was precisely this type of equality that was feared more than anything else
in Imperial Japan. A culture of powerful rulers supported by an elite warrior class armed with weapons against which
the peasants stood no chance. These Japanese rulers
must have known well enough that pistols possessed the power
to tip this balance over and so they managed to erase
the entire technology leaving only the memory of a word behind. And just like the sailors of the first
American vessels to moor on the port of Japan so were the Japanese warrior
finding himself no place inside of a Greek city state. Because in Greece, the Samurais’ ideal
of single combat ended with Homer. And yet, the idea
of aristocratic equality equality among those
who can protect it was strangely transformed
into the collective way of life that Greeks had chosen
for themselves And so, perhaps underlining the violence
and destruction that war always brings the logic of the Phalanx … was the logic that would eventually lead
to democracy.

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