Depiction of infantry combat
Despite Mycenae and Troy being maritime powers, the Iliad features no sea battles. So, the Trojan shipwright (of the ship that transported Helen to Troy), Phereclus, fights afoot, as an infantryman. The battle dress and armour of hero and soldier are well-described. They enter battle in chariots, launching javelins into the enemy formations, then dismount—for hand-to-hand combat with yet more javelin throwing, rock throwing, and if necessary hand to hand sword and a shoulder-borne hoplon (shield) fighting. Ajax the Greater, son of Telamon, sports a large, rectangular shield (σάκος, sakos) with which he protects himself and Teucer, his brother:
- Ninth came Teucer, stretching his curved bow.
- He stood beneath the shield of Ajax, son of Telamon.
- As Ajax cautiously pulled his shield aside,
- Teucer would peer out quickly, shoot off an arrow,
- hit someone in the crowd, dropping that soldier
- right where he stood, ending his life—then he'd duck back,
- crouching down by Ajax, like a child beside its mother.
- Ajax would then conceal him with his shining shield.
- (Iliad 8.267–72, Ian Johnston, translator)
Ajax's cumbersome shield is more suitable for defence than for offence, while his cousin, Achilles, sports a large, rounded, octagonal shield that he successfully deploys along with his spear against the Trojans:
- Just as a man constructs a wall for some high house,
- using well-fitted stones to keep out forceful winds,
- that's how close their helmets and bossed shields lined up,
- shield pressing against shield, helmet against helmet
- man against man. On the bright ridges of the helmets,
- horsehair plumes touched when warriors moved their heads.
- That's how close they were to one another.
- (Iliad 16.213–7, Ian Johnston, translator)
In describing infantry combat, Homer names the phalanx formation, but most scholars do not believe the historical Trojan War was so fought. In the Bronze Age, the chariot was the main battle transport-weapon (e.g. the Battle of Kadesh). The available evidence, from the Dendra armour and the Pylos Palace paintings, indicate the Mycenaeans used two-man chariots, with a long-spear-armed principal rider, unlike the three-man Hittite chariots with short-spear-armed riders, and unlike the arrow-armed Egyptian and Assyrian two-man chariots. Nestor spearheads his troops with chariots; he advises them:
- In your eagerness to engage the Trojans,
- don't any of you charge ahead of others,
- trusting in your strength and horsemanship.
- And don't lag behind. That will hurt our charge.
- Any man whose chariot confronts an enemy's
- should thrust with his spear at him from there.
- That's the most effective tactic, the way
- men wiped out city strongholds long ago —
- their chests full of that style and spirit.
- (Iliad 4.301–09, Ian Johnston, translator)
Although Homer's depictions are graphic, it can be seen in the very end that victory in war is a far more somber occasion, where all that is lost becomes apparent. On the other hand, the funeral games are lively, for the dead man's life is celebrated. This overall depiction of war runs contrary to many other ancient Greek depictions, where war is an aspiration for greater glory.
Influence on classical Greek warfare
While the Homeric poems (the Iliad in particular) were not necessarily revered scripture of the ancient Greeks, they were most certainly seen as guides that were important to the intellectual understanding of any educated Greek citizen. This is evidenced by the fact that in the late fifth century BC, "it was the sign of a man of standing to be able to recite the Iliad and Odyssey by heart." Moreover, it can be argued that the warfare shown in the Iliad, and the way in which it was depicted, had a profound and very traceable effect on Greek warfare in general. In particular, the effect of epic literature can be broken down into three categories: tactics, ideology, and the mindset of commanders. In order to discern these effects, it is necessary to take a look at a few examples from each of these categories.
Much of the detailed fighting in the Iliad is done by the heroes in an orderly, one-on-one fashion. Much like the Odyssey, there is even a set ritual which must be observed in each of these conflicts. For example, a major hero may encounter a lesser hero from the opposing side, in which case the minor hero is introduced, threats may be exchanged, and then the minor hero is slain. The victor often strips the body of its armor and military accoutrements. Here is an example of this ritual and this type of one-on-one combat in the Iliad:
There Telamonian Ajax struck down the son of Anthemion, Simoeisios in his stripling's beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheepflocks. Therefore they called him Simoeisios; but he could not render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Ajax, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.
The biggest issue in reconciling the connection between the epic fighting of the Iliad and later Greek warfare is the phalanx, or hoplite, warfare seen in Greek history well after Homer's Iliad. While there are discussions of soldiers arrayed in semblances of the phalanx throughout the Iliad, the focus of the poem on the heroic fighting, as mentioned above, would seem to contradict the tactics of the phalanx. However, the phalanx did have its heroic aspects. The masculine one-on-one fighting of epic is manifested in phalanx fighting on the emphasis of holding one's position in formation. This replaces the singular heroic competition found in the Iliad.
One example of this is the Spartan tale of 300 picked men fighting against 300 picked Argives. In this battle of champions, only two men are left standing for the Argives and one for the Spartans. Othryades, the remaining Spartan, goes back to stand in his formation with mortal wounds while the remaining two Argives go back to Argos to report their victory. Thus, the Spartans claimed this as a victory, as their last man displayed the ultimate feat of bravery by maintaining his position in the phalanx.
In terms of the ideology of commanders in later Greek history, the Iliad has an interesting effect. The Iliad expresses a definite disdain for tactical trickery, when Hector says, before he challenges the great Ajax:
I know how to storm my way into the struggle of flying horses; I know how to tread the measures on the grim floor of the war god. Yet great as you are I would not strike you by stealth, watchingfor my chance, but openly, so, if perhaps I might hit you.
However, despite examples of disdain for this tactical trickery, there is reason to believe that the Iliad, as well as later Greek warfare, endorsed tactical genius on the part of their commanders. For example, there are multiple passages in the Iliad with commanders such as Agamemnon or Nestor discussing the arraying of troops so as to gain an advantage. Indeed, the Trojan War is won by a notorious example of Greek guile in the Trojan Horse. This is even later referred to by Homer in the Odyssey. The connection, in this case, between guileful tactics of the Greeks in the Iliad and those of the later Greeks is not a difficult one to find. Spartan commanders, often seen as the pinnacle of Greek military prowess, were known for their tactical trickery, and, for them, this was a feat to be desired in a commander. Indeed, this type of leadership was the standard advice of Greek tactical writers.
Ultimately, while Homeric (or epic) fighting is certainly not completely replicated in later Greek warfare, many of its ideals, tactics, and instruction are.
Hans van Wees argues that the period that the descriptions of warfare relate can be pinned down fairly specifically—to the first half of the 7th century BC.