Friday, 24 June 2011

Elite soldiers of the Ancient World

Following a similar vein to an earlier post on sieges, I thought it’d be interesting to have a look at some of the finest soldiers from thousands of years ago.

Leonidas and the 300

The 300 Spartans of Thermopylae are perhaps the most famous. Assisted by their usually forgotten allies for the first few days, they bought the Greek alliance time by staving off an enormous army led by arch-lunatic Xerxes. The Spartans defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae (Hot Gates, in Greek, I think). Unfortunately, some dirty swine told the Persians of a secret track that led behind the Spartan position. The defenders learnt of this, and almost all of them left, except the Spartans. They died fighting bravely and, although they lost, Thermopylae has the air of victory. It’s almost the antithesis of a Pyrrhic victory. In the end, the Greeks managed to defeat the hugely larger Persian forces, setting the scene for the Peloponnesian War.

The Theban Sacred Band

It’s sometimes assumed, wrongly, that fellows of a not entirely heterosexual disposition are not the best chaps in the world at fighting. The Theban Sacred Band would beg to differ. In a little window of history, Epaminondas, King of Thebes, won two victories (Leuctra and Mantinea) over the Spartans (inventing the oblique order of battle as he did so). The Sacred Band were the finest of his troops, and consisted of 300 (again) gay chaps (or 150 pairs). The reasoning was basically that you’re likelier to fight remorselessly and less likely to turn and run if your lover’s life is also on the line. They were an elite force, but the problem was timing. Thebes had kicked Sparta’s arse, only to find out Philip II of Macedon and his son (some chap called Alexander) were not so easily beaten. At the Battle of Chaeronea Philip’s brilliant tactics and Alexander’s (who was in his late teens) fury slew them almost to a man. Being ever so slightly vindictive, the Macedonians also totally obliterated Thebes. (One of the Diadochi later restored it, I think).

Alexander’s Companions

Companion does not just refer to his best mates (although they were), the Companions were the very best of Alexander’s cavalry, and led by the man himself. The Macedonian army was fantastic in every regard, but relied upon intelligent and bold action from its commander. The phalanx could pin an enemy down effectively, enabling the cavalry to storm in the flank or rear and massacre them. Countless times the Companions saved Alexander’s life and routed his enemies. However, the risks weren’t entirely from the opposing army. Cleitus the Black took exception to his leader’s increasingly Persian-influenced style of kingship and the two had a drunken argument that ended when Alexander killed him with a spear. Alexander wept for days afterward, perhaps recalling that Cleitus had saved his life at the Battle of the Granicus.

The above three loosely defined units have something perhaps unexpectedly in common. They all lost, ultimately. The 300 were slain, of course, as were the Theban Sacred Band. When Alexander died, the Companions split as the huge Macedonian territory was torn apart by the Diadochi. There was no grand, unified Macedonian empire. It was sundered into the Seleucid Empire, Macedonia itself and Ptolemy’s Egypt.

If Alexander had lived beyond the early 30s and marched west after reaching home, he would have smashed Rome to pieces. It’s an intriguing thought.


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