No scale armor in the Phalanx!


This subject of scale armor worn by the classical Greeks was raised by a student of mine recently after I expressed exasperation at a certain page I noticed on the internet. I took a contrary standpoint to what was being portrayed (what a surprise, right?), for reasons that were not immediately obvious, and found myself being asked to explain that standpoint. Since I am getting more ornery, cantankerous and decrepit as I get older, and am reaching the point where I hate explaining period, let alone explaining about something in detail, I thought about just not saying anything, but that would be inappropriate both from the standpoint of etiquette and cantankerousness. Therefore:

As a means of (re-)introduction, let me state a few things (again) for the record. I used to design and repair fighter aircraft for a living, so take it for granted that I have a fairly decent grasp of structural and materials engineering. I am a consultant on close (hand to hand) combat to NATO; my major claim to fame is that I predicted (publicly, in writing) the results of incorporating MMA-based tactics into the Combatives program of the US Army, roughly eight years before the Army was forced to capitulate and admit there were problems (after 920 incidents and having spent millions of dollars). Surprisingly enough, the methodology I use to train NATO and Hellenic Armed Forces today is based on historic Greek close combat and weapons tactics; I apply them, however, to modern combat scenarios, and military professionals, not re-enactors, as well as simple civilians, have successfully used them to defend their lives and well-being. Please note I am referring to actual documented events, not rhetoric or supposition.

So. No scale armor in the phalanx. Why, you ask? Dude, we have vase drawings that show Greeks wearing scale armor!

Short answer: Because we are neither smarter nor more capable than, and in the majority of cases not even equivalent to, our ancestors.

Body armor consisting of small metal plates has a long history. Beginning in the 2nd millennium BC various kinds of splint (scale and lamellar) armor were already firmly established in the Near East;  the boar tusk helmets used in Mycenaean Greece were essentially organic splint armor.  Lamellar armor refers to many plates linked to one another with thongs, and is actually a better tactical design. Scale armor consists of metal plates, fastened to leather or fabric. It may have been the earliest splint armor developed in that its layout duplicates the scales of a fish (hence the name). The armor plates are U-shaped and are always directed downward. The rows of scale armor overlap 1/3 of one another and are slightly shifted aside, in this way forming a multi-layer surface. To fix the scales to the stratum, thin thongs were ordinarily used. The stratum is typically leather.

Scale armor was designed to provide maximum freedom of movement for the warrior. That is to say, scale armor was used in close combat when freedom of movement was prized, and only when the primary threat to the armor was encountered at an angle of ninety degrees or greater to the plane of the scales themselves. You see, despite many positive features (elasticity, good protective properties, simple technology), scale armor has one critical flaw: it is vulnerable to piercing weapons in specific angles. Especially dangerous for scale armor are piercing thrusts delivered from an angle in line with the end of the scale. The hazard was great, for example, for the mounted warrior, as the thrusts of foot soldiers’ spears were always directed upward in line with openings in scale. But scale armor works great against people who are cutting downwards with a sword, for example, and is decent protection against arrows.  So it was generally worn by light infantry who needed to move around and were worried about facing arrows and swords.

It should be understood that armor’s primary purpose is not to absorb a blow – it does do that, but a design involving absorption of force would involve deliberate plastic deformation not easily tenable in historic combat. The purpose of armor then is to deflect a blow, so that it bounces off the area being struck. Large pieces of plate armor are very good at that. Even scale armor is good at deflection under specific angles, though with scale armor, much more of the momentum of the blow is transferred to the flexible substrate underneath and to the body itself than with plate.

The Greeks were forming large plates of bronze (and burying them) all the way back to the Mycenaean era. They certainly did not have technological limitations. Nor was there short supply of the elements of bronze. Therefore, everything and anything they did had a precise and deliberate tactical reason. It was a choice. If they wanted to wear scale armor, the choice was deliberate and had a very specific tactical objective. Our job is to decipher their reasoning, not second guess them.

Is any of this making sense? Hank Reinhardt was the grand-daddy of Western HEMA. He never studied a single fechtbuch in his life other than George Silver (and Richard Burton). Instead, he applied an earth-shattering philosophy to weapons that was based on simple logic – the shape of the tool defines its use. Hammers cannot be used as screwdrivers, nor do you drive in a nail with the edge of a blade; so it is with ancient weapons and tactics. Since war is life and death, everything is done with a very specific objective in mind – or else. I grew up with that philosophy, and still apply it today.

Let me digress and provide you with a functional example that will be obvious to everyone before we continue with the topic of scale armor. I have, in the past, made reference to the proper body position in the phalanx. I still see a lot of re-enactors holding their spear in the “overhead, thumb down” grip; their bodies are turned sideways when holding the spear in this manner, because that is the only way to make the spear point “look forward” when doing so. They hold the shield “in the air” while doing so with their left forearm, their left shoulder sometimes within the hollow; it is difficult to lock shields and fold together while turned sideways, so they don’t, but rather keep their distance from each other. I have stated in the past that re-enactors hold their weapons and armor this way simply because they cannot duplicate the proper “overhead, thumb facing up” grip and body facing forward stance, that was used in the phalanx. What I mean to say is that they physically cannot perform the action. But the logic that these re-enactors use is that, if they cannot do it, then the ancients couldn’t, because the human body hasn’t changed in ten thousand years. What is being ignored is that the evidence is clear and opinions do not matter.

Even if I trained every day for the next twenty years, and he himself did nothing else but drink beer and get fat, I would never be able to do taichichuan like Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. Never. There is a very simple reason for this: he began taichi as soon as he could walk, was trained by the family who invented the art in the first place, and has been doing it for seventy years. The same holds true for the ancient Greek hoplite – he was raised to enact a particular movement with a very specific strategic application and practiced it daily all his life. The strength of the hoplite’s triceps and wrists was enormous. We desk jockeys today cannot duplicate the hoplite phalanx, no matter how much we try. Period.

So we typically “adjust” the phalanx to fit our own capabilities, and not the other way around. And it’s wrong. It’s very wrong.

It’s all in the greaves, you see.

Let’s look at this picture. It shows a pair of ancient hoplite greaves.

They’re all like that, no variation. Guess what? The knees are only protected facing forwards. There is no protection for the side of the knee, period – nothing like the medieval poleyn, for example, which was useful because the knight didn’t know where the next blow was coming from. Do you guys think remotely, even for a second, that the people who designed and built the Parthenon couldn’t come up with decent protection for the side of the knee, if that part of the joint was facing in the direction of greatest risk? Come on. The reason greaves do not have side protection for the knee joint is because the hoplite was always – always – facing forward in the phalanx. I won’t get into the other body dynamics of mass formation that make this a necessity, having already done so and been ignored, but in one sentence, to truly close shields, you need to be facing forward. In any case, the greaves prove my point like a clear blue sky filled with the sun. Hoplites stood in the phalanx facing forward, never sideways.

Analogies like this are important because they help us to understand why scale armor was untenable in the phalanx. Hoplites were squeezed together like sardines in a can. The fox knows many ploys, the hedgehog only one great trick, Archilochus tells us – hoplites were adept at one thing: presenting a dense, nasty, bristle of steel points to the enemy.

We have to take into account the conditions of the phalanx, without which the whole concept of the “hoplite” is irrelevant. The hoplon shield measured roughly one meter in diameter and weighed about seven kilograms. This large shield was deeply dished and partially supported on the shoulder. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip; it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening for the forearm at the centre. The shield rested somewhat (but not too much) on a man’s left shoulder, stretching down to the knees. These large shields were designed for a mass of hoplites to push forward into the opposing army, and was their most essential equipment. But the hoplon shield is completely useless outside of mass formation. It is large, unwieldy, and yet despite being so, does not adequately protect the legs despite its size. Moreover it is easily turned against the wielder if grasped; this is the reason the Romans, who based their strategy on the individual soldier rather than the formation, did not use it. In mass formation, however, the hoplon shield excels, more so in a formation that requires overlapping shields like the phalanx. Which is why the Greeks used the thing in the first place – they were spearmen, not swordsmen or archers.

Again, try to understand the conditions of crowd behavior in relation to the phalanx. In order to maximize the pushing force of a crowd, the distance between bodies must be minimized to the point that the group becomes one mass pushing in synchrony. In crowds of this density, shock waves are produced that kill people due to compressive asphyxia. These forces are generated by the domino effect of men leaning against each other and pushing in the same direction at once; victims die in panicked stampedes every year simply because they cannot endure this pressure. The hoplite endured such pressure routinely.

So. Squeezed together like sardines, very little room to move around in, decreased mobility as the result of being required to protect their neighbor (the main tactic involved), people pushing in on you from all sides. A bristly wall of sharp steel points. That was the phalanx.

You have to consider how soldiers move in such conditions. The type of movement required in the phalanx was the reason for the solid bronze cuirass in the first place. Now remember, the Greeks knew all about scale armor, about lamellar armor, about segmented armor, and could create any size section of bronze they wanted; we today are not smarter than the people who built the Parthenon and fought for their lives standing in the dust and the grime and the blood. Had they wanted to use segmented armor in the phalanx, they would have done so – but they didn’t. They didn’t, because the formation needed to move as a single unit. Like the hoplon shield, the bronze cuirass sucked. It allowed no shoulder movement whatsoever – the hoplite had to move his body from hips. He could not lean forward because of the weight of his armor and the requirements of the formation he was engaged in. He could not breathe into his chest, because solid bronze does not expand – he had to breathe into his belly, much like a Zen monk. But the solid bronze cuirass had advantages as well. Spear points coming through the shield wall would be deflected and bounce off – solid bronze does not readily pierce. Moreover, the bronze cuirass supported weight and pressure from the men behind him in the scrum – otherwise all that force would have been directly applied to his torso. Each hoplite had a shield pressing into his back while he tried to transmit that same force forward. The bronze cuirass fulfilled two tasks then; it kept pressure off the hoplite’s chest, and by forcing him to move from the hips, ensured that he would not be pushed off balance and turn the entire phalanx into a sprawl (rugby much anyone?).

Like the musketeer of later ages, the hoplite had to stand his ground and push forward. He had to use his spear like a sewing needle, seeking ingress amidst multiple targets in the shield wall ahead of him. His mobility was limited; his body faced forward and he made use of the power of his legs and spine, his arms delivering blows with whipping, snapping motions. And his armor? Well, the seamless bronze was designed for the principle task of deflecting, not absorbing or blocking, the multiple thrusts and blows that would rain in on him. Anything that goes contrary to that principle, goes contrary to the central idea of the phalanx.

And that is the problem with scale armor. It was strictly designed for people who have to move around a lot, not stand in the face of the enemy.

Before we get into scale armor, let’s talk about the linothorax itself. Its presence is irrefutable but also controversial at best. It was supposed to be “the poor man’s armor”. Experimental archaeologists have reconstructed it using materials that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean: handspun, hand-woven linen and rabbit glue. Reconstructions weighed in at about 10 pounds – about half the weight of a full bronze cuirass (typically 20 to maximum 30 pounds). These linen reconstructions very adequately protected the user against localized strikes from arrows and other weapons. But the researchers found that the linothorax was vulnerable to rain. Even more of a threat was the user’s own sweat on a hot day. The armor needed waterproofing, both inside and out. The researchers did a number of experiments along those lines, and found that rubbing a block of beeswax over all sides of the armor provided waterproofing. Moreover, when they wore the armor for a couple of hours, the wearer’s own body heat softened the glue and made the armor conform to the user’s body shape – and the researchers were not standing in the middle of a battlefield while conducting these trials.

When looking at the linothorax, then, we have to evaluate its function in relation to the phalanx. It was not, for example, that much lighter than the bronze thorax – common perception of the weight of bronze is skewed. Unlike the bronze cuirass, the linothorax did allow shoulder motion, however; in fact it was  worn by wrapping it around the shoulders, thereby shifting the “center of motion” of the user upwards – not necessarily a good thing in a crowd. It was soft while used – therefore in the phalanx, it could not provide support against the inevitable pressure in the ranks. It was delicate – moisture pretty much ruined it; and what happened to the necessary waterproofing beeswax when the thorax was squeezed by the shield of the colleague behind you and you squeezed the back of the colleague in front of you. You have to wonder, then, how was it taken on expedition? How well did it survive in the field? Imagine a modern kevlar vest that fails when exposed to moisture and you get the picture; the logistics of the linothorax are complicated.

Now let’s cover that up with scale armor. In some places, such a tactic makes sense. Since the linothorax was “softish”, not hard, scales would conform to its shape as it molded, so scales make more sense than solid laminates. Scales could add a hard surface layer that would deflect a blow, an important criterion as we will see. A linothorax did not deflect stabs – rather they “caught” in the linen while trying to penetrate it. A principle target on a hoplite then was his right side – he was in danger there from the man opposite him to the right. So scales going down the sides and lower torso facing forwards, as depicted by Warry back in the Stone Age (1985), make sense. You can’t use too many though – weight becomes a factor, and you might soon find your armor weighing more than a bronze cuirass.

But, regardless of the weight of scales, it is their array and placement that matter in the end. The “sticking” factor is important as well; a primary method of breaking the formation of a phalanx was breaking the stance and balance of its individual components. If a man was hit in a particular location and the spearhead stuck, the momentum of that impact was transferred to the man receiving it. To make matters worse, a spear is not an arrow or a javelin; faced with a terrible, terrible point of steel, it is normally supported by the trained muscles of a man in full battle-lust using every ounce of his skill and rage to drive that point through. One tactic was to simply knock the opponent off balance with the spear, and then segue into a lethal strike when weak points were revealed (remember the sewing needle?); this is why solid armor is designed so that weapons “bounce off” rather than stick. Well, weapons stick into the linothorax; that is one of its problems. One man could break the balance of his opponent while a second drove a spearpoint into this throat; the phalanx works as a group, remember. This was their strength.

Cover it up with scales then, dude, so the weapons don’t stick into it, dat’s what we talkin’ about! Well, OK, but what about those areas where the geometry of scale placement sets the end of the scale straight in line with the point of the spear? That would be a problem, wouldn’t it? Remember what we said about the vulnerability of scale armor? In this case, the scales would lift up and guide the spear point straight into the underlying fabric, both disrupting the armor and, more importantly, breaking the balance of the man wearing it. In fact, adding scales to those places makes the effect worse than if simple linen alone were used for multiple reasons: structural, physical, kinesiological. The places in question are, of course, the shoulders and (shudder) helmets, directly in line with the point of ingress of the opponent’s spear. In those places, the use of scales in the phalanx is simply preposterous. It makes no sense whatsoever. It is contrary to all tactical considerations.

That having been said, we can’t know that there wasn’t a specific use for the particular set of armor, if it existed at all. We just don’t know about scale armor and the ancient Greeks. Moreover, there is no surviving linothorax to evaluate. But there is one thing for sure regarding the linothorax.

Its existence probably means the end of the phalanx. It’s the only conclusion that makes sense. That is to say, it is likely that at the time the linen thorax became popular, the phalanx likely was revised or even ceased to exist as we know it. I personally think that this happened right after the Persian wars, and ultimately was the reason for the Spartan surrender on Sphakteria.

Likely as a result of the Persian Wars, tactical vulnerabilities of the phalanx vs. specific missile weapons were uncovered. Understand that the whole premise of the phalanx rests on an invulnerability to missile weapons – that is how they defeated the Persians. But maybe they learned something from the Medes after all. We must not forget that a 150 years later Alexander defeated war elephants through the use of missile auxiliaries. Maybe the Greeks started using artillery after the Persian wars. The Greek author Biton (2nd century BC), whose reliability has been positively evaluated, described two advanced forms of the gastraphetes, a foot-held crossbow, which he credits to Zopyros, an engineer from southern Italy, who in turn seems to have flourished in the late 5th century BC, and probably designed crossbows for the sieges of Cumae and Milet between 421 BC and 401 BC. The bows of these machines featured a winched pull back system and could apparently throw two missiles at once. The historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), described the invention of a mechanical arrow-firing catapult (katapeltikon) by a Greek task force in 399 BC.

From the mid-4th century BC onwards, evidence of the Greek use of arrow-shooting machines becomes more dense and varied: arrow firing machines are briefly mentioned by Aeneas Tacticus in his treatise on siege craft written around 350 BC. An extant inscription from the Athenian arsenal, dated between 338 and 326 BC, lists a number of stored catapults with shooting bolts of varying size and springs of sinews.
While this a century and a half along the line in history, it is obvious that at some point after the Persian Wars, somebody came up with the idea of artillery methods and tactics to disrupt a phalanx. We know this because armor began to lighten considerably, helmets were revised to expose the face, and skirmishers became far more important, culminating with the Athenian general Iphicrates annihilating a mora (a battalion of about 600 men) of heavily-armed Spartan hoplites in 392 BC.

What can we learn from this? That we shouldn’t be in a rush to interpret what we perceive as evidence outside of tactical boundaries. That archaeologists, both amateur and professional, are not military tacticians and need to be careful in their estimations. No one wore full-scale armor in the phalanx because it made no sense and exposed vulnerabilities to attack that threatened the formation of the phalanx itself. Note that this is not a point open to debate – water boils at 100 degrees, it is neither warm nor hot nor tepid. Similarly, one must always consider the tactical and strategic reasons behind the use of any measure and countermeasure in combat; if not, you fail in your evaluation. In the case of scale armor in the phalanx, the logic comes up short.

If the ancient Greeks did wear full scale armor as depicted by re-enactors, then the soldiers in this role had a purpose outside the main formation of the troops. What that purpose was, I cannot know, and apparently history has not retained. But such armor was never used in the phalanx.

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