Near Athens, in the field of Marathon, the Persians were deployed. Opposite them the Athenian soldiers gather. The mood is characterized by fear. The Spartans are not there yet, the Persians were faster. You can no longer avoid the battle, you have to compete without the dreaded Spartans. The right wing of the Athenians is traditionally made by the strongest and best hoplite soldiers, who in their heavy bronze armor with the horsehair-crowned helmets, the conically shaped shields and the long spears make an impressive appearance and advance slowly in formation, with the slight right-hand spin, that is characteristic of their formations.
The day belonged to the Athenian hoplites. They defeated the Persian army, and the runner, who traveled 42 kilometers to Athens to deliver the victory message, is still considered the founder of the marathon today. But who were these hoplites who were immortalized on vases and played such a crucial role in Greek society? It was not the people who populated the streets of Athens and later exiled Thucydides. It was the landowners outside Athens who peopled Attica and proclaimed the fertile land, not the wealthy landowners, but ordinary peasants with rudimentary wealth. Because hoplites had to provide their own equipment, and the cost was not insignificant. In return, they were allowed to feel that they were the true elite of the Greeks, the backbone of their army and society. Even the rich, who had the opportunity to train a horse and perform cavalry services, often chose the hoplite profession when it went to battle – so great was their reputation.
The myth about the hoplite of Sparta was taken to extremes. While Athens relied increasingly on its strong fleet and the great abilities of its sailors after defeating Persia in the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC, and maintained the hoplites by name rather than reality, they were of undiminished importance in Sparta. The population of the city-state had been particularly affected by the devastating earthquake of 464 BC since the Persian Wars. and the following heliot rebellion has been greatly decimated. Sparta had a population of well over 250,000 helots, while it had just under 10,000 Spartiaten; in the Peloponnesian War, then only 6,000 to 7,000. These were constantly mobilized and patrolled the Spartan dominion to keep the Helots from rebellion – all Sparta was a single, huge barracks. The fate of Sparta rested on the shoulders of the Spartans.
When the Peloponnesian War broke out, all sides had reason enough to assume that, as many times before, the matter would be decided upon with a major battle in which the hoplite formations would compete. This ritualized form of conflict resolution had never really been carried out in its exaggerated form; however, the losses were within 10% of their limits, because the Hoplites weaponry and tactics were not particularly deadly in the fight against each other (with the spears actually only the Mind and Neck were sensible hit zones) and the heavy armor was a pursuit defeated enemies anyway impossible. At the beginning of the war, the Spartans had good hopes for a quick, decisive victory, which they would achieve with their superior hoplites against the armies of Attica. At the same time, Pericles in Athens made no illusions about these hopes and did not accept the invitation to the field battle, which the Spartans traditionally offered with an invasion of Attica and the burning down of the sacred olive trees in the groves of the hoplite peasants. In the traditional network of classical Greece, the profanation of olive groves and fields was an insult, and the ensuing divorce could only be avoided by conquering the aggressors victoriously – at a time when logistics in foreign lands was scarcely to be guaranteed Defender also good odds (unless you pulled against Spartiaten, of course).
But Athens did not do that. Instead, they sent the small cavalry they had and constantly harassed the vast Spartan land army, which could do nothing but stay away from the shotgun Athenians behind the Long Walls. The Long Walls, bravely ignored by the Spartans, had decisively changed the premise of Greek warfare. Because if a city was hardly fortified (fortifications were extremely expensive and could be built only in a time of prosperous trade flows, but only after the Persian wars really emerged). She had no other choice than to face the enemy army in the open field. With the construction of Athens gigantic fortress of the double ramparts, which reached to the port of Piraeus and made the city independent of the peasants of Attica, an essential element of Hoplite warfare was lost. If you wanted to defeat Athens, you had to dominate the Aegean Sea and deny her replenishment.
But that was not a Spartan solution. Instead, they invaded Attica five times without success, relocating the fight to minor battlefields. Where the Spartans could fight on their own ground under their conditions, they fought themselves with flying colors. Where they tried other things, they failed – whether in the siege of Plataea, or in the disturbance of the Athenian commando action at Pylos. The latter is worth a closer look. Athens realized that it needed a base in the enemys country, which was a starting point for enemy slaves and helots who escaped their masters and where to take care of. On the island of Pylos in western Peloponnese, this base was built and fortified, confident that the Spartans were rivets in siege engineering and amphibious operations. The Spartans recognized the danger and managed in a true commando action about 200 Spartiaten on the neighboring island of Sphakteria, in order to build their own base there, to break the Athenian sea connection and thus to Pylos to its knees.
With the enthusiasm of amateurs they set to work, and the Athenians were preparing to prevent just that. They made the besiegers besiegers, and only the Spartan fighting skills held their position in Sphakteria. If the fight for the Spartan base was a disaster for Sparta, the rest of the operation was a whole. With ease, the Athenians submerged the Spartans, who planned to cut off Pylos and plan to feed Sphakteria, cutting off the Spartans from all supplies. 120 men still held the increasingly hopeless position. Finally, Sphakteria was ready for the storm, and the Athenians got ready. Everyone expected a kind of mini Thermopylene, in which the Spartans would make a heroic final battle and go down to the last man. And then something happened that nobody thought possible. The 120 Spartiates capitulated and went into Athenian captivity.
In one fell swoop, the basis of the Spartan power and social fabric was swept away. 7,000 men, who had previously ruled over a quarter of a million population, could do so only on the basis of the myth of the indomitable Spartan hoplite, which would never give up. The rest of the Spartan population had few rights; Full citizens were only the few hoplites that existed. Their reputation plunged to an immense depth, only exacerbated by the Athenians holding the 120 as scourges and threatening to execute in another invasion of Attica. The Spartans then moved after a beaten down by Athens peace offer then the fight on the periphery, where they at least could celebrate success again.
But not only the myth of the hoplite had suddenly crashed. His role on the battlefield was also eliminated. In the first ten years of the war, there had been no hoplite battle; instead, light troops and cavalry ruled the field, chasing down individuals who fled the army, plundered, and launched nocturnal raids. The war, previously a heroic affair on the battlefield – at least in perception – had become dirty. In addition, the hoplites did not want the war. With no decision to be made (it had long been clear that the enemy had to be starved and deprived of their allies, which would take a long time), they wanted to return to their fields to order them – but that was impossible the longer the war lasted and the parties got used to his new reality. In 414, the Spartans built a base in Dekelea barely 60km from Athens. Thus, the threat of Attica from the summer event became everyday. For the hoplites, there was nothing more than to finally end this war. On this assumption the peace of the Nikias of 421 was based.
However, there were also broad sections of the population in Athens, which benefited from the war. It was the many-headed, poor urban population that had a great interest in him. Since the enemy could not take Athens, they had nothing to lose. However, as long as the war was going on, their services were needed – it was the Athenian citizens who manned and rowed the triremes, an art that required a lot of practice and was well paid. The war, therefore, provided them with a good living, especially as long as no one else had a fleet that could be a threat. While the hoplites became more and more light troops – the heavy infantry were simply no longer needed – and smart intriguers like Alcibiades could easily put the Peoples Assembly on a war course, the old borders were blurring more and more. Hoplites were no longer a class, no backbone of the army, they became one troop type among many. The long war and the harsh losses meant that the state had to provide the horses and armor with which the citizens were armed. Being a hoplite has become detached from the claim of the class. He became a professional soldier.
At the end of the war almost nothing remained of the former hoplite chauvinism. The social conditions had undergone a profound change. The warfare was forever different than it had been against the Persians. Under Alexander the Great, the development of joining hoplites as professional soldiers of a particular type of service into one army and fighting for coherent tactics would come to an end. At any rate, in Greece a phase soon set in, in which one began to transfigure the good old days, in which brave hoplites measured themselves in noble duels. They constructed a time that had never been there before, but how much they would never come back.