Cahokia, Lost in History

The Cahokia Mounds are one of the greatest mysteries of the North American continent, unfortunately the civilization is often forgotten about.  Many school children know of the grand Mesoamerican cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, but rarely know anything about the civilization that reigned in the middle of the United States known as the Mound Builders. The height of this enigmatic lost culture was Cahokia, which built large tumulus of earthen pyramids in the Mississippi valley in what is now southern Illinois.    

During the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers found the unique looking mounds of earth yet contributed them to ancient European migrations such as Atlantis or the Lost Tribes of Israel, disenfranchising the construction to Indians.  It was the perception of the day that it was simply impossible for “savage” Indians to have constructed what must have been massive earthen construction.  Early settlers plowed many of the smaller mounds into the earth, turning ancient sacred lands into farm fields.

With recent archaeological exploration, Cahokia is emerging from the mists of the past and the fog of imaginative cultures (i.e. Atlantis). With the help of a new generation of historians and archaeologists, such as Professor Monty Dobson and Professor Timothy Pauketat, Cahokia is finally getting the proper respect that it deserves as one of the key civilizations of America.  Professor Dobson is in the process of making a television documentary called “Cahokia: Native American City of Mystery” that will detail and discuss the culture and the new findings of recent archaeological exploration. A preview of the documentary can be found at:

Cahokia was known for monumental earthen architecture with flat-topped temple mounds and enormous communal architecture.  The civilization also had a complex hierarchical society that had advanced astronomical and mathematical skills, which is evident with the construction of a wooden “Stonehenge” for astronomical viewing and agricultural calibration. The large circle of timbers stood thirty feet high and had a circumference of four hundred feet.  The timber for this monument was salvaged from homes and was built over and over again at least four times.

 Cahokia also had an extensive trading network with complex relationship with other Indian tribes stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic seaboard, and far west into the Rocky Mountains. They traded a large list of commodities, but it is apparent that seashells were highly prized. Among other imported goods were arrowheads, stylized axe heads, and knives.

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the culture also exhibited the practice of human sacrifice, but it is still unclear if it was religious, secular, or redemptive. It appears that the sacrifices coincided with large festivals held in the communal areas of the city. “The Cahokians seem to have been building a new kind of esprit de corps, a new sense of community – a community that, in its mix of festive gatherings and human sacrifice, in a way, linked the church and state.  Possibly Cahokians accommodated the bizarre mortuary spectacles and tolerated the excesses of their leaders in part because of social and economic rewards that might have accompanied the great festivals.”

Cahokia existed in the Late Woodland period, approximately between 300 CE and 900 CE and had completely disappeared by 1200 CE, more than 300 years before any European even set foot in the New World.   “Cahokia, more than any of its contemporary ‘Mississippian’ neighbors, was a vortex of native social, political, economic and religious activity.  For a time it was the preeminent cultural center in the Mississippian valley.” Cahokia, at its height, had a population of more than twenty thousand inhabitants, larger than any city in all of North America and rivaled early Mayan cities of Calakmul or Chichen Itza. “The Cahokia Group, the most important manifestation of the culture it represents, is a northernmost thrust of the great Lower Mississippi area, excluding the Aztalan ruin in Wisconsin.”

Based on the archaeological findings and geological data from the area, we can conclude that the environment and weather of this epoch was comfortable and life for the population was ostensibly easy.  “Nearly every fall hunters were able to stalk and bring as many deer as they needed to feed a village population of over a hundred for months to come.” The soil was both rich and easy to till, producing bountiful crops with minimal labor. The floodplains are ideal for this balance, except for the occasional floods that would occur along tributaries and the Mississippi. Corn and other crops grew in abundance, and often more than a single crop could be harvested in a year.   Though the people had no fired clay pottery for cooking and agriculture was in its infancy, some archaeologists believe the very richness in the ecosystem may have made it unnecessary to develop more advanced technologies.

The construction of the earthen pyramids were more than simply piling heaps of soil and forming a large tumulus.  “While it is clear that there were massive clay cores to the first pyramids of Cahokia’s central precinct, it is equally obvious that there was a highly ritualized construction cycle materialized around alternating light and dark “blankets” of mantles of soil to the mounds.” The pyramids of earth were both temples but also sites of veneration for elites and royalty buried within.  “The invention of tradition at Cahokia is no more evident than in the unprecedented construction of the pyramids and the Grand Plaza of the central precinct, perhaps an import from Toltec or other Coles Creek places to the south.”

It was in the breath of those 600 years that the civilization grew to engulf more than three square miles along the great river.  It was within this kingdom that more than 100 earthen mounds were built, with the greatest of these structures measuring larger in physical dimensions than the Giza pyramids of Egypt.  At the height of the Cahokia civilization, the city-state had a population of more than twenty-thousand inhabitants which was greater than the medieval cities of London or Paris.

            Unlike the massive stone structure of Egypt, the indigenous tribes of the Cahokia region used very little stone.  “In the sense of actual building, only incipient forms of stone construction are found in the mound area. No examples of actual dressing of stone or lying up of masonry walls, as practiced by the Pueblo peoples, are known in the mound area.” What Cahokia lacked in masonry, they made up for in sheer mass of baskets of transported soil.  As well as moving millions of baskets of earth to form the flat-topped earth mounds, the civilization also used timber from the local area to construct massive palisades and buildings. “At that time and over the next century, the Stirling phase residents of Cahokia and East St. Louis built a series of elite-sized pole and thatched domiciles and non-domestic buildings, some surrounded by compound walls or located near huge marker posts.”

            Where did the people of Cahokia come from and how did such a great civilization rise from the wilderness of the Southern United States?  This was the basic argument of 18th and 19th century Academics, who considered Indians to be a rather recent addition to the continent. Indigenous people have lived in the Americas for at least twelve thousand years and a recent archaeological discovery in Texas suggests that early cultures have been in America much longer.  There is new evidence that Indians have been living as far south as modern day Texas thousands of years earlier.  “Thousands of artifacts dating to between 13,200 and 15,500 years ago were uncovered by researchers led by Michael R Waters of Texas A&M University.”

            The most current theory of the origins of Indians considers that tribes of protolithic hunters driven by food and new lands stepped across the frozen peninsula of the Bearing straights and into North America approximately twelve to thirteen thousand years ago. Over the course of another four to eight thousand years, Indians fanned out across North America settling in numerous locations. In the Eastern United States a set of people collectively called the Hopewell, settled along the Mississippi and Ohio Valley forming a cultural identity that represents an advance in complexity, and it significantly influenced almost all the peoples of the eastern United States. The Hopewell culture also built huge earthen hills, of which the largest was over one hundred and fifteen feet tall (in comparison the Tempo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan stood slightly taller than ninety feet).

            It was the Hopewell’s that created the innumerable structures such as the snakelike shapes that measured almost one thousand three hundred feet in length, twenty-three feet wide, and over five feet tall. It was the extension of this large geographical people that forged and formed the civilization of Cahokia.

            Where did the Cahokia culture go? It was during the late 1200s that the population began to decline, some evidence suggest that the depletion of timber and soil condition resulted in the gradual decline of the city.  Some evidence suggests that war was the cause of the culture’s decline. In any event, Cahokia was deserted hundreds of years before any European explorer even ventured into the Americas.  The few tribes that did live in the area after the decline of Cahokia had no true relationship with the ancient civilization and considered the hills nothing more than freaks of nature.  In the late 1400’s as Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador, the Oneota culture of Indians had established small villages in the area – living in simple wigwams. It was even after the Oneota people lived with the area that the Illiniwek confederacy moved into the countryside taking up residence on the Monks Mound and other large unnatural earthen hills.  It was the Illiniwek people that gave the name “Cahokia” to the forgotten people of the area. It is rather strange to consider that many of the great civilizations of the past had names other than the ones we relate to them, but as in Cahokia no recognizable written language is present nor is there any speakers of the culture still around. It probably will never be known what the people of the flat-topped soil pyramids called themselves. 

            As it was said, earlier, Europeans venturing into the Mississippi valley had little idea that the huge mounds of earth was the remnants of an ancient grand civilization. For many, the idea that Indians could build such massive structures was beyond their feeble imaginations.  Early French explorers had no idea that many of the rises and low rising hills they discovered along the tributaries of southern Illinois were anything but natural formations.  It would not be for centuries until white settlers in the area would discover that the formations were more than that.  At first though, the exploration of the area by French explorers and traders occurred around 1672 when Louis Joliet was sent to “discover the south sea” and to explore “the great Mississippi, which is believed to empty in the California Sea”.  Joilet, Jesuit-educated, took along Jacque Marquette, and the pair with numerous others set out from Mackinac Island on May 17th, 1673, to journey along the tributaries that led into the great Mississippi river. Their exploits were recorded and they encountered few if any Indian tribes.  When they did, they met with small tribes that Marquette could understand (Jacque Marquette was gifted with the ability to speak languages and had learned at least 6 tongues of indigenous peoples).  This was most likely the first time that the Cahokia mounds were observed by Europeans which all along the river lay the mounds of the past, but they saw none of them.  From the river, mounds and embankments would seem mere natural formations and they would have no reason to examine them more closely unless they had seen Indian settlements.

            It would be more than a hundred years later before any further exploration would result in the chance discovery of the mounds.   The attitudes in the 19th century was more of obtuse confusion than anything else, because most white settlers and the intelligentsia of the day could not truly comprehend a civilization of the Americas, most aptly applying to the present day indigenous peoples, as having the capacity to build such large earthworks.

            In 1788, Manasseh Cutler arrived on one of the mound sites in the Ohio Valley and discovered settlers were felling huge trees on top of the earthen hills.  He logically deduced that if he counted the rings of the oldest of trees, he could guess the age of when the mounds were constructed. Although he erred on the exact epoch, he at least determined that the site was extremely old, ranging from four hundred to more than a thousand years old.

            In 1836, Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of Treasury for the Thomas Jefferson’s administration, concluded, “How shall we account for those ancient tumuli, fortifications, and the remnants, both east and west of the Mississippi, the origin of which is entirely unknown to the Indians, who in the seventeenth century were the sole inhabitants, and still continue to occupy a part of that country?”  Gallatin could not fathom how such huge earthen works could have been constructed and it was beyond his reasoning to think that indigenous people could be held responsible for the construction.  It was of Gallatin’s opinion that the mounds were perhaps a pre-cursor civilization to that of the Mexican and Central American highlands of the Aztec and Mayans, which according to the theorists of the time had “similar looking buildings”.

            It would only follow, and of course be supported by modern archaeology of the time, that peoples of the north would gradually migrate to the south, bringing with them agricultural and architectural technology. 

            By other accounts, however, most notably those in Europe that mythical significance was being attached to the Cahokia mounds.  In 1795 Jacob Bailey wrote stories of a great ancient empire being brought down by savages.  “Bailey described the gory struggle between the Mound Builders and the fierce savages, driven on by famine, who burst like an impetuous torrent upon their polished more effeminate neighbors, involving in destruction all the monuments of industry, art, and refinement.”  throughout the discourse never were Indians suggested as being the more advanced civilization, often suggesting fanciful concepts of ancient Viking or lost European colonies.  Other stories circulating around Europe about the mounds draw conclusions to a party of Israelites being drawn to ships by the hand of God and then finding a new civilization in America. And if it could not get any worse, Major Powell, a U.S. soldier, geologist, and explorer of the American West, proclaimed that the mounds of Cahokia, and elsewhere in the Mississippi and Ohio valley, were that of the lost continent of Atlantis.

            Every day reveals a new page in the history of the forgotten people and culture along the Mississippian valley.  It is such a tragic shame that for the last three hundred years Americans have ignored and incorrectly attributed the hills, mounds, and tumulus as anything but natural formations, or even worse to the wanderings of mythical people such as the Lost Tribes of Israel or the fanciful mental creations of the Atlanteans. It was the pure racial intolerance of the 18th and 19th centuries to exclude Indians as the rightful heir to the lost civilization. It is only now within the last forty years we are finally rediscovering the epic civilization that existed along the Mississippi; learning their culture, religion, and how they constructed the great mounds known as Cahokia and finally giving credit to the American Indian as the children of this most prestigious and grand civilization. The Cahokia Mounds are one of the greatest mysteries of the North American continent, but in perhaps future generation of American school children the name Cahokia will reign up with the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans and be recognized as a major culture that existed in America six hundred years before European explorers and settlers even stepped on to the North American continent. 


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August 26th; Today in History

Today on August 26th this is all that happened (and then some)


1071 Battle of Manzikert: The Seljuk Turks defeat the Byzantine Army at Manzikert.

1278 Ladislaus IV of Hungary and Rudolph I of Germany defeat Premysl Ottokar II of Bohemia in the Battle of Marchfield near Dürnkrut in (then) Moravia.

1303 Ala ud din Khilji captures Chittorgarh.

1346 Hundred Years’ War: the military supremacy of the English longbow over the French combination of crossbow and armoured knights is established at the Battle of Crécy.

1444 Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs: A vastly outnumbered force of Swiss Confederates is defeated by the Dauphin Louis (future Louis XI of France) and his army of ‘Armagnacs’ near Basel.

1466 A conspiracy against Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence, led by Luca Pitti, is discovered.

1498 Michelangelo is commissioned to carve the Pietà.

1748 The first Lutheran denomination in North America, the Pennsylvania Ministerium, is founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

1768 Captain James Cook sets sail from England on board HMS Endeavour.

1778 The first recorded ascent of Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia.

1789 The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is approved by the National Constituent Assembly of France.

1791 John Fitch is granted a United States patent for the steamboat.
1810 The former viceroy Santiago de Liniers of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata is executed after the defeat of his counter-revolution.

1813 War of the Sixth Coalition: An impromptu battle takes place when French and Prussian-Russian forces accidentally run into each other near Liegnitz, Prussia (now Legnica, Poland).

1814 Chilean War of Independence: Infighting between the rebel forces of José Miguel Carrera and Bernardo O’Higgins erupts in the Battle of Las Tres Acequias.

1821 The University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is officially opened.

1883 The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa begins its final, paroxysmal, stage.

1914 In Brazil, Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras is founded.

1914 World War I: the German colony of Togoland is invaded by French and British forces, who take it after 5 days.

1920 The 19th amendment to United States Constitution takes effect, giving women the right to vote.

1940 Chad becomes the first French colony to join the Allies under the administration of Félix Éboué, France’s first black colonial governor.

1942 Holocaust in Chortkiav, western Ukraine: At 2.30 am the German Schutzpolizei starts driving Jews out of their houses, divides them into groups of 120, packs them in freight cars and deports 2000 to Belzec death camp. 500 of the sick and children are murdered on the spot.

1944 World War II: Charles de Gaulle enters Paris.

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Today in History

Check out the tabs along the top of the page, specifically Today in History to learn what momentous events and anniversaries are being celebrated or recognized on this day in history.

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History 1964 Part II

My follow up to the events and historical tidbits of 1964.  Certainly more of talking points, as the animation does not allow a finer discussion on the actual events. 


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Did You Know Today on August 19th

This is all that happened on this day throughout history:

August 19th

295 BC The first temple to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility, is dedicated by Quintus Fabius Maximus Gurges during the Third Samnite War.

43 BC Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, later known as Augustus, compels the Roman Senate to elect him Consul.

1153 Baldwin III of Jerusalem takes control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from his mother Melisende, and also captures Ascalon.

1504 In Ireland, the Hiberno-Norman de Burghs (Burkes) and Anglo-Norman Fitzgeralds fight in the Battle of Knockdoe.

1561 18-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, returns to Scotland after spending 13 years in France.

1612 The “Samlesbury witches”, three women from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury, England, are put on trial, accused of practicing witchcraft, one of the most famous witch trials in British history.

1666 Second Anglo-Dutch War: Rear Admiral Robert Holmes leads a raid on the Dutch island of Terschelling, destroying 150 merchant ships, an act later known as “Holmes’s Bonfire”.

1692 Salem witch trials: in Salem, Province of Massachusetts Bay, five people, one woman and four men, including a clergyman, are executed after being convicted of witchcraft.
1745 Prince Charles Edward Stuart raises his standard in Glenfinnan – the start of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, known as “the 45″.

1759 Battle of Lagos Naval battle during the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France.

1768 Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is founded in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

1772 Gustav III of Sweden stages a coup d’état, in which he assumes power and enacts a new constitution that divides power between the Riksdag and the King.

1782 American Revolutionary War: Battle of Blue Licks – the last major engagement of the war, almost ten months after the surrender of the British commander Charles Cornwallis following the Siege of Yorktown.

1812 American frigate USS Constitution defeats the British frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada earning the nickname “Old Ironsides”.

1813 Gervasio Antonio de Posadas joins Argentina’s Second Triumvirate.

1839 The French government announces that Louis Daguerre’s photographic process is a gift “free to the world”.

1848 The New York Herald breaks the news to the East Coast of the United States of the gold rush in California (although the rush started in January).

1854 The First Sioux War begins when United States Army soldiers kill Lakota chief Conquering Bear and in return are massacred.

1861 First ascent of Weisshorn, fifth highest summit in the Alps.

1862 During an uprising in Minnesota, Lakota warriors decide not to attack heavily-defended Fort Ridgely and instead turn to the settlement of New Ulm, killing white settlers along the way.

1895 American Frontier murderer and outlaw John Wesley Hardin is killed by an off-duty policeman in a saloon in El Paso, Texas.

1909 The first automobile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1914 The Ottoman-Bulgarian alliance is signed in Sofia.

1919 Afghanistan gains full independence from the United Kingdom.

1927 Metropolitan Sergius proclaims the declaration of loyalty of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Soviet Union.

1934 The first All-American Soap Box Derby is held in Dayton, Ohio.

1934 The creation of the position Führer is approved by the German electorate with 89.9% of the popular vote.

1940 First flight of the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber.

1942 Operation Jubilee – the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division leads an amphibious assault by allied forces on Dieppe, Seine-Maritime, France and fails, many Canadians are killed or captured. The operation was intended to develop and try new amphibious landing tactics for the coming full invasion in Normandy.

1944 Paris, France rises against German occupation with the help of Allied troops.

1945 Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh take power in Hanoi, Vietnam.

1953 The CIA and MI6 help to overthrow the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and reinstate the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

1955 In the Northeast United States, severe flooding caused by Hurricane Diane, claims 200 lives.

1960 Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is sentenced to ten years imprisonment by the Soviet Union for espionage.

1960 he Soviet Union launches the satellite with the dogs Belka and Strelka, 40 mice, 2 rats and a variety of plants.

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1964: Part One

A short video I made showcasing just a few important historical dates in 1964.

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A Whimsical history comic

I just had to post this. Very funny and true:10603277_10152370633669998_8972985966488336150_n

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Pages at the Top

I have been trying to fill in the top menu pages a bit, with some book reviews and the Today In History pages.  Although the stories on the main page does not change daily, I am trying to add content often so people and history aficionados have a reason to return to my site. 

Check out my Today In History page for fascinating and interesting historical anniversaries happening today.

As you may have noticed, I think history ends at my birth so you will rarely see anything after 1964 unless it is particularly historical.

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Introduction to the Maya

Experimenting with new learning tools, I stumbled across a wonderful program called Animoto.  In what I hope to be a series of lightly educating, fun and snazzy video clips, on all topics I present you with “The Maya”.

As an aficionado of North American indigenous people, with a very soft spot for Mesoamerican cultures I hope to create introductory videos for all the major cultures up until the invasion of Europeans.

These little videos are not intended for a deep analysis of the culture, but more to pique the interest in the hopes of raising attention to their story.

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Espirit de Corp of the Greek Phalanx

The phalanx was the embodiment of the esprit de corp of the Greek city-states from roughly the thirteenth century to the fourth century BCE.  It was the development of the phalanx that culminated into this bravado of strict military rules, conduct, and valor of waging war that created an atmosphere parallel to team sports of the twentieth century.

It was the culture of phalanx combat that allowed non-professional soldiers to wage war. After the battle this enabled the citizen-warriors to quickly return to their homes, farms, and businesses and carry on life as normal.  Strict adherence to the values of this code spared the cities and countryside of the Greek peninsula of the devastation of Total War. However, the philosophy of phalanx permeated through a dozen centuries after its effective usefulness that led to such military fiasco as the Battle of the Teuoburg Forest, the Battle of Hasting, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Gettysburg, and even the Battle of the Little Big Horn, to name just a few.  It was the idea that battle was fought on level ground, between two equal armies, with specific quarter given to either side, formal rules of engagement, retrieval and burial of the dead, and day time battles.  Professional soldiers were looked down upon, as well as secondary or auxiliary units of cavalry, archers, and ancillary combat units.

Much like team sports of today, the phalanx marched often to per-determined fields of play.  These battlegrounds were flat open plains and combat took place in the middle of the day, lasting no longer than a few hours.  There was the expectation that each side would abide by strict rules of contact, parley, battle, and withdraw.  Battle was like that of a Sunday afternoon game, only the losers of phalanx combat often lay dead on the field and the score of the match meant life and death.

In the twilight of the Dark Ages, prior to twelve hundred BCE in the Greek mainland, battles fought between tribes and small kingdoms could not clearly be called warfare since the combatants had no organization, strategy, or tactics. It was during this time that bands of men would simply march, without formation or drill, towards the enemy and attack with whatever means that suited them.  Such conflicts were often little more than brawls or riots, killing indiscriminately and ravaging the lands of the countryside. There were no rules of engagement or forms of military conduct, and thus it often devolved into a cloud of disjointed attackers in full and open melee.

It was the spirit of camaraderie that grew out of the city-states, most aptly Sparta and Athens, but all of the small kingdoms of the Greek peninsula that began to change how combat was fought. As the Dorian civilization waned, the city-states began to flourish with massive population explosion, robust trade, innovations in marine technology, and perhaps most importantly the development of advanced metallurgy.

It was the discovery of copper and tin, with the culmination of the two metals that composed bronze that gave these early civilizations a leg up on all manner of trade goods and most importantly military weaponry. From the furnaces came the ability to forge spears and swords, as well as armor. “Most modern estimates of the weight of hoplite equipment ranged from fifty to seventy pounds for the panoply of greaves, shield, breastplate, helmet, spear, and sword.”[1] The panoply, the whole suit of armor as used by the hoplites, was just one facet of the complicated development of ideals and methods of waging war using the strategy of the phalanx.

The hoplite had at his disposal a number of items to protect him in combat.   First, the shield was an integral piece of equipment that often weighed sixteen pounds and was round and concave.  The use of the shield was more than to protect the user, but used in as much to protect his fellow soldier to his right (since the shield was held in the left hand).   The composition of the shield was that of any number of hardwood cores and encased in sheets of bronze. What was unique about the hoplite shield was, “the distinctive arm and handgrips, the porpax and the antilabe, which for the first time distributed the weight all along the left arm rather than concentrating it at the hand and wrist alone.”[2] The nature of the shield and its use to protect the man to the right, often made the entire regiment slowly drift to the right, as the men on the inside of the shield wall sought to protect themselves as much as possible.

The true protection of the hoplite came with the breastplate, however.  This was the anchor to which the hoplites surrounded themselves with the rest of the panoply and was composed of two sheets of heavy bronze hammered into the general musculature of the torso. .   It was held in place by heavy leather straps or laces, upon the shoulder.  The breastplate encased the warrior in a highly resilient piece of armor that warded off spear thrusts, arrows, stones, and blunt shock. The greatest discomfort of the breastplate was its lack of ventilation, often causing the soldier to be drenched in sweat in a matter of minutes of marching or combat. This resulted in, strangely enough, hypothermia on any but the warmest of days.

The favored helmet of the hoplite was known as the Corinthian helmet and was a massive bronze shell that covered the entire head, neck, and face, leaving only small slits for the eyes, nose, and mouth.  The helmet was exceedingly uncomfortable to wear and use, as depicted in many vases and literal descriptions. that piece of the panoply was often thrust up and over the soldier’s head until the last minute of combat.  It does not need to be said that while the helmet was in place, almost all senses were obliterated. Luckily, the tactics of the phalanx did not necessitate the need to hear or see well.

Outside of the confines of the protection of the shield and breastplate, the hoplite was in need of protection for the shin and calves.  This area was augmented with the use of a bronze piece of armor called the greaves. Unlike early armor to protect the lower legs, the hoplite greaves snapped over the leg staying in place by the sheer elasticity of the metal – it did not require clamps, clips, strings, or other attaching laces to hold them in place.

Finally, the panoply of the hoplite concludes with the spear.  This weapon saw an exponential growth in design and capabilities over the course of several hundred years.  In its original form, it was nothing more than a short, heavy spear with a head of bronze.  It was the choice weapon of the Greek phalanx,  “. . .men who had no taste for the bow or missile and contempt for soldiers who would or could not come in close to fight.”[3] Over the course of its development, the spearhead became iron and the butt of the shaft developed into a secondary edge, with a spike or heavy knob.  The spear shaft also grew from three feet to lengths of over eighteen feet long.  The major obstacle, but also bonus, to the spear was its sheer size and reach, which allowed them to extend deep into enemy ranks and also ward of melee and missile attacks.

With the use of the panoply, came new ways of military drill and organization.  Unlike in the dark past, the Greeks assembled themselves into dense rectangular squares of men, eight ranks deep.  Although not professional soldiers, with little time to train, the phalanx did require some discipline in order to keep the formation intact.  Often this would be achieved by anchoring elder or more experienced warriors in key positions within the square, such as the corners and center of each group.  The use of the spear, and to some lesser extent the sword, required very little expertise because it was all about the cohesion of the group, rather than the individual.  Combat was akin to two rams charging each other with their heads down; it required little knowledge of use of the weapon to simply smash into your opponent.  Like the reverse of a tug of war, or perhaps that of a sumo match, each side sought to literally push the other from the field of play, with the goal of breaking the ranks of the other side and causing a route.   Once the enemy phalanx was broken, it was easy to trample and stab the retreating enemy.

The panoply of the phalanx and the tactics was just two small parts of the culture of the new terms of waging war. As the soldiers were not professional warriors, but mere citizens of the city-states, the art of conflict could better be understood more as a sporting event than true gruesome war. The engagements were seen as matches of rivalry, more than pure destruction of the other side (both in terms of men but also of their land and towns).  Perhaps the only difference between the phalanx and modern sporting events were the lack crowds of observers, though it is conceivable that there were large parties of non-combatants at the battles since each warrior often had in his attendance a number of slaves or family to carry his panoply, as well as the baggage train of cooks, slaves, young boys, and perhaps even curious onlookers. One could argue that this flare for combat and regimented rules were the progeny of gladiatorial combat that manifested itself in the Roman Empire, where tens of thousands watched battles of hundreds of men die daily in the coliseum.  “Philip celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome in giving games with the following were killed: one thousand pairs of gladiators, thirty-two elephants, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, and six hippos”[4]

Each city-state had their teams, composed of ordinary men of the community.  The citizens were expected to fight, but the commoner did not shirk or dread the call, but openly sought and accepted the commitment. “The unique cohesiveness that existed among individuals within a phalanx, account for much of the success achieved by Greek hoplites, especially in contrast to foreign troops. Although fragmented by city-state rivalries, badly outnumbered, hastily assembled, and plagued by outright betrayal, the Greek defenders during the Persian Wars routed the Eastern invaders in nearly every land battle in which they met.”[5]

The phalanx of each city-state was drawn together by the sheer pride, patriotism, and honor to serve.  Regiments of men were comprised from kinship and age, supplemented by close living proximity as citizens. “Unlike most modern armies, the bonds between hoplites on the line did not originate within military service or in weeks of shared drill in boot camp; they were natural extensions of already long-standing peacetime friendships and kinships.”[6]  This pride in serving is still evident even today, “Years after the end of the Second World War, American veterans of the armored divisions of the Third Army could still recall with undisguised pride, ‘I rolled with Patton’.”[7]

Subtracting the idea that armies were bent on destroying the enemy lands, as in the tactic of Total War, the phalanx concentrated on the honor of combat. Rules of engagement such as fighting in clear and open terrain, fighting during the day, allowing both sides to remove the dead and injured from the combat, signaling to each other when combat was to commence (such as the blowing of horns, waving of flags, or the beat of drums), and to some lesser extent the use of “dishonorable” forms of combat including archery and cavalry are signs of the phalanx mentality.

With the success of the Greek city-states to repel the Eastern invaders in the Persian War, perpetuated the idea of phalanx combat for the next two thousand years.   Hundreds of years later, during the early development of the Roman Republic, the use of the phalanx style army were used in the legions. Men were organized into units of 100 men called centuries, commanded by a general called a centurion. Just as the phalanx marched into combat in tight formation, so did the legions of Rome.  During the Punic Wars, the strategy of the phalanx proved disastrous.  At the battle of Cannae, eighty-five thousand Romans marched against half that many under the leadership of Hannibal. It was after this loss that the Romans changed their battle formations to a much more open contingency, allowing for greater flexibility in the ranks.  With the new formations, the Romans fared significantly better, such as “with the lopsided numbers did not work to the Seleucid king’s advantage. The checkerboard of Roman maniples was like an accordion. The legion could expand or contract by simply opening or closing gaps between the maniples; or it could increase or shrink the distance between the ranks. The Romans typically maintained two-foot intervals between soldiers to allow room for swordplay, with each soldier occupying a front of about six feet. The front of a 5,000-man legion could cover as much as 850 yards, or contract to less than 400 yards”.[8]

Unlike the Greeks, however, the Romans were a militaristic society, with the mindset of Total War at their disposal – the sacking and destruction of cities, towns, and countryside was simply how they waged war. This process of looting and destruction fluctuated over the course of wars for the next thousand years, but the idea of the free citizen army and the ideals of the phalanx continually crept back into armies around the globe.

We can see throughout the next two millennia how the phalanx style of a “bravado military conduct” often forced the hands of the combatants into catastrophic and often ill conceived situations. This was aggravated by the development of weaponry that realistically stripped the need for the phalanx style formation.  With the use of gunpowder and its implementation in combat, we truly begin to see the idiocy of close packed formation of troops, but it still took several hundred years to break that military strategy.  Such as the battle of Waterloo, the engagements of the American Revolution, the Anglo-Zulu War, the American Civil War, and perhaps even as late as the Vietnam War.   The idea of guerrilla warfare never found heart with commanders of Western Warfare, still relying on the military code developed by the Greek phalanx two thousand years earlier.

The idea of Total War came to fruition in the Roman Empire and continued on and off throughout historical battles up until today.  The new paradigm of war harkens back to the Dark Ages of the Greek peninsula, with small squad level tactical engagements of terrorists or guerilla combatants rather than huge deployments of divisions of men and machinery.  However, for most civilized nations the idea of a Total War concept still sits uncomfortable in the society’s consciousness.  The idea of meeting your enemy like that of the Greek phalanx did two thousand years ago still is held in great esteem.

[1] Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 56.

[2] Ibid. 65.

[3] Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 83.

[4] Grant Showerman, Rome and the Romans (Macmillan Company, 1956), 259.

[5] Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 117.

[6] Ibid. 121.

[7] Ibid. 125.

[8] Michael J. Taylor, Fear the Phalanx: the Macedonian formation terrified opponents–and at times overwhelmed the vaunted Roman legion (MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History, 2011). Article.

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