The Chigi Vase - Ceci n’est pas une phalange


A jug made in Corinth but unearthed in an Etruscan tomb features an image that has been widely interpreted as representing hoplites fighting in phalanx formation. But a closer examination of this artefact casts serious doubts on this view.

Written by Josho Brouwers and Roel Konijnendijk on 11 April 2020

When it comes to ancient Greek warfare, a lot of scholarship has focused narrowly on the problems related to the so-called “hoplite phalanx”. The term “hoplite” is used to denote a heavy-armed warrior who was equipped with a spear and a large, hollow shield with double-grip. The term “phalanx” is used to denote a broad, close-knit formation with warriors (i.e. hoplites) arranged in rows and ranks.

The key element of the hoplite’s panoply, the so-called Argive shield (don’t call it a hoplon!), first appears in the visual record towards the end of the eighth century BC. The shield is large, round, and hollow. The images often show the inside of the shield, which features a central arm band, porpax, through which the left arm was thrust, while the hand grabbed a handle, antilabê, located near the rim. The side of the shield that would have faced the enemy was sometimes covered with a thin sheet of bronze or featured a thin bronze blazon; in other cases, the wood was painted. 

Referring to warriors with Argive shields as “hoplites” is anachronistic when it comes to the Archaic period, i.e. the seventh and sixth centuries BC. The term hoplitês first appears in Pindar (Isthmian 1.23), who lived ca. 518-438 BC, and in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes (466 and 717), first produced in 467 BC (Echeverría 2012). Earlier writers, including the poet Homer, refers to heavy-armed warriors instead by terms such as aichmêtês (spearman) or, in the case of the poet Tyrtaeus, panoplos (armoured man).

The phrase “hoplite phalanx”, phalanx tôn hoplitôn, doesn’t occur in ancient Greek texts until Xenophon uses it in the fourth century BC (Xen. Anab. 6.5.27; cf. 1.8.17 and 6.5.25), or more than two centuries after the date of the Chigi Vase, and almost a century after the Graeco-Persian Wars (ca. 490–479 BC). Indeed, in the 1950s, F.E. Adcock wrote that the term phalanx, as a technical term, “was first generally applied to the Macedonian phalanx” (1957, p. 3 n. 5), so from the later fourth century BC onwards.

It has nevertheless become customary – for better or for worse – to refer to infantry with Argive shields and (thrusting) spears as “hoplites”, even for the period of some two hundred years that precede the earliest attested use of this term in the ancient sources. This usage is problematic, but currently so ingrained as to be impervious to change.

While the introduction of the Argive shield is generally not a point of contention, scholars do differ with respect to how the heavy-armed warriors who wielded the shield fought. There are broadly two camps. According to the so-called orthodoxy, “hoplites” emerged in ca. 700 BC from a new class of “middling farmers”, and they fought in phalanx formation right from the moment of their inception.

Every expression of this view of Greek warfare in the English-speaking world ultimately goes back to one chapter in G.B. Grundy’s Thucydides and the History of his Age (1911). Grundy introduced the idea that the hoplite = phalanx = open battle on the plain. His is the notion that tactics were non-existent and non-hoplites insignificant. He also first introduced the idea that hoplite combat was like “a scrummage at the Rugby game of football”. V.D. Hanson’s work The Western Way of War (1989) is perhaps the most well-known and popular product of the orthodox tradition, but Hanson himself knows very well that his view is entirely derived from Grundy, and offers, in essence, nothing new.

Opposed to the orthodoxy is a more diverse group of scholars – including many contributors to this website – who have been referred to as “heretics”. These commentators have serious reservations about the emergence, in ca. 700 BC, of a class of “middling farmers”, and they also fail to find much evidence to support the idea that these warriors, regardless of their socio-economic background, fought in any kind of massed formation.

A Corinthian vase from Etruria

This article cannot touch on all the finer points of the relevant discussion, but we do want to draw attention to one piece of evidence that adherents to the orthodoxy claim support their early date for the use of the phalanx. It’s an olpe (jug) that was made in Corinth but unearthed in an Etruscan tomb; it is kept in the Villa Giulia, Rome. The style of its decoration is Middle to Late Protocorinthian, which means that it dates to ca. 640 BC. (As an aside, all dates for pottery styles of the Archaic period are probably a bit too early.)

As far as Corinthian pottery is concerned, this olpe is a little out of the ordinary. Most Corinthian fine wares with painted decoration tend to be rather small; this olpe is quite large, standing 26 cm tall. Most Corinthian pots also feature animals and floral motives: this vase is among the far smaller group of Corinthian vessels that feature human figures.

The vase features several different friezes with figured scenes, including a clear depiction of the Judgement of Paris, as well as images of boys and young men hunting. Scholarly attention has, for the most part, focused on the scene near the top of the vase, which depicts warriors with Argive shields, bronze helmets and bell-shaped cuirasses, as well as greaves. Some men wear red tunics underneath their armour. Others do not: their genitals are clearly visible.

A closer look at the battle scene on the Chigi Vase. Two groups of men are about to meet in combat. Note that they are holding one spear overhead and grasping a second one in their shield hand. The fluteplayer has elicited comparisons with a description in Thucydides, which was written more than two centuries later. Photo: Sailko.

These warriors are often described as “hoplites”, but there’s something rather strange here. Hoplites – as they are commonly defined – fight with a single thrusting spear and have a sword as their sidearm. On the Chigi Vase, swords aren’t indicated. And if you look carefully, you can see that the warriors not only hold a spear overhead, as one might expect, but they hold another spear in their left hand, the same hand with which they grab the handle near rim of their shields.

The spears that they are holding in the left hand are a little difficult to see when you focus on the figures themselves, because the shafts that overlapped the warriors were painted after the rest of the pot had been fired. This means that the clay slip (i.e. “paint”) used here was more vulnerable to wear and tear and has flaked off over the course of many centuries. The tops and bottoms of these spears are more clearly visible than the shafts if you focus on the areas above the helmets and below the shields.

If you look at the far left, we get a clear view of the spears in question: two are placed side by side, and one is clearly a lot shorter than the other. These are strange hoplites then: they fight not only with a thrusting spear, but also with a javelin. If anything demonstrates how precarious it is to use the term “hoplite” when referring to spearmen of the pre-Classical era, this is surely it.

At the far left of the battle scene, next to the handle, we can see a warrior still arming himself: he is about to clip on a greave. Each warrior has a set of two spears, and one of them is clearly shorter than the other when shown side by side, so that at least one of them must be a javelin. However, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that both spears have throwing loops attached to them, which makes them easier to hurl at the enemy. At right, a group of men are running toward the battle. Photo: Sailko.

The type of battle scene shown on the Chigi Vase is extremely rare in Archaic Greek art. There is a wall-painting from a roughly contemporary temple at Kalapodi that depicts a similar scene, even though the reconstruction is largely based on the Chigi Vase (see Lloyd 2017, pp. 250 n. 47). Of course, in archaeology the next turn of the trowel may yield another vessel or fragments of a wall-painting that depicts something similar, but it would still be an uncommon type of scene.

Despite all of these caveats, the battle scene on the Chigi Vase is regarded as proof that warriors fought in phalanx formation already in the seventh century BC. In fact, it is one of the cornerstones of the orthodox view. This interpretation was popularized by H.L. Lorimer in an article published all the way back in 1947. After all, all the men in this scene are bunched together, and the two armies are clearly on the verge of meeting shield with shield, spear with spear. This must be a depiction of the hoplite phalanx in action, right?

Well, not quite.

A depiction of the phalanx?

At this point, it should be stressed that the Chigi Vase is an example of Corinthian art. The artist who decorated this object didn’t do so in the first place to create something that was meant to be historically accurate: the scene of these warriors is an artistic creation, no doubt based on reality (e.g. the armour, weapon), but distinctly not a one-to-one representation. It’s a painting, not a polaroid.

Still, the argument goes that the Chigi Vase depicts a phalanx, so let’s unpack that. If you study the entire frieze instead of focusing on the clash in the centre, you’ll notice that if this is supposed to be a phalanx, it’s rather a disorganised one. The warriors are split into distinct groups or lines of men; they don’t form a single, cohesive block of fighters.

Indeed, at the far left of the frieze, some of the men are still arming themselves. Elsewhere, others hurry to catch up with their comrades. Hans van Wees wrote about this scene that “one may wonder whether the lines of men in the picture are meant to be strictly single lines at all, rather than schematic depictions of dense clusters of warriors” (1994, p. 143). It’s also possible that the scene incorporates different moments: an arming scene at the extreme left, men rushing to the battlefield, and then the clash in the middle. The best argument against this interpretation is the fact that the different lines are not of the same length. The scene remains, at its best, ambiguous.

Most likely, we are not looking at two phalanxes, but rather at two forces advancing upon each other in “waves”, with each “wave” consisting of several men formed up more or less line abreast. This is a way of advancing across the battlefield known from at least two passages in the Iliad (e.g. Il. 4.422-432, 13.795-801). Movement in waves has also been remarked upon by Henk Singor in his PhD thesis on the Archaic Greek hoplite (1988, pp. 16-19), which is sadly only available in Dutch.

Ancient artists were perfectly capable of depicting warriors arranged in a tightly-knit formation. An excellent example, predating the Chigi Vase by almost two millennia, is the Sumerian “Stele of the Vultures”. Here, warriors are shown arranged in clear lines, with overlapping shields and spears. Clearly, the Sumerians had this whole formation thing figured out at an early stage.

A similar battle-scene as that on the Chigi vase is depicted on a Middle Protocorinthian aryballos (Berlin 3773). Here, groups of men advance and fight, while a few of the warriors have fallen to their knees and are about to get slaughtered by their opposite numbers. This scene incorporates the groups of men familiar from the Chigi Vase and then repeats the motif, creating a somewhat disorganised and perhaps realistic feel to the proceedings.

The battle scene from a small Middle Protocorinthian aryballos (Berlin 3773). It depicts groups of warriors engaging each other. Note the way that the shields are held and the overhead spears. At right, some men have fallen and appear to be at the mercy of their assailants.

The scene on this small vessel incorporates events that happen after the two sides have met in combat. The so-called “Macmillan” aryballos, dated to Middle II to Late Protocorinthian, depicts a similar scene, with fallen warriors being dispatched by their foes. The scene includes men engaged in single combat amidst the general melee (London 1889.4–18.1). Again, it is like the Chigi Vase, perhaps even made in the same workshop, and shows us what may have happened after the two forces met in battle.

None of these Corinthian vessels depict what could reasonably be referred to as “phalanx warfare”. But there is one element in the battle scene on the Chigi Vase that warrants closer scrutiny: among the warriors on the left-hand side of the scene we find a solitary fluteplayer. Proponents of the idea that this scene depicts a “hoplite phalanx” have drawn attention to this fluteplayer. They compared it to a description of the Battle of Mantinea – which happened in 418 BC or more than two centuries after the Chigi Vase was made! – in Thucydides (5.70):

After this the two armies met, the Argives and their allies advancing with great violence and fury, while the Spartans came on slowly and to the music of many flute-players in their ranks. This custom of theirs has nothing to do with religion; it is designed to make them keep in step and move forward steadily without breaking ranks, as large armies often do when they are just about to join battle.

Does the fluteplayer on the Chigi Vase, like the Spartan pipers, dictate the rhythm to which the warriors advance? Thucydides makes clear that the cited use of the flute was something peculiar to the Spartans of his day. Other Greek armies did indeed advance into battle singing war-songs or by raising a paean (song of praise), but the Spartans appear to be the only ones who used flutes in the Classical era. It’s also clear that the Spartans were unusual in marching in lockstep towards the enemy. How likely is it that a Corinthian painter working for the export market chose to depict Spartans in a period well before Sparta dominated the Peloponnese?

Closing remarks

The notion that the battle scene on the Chigi Vase depicts the Greek “hoplite phalanx” in action is dubious for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the notion of both hoplites and phalanxes – let alone the phalanx tôn hoplitôn! – is anachronistic in and of itself. If we are to try and understand the past, we must do so on its own terms, not by projecting ideas back onto the more remote past. In short, a teleological approach is not the way forward.

Furthermore, seeing the Chigi Vase as typical of anything is hazardous, because the object is clearly anything but ordinary. It has virtually no parallels, certainly not for the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Despite having been made in Corinth, it was unearthed in a tomb in Etruria, which further suggests that we should be very careful about the significance of its scenes in a Greek context. These points are usually ignored in traditional accounts of the Greek warfare.

And finally, focusing on the battle scene of the Chigi Vase does the object itself a disservice. It goes too far to go into great depth here with regards to the interpretation of Greek vases, but the notion that different scenes on the same vase can be regarded in isolation from each other is suspect. For a reading of the Chigi Vase that considers all the different figured scenes as forming a coherent whole, a type of “manual” for the young aristocrat, please refer to Hurwit’s 2002 article published in Hesperia.

(With apologies to René Magritte.)