From the Archives - The Curious Tactics of the Magnesians
Our knowledge of warfare in ancient Greece is uneven. While we know a great deal about hoplite tactics, in which “citizen soldiers” equipped as heavy infantrymen fought in deep, tight formations, this form of warfare only began to be introduced around 690-680 BC. It’s far more difficult to determine the tactics used in earlier periods, when military service was largely an obligation of the wealthiest classes, who thus also ruled the state.
At best the evidence for tactics in this period is fragmentary, such as in the tidbit which follows, from the Historical Miscellany, compiled by the Romano-Greek scholar Aelian -- Claudius Aelianus (c. AD 175-c. 235).
It seems that some time between 700 and 675 BC, around the dawn of the hoplite era, the Greek polis of Magnesia, on the River Menander in Ionia (now the western part of Turkey-in-Asia) went to war with the nearby city-state of Ephesus. Aelian tells us that,
. . . every cavalryman took along with him a hound, and a slave armed with javelins. As the armies neared each other, the fierce, large dogs were loosed on the enemy, disordering them, and then the javelin men, advancing before their masters, threw their weapons. As the enemy was shaken by the onset of the dogs, and then disrupted by the attack of the javelin men, the Magnesian cavalry fell upon them.
Aelian describes a rather well-coordinated combined arms attack, something uncommon in the later hoplite era, which were primarily characterized by head-to-head clashes of heavy infantry. Unfortunately, Aelian doesn’t say anything more about the battle. For example, he makes no mention of the terrain, nor of the equipment and tactics of the enemy. He doesn’t even mention whether there were freeborn Magnesian infantry present; the only foot soldiers are the slave javelin men, who must have been unusually well trusted by their masters, given their military role. As military service was largely limited to men of the ruling class, who could afford the war dogs, the horses, and the slaves, it’s quite possible there were no ordinary citizens in arms under normal circumstances.
That would change with the introduction of the cheaper hoplite system. With a simple hoplite outfit costing only two or three month’s wages for a tradesman or small farmer, all but the very poorest men could serve, a development that also brought about the rise of democratic institutions in much of ancient Greece.