Chapter 6: The Breaking Point
Chion alone was quiet and a step ahead, worried that his master's slow leg meant they could not be four or five paces closer to the oncoming Spartans. The Boiotian front lines hit the enemy at a run, shuddered, recoiled, bunched back up, and then began to push, stab, and pour into any gaps where Spartans had gone down. In a few moments, it was all Melon could do to keep his feet, even as he was struggling to move to the left with the others on the front line and get to the flank of the Spartan right wing. His left arm was battered and stung. The hard rims of the friendly shields from the rear kept pushing on his back shoulder to force him forward. He could not hear his Chion yell, "Forget your hobble. No Cholopous now, master. Let them at our backs do the work. Jab our spears into their faces."
The Spartans were upon them all. Melon woke from a brief moment of darkness after the crash of the armies. Spartans everywhere — horsehair, and braids and plate bronze in a sea of red tunics and wooden shields, the Lambdas on their shields eyeing him. His own to the rear kept blindly pushing him through these crimson lines. Shafts hitting at all angles, the battle now a maze of wood, round shields and tall spears that not even the god of war could sort out. Melon's long Bora struck something and shuddered, first before most others. Why not — his tip was four palm's widths longer than most of the first line. He at least knew where they were — at the symbolê, at the first hit between the two armies. Then came the terrible counter-blows from Spartan spears. At first only a few spent jabs glanced off Melon's breastplate. But soon his shield shuddered and cracked from hard spear thrusts. In these first moments none of stabbers of the enemy line had hit his throat. His groin was untouched. Not so with the enemy. Thebans here on the left had struck the enemy royals at an angle, hit an entire line on their unshielded right sides as they had tried in vain to get to their right and behind the mass of Boiotians — who had won the race to the flank.
The noise reminded him of a hard spring hail on Helikon, when he worked on the press in the cold shed, under the din of Zeus's storm. It was like clattering ice on the roof tiles above. Amid the clanging, Melon was stabbing and bashing with his shield as the Spartan resistance stiffened. Soon he was nearly crushed between the pressure of spear points ahead and his own shields behind — before breaking deeper into the Spartan mass ahead. Then as the line plowed on, Spartans inside on his flanks grabbed at him amid their ranks. 'Just keep on your feet, fool,' he muttered to himself. Melon tried to steady himself, as the shields behind began to send him forward, as he sought to keep his own shield high on his left to give Staphis cover, as he took safety in Chion's wooden shield on his right, as he stabbed over the shield rims of the enemy, as shafts from the rear grazed his helmet, as he went ahead in unison with his own, as he stepped over spears and shields — and men — on the ground. The best hoplite was not the strongest right arm, Melon knew, but he who could cover his neighbor, stab, advance, keep his balance amid the flotsam at his feet, and hide in the shield cover from his right — all at once.
At Melon's side, a husky Spartan broke through a small gap that just for an instant had opened between himself and Staphis. The long-haired killer — he was known in the south as Kobon of the large hands — had plunged too deep into the Theban lines with not a Spartan shield in sight for his cover, and then fell to the stabs from the butt-ends of a half-dozen spears to his rear. "Lizard-killers" — sauroteres — hoplites called these bronze squared spikes. Those with their spears still upright shredded anything that moved on the ground at their feet. This gnarly-hide Kobon, even in the bronze of his grandfather Artemon, was hammered apart by the feet and spikes of six men. "Keep rank, fools, keep rank, stay together." Melon yelled, more to himself than down the line. He knew that if just two or three more of these red shirts like Kobon had made it through, the Boiotian front line would have split asunder. A phalanx was like water; it flowed through the easiest hole. A current soon became a deluge if there were quick-witted officers (and in the Spartan army there always were) to cry out, "Push." — othete, othete — when they found a channel to widen.
In the brief death lock of the two armies, three or four Boiotians toppled to the ground from the enemy spear jabs, over to his left beyond Staphis. They were hard hill men from the slopes of Messapion, and below near Oinoi and Tanagra, a few of Philliadas's folk that seemed now to be always at the hottest spot in the fray. But they learned it was not so easy to hit these killers of the Spartan phalanx, who as one and with precision stabbed at their throats. Despite their small numbers in this pocket, many of the red capes still penetrated three ranks in, before being swarmed by Thebans who filled these holes and put them all down. Yet for all the pre-battle bluster of Lichas, for all the royal pride of Kleombrotos, the masters of war so far had been outsmarted by the plans of Ainias the tactician. The Spartan, in their arrogance, had let the smaller Boiotian force mass deeper with no idea that the shorter front had marched at an angle to their own right flank. They were dumbfounded how to get around and outflank this narrow fist of Epaminondas that slammed into them at a run and from the left. Somehow the shorter front had gotten to the flank of the longer.
Soon the force of fifty shields began to grind down the enemy's twelve, as the Boiotians to the rear dug in their heels and pushed their own into the Spartan phalanx. Time, quick time was everything in this choreography of death — to break the Lambda-shields before they got to the flank. Battle hinged on kairos, the moment, the akme of position, of the first blow, of hitting hard men on their open sides. "With me, Chion. You, me, Staphi. Get to the king now — before they get to our rear. Plow on to the king." Who decided who lived or died this day at Leuktra? As in getting the harvest in, not always the greater nerve and muscle, since a coward might stab on the blind side and hit the hero's cheek. As often it was luck. The length of fate's long thread determined who stayed on his feet and who not.
Excerpted from The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson, published in October 2011 by Bloomsbury Press. Copyright 2011 by Victor Davis Hanson, reprinted with permission from the publisher.