Analysis Christmas 2008: Professional Considerations

Back to the future: emergency departments and ancient Greek warfare

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 15 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2761
  1. Bernard A Foëx, consultant in emergency medicine and critical care
  1. 1Manchester Royal Infirmary, Manchester M13 9WL
  1. Bernard.foex{at}

    Warfare in ancient Greece and modern emergency departments have much in common, says Bernard A Foëx

    Ancient Greek warfare, as depicted in the Iliad, focuses on the exploits of individual heroes such as Achilles and Ajax. The ordinary soldiers take second place in the narrative.

    In the 6th and 5th centuries BC the armies fielded by the Greek city states against each other and against the invading Persians were characterised by the phalanx of hoplites: citizen soldiers, who paid for their own equipment. They were briefly drilled before a campaign but were in no way a professional army: the exception being Sparta. These armies were commanded by a “king” or a general. A small number of light infantry and cavalry also existed, usually stationed on the wings. The battle itself was generally decided by the discipline and the bravery of the hoplites and their general.

    The end of the hoplites

    The 4th century BC saw the emergence of other battle formations. Iphicrates defeated a Spartan hoplite phalanx using peltasts, light infantry armed with javelins, at the battle of Lechaeum in 390 BC. Their ability to out manoeuvre the heavily armed hoplites proved decisive. At the same time the northern Greeks developed a much more effective cavalry force than their southern rivals. At the battle of Leuctra (371 BC) the Theban commander Epaminondas used his Thessalian cavalry to great effect, routing the Spartan cavalry, which then hindered the formation of the Spartan phalanx. As Macedonia came to dominate the classical world under Philip and then Alexander, so cavalry increasingly proved decisive. The Macedonian phalanx still had to hold the line …

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