It is Greek Wednesday, and while thinking on what to post I noticed this little meme hopping around on the net. Needless to say, it is perfect for hoplite warfare. The quote is from “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield (pp.75-6). The sentiment is fully Ancient, however. I am reminded of the importance of oaths in the Ancient World, especially those of the hoplite tradition. Although most of these oaths have not survive, in Ancient Greece, the oath was the only form of legal contract. Especially at Sparta, the loyalty of the man in the phalanx was all there was.
The only real examples we have of these oaths are found in Lycurgus’ speech against Leocrates (1.77). In this speech, Lycurgus argues he has perjured himself against the gods – witnesses to the oaths – and his fellow citizens. The oath of the Ephebe was as follows:
Οὐκ αἰσχυνῶ τὰ ἱερὰ ὅπλα, οὐδὲ λείψω τὸν παραστάτην ὅπου ἂν στοιχήσω: ἀμυνῶ δὲ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἱερῶν καὶ ὁσίων καὶ οὐκ ἐλάττω παραδώσω τὴν πατρίδα, πλείω δὲ καὶ ἀρείω κατά τε ἐμαυτὸν καὶ μετὰ ἁπάντων, καὶ εὐηκοήσω τῶν ἀεὶ κραινόντων ἐμφρόνως. καὶ τῶν θεσμῶν τῶν ἱδρυμένων καὶ οὓς ἂν τὸ λοιπὸν ἱδρύσωνται ἐμφρόνως: ἐὰν δέ τις ἀναιρεῖ, οὐκ ἐπιτρέψω κατά τε ἐμαυτὸν καὶ μετὰ πάντων, καὶ τιμήσω ἱερὰ τὰ πάτρια. ἴστορες θεοὶ Ἄγραυλος, Ἑστία, Ἐνυώ, Ἐνυάλιος, Ἄρης καὶ Ἀθηνᾶ Ἀρεία, Ζεύς, Θαλλώ, Αὐξώ, Ἡγεμόνη, Ἡρακλῆς, ὅροι τῆς πατρίδος, πυροί, κριθαί, ἄμπελοι, ἐλάαι, συκαῖ … ”
“I shall not shame the sacred arms, nor leave behind he who stands alongside me (τὸν παραστάτην) at whatever place I am formed up (στοιχήσω). I will defend the sacred rites [of the gods] (ἱερῶν) and what has been made sacred [by men] (ὁσίων), and will not leave my country smaller, when I die, but greater and better, so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will respect the rulers of the time duly and the laws (θεσμῶν) duly and all others which may be established in the future. And if anyone seeks to destroy the ordinances I will oppose him so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will honor the cults of my fathers. Witnesses to this shall be the gods Agraulus, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalius, Ares, Athena the Warrior, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, and the boundaries of my native land, wheat, barley, vines, olive-trees, fig-trees. (The original translation is from Perseus Digital Library, although I have updated some of the concepts – I like the most literal translation possible).
Notice the emphasis on both the things made sacred by the gods and the things made sacred by men. The gods and the things were the tools of the oath, a physical item to which the oath was attached and which became sacred (inviolable) upon doing so, they were “ὅρκους” (Thuc). The oath themselves were made (ὀμνύντων) upon these objects, such as a shield, a stone engraved with the oath, or something else. When the Greeks were about to face the Persians in 479 at Plataea, they made an oath to tithe the city-states who had joined with the Persians but not to destroy them (Herodotus VII.132.2), recorded by Thucydides (V.18.9).
If anyone questions the strength of the oaths, we should consider they were the main reason why the Greek phalanx was as strong as it was. In Sparta, where soldiers fought together for decades building the brotherhood of battle to a level never seen before, the oath simply reinforced the warrior code. At Athens, after the heyday of hoplite warfare, those who fought with you were also actual brothers; with fathers, uncles, and neighbors fighting on the line. The Athenians, unlike the Spartans, fought by household and neighborhood. “The things made sacred” by men were family and the good death of combat. The person to your left was not only a fellow citizen, he was family. The Thebans, similarly, cultivated pair relations between bond-friends (φίλοι) who fought to the death for each other; they defeated the Spartans in the fourth century. These oaths, although poorly preserved, became the backbone of hoplite warfare when hoplite warfare itself could not longer maintain the courage of the line.