Quiet professionals

by Alexey on 30 octobre 2016

Excerpt of « Gates of Fire » by Steven Pressfield

Now the clamor began.

Among the enemy’s ranks, the bravest (or perhaps the most fear-stricken) began banging the ash of their spear shafts upon the bronze bowls of their shields, creating a tumult of  pseudoandreia which reverberated across and around the mountain-enclosed plain. Others reinforced this racket with the warlike thrusting of their spearpoints to heaven and the loosing of cries to the gods and shouts of threat and anger. The roar multiplied threefold, then five, and ten, as the enemy rear ranks and flankers picked the clamor up and contributed their own bluster and bronze-banging. Soon the entire fifty-four hundred were bellowing the war cry. Their commander thrust his spear forward and the mass surged behind him into the advance.

The Spartans had neither moved nor made a sound.

They waited patiently in their scarlet-cloaked ranks, neither grim nor rigid, but speaking quietly to each other words of encouragement and cheer, securing the final preparation for actions they had rehearsed hundreds of times in training and performed dozens and scores more in battle.

Here came the foe, picking up the pace of his advance. A fast walk. A swinging stride. The line was extending and fanning open to the right, « winging out » as men in fear edged into the shadow of the shield of the comrade on their right; already one could see the enemy ranks stagger and fall from alignement as the bravest surged forward and the hesitant shrank back.

Leonidas and the priests still stood exposed out front.

The shallow stream yet waited before the enemy. The foe’s generals, expecting the Spartans to advance first, had formed their lines so that this watercourse stood midway between the armies. In the enemy’s plan, no doubt, the sinuous defile of the river would disorder the Lakedaemonian ranks and render them vulnerable at the moment of attack. The Spartans, however, had outwaited them. As soon as the bronze-banging began, the enemy commanders knew they could not restrain their ranks longer; they must advance while their men’s blood was up, or all fervor would dissipate and terror flood inevitably into the vacuum.

Now the river worked against the enemy. His foreranks descended into the defile, yet a quarter mile from the Spartans. Up they came, their already disordered dress and interval disintegrating further. They were again on the flat now, but with the river to their rear, the most perilous place it could be in the event of a rout.

The salpinx sounded « Advance! » trumpeters sustaining the eardrum-numbing note ten paces after the men had stepped off, and now the pipers’ wail cut through, shrill notes of their auloi piercing the mell like the cry of a thousand Furies…

To the beat the Spartans and their allies advanced, eight-footers at the upright, their honed and polished spearpoints flashing in the sun. Now the foe broke into an all-out charge. Leonidas, displaying neighter haste nor urgency, fell into step in his place in the front rank  as it advanced to envelop him, with the Knights flowing impeccably into position upon his right and left.

Now from the Lakedaemonian ranks rose the paean, the hymn to Castor ascending from four thousand throats. On the climactic beat of the second stanza,

Heaven-shining brother, Skyborne hero

the spears of the first three ranks snapped from the vertical into the attack.

Words cannot convey the impact of awe and terror produced upon the foe, any foe, by this seemingly uncomplex maneuver, called in Lakedaemon « spiking it » or « palming the pine », so simple to perform on the parade ground and so formidable under conditions of life and death. To behold it executed with such precision and fearlessness, no man surging forward our of control nor hanging back in dread, nor edging right into the shadow of his rankmate’s shield, but all holding solid and unbreakable, tight as the scales on a serpent’s flank, the heart stopped in awe, the hair stood straight up upon the neck and shivers coursed powerfully the length of the spine.

As when some colossal beast, brought to bay by the hounds, wheels in his fury, bristling with rage and baring his fangs, and plants himself in the power and fearlessness of his strength, so did the bronze and crimson phalanx of the Lakedaemonians now snap as one into its mode of murder.

The left wing of the enemy, eighty across, collapsed even before the shields of their promachoi, the front-rankers, had come within thirty paces of the Spartans. A cry of dread rose from the throats of the foe, so primal it froze the blood, and then was swallowed in the tumult.

The enemy left broke from within.

This wing, whose advancing breadth had stood an instant earlier an forty-eight shields, abruptly became thirty, then twenty, then ten as panic flared like a gale-driven fire from terror-stricken pockets within the massed formation. Those in the first three ranks who turned in flight now collided with their comrades advancing from the rear. Shield rim caught upon shield rim, spear shaft upon spear shaft; a massive tangle of flesh and bronze ensued as men bearing seventy pounds of shield and armor stumbled and fell, becoming obstacles and impediments to their own advancing comrades. You could see the brave men stride on in the advance, crying out in rage to their countrymen as these abondoned them. Those who stilll slung to courage pushed past  those who had forsaken it, calling out in outrage and fury, trampling the forerankers, or else, as valor deserted them too, jerked free and fled to save their own skins.

At the height of the foe’s confusion the Spartan right fell upon them. Now even the bravest of the enemy broke. Why hould a man, however valorous, stand and die while right and left, fore and rear, his fellows deserted him? Shield were flung, spears cast wildly to the turf. Half a thousand men wheeled on their heels and stampeded in terror. At that instant the center and right of the enemy’s line crashed shields-on into the central corps of the Spartans.

As disordered as were the ranks of the enemy, so held the Spartans’ intact and cohesive. Their forerank did not charge wildly upon the foe, flailing like savages, nor did they advance with the stolid precision of the parade ground. Rather they surged, in unison, like a line of warships on the ram. I had never appreciated how far beyond the interleaved bronze of the promachoi‘s shields the murderous iron of their eight-footers could extend. These punched and struck, overhand, driven by the full force of the right arm and shoulder, across the upper rim of the shield; not just the spears of the front-rankers but those of the second and even the third, extending over their mates’ shoulders to form a thrashing engine that advanced like a wall of murder. As wolves in a pack take down the fleeing deer, so did the Spartan right fall upon the defenders of Antirhion, not in frenzied shrieking rage, lip-curled and fang-bared, but predator-like, cold-blooded, applying the steel with the wordless cohesion of the killing pack and the homicidal efficiency of the hunt.

Nowhere in all the field had these Spartans faltered. Now even in the hot blood aftermath their discipline maintained them chaste and noble, above all vaunting and boasting. They did not strip the bodies of the slain, as the soldiers of any other city would eagerly and gloatingly do, nor did they erect trophies of vainglory and conceit from the arms of the vanquished. Their austere thank-offering was a single cock, worth less than an obol, not because they disrespected the gods, but because they held them in awe and deemed it dishonorable to overexpress their mortal joy in this triumph that heaven had granted them.

…The Spartans have a term for that state of mind which must at all costs be shunned in battle. They call it katalepsis, possession, meaning that derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind.


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