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The Siculonorman Army, The unknown enemy of Byzantium

siculo-norman knight

Modern reconstruction of Sicilian Norman knight Source:

The Normans were descendants of Scandinavian raiders. The Frankish kings gave them the northern provinces of their kingdom in exchange for paying tribute and obligation for military service. The former raiders accepted the French language and Frankish feudal customs, and their heavily armed infantrymen evolved into knights. According to the custom of the time, the first-born son inherited the father’s estate, and the younger ones, if they did not secure a marriage with a wealthy heiress, would leave to seek their fortune by their skill in arms. At that time the Christian kingdoms were hard pressed by Islamic invasions, and determined warriors fighting horseback were precious. The temptation to descend to the mythical South to find their fortune there was great. The arrival of the Normans in Italy took place in the first decades of the 11th century.


Reconstruction of a 12th century Siculo-Norman helmet

Chronicler Geoffrey Malaterra wrote about the Normans that: «They are particularly distraught by cunning, despising their inheritance in the hope of gaining bigger property, willing to gain and dominate, prone to all sorts of hypocrisy, striding between generosity and greed, and combining peculiarly these two seemingly opposite properties. Their leaders are particularly generous in their desire for reputation. They are also a breed skillful in flattery, absorbed in the study of eloquence, so that even the boys are skillful orators, an unruly breed, unless the yoke of righteousness restrains it. They endure fatigue, hunger, and cold whenever fate throws it upon them. They are absorbed in hunting and falconry, and they especially like horses and all the weapons of war … »

Thanks to their ruthless energy and determination, the Hauteville family managed to be recognized as the Kings of Sicily by the Pope. The Normans retained the Byzantine bureaucracy, but also some elements of the former Islamic rulers. Together with the Norman notion of feudalism, the new sovereigns set up a unique for its time state, maintaining the balance between their Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim subjects, all of whom found a place in the army of the new state.


The Ηauteville coat of arms from the Μonreale Cathedral in Palermo

The main shock weapon was of course the cavalry, consisting of armored knights. As mentioned above, most of the horsemen were harsh nobles from Normandy but with the passage of time Lombard aristocrats and wealthy Italian bourgeoisie found their way in the heavy cavalry units. The Normans had not forgotten the lesson of the Battle of Ofante where the Byzantines had soundly defeated them. They adapted themselves to the Byzantine tactics, and many of these methods, such as charging with the lance couched, were adopted by them. Initially, most horsemen were Normans, but slowly Sicily began to be flooded with Latin-speaking Lombard refugees who had been persecuted by the Byzantines and the German emperor. However, the recruitment of French-speaking knights seems to have never ceased, nor were the suitable Italian or Greek speaking warriors dissuaded from joining the army of the Sicilian kings.

The wealthy citizenry of the towns formed small cavalry units with the main task of guarding the surroundings from bandits and the repulse of Saracen raiders. These horsemen usually carried a fabric made cuirass or no armor at all, helmet, and shield and were armed with javelins. The Muslim horse-archers began to disappear gradually and being replaced by Lombard settlers, but as long as they existed, they provided light cavalry service.


Detail from the Palermo Cathedral with a depiction of Norman fighters.

The infantry was usually the militia of the Italian and Sicilian cities. The Calabreans and several Sicilians were Greek-speaking, but the Apulians were mostly Italian speaking in their majority. The infantrymen, armed with helmets, shields, spears, and a single edge short sword usually covered the archers and were a support element for the knights. Most Muslims who remained in the Norman’s Italian holdings were forced into a serving as light infantry archers, in exchange for their religious freedom. It is believed that Sicilian monarchs did not allow them to convert to Christianity in ordered to maintain good light infantry. Various mountain herders armed with clubs and slings were specially recruited in wartime and their sole motivation was to pillage. The infatrymen were useful as a guard in fortified sites and in siege warfare.

The Normans also inherited the well-organized engineer corps of the Byzantines and the Arabs, as well as the siege and anti-siege techniques of their predecessors. Most craftsmen and operators of the siege machines were bourgeois of Italian cities or Sicilian-Muslim conscripts. Another element of support for the army was Salerno’s medical school, which was flourishing away from Western European religious prejudices, resulting in that health care at least for those being able to afford it, was far superior to other armies of the period.

The naval cities of Lower Italy and Sicily provided ships and crews for the Sicilian-Norman navy. Marines originated as mentioned above from the coastal city militias. The most effective officer of the Hauteville was, Admiral Margaritis from Brindisi (from Greek descent), who dominated the Ionian and Aegean Sea, turning the area into Sicilian-Norman lake. This efficient naval power conflicted with the interests of Venice and this explains the Venetian willingness to ally with the Byzantines against the Sicilian-Normans. The kingdom and its army passed through royal marriage under Hohenstaufen domination until their overthrow by the House of Angevin (Anjou)

2abfaLucania - Basilicata - Sepolcro di Roberto il Guiscardo nella Chiesa della Santissima Trinità a Venosa

The grave of Robert «Guiscard» D’Hauteville at Venosa


Norwich, John JuliusThe Normans in the South 1016-1130. Longmans: London, 1967.

Vincenzo Salerno Sicilian Peoples: The Normans Best of Sicely magazine Oct. 2007

Carlo Trabia  The batte of Palermo Best of Sicely magazine Mar. 2005


Ο γιαλαντζί πατριωτισμός και η…δικαίωση των κομιτατζήδων! (sic)

Τελικά πρέπει να παραδεχτούμε ότι όχι μόνο η ημιμάθεια είναι χειροτέρα της αμαθείας αλλά και η μανία του Ρωμιού για προβολή μπορεί να δημιουργήσει ακόμα χειρότερες καταστάσεις.

Ο αμφιλεγόμενος στρατηγός Θεόδωρος Πάγκαλος δήλωσε σε κάποια δίκη του: «..ποιος Ρωμιός δε θέλει να γίνεται ντόρος για το όνομά του;». Η μανία λοιπόν κάποιων Ρωμιών αναβιωτών για προβολή έβαλε και πάλι την ιστορία της χώρας μας με αρνητικό τρόπο στο προσκήνιο.

Ας τα πάρουμε όμως από την αρχή. Η Βουλγαρική Αρχαιολογική Υπηρεσία έχει διεξάγει μεγάλες ανασκαφές και έχει φέρει στην επιφάνειά ένα μεγάλο αριθμό εντυπωσιακών τάφων Θρακών βασιλέων στην νότια Βουλγαρία. Σύμφωνα με τα διεθνή νόμιμα όλα αυτά αποτελούν ιδιοκτησία του Βουλγαρικού Δημοσίου. Για να προβάλουν τη χωρά τους και να προωθήσουν τον τουρισμό τους οι Βουλγαρικές Αρχές διοργάνωσαν μια έκθεση με τον τίτλο »Legends in Gold, Thracian Treasures from Bulgaria», ήγουν «Θρύλοι από Χρυσό, Θρακικοί Θησαυροί από τη Βουλγαρία». Για το σκοπό αυτό συγκεντρώθηκαν αντικείμενα από 12 Βουλγαρικά Μουσεία και η έκθεση άρχισε μια παγκόσμια περιοδεία.

Το μουσείο του Μπέργκεν στη Νορβηγία είχε την έμπνευση να καλέσει αναβιωτές για να είναι πιο εντυπωσιακή η παρουσίαση της έκθεσης. Κάλεσε λοιπόν κάποιους Ρωμιούς αναβιωτές που έχουν μια μια μακρά παράδοση κακοποίησης της ελληνικής ιστορίας στο Εξωτερικό όπως στην Τουρκία και τη Ρωσία παλιότερα. Οι απίθανοι αυτοί τύποι αφού οργανώθηκαν «στο γόνατο» και επέλεξαν μεταμφιέσεις που θα συναγωνίζονταν επάξια τις υπερβολές της πάλι ποτέ «Τσινετσιτά» του περασμένου αιώνα αποβιβάστηκαν στην Νορβηγία για να βοηθήσουν στην προώθηση της…Βουλγαρίας. (sic) Φυσικά παρέλειψαν να διαβάζουν την αφίσα της διοργάνωσης που αναφέρει ξεκάθαρα ότι η έκθεση είναι για Bulgaria Treasures , ήγουν  Θησαυροί Βουλγαρίας. Μάλλον δεν ήξεραν… Αγγλικά! Αλλά όπως έχω ξαναγράψει¨αλλο ιστορική αναπαράσταση και άλλο τουρισμός πολυτελείας (high end tourism)

Κατόπιν οι Ρωμιοί έβγαζαν απρόσεκτα φωτογραφίες. Η φωτογραφία εδώ είναι από τη νορβηγική ιστοσελίδα της έκθεσης «Legender i gull» και η λεζάντα γράφει: «Bulgarere i Bergen er kjempe stolte!» ήγουν: Οι Βούλγαροι έχουν κάθε λόγο να είναι υπερήφανοι! (sic). Φυσικά κάθε Νορβηγός που τη βλέπει όλους Βούλγαρους θα τους θεωρεί γιατί η Ελληνική σημαία δεν φαίνεται κάπου ή μήπως κάνω λάθος.


Κι όταν οι επισκέπτες που έφταναν φυσικά θαύμαζαν «βουλγαρικούς θησαυρούς» και κάποια Βουλγάρα μετανάστρια μίλησε στα παιδιά της για αυτό, οι Ρωμιοί αναβιωτές της είπαν ότι αυτά είναι Ελληνικά. Προκλήθηκε λογομαχία που πήρε διαστάσεις και οι υπεύθυνοι του Μουσείου «πακετάρισαν» τους Ρωμιούς κακήν κακώς και είπαν ότι θα γίνει διοικητική εξέταση για το ζήτημα. Οι αγγλόφωνες βουλγαρικές σελίδες βεβαία βρήκαν ευκαιρία να μιλήσουν για «άξεστους Έλληνες».

Έξοχα θα αναφωνήσουν οι απανταχού «Ελληναράδες», καλά τους κάνανε και υπεράσπισαν την κληρονομιά μας! Μόνο για ποια υπεράσπιση μπορεί να μιλήσει κάποιος που σιγοντάρισε ένα έθνος επίλυδων, με το οποίο έχουμε πολεμήσει τον περασμένο αιώνα, και το βοηθά να παρουσιάζει αντικείμενα της Ελληνιστικής Περιόδου σαν να ήταν δικά του; Μα καλά το ΔΣ των αναβιωτών, που διαθέτει ακόμα και Μυκηναινολόγο, πως δέχτηκε την πρόταση χωρίς να εξετάσει τα δεδομένα; Μέλη του με εμπειρία σε θέματα ασφάλειας δεν εξέτασαν τις “κακοτοπιές”; Αν διαφωνούσαν με τις βουλγαρικές θέσεις γιατί δε φρόντιζαν ώστε οι Νορβηγοί να υπογραμμίσουν την ελληνικότητα αν όχι όλων, τουλάχιστον κάποιων αντικειμένων;.

Είναι γνωστό ότι σε πολιτιστικές εκδηλώσεις αν επιδείξεις συμπεριφορά ούγκανου χάνεις το δίκιο σου και απλά ρεζιλεύεις τη χώρα σου. Αν σε προσκαλούν κάπου όπου διαφωνείς με τη θεώρησή τους για το πολιτιστικό δρώμενο , ή δεν πας καθόλου ή απλά σε περίπτωση που πας γιατί σου βάζουν τα έξοδα κάνεις ότι.. σου λένε! Επίσης καλό είναι να μην πηγαίνουν κάπου άτομα με ανεπαρκή μόρφωση και ανεπαρκέστερη γνώση ξένων γλωσσών.

Θλίβομαι στη σκέψη ότι οι κομιτατζήδες στον άλλο κόσμο θα γελάνε με τα χάλια μας αλλά θλίβομαι περισσότερο γιατί οι αρνητικές προβλέψεις που είχα κάνει το 2015 σχετικά με την πορεία της αρχαιοελληνικής ιστορικής αναβίωσης στο εξωτερικό επαληθεύονται με τόσο άσχημο τρόπο.

Το “Αιδώς Αργείοι” που ειχα γράψει το 2014 μάλλον πέφτει σε ώτα κωφών. Μήπως πρέπει να γράψω “Αιδώς ..Κομιτατζήδες”… Ελεος πιά!

The modern trireme rower’s experience

It is a difficult thing for the historian to attempt and describe events of the past especially as in most cases it is humanly impossible to have first hand experience on the items that our forefathers used in order to execute the task at hand. This is especially true about the ancient times where a few museum artifacts and some text fragments of the ancient literature are the only things we have at our disposal.

In my case I was fortunate that the Hellenic Navy has a working reconstruction on an ancient trireme and even allows access to the general public. So in July 2017 after dealing with the red tape that is always required to get access in a military installation and allowed to handle military equipment I found myself in Trocadero in the Attic coastline ready to board on trireme “OLYMPIAS”.


Under instructions and the watchful eye of the crew we were boarded on the vessel in groups of ten persons. Not many choose to go to the thalamitae lowest row of oars. While us modern people had the choice of boarding easily and choose our place since our enjoyment rather than an important military mission was our main concern. I imagine thought that the ancient crews would board in the following manner. First the thalamitae and they would start manning their posts starting from the prow. The zygitae oarsmen who would be handling the middle row of oars and last the thranitae who would operate the upper row of oars would board and man their posts in the same manner as the first men who boarded. Then the deck crew would board to start preparing the vessel and the last ones would be the hoplites and archer marines. This is the most logical order of things and it would have been time consuming even with trained men which means that our boarding took more time that it would probably take in Antiquity.


on my post as a tharanites

When each one took its place and sat facing the rear of the trireme the crew gave instructions on how to respond simple word commands. The simplest was “pteroson” (literally: spread the wing) which means bring the oar across your knees and use your hands to keep it parallel to the surface of the water. The next command was “apantes proso” which requires every one to row forward. To execute this command you bend forward and push your oar in front of you so that it makes a 30 to 40 degree angle to the side of the ship, looking backwards and then at a second tempo you put the oar in the water and you pull yourself backwards. The other command is “apantes prymna” which requires every one to row backwards. To execute this command you stretch you self backwards and drag your oar in front of you so that it makes a 30 to 40 degree angle to the side of the ship, looking forward and then at a second tempo you put the oar in the water and you push yourself forward.


oars in «pteroson» position

We executed both commands sometime while the trireme was docked. There were almost all of us fumbling and the worrying sound of wood knocking wood was heard at the dock. It was at that moment when I realized the importance of the texts of Herodotus who describes the insistence of Dionysius of Phocea who forces the Ionian crews to row a lot and was so persistent that the crews voted to remove him from leader!   And I also understood why Plutarch wrote that Cimon kept exhausting training of his crews despite their complaining.

Finally the ship was ready to leave and despite the fumbling, all rowers felt proud of ourselves that we manage to make the 35-tone trireme move forward. Though the souls of the elite oarsmen of the ancient “Salaminia” trireme would probably had a great laugh at our expense. At intervals the captain would order pteroson for some much-needed respite and a quick gulp of water. Needless to say we were all very relived when the crew unfolded the sails and those brave enough of us attempted to walk across the deck.


the rowers joy!

If any landlubber thinks it’s an easy thing to walk on a deck without rails even on a calm sea he better think it again. Bare feet help a lot! There is a reason most fishermen do not wear shoes on their boats that they swing even on the calmest sea surface! And there was an even bigger reason that the ancient Athenians insisted on training their whole hoplite force to the rigors of deck fighting. Load a trireme deck with men who have never experience of the sea and your marines complement is as good as useless. This might explain the issues that the Peloponnesians faced during their struggle against Athens.   Also after walking near the prow I have serious doubts that a man wearing 25 kilograms of armor would cover the distance from there to the deck of a rammed enemy ship with a jump. It would be possible if the ramming took place at a very narrow angle, but how mach chance of this happening would be possible in the chaos of the battle? The boarding plank theory should be researched further according to my opinion.


The ram,trireme’s main weapon

Finally much to the detriment of some we were required to go back to our posts, as the trireme needed the help of the rowers in order to dock. Better not to imagin what would have happened if we were also required to drag her to the shore as was the case in antiquity. Even the slight swinging of the vessel made it an effort for most of us to go below deck. Somehow we made it though and I couldn’t help feeling amused for I read the online postings of some people, who have no idea what is it to be on a slippery deck without rails, and propose weird exotic theories on the usage of various troop types during a naval fight


The reason why some people had enough

As the more determined of us took our place there was less fumbling as now there was some distance between the oars due to the gaps left by those who couldn’t continue. Trireme “OLYMPIAS” returned to the dock and we all were happy for our little cruise.

I want to thank the Hellenic Navy and especially the officers and the crew of the trireme “OLYMPIAS” for allowing me a glimpse in the ancient oarsman’s world. I also thank my instructors at the Hoplomachia Academy for assisting me to keep fit and be able to do first hand research on ancient warfare.

Centaurs and Centauromachy in the Greek world

Hybrid forms of human beings and beasts exist in the myths of different peoples and cultures throughout the centuries but the hybrid of man and horse, despite its adoption by the Romans and the Ortocid Turks , remained an element that constantly refers to Greek Mythology. The Greek Myth makes a distinction between the noble and divine origin of the Centaurus Chiron, who was the teacher of the heroes of Antiquity, and all the bestial human-horse hybrids that considered them appropriate only to be crushed by the illustrious heroes of Ancient Greece.


Theseus as centaurslayer. Source:


According to the famous French dictionary «Petit Larousse» (1920) the word «hybrid» (coming from the Greek word «hubris» that means insult) is used for words derived from two languages, such as cholera-morbus, bureaucratia but also for plants, or animals derived from two different species, such as the «hemionos», the mule) Hybrids are rarely fertile. The word «hubris» therefore means: «Sudden violence resulting from excessive sentiment of power or passion, indolence, arrogance, savagery, procrastination, frequently used in Homer’s Odyssey mostly on the suitors of Penelope. Also the «Papyrus – Larousse » encyclopedia (1963) goes even further by saying: Hybrid: (from the Greek » Hubris» in its usage for describing lewdness) Animal or plant derived from two different species of a subject. More specifically in biology, the term hybrid is also used for every biological structure, cell, gene, enzyme, DNA, derived from two corresponding structures, e.g. two cells containing different genetic material. «(Encyclopedia» Malliaris-Education «) And As we will see below, lewdness is interwoven with the myth of centaurs.


Statues of the Geometric Period that show the difference between Chiron and the other centaurs of Met. Museum New York (left) Museum of Eretria (right)

The Ancient Greeks believed that Centaur Chiron was born from the union of Cronus (Saturn) and the Nymph Phylira (Apollodorus.1.2.4). He was not a demigod then but a completely divine being. Unfortunately, he was born bizarre and abandoned by his mother, but he was given a god’s upbringing as Apollo and Artemis adopted him. Being properly raised, he undertook the training and education of the main heroes of Antiquity. He unfortunately became «collateral loss» of an arrow of Hercules, because of the savagery of the other Centaurs, and he voluntarily gave up his immortality in order not to suffer. Even from the Geometric period, the Greeks emphasized Chiron’s distinctiveness as a man with an attached horse body rather than a horse with a human extension like the other Centaurs. This type of depiction for Chiron continued until the Hellenistic Period.


Peleus delivers Achilles to Chiron (Louvre G 186)

Although initially the trust that the Heroes’ fathers placed on a hybrid is strange to us, the Florentine political philosopher Nikolo Machiavelli explained the paradox by stating: «There are two ways to fight» through employment of the law and through usage of raw strength. The first way id fit for the humans and the second one for the beasts. But since the first way is inadequate, it is often necessary to resort to the second. That is why the prince needs to know how to use both ways both human and brutal. The writers of antiquity taught this lesson allegorically when they narrated how Achilles and many other ancient princes were sent to by taught by Chiron the Centaur. Having as a teacher a creature half a human and a half beast means that one learns how to use the one and the other nature, and that one cannot last without the other. »

The myths about the other Centaurs, if examined carefully, show the absolute difference of their nature with that of Chiron. The ancestor of the centaurs was Ixion, the lord of the Lapiths. He married the daughter of Hyoneas, and because he could not pay the dowry, he simply solved the problem by killing his father-in-law. As he was the first person ever to assassinate a relative, no mortal was willing to purify him from the abominable act, and he was living cast out from society. Zeus (Jupiter) took pity of him and invited him to Olympus to absolve him from the abominable act. And Ixion from hid very … gratitude (sic) tried to seduce the goddess Hera! The god who realized his intentions created a cloud in the form of his wife, and Ixion was boasting after afterwards that he had mated with the wife of Zeus. The angered Ruler of Olympus condemned him to rotate eternally nailed upon a wheel. (Pindar, Odes 2.20)


Ixion’s punishment. source:

The living cloud in Hera’s form was called Nefeli, gave birth from Ixion’s semen a repugnant child, the first Centaur, who also lived as a social outcast. So when he grew up, he mated with the mares of Magnesia, and this bestiality produced the human-horse hybrid centaurs that we know from myth and art. (Apollodorus.5.1.20)

The Greek Myth does not mention anything positive about human-horse hybrids. They were sneaky assassins, as mentioned in the myth of Peleus, rescued by Chiron (Apollodorus 3.13.3) and even bigger drunkards. Their lust for wine undiluted by water – «unmixed wine» – made them attack Hercules (Apollodorus-5.1.20) and was also the cause of death of the wise Chiron (Apollodorus 2.5.4, Pausanias 5.19.9). Due to their uncontrollable wine drinking when they were invited to the marriage of the king of Lapiths, Peirithos, they attempted to rape the bride. (Apollodorus 2.3.1)


Detail from black-figure vase from Evia with a depicting Centauromachy

Angered by the violation of the laws of hospitality, the Lapiths’ guests fought and killed most of them and then exiled those who survived (Apollodorus 5.1.20-21, Pausanias 1.17.2, 1.28.2, 5.10.8). Though failed as rapists, as in the case of Nessus who went to attack Hercules wife. Deianeira, they were more successful as poisoners. Hercules’ tunic with the contaminated blood of the centaur (Apollodorus .2.26) became the cause of death of the greatest hero of Greece.



Nessos is trying to grab the Deianeira. Source Theoi com

It is possible that even in Antiquity the thinking people did not believe in the physical existence of such hybrids (Xenophon «Cyrus Education» 4.3.17), perhaps believing the source of the myth to be the bestiality of degenerate animal breeders. Centaurs appear in archaic art as symbols of primitivism, as in contrast to the human heroes carrying proper weapons, the Centaurs attack with tree trunks and rocks. This is also supported by the written sources (Apollodorus 2.3.1).


Sculpture depicting Centauromachy from the south side Parthenon. British Museum

The struggle of the people against the hybrid forms of life becomes extremely popular in the sculptural art of the classical period as evidenced by the magnificently made works at the Parthenon pediments and the Apollo’s temple at Vassae of Arcadia. It is only natural as they symbolically portray the prevalence of Greek hoplites against the Asiatic horsearches.


Red-figure pottery from Louvre depicting the opinion of Ancient Greeks about the Centaurs

Centaurs using human weapons appear on the Roman coins of Emperor Galen when the Romans had already developed horse archer units (equites sagittarii). Influenced by Roman iconography, later European artists present Chiron as a horsearcher but also created sculptures with Centaurs lancers or swordsmen. Roman iconography also affected the Easterners as Centaur as an archer appears in the coins of the Turkish dynasty of the Artacides of Mesopotamia in Middle Ages, and judging from their history, they demonstrated all the negative characteristics that the Greeks wanted to symbolize with the myth of the descendants of Ixion

In a strange twist of fate, a » Centauromachy» happened during the Greco-Italian war of 1940 when elements of the 131st Italian «Centauro» armored division, carrying the emblem of the centaur, attempted to break the Greek defense lines at Kalpaki. A 37 mm anti-tank artillery battery, under the command of captain Chailis that crushed the attack, undertook the role of modern Lapiths. Once again, after 2000 years, the descendants of Hercules had crushed the descendants of Ixion.


The results of Chailis battery October 1940


Harvey Nash: The Centaur’s Origin: A Psychological Perspective Author(s) The Classical World, Vol. 77, No. 5 (May – Jun., 1984), pp. 273-291

Frank B. Tarbell: Centauromachy and Amazonomachy in Greek Art: The Reasons for Their Popularity. American Journal of Archaeology. (Jul. – Sep., 1920), pp. 226-231

David Castriota: Myth, Ethos, and Actuality – Official Art in Fifth-century B.C. Athens Univ of Wisconsin Press (1992) pp. 151-155

Mark Stansbury-O’Donnel Looking at Greek Art Cambridge University Press (2011) p. 79

Biers, William. The Archaeology of Greece. United States: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Κωνσταντίνος Τσοπάνης: Περιοδικό Crypto, τεύχος 1, Φεβ. 2005 άρθρο «Κένταυροι, υπήρξαν πραγματικά;»

The Platean hoplites shield devices

ruins of Platea

Modern view of the Ancient Platea ruins. Courtesy: D. Loykissas-Perseas

Plataia is an ancient town in Beotea mostly known for the battle that took place in its vicinity, during the 5th century BC. Around 510 BC the Plateans, hard-pressed by the Thebans, allied themselves to the Athenians. At 490 BC they aided their allies during the battle of Marathon where they distinguished themselves. They also continued to fight against the Persians until their homeland was liberated after the battle that occurred on their land in 479 BC.


According to Pausanins and Strabo in the area of Alkalomenai, near Platea, existed a large forest with huge oak trees. There, the Plateans sacrificed a bull and a cow in honor of Zeus and Hera. Then they hung the pieces of roasted meat on the branches and left, after posting sentries to observe the crows that lived in the woods. If a bird managed to grab a piece of meat, the sentries would observe in which tree it would sit to eat. From this oak tree they built a wooden statue (Daedalon) of Hera and adorned it like a bride. Then they placed it on a carriage, and next to it sat as a bridesmaid, a woman chosen by lot among the inhabitants of Beotea:

The carriage with the sacred Daedalon was led to the top of Kithairon mount, followed by a crowd of Plateans, and stopped at the place that was called Sphragidion. At this place the Plateans built a high, square wooden altar for the goddess, with oak branches. Then they filled it with meat and offered it as a burned offering. It was forbidden this meat to be consumed by humans. Attic pottery is filled with depictions of soldiers who either carry on their shields a raven or a square frame representing the altars of Kithairon.

oenochoe Agora Museum

Detail from an oenochoe that depicts a hoplite that carries the square altar of the Kitheron mountain rituals on its shield. Dated at the end of the 6th century BC, it may be related to the conclusion of the alliance between the Athenians and the Plataeans. Athens Agora Museum. S. Skarmintzos Archive


hoplite dancing pyrichius Cleveland Museum

Red Figure Attic Cylix of the 5th century BC, crafted by Psyax with a depiction of hoplites. The hoplite right carries the emblem of the crow that according to Strabo and Pausanias played an important role at Daedala oracle rituals that were held in Plataea. Cleveland Museum


Platean shiled device reconstruction

Modern reconstruction of a shield from the re-enacting group “Taxis Plateae” sporting the image of the raven. S. Skarmintzos archive

The flagellation of Historical Re-enactment in Greece Official policy or phobia of a few people?

The flagellation of Historical Re-enactment in Greece Official policy or phobia of a few people?

The flagellation of Historical Re-enactment in Greece Official policy or phobia of a few people

Η φραγγέλωση της Ιστορικής Αναβίωσης στην Ελλάδα. Επίσημη πολιτική ή φοβίες ελαχίστων;




A critical view of Ian Gooderson’s, ‘Shoestring Strategy: The British Campaign in the Aegean, 1943’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (2002).

The author’s argument

In his introductory summary Gooderson says he will examine the British “offensive return” in the Aegean during 1943 as an example of the British “peripheral strategy”. He explains that its British characteristic to warfare in attempting to grab any given opportunity to strike at where the enemy seems vulnerable, especially in peripheral fronts by concentrating and using limited resources against a point where the enemy is considered weak. He states that while audacity can bring rewards it can also fail badly if the enemy reacts in a determined manner. Gooderson says that he will examine the British aggressive actions in the Aegean as a combination of efforts by various military branches and assistance from other allies or even potential allies. (Joint operation)

The author says that the British who used their naval and amphibious “finite resources” against “major continental powers possessing superior armies” developed large scale aggressive raiding[1]. That means that they had the “know how” for this operation and cannot be blamed for failing because they lacked knowledge or experience on this type of warfare. Gooderson wrote that this operation was the “brain child” of the British Prime Minister, “for whom the Aegean held a powerful, but fatal, fascination”[2]. He says that his aim is to explain why at a time where things were favorable for the Allies in the Mediterranean; the British suffered such a catastrophic defeat.

The British had attempted to engage the Italians in the Dodecanese islands from November 1940 but they failed. Churchill had to secure Turkey allying itself with Britain against Germany in order to achieve proximity to Balkan targets and military bases for assaults against the Axis occupied Aegean islands. The Turks were positive to the idea but very slow moving in its activation. Another positive factor for the Allies was that their assault in Sicily had brought about the collapse of Mussolini’s regime. This fuelled Churchill’s optimism and gave solid ground to the possibility of acquiring the Dodecanese islands without a fight if the Italians surrendered them to the British and turned against the Germans. The capture of the islands would offer both military and political chips to the British[3]. Yet the allied coordination was not good as the Americans were focused on assaulting Europe through the English Channel and viewed the Mediterranean simply as a sideshow.

The main Allied effort in the Mediterranean focused on the Italian front and the resources available for other operations were very limited. The attempt to secure the Dodecanese islands through the diplomatic way and hold them with the support of the existing Italian garrisons stiffened by the limited available British troops failed because of the quick and brutal reaction of the Germans and the overestimation of the Italian resources and abilities by British Intelligence Services[4].

The Germans decided to crush the British forces in the Aegean in order to prevent the Turks siding with the Allies. The British lacked adequate supplies and heavy weapons. The RAF support was limited and the allied ships were at the mercy of the Luftwaffe during daytime and suffered terribly. The Americans did not divert resources from their main efforts described above and the British were trapped on the islands for even their evacuation would cause heavy loses. When the Germans attacked, enjoying full air support, they captured the islands despite the defenders efforts. The author concludes that the British plans failed for lack of allied coordination and insufficient resources in the face of determined enemy opposition.

The article in historiography

Gooderson fails to mention that Rhodes was lost (to a large extent) because of Allied diplomacy shortcomings and not only by German determination and quick reaction. Ehrman points out that the way the negotiations to make Italy defect from the Axis were handled improperly and the delays caused, simply favored the Germans who made short work of the confused Italian forces in the Balkans[5]. Ehrman also points out that the Allies who considered the Balkans a sideshow had managed to persuade Hitler that they would strike their main blow there[6]. A savage German reaction was to be expected in every allied effort in the area but this factor was ignored.

American sources are very critical of the British adventure in the Aegean and usually very harsh on their criticism of Churchill’s policy. For example David T. Zabecki in says that Roosevelt suspected that Churchill wanted to drag him in a Balkan adventure and says that the Italian garrisons were untrained and under-equipped[7] confirming Italian sources who claim that Italian Navy had failed to properly support the islands during the war. So Italians would be of limited value. D. J. Zimmerman in his work “Churchill’s Folly and the Dodecanese Campaign” claims that the British PM did all this rather to secure postwar British interests in the area rather than to aid the Allied war effort. According to Zimmerman the whole affair simply provided Hitler with a much-needed triumph and secured Turkish neutrality instead of Turkish support for the Allies.

Greek sources are largely not translated and focus on the their forces involved and the positive reception and support that the Greek islanders gave to the Allied soldiers. They criticize British policies in the contact of the operation. One of the few Greek works in English namely Panagiotis Gartzonikas “Amphibious and Special Operations in the Aegean Sea” says that the real reason for the Dodecanese Campaign was Churchill’s fear of Britain becoming lesser partner in the Alliance[8] and wanted to prove British strength with an “independent” military action. The British PM’s objective was to “shore up Britain’s post-war position.[9]” and “wanted to prolong operations in a theater where he thought he had leverage.[10]” The fact that Aegean was (and is) a point of friction between Greeks and Turks[11], and this would affect the operation’s execution and outcome was waved away by Churchill[12] and Gooderson is also ignoring it.

The article’s weaknesses

Gooderson mentioned Churchill’s fascination with the Aegean. He could have elaborated on that and mentioned that he had been disappointed very much from his achievements there during his career. He had failed to secure a British naval base in Greece after the Balkan wars[13] and had suffered defeat in the Dardanelles during WWI. His insistence on aggressive policy cost the Royal Navy a defeat in Castelrosso[14]. It would be worth commenting if it was Churchill’s wish to “conquer the Aegean” rather than his strategic judgment the real cause of the British over optimism about this operation. It is my opinion that the author leaves Churchill very easily “of the hook” on that matter.

Gooderson has drawn on John Ehrman’s work, Grand Strategy, and this raises the following questions: Why in the article is not also mentioning that one of the reasons that Turkish support was not secured was their unwillingness to fight the Germans? They wanted: “immunity from German attack” Ehrman writes[15]. Why article’s author fails to mention the eight thousand battle hardened men of Greek brigade who had performed well in El Alamein? They were written off for this operation because they got caught in Greek political factionalism and mutinied two times in spring and summer 1943[16]. This setback added to the shortage of troops available for the operation. Another question is the performance of the British intelligence service in assessing both the true German strength and the real state of the Italian defenses on the islands. In my opinion the author did not want to be very critical towards anyone in this article.

The article’s strength

As Gooderson says in his introduction there is very little examination by historians of the British involvement in the Aegean during 1943, which is true. His attempt to tackle the subject and present it to the English speaking reader is on its own a positive thing. He stresses that harsh negative criticism against the British handling of the affair should take in to account the “fog of war” and the fact that the decisions were made with what information were best available and in many cases taken under the pressure of events and that orders or instructions were subject to communications break downs. Yet the author’s note that the British overestimated their resources and the willingness of the new would be allies (Italians/Turks) to support British efforts is valid. The author justly points out that the lack of British air support was a crucial factor of the German success. He also explains the drawbacks of the allied ships and airplanes without going into much technical detail that could make reading difficult. The argument that a “piratical war” was preferable to holding ground is also justified by the final outcome of the whole affair. He writes in a manner, that if the reader does not want to go into deep detail about what happened, then the article is a well-written peace giving the general description of the events not only to the historian but to the general audience too.


Jeffrey Holland The Aegean Mission: Allied Operations in the Dodecanese, 1943 (Contributions in Military Studies) Praeger 1988

David T. Zabecki Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History, ABC-CLIO 2014

Robert Holland Blue-Water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800 Penguin UK, 2012

A quick summary by D.J. Ζimerman as seen on 11th March 2016

Panagiotis Gartzonikas, AMPHIBIOUS AND SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN THE AEGEAN SEA 1943-1945. OPERATIONAL EFFECTIVENESS AND STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS from US Naval Post graduate College website as seen on 11th March 2016

[1] Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy page 1

[2] Ibid page 2

[3] ibid page 4

[4] Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy pp 7,8,9

[5] John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, Vol.5 (London: HMSO 1956 p 65

[6] ibid p 62

[7] David T. Zabecki Germany at War p 351

[8] Panagiotis Gartzonikas “Amphibious and Special Operations in the Aegean Sea” Executive summary ix

[9] ibid p.1

[10] ibid p.2

[11] Ibid pp 6.7

[12] Robert Holland Blue-Water Empire p 275

[13] Zisis Fotakis Greek Naval Strategy and Policy 1910-1919 Routledge, 2008 pp 51-60

[14] Footnote 3 on Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy page 31

[15] John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, Vol.5 (London: HMSO 1956) p.102

[16] ibid p.85

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