Tuesday, 9 December 2014


Xenophon is criticised for historical inaccuracy or even wilful omission (witness his tantalisingly brief description of the battle at Leuctra). However, he was an experienced soldier and his knowledge, even if not always direct, can be counted on in the case of military details when he chooses to record them for us. Maybe he was not a sailor but he was a contemporary of leading commanders who directed naval operations.
Thalassa! Thalassa!

In reference to intelligence, surveillance and observation - current theme of interest - we are lucky because one of Xenophons heroes was Iphikrates. Iphikrates was an able and innovative Athenian commander who excelled in warfare both on land and at sea. Xenophon was more than glad to sing Iphikrates praises and we can benefit from the details he gives to show how thorough and skillful his hero was.
Genius, but nevertheless a Steve Reeves fan
In 373BC the Athenians sent a force led by Iphikrates to support their allies the Kerkyrans against the active and threatening Spartan commander Mnasippus who had besieged their city.

When the force was on land ,over-nighting, re-supplying or eating, he had a scheme for look-outs to ensure his command could not be surprised by the enemy. Around about their location were look-outs on land who presumably found suitable points to survey the surroundings. In addition, he had the masts of his ships raised, or at least, some of  them and had men sent up to keep watch from their tops. Thanks to these precautions, Iphikrates could give his men a chance to eat on enemy territory but opposing forces could never arrive in time to confront them.

Concerning the mast-top look-outs it is interesting to note that this is a unique reference from Xenophon to what could have been a common practice. It is such a simple practice. Or, maybe it was so unusual that this degree of attention-to-detail was what set better commanders apart from the flock and made it worthy of mention.During the Peloponnesian War there are many instances of what today seems an extremely amateur approach to warfare leading to disaster or harm viz. Aegesopotami . Failure to post sufficient look-outs or take precautions against surprise are errors of criminal negligence in the modern era but in the days of a dilettante military - a climate that also prevailed at other times and places  in history - they happened repeatedly. 
Charming view....Sirenity
One of the surprising things about the Spartan dominance in matters military is revealed by reading what we have recorded of their military institutions and practices. There is no secret rocket science. There are no gnomic principles revealed only to the initiated. What there is is basic military common sense, systems following the not-so-modern-as-you-think concept of 'keep it simple stupid' and an institutionalised discipline which ensures the aforesaid are adhered to. 
There is beauty in simplicity. But not here.
Whether it was their democratic principles or not, the Athenians usually had a far less rigorous approach to warfare than their opponents. Which, coming back to Iphikrates, may be why Xenophon chooses to laud him with such a detailed account of his leadership. Iphikrates was acting in a most Lacedaimonian and archetypically Hellenic manner.
Is my  hero's shoulder  hurting ? Here..or here ?
The masts of a trieres weredismounted and laid down, perhaps into a slot in the deck, when not in use. For a military operation they could be left ashore and retrieved later. This slightly obscure behaviour is explained by the performance characteristics of a trieres. In battle it was the oars which provided propulsion. On a passage the oars could supplement the sail in some conditions but the sail provided most of the motive power on longer voyages.
Olympias: showing main mast and foremast with yards and sails
 In addition, the masts and sails must have been a considerable weight to dispense with. We know that, at least in the fourth century BC, trieres did have a light sail and a  (light) mast aboard for escape from battle but this seems not to be the usual main mast and main sail. Iphikrates did not take his heavier sailing equipment with him at all on his voyage to Kerkyra. All the better to force his men to row and get in condition! In a battle the mast and yard would raise the ship's centre of gravity, making it less stable, and be a possible means of capsize if an enemy could get a line onto them.

Getting up to the top of the mast for observation does not seem like such an important thing but a quick examination of the geometry of keeping a look out at sea makes the case for it obvious.

The distance one can see on a curved surface like the globe of the earth is limited by its degree of curvature and the height of the observer. The ancient mariners knew the world was round and the surface curved. Simple experience would tell mariners this fact notwithstanding Victorian idiocies about flat earth myths.

The old rule of thumb is that the distance to the horizon is
            'seven times the height in feet of the observer 
             is four times the square of the distance to the horizon in miles.'
 R. Langton Cole, “Distance of the visible horizon,” Nature 92, 425 (1913).

 You can try a simple calculator program HERE

Notwithstanding marked variations given by atmospheric conditions which should be allowed-for, one can quickly see that being on the deck of a ship at 6 feet above sea level or being up the mast at a height of  circa 54 feet (Olympias' mast is 16.08m) gives an increased observation distance with an horizon at 3 and 9 miles respectively. This extended observation distance gives warning time and a chance for Iphikrates men to pack and leave before the oncoming pursuers have even spotted them.
Now, as Iphikrates progressed on his circumnavigation of the Peloponnese he got word that Mnasippus was dead. Here again we have an indication of the clear thinking of a genius like Iphikrates. he did not assume that this was true intelligence because whoever informed him was not an eye witness. Perhaps it was a final courier in a chain started in Kerkyra after the happy event and could even have been a deception. Not until he arrived at a friendly port which could confirm the news did Iphikrates allow his regime of surveillance and mobility slacken. Only then could the hyperesia relax from the fear of being sent up top.(But in my experience the mast monkeys usually like being up there anyway !)
The last bit is always the trickiest !