New Acquisitions: Hoplite-Style Disease Control (March 17, 2020)

This is going to be a bit of an unusual post, but with things moving so rapidly, it didn’t seem to make sense to wait for a break in the normal schedule. Don’t worry, this Friday’s normal post (a Collections on chemical warfare and doctrine) will appear on Friday as scheduled.

But it felt irresponsible as someone with a platform – however small – not to talk about the current COVID-19 pandemic. If that’s not what you are here for, that’s fine you can check out but before you do, please, please read and follow the recommendations of your local health agency (the USA’s Center for Disease Control recommendations are here). Let’s not let our carelessness put others at risk.

This little update is going to come in two parts: a bit on how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping my life and then an exhortation.


I didn’t have time to edit last week’s Friday post to note this, but late last week, my institution went to an all-online instruction method, extending Spring break a week to give us time to convert all of our courses for online delivery and instructing students not to return to campus.

I had actually been following the COVID-19 outbreak since January, because I’m a bit of an international news junkie, so I put together an all-online plan the week before last, talking over the details with some colleagues who had more experience with some of the software and systems.

It is, let me tell you, more than a little awkward to deliver lectures to a camera (in this case, the one on my laptop) rather than a classroom. I don’t talk much here about the art of teaching, but to deliver a good lecture on a topic, you really do need to be reading the room and feeding a bit off of the energy – seeing if students ‘get it’ or if you need to back up and explain something another way. You can’t really do that with a camera.

For those wondering, “why not use video-conferencing software to deliver lectures live?” Two reasons: 1) I’m not confident in the ability of some of those platforms to hold up under the staggering load they’re about to get, but more importantly 2) it’s going to be very hard for a lot of students to attend those sorts of zoom-lectures. Some of my students are international – I have at least 12 hour time differences to contend with. And some students may not have access to the high-speed internet to manage a video-stream. By recording videos, students can watch them at any time, and they can also download or buffer them to get by on more limited internet connections.

I’m also having to make arrangements to do discussions, conference with students, do tests, all online. It’s difficult, to be sure. It certainly takes longer to record lectures, once you factor in encoding, saving and uploading time, than it does to just give them in person. Nevertheless, I am convinced that this is the correct move; I only wish the university had announced it earlier during the break.

Meanwhile, I am fortunate in that my job as a university instructor lets me work at distance, so I can implement social distancing with relative ease. I have an office here in my home, which has a lot of my research materials, so there should be no interuption in my teaching or my writing (here or in my professional research). I know a lot of people whose own work situation isn’t so fortunate. We did have to cancel a trip we had scheduled for last weekend, but that’s a small sacrifice compared to many people.

So we are hunkering down here (my spouse is also distance-working), though to be fair, I am basically a history hermit anyway. As I write this (literally as I wrote the previous paragraph), the university has informed us that the first COVID-19 case in the university community has been detected (given that we have many international connections, I’m only surprised it didn’t come sooner). And of course that’s why we’re social distancing as much as possible here: it’s not about avoiding the virus yourself, but about making sure you don’t become a threat to others (although I have no reason to believe I, or anyone I know, has been exposed).

Which brings us to:

Stand the Line

Plutarch reports this Spartan saying (trans. Bernadotte Perrin):

When someone asked why they visited disgrace upon those among them who lost their shields, but did not do the same thing to those who lost their helmets or their breastplates, he said, “Because these they put on for their own sake, but the shield for the common good of the whole line.” (Plut. Mor. 220A)

This relates to how hoplites generally – not merely Spartans – fought in the phalanx. Plutarch, writing at a distance (long after hoplite warfare had stopped being a regular reality of Greek life), seems unaware that he is representing as distinctly Spartan something that was common to most Greek poleis (indeed, harsh punishments for tossing aside a shield in battle seemed to have existed in every Greek polis).

When pulled into a tight formation, each hoplite’s shield overlapped, protecting not only his own body, but also blocking off the potentially vulnerable right-hand side of the man to his left. A hoplite’s armor protected only himself. That’s not to say it wasn’t important! Hoplites wore quite heavy armor for the time-period; the typical late-fifth/fourth century kit included a bronze helmet and the linothorax, a laminated, layered textile defense that was relatively inexpensive, but fairly heavy and quite robust. Wealthier hoplites might enhance this defense by substituting a bronze breastplate for the linothorax, or by adding bronze greaves (essentially a shin-and-lower-leg-guard); ankle and arm protections were rarer, but not unknown.

But the shield – without the shield one could not be a hoplite. The Greeks generally classified soldiers by the shield they carried, in fact. Light troops were called peltasts because they carried the pelta – a smaller, circular shield with a cutout that was much lighter and cheaper. Later medium-infantry were thureophoroi because they carried the thureos, a shield design copied from the Gauls. But the highest-status infantrymen were the hoplites, called such because the singular hoplon (ὅπλον) could be used to mean the aspis (while the plural hopla (ὁπλά) meant all of the hoplite’s equipment, a complete set).

(Sidenote: this doesn’t stop in the Hellenistic period. In addition to the thureophoroi, who are a Hellenistic troop-type, we also have Macedonian soldiers classified as chalkaspides (‘bronze-shields’ – they seem to be the standard sarissa pike-infantry) or argyraspides (‘silver-shields,’ an elite guard derived from Alexander’s hypaspides, which again note – means ‘aspis-bearers’!), chrysaspides (‘gold-shields,’ a little known elite unit in the Seleucid army c. 166) and the poorly understood leukaspides (‘white-shields’) of the Antigonid army. All of the -aspides seem to have carried the Macedonian-style aspis with the extra satchel-style neck-strap, the ochane)

(Second aside: it is also possible to overstate the degree to which the aspis was tied to the hoplite’s formation. I remain convinced, given the shape and weight of the shield, that it was designed for the phalanx, but like many pieces of military equipment, the aspis was versatile. It was far from an ideal shield for solo combat, but it would serve fairly well, and we know it was used that way some of the time.)

Why am I talking about hoplites and shields here?

Because we need to do hoplite-style disease control.

Not exactly what I meant, but then again, read this badass description of what soap does to the virus.
The half-obscured image there is from the Chigi Vase, originally from an Etruscan Tomb neir Veio, Italy, discovered in 1881 and now in the Villa Giulia in Rome. It dates to the seventh century (650-640 BC) and is striking for its depiction of an early hoplite phalanx (indeed, a battle between two of them) or at least what looks to be a significant stage in the development of the phalanx, depending on how one quibbles on definitions.

Now, I want to preface this by noting that while I am an expert on hoplites, I am not an expert on health or viruses. I encourage you, strongly, to seek out the expertise of your local public health departments, like the CDC – and yes, I am just going to keep linking that, because people need to <expletive deleted> read it.

Folks, we are at war with this virus. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news, first from China, now from Iran and Italy, start right now. This thing isn’t ‘coming’ – it is already here (no matter what country ‘here’ is). And remember: many people who have the virus will show no symptoms – any of us might be carrying, might be exhaling it into the air or leaving it on surfaces and not even know it. So we all have to have our shields up.

(I feel I should note, as a matter of record, we are in this situation because one government – note, not the people, the government – decided to put politics before public safety and allowed this virus to go worldwide when it may well have been contained. We are in this mess because of selfish, short-sighted leaders; we will only get out of it through selflessness and foresight.

Edit (August, 2020): It is now equally clear that the virus has been allowed to spread through much of the Americas due to further and equally short-sighted leadership failures.)

I am reading about a lot about people who are ignoring the recommendations of their local health agencies, still going out to bars, or to crowded gyms and the like – mostly because they think ‘hey, I’m young and healthy, I can risk it!” First: a virus does not care how many reps you can do, and while most serious cases of COVID-19 strike the old or sick, not all of them do. In France, a lot of the cases currently in hospitals are from younger people – who are, we should note – occupying beds and equipment which will thus be unavailable when serious cases among the very vulnerable arrive. Every hospital bed occupied by an avoidable infection represents resources that cannot help someone else!

But more importantly, this isn’t a ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances’ situation. This isn’t about protecting you from COVID-19. This is about protecting others from you, if you have the virus and may not know it yet. The people who are most at risk are counting on you to shield them from this virus, they are counting on you to ‘flatten the curve‘ so that health resources are available if they get sick, they are counting on you to buy time (possibly as long as 18 months, so settle in folks) until treatments and vaccines can be devised to beat this virus.

The hoplite wore his armor for himself, but he carried his shield for the whole line.

So if you want to wash your hands a bunch, carry a ton of hand-sanitizer for yourself – good, do that. A hoplite wears his armor for himself. But, if you are sick, or might be sick, you need to quarantine for the common good of the whole line. Cancel events for the whole line. Stay in for the whole line. Don’t go to bars, clubs, gyms, or restaurants for the whole line. Avoid crowds for the whole line. For students and households that are financially fragile, those of us – and I include myself here – whose jobs and income can survive social distancing are going to need to be generous with time and money, for the whole line.

Edit (August 2020): And wear a mask, for the whole line. There is now tremendous evidence that universal mask-wearing can slow down or even defeat the virus, but only if everyone does it. You do not wear the mask for yourself: you wear it for everyone else. For the whole line.

So pick up a shield and stand in the line.

Now I know that for many folks, they can’t afford to do social distancing. They have an essential job (healthcare, police, etc), or they can’t afford to lose the paycheck and still eat (and can’t distance-work); that kind of thing. But precisely because there are people in that position is why we – who aren’t – need to step up and reduce the risk to them. And of course many people – the old, those with compromised immune systems, those in poor health and so on – may not be able to completely remove their risk. You need to carry your shield for them.

Because the fact is, if someone could do social distancing, but is instead choosing to be out in the bars or traveling or what have you – quite frankly, that person might well be a killer, without even knowing it. That sounds dark, I know, but in many legal codes, ‘gross negligent manslaughter’ is a thing for a reason (disclaimer: I am also not a lawyer). Don’t let your carelessness endanger someone else’s life – remember, that elderly person, or immune-compromised person, or sick person is someone else’s son or daughter, father or mother or grandparent, spouse or partner. This is likely to be remembered as one of the great challenges of our time; act how you would want to be remembered.

I know I have quite a few older or immune-compromised family members, colleagues, friends and mentors (academia, it turns out, full of old people – who knew?). I’m sure you do too. Think of them, pick up a shield and stand in the line.

And one last time, here is the link to the CDC’s recommendations for behaving responsibly during this pandemic. Folks, we may have to do this for a while; this may not be short or quick. But when this is over – be it in 3 weeks, or 3 months, or even the 18 months it may take to get a vaccine – we’ll be able to put all of the things we had to put on pause back in order. Bars and restaurants can be replaced; people cannot. We need to stand together – at a respectful, safe, six-foot distance – to beat this thing.

Alright; regular history stuff resumes on Friday.

21 thoughts on “New Acquisitions: Hoplite-Style Disease Control (March 17, 2020)

  1. Excellent, as always. Minor quibble: you’re linking to the National Review, a magazine founded in the 1960s to protect white supremacy. As far as I know, they have not recanted that position. I would not treat them as a credible source on anything.

    1. You might want to look up who it was that had the most to do with white supremacists ceasing to be part of the mainstream of the conservative movement, and what magazine he founded.

      Because what you just said is the exact opposite of true.

      1. The prevalence of swastikas and Confederate flags at all these recent anti-quarantine protests (protests attended almost exclusively by conservatives) would suggest that white supremacy is still a big part of the conservative movement.

    1. The link to an article at the NRO is on the line, “I feel I should note, as a matter of record, we are in this situation because one government – note, not the people, the government – decided to put politics before public safety…”

      I consume a wide range of news and commentary. I find it important to know what even people I disagree with are thinking, and I don’t think I gain significantly from shutting myself off. I find that it is possible for good arguments to appear in bad outlets, just as bad arguments sometimes appear in good outlets, just like bad people occasionally produce good scholarship, as good people sometimes produce poor scholarship.

      In this case, I picked the article because it was public (some better stuff at other outlets sits behind paywalls) and made the case using pretty much entirely quotes from reputable news outlets (WSJ, WaPo, NYTimes, etc). It was clear and to the point. I think that remains true, so I don’t find it at all troublesome to have the link.

  2. It seems many democracies (or republics) teach people to discard responsibility. In a western society, there’s often a person for any given task. Return your dishes in a bar? No, a waiter will do that. Pick up the trash? No, a cleaning crew will do it. Stop that aggressive guy? No, call the police. Help a sick person? No, send him to a doctor. Replace battery? No, send it to service center. Or better yet, buy a new one. Defend the country? … In short: not my job.

    This causes a situation where you either dedicate your career, and life to enter such a service or you can’t contribute. There are non-profit organizations and volunteers, but they’re kept completely separate.

    On the other hand, solving things yourself is often vilified. Lose your warranty. Vigilant justice. He’s a quack.

    I wonder if we can do better than that. Maybe each public institution should have a lower tier of volunteer workers, that cooperate closely with it. Some sort of connection layer.

    Institutions can be slow, impersonal and non-transparent. They are supposed to help, but them – and corporations – are in many cases an example of avoiding responsibility.

    Superhero movies became massively popular in US. Superheroes are effective, fast and cool. But using one as your role model is massively stupid. No one is becoming a superhero. You won’t solve anything this way. And it’s a terrible disgrace to science-fiction genre. Superhero movies simplify problems to a childish level, to a single villain. If you keep watching that, you may be trained to not recognize more complex problems and don’t know how to handle them.

      1. That’s a broader subject but I don’t want to get further off-topic. The best medium for science fiction (born as a method to make science more popular) is probably a book. The reason I brought up superheroes is that the popularity of these movies seems to indicate some kind of frustration on a society scale.

        I once read an article about an ancient play. It said ancient Greeks depicted furies as beastly women, and, contrary to what we often see today being manly involved being rational and steady. To let emotions and especially anger control you was seen as feminine. They were given clothes and started walking on two legs rather than on all fours, and were transformed into a part of justice system (Kindly Ones).

        Found it.
        Martha C. Nussbaum’s Jefferson Lecture: Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame

  3. The way you write about shields is fascinating. It’s surprising, and yet it makes so much sense.

    Shields are one of most neglected and underrated pieces of equipment in popular culture. Movies frequently avoid them altogether, especially in duels. Games give them some trivial benefit, like +2 bonus to defense. Re-enactors and HEMA practitioners shun them. I think people underestimate how common missile weapons were.

    Can you recommend any online service which can read Greek aloud? I’m trying to use Google Translate – it often suggests a transliteration from latin letters to greek ones, but I don’t know how accurate it is.

    1. Ancient Greek or Modern Greek? The two have very different sound systems even though many words are spelled similarly (and pronunciation was different in Herodotus’ day and in Plutarch’s day, and between one city and the next). The easiest way to learn to pronounce Attic Greek is to get a used textbook and spend an hour a day for a few weeks.

      1. I’ll only add to this that I find that software – either for translation or for just spoken sounds – cannot handle ancient Greek, at all. I don’t know why, but I’ve never seen translation software that could do it. Not yet at least – I assume they’ll figure it out eventually.

      2. Modern Greek would be enough for me. I’m not looking for an utopia, I just want to have an idea. Is Google Translate state of art, or is there something better?

        1. Google Translate works OK for modern Greek, both translation and pronunciation.

          But I want to stress, it *cannot* handle ancient Greek translation and the pronunciation is not even close. Ancient Greek has a different accent-*system* from modern Greek; it’s not just that the accents have moved – the entire system for accenting words has changed to an entirely different type (from a rules-based pitch-accent system to a variable stress accent system; I am not kidding, it is *totally* different). Many letters have changed phonetic values (η, υ, υι, ει, and οι all have distinct sounds in ancient Greek; in modern Greek, they all sound like ι; Beta is a ‘b’ sound in ancient Greek but a ‘v’ in modern; Gamma is a hard ‘g’ in ancient but almost a ‘y’ in modern; delta is a ‘d’ sound in ancient Greek but close to a ‘th’ in modern; and on and on – about as many letters changed as stayed the same). You can go down this list: and see just how dramatically the pronunciation has changed.

          So software for modern Greek is not, generally, going to give you an idea of ancient Greek – either how it sounds, or the meaning of the passage. Quite frankly, Modern Greek is to Ancient Greek as Italian or French is to Latin.

      1. In Nox you can actively use your shield, and it’s an interesting change of pace (and there’s no shield bash). But generally, all melee weapons are very poorly simulated in games. I think shields are just seen as less interesting because it’s for defense. It’s a bit surprising because when you start swinging sticks around you realize a shield *enables* more aggressive moves, in particular with shorter weapons like axes, maces, hammers. A sword can be longer than many weapons of the same weight because its center of gravity is very close to the handle (Matt Easton / scholagladiatoria has an interesting video on rapiers), so it’s easy to change direction mid-swing and get an advantage. But hey, Roman legions! The short gladius would never work without a great shield and good armor.

        But realistic-ish depiction of melee is getting more popular in games, there’s something of a revival. I expect shields to get better in games just by association.

        Maybe VR headsets will improve things, but they’re somewhat awkward to use and at that point you may as well join HEMA :-). I’d like to try it when I muster more time. These people are changing the common understanding of history, and subsequently movies and video games.

        In my opinion the key to making a shield game fun (either a computer game or a board game) is treating enemy archers with respect. People are cowards and got surprisingly good at killing enemies from distance. You could design an interesting game around the idea of using your shield to handle missiles.

  4. Bret, I don’t want to sound obtuse but do we know what antique armies did to prevent spread of disease in their ranks? Or more generally was there anything interesting about antique disease control? It’s the right moment to ask.

  5. I am far too much of a Sci-Fi nerd. I kept thinking of Captain Kirrahe’s “Hold the Line” speech from Mass Effect 1. Though, perhaps, that is not so much of a stretch. The Salarian STG is being asked to do something they aren’t really trained for and that will require great sacrifice for the benefit of society. The least we can do is pick up our shield and hold the line here and now.

  6. Extremely well written. And shocking, in that I just realized the date is mid MARCH. The story could have been written this week… except it might then have included all the gross abuses that have continued as the self-important and willfully gullible continue to back up the irresponsible government/party which has been the main cause of chaos and death in the country. Uncanny prediction.

  7. From the future! 24 months have passed, and variants still coming, but most people seem ok with it now (those who are still alive).

  8. I’m impressed by how well this advice holds up, both based on what we knew at the time and with 3 years’ hindsight.

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