Art can be a priceless source of evidence for early history, especially for areas and periods with limited surviving written sources, but, just like texts, artistic sources can be tricky to interpret.
Take, for example, this scene from an archaic Greek vase (commonly known as the Chigi Vase, named for one of its modern owners). It provides us with some of our earliest evidence for Greek hoplites and the phalanx formation. Although we understand a lot about the essentials of how hoplite warfare worked, many questions remain unanswered about the precise details of both how a hoplite battle was fought and how the hoplite style of warfare developed over time. Arguments about these topics often depend in part on interpretations of the Chigi vase.
The vase depicts warriors arming themselves and marching into battle as hoplites. Many of the characteristic features of hoplite armament and warfare are on display: heavily armored fighters with large round shields and spears confronting one another in a head-on clash. We can date the creation of this vase to the seventh century BCE, around the same time that the hoplite style of warfare first appeared, so this artwork offers us crucial evidence about what the earliest phase of hoplite warfare looked like and how early some of its defining features emerged.
We can be fairly confident that the artist who painted the decorations on this vase was familiar with the realities of hoplite warfare. The ranks of the phalanx were filled by small farmers and prosperous crafters, including potters and artists. If the painter of this vase was not well-off enough to have fought as a hoplite themselves, they would certainly have known people who had. At the same time, the images are also artistically stylized in ways that make it hard to be sure how much we can rely on them as evidence.
For example, all the warriors shown on this vase are similarly equipped: they have the helmets, breastplates, greaves, and round shields that we think of as the standard parts of the hoplite panoply. Is this vase evidence that hoplite equipment was standardized from an early period, or did the artist depict a standard set of armor to create a pleasing image at a time when real hoplite gear was more of a hodge-podge with individuals equipping themselves as best they could? This question goes to more than matters of artistic taste: one of the most vexed questions in the history of the hoplite phalanx is whether it developed gradually out of older, less rigorously organized styles of warfare or it was created as a fully-realized concept in some particular place and time. Because hoplite warfare was connected with the rise and subsequent fall of early Greek tyrants, understanding the origins of the hoplite phalanx better would have implications for our understanding of major developments in political and social history. Knowing what the Chigi vase painter had in mind would tell us some important things about the early history of ancient Greece.
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