After a few false rushes, the Essedarii changed their tactics. They could not afford to tire their horses. There were two men in each chariot, the charioteer and the lariat man.
As they came in again, the lariat man in the leading chariot built himself a loop by the spin known today as the Butterfly—that is, he spun a small loop vertically in front and to the left of his body. Then he brought it abruptly to the right and tossed the open noose toward one of the second rank Hoplites.
If the Essedarii had been trying to catch a running animal he would have swung the loop several times around his head before making the throw to give him more control over the loop, much as a baseball pitcher winds up before a throw, but the Greek would have seen the cast coming and ducked or turned the loop with his spear. This quick, unexpected, underhand toss was by far the better technique.
Even so, the toss failed. The loop struck the horsehair crest in the helmet of a front-rank man and was deflected. Instantly the Essedarii jerked his rope clear for fear that a Hoplite might grab it and pull it from his grasp.
As the chariot thundered past, another Essedarii tried the same throw. He also missed, but in a following chariot still another Essedarii dared the overhead throw, knowing that the Greeks were concentrating on the other ropes.
The long lariat snaked out over the ranks and settled around the neck of a man in the last rank. With an exultant whoop the Essedarii took a turn of the rope around a horn projecting from the rim of the chariot while the driver swung his team away and gave them their heads.
The half-strangled Hoplite was dragged through the ranks, losing his spear and breaking the formation. Instantly half a dozen chariots rushed for the gap, the drivers yelling to their horses and beating the reins on their backs.
"Close ranks!" shouted the Hoplite officers, and the chariots were again confronted by a line of unwavering spears. All but one driver was able to swing away in time. The foremost chariot plunged into the spears. The horses screamed like humans as the spearheads plunged into their chests and they came down on their knees.
The lariat man jumped out and ran, but the charioteer could not escape in time. He died as his horses had, with a spear through his chest.
Other chariots darted in to take advantage of the gap, hoping to break the phalanx before the Hoplites could disengage their spears from the bodies of the thrashing horses.
The horses had been impaled on spears held by men in the third and fourth ranks. The officer in charge of that section of the phalanx took in the situation at a glance.
"Third and fourth ranks, kneel!" he shouted with lungs of brass. "Fifth and sixth ranks, three paces
As one man, the third and fourth ranks dropped to their knees, elevating their spears as they did so and bracing the butts against the ground. The last two ranks took three measured steps forward to preserve the spear level. The oncoming chariots veered away.
The spears were torn clear of the kicking horses and the beasts dispatched by an officer's sword with two quick strokes at the base of the animals' skulls. From the rear came the shouted order: "Fifth and sixth ranks, three paces to the rear—march! Third and fourth ranks, rise!"
The phalanx was itself again, ready to meet the next charge of the Essedarii.
Two chariots were coming in abreast now. Surely they intended to hit the phalanx full on, sacrificing themselves so the following chariots could plow through the broken line.
The Hoplites braced themselves for the shock. At the last instant the chariots split, turning to left and right. The lariat man in the left-hand chariot threw his noose with the quick, underhand toss, aiming for a man in the rear rank.
An officer cut the rope through with a single slash while it still hung poised in mid-air. He had served in the Near East and his sword was of Damascus steel. The other lariat man took advantage of the distraction. He had been playing his rope, doing a spin now known as the Ocean Wave, in an attempt to hold the Hoplites' attention and distract them from his friend.
When he saw that his comrade's throw had been foiled, he instantly flung his own rope, leaning far over the side of the chariot and putting the whole force of his body into the motion, using his arm mainly to guide the rope. He caught a man in the fifth rank, jerked him off his feet, and began towing him through the other lines.
Among the Hoplites, homosexuality was regarded not only as natural but as an idealized and noble relationship between an older and a younger man.
In the phalanx, the young men in the front ranks each had a lover among the older men in the rear ranks. This situation was believed to increase the efficiency of the regiment for no man would run away and forsake his lover in a crisis. But the relationship also posed difficulties.
As the Essedarius dragged his captive through the ranks, the man's boy-lover dropped his spear and threw himself on his friend's body to save him. The two men together cut a wide swathe through the ranks.
An officer passed his sword through the boy's throat and the cry of "Dress ranks! Dress ranks!" went up from the officers and the non-coms alike. But the damage had been done. The phalanx was broken, and the yelling Essedarii were charging in from all directions.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Ten, Part 1 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents