History distinguishes the Athenian general Iphicrates for the superlative quality of his leadership, the extent of his martial innovations, and his understanding of the psychological dimension of war. He lived from about 418 B.C. to 353 B.C. We will discuss some of the leadership principles that may be distilled from the writings of two ancient historians, Cornelius Nepos and Polyaenus.
The necessity of continuous innovation. Iphicrates recognized the constant need for reform and overhaul of military tactics and equipment. Wars are not fought afloat a stagnant pond; and the inquisitive mind of the wily Athenian unrelentingly sought new ways of achieving old ends. As the biographer Cornelius Nepos says:
He always won by using his military acumen; and in this quality he was so impressive that he often produced innovations in military gear or refinements in what was already in use. He was responsible for making significant changes to infantry weapons. Before he was a general it was customary to use large shields, short spears, and small swords; he on the other hand, substituted crescent-shaped shields (peltae) for round shields (parmae). Infantrymen have since been called peltasts as a consequence of this innovation; and he made this change so that soldiers would not have to carry so much weight when maneuvering or charging the enemy. [Lives of the Great Commanders, Iph. 1]
Coordination and organization is paramount. Iphicrates always held that superior organization and discipline could overcome nearly all other obstacles. He likened an army mustered for action, according to Polyaenus (III.9), to the human body. This body needed to function as a coherent whole, not as a collection of disjointed parts. The chest of this body was the phalanx; the hands were the lightly-armed infantry; the feet were the cavalry; and the head was, of course, the army’s general. He would say that if any part of this body was deficient, the army could not function to its potential. But if it lacked a “head” (i.e., a proper general), then it could be capable of nothing at all.
Present a more formidable appearance than the enemy. Iphicrates understood the need to inspire his men with confidence and an unshakeable certainty in ultimate victory. Before undertaking an engagement with barbarian opponents, he would tell his men,
Those barbarians seem not to know the terror that the arms of Iphicrates carry with them. But by your assistance, my lads, I will now teach them to know it, and to tell the tale to others. [Poly. III.9.25]
Once when a battle-line was drawn, and one of his officers remarked that the enemy appeared formidable, he responded, “Then we must be so much the more formidable.”
Distribute rewards in accordance with merit. After an engagement, Iphicrates would distribute booty and spoils in accordance with how each soldier had distinguished himself. In contrast, when financial contributions were raised on cities where no battle had been fought, he divided up such funds by corps, companies, and bands–not by individuals. His reasoning was that personal benefits had to be earned through personal action, and that money gained without fighting should not be conferred directly on specific persons. Before battles were fought, he would promise his men to reward them according to the valor they individually displayed. In this way he created a strong incentive for personal initiative in combat which, he knew well, could be contagious.
Lead by example. All the best commanders have understood the importance of sharing hardships and leading by example. Unfortunately, this principle is rarely practiced today. During a winter campaign, Iphicrates recognized an opportune time to engage the enemy; but his men lacked warm garments and appeared demoralized. So he appeared before his army clothed in even thinner garb than they had, and without adequate shoes; he made the rounds of the camp, exhorting them to action and inspiring them with genial hectoring. Seeing their commander thus dressed and ready for action, the men quickly recovered themselves and proceeded to battle.
Know your men. When Iphicrates would run low on funds to pay his men, he would march them to sea-coasts and isolated places, where their expenses would be lower. But when he was flush with money, and had a full war chest, he would garrison his men in cities and lush places. The canny reason for this was that he knew his men would more quickly spend their money in these locations; and that, once depleted of funds, his troops would be more inclined to undertake another military enterprise. He always kept his men busy with physical labor when not campaigning. Idleness, he knew, was the mother of sedition and mutiny.
Know how to fight in any venue. Iphicrates’s political enemies Aristophon and Chares once tried to have him prosecuted on trumped up charges of treason. The alleged reason was Iphicrates’s failure to attack the enemy at Embata when he had the power to do so. While he was before the tribunal, Iphicrates showed the judges his sword. The judges, fearing that he would have his men arrest them, eventually acquitted the general. When an Athenian later accused Iphicrates of trying to intimidate the judges, he replied, “I would indeed be a fool if I could fight for the Athenians, and be unable to do the same for myself.”
Settlement sometimes requires a jolt. Iphicrates understood that there were times when disputatious parties needed to be jarred out of unrealistic positions, and be made to accept reasonable settlements. He once acted as a mediator between the warring Thebans and Spartans. The allies of the Thebans (i.e., Argives and Arcadians) were dragging their feet and acting to prevent a reconciliation between the belligerents. Iphicrates therefore ordered his men to ravage Argolis, the country of the Argives. When they complained, Iphicrates mendaciously told them that their own men had done it, but that he would take action to make them whole. He then “restored” the property to the Argives that had been plundered at his own secret command. In gratitude, the Argives agreed no longer to block the peace negotiations between Thebes and Sparta.
These, then, were some of the leadership principles of Iphicrates the Athenian. “He had a greatness of soul as well as a general’s bearing in stature,” says Cornelius Nepos, “in a way that his countenance alone instilled veneration in whomever saw it.” With such men are the sinews of national longevity preserved and tightened. Exigencies produce them; but the memory of their names is then buried by the corrosive silts of indolence and luxury.
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Read more in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: