with Marc DeSantis
The lowly pawn is the most numerous chess piece – and also the piece of most-limited value. It represents the common footsoldier, translated into a wargame, and ‘pawn’ has become a term for anyone employed by someone else as a tool.
Pawn emerges etymologically from the Anglo-Norman poun, which itself comes from the medieval Latin pedo (‘footsoldier’), derived from the Latin pes (‘foot’). In English, the use of ‘pawn’ for the chess piece goes back to the 14th century. ‘Mate in the myd poynt of the chekkere/With a poune errante,’ wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in Dethe Blaunche around 1369.
Notwithstanding the pawn’s low status, in Classical times the footsoldier, in the forms of the Greek hoplite and the Roman legionary, was the most important component of an army.
The hoplite’s panoply of the early 5th century BC consisted of a 7ft-long, iron-tipped spear, an iron sword as a back-up, a bronze helmet, bronze greaves, and a large round shield. On his torso, he wore a reinforced linen cuirass.
The hoplite did battle barefoot. He fought in a phalanx, shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, with other hoplites. These Greek warriors won immortal fame at Marathon and Thermopylae.
The Roman imperial legionary of the 1st century AD was likewise heavily equipped, ordinarily bearing a short sword as his main weapon, a big dagger as a back-up sidearm, and two javelins. For defence, he wore an iron helmet, a cuirass of laminated iron segments, and a convex rectangular shield.
Unlike the hoplite, the legionary was shod, with a pair of hobnailed leather boots. Such footsoldiers conquered and defended an empire on behalf of Rome.
Today’s footsoldier is still crucial to battlefield success. Whether called a footslogger, grunt, or groundpounder, it is the infantryman who takes and holds territory.