Each ancient Greek city-state* had its own army. Few cities, however, could afford to maintain a full-time army of professional soldiers. As a result, most Greek military forces consisted of citizens trained to take up arms in times of crisis. These citizen-soldiers had to supply their own weapons and armor. At first, most soldiers came from the upper classes because only the wealthy could afford the necessary arms. By the mid-600s B.C., military equipment had become less expensive, allowing craftspeople and small landowners to acquire arms and join the ranks of the military.
Greek armies were relatively small, perhaps no more than 10,000 men. In most armies, the soldiers elected their officers, and the overall command alternated among several generals chosen by popular vote.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Training. In most city-states, young men began military training at age 18. While serving in the army, they received pay and a living allowance. After one or two years of training, the soldiers returned to civilian life, but they could be called for military service until the age of 60. In time of war, these retired soldiers might be required to report for service at a moment’s notice and bring along enough food—barley meal, onion, and cheese—for three days.
Military training in Sparta was different from that in other city-states. Basically a military state, Sparta required male citizens from the upper classes to begin military training as early as age seven and to remain soldiers all their lives. Sparta’s highly trained soldiers were generally considered the best in Greece.
Organization. Greek armies consisted mostly of infantry, or foot soldiers. Some infantrymen were hoplites, heavily armed spear carriers. Others were peltasts, who were more lightly armed and more mobile. Military groups tended to be divided by social class, according to the cost of equipment. The peltasts usually came from the lower classes because the equipment they required—javelins and simple shields of woven twigs—was not expensive. The cavalry stood at the high end of the scale in terms of cost. Because horses were expensive and scarce, few Greek armies included a cavalry. The cavalries that did exist consisted mainly of young men from the wealthy, landowning families.
One of the most important infantry units was the phalanx, a tightly massed formation of hoplites. Bearing shields and spears, these soldiers advanced and fought as a single unit. Keeping the phalanx in formation took great discipline.
Rise of Professional Soldiers. Greek armies changed during the 300s B.C. when Asian rulers hired Greek soldiers to serve in their armies. Greek soldiers were highly valued because of their great discipline and battle skills. The chance to work in foreign armies led to the rise of a class of professional soldiers in many Greek city-states. Mercenaries*, also known as soldiers of fortune or free lancers, fought for anyone who paid them. As Greek city-states began hiring mercenaries to supplement or replace the citizen troops, Greek armies became more professional.
* mercenary soldier, usually a foreigner who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
The greatest changes in Greek armies occurred in Macedonia under kings Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, both of whom ruled in the 300s B.C. Philip created a large professional army of highly trained soldiers and mercenaries recruited from all classes of society. He also added new groups of infantry and expanded the cavalry. Alexander adopted his father’s changes and introduced the lancers, a new form of cavalry that was used mostly for scouting and pursuing retreating enemy troops. With the expanded use of cavalry, which could advance more quickly than the infantry, Macedonian armies became stronger, more flexible, and more capable of pursuing and destroying an enemy.
Macedonian armies, with as many as 60,000 men, were much larger than the armies of the Greek city-states. The Macedonian army was based on a phalanx of about 4,000 men, divided into smaller units that were trained to maneuver separately or together. Other infantry and cavalry groups coordinated their actions with the phalanx, increasing its effectiveness.
The Macedonian armies were the most formidable fighting forces in the Mediterranean world. The great power of these armies and their ability to move quickly over long distances allowed Philip and Alexander to expand their kingdoms and to create huge empires. (See also Wars and Warfare, Greek; Weapons and Armor.)