Ancient Greece is known primarily for its contributions to literature, philosophy, politics, and the arts. But warfare also played an important role in Greek society. The Greeks produced some of the finest warriors and some of the most successful tactics and weaponry in the military history of the ancient world.
WARFARE IN THE BRONZE AGE
The ancient Greeks looked to the poet Homer as an authority on the art of war. His epic* the Iliad is full of vivid descriptions of early combat. Historians debate whether or not the events of the Trojan War that Homer recounted in this poem actually occurred. Yet archaeological evidence suggests that his descriptions of Bronze Age warfare are generally accurate.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Bronze Age Warriors. During the Bronze Age (from about 3500 B.C. to 1000 B.C.), kings often led armies against other cities to gain glory, riches, territory, and power. While the prospect of plunder* was a significant incentive for early warriors, many soldiers were concerned primarily with gaining fame and honor through bravery in combat. This was particularly true of men of high rank. Those who failed to show courage in battle were held in low esteem.
Bronze Age warriors used several types of weapons and armor. The primary weapon was the spear. Warriors often carried two spears, one intended for throwing from a distance, the other to be either thrown or used for thrusting at close range. Warriors also carried swords, which they used to follow up a successful spear attack or as an alternative weapon when they had thrown both spears. Warriors considered bows and arrows cowardly weapons, used by those who wished to avoid close combat. The defensive armor of warriors included bronze helmets, breastplates, and greaves, or shin guards. Fallen warriors usually were stripped of their armor, especially if it was finely made.
Warriors in Battle. Bronze Age battles generally were a series of individual encounters between warriors in which strength, skill, and courage were the deciding factors. Warriors of high rank usually rode to and from the battlefield on chariots, but they jumped off to fight the enemy in hand- to-hand combat. Meanwhile, a charioteer, or driver, kept the chariot close by to provide a means of retreat should the warrior be wounded, face overwhelming odds, or be called to another part of the battlefield.
Defeated warriors could expect little mercy from the victors, who often would not accept surrender. Even if the victors took prisoners, they might kill them later to avenge the deaths of comrades. Prisoners who survived often were forced to become slaves. Because of the treatment of prisoners, fighting to the death was probably preferable to surrender or capture.
After a battle, the victors claimed the bodies of fallen comrades, honored them in religious rituals, and burned them in funeral fires. Among the vanquished, friends or relatives of fallen warriors risked their own lives and entered the battlefield to recover the corpses. Sometimes the bodies remained unclaimed, and birds and animals feasted on the remains.
WARFARE IN CLASSICAL GREECE
From the time of Homer onward, written sources provided a much clearer picture of warfare during the classical* period of Greek history. These sources indicate that the development of new military tactics and organization transformed Greek warfare.
The Greek Phalanx. Spear-carrying warriors still served as the backbone of Greek armies after the 700s B.C. But instead of fighting in individual combat, they fought together in well-organized military formations.
The basic formation of Greek armies was the phalanx, and the warriors in it were called hoplites. The phalanx consisted of rows of armored hoplites arranged in columns eight men deep, all drawn together in tight formation.
* plunder to steal property by force, usually after a conquest
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
At the head of each column was the officer in charge of the men behind him. The most skilled and experienced soldiers were placed in the front ranks, and they were the first to meet the enemy.
Each hoplite warrior carried a spear and a sword and was protected by bronze or iron armor and a wooden or leather shield carried in his left hand. The shield protected only the left side of a warrior’s body. As a result, the phalanx usually moved to the right, protecting the unshielded right side of the hoplites and presenting a dense row of shields to the enemy.
When armies met, hoplites in the first rows of the phalanx thrust their spears at the heads and throats of their opponents. At the same time, the phalanx pressed forward as a unit, attempting to break through the lines of the enemy formation. Such tactics left little room for individual skill at arms. Battles were usually decided by the number of warriors, the discipline and courage of the men holding the phalanx together, and occasionally, by superior tactics or leadership.
Cavalry and Other Units. The ancient Greeks used cavalry and chariots, but these played a very minor role in combat compared to the use of the phalanx. The Greeks never developed their skills in throwing spears or using bows and arrows from chariots or on horseback, and neither chariots nor cavalry were powerful enough to break a well-disciplined phalanx. As a result, the Greeks relied primarily on foot soldiers, or infantry, to fight an opponent.
One innovation that proved effective against the phalanx was the development of mobile, spear-carrying infantry known as peltasts, who carried a small shield called a pelte. Highly trained peltasts, mounting well-coordinated attacks, could sometimes defeat a hoplite phalanx by destroying the order necessary to keep the phalanx together.
Other infantry units, armed with special crossbows, fired heavy arrows at the enemy. During the 300s B.C. and the 200s B.C., these crossbows developed into larger weapons, called catapults, that could hurl heavy stones and other objects at the enemy from a fairly long distance.
Naval Warfare. The role of ships in early Greek warfare was restricted largely to carrying troops to battles overseas. True naval warfare began around 650 B.C., and early naval battles typically were decided by combat between troops carried out on the decks of the ships involved.
Greek naval warfare relied on the development of specialized warships. Among the most famous of these was the trireme—a swift craft powered by three tiers of oars. The historian Thucydides reported that Corinth was the first Greek city to build triremes. But by the time of the Persian Wars in the 400s B.C., Athens had the largest fleet of any city-state. The Athenian fleet won a great naval victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The bow, or front, of the Athenian ships had a long pointed ram that was level with the waterline. The Athenians used this ram to sink or disable the Persian ships, a tactic that became a standard practice in ancient naval warfare.
Athens used its powerful fleet to establish and control a seaborne empire that stretched as far as Italy and the shores of the Black Sea. This naval dominance ended in 405 B.C., when Sparta destroyed the Athenian fleet. Athenian naval power revived somewhat in the 300s B.C., and Athens remained the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean region until the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late 300s B.C.
TROPHIES OF WAR
Armor captured during a battle was an important symbol of victory for a Greek soldier. Following a battle, soldiers often dedicated captured armor to local gods at religious sanctuaries. By the early 400s B.C., victorious Greek armies had developed a tradition of erecting a monument at the place on a battlefield where the enemy had turned in retreat. Such a monument, which originally consisted of tree trunks to which captured helmets, shields, and other armor were attached, was ailed a tropaion, the Greek word for "turning point." This word is the origin of the English word trophy.
Military Organization and Training. Most early Greek city-states did not have standing, or full-time, armies. Instead, their armies consisted of citizens who were required to serve only in times of war. All soldiers had to provide their own weapons and armor, as well as enough food for several days in the field. Because they served only in times of crisis, they did not have military skills comparable to those of professional soldiers.
The Greek phalanx, however, was only effective if the hoplites in it worked as a coordinated team and held their close formation during the heat of battle. Likewise, the peltasts needed to be highly trained and to work together, and a disciplined crew was necessary in naval warfare. With the development of the phalanx, hoplite troops, and naval warfare, the key to Greek warfare became training and discipline.
In Athens, schools known as gymnasia were designed to develop the physiques of young boys in preparation for their roles as citizens and as soldiers. All boys began military training at age 18, learning the skills, coordination, and discipline necessary for army service. This training eventually came to include a two-year tour of duty at a garrison, or military post. Boys had to complete their military training before they could begin their civilian careers. All Athenian males up to age 60 could be called up for active military service at any time, often on short notice.
Gymnasia did not exist in Sparta. Instead, boys were taken from their families at age 7 to begin military training. They passed from one official military organization to another until they reached adulthood, at which time they entered military units. There they lived, ate, and continued to train. As a result of such extensive training, Spartans acquired military skills that set them apart from other Greeks. Sparta had a more professional army that was raised, trained, and employed solely for war.
Until the rise of the Roman legions, Greek hoplites remained the most formidable fighting force in the Mediterranean region. Many Greek soldiers even fought for other kingdoms as mercenaries*. Just as in the art of peace, the Greeks established a lasting legacy in the art of war. (See also Armies, Greek; Armies, Roman; Heroes, Greek; Military Engineering; Naval Power, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Roman; Weapons and Armor.)
* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation