Ancient History & Civilisation


Hoplitai/Politai: Refighting Ancient Battles

I was myself at one time an actively engaged participant in the intellectual gymnastics that are, inevitably, the default mode for the study of early Greek hoplite warfare.1 But, in or around 2001, I effectively retired from the lists.2 So my involvement here is largely that of a former combatant, and interested spectator, somewhat bloodied by the latest thrusts and cuts of scholarly rapiers and bludgeons but yet largely unbowed.

Once, perhaps, “2001” might have conjured up images of Stanley Kubrick and futurology, but today it is all too gloomy retrospective visions of the destructive mayhem in New York City on 9/11, and its ongoing military consequences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, that weigh like a nightmare on our brains. I highlight our present circumstances, not just because war seems, like Jesus’ poor, always to be with us, but because all history is in Benedetto Croce’s sense present history: we historians of ancient Greek warfare cannot, however much we might like to, avoid bringing a present (though not, we trust, a viciously presentist) consciousness to bear on our strategic studies of the ancient Greek past.

I suppose the first thing that has struck me most forcefully as I have tried to review the scholarship on early Greek warfare of the past thirty years or so is the extent of the shift away from the more narrowly technical toward sociopolitical issues and approaches. The message that what we should aim to do ultimately is not “war studies” or “military history” in the abstract, but polemology, a totalizing history of war-and-society, seems to have been firmly driven home. Hence, presumably, all those collective volumes, excellent ones too, with that sort of a title.3 From this welcome welter I should like to single out for special commendation, as the twin pioneers in the 1960s, Yvon Garlan of Rennes and my Cambridge colleague and fellow congressist Anthony Snodgrass.4Gratifyingly, for example, religion has begun to be given its due place in the story.5 The other thing that strikes me palpably now is just how much work has been published recently on ancient Greek warfare—the Croce syndrome at work again, presumably.6

What follows is intended as a continuation of our editors’ introductory lucubrations, a scene-setting attempt to frame the discussions or polemics that ensue. I shall state what I take to be the most compelling or pressing issues, and sometimes too give an idea of what my own views of them are, and how they have or have not changed over the past thirty years.7 But this remains above all a position paper, a thinkpiece.8 To begin with, therefore, let me try to deconstruct the “rise” or evolution of the hoplite phenomenon (a question-begging catchall label). As I (still) see it, we have to deal with a number of concomitant and I should say causally related variables or factors: first, and above all others, and indeed most generally, an “accelerated dynamic” as it has been nicely called9toward the formation of poleis or citizen-states with distinct identities, distinct territorial boundaries (including those of the especially dynamic “conquest states” such as Sparta), and distinct political, legal, and administrative institutions, as well as some idea of collective—including, not least, military—action; and, second, such further enabling or conditioning phenomena as demographic growth, the emergence of written law, struggles for power between old and new elites, intensified interstate relationships, and, last but not least, changing forms of warfare, especially greater or lesser degrees of hopliticization.

The process of polis formation was of course by no means universal, and I have some sympathy with those who wish to emphasize in parallel or opposition the rise of non-polis political entities,10 or those who, more radically, wish the debate to transcend conventional polis-ridden categorizations altogether.11 Nor of course was “hopliticization” any more universal.12 But I hope I am not mistaken in thinking that—as is the case of the Archaic phenomenon of tyranny—what really matters is not so much universality, but significance: that is, what we today think matters historically, as we look back with the privilege of 20/20 hindsight. It is thus because of what I (again, still) see as the inseparable, inextricable connection between warfare and politics, and specifically the rise of poleis in the century between 750 and 650 (though of course not just then), that I have given my contribution its punning, near-anagrammatic title.

In sketching out some aspects of the many contentious issues, I have adopted the well-known Spartan organizational preference for groupings of five:

1. The source problem(s): contemporary as opposed to noncontemporary sources, documentary as opposed to imaginative (or imaginary), literary as against archaeological or documentary.

2. The developmental problem: What tipped massed fighting over into mass, phalanx fighting? Why, and how, did this tactical development occur, and how widespread how soon did it become?

3. Did (any) states need to “go hoplite” for purely utilitarian, functional, military reasons? Or rather was it ideology that drove, or at least severely inflected, the change?

4. But, if so, what was “hoplite” ideology? Were there rules of agonalism? Was it, for example, an ideology that included—or was specially focused upon—an ultimately political notion of equality?

5. Finally, to return to issue 1, above, the source problem(s): Did Aristotle get it at all right—not just in postulating an intimate causal connection between form of warfare and form of polity but in identifying the precise nature of that connection? Or was he either wildly anachronistic or concerned only with peddling theoretical dogma, or both?

1. Sources

It is quite right to remind us sharply, as Peter Krentz has done (2007b), that we know nothing much for sure about Greek warfare in practice (we know or are told rather more about the theory or ideology) before the fifth century. That is true, after all, of almost all aspects of Archaic, or pre-Classical, Greek history. But it does mean that a great deal is made to hang upon those few scraps of especially contemporary evidence that are deemed to be unambiguous, accurate, and relevant; and, in particular, upon those that are claimed to be probative, whether they are literary or archaeological.13 I shall give two illustrations, one contemporary, one noncontemporary, both Spartan, of the problems of the literary evidence, and a third illustration that combines literary evidence with archaeological (both representational and artifactual). My overall point is to show that we can and should do more than just throw up our hands and retreat to the imagined safety of a “we don’t know anything, or anything much significant, before the fifth century” position.

i. Tyrtaios

Let us assume, for the sake of this argument, that Tyrtaios was indeed Tyrtaios, that is, a genuine Spartan poet of the seventh century BC rather than, say, an Athenian of the fourth, or even a non-Spartan literary fabrication. How, or how best, can his surviving verses be used to throw light on, or even explain, real Spartan military evolutions and developments of his own or an earlier generation (ex hypothesi, we are dealing with roughly the first half of the seventh century)? Two interpretative constraints have to be scrupulously observed—constraints, that is, operating on any interpretation we may wish to advance. First, there are the literary qualities or dimensions of his poems. He belonged to, if not the first, at any rate one of the first generations of post-Homeric, non-Homeric poet-creators, which means that he was, on the one hand, desperately original, but also, on the other hand, that he was just as desperately cabined, cribbed, and corralled by the overwhelming cultural-linguistic legacy of Homeric-style oral epic. Second, his poems, anapaests as well as elegiacs, continued to be sung by Spartans for centuries after his own, putative seventh century; that is, they were preserved and rehearsed through and into military and political circumstances unimaginably different from those of their original creation without that difference being felt as an insuperable obstacle to their positive reception. His verses apparently detailing real tactics cannot and must not therefore be read as if they are merely a poetic form of an early seventh-century Spartan general’s campaign manual.14


Early Greek “lawgivers” were apparently by no means all equally concerned or preoccupied with military matters, though they must all have taken at least some interest and devoted some care and attention to the issue of the security, if not the power, of their respective polities. The most famous—or fully documented—of these pioneers were Solon of Athens and Lykurgos of Sparta. The latter, if it’s not too disrespectful to say so, was little more than an urban myth; that he is not so much as mentioned by Tyrtaios is at least suggestive. Yet I judge it to be neither accidental nor coincidental that “Lykurgos,” as represented by our earliest even vaguely reliable historical source Herodotus (1.65), was thought to have had military concerns centrally at the heart of “his” reforms.

Well in advance of the current trend of minimalist downdating of key Archaic phenomena, Moses Finley (1968, 1981) summed up his revisionist view of Archaic Sparta’s development in the phrase “the sixth-century revolution.” By that he meant that by 500 Sparta was, taken overall, the unique political, cultural, social, and economic entity that entered the brightish light of history in the Graeco-Persian wars. But how long before 500 it had assumed that overall profile, and how long before 500 its individual components—the military and so forth—had come into being, the state of the evidence he believed precluded us from stating. This is fair enough—up to a point. Yet, as Finley himself pointed out later in his Politics in the Ancient World (Finley 1983), one useful way of characterizing and categorizing the Spartan state entity is to label it a “conquest-state.” In other words, it was not the case merely that the state of Archaic Sparta made conquests, but that it had acquired its very being and identity as a state precisely through such acts of (permanent) conquest and acquisition, both external and (at least as important) internal. Putting Finley and Herodotus together therefore, as it were, one might very well be tempted to claim, on prior theoretical grounds, that for Sparta to have become as it did and to have done what it did by 500 not only must it necessarily have undergone some major structural military transformation but it must have done so relatively early on (whether or not one also wants to claim that the transformation occurred very or relatively swiftly). Just exactly how one describes and construes that major military transformation is of course a separate question. But the theoretical considerations, for me, tend to argue strongly against such notions as four centuries of slow evolution, or a denial of any dramatic politico-military change anywhere in Greece before 500.15


My third and final illustration of a source problem concerns what I am still firmly minded to claim as the decisive, and possibly literally, hoplitic innovation: the hoplite shield.16 No one, I think, denies that the very large, round, double-handled hoplite-type shield was an innovation, or that the invention can be pinned down quite closely to the years around 700. What I think not all discussants are always willing to acknowledge is just how peculiar—in both senses—this invention was. Two-handled shields can indeed be used effectively in less as well as more massed, phalanx-like formations, but this particular version (regardless of local or individual variations) was designed, purpose-built, to be held only on the left arm, in an unalterably fixed position that severely restricted free movement, so that it had to be used in close association with other shields so held and fixed.

Plato, predictably unorthodox, objected to this enforced dextrosity, to this systematic disadvantaging of the natural southpaw (who might have been able safely to wield a double-handed shield on his right arm in any more open-order style). But that objection came many centuries after an innovation, the impact of which must have been felt most fiercely in the original phase or stage of introduction, or rather imposition. The basic design of the hoplite shield remained unaltered for over three centuries, and later articulate Greeks, anecdotally and otherwise, recognized its absolutely cardinal, central, and definitional function in a variety of ways: by criminalizing “shield throwers” (the very existence of the single word rhipsaspides is telling) or by urging ideologically that, whereas one wears other items of defensive equipment for one’s own self-protection, one bears the shield for the sake of the battle line or formation as a whole. If it was an ancient etymological mistake to derive the word hoplitês from hoplon meaning “shield,” the mistake is itself a revealing one.

2. The Developmental Problem

I have given a hint already as to how I see the tipping point from mass to full-blown phalanx fighting happening operationally. Very briefly, the invention and very widespread adoption for many centuries thereafter of such a peculiar form of double-handled shield implies that it supplied efficiently a functional need: the need, that is to say, for much greater defensive protection and a correspondingly decreased emphasis on offensive maneuverability—just such a need as would have been created by the sort of increasingly mass style of fighting inferred from Homer by Joachim Latacz, an insight further developed by Hans van Wees, Kurt Raaflaub, and others.17 We are of course all now hypersensitive to the difficulty of reading Homer as in any sense “history,” but to identify this trend within the epic as it were against the grain (of the dramatic, ideological, and narratological highlighting of heroic individualism) as Latacz did seems to me a very impressive feat indeed of historical deduction.18 But the inferences to be drawn from that discovery remain as contested as ever.

3. The Follow-My-Leader Problem

A hoplite style of fighting was unarguably quite widely adopted in Greek lands during the seventh and sixth centuries.19 But did all or most or any poleis need to “go hoplite” for similar utilitarian, functional, military reasons to those that favored or required the adoption of the hoplite shield? Or was it rather ideology that drove, or at least gravely inflected, the issue?20 I used myself once to be overimpressed by Herodotus’s wonderful send-up (as I now see it to be) of the absurdity of hoplite warfare in terrain such as that which characterized most of mainland Greece (Hdt. 7.9). That this send-up was placed in the mouth of Mardonius should have been a sufficient clue. He was after all a “barbarian” who had not, actually, managed to defeat the Greek (especially Spartan) hoplites at Plataea, despite ridiculing their mode of fighting. So, yet another case of Herodotean dramatic irony. On the other hand, the fact does remain that the adoption of a hoplite style of warfare was not the most obvious purely military solution to a strategic-tactical problem. It does therefore remain a strong possibility that a very large dose of ideology might have been involved, if not solely or mainly in the original decision by a state to “go hoplite” then at least in the states’ refusal for so long to diversify within—or out of—the hoplite mode.

4. (A) Hoplite Ideology?

The classically trained historical sociologist W. G. Runciman seems to me to have put his finger on the nub of this issue when he wrote: “it is difficult to see how the persistence of hoplite warfare can be accounted for without reference to the distinctive set of norms, values and beliefs which encouraged and legitimated it” (Runciman 1998: 733). But if so, what exactly was this hoplite ideology? What were the norms, values, and beliefs involved, and were they essentially or only contingently so connected? Were there quasi laws of warfare, or at least informal rules of agonalism, honored not only or mainly in the breach? Was there, for instance, a properly hoplite ideology that included—or was especially focused upon—an ultimately political notion of equality?

Possibly one of the most unguarded formulations of just such a point of view, not unconnected to the author’s nationality perhaps, is the following, by the Japanese scholar Hiroshe Ando (1994: 23): “the system of the hoplite army created new human beings who carried on their shoulders a new polis which was nearing completion.” That formulation is not incompatible with the overall thesis of one of the most challenging of recent general interpretations of Archaic Greek politics, Victor Hanson’s The Other Greeks: hoplite warfare, Hanson argues, “cannot be understood apart from the economic, cultural and political agenda of a new group of middling agrarians, whose unique notions of private property, landed timocratic government, free economic practice, and distrust of rich and poor established the foundations of the Greek polis.”21 One might even wish to rescue something of Herodotus’s Mardonios and invoke it in favor of a notion of hoplite agonalism, even perhaps egalitarianism, so long as that is not understood in strictly mathematical terms. At any rate, Peter Hunt (2007: 138) is surely right that “hoplites were the citizen army par excellence.”22

Yet if these thoughts are on the right lines, they have failed to persuade, for example, Peter Krentz, according to whom “the case for new [agonal] protocols evaporates” and hoplites “did not qua hoplites drive political changes in Archaic Greece.”23

5. Aristotle

So, let us turn finally to the political issue, also of course a source issue, and reconsider whether Aristotle was entirely off the mark in his postulated organic connection between form of warfare and form of polity in early Greece.

The first political community [politeia] that arose in Greece after the king-ships was based on the men who did the brunt of the fighting. These were originally the cavalrymen, because the strength and superiority in war lay with the cavalry. (Heavy-armed infantry are useless without formation, but the ancients had no experience of ranks and such matters, which is why their strength lay in the cavalry.) But as cities grew and the heavy-armed grew in strength, more began to share in ruling the state. That is why what we now call Polities were formerly called democracies. The ancient communities were of course oligarchically and monarchically ruled. (Politics 1297b16–26, trans. R. E. Robinson, slightly modified)

Revolution, I would suggest, is at the heart of our discussions here, though it is a problematic term, the application of which to ancient Greece has been denied by no less a historian than Moses Finley.24 But Finley chose to apply what I consider to be an unduly restrictive, even anachronistic definition. So, although I agree with him on the absence from ancient Greece of an economic or socioeconomic infrastructure that would have allowed a permanent progressive transformation of the social conditions and relations of production (one thinks immediately of the persistence of slavery and other forms of unfree labor), I see no contradiction between that absence and the possibility of both the fact and the concept of political revolution: what the Greeks, Aristotle not least, calledmetastasis or metabolê. That notion, explicit in the Aristotelian Ath. Pol., is, I suggest, implicit here, where Aristotle employs a military-based schema to account for successive political developments not merely within one polis but on the grandest scale of Archaic Greek political development in general and as a whole.

The problem with this schema, empirically speaking, is that its generality is—ironically for the advocate of golden mediocrity—excessive. Structurally, as often in the rather disjointed Politics, it does not follow organically from what immediately precedes. Moreover, not all of its meaning is transparently clear. Nevertheless, that does not seem to me to invalidate its utility precisely as a thought experiment, or model. That is, it constitutes a set of simplifying assumptions about what sorts of conditions and variables must necessarily be present to account for, not just the differences between the various sorts of Greek “constitution,” but also the causal connections, the developmental interrelations, between them. Above all, the general context of Aristotle’s thinking here is not only abundantly clear—the military dimension of a polity can serve, or be made to serve, to inflect or determine its fundamental nature—but also, to me, persuasive. But, no doubt, that will not necessarily persuade all readers altogether.25


I should like to end on a more general than a narrowly hoplitic note, quoting from a Theban praise poet writing, for once, not in a triumphalist vein: “War is sweet to the inexperienced but anyone who has experienced it fears its approach in his gut” (Pindar fr. 110).26But let us not only fear war’s approach, but rather, with Donald Kagan, actively seek, and seek to promote, “the preservation of peace.”27 One useful way to do that, perhaps, is to reexamine the mainsprings of Western warfare in Archaic and Classical Greece: let theôthismos commence.28


It was a huge honor for me to be invited by Don Kagan and Greg Viggiano to give at Yale on April 4, 2008, the opening talk of their Hoplites conference, held under the auspices of Yale’s International Security Studies program and Department of Classics. This chapter reproduces substantially that quite informal presentation, with the addition of some rather light annotation.

    1. I began my participation, as an undergraduate student of Geoffrey de Ste. Croix at New College, Oxford, just about the time Victor Ehrenberg was writing his From Solon to Socrates book (1st ed. 1968). Referring back to the struggles over early Spartan history of his academic youth, Ehrenberg wrote there of his involvement in a form of “intellectual gymnastics” (1968: 380 n. 2).

    2. Cartledge 1977, 1986, 1996, 2001 (where fuller documentation, ancient and modern, may be sought).

    3. Rich and Shipley 1996; Raaflaub and Rosenstein 1999; Meissner, Schmidt, and Sommer 2005 (rev. E. L. Wheeler, BMCR 2006.07.55); Pritchard, ed., forthcoming.

    4. Garlan’s La Guerre dans l’Antiquité (originally Paris 1972, 3rd ed. 1999) was translated as War in the Ancient World (London 1975) for a series edited by Moses Finley. Garlan 1989 marked a further development of his polemological thought, in a specifically economic direction: see my review in Gnomon 62 (1990): 464–66. The book of Snodgrass’s Oxford doctoral thesis, published in 1964, quickly gave rise to Snodgrass 1965 (reprised, together with essential contextual material, in Snodgrass 2006).

    5. Especially of course in the work of Kendrick Pritchett (1991), but also for instance in Hanson ed. 1991 (two essays out of the nine). Cf. Krentz 2007a: 158.

    6. Rawlings 2007; Sabin et al. 2007; De Souza 2008.

    7. It is perhaps somewhat risky to find oneself lined up in the ranks with my old friend Victor Hanson, but I have to say that the very title of his present contribution did cheer me. Revisionism has its place, here as elsewhere; indeed, insofar as “progress” may be made in any field of historiography, revisionism must have a place. The question, always, is what sort of a place? Conversely, orthodoxy is probably to be rejected eo ipso only if it is orthodoxy of a caste-imposed and -enforced kind. Cawkwell’s review of “orthodoxy and hoplites” honestly “ends on an agnostic note” (1989: 389).

    8. Compare Hanson 1999; Hanson and Strauss 1999.

    9. The phrase of Sitta von Reden, in a forthcoming work on money and coinage in the ancient world.

  10. As Morgan 2003; but see my review in CR n.s. 55 (2005): 198–200.

  11. As Vlassopoulos 2007.

  12. Wheeler 2007a: 187 has done well to remind us of that.

  13. Hall 2007: 155–75 is an especially strong account from the methodological point of view, all the more so for being embedded in a general history of Archaic Greece. Van Wees 2000 conscientiously distinguishes between the realia, the actual pieces of equipment extant, and the more or less idealized representations. For the latter see now Muth 2000 Part III, “Das Spektrum der Hoplitenkämpfe: Vielfält an Siegern und Vielflt an Opfern,” esp. “Die nicht-narrativen Hoplitenkämpfe: Pendeln zwischen Sieg und Tod?” 142–238.

  14. For very different recent readings of Tyrtaios, see Hall 2007: 166–67; and Singor 2009: 591–92.

  15. Krentz 2007a, 2007b, and this volume; van Wees 2000: 156, and this volume; Singor 2009.

  16. Dr. V. Stamatopoulou kindly shared with me the findings of her Athens doctoral thesis on the “Argive” shield: Stamatopoulou 2008.

  17. Latacz 1977; developed by van Wees 1994, 2000, and 2004: 183; and see very recently Raaflaub 2008.

  18. Snodgrass 2006: 346 pays due tribute to Latacz’s pioneering interpretation.

  19. Pritchett 1986 convinced H. W. Pleket, Mnemosyne 45 (1991): 266, that there was indeed “massive hoplite warfare in early Archaic Greece,” though Hornblower (1996: 396, ad Thuc. 4.96.2) may well be right that “only an unusually arrogant scholar could claim to know what really went on in a hoplite battle.” (I owe that reference to Dan Tompkins.) Hunt 2007: 108–9, 111–13 airs the propositions that the hoplite panoply innovation spread within a generation but that classical hoplite fighting developed slowly and hoplite dominance was less long and less complete than the traditional view would hold. Krentz 2007b, following and citing Raaflaub 1997, argues that there was no space for a hoplite revolution, or even a serious hoplite reform. Osborne 2009 has only a couple of (good) pages on hoplite warfare.

  20. A possible analogy for the general type of question under consideration might be drawn with the introduction of silver coinage in the sixth century BC. For all the differences in detail, this likewise is a case of a compound of the severely pragmatic-utilitarian with the heavily ideological.

  21. Hanson 1999: 403, referring to Hanson 1995. See also Hanson, this volume; and, especially, Viggiano, this volume.

  22. Cf. Santosuosso 1997. On equality and citizenship in early Greece, see now Cartledge 2009. Note that, according to Burckhardt 1996, even in the fourth century BC citizen-armies were the norm as well as the ideal.

  23. Krentz 2007b: 76, 80; and Krentz, this volume.

  24. On the theoretical issue of “revolution” in antiquity, see, with caution, Finley 1986. The Goldhill and Osborne 2007 “revolutions” collection does not, unfortunately, consider warfare.

  25. For my most recent engagement with Aristotle’s political thought, see Cartledge 2009.

  26. I have used the translation of Krentz 2007b: 79.

  27. Kagan 1995.

  28. Matthew 2011 unfortunately appeared too late for my consideration here.


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