Ancient Greek Warfare

Ancient Greek warfare became very sophisticated following the Dark Ages. Learn more.

After the Dark Ages in ancient Greece, a new system of warfare evolved; weaponry, tactics, ideas and formations changed. Modified by Philip II and mainly by Alexander the Great after the Macedonians conquered Greece, this new age of warfare lasted until the rise of the Roman Empire, when new tactics and the legion formation became the general methods of battle.

The new "breakthrough" in military affairs was due largely to a new type of formation of infantry men, or hoplites. This formation was called the phalanx. The hoplite was heavily armed; he was equipped with a round shield, a breastplate of metal and leather, a helmet, and metal shin protection called greaves. His two weapons were a double-bladed sword and an eight foot pike for thrusting. These men were much faster and more maneuverable then the old system of disorganized fighting, where heavily armed soldiers individually fought one-on-one with others (the leaders of opposing sides would search for the men with reputations to fight). The phalanx was held in solid ranks, and divided only by a center line and two flanking sections. The soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder in files about eight ranks deep. The men in the front line held their shield strapped to the left arm and the sword in their right hand, thus protecting the man on their left while being protected by the man on their right. There was little need for an officer corps; because the formation was not complex, the whole body moved as one unit to the sound of a flute. However, the phalanx did present weaknesses: because it was sometimes difficult to maneuver due to its "bulky" size, if penetrated by the enemy, it became little more than a hectic, disorganized mob. Also, men tended to drift to their right for the protection of the shield held by that man. The solution to this problem was to place the strongest and most adroit fighters on the right flank to keep the unit from drifting on a battlefield.

The 600s BC also led to a new form of navy. A new ship, called the trireme, was faster, smaller and more maneuverable. A large navy in Athens would later be built after conversion to democracy, and other poleis also constructed navies due to an abundance of timber on the Balkan Peninsula. In times of war, the ships were used for the sole purpose of transportation; such was the case as stated in the Iliad by Homer. However, the Greek navy would later be the deciding factor of wars against foreign invaders, and, ironically, ultimately of its own decline.

The political disorder that occurred after the dark ages, when farmers, merchants and artisans appealed to their kings for more government sponsorship many times resulted in tyrannies. The new developments in land warfare only encouraged individuals to attempt an overthrow of the current aristocratic or kingly leader in their respective polieis. By the end of the 6th century BC almost every polis had been permanently decided as either an oligarchy or a democracy, and so the men of a polis became the army of that polis, not the army of a given tyrant who sought after power. The army was now a weapon in defense of the people.

The first major military crisis of the Greeks came after they had developed stable governments and just before Greece was ready to enter its Golden Age. The conflict started in Iona, where the Ionians, who were closely-tied to the Greeks on the Balkan Peninsula, had been under Persian rule for more than forty five years. Political unrest grew as the Ionians, who believed in choosing one's own political leaders, were controlled the Persian form of government, a monarchy. Furthermore, the Ionians resented the satrapal control of their Persian officials. The revolt was centered in Miletus, where Aristagoras, the tyrant-leader, communicated with Athens. When Cleisthenes completed a series of reforms initiated by his predecessor Draco, Athens became the purest form of democracy yet to be seen by the world. When news of this reached the Ionians, the image of their rulers only became more barbaric, and sharp tension in 500 BC led to a 499 revolt, which was aided by twenty Athenian ships given at great cost, since Athens was, at the time, at war with Aegina. This was an indication to Persia that the Athenians were genuinely interested in the success of the revolt.

The result was retaliation by Persia, after Darius had smothered the coup in western Anatolia. After an earlier attempt to travel along the northern coast, Darius cut straight through the Aegean Sea with twenty thousand men in 490 BC. Upon landing, Darius deployed his army to Marathon, north of Athens. He chose this area for three reasons. First, it offered excellent terrain for his cavalry. Second, it was close to Eritrea, which Darius had just conquered, and he preferred a communication at short distances. Third, the old tyrant Hippias was with Darius. Hippias, who had close ties near Marathon since he once ruled there, hoped to reconnect with some "old acquaintances," therefore raising a larger army for the war in the Balkans.

However, nothing went how Darius had planned. After waiting at Marathon for days for the arrival of the Athenian forces, he ordered the ships to be loaded for an attack directly upon Athens. The Athenians, watching from a distance, observed the cavalry enter the ships first, as the infantry stood in shallow waters waiting to be loaded. The general Miltiades quickly decided to charge down at the unsuspecting infantry. The Athenians caught the infantry by surprise, and with no cavalry to screen them and no flanking units in place, they were quickly caught by surprise. Ironically, their only line of defense, their arrows, only encouraged the Athenians to run faster down the hills as to escape the "danger zone," where a hail of missiles greeted the attackers. The effects of this first battle were devastating; 192 Athenian casualties for the 6, 400 Persians lost. The condescending Spartans did not miss the devastation of the Athenian hoplites; in fact, their surprise and jealousy of the Athenian victory probably only fueled the inevitable Peloponnesians War.

Everyone thought that their worries were over, except a few sharp men including Miltiades and Themistocles. These men stressed the fact that Persia was going to return with a larger army and defeat the Greeks unless preparatory measures were taken. Themistocles realized that, when Persia returned, they would be prepared for the Greek infantry with their cavalry, and would be careful not to repeat the mistake made at Marathon. However, the Assembly of 500 was not interested in this perspective; in fact, those who urged for defensive steps to be taken were usually ostracized. Finally, Themistocles received a "lucky break" when a silver mine was discovered. He was able to persuade the Assembly to use its profit to fund the building of a larger navy by using the prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi that the way for the Greeks to defeat the Persians was to hide behind wooden walls (Themistocles argued that this mean to use the navy's wooded ships). The construction amounted to a total of 200 triremes, and in addition to this, Sparta raised another 150 triremes when Themistocles explained his belief to them.

Indeed, Xerxes, the son of Darius, tried once again ten years later to defeat the Greeks, this time with 200,000 soldiers. They traveled north around the Aegean Seacoast. The Greeks braced their naval and land forces for attack at the northeastern end of Euboea. They hoped to stop the movement of the Persians into the Balkan Peninsula by stationing their navy at Artemisium, a promontory, and at Thermopylae inland. King Leonidas of Sparta, along with 4,000 Peloponnesians and Central Greeks and 300 of his Spartans, defended the mountain pass of Thermopylae. They stayed in close communication with the naval barrier to their east.



While rounding the northern tip of Euboea, a storm came up and took several of the Persian ships, since there were few beaches to take refuge on. The Persians were met with another surprise, too; messages had been carved on the rocks at the orders of Themistocles. The messages urged the Ionians not to kill the men of their mother-city, Athens. This action by Themistocles reportedly greatly reduced the moral among the Ionian men in the Persian navy, of which there were many.

Meanwhile, the Persian land force met Leonidas at Thermopylae. At first it looked as if Leonidas could hold out indefinitely, but then a traitor informed the Persian generals of another pass through the mountains. When Leonidas realized he could no longer hold his position, he dismissed the 4,000 Peloponnesian and Central Greek troops. He and his 300 Spartans stayed behind. He was doomed to this ending; Spartans could never leave a battle, only fight to the death or come out victorious. Furthermore, the Oracle at Delphi had informed stated that the "the king must die," or else the Greeks would suffer a devastating loss.

Themistocles then lured the Persian navy into the straights of Euboea, where the naval battle of Artemisium occurred. They fought for three days, the Greeks assuming a semi-circular position. Both sides received and inflicted heavy losses. However, the tactical advantage was gained by the Persians when Themistocles retreated. He had received word that Leonidas had lost the ground of Thermopylae; besides, he had another plan, and Leonidas had given him just enough time to retreat and initiate the new strategy.

Retreating into the Straight of Salamis, Themistocles arranged his ships to be ready for a quick attack on the Persians. When the front line of the Persian fleet entered the straight, they were demolished by the heavier and quicker Greek ships. With these monumental losses, Xerxes was forced to retreat from Greece. His general, Mardonius, stayed for one small final battle at Plataea, but a group of Plataens, Spartans and Athenians under the Spartan general Pausanias defeated the final attempt by the Persians.

With the Persians once again out of the picture, Greece was free. However, this time they were more careful about taking measures to protect from future invasions by the Persians. Their decision was to form the Delian League, which quickly turned from an anti-Persian defense into a heavily-abused tool for creating an Athenian empire. Cimon and Pericles were two key figures in creating policies which instigated anger in other poleis as Athens became a regional power through the use of the league.

The result of this resentment was the Peloponnesian War, which started in 460 BC. The two opposing sides were ultimately shaped into Spartan and Athenian-led alliances. Sparta allied with Corinth and most of Central and Peloponnesian Greece. Athens allied with most of the island and coastal states around the Aegean. Athens held the stronger navy, while Sparta had the advantage of a better army. The first war in the conflict was mainly fought by Corinth and Athens, with Sparta not taking any investment in the conflict because of Athenian patrols that carefully watched the mountains above Megara that served as the route of access into Attica. There was a truce, the Thirty Year's Treaty, in 445 BC, but when Athens allied with Corcyra, an important colony of Corinth, Sparta was infuriated. Pericles refused to capitulate, and when Thebes attacked Plataea, an allie of Athens, in 431 BC, the war was once again sparked.

Pericles advocated the use of Athens' navy to injure Sparta's trading and shipping routes. Sparta, on the other hand, attacked Athenian in western Greece under Archidamus, but their attempts of hurting Athens were to no avail. In 428 BC Athens won another victory over Sparta when the polis reclaimed Lesbos with its strong navy. The next year Sparta captured Plataea. This was followed by an Athenian offensive; Syracuse was attacked, and Athens marched into the Peloponnesus. Sparta begged for a treaty. At first Athens refused, but with a change of politicians, the offer was taken up again and the Peace of Nicias was established in 421 BC.

Six years later, the tense Balkan Peninsula was at war again, caused by Athens' attack on Sicily. For the next eleven years there was harsh fighting. Finally, the Spartans and Syracusans crushed an important Athenian naval blockade in 413 BC, and as the Athenians tried to retreat, they were badgered and beaten even worse. This turning of events can be greatly attributed to a deal struck between the Spartans and Persians for Persian control of a portion of Iona in return for gold. The gold was used by Sparta to construct a powerful fleet to match the mighty Athenian navy.

Athens began to undergo chaos within its governmental status in 411 BC. For a while it became an oligarchy, and then another faction with more moderate beliefs held power. Democracy was returned along with a new navy. Several decisive victories came from both Sparta and Athens in the Sea, and it seemed as if the war would never end. Then, in 405 BC, the two navies met in the Hellespont. For four days they stood without battle, and then Lysander led the Spartan fleet surprised the Athenian navy off their anchorage in the Battle of Aegospotami. The Athenian commander Conon was only able to retreat with twenty of his one hundred eighty ships. The 4,000 Athenians who were captured were executed.

A blockade of Athens followed, and in 404 BC the once-great power surrendered. Following the close of that series of wars, the Greeks were severely crippled. The economy was in ruins, the population drastically reduced, and the ability of the Greeks to govern themselves lost. The Spartans attempted control of the Balkans, but their harsh and inexperienced leadership sparked the Corinthian War from 395-587 BC. In the Battle of Nemea, the Spartans showed outstanding military genius when their well-trained hoplites evaded Thebian, Corinthian, Athenian, and Argosian troops, circled around them, and then counter-attacked, sending their damaged armies limping back to their poleis. However, a turn of events led to an alliance led by Thebes that overthrew the Spartans. However, the Thebians governed no better than their predecessors, and they, too were overthrown.

However, this time, the conquerors was not of the Balkan Peninsula. The invaders were the Macedonians, who, under Philip II, became the new rulers of the Greeks in the 350s BC. So ended the self-ruling of the Greeks, a great people who, once united, were torn apart by rivalry and left for a new empire to lead them into the Hellenistic age.

While they were a power, from the time of the aristocracies to the fall after the Peloponnesian War, the military of Greece played a very important role in the survival and advancement of that civilization. Not only did it keep the Greeks secure so that their civilization could develop and thrive, but along with many other aspects and values of Grecian times, the developments in military technology, formation, theory, and methods of combat would lay the foundation for later cultures to build on, including the next world super-power, Rome.

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