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The Role of Warfare in Greek Society Formalized warfare was a central aspect of Greek civilization. Early in its history, the Greeks developed stylized, religiously-based rituals regulating the conduct and commemoration of war that separated it from other forms of organizational violence, such as raiding. Warfare was as much a contest between deities, as each side called their gods to support their undertakings, as between poleis. Hostility between states was a typical condition, as evidenced by formal, scholarly attempts to analyze and optimize the conduct of war. Warfare was also an opportunistic venture in ancient Greece. Success in combat—individual military prowess—was a key method to achieve high standing among one’s peers. To the state, war was an economic activity facilitating the acquisition of wealth in the form of hiring out mercenaries, the procurement of slaves, the collection of money and obtaining sovereignty over additional territory. Finally, war was the principal method for an aspiring leader to legitimize his rule. The ritualized conduct of war minimized the human and economic losses which, with the positive results achievable through warfare, made the Greeks predisposed to resorting to force for imposing political will of the satisfaction of disputes. Documentary evidence of Greek Warfare before the Persian Wars is limited to the Homeric poems, supplemented by physical, non-textual remains. Most historical assertions must be derived from examining the surviving fortifications, weapons and armor in the context of Homer’s descriptions of fighting and equipment. This absence of concrete historical records, gaps in our knowledge, leads to much reconstruction in the history of Greek combat, leaving room for conjecture and error. As the eighth century BC ended and Greece began to recover from the catastrophic destruction of populated centers that distinguished the end of the Bronze Age, the main political structure, the polis, began to take shape. As these independent holdings formed, in the absence of foreign (non-Hellenic) political powers, warfare also evolved, becoming characterized by the use of hoplite heavy infantry in set-piece, if not prearranged, battles more resembling a sporting match (“rugby with spears”) than the unrestrained warfare of later times. From the mid-fifth century BC, the military historical record is more robust, thanks to the preservation of works by Herodotus and Thucydides, among other writers, and a large numbers of inscriptions. These writings made it possible to reconstruct particular battles with some confidence and to know the texts of various treaties and lists. However, some of the less glamorous aspects of warfare of this period, such as logistics, and specific information on the recruiting and training of personnel, are sparsely treated.
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That said, from the available texts, we can determine that up until the Persian Wars, land conflicts were exemplified by the single encounter, a match between phalanxes to try an issue. The Persian invasion brought home to the Greeks the pain and expense of the extended campaign. Before the Persians came, Greek strategy attended to collecting and deploying a volunteer-citizen force in a single battle that sent one side back to their homes in shame; and tactics were limited to the depth and width of the phalanx. Facing the Persians forced the Greeks to bury partisan differences in response to a larger foe who, most significantly, did not fight by the same rules as the Greeks. The Greeks, being innocent of the “ways of the world”, had to be persuaded to form a united front and, because of delays in doing so, suffered early defeats. But when the Greeks finally responded, setting aside their differences, they won at Marathon. That success bred confidence and later, the Greek confederacy was able to field a combined army at Plataea that thwarted the Persian designs on Hellas. The following peace was a period of enormous economic and cultural growth for Greece. The Athenians especially benefited from the peace and established a powerful and prosperous empire whose advances in political process, literature, philosophy, medical science, and historiography are still valued today. It did not last. Some thirty years later, the Greeks began fighting among themselves in earnest, bringing this period of amazing advance to an end in the Peloponnesian War. This fight, between a Spartan-led coalition and the Athenian Empire, changed the Greeks. Brutal and ignoble actions on both sides divided both friends and enemies politically and destabilized their political systems. The eventual Athenian defeat was especially damaging to the democratic governments among the belligerents. This war also eliminated possibility of readopting the ritualized limited war paradigm formerly practiced among the Greeks. The decades-long long war broke the wall that had separated the civilized from the savage, and the unrestrained violence and the failure of religious restraint turned Greece into a divided land where no person trusted another. This failure of trust weakened and fragmented the Greeks and the resulting unwillingness to submit local authority to a central power in the face of an external military threat made them easy prey for Macedonia, the next power with designs upon Hellas. Greece fell and Macedonian rule completed the transition from democratic polis to an aristocratic, vassal-suzerain empire. The “Greek way of war”, as it evolved, demonstrated the humanity of this people. In early centuries, it reveals a people who evolved a culture that focused on the individual who belonged within a bound group. These groups were proud and protective of their people, property and honor and realized the supreme value of individuals towards the survival of a group. Therefore, wiser minds evolved rules, under which honor could be preserved and property rights protected while minimizing the number of dead and the adverse affects upon necessary agricultural and
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mercantile activities. The Persian Wars expanded the Greeks’ conceptions of identity and belonging, as they rallied to defeat a common enemy. In their aftermath, the Greek culture blossomed—but it did not last. The Peloponnesian War the Greeks to human violence and eliminated any Greek self-image that they were somehow nobler or better than the barbarians they disdained. The Macedonian domination ended the Greek democracies and established a more militant example that would influence the Romans.
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The Lack of Political Unity in Ancient Greece The lack of long-term Greek political unity in the Classical age can be roughly attributed to the absence of three factors: The lack of a broad sense of belonging (from either kinship or shared threat); the lack of rapid communications of event-related information; and, the lack of balance between decision makers of conservative and radical temperaments. Political unity first requires a sense of belonging sufficient to overcome human resistance to subordination. In Greece, group identity was usually based upon familial relationships and the tribal structure of extended families that originally formed the nuclei of the city-states. Kinship by blood, marriage or voluntary declaration provided the measure which distinguished an accepted friend and sacred guest from a stranger. Within the kinship structures of the poleis, human nature ran almost unfettered and the evolution of individual and political liberties—intellectual inquiry, political debate, and decision by ballot promoted a level of individual value that discouraged bonds beyond close kinship based on personal relationships. The lack of subordination resulting from the environment meant the extremes of human nature were in evidence. Courage and cowardice, nobility and self-interest, honesty and double-dealing and political in-fighting are therefore prominent in the primary sources. That the behaviors were accepted, if not condoned, prevented the Greeks from being people who would be content to live in a state cast in the mold of the monolithic, theocratic, centrally governed Persian Empire which set its sights on Hellas. Before the Persian War, Greek city-states maintained their small, localized group identities and interacted with their neighbors distantly, but in relative peace. They played their “all politics is local” games until the Persian invasion. This external threat that seemed to portend the end of Greek culture was of sufficient import to suppress less significant issues and the pseudo-kinship derived from the threat drove the city-states to form a confederation strong enough to repel the invasion. After mitigating the threat, the confederation essentially dissolved. Secondly, continued political unity requires modes of communications that facilitate the rapid exchange and assimilation of event-related information. The primary communications need of a state is assuring that decision makers are quickly and accurately aware of conditions that affect the peace and prosperity of the state. The effectiveness and efficiency of the communications is dependent on both the numbers of decisions makers from whom understanding and action is required; and, the speed of the communications channels and decision making process. The radically egalitarian “Athenian” democracy demanded high levels of citizen participation, in that every citizen contributed to policy decisions. The need to gain the understanding of a majority of the many members of the Athenian Assembly hampered the ability of that state to assimilate information and produce an effective policy for action. Often, the democratic
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Assembly acted too quickly, on initial reports, and unevaluated or uncorroborated information and had to revise policy. On the other hand, the “Spartan” oligarchy was not immune to similar communications difficulties. They suffered under the same handicap of slow communications channels. The principal difference existed within the executive process. While the Athenian decision makers were often rash, the oligarchic Spartan state was hampered by an overconservative system that depended on the Ephors to filter issues that could be brought before the Spartan Assembly. Delays in decision making brought about by a reluctance to act until information was certain, added to slow communications, ensured that the Spartans were equally unable to respond timely and effectively to distant events. Whether it was the democrat processing information about daily conditions and events related to governance and communications with others forming the various voting blocs that shaped policy; or, the autocrat hungry for information necessary to preserve position and control over the subjugated, both systems were dependent on the distance and complexity of communications with those affected by events. Persons involved in both systems could be adversely affected when the pace of events at a distance went unaddressed; and, when the number and sophistication of events outstripped the capability of a single individual to understand or comprehend the full implications of those events. In these situations, events spiraled out of effective control, resulting in ineffective governance. As just implied, the slow speed of communications between information collectors and decision makers, and between decision makers and executive authority often meant that events changed faster than the communications system could process and the communications systems was stressed by a conflicting whirl of policy that did nothing to engender the sense of trust and belonging that might contribute to political unity. Thirdly, political unity requires balancing a consistency of policy with a willingness to adapt to changing conditions. At various times, the democracies and oligarchies each exemplified extremes of untimely inconsistency and stolid intractability that adversely affected their ability to form persistent political unions. For example, Athens, in the first years of the Peloponnesian War, was guided by Pericles. His strategy towards the Spartans involved securing the populace behind the walls of the city, and relying on superiority at sea to provision the city, thus being able to exhaust Sparta’s patience and finances. The strategy was unpopular, being adverse to the conventional warrior code of ethics and, with the beginning of epidemic, had a high price. However it worked, in spite of Athenian losses to disease. After Pericles’ death in the plagues damaged Athenian unity of command, their political unity diminished and the unrestrained Assembly attacked and besieged the polis of Mytilene. The expense of the siege seriously strained Athens’ economically, leading to the first direct tax on their satellites and fomented a
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rebellion After Mytilene’s fall, the Assembly’s decisions first to massacre, then reprieve, the surviving prisoners sent frightening and contradictory messages to potential political allies. The eventual failure of the ritual laws of war to prevent depredations during the Peloponnesian War led to distrust that persisted. Several decades later, Philip of Macedon was able to capitalize on the disunity during his invasion of Greece. The political landscape was torn by faction and party that overrode kinship. City-states restricted executive power to forestall any tyrant, but they also imposed inefficiencies into decision making systems that crippled their ability to respond rapidly to events. Philip, able to move quickly and effectively, often achieved victory before allied city-states could react and imposed political unity by force.
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Spartan and Athenian Political Constitutions When comparing the two constitutions and societies, it is important to keep in mind the differences in geography—Athens being a coastal state and Sparta insular— that exposed Athens to a dynamic maritime interaction with other peoples while shielding Sparta from the same. It is also significant to remember the differences in ethnology—Athens being undoubtedly indigenous and Sparta claiming to be an occupying invader—that affected their self image and their attitudes towards their neighbors. Both geographic and ethnological considerations affected the people and the constitutions they created to govern themselves. In the end, both systems were successful for a time. Eventually, rapid changes in events overcame the ability for each state to respond effectively to threats to its survival. For the Athenians, the demands of direct, participative democracy and the individuals’ refusal to delegate authority to a central government, at a time when such was required, resulted in ineffective squabbling that prevented an effective response to invasion. For the Spartans, unyielding adherence to strict rules and their ethnic exclusiveness prevented them from responding to the evolving threats of warfare and from effectively assimilating the foreign influences they faced from allies and enemies abroad. Athens’ constitution evolved over time, often consciously, as the people, or at least influential persons, saw the need to address unmet needs of large numbers of individuals. Earliest traditions are unsure as to the when monarchy went to aristocracy but, the practice of appointing magistrates with limited tenure led to its establishment. Economic injustice stemming from privileges of nobility eventually led to social discontent resulting in the appointment of Draco in 621, who established a complex code of laws to preserve order, at the expense of additional discontent. This was eventually followed by the appointment of Solon in 594 to relieve the social distress through constitutional revision. The Athenian constitution established by Solon created four classes of citizens based on property and real assets. An Assembly of Four Hundred was given control of decisions regarding military action. Citizens were granted rights to appeal magisterial decisions to a law court. Solon’s constitution was a compromise so, not everyone was content as not everyone prospered. There were factional disputes over power and influence until Peisistratus made himself tyrant, when he ruled moderately from 560 to 527. Additional less-moderate despotic rulers followed, continuing until 508, when Cleisthenes, a member of a prominent family, embraced democracy and was given the task of revising the constitution. He eliminated old tribal units and created ten new, artificial tribes as political, military and administrative subdivisions. These tribes disrupted the noble families’ influence and promoted the political involvement of commoners. Solon’s Assembly was increased to five hundred, drawing fifty from each tribe. One military leader was chosen from each tribe, under the chief command of the polemarch. This is the political structure that faced the Persian threat.
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The victory over Persia, the subsequent establishment of Athens’ sea power, the spread of her influence, and the development of her mercantile sea trade strengthened democracy. 486 saw additional evolution towards absolute equality when the archonship became a elected office, lessening their influence in favor of the generals. In 462, the powers of the Areopagus, that of conducting judicial investigations of significant crimes and political authority in time of crises, were transferred to the Assembly and law courts. The thrust for greater levels of political equality were not constantly obeyed. Men of prominent family often held generalships and determined political discussion. For example, Pericles, unopposed, was a general for sixteen successive years and essentially imposed his rule on Athens during the first years of the Peloponnesian War. During the remainder of the war, various oligarchic movements challenged the Athenian democracy and after the war, a short period of very repressive tyranny by a small group occurred—being soon overthrown by a group of democratic exile. So, by about 400, Athens was ostensibly a democracy but, by the time of Demosthenes, the citizens themselves exercised an absolute and capricious sovereign power. The Assembly was swayed by the orator and demagogue, and accusation was a principle political weapon. Members of the Assembly introduced pay for themselves, overruled the Magistrates and law courts at will, and being disinclined to exercise the responsibilities of military service resorted to professional generals and hired soldiers. It was at this time of mass personal aggrandizement that Athens fell to Philip of Macedon. Whereas the Athenian constitution resulted from the relatively rapid evolutionary process just described, Sparta maintained and was celebrated for a rigid adherence to its traditional institutions. Laconia’s seclusion, in the middle of Peloponnese, facilitated this stasis. Sparta did not have to respond to the influences that trade and interaction on the seas imposed on Athens. Spartan institutions also arose out of its domination of surrounding peoples but we must be cautious as Sparta lacked a literary tradition and our knowledge of their political structures are based on Athenian sources, mainly Xenophon, Plutarch, and Aristotle—not necessarily friendly admirers. Legendary information indicates that the Spartans were part of an invasion of Dorians which succeeded in conquering the Peloponnese by the eighth century. The tradition makes Lycurgus the author of the Spartan Constitution—but uncertainty over the dates has led to uncertainty about his role and even his existence. Nevertheless, according to these sources, Lycurgus reorganized their military structure, defining citizenship based on kinship and continued martial proficiency; and, introduced a unique system of childrearing and social structure that supported the inculcation of martial values and small-unit cohesion on a daily basis. The essence of the
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Spartan constitution essentially consisted of adapting the community to the necessity of exercising sovereignty over a subjected population. The Spartans were divided into classes. The Spartiates were the ruling class. They were, by law, restricted to the practice of military arts. Perioikioi represented a class that was free, but had no political power. They cultivated their own land and carried on trade and industry; served in the army and navy; paid tribute; and, though probably free to administer their own affairs, had no political standing and could be executed without trial. The ruling structures divided authority between two kings, a Council of Ephors, and an Assemble of Spartiates, seemingly combining aspects of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. However, as membership to all three organizations was limited by birth, it was at its core, an aristocracy. The dual kingship may have arisen out of rival claims of two families or a union of two early communities in which two chieftains maintained their powers. They conducted religious sacrifices and held priesthoods. They also had some civil authorities as Herodotus speaks of their decisions on adoptions and public roads. Most importantly, the kings commanded the army in the field, Aristotle describing them as holding a generalship for life. The Council of Ephors (elders) consisted of the two kings and twenty-eight members, all over age sixty and all holding office for life. They were selected in the Assembly by the volume of the shouting of the members. This council deliberated issues and decided which would be taken up for discussion by the Assembly. It also constituted a supreme court which could hear cases against the kings. The Assembly consisted of all Spartiates over thirty years old. As mentioned, the Assembly could only express opinions on proposals brought before it by the Council of Ephors. The body chose magistrates and Ephors; decided disputed succession to the kingships; voted on declarations of war and foreign policy issues; and decided which king would command a military force. The force of the unwritten constitution declined during the Peloponnesian War. Foreign military service brought wealth and exposed the Spartiates to relative luxury which threatened their commitment to the harsh sacrifices of Spartan life. They weakened in power and will and their attempt to dominate Greece with Persian assistance, defeated at Leuctra, broke her power. Spartan institutions reflected both the pride of the citizenry on their immunity from change or revolution; and, their commitment to preserve the subjugation of the conquered peoples they had conquered. The Spartan polis regulated the whole life of its citizens and demanded the sacrifice
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of family and individual liberty. The institutions survived long after they had ceased to correspond to the needs of the polis.
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Ancient Greek Contributions to Western Civilization In order to be attributable to the Ancient Greeks, a social, cultural or intellectual characteristic of Western Civilization must plausibly have its origins in the appropriate place and time; and there must be a demonstrable causal chain of evidence between there and then—and here and now. This author asserts that there are three such contributions that encompass a broad range of behaviors, perceptions, and attitudes deemed beautiful, true, desirable and good by the people of 21st century Western Civilization. Broadly identified, they are the spirit of humanism, the pursuit and acceptance of rational inquiry, and the incorporation of them both in government, art, science, and literature. Examining the remains of “Eastern” pre-Helladic cultures like Egypt, Crete and Mesopotamia, one can begin to conceive of the dark and dreary ancient world around the Mediterranean. The states we know of were governed by despots whose absolute power was supported by an authoritarian priesthood and exercised upon powerless masses of faceless people. In some respects, these characteristics endure in South West Asian civilization to the present. But in Greece, a new paradigm arose. The widespread destruction, and resulting power vacuum, at the end of the Bronze Age allowed the small population of mainland Greece to develop— without the emergence of an oppressive emperor or priestly caste. These people, probably fighting for survival in a land of fair climate but poor soil, were able to meet face-to-face, but found it hard to increase their populations. The small, kin-bound settlements bound in shared adversity formed the basis of the poleis. No one was strong enough to oppress and no one had any doubts about the practical harshness of their environment and situation. Nevertheless, the mild climate gave them time to play games and time to ponder life. This spare time and the knowledge of life’s mixture of bitter and sweet would come to serve the Greeks well. So, the Greeks had sufficient food, but just barely—and accordingly, their population remained somewhat low. But the mild climate allowed the people to gather in groups larger than would have been possible in harsher weather, under whatever crude structures could have been managed. They gathered outside and talked a great deal, from observing the dialogues of later years. In time, the art of speaking—exemplified by the poet, storyteller, and eulogist—became a prized skill. For a time, the Greeks even mistook grand speaking skills for good judgment. In this environment, contests of verbal confrontation and debate evolved to include the presentation of evidence—and the self-conscious analysis of the techniques of recognizing, evaluating and demonstrating evidence that together constitute empirical research. These two paradigms were exemplified by Protagoras’ assertion that “Man is the measure of all things” and by Anaxagoras’ declaration that “All things were in chaos when Mind arose and made order.” These two concepts informed much of Greek civilization. The physical and literary
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remains transmitted their ambiance to later thinkers and show themselves in the standards of excellence adopted by Western civilization in government, art, science and literature. The historical record left by Greek authors provided the only source of knowledge about Greece through the 18th century, when Western Civilization blossomed after The Enlightenment. Classical writings on philosophy and governance informed almost every individual now called a great thinker or founding father. Plutarch spoke of Sparta and therefore of the strengths and weaknesses of states that emphasize the collective good over the rights of the individual. Thucydides exposed the weaknesses of the radical Athenian democracy, prompting American founders to favor a republic with checks and balances over a pure democracy. Polybius and Demosthenes demonstrated the necessity of a strong government in providing a common defense; and, the dangers of internal bickering in the face of danger. Little ancient representative art, other than that sculptured in stone, has survived the years. When one looks at pre-Grecian art, one sees two paradigms, best exemplified by that of Egypt and India. Egyptian art was subordinated to a fixed pattern that determined poses, style, symbolism, ratios, subjects and patterns. Plato, in the Dialogues, criticized them for their standardization of style that emphasized the deities and their representatives, the kings; and for the suppression of innovation. In India, the other extreme arose from the Hindu and Buddhist belief that everything surrounding oneself is illusion. Under this paradigm, Artists sought to eliminate all that is base human from their works in search of the infinite and transcendent. Declining both extremes, the Greek artist sought perfection in the human figure and based his fixed forms on human dimensions that, for example, made the figure of a king no larger than those standing around him. The freedom to observe and interpret the world about oneself, and then to assert one’s interpretations—subjecting them to the scrutiny of other interested observers and interpreters— grew out of the integration of humanist, rational behaviors. Greeks were people, who like all humans, are curious. Their curiosity extended to the heavens, the earth, and the living things upon it. The surviving works on astronomy, geography, mathematics, biology and medicine— imbued with observations and assertions that could be tested, corroborated and decided upon— are the basis upon which first Western, and now global sciences continue to progress. Undoubtedly, the physical and literary evidence of Greek Civilization left to us represents a small fragment of the products they produced. Time and decay have erased much. Nevertheless, what has remained humbles the modern observer. No modern artist is superior; no modern building is more beautiful; no modern writer, save perhaps Shakespeare, has grasped the heartstrings of an audience with such strength. Thucydides still teaches us how to write history— as Plato teaches us of prose, Homer of epic sagas, Pindar of odes, and Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides of dramatic tragedy. The humanism and rationalism already discussed allowed the
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Greeks to see the world more clearly—with a sight less distorted by irrational superstitions—and with less fear that others with differing visions would destroy, hurt or make afraid those who spoke their peace upon stone and parchment. Why was tragedy a Greek creation? It was because there was freedom to think. People who were respected in their humanity and who became versed in rational thinking learned that life was bound in a balance of good and evil. One day, the knowledge of an irremediable wrong in the life of a man was noticed by Aeschylus—who, seeing that one cannot know joy without also knowing sadness, wrote the first tragedy. The methodologies that derive from the concepts of individual worth and the expectation of rational behavior, and knowledge gained from their painful experimentation and integration into actual practice, permeate Western Civilization and in some particulars, are now characteristics of Human Civilization. The remnants of Greece were brought forward in The Enlightenment and were adopted into the fabric of Western societies. We owe them much.
David G Terrell Herndon, Virginia
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