What was Ancient Greek war all about?


In two previous posts (see here for all 3 posts together) we have discussed the idea that war actually created peace in many ancient  societies, specifically by making many states one. In particular, we discussed how China became China during the turmoil of the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), and how Lower Egypt conquered Upper Egypt to create Ancient Egypt, and the boundaries of the country we know today.

War, then, to answer the question of the Edwin Starr song, is actually quite good for creating states.  In this post we look at another super-pugnacious society, that of Ancient Greece. What did their fighting achieve, what prompted it, and how did it stack up against other ancient civs?

Greece presents a somewhat different picture from ancient China or Egypt. For its Archaic and Ancient periods (by the second century BCE most of Mainland Greece had become a province of Rome) Greece was divided into warring city-states.

Perhaps no better illustration of this exists than the Illiad. One of the very first poems–or narratives–in human history, and one of a handful of foundational texts in Western Civilization, Homer’s Poem is above all a war story.

Ultimately Homer’s world is largely unknowable, his words (if he was even one individual, and not a compilation of traditional stories) were passed down orally, from prehistory, that murkiness that existed before writing.

However we do know certain things about it–mostly from archeology. The story of the Archaic Period of Greek civilization (c.3000-1200 BCE) is discernible in the ruins of Minoan culture, at Knossos, on the island of Crete and on the mainland at Mycenae.

By around 1450 BCE the Mycenaeans had taken over operations at Knossos, and from here they traded throughout the Mediterranean. Their military adventures in Asia Minor probably form the raw materials of Homer’s literary career, in particular the siege of Troy. The rich archeological record from this period gives us a picture of a society of overwhelmingly military specialists. Graves have more weapons than a gangster’s shoe locker. The skeletons therein show multiple wounds, many healed, suggesting that their bodies experienced long fighting careers.  Among the weapons were multiple double-edged swords–the double edge makes it less likely that they were used to peel vegetables or whittle wood.

But for  all its prevalence, the warfare they engaged in was probably that of the small-scale raid, the tit-for-tat attack of neighbors and former trading partners.

It is no surprise that warfare was largely responsible for the creation of city states.  Such polities  always appeared in the absence of a larger state (see Mesopotamia, or Mesoamerica) and probably in order to defend themselves from each other. There were over 1000 such city states in Ancient Greece, over 30 in Mesopotamia, and dozens in the Valley of Mexico in the Classic Mayan period.  As anthropologist Robin Wright puts it: “If two nearby societies are in contact for any length of time, they will either trade or fight.”  Both happened in extremes in Greece, and this led to certain developments. One was the building of cities with walls. Big walls. These were not built to keep people in. Just as Donald Trump wants to build his to keep people out, the Greeks needed masonry to dissuade would-be invaders. Thus one major purpose of cities.

The trade which went hand in hand with raid led to Greeks spreading their ideas and culture far and wide. But it was ultimately the military and administrative legacy of Alexander the Great which spread Hellenistic culture as far as India.  Alexander founded dozens of cities and named them after himself (the most famous of course being Alexandria in Egypt). Alexander died in 323 BCE.

But before and apart from Alexander’s war-related legacy, we should consider the case of Athens, and in particular its naval history. The classicist John R. Hale argues that it was the Athenians’ creation and operation of a world-class navy which ultimately constructed and underpinned its democracy.  The pressures of competition–war to you and me–persuaded them to build a navy and staff it with citizens–crew vested, in other words, in the interests of the state most directly.

Athens had long had silver mines at Laurion, south of the city. These had been in production for generations, on a small scale. But in 483 BCE they hit a massive vein. Thermistokles argued against divvying it up among the citizens, and instead he proposed the building of a large navy. Not just any navy, however. The Athenians innovated in ship design, adding a massive bronze-encased battering ram on the bow of their triremes, thus turning the ship itself into a weapon (heretofore ships had come alongside each other and duked it out in hand-to-hand combat).

When the Persians invaded Greece in 480, as Thermistokles knew they would, they initially defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae (under Sparta’s King Leonidas–you’ve seen the movie…) Then the Persian navy, large, unwieldy and disunited, was drawn into the straits of Salamis, where the smaller Greek fleet destroyed it.

This is a much larger discussion of course, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Athenian navy led to a golden era for Athens, in which naval supremacy, far-flung trade and democratic revolution went hand in hand.

While the basis for Athens’ democracy had been laid before the events of the Persian war, largely by the reforms of Cliesthenes (d.492 BCE) the pressures of external invasion created further impetus for democratic revolution in Athens, one could argue. Ultimately, however, Athens suffered from what many scholars considered imperial overreach in the years following the Persian defeat. The Greek penchant for in-fighting led to the Peloponnesian Wars (461-404 BCE) which left Sparta on top, until it was beset by new hostile alliances.

To what end, all this fighting amongst Greeks? The Greeks talked about pleonexia (“wanting more”), a kind of Hobbesian drive to aquire–land, women, booty–not unlike the Vikings.  As cities grew, the rivalries that were formerly expressed by small raids, took on larger proportions and wars became quests for total annihilation,affecting the honor of entire cities, not just aristocratic warlords.

But in keeping with our series on War–see previous posts–we should ask how did warfare create larger polities, as it did in Mesopotamia and China? The Greek profile is more similar to that of the Maya, where larger polities had trouble developing. The difference here is largely one of geography. While the Maya had thick impassable jungle, and limited navigable rivers to contend with, the Greeks lived in areas best traveled by sea, the mountains rendering terrestrial travel difficult. That is why Athens developed a large and far-flung naval empire, until Alexander reached mainland Asia Minor and was able to use the lay of the contiguous land to extend his rule almost endlessly and create the Hellenistic world. Ultimately, then, war in Ancient Greece did not created a larger state as it did in our other places of interest. But it did create highly-articulated city states and in this petrie dishes of social experimentation, internal strife was reduced, while, just as in larger states, violence was projected outward.


About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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