Classical Greek Civilization: 800–323 BCE: Politics, Law, and the Military

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Date: 2016
From: UXL World Eras(Vol. 3: Classical Greek Civilization: 800–323 BCE. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Chronology; Topic overview
Length: 10,668 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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Politics, Law, and the Military

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Critical Thinking Questions
  1. What were the principal features of an ancient Greek polis? How did each polis envision itself from an economic and political standpoint?
  2. What were the main duties of Athens's Assembly during the fifth century BCE?
  3. What were the powers and duties of the Spartan ephors? Give an example of their abuse of power.
  4. In your view, what would later history, including the twentyfirst century, be like if the Persians had successfully conquered Greece in the fifth century BCE?

Overview of politics, law, and the military

Most of what is known about ancient Greek laws, political institutions, and military customs comes from Athens. Athens was one of the two most politically influential Classical Greek city-states. (The other was Sparta.) During the Archaic Age, Athens issued two of the most famous and important ancient law codes. In addition, the Athenians had the most powerful navy in Classical times, and the Athenian land army was involved in several key battles during that same period. Furthermore, Athens was the world's first nation-state to create a fully democratic government.

Surviving written evidence Most of the surviving significant firsthand information about politics, law, and the military in ancient Greece was provided by writers who were either born in Athens or wrote much about Athenian leaders and events. The famous scholar-philosopher Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE) was prominent among these writers. He described how Athens's democratic institutions and justice system developed, beginning in the Archaic period.

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A public administrator in ancient Greece.
A village chieftain during and somewhat after Greece's cultural dark age.
In an ancient Greek state, the citizens as a whole; or the state's democratic laws and institutions.
The ancient Athenian Assembly.
Supremacy, or domination.
In ancient Greece, a heavily armored infantry soldier.
In ancient Greece, equality under the law.
An ancient Athenian democratic practice that allowed the people to vote to exile an unpopular leader.
A hoplite's collection of weapons and armor.
A lightly armored ancient Greek military skirmisher who threw javelins at the enemy.
A Greek military formation consisting of a block of soldiers arranged in lines, one situated behind another.
polis (plural: poleis):
In ancient Greece, a city-state, or tiny nation, built around a central town.
Ancient Athens's board of ten elected generals; each general was called a strategos. The plural of strategos is strategoi.

Historians Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) and Thucydides (c. 460–395 BCE) also contributed large amounts of information about Athenian culture. They wrote at length about political affairs, for instance. In addition, they went into considerable detail on military matters, describing weapons, battle strategies, and major battles. Both Herodotus and Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, a battle among various Greek peoples, which occurred during the fifth century BCE. Herodotus and Thucydides also detailed the Persian Empire's failed invasion of Greece, another event from the fifth century BCE.

Greek biographers, notably Plutarch (45–120 CE), wrote about the deeds, policies, and speeches of Athenian politicians, orators, and military generals from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. The ancient biographers wrote the life stories of politicians Themistocles (c. 524–459 BCE) and Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE), the great orator Demosthenes (382–322 BCE), and many others.

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c. 1100–800 BCE Greek civilization experiences an economic and cultural dark age; poverty and illiteracy are widespread.

561 BCE An Athenian named Peisistratus becomes tyrant of Athens.

c. 559 BCE A Persian nobleman, Cyrus II, establishes the Persian Empire, centered in what is now Iran.

508 BCE Athens establishes the world's first democracy.

c. 500–323 BCE Greece's Classical Age takes place; Greek arts, architecture, literature, and democratic reforms reach their height.

499 BCE The Greek cities of Anatolia rebel against Persia, which has dominated them for about four decades.

490 BCE The Athenians soundly defeat an invading Persian army at Marathon (northeast of Athens).

480 BCE A much larger force of Persians, led by their king, Xerxes, invades Greece.

431 BCE Sparta declares war on Athens, initiating the disastrous Peloponnesian War.

415 BCE A large Athenian military force attacks the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily.

404 BCE Athens surrenders, ending the Peloponnesian War and initiating Spartan political domination of Greece.

338 BCE Macedonia's ruler, Philip II, and his teenage son, Alexander (later called “Alexander the Great”), defeat an alliance of leading citystates.

323 BCE After defeating Persia, Alexander dies in the Persian capital of Babylon. Modern historians mark this date as the end of Greece's Classical Age.

Athens: a model for others Even though much of the surviving information about ancient politics, law, and the military comes from Athens, scholars believe that political, legal, and military matters were probably conducted in similar ways in other Greek states. Modern historians are fairly certain that many Classical Greek states followed Athens's lead in politics. Athenian democracy, which emerged in about 508 BCE, quickly became a model that numerous other city-states copied and used themselves. Surviving evidence describing exactly how most of those other democracies worked is skimpy at best. However, scholars think that most Greek city-states probably had the same basic governmental institutions that existed in Athens.

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For example, almost all of the state governments featured popular assemblies—gatherings where large groups of citizens elected leaders, debated important issues, and passed laws. Athenian-style courts featuring trials and juries were also common across Greek-speaking lands during the Classical era. The specific rules of these non-Athenian institutions and the wording of their local laws were likely different than those in Athens. However, most of these legal aspects appear to have been very similar.

The political, legal, and military customs of Athens and most other Greek states were revolutionary for their time. Greek democracy, legal justice, and military science were among the most important developments in history. Many other ancient societies had laws, their own forms of justice, and armies and navies. However, these were almost always created or overseen by kings and nobles, and ordinary people had little or no voice in government.

In contrast, with few exceptions, the Greek states of the Classical era allowed their citizens to participate directly in politics, the law, and military decision making. This democratic system—radically and fundamentally fair—was unlike an y government the world had seen before. After a few centuries, when the Greeks' institutions and customs faded from view, the world would not see such government again for two thousand years.

Archaic Age political experiments

The daring governmental experiments of Greece's Archaic period (c. 800–500 BCE), which led to the emergence of democracy in the Classical Age, were built upon simpler, less liberal political ideas. The Greek lands had suffered through a cultural dark age between about 1100 and 800 BCE. This period of Greek history followed the collapse of a thriving Bronze Age civilization in Greek lands. (Modern scholars still debate what caused the collapse.) During the cultural dark age, most Greeks lived in scattered villages where political life and customs were fairly straightforward and uncomplicated. Each village had a local leader called a basileus. Although the term has sometimes been translated as “king,” that title is misleading. It conjures up visions of an all-powerful monarch sitting on a throne in a castle. In reality, though, a basileus was just a local chieftain who possessed a great deal of stature, or importance, in his small community.

Scholars think that the basileus met with a few advisors in a council that ran local community affairs. Collectively, the people in each Greek community became known as the demos. Over time, a portion of a Page 31  |  Top of Articlevillage's demos, made up of the local soldiers, were allowed to have a say in government matters. The basileus and councilmen had to present their decisions to an assembly of these fighting men for approval.

Emergence of the polis During the era when simple, village-level government prevailed in Greek lands, local populations eventually started to increase. Small-scale trading networks began expanding, some villages grew into towns and became less isolated, and slowly but steadily prosperity began to return. Modern historians call this period the Archaic Age (c. 800–500 BCE).

In the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, as towns grew in size and their societies became more complex, a new sociopolitical unit emerged: the city-state. The Greeks called it the polis. (The plural is poleis.) A typical polis consisted of a central town, or urban center, which was surrounded by villages and farmlands that supported it. Though fairly small in size, each polis saw itself as a separate, independent nation and firmly guarded its local traditions, as well as its borders.

These new, more complex political units naturally developed more elaborate governmental customs and institutions. More often than not, power passed from the local chieftains to the councils that had once advised them. At first, the men on such a council (women were excluded from politics) were the local aristocrats, or nobles. This type of government is called an oligarchy, a term that comes from a Greek word meaning “rule of the few.”

Giving tyranny a try Some poleis were reasonably happy with their aristocratic councils. However, in other poleis, the demos became dissatisfied with their council members. As a result, more political experimentation became common across the Greek mainland and nearby islands. One approach that became popular for a while was called tyranny. In a tyranny, an ambitious individual gained the support of most of the people and ruled by himself; this type of ruler was known as a tyrant. The modern definition of the term tyrant is an overbearing, often cruel dictator. At first, however, Greek tyrants did not fit that negative image. Many were largely law-abiding, effective, even bighearted rulers who kept the support of the demos by sponsoring public building projects and the arts.

One of the more successful tyrants was Polycrates (died c. 522 BCE), whose rule of the island-state of Samos began around 540 BCE. Another was Peisistratus (died 527 BCE), who took power in Athens in 561 BCE. Peisistratus was very popular because he established Athens's biggest religious festival—the Panathenaea—which honored the city's patron deity, Athena. He also took land away from some of the nobles and gave it to poor farmers.

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Peisistratus was a successful tyrant who, among other things, was known for beginning the Panathenaea, a religiousfestival honoring Athena. Peisistratus was a successful tyrant who, among other things, was known for beginning the Panathenaea, a religiousfestival honoring Athena. © INTERFOTO/ALAMY © INTERFOTO/ALAMY

Like several other political experiments of the time, however, tyranny did not last long. A tyrant was a powerful ruler who required backing from the people. He especially needed the support of the local fighting men, who were mostly farmers who doubled as soldiers when the need arose. Over time, these farmer-fighters gained increasing influence over the local assemblies. Then they convinced those governing bodies to eliminate the tyrants so that the famers themselves could dominate the political process and choose community leaders.

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An Ultimately Fatal Disunity

In a way that no one could foresee at the time, the rise of city-states in the Archaic era was destined to cause fatal problems for those states centuries later. The concept of the city-state itself was good, and city-states functioned well individually. The problem was the attitude of suspicion and mistrust that developed among these places early on and remained thereafter.

Each city-state viewed itself as an independent nation and fiercely guarded its borders and local affairs. This attitude contributed to strong feelings of disunity. As time went on, the Greeks sometimes formed alliances, but these almost always ended up being temporary. At their core, the Greeks still lacked an overall spirit of unity. As a result, they often fought one another, and the idea of banding together into a single nation-state proved a fleeting dream of only a few and never came true.

This reluctance to unite was disastrous for all Greeks because, over time, they became militarily weakened from fighting among themselves so often. Their weakened militaries made the citystates a tempting target for foreign rivals and invaders. Among the foreign threats, eventually, were the Romans, who would rapidly expand their realm in the fourth and third centuries BCE.

At least a few Greeks foresaw the coming danger. In 213 BCE, not long before the Roman conquest of the Greek states began, a Greek orator—Agelaus of Aetolia—warned his fellow Greeks that they needed to unite. Regrettably for the Greeks, however, this sensible advice was ignored. “It would be best of all if the Greeks never went to war with one another,” Agelaus said. He thought that the Greeks should “unite to repulse the incursions of the barbarians [non-Greek speakers] and to preserve themselves and their cities.” Furthermore, the Greek lands of the eastern Mediterranean region needed to remain on guard,

in view of the huge armies which have been mobilized, and vast scale of the war [the second huge conflict between Rome and Carthage] which is now being waged in the west. For itmust already be obvious to all those who pay even the slightest attention to affairs of state that whether the Carthaginians defeat the Romans or the Romans [defeat] the Carthaginians, the victors will by no means be satisfied with the sovereignty of Italy and Sicily, but will come here [to the Greek lands], and will advance both their forces and their ambitions beyond the bounds of justice.


By the late sixth century BCE, therefore, many tyrants were gone. In addition, in several poleis the people were eager to try new political experiments, particularly ones that featured more democratic elements. As it turned out, the first city-state to make a big move toward democracy was Athens. Then, in an amazingly short time, Athens proceeded to make history.

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From Solon's reforms to the establishment of Athenian democracy

Like many other Greek city-states during the Archaic Age, Athens steadily grew more populous, prosperous, and socially liberal (open to new ideas). Partially in response to these changes, Athens also regularly experimented with new political ideas and systems. At some unknown date, whoever ruled Athens during Greece's cultural dark age (possibly a basileus) was replaced by a group of three public administrators called archons. Then during the early seventh century BCE, the archons began to be elected by a portion of the people, or demos. (The events that led to this change remain unclear.) These were the first tentative steps in a process that would eventually bring full-fledged democracy to Athens.

The Areopagus By the mid-seventh century BCE, six more archons had joined Athens's ruling council, for a total of nine, all of them aristocrats. Most historians think these men were elected by the city's Assembly, or Ecclesia, composed of local landholders who periodically gathered to choose new leaders. The Assembly likely had little other authority at the time.

Meanwhile, after leaving office, each archon joined and served for life on a high-status council of elders called the Areopagus (air-ee-OPP-uh-gis). Scholars are uncertain about the exact functions of the Areopagus. However, they think that its members advised and eventually controlled the archons—and therefore the entire state. The common people, who made up most of the demos, increasingly came to resent the amount of power wielded by the old men on the Areopagus, most of whom were highly conservative (old-fashioned, and resistant to change).

At some point in the late seventh century BCE, therefore, complaints about the Areopagus grew louder. One common gripe was that its members could make up any new laws that suited their purposes, because no written laws yet existed. Fearing the people might resort to violence over such issues, the Areopagus made a peace offering. It appointed a man named Draco to prepare a set of written laws. This turned out to be unhelpful, however, because he was too conservative, and his laws were widely viewed as too harsh. As a result, by the early sixth century BCE, Athens was on the verge of a bloody revolution.

Enter Solon Desperately hoping to steer clear of a destructive civil war, in 594 BCE representatives from both sides approached a citizen named Page 35  |  Top of ArticleSolon (died c. 558 BCE). He had long enjoyed a reputation for wisdom and fairness. The opposing groups begged him to act as a referee or judge in their dispute and promised to abide by whatever reforms he proposed.

Solon soon showed he was the right person for the job. He suggested that the government needed to be totally reorganized. First, he abolished Draco's overly strict laws, except for the ones dealing with murder. Second, Solon introduced a new social ranking that was based on wealth rather than birth. For centuries, the aristocrats had claimed they were better than everyone else because they were born into noble families. Solon allowed them to hold onto that delusion. However, he decided that as long as a person had a job and earned enough to live on, he could become an archon.

The new reforms also created the Council, or Boule (BOO-lee), a group of four hundred men chosen from all social classes by random drawing. The Boule prepared the agenda, or issues to consider, for the Assembly. These reforms balanced the city's political powers between the Areopagus and the demos. The common people now had a real voice in governmental affairs. For his historic compromise Solon earned the title of “lawgiver.”

A citizen named Solon enjoyed a high reputation for fairness and wisdom among his peers and was asked to become a referree. He eventually became known as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. A citizen named Solon enjoyed a high reputation for fairness and wisdom among his peers and was asked to become a referree. He eventually became known as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. © PRISMA ARCHIVO/ALAMY © PRISMA ARCHIVO/ALAMY

Cleisthenes's historic deal Solon's reforms prepared the way for democracy in Athens. Democracy did not emerge immediately, partly because the Greeks were still experimenting with a form of government called tyranny during the mid-sixth century BCE. However, toward the end of that century, a leading aristocrat named Cleisthenes (c. 570–508 BCE) was involved in a personal power struggle with some rival nobles. Like many aristocrats, he realized that times were changing and that sooner or later the demos would triumph over the aristocrats. Therefore, Cleisthenes decided to make a deal with the commoners, offering them even more say in government in return for their support in his struggle.

As a result of this deal, which occurred in about 508 BCE, the Athenian people began to fashion the world's first democracy. Gradually, over several decades, the Greeks developed a series of intricate, sophisticated political ideas and institutions that would eventually change the world.

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Laws of the Gods and Nature

The ancient Greeks gave Western civilization not only great works of art, literature, and philosophy, but also a number of important legal concepts. Two of the early lawgivers who introduced major public and legal changes were Solon, in Athens, and Lycurgus, in Sparta. These men lived in the eighth or seventh century BCE. Their laws dealt with crimes such as murder, theft, and treason. Solon, Lycurgus, and other early lawmakers also made crucial progress in family law, especially in the areas of property rights and inheritance. They even created laws that explained how laws should be enforced.

During this period, the Greeks recognized that certain “higher” laws—those fashioned by the gods and nature—transcend (rise above) and have greater authority, than laws made by humans. More than any other ancient people, the Greeks pioneered this concept for all future peoples and nations. For example, the great Athenian playwright Sophocles (c. 497–406 BCE) pointed out the existence of such natural laws, including certain natural human rights, in his play Antigone. One of the basic human rights presented in the play is the right to a dignified burial. As the play's plot develops, tragedy occurs when human rulers refuse to allow someone a decent burial out of spite. In so doing, they ignore or override the higher laws that apply to all human beings.

Antigone remains a hymn to human worth and dignity, as well as a call for governments to honor these qualities with just laws. “Wonders are there many, but none more wonderful than human beings,” the play's chorus states. “Speech and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that create a community, they have taught themselves.” Moreover, “cunning beyond the wildest of dreams is the skill that leads them, sometimes to evil, other times to good. As long as they honor the laws of the land and revere the justice of the gods, proudly their community will stand.”


Workings of Athenian democracy

The democratic system that Cleisthenes helped to create in Athens around 508 BCE was based on the concept of isonomia, or equality under the law. Isonomia was a radical idea because for centuries the so-called nobles—a small minority of citizens in Athens, and in other Greek city-states—had always believed they were morally superior to all other citizens. The nobles, or aristocrats, were people born into high-status Page 37  |  Top of Articlefamilies, and they assumed superiority was their birthright. In contrast, in the new political system, people from all social classes were, in theory, of equal status. This political change greatly reduced the authority of any single class or group, including the aristocrats.

The Assembly Under the new, democratic system, the Assembly gained even more authority. The Assembly, made up of Athenian landholders, had long elected archons and other public magistrates, but in the new democracy its powers expanded to an astonishing degree. Besides electing leaders, the new version of the Assembly had the supreme authority to make or unmake laws; grant or take away citizenship; assign public funds for state projects; create commercial alliances with other nations; establish colonies; declare war; make peace; and decide on all other foreign policy.

The Assembly's powers in wartime illustrate the political clout this group had. By voting, its members chose which generals would be in command during a conflict. The Assembly also decided the overall strategy those generals would employ. In addition, the Assembly determined the number of soldiers and warships that would be needed. No other group of citizens in history, including those of the most open modern democracies, has ever had so much direct authority in state affairs.

Evidence suggests that in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, between four and six thousand citizens attended a typical meeting of the Assembly. Historians are uncertain how many members needed to be present for the group to legally conduct business. However, if too few citizens showed up, several hundred specially trained slaves chased noshows through the streets and swatted their clothes with a rope dipped in red paint. Any man seen to have red stains on his clothes was required to pay a fine.

Assembly meetings began in the morning. They happened outside on the Pnyx, a hill located a few hundred yards from the Acropolis, the central hill of Athens. First, a herald, or city official, called for quiet, and a priest offered a prayer. Then, as the gathered citizens watched, someone made an offering to the gods by slaughtering a pig or some other animal. Next, the herald asked who wanted to speak first, and that person mounted a platform located near the hill's summit. As he and other speakers in turn addressed various issues, the members of the crowd listened closely. However, they also shouted their approval when they agreed with a speaker, and they booed to signal disapproval.

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Th agora near the Acropolis was atypical gathering area for the Assembly meetings. Th agora near the Acropolis was atypical gathering area for the Assembly meetings. © HIP/ART RESOURCE, NY © HIP/ART RESOURCE, NY

The Council Another institution whose powers increased in the new democracy was the Council, which Solon had created in the early 500s BCE. Cleisthenes expanded the Council's membership from four hundred to five hundred. In the spring of each year, the Athenians held a random drawing of the names of citizens who were thirty years old or older. The five hundred chosen served on the Council for one year, receiving a modest salary. A councillor was allowed to serve a second term but could not have a third term until a certain number of years (now unknown) had elapsed. This custom ensured that every Athenian male would have a chance to serve at least once in his lifetime.

The councillors' chief job was to write down suggestions for new laws or other changes or improvements in the community. These written suggestions were similar to the legislative bills drawn up in the congresses and parliaments of modern democracies. The Council gave Page 39  |  Top of Articletheir suggestions, or bills, to the Assembly, whose members debated and voted on them. The Assembly could vote to reject a bill. However, if a majority approved a bill, it instantly became law. The Assembly could also change a bill by adding amendments (additions or other changes). Alternatively, Assembly members could opt to send the bill back to the Council to be revised.

Another important job the councillors did was to make sure the laws passed in the Assembly were carried out. They did this by creating several subcommittees—groups of councillors—which carefully kept track of what was happening in the community. One subcommittee also closely watched over the archons and other magistrates to ensure they were doing their jobs properly.

The generals and democratic safeguards Along with older institutions like the Assembly and the Boule, Cleisthenes's democratic revolution introduced some new ones. Especially important was the strategia, a board of ten generals—the strategoi—who were elected by the Assembly to one-year terms. Unlike a councillor, however, a general could serve as many terms as the voters would allow. This rule was based on the idea that a military leader who was doing his job well during a war or other national emergency should be allowed to keep doing it. The common wisdom was that if the voters repeatedly replaced the generals during such emergencies, a military defeat or other such disaster might ensue.

An Athenian general was more than a military commander. The generals acted as major speakers in the Assembly and often introduced legislative bills and policies in the Council. Therefore, many Athenian laws bore the names of elected generals, among them Themistocles and Pericles. In addition, the generals carried out the foreign policy the Assembly created. Thus, a popular general who was frequently reelected could be the most influential person in the community. The most famous example is Pericles, who was elected as a general, or strategos, more than twenty times. He served fifteen of those terms one after the other between 443 and 429 BCE.

No matter how popular and powerful a general became, however, he could not broaden his authority and become an absolute dictator. The new, democratic political system featured some very effective safeguards to prevent generals from gaining too much power. First, a new general underwent a strict examination of his background and character, and if Page 40  |  Top of Articleanything unfavorable was found, the Assembly removed him. Also, at any point during his term of service, one or more citizens could charge a general with abusing his office. If enough members of the Assembly agreed, the general could be fined, tossed out of office, or even sentenced to death.

Similarly, the new government featured a practice called ostracism. The purpose of ostracism was to keep any single leader from amassing too much power and to remove a leader whose policies seemed to harm the democratic process. Each year, male Athenian citizens voted to decide whether an ostracism should take place. The decision was determined by a simple majority vote. If they felt the process should go forward, a few weeks later they gathered again. Each had a piece of broken pottery on which he scratched the name of the leader he wanted to see removed from office. Any leader who received six thousand or more of these negative votes was exiled from Athens for ten years. (However, he did not lose his citizenship or property.)

Athenian justice The new democracy organized by Cleisthenes also contained political ideas and processes designed to ensure that justice would be guaranteed to all citizens. First, from a random drawing of names that occurred each year, six thousand men who were thirty years old or older were selected to be on call as jurors in court cases. In the beginning, some of those chosen were unable to serve because they could not afford to leave their jobs for days at a time. To correct this problem, in the mid-fifth century BCE Pericles pushed through a bill that offered jurors a daily payment. This allowed even the poorest Athenians to serve as jurors.

The legal trials of that time functioned differently than those in modern democracies. No judge oversaw the proceedings, for example. No professional prosecutors, defense attorneys, detectives, or investigators were involved. Instead, the accuser prosecuted his own case and the accused became his own defense attorney. The two, known as litigants, gathered their own evidence and witnesses and presented their own cases to the jurors.

Not surprisingly, many litigants did not feel confident enough to write the speeches they delivered to the juries. If they could afford it, they hired professional speechwriters. Among the best in the Classical period were Lysias (born c. 459 BCE), Isaeus (born c. 420 BCE), and Demosthenes (born c. 384 BCE).

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The penalties were most often written into the laws. In some cases, however, the prosecutor could propose one punishment and the defense another. Then the jurors determined which of the two punishments was more appropriate. Common penalties included exile for a certain period or for life; partial or full loss of citizenship; fines; confiscation of property; and on occasion imprisonment or execution.

Sparta's unusual governmental system

Sparta, or Lacedaemon, located in the southeastern part of the Greek mainland, was for a long time the most unusual of the ancient Greek city-states. Many of its institutions and customs were very different from those of Athens, its chief rival during the Classical Age (c. 500–323 BCE). While the liberal, outgoing Athenians championed democracy, the conservative, standoffish Spartans saw such political openness as wrongheaded and potentially dangerous.

Monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy Sparta's government was inwardlooking, or concerned mainly with local affairs, and in some ways resembled political systems that most other Greek states had long since abandoned, including monarchy. In his treatise, or written essay, titled Politics, the Greek thinker Aristotle (384–322 BCE) described Sparta's government as a mixture of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. The monarchy portion consisted of two kings who ruled jointly and for life. Their authority was not wide-ranging and absolute, however; the kings oversaw only two areas—religion and the military. Sparta rarely put an army into battle without one of its kings in command.

Three major governmental agencies oversaw the rest of Sparta's affairs. One was a council of thirty elders, most of whom were older than sixty, who supervised murder cases. The elders also prepared the topics to be discussed in the second agency, Sparta's assembly. Made up of freeborn Spartan males, called Spartiates, the assembly debated and authorized such issues as foreign policy, including treaties and declarations of war or peace. The assembly also elected public officials, including the elders and the members of the third ruling group—the five ephors, or “overseers.”

The exact powers of these governmental groups and the relationships among them are somewhat unclear. However, modern historians generally agree that the ephors were the key to holding everything Page 42  |  Top of Articletogether. First, the ephors seem to have had potent administrative and judicial authority. Aristotle's famous mentor, Plato (c. 424–348 BCE), suggested that the ephors actually ran the Spartan state. In addition, the renowned ancient Greek biographer Plutarch, who wrote a book about Sparta, claimed the ephors could temporarily keep the kings from performing some of their duties. Also, two ephors always accompanied a Spartan army on the march, to oversee the king who was commanding it.

As has been true throughout history, people given large amounts of power sometimes abuse it, and the Spartan ephors were no exception. In the 240s BCE, one of Sparta's reigning kings, Agis IV (c. 263–241 BCE), pushed through some economic reforms designed to help many citizens who were then in debt. This move threatened the fortunes of several of Sparta's wealthiest men, some of whom were ephors. Therefore, those ephors illegally arrested and executed Agis, in effect committing murder.

Repulse of two Persian invasions In 559 BCE, most of the Greek citystates were experimenting with various governmental forms, and the Athenians were close to instituting the world's first democracy. Meanwhile, far away in what is now Iran, an ambitious young nobleman ascended the local throne. The first king of a new imperial realm—the Persian Empire—his name was Cyrus II (c. 576–530 BCE). In fewer than eight years, he had led his people in a spectacular rise to power. Before that, for an unknown number of years they had lived in obscurity in a province of the kingdom of another Iranian people, the Medes. After Cyrus overthrew the Medes, he and the first few Persian kings who followed conquered one section of the Middle East after another. In only a few decades, the Persian Empire stretched from India in the east to the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea in the west.

Among the many places that came under Persian control during those years were the Greek cities lying along the western coast of Anatolia (now Turkey). The biggest, richest, and most influential was Miletus, a longtime ally of Athens, the most populous state on the Greek mainland. Like Greeks everywhere, the Anatolian Greeks treasured their independence. They dreamed of shaking off Persian rule and regaining their freedom. After four decades of Persian domination, in 499 BCE they finally tried to make that dream come true. The rebellion was large-scale and involved nearly all the Greek cities in the region. More important, Page 43  |  Top of Articlethe rebellion of the Anatolian Greeks ultimately set in motion two Persian invasions of mainland Greece and the islands bordering it.

“Remember the Athenians” Two mainland Greek states—Athens and one of its neighbors, Eretria (on the large island of Euboea)—felt a close kinship with the Anatolian Greeks. In 498 BCE the two states sent a total of twenty-five ships—all carrying soldiers and supplies—to aid the Greeks in Anatolia. During this operation, a force of Milesians and Athenians marched inland and attacked and burned Sardis, the principal Persian city in the region.

Hearing of this event, the Persian king, Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE), was filled with rage. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE), Darius swore to take revenge, and after bringing the Anatolian Greeks back under Persian control—which took almost seven years—he turned his attention to punishing Athens and Eretria. In 490 BCE, he dispatched a fleet of ships filled with soldiers across the Aegean. The expedition landed first on Euboea, where the invaders assaulted and burned Eretria.

Next, the Persians crossed over to Attica and landed near Marathon, a village situated about 26 miles (42 kilometers) northeast of Athens's urban center. Roughly twenty thousand Persian soldiers went ashore and set up their camp on the edge of a wide plain near the village. Waiting for them on the other side of the plain was Athens's entire citizen militia—about nine or ten thousand infantrymen (foot soldiers). Bolstering their ranks were about six hundred to a thousand fighting men from Athens's northern neighbor and faithful ally, the tiny state of Plataea.

The Athenians and Plataeans made a surprise attack. Although they were badly outnumbered, they achieved a stunning victory, killing some 6,400 Persians. In comparison, Athens lost 192 men, and Plataea lost 11. The Persian generals and their surviving soldiers returned in humiliation to Persia, where the bad news further infuriated King Darius.

Meanwhile, Greeks everywhere looked on Athens as a sort of savior. They understood that Darius had hoped to do more than punish Eretria and Athens. Indeed, he had planned for the invasion force to create a local Persian stronghold in Athenian territory. From there, he could have launched attacks on the rest of Greece. After the Persians' unexpected defeat, the Greeks hoped that the heroic “men of Marathon,” as the Athenian victors came to be known, had discouraged any further Persian invasions.

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The valiant three hundred The Persians did not give up after their defeat at Marathon. Enraged over his losses there, Darius “was more than ever determined to make war on Greece,” in Herodotus's words in The Histories. “He dispatched couriers to the various states under his dominion [authority] with orders to raise an army much larger than before.” News began to filter into Greece that “all Asia was in an uproar for three years, with the best men being enrolled in the army for the invasion of Greece.”

During these preparations for war, however, Darius died, and his son, Xerxes (ZERK-seez; c. 520–466 BCE), took charge of the upcoming expedition. When Xerxes led the Persians into Greece in 480 BCE, they formed the largest invasion force ever amassed in ancient times. More than a thousand ships accompanied an estimated 200,000 infantrymen and cavalrymen (mounted soldiers). In addition, sailors, baggage handlers, cooks, animal herders, blacksmiths, and other camp followers likely numbered close to 300,000.

The Persians marched across the Aegean Sea's northern rim, entered the Greek mainland, and headed southward toward Athens and the other leading city-states. To reach southern Greece, they had to make it through a wide swath of rugged mountains. Waiting for them in the strategic pass of Thermopylae (around a hundred miles northwest ofAthens) were roughly seven thousand Greek soldiers. With units from Thebes, Corinth, Thespiae, and a few other city-states, the Greek army was led by the Spartan king Leonidas (c. 540–480 BCE) and his personal bodyguard of three hundred men.

The Persian army was about thirty times bigger than the Greek force. However, the Persians had trouble at the pass: only a few of them at a time could enter the narrow space. Therefore, the Greeks were able to slaughter them in wave after wave of attackers, a process that went on for three days. Eventually, however, the Persians offered a local herdsman some gold in exchange for revealing the location of a little-known path through the mountains. Xerxes sent soldiers along it to attack the Greeks from the rear. However, at the last minute, Leonidas, the Spartan leader of the Greek forces, realized he was about to be surrounded, so he sent the other Greeks away to safety and remained in the pass with his bodyguards.

The valiant “three hundred Spartans,” as they are known, displayed legendary bravery and fortitude. They “put forth all their strength and fought with fury and desperation,” Herodotus recalled in The Histories. After a while, “most of their spears were broken,” so they climbed “the little hill at the entrance to the pass.” There, “they resisted to the last, with their swords, if they had them, and, if not, with their hands and teeth.” The Persians finally used a hail of arrows to overcome the last few Spartans. (Modern archaeologists found thousands of arrowheads on the tiny hill, which still stands.)

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Persian king Xerxes watches action during the Battle of Salamis, during which the Greeks defeated the Persians. Persian king Xerxes watches action during the Battle of Salamis, during which the Greeks defeated the Persians. © NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION/ALAMY © NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION/ALAMY

“The Sea Was Hidden” Although Xerxes managed to capture the pass, it was a hollow victory. In three days, a few Greeks had slain about twenty Page 46  |  Top of Articlethousand Persians. The rest of the Persians marched to Athens, which had been largely evacuated. In September 480 BCE, the invaders burned the city, an act that Xerxes likely viewed as a major triumph. What he did not know was that the Athenians and other Greeks were readying a large fleet of warships to take on the Persian navy.

The roughly 340 Greek vessels soon met about 600 Persian ships in the Salamis Strait, not far southwest of Athens's urban center. That day, Europe's fate was decided for all time as the Greeks won an overwhelming victory. The Athenian playwright Aeschylus, who fought at Salamis, later penned an eyewitness account in Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, translated Philip Vellacott. In that account, he recalled that the Greeks charged “with courageous hearts to battle.” The warships “rammed each other with their prows [front sections] of bronze, and some were stripped of every oar.” Finally, as night approached, “the sea was hidden, carpeted with wrecks and dead men. All the shores and reefs were full of dead.”

Despite this loss, Xerxes was convinced he could eventually win the war. He left his son-in-law, Mardonius (died c. 479 BCE), in command of 150,000 soldiers, to fight on. Meanwhile, Xerxes himself returned to Persia. This decision turned out to be another Persian blunder. The following spring (of 479 BCE), soldiers from dozens of Greek city-states converged on Mardonius's forces near Plataea, and the Persians suffered another crushing defeat. For Xerxes and the entire Persian Empire, the dream of conquering Greece and other parts of Europe was over.

Spartan-Athenian rivalry and the Peloponnesian War

In the first two decades of the fifth century BCE, the two strongest Greek powers—Athens and Sparta—worked together to push out the Persians. The Persians invaded Greece twice. The first invasion was a small-scale attack in 490 BCE, and the second one, featuring a much larger force, happened ten years later. The alliance between Athens and Sparta was motivated mainly by those invasions. Once the Persians were gone, in 479 BCE, relations between Athens and Sparta were shaky at best and over time continued to deteriorate.

The rivalry between Athens and Sparta lasted for more than a century; the reasons for it were many and complex. However, the overall problem was that they deeply distrusted each other and each state believed it alone should be Greece's leading power. Eventually, Athens and Sparta fought a Page 47  |  Top of Articlelong, grueling war to gain supremacy. This conflict is known as the Peloponnesian War. It quickly drew in the numerous allies that backed Athens and Sparta and eventually engulfed most of the Greek world. Indeed, for the ancient Greeks, the Peloponnesian War was equivalent to one of the twentieth century's two devastating world wars (World War I, from 1914 to 1918, and World War II, from 1939 to 1945).

The Delian League The Athenian soldier and historian Thucydides witnessed and chronicled much of the conflict, which the ancient Greeks everywhere came to call the “great war.” Describing its long-term causes, Thucydides explained that after the expulsion of the Persians in 479 BCE, the Greeks formed two groups with one following Athens and the other following Sparta. In the years that followed, Athens swiftly tried to spread its influence among its neighbors. The Athenians claimed that a large, formal alliance of city-states was needed to protect Greece from more Persian invasions.

In 487 BCE Athens called for and oversaw a congress of delegates from more than 150 mainland and island city-states. They formed a coalition known as the Delian League (named for Delos, the small Aegean island where the meeting took place). Supposedly it was an alliance of equals. However, the truth was that Athens was very much in charge. Furthermore, Athens was able to keep the other member states in line because its navy was the biggest and strongest in the Greek-speaking world.

The Athenians made use of this force in 469 BCE, when the Aegean island of Naxos decided to leave the alliance. Naxos had the legal right to leave, but Athens treated the Naxians as if they were disloyal subjects and attacked them and seized their small fleet. Similar incidents with other league members followed, making the Athenians unpopular with their allies.

The result of Athens's strongarm tactics was the creation of an economic empire. Causing anger among many Greeks, the Athenian government added to its wealth by taking another illegal action—keeping for itself the dues the league's members paid each year. The Athenians even used some of the money to build new temples and beautify their city.

Troubles with Sparta's allies Many outraged Greek states turned to Sparta, hoping it would find a way to end Athens's exploitation of league members. The Spartans certainly had much influence, authority, and military might of their own. Their land army was very powerful. Also, they headed another large alliance of city-states, the Peloponnesian League, established in the sixth century BCE.

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Between 460 and 445 BCE, Sparta and some members of its alliance responded to Athenian expansion. During those years, Athens, Sparta, and some members of the two leagues waged battles of words, which at times escalated into mostly small-scale military skirmishes. A peace treaty ended these squabbles in 445 BCE. However, as had been true for a long time, the two sides still did not trust each other.

Meanwhile, over the years one of Sparta's allies, Corinth, had grown increasingly jealous of Athens. The volume of Corinthian trade had once been the largest in the Aegean region. However, Athenian economic expansion decreased the Corinthians' trade, and Corinth pleaded with Sparta to punish Athens.

In 435 BCE, while Sparta was deciding what to do, Corinth and one of its colonies, Corcyra, got into a serious dispute. Two years later, feeling bullied, the Corcyreans turned to Athens to protect them, and the Athenians and Corinthians clashed in a large naval battle, which Athens won. Furious, the Corinthians again appealed to Sparta, but the Spartans were reluctant to get involved.

This situation changed, however, when the Athenians imposed a major trade ban on the city-state of Megara, a Spartan ally located just west of Athens. Unable to import enough food, the Megarians began to starve, and the Spartans could not allow that situation to continue. In 431 BCE, they declared war on Athens.

Widespread death and ruin The war between Sparta and Athens lasted decades, caused widespread death and ruin, and completely exhausted all involved. At first, the Spartans attacked Athens by land and destroyed the countryside outside the city. The Athenians took refuge behind their renowned “Long Walls,” which surrounded the urban center. Towering, well-guarded stone barriers, these walls also connected the urban area to the port town of Piraeus, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away. Employing this defensive approach, the Athenians were able to stay well supplied by their cargo ships. At the same time, their warships attacked the coastal areas bordering Sparta and some of its allies.

The hostile standoff continued for a while. Then, in 430 BCE, disease struck the masses of Athenians huddling behind the city walls. After contracting the illness himself and managing to survive, Thucydides described the symptoms in his work titled Peloponnesian War: “[The victims'] eyes became red and inflamed. Inside their mouths there was bleeding from the Page 49  |  Top of Articlethroat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant.” He also noted that “there was a feeling of burning” inside the body.

The unidentified affliction wiped out an estimated 20 percent of Athens's population (likely as many as fifty thousand people). The following year Pericles himself, the Athenian general, joined the ranks of the dead. The Athenians had lost their most talented leader, yet the Assembly voted to fight on until the city gained a clear victory. At the same time, Corinth and some of Sparta's other allies vowed to continue the struggle until Athens had been thoroughly humbled.

Surrender and hegemony The mutual stubbornness of Athens and Sparta brought more years of war, death, and misery. A scheme hatched by a conceited young Athenian named Alcibiades (450–404 BCE) was particularly destructive. He proposed invading the Greek city of Syracuse, on the Italian island of Sicily. He claimed that by capturing Syracuse, Athens could take control of Sicily's plentiful food supplies and human resources (skilled and unskilled manpower); and in turn, according to Alcibiades, the Athenians could easily win the war.

Incredibly, Athens's Assembly approved this risky plan. Those who opposed it were not surprised when the expedition, launched in 415 BCE, failed miserably. Athens lost more than a hundred ships and at least forty thousand soldiers and sailors.

Even after the losses at Syracuse, the Athenians decided to fight on. However, their cause became increasingly futile. The Spartans built permanent forts on Athenian soil; they also constructed their first fleet of warships, which battered away at Athens's shrinking navy.

The great turning point came in 405 BCE when the Spartans won a major naval victory in the northern Aegean. That crucial event allowed Sparta to cut off the Athenians' life-sustaining shipments of wheat from Greek cities along the Black Sea's coasts. The thought of Athenian women and children starving to death was intolerable for the men in Athens's Assembly. So in 404 BCE, after twenty-seven years of nearly constant, bloody, and disheartening conflict, they surrendered.

The victorious Spartans made the Athenians pull down the Long Walls. The Spartans also forced them to dismantle their beloved democracy and end their imperial administration of the Delian League. In addition, Athens's splendid cultural golden age, which had produced the magnificent Parthenon temple and some of history's finest plays and other literature, was over.

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A Love-Hate Relationship

One of the most interesting characters of the Peloponnesian War was the young Athenian politician Alcibiades (c. 450–404 BCE). Born into an aristocratic family, he was closely related to Pericles, the most famous and important Greek statesman of the fifth century BCE. After Alcibiades' father died, Pericles stepped in and raised the young man.

Alcibiades had good looks, a good sense of humor, and a high level of intelligence; these qualities impressed everyone who met him. However, he was also spoiled, arrogant, and dishonest, which bothered many people. Indeed, Athenians had a love-hate relationship with this young politician. In his biography of Alcibiades, the Greek writer Plutarch said, “the people's feelings towards him have been very aptly expressed by [the Athenian comic playwright] Aristophanes in the line: 'They long for him, they hate him, they cannot do without him.'”

Perhaps this reluctant fascination many people had for Alcibiades explains how he was elected to the office of general in 420 BCE. A leading Sparta-hater among the Athenians, Alcibiades convinced the Assembly to send a major military expedition to conquer the city-state of Syracuse, one of Sparta's allies. Capturing Syracuse, he claimed, would help ensure Sparta's defeat. The assemblymen approved this questionable scheme, and they put Alcibiades in joint command of the expedition.

However, the attempt to capture Syracuse ended up a miserable failure. In trouble with the Athenians, Alcibiades fled to the place he said he most hated—Sparta. Later, incredibly, many Athenians forgave him for his betrayal and invited him back to help them fight Sparta. He promptly accepted the offer, turned against his new Spartan friends, and defeated them in a naval battle.

Alcibiades squandered his countrymen's goodwill a few years later. In trouble with them yet again, he fled to the northern Aegean. There, in 404 BCE, the Spartans, who had been hunting him since he turned on them, caught up with him and killed him. On hearing the news of his downfall, some Athenians were thoroughly pleased, while others were deeply saddened.

Athenian politician Alcibiades was loved and hated by those around him. He was intelligent and witty, but he was also arrogant and unprincipled. He was killed by arrows shot at him by his foes. Athenian politician Alcibiades was loved and hated by those around him. He was intelligent and witty, but he was also arrogant and unprincipled. He was killed by arrows shot at him by his foes. © IVY CLOSE IMAGES/ALAMY © IVY CLOSE IMAGES/ALAMY


The Spartans were certain they had finally rid the world of Athens's grand ambitions, but they were wrong. The Athenians would rise again. Sparta's hegemony, or supremacy, in Greece would last only a short time. A mere three decades later, the Thebans would crush the Spartan army and gain their own hegemony, which would turn out to be even more fleeting than Sparta's. Rivalry and warfare among the Greeks seemed never-ending, and sadly for them, their inability to unite would be their ultimate downfall.

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Warfare on land

During Greece's Archaic Age (c. 800–500 BCE), city-states emerged across the Greek-speaking world, where a major revolution in agriculture was also occurring. A new class of independent small farmers gradually gained control of the farmlands surrounding these states, and the farmers doubled as soldiers in the local military militias. At the same time, these citizen-fighters developed a new military system, one destined to revolutionize land warfare in Europe and beyond. For several centuries, Greek infantrymen (foot soldiers) would be widely recognized as the most fearsome soldiers in the known world.

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The panoply The new kind of soldier that arose in those centuries—a heavily armored infantryman—became known as a hoplite. A hoplite's extensive collection of weapons and armor was called the panoply (PAN-uh-plee). In the Classical period, the panoply included a sturdy bronze-coated wooden shield about 3 feet (1 meter) across, and a chest-protector, or cuirass (kwi-RASS). The cuirass was sometimes made of bronze, but more often the soldiers wore several layers of linen or canvas that had been glued together to form a rigid shirt.

The panoply also included greaves, bronze lower-leg protectors. A soldier applied these by pulling them open and clipping them on. He also wore a sturdy bronze helmet, which was equipped with eye-slits so he could see where he was going.

The hoplite's primary weapon was a spear. It measured around 7 feet (2 meters) in length, had a sharpened iron head, and was most often thrust underhand at an opponent. Hoplites also wielded a 2-foot (0.6meter) iron sword as a backup weapon if they lost or broke their spears.

A Greek reliefshows an example ofa phalanx, in which a block ofsoldiers, typically eight lines, stood in lines, one behind the other. A Greek reliefshows an example ofa phalanx, in which a block ofsoldiers, typically eight lines, stood in lines, one behind the other. © ANCIENT ART & ARCHITECTURE COLLECTION LTD/ALAMY © ANCIENT ART & ARCHITECTURE COLLECTION LTD/ALAMY

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The phalanx The hoplites typically fought in a battlefield formation known as a phalanx (FAY-lanks). This was a large, rectangular block of soldiers who stood in lines, one behind another. The most common depth was eight lines, although soldiers would form fewer or more lines if the situation required it.

The phalanx was an extremely effective attack unit for two chief reasons. First, the phalanx gave each soldier a substantial amount of protection. When they faced an enemy, the hoplites held up their shields in a way that protected not only the man holding it, but also, to some degree, his neighbor. The result was an unbroken, exceptionally protective barrier that most opponents could not penetrate.

Second, when in motion, the phalanx possessed an enormous amount of forward momentum. When engaging an enemy army, the hoplites in the front line thrust their spears at their opponents. At the same time, their comrades in the rear lines used their shields to push at their backs, forcing them forward with overpowering force. The Greeks called that highly effective maneuver the othismos, or “the shoving.”

A Classical Greek phalanx worked especially well when used against non-Greeks, whose own battle formations were much inferior. This partially explains why the Greeks won so many victories over the Persians. In contrast, when two Greek phalanxes clashed, the result was most frequently an immense shoving match. It usually ended when one side was too tired to go on and retreated.

Greek phalanxes became even more powerful and deadly in the fourth century BCE, mainly because of innovations introduced by Philip II (382–336 BCE), ruler of the northern Greek mainland kingdom of Macedonia. He added more lines to the phalanx, making it much deeper. In place of ordinary thrusting spears, Philip substituted battle pikes—very long spears—so that those of the soldiers in the phalanx's first several lines projected outward from the formation's front. Thus, the “Macedo-nian phalanx,” as it was called, presented to an enemy a dense, totally impassable array of iron spear-points. The Greek historian Polybius (200–115 BCE) saw such formations in action. Describing the Macedonian phalanx, he famously remarked in his work titled Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire and translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, “Nothing can withstand its charge or resist it face to face.”

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Other battlefield units The phalanx remained the principal battlefield unit of Greek land armies throughout the Classical Age and for years to come. A few other types of soldiers fought with and supported the hoplites, however. For a long time, cavalry tended to be the least effective of these units, partly because saddles were still very simple and stirrups, the metal rings that support riders' feet and help them stay on their horses, had not yet been invented. Keeping one's balance on a fastmoving horse was very difficult, therefore, particularly when a rider was weighed down with armor and weapons. As a result, for most of the Classical period, cavalrymen did little more than protect the sides of a phalanx and chase retreating enemy infantrymen.

Cavalry finally became a major battlefield force under King Philip II and his famous son, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). They developed a strategy that allowed all the units to work together more effectively. Wearing bronze armor, Philip's cavalrymen were known to charge in a wedge-shaped formation directly into enemy infantry. The object was to tear a hole in the enemy line, creating enough space for the Macedonian phalanx to enter and do its bloody work.

In addition, both before and after Philip and Alexander, Greek armies featured skirmishers, among them bowmen, slingers, and peltasts. All wore little or no armor. Slingers whipped small rocks with great force and accuracy, and peltasts carried javelins, which they hurled at an enemy before running away. The main purpose of skirmishers was to soften up the opposing army before the phalanx moved forward into the fray.

Warfare on the sea Greek naval warfare was fairly uncommon and small in scale during the Archaic Age, mainly because the need to fight at sea rarely arose. In the first half of that period, the most common warship was the pentekonter, with fifty oarsmen—twenty-five on each side of the deck. In about 700 BCE, shipbuilders developed new warships called biremes. Each bireme featured two levels, or banks, of oars, so this ship was more powerful and faster than a pentekonter; and the bireme was more maneuverable as well. Even stronger and more effective was the trireme, introduced in the sixth century BCE. Featuring three banks of oars and 170 rowers, the trireme remained the leading warship in the Mediterranean and Black seas for centuries to come.

Common battle tactics On all three types of vessels, the oarsmen fought only when the boat was too damaged to move, dead in the water, and Page 55  |  Top of Articleunder direct attack. Therefore, Greek warships carried ten, and sometimes as many as thirty or more, hoplites (foot soldiers) and four or more archers. In one common attack maneuver, a warship moved in close to an enemy vessel and used grappling hooks and ropes to bind the two boats together. Then the Greek hoplites boarded the other boat and fought hand to hand as in a land battle.

Another major battle tactic was to ram the side of an enemy ship. A bronze “beak” on the attacking ship's bow (front) tore a hole in the other vessel's wooden hull. As seawater rushed in, it normally took only minutes for the damaged ship to sink. If possible, prior to ramming, an attacking vessel tried to come in at an angle and shear off the enemy's oars. That made the ramming maneuver easier and more likely to succeed, since the enemy ship could no longer maneuver.

Siege warfare A military siege is the capture of a fortified place, such as a castle or walled town. Historians know very little about the ancient Greek sieges that occurred before the late fifth century BCE, almost halfway through the Classical Age (c. 500–323 BCE). When the Greeks of that era did begin using siege warfare, they borrowed many of their principal tactics from the Persians. In turn, the Persians had copied the siege methods of an earlier Middle Eastern people called the Assyrians.

The siege of Plataea The first Greek siege that historians know about in detail was the one the Spartans launched against Athens's tiny northern neighbor and longtime ally, Plataea. The operation took place in 429 BCE, near the start of the Peloponnesian War. In his account of that long, devastating conflict, the Athenian soldier and historian Thucydides said that the Spartans constructed a tall wooden stockade around Plataea's small urban center. The purpose of the stockade was to prevent the residents from escaping.

Next, the attackers, built up a massive mound of earth that ultimately reached the same height as the city's walls. According to Thucydides, the defenders desperately attempted to counter this assault. The Plataeans ultimately could not fend off the Spartan attack, because the Spartans used all sorts of clever tactics and tricks. These included battering rams intended to crash through the city gates and the digging of saps, or tunnels, under the walls. Some tunnels allowed the Spartans to get inside the town, while others caused sections of Page 56  |  Top of Articledefensive walls to collapse into those open spaces. Overall, the defenders were unable to keep the Spartans out, so the assault was highly effective and Plataea fell.

Dionysius and Philip A few decades later, Dionysius I (432–367 BCE) introduced several major innovations in siege warfare. Dionysius was the leader of Syracuse, a prominent Greek city-state on the large Italian island of Sicily. He oversaw the building of siege towers standing 60 feet (18 meters) tall. They could be rolled along on enormous, specially made wheels until the army reached the outer walls of a town. The towers carried large-scale artillery weapons (weapons that shoot objects through the air at enemy targets), including mechanical crossbows and catapults.

Using these devastating siege devices, in 397 BCE Dionysius captured the Carthaginian island-fortress of Motya, near Sicily. However, most other Greeks did not begin using such weapons and tactics right away. They became common in Greek warfare only after Macedonia's brilliant military innovator, Philip II, demonstrated their effectiveness in two sieges during the mid-fourth century BCE.


Activity 1: Greek democracy versus American democracy The ancient Greeks developed the concept of a democratic government that is the basis for the governments of many modern nations, including the United States. Create a chart or presentation that compares the structure of government of ancient Athens with the structure of the U.S. government. List the major parts of the government, their duties, and their relationships to one another. Summarize the similarities and differences and present them to your class.

Activity 2: Make a hoplite's shield An ancient Greek hoplite had many weapons in his panoply. His shield was key to his effectiveness in battle. Online or in the library, research some examples of a hoplite's shield. Based on those examples, make a replica of your own using craft materials. Be sure to include a gripping system on the inside of the shield. Present your shield to your class, describing how it was made and how it was used in battle.

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For More Information


Aeschylus. The Persians. In Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians. Translated by Philip Vellacott. Baltimore: Penguin, 1961.

Camp, John, and Elizabeth Fisher. The World of the Ancient Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse. New York: Overlook, 2003.

De Souza, Philip. The Greek and Persian Wars, 499–386 B.C. London: Osprey, 2003.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Wars of the Ancient Greeks and Their Invention of Western Military Culture. London: Cassell, 2000.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking, 2003.

Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

Mathew, Christopher. A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite in Action. South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword, 2012.

Plutarch. Life of Solon and Life of Alcibiades. In The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Plutarch. Sayings of Spartans. In Plutarch on Sparta. Translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Polybius. Histories. Published as Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sekunda, Nicholas. Marathon, 490 BC: The First Persian Invasion of Greece. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. London: Folio Society, 2013.

Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005.

Xenophon. Anabasis. Translated by W. H. D. Rouse. New York: New American Library, 1959.


BBC. “The Democratic Experiment.” (accessed May 29, 2015).

PBS. “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.” (accessed May 29, 2015).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3629700039