Classical antiquity literature is replete with references to battles and battles. That is well-known among Greek historians, dating back to Thucydides. It’s true of early Greek poets like Simonides who wrote about real occurrences, as well as the many others who wrote about a legendary world but one that was realistically placed. It’s even true for Sappho, who ranks a troop of horses, an army battalion, and a fleet of ships second, third, and fourth on a list of desirables that includes the love object at number one. War was neither glorified nor viewed as a natural condition of affairs in Greek or Roman society, while winners naturally ‘glorified’ one facet of war — their own successes.
Classical Greece (c480–323 BC) is most known for its poetry, statues, and magnificent architectural masterpieces such as the Parthenon. Despite all of their efforts to create art for the ages, the ancient Greeks also put a tremendous lot of effort into mastering the art of battle.
Competition was one of the key causes behind this. Greece was not a single country in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as it is today. It was made up of a slew of smaller city-states (from Athens to Sparta), all vying for limited resources and land. Such rivalries were frequently settled with the use of a sword. After it, there was Persia. Many more times, this regional empire aspired to seize Greece. The Athenians’ victory over the Persians at Marathon (which reportedly saw Pheidippides run 150 miles from Athens to seek help from the Spartans prior to the battle) and Lysander’s brilliant naval victory over Athens to end the Peloponnesian War, to name just two – produced some of history’s most famous clashes.
Classical Greece witnessed huge strides ahead in politics and culture, as well as breakthroughs in military technology. The trireme, a vessel that helped Athens govern the seas in the fifth century BC, and the terrifying Macedonian phalanx were among them. By the conclusion of the Classical period, Alexander the Great had turned the tables on the Persians and established a vast empire. Greek warfare would now be spread throughout the known world, with far-reaching historical implications.
The Spartan War Machine
The military was taken seriously by all Greek city-states. Sparta was the only one who lived and breathed martial prowess. Men discovered Sparta to be a true warrior-society in the earliest of periods. Boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and placed in a 23-year military training programme aimed to develop them into consummate warriors.
The trainee fighters were instructed from the start that city loyalty should always take precedent above self-preservation. The austerity of their training echoed this mantra: they were exposed to constant (sometimes violent) competitions, were given meagre food rations, and were pushed to steal food in order to prepare for living in a warzone. Worse, they were frequently encouraged to mistreat Sparta’s slave class, the helots. The warrior mindset was adopted by women as well. They were required to stay physically strong, with mothers reportedly telling their sons, “Come back with your shield, or on it,” before they went into combat.
The Spartans were formidable opponents, renowned for their bravery, because of their unwavering commitment to combat. 300 Spartans were famously among those who fought against a vast Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae, and their bravery earned them a place in history. At the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, the Spartans exploited their military prowess to dethrone Athens as the dominating power in Greece. The Thebans attacked Laconia a little over 30 years later, releasing many of the helots. Despite their military prowess, the Spartans’ reign at the pinnacle of the Greek power structure was short-lived.
Hoplites and the Phalanx: the Footsoldiers of Ancient Greek Armies
The hoplites were the backbone of the Greek city-states’ armies when they went to war. The hoplites were generally free citizens (typically farmers and artisans) who could buy linen and bronze armour, rather than professional troops. Hoplites began fighting in the phalanx in the eighth or seventh century BC, a formation that helped them win a succession of major triumphs over the Persians, including the victory at Marathon in 490 BC.
The Hoplites fought with a long spear known as a dory. This was an eight-foot weapon with an iron-tipped blade at the top and a spike at the bottom that served as a counterbalance and secondary killer. The Macedonian phalanx spears used by Alexander the Great were significantly longer: 13–21 feet. The aspis, a hefty wooden shield of roughly one metre in circumference, was carried by the hoplite in his left hand. The shield was carried on the fighter’s shoulders and, thanks to a leather forearm clasp, was extremely manoeuvrable. When his spear broke or he was pursuing a routed adversary, the hoplite would often go for his short sword, the xiphos. The xiphos had a blade that was about two feet long and was worn on a strap under the fighter’s left arm.
A cuirass, breastplate, and backplate were connected together to defend their bodies. This was sometimes constructed of bronze, but it was most commonly formed of glued-together layers of canvas or linen to produce a rigid shield. Horsehair crests, which could be black and white or multicoloured, were frequently worn on their helmets. Helmets were occasionally embellished with bronze animal horns and ears, and they might even be painted. If one hoplite was a terrifying prospect, imagine 256. The Macedonian phalanx, a square infantry formation that was a cornerstone of Alexander the Great’s astonishing conquests in the fourth century BC, was formed by that many people joining forces.
Triemes: the Galleys that Helped Athens Rule the Waves in the Fifth Century BC
Without some degree of mastery over the oceans, no ancient Greek city-state could survive – and the trireme, a war galley, was at the core of the struggle for maritime power. The trireme was the dreadnought of its day, a cutting-edge killing machine capable of sprinting into battle and delivering a devastating blow once it arrived. Around 170 oarsmen in three tiers (known as thranites, zygites, and thalamians) were estimated to have crewed the ship, propelling it across the seas at speeds of up to 8mph. But it was in the heat of combat that a bronze-sheathed battering ram mounted to the prow, which was used to sink opposing ships, that it really shone. If that wasn’t enough, the oarsmen were backed up by a squad of hoplites and archers ready to board opposing ships.
The Athenian trireme, according to excavations, was the acme of the type, playing a significant role in the Greek triumph over the Persians at Salamis. Is it an accident that the vessel’s heyday — the fifth century BC – also happens to be Athens’ power peak? A mainmast and mainsail were located amidships (in the middle), and a boat mast and boat sail were located forward. The sails were left on the land and the masts were pulled down and laid in the boat if a trireme went into war.