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6-08-2015, 19:07

Military Muscle

From the fearsome sight of a red-cloaked Spartan
army to the sleek profile of an Athenian warship,
the evidence of war was everywhere in ancient Greece.
War was a necessary undertaking in the constant
effort to preserve the Greeks’ lifestyle. Greece was
tiny in comparison with the vast Persian Empire,
which frequently threatened to overtake the smaller
civilization. In addition, the Greeks were constantly
proving themselves to each other through war—it
was part of the fabric of their being. Plato called war
“Always existing by nature between every Greek
city-state.”1 Battles might be won or lost, but they
were rarely avoided.


The warfare the poet Homer described in his
famous poems was largely an undertaking of the
aristocracy, with a focus on a few elite individuals.
Even in early Greek fighting there were massed
battles involving ordinary soldiers, but these
battles did not receive much attention. By the 600s
BCE, this emphasis was changing. Greece was
rebounding from its Dark Age, stabilizing its social
and economic systems, and colonizing new areas.
More land was distributed among the middle class
rather than being concentrated in the hands of the
aristocracy. However, this land was often located in inhospitable terrain,
making its borders difficult to access or navigate. As a result, the primary
responsibilities of defense and protection fell to the people who were on
the owners of the land. As it did, a new style of warfare emerged with
the hoplite.
A hoplite was a citizen-soldier. He was concerned with establishing his
political and economic position in the community and then defending that
position when the need arose. Hoplites had an economic advantage in that
they owned land—which provided them with money—and in return they
paid for their own equipment. They came primarily from the middle class,
since most members of the lower classes could not afford to buy their own
arms and armor. Brisk trade with neighboring civilizations also hastened
the rise of hoplite warfare, as it gave the Greeks access to metal for strong
weapons and armor. Many historians believe the emergence of the hoplite
led to the spread of political power to the middle classes. These men risked
death as they fought for their land while paying for their own defense. They
would naturally feel entitled to greater influence in how things were run.
The physical formation of an army of hoplites was a phalanx, a large
rectangle in which soldiers stood next to one another in tightly packed rows.
They were burdened under the weight of heavy metal armor, spears, and
shields, their vision and hearing hindered by claustrophobic helmets.

Consequently, the hoplite style of fighting was a brutal clash of metal,
as opposed to nimble fighting. Archilochus, a poet from the 600s BCE,
described the ideal hoplite as “a short man firmly placed upon his legs, with
a courageous heart, not to be uprooted from the spot where he plants his


The Greek city-states were scattered on islands and coasts, and battles
inevitably happened at sea. Warships were powered by rowing, and for a long
time, the most efficient design was a penteconter, a
ship that carried 50 oarsmen seated on a single level.
Eventually this evolved into a two-level ship that
could hold more men. By approximately 700 BCE, the
Greeks had developed the trireme. This three-level
ship fit 160 to 170 oarsmen, plus additional soldiers
and officers, for a total of approximately 200 men.
Ramming enemy ships was the primary form of
battle, and the triremes, with their additional
manpower, were ideal for this maneuver. Triremes
had drawbacks, however. They sank easily, and they
couldn’t stay at sea for long because they could not
carry enough supplies to feed the crew.
Nonetheless, the trireme came to define the
Athenian navy. In 483 BCE, the military general
and politician Themistocles went to the Athenian
archons and proposed a radical idea: build ships—
a lot of them. Athens had just discovered a deposit
of silver in nearby mines. Themistocles suggested using the windfall to
build 200 triremes. The archons agreed, and within three years Athens had
produced the ships for a powerful navy. Themistocles’s timing was good:
the new naval force proved critical when the Greeks faced the Persians at
Salamis in 479 BCE.


Although the Athenians were the undisputed leaders of naval warfare,
another city-state claimed the best land force: Sparta. Sparta was renowned
for its military strength, prowess, and sheer grit. Spartans were the elite
of Greek warriors, and their entire society was centered on maintaining
that power.
In Sparta, service to the state trumped the rights, freedoms, or comforts
of the individual citizen. The Spartans valued strength above all else.
Murder, cruelty, and thievery were all tolerated, and even encouraged, if
they were necessary to remain strong. The Spartan soldiers’ reputation was
legendary throughout Greece, and their red cloaks—to hide blood—and
long, wild hair instilled fear in the hearts of their enemies.
At birth, the elders of the society examined a child to determine if he
or she was physically fit. Those who didn’t pass were left to die. Even girls
engaged in some military training, a quality unique to Sparta, but it was boys
who bore the main responsibility. At age seven, a
Spartan boy said good-bye to his family and went
to live with other boys in a communal barracks to
undergo his military preparation. During training,
the boys received minimal clothing, one blanket,
and only a little food. To keep from going hungry,
they were encouraged to steal food—as long as they
didn’t get caught. At age 18, boys completed their
training and joined the military. Boys who did not
successfully finish training were not permitted to
become full citizens. After finishing their training,
men could marry, but they were still not allowed to
live with their wives, a privilege that didn’t come
until they were 30. Sparta’s system was rigorous and
ruthless, but it paid off: Sparta possessed the finest
soldiers in Greece.


The citizen-armies of hoplites, united under a
city-state, characterized the Greek military for
centuries. But the 300s BCE brought a revolution
when Alexander the Great came into power.
Alexander, who came from the northern region of Macedon, was the
definition of a brilliant general, but he was also a merciless leader. Alexander
had inherited his position from his father, Philip II, who had already begun
changing the Greek style of warfare.
Although Spartan society was characterized by its constant attention
to war, most Greek fighting fell around the other rhythms of life, such as
planting and harvesting. But Philip, and after him Alexander, fought
year round in all conditions. They built massive, professional armies that
included any man who could wield a weapon. They were constantly at war,
plundering the conquered to pay for more war. With sheer numbers on its
side, Macedon began bringing the Greek city-states, one by one, under its
control. Alexander’s approach to war was absolutely ruthless: thousands
were killed, including women and children. Property, buildings, and entire
cities were destroyed. Torture and gleeful killing were normal under
Alexander’s reign. The golden age ended with Alexander, but not even his
brutal style could erase the centuries of thought and development that
would continue to influence Greek culture.