Ancient Greek Armies Were Part of Ancient Greek Society
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Ancient Greek Armies Were Part of Ancient Greek Society

a terracotta model shield painted with a red crab on a white background
Crab! A Boeotian Greek model of a shield in the British Museum, museum number 1895,1026.5 under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Responses at the International Ancient Warfare Conference 2023 made me wonder whether something I take for granted is obvious to other people interested in ancient Greece.

Today our armies are parallel societies or total institutions. They take in individual recruits, separate them from their prior friends and relations, and teach them everything they will need while they are isolated from their civilian associates. They re-organize these recruits into a new hierarchy of units for both everyday and tactical purposes (people in the same platoon both live and fight together, at least in the field). Armies like the army of Classical Athens were nothing like this and yet they fought.

About 20 years ago, John W.I. Lee discovered that Xenophon’s Ten Thousand lived in groups which fit around a campfire (suskeniai). These units had no clear relationship with tactical units, and it seems that soldiers could move from one group to another as they pleased and as circumstances changed. A group might break up if it grew too big, if members quarrelled, or more soldiers acquired the essentials to form their own group such as cooking equipment and a pack animal; several groups might merge if they became too small to efficiently carry out all the chores. In his Cyropaedia Xenophon imagines an army where each unit of 100 men lives in a single tent. But the actually existing army he describes did not live like this.

Soldiers in Classical Greece were expected to teach themselves or seek out whatever training would be useful. Cities which wanted to be skilled at war encouraged pastimes such as archery or choral dancing to prepare their men for war. The closest thing to this in our societies are the Scouting movement (and its Fascist and Communist imitations), physical education and free lunches in schools, all of which were meant to create a population of healthy and skilled recruits. Except in Sparta, there is no clear evidence for mandatory peacetime training of infantry before 338 BCE (although armies could train together once they were assembled with their arms). We have a number of examples in Thucydides and Herodotus of armies and navies which refused training or work which their commander wished them to perform.

Greek cities were small and recruited their troops by subdivisions such as the tribes of Athens or messes of Sparta. Soldiers in one of these groups knew each other before they joined the army. It would have been impossible for most cities to break up these ties, since they had only a few hundred or a few thousand adult male citizens. In the Iliad, enemies like Glaucus and Diomedes sometimes know each other, and since many Greek wars were between great families not great cities, this may not have been unknown in real warfare.

We have elaborate systems of professional military education modelled after universities and public schools with examinations and grades and certifications. Commanders of ancient armies learned in their families or through apprenticeship with more experienced commanders. They sought out idiosyncratic personal training and education from all kinds of sources. Among other things, this let groups which were good at war like the Spartans keep their practical wisdom for themselves and only share it with people who took time to befriend them. Anyone can go to a leadership course for senior NCOs or a staff college by meeting meritocratic criteria, but someone like Iphicrates had to like you or decide you were useful before he took you under his wing. If you were in the position to decide who had access to secret knowledge, you had social power.

I only know one way in which Greek armies formed a parallel society. The Athenians, like Romans, were very proud of keeping women (or respectable women) out of their army camps and their councils of war. Greek writers presented field warfare as a purely male world, except at awkward moments like the fall of Cyrus’ camp in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Aristocrats such as Thucydides tried to present warfare as an affair of the leisure class too even if light-armed troops and the market mob kept pushing into their stories. But in other respects, Classical Greek armies grew out of Classical Greek societies, rather than creating a new parallel society with new rules, social ties, and systems of reward. Good generals worked with this rather than trying to turn these armies into something more like the Roman army of Augustus or whining that their solders were self-governing citizens not mute pawns from a board game. (Another paper at IAWC 2023 asked whether the insistence that army camps were a boys’ club was a polite lie).

This is all elementary to me because its pretty obvious if you read Athenian literature and don’t assume that a Spartiate must be a Roman centurion or a US Marine with funny clothes and too much brass to polish. Its something that researchers from the California School and researchers from the Krentz-van Wees school agree on. The basic problem in classical Greek military history is not describing how their armies were bad or undeveloped versions of our armies, its understanding how they functioned while being so different from our armies. But maybe its not obvious to other specialists? Modelling minds and unpicking implicit knowledge is hard and people interested in ancient warfare range from specialists to people who are more interested in war in general.

After several reschedulings, this should appear just after I attend my first face-to-face conference since 2019: Stadtbelagerungen zwischen Ost und West: Belagerungsstrategien und Belagerungstechniken im Vergleich (Innsbruck, Austria, 12 and 13 October 2023). Its also only the second time I have done public speaking in German. I would ask for wishes of luck but right now there are millions of people in Israel and Gaza, or Ukraine, who need it more than me.

Further Reading

John W. I. Lee, A Greek army on the march : soldiers and survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. [BMCR]

Ronald Thomas Ridley, “The Hoplite as Citizen: Athenian military Institutions in their social Context,” L’Antiquité Classique Année 1979 48-2 pp. 508-548

(scheduled 23 June 2023)

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5 thoughts on “Ancient Greek Armies Were Part of Ancient Greek Society

  1. dearieme says:

    Is enough known to let you comment on any distinction between citizen troops fighting wars in Classical Greece and Greek mercenary troops fighting afar such as those in Xenophon?

    1. Sean says:

      It seems that if someone wanted a significant body of foreign troops in archaic or classical Greece, they sent a message to a city or an aristocrat saying “hi, we need troops … we can offer … we can squeeze your arm by … how many can you send or bring?” Bodies of thousands of so-called mercenaries were not like the aimless, homeless, or violent young men who headed for the French foreign legion after 1945 or the wars in the Donbas since 2014, but more like Cuban ‘volunteers’ showing up in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. So they arrived as self-organized communities. I suspect that the troops who actually showed up were weighed towards the friendless, the gormless, and the impulsive but most of those would have already attached themselves to someone who could usually keep them moving in the right direction and not committing too many atrocities against the wrong people. Jeffrey Rop’s book was pretty good on the politics of recruiting the troops who we call mercenaries.

      If you wanted a Spartan general, the Spartans more or less had to give permission. Clearchus was an exile and a damaged man, but the Spartans had approved of Cyrus’ march upcountry even if they told themselves that he was not actually going to try to seize the throne. In recent times, the career of Dr. Gerald Bull shows how the politics can work and what can go wrong if you take a job that your home state does not approve of.

  2. russell1200 says:

    It seems like they were analogous to the militia in early American Colonial – into 19th Century history. And since the North American militias didn’t have to worry about the anti-cavalry tactics needed in Europe (probably a hoplite wouldn’t either), they could be reasonably effective at times.

    I presume that most armies of the period were from an elite subset. They thus could have more of the cohesion you get in modern armies, but would also be much smaller in numbers.

    So did the hoplite system work because it could bring a relatively large force into play using a system that didn’t take an inordinate amount of training?

    1. russell1200 says:

      I say the hoplites didn’t need to worry much about cavalry primarily because their whole rig was somewhat anti-shock troop cavalry and in an area where horse mounted bowman wouldn’t have had the room to maneuver to do their thing.

    2. Sean says:

      Yes, something like the American militia around the War of 1812 or the Civil War was very similar. Today, the closest things we are familiar with are amateur sports events or conventions. An army in ancient Greece was a lot more like Burning Man or Chaos Computer Camp than it was like an exercise at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake (“beginning at approximately 8.10 hours on D+1 we will commence the tank gunnery range! All participants will have filled out their qualification paperwork in advance and requisitioned exactly 6 rounds of high-explosive, 4 of APDS, and 3 dummy rounds per gunner … Anyone who can not provide proof that they have completed the previous courses and mandatory refreshers will be redirected to range Charlie for makeup training.”)

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