Ancient Greece – War as Inevitable Agonism



Ancient Agora Ruins / Creative Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (10.03.2013)

Athenian democracy was established in 508 BCE as part of the reforms of Cleisthenes. He did not want to empower all people – just free adult males. They were to have a greater share of authority in running the state, more than in any other polis. Archons were annually elected (by casting lots) leaders who became less important over time. The Areopagus (Council of Elders) also became less powerful over time. The Ekklesia (assembly of citizens) became more powerful over time, taking decisions and authority from the Archons and Areopagus.


Cleisthenes / Creative Commons

Cleisthenes introduce the Council of 500 to see to the daily operation of the city. They were always in session in the agora. These members were elected by lottery every year so that every free adult male citizen stood an excellent chance at some point in his lifetime of serving in public office at least once to have a hand in the state. Also elected each year, but not by lottery, were the Strategoi – the Ten Generals – to guide the Athenian military.

Other positions were unelected, but these required those seeking the office to have a history of successful campaigns. This office was held in higher esteem than all others. They could be elected every year – there were no term limits. They became the guiding light of Athenian democracy, really guiding discussions and forming policy. Athens also had extremely active courts – no one in the ancient world was more devoted to litigation than them. The courts were staffed by Athenian citizens, and there was so much litigation that they eventually started paying jurors for their service (juries could be very large). They were paid a full day’s wage, and other offices were paid as well. Serving on juries, serving in the Ekklesia, as Archons or Strategoi, etc. – a person could literally make a living in public service.

There was much more active participation in this system, and Athenians was direct participation. There was no one between the citizen and the government – they could stand in front of the Ekklesia and push for a law, they had to defend themselves or served as their own plaintiff in court, etc. Consequently, more important than anything else in Athens was the ability to speak in public – rhetoric. All Athenian males had to be proficient in it, otherwise they would be taken advantage of in court and be on the bottom of the totem pole so to speak publicly. Athenians loved and pursued this. We call this a radical democracy – the most radical ever invented by Athens in the ancient world.

But democracy wasn’t for everyone – only free adult male citizens. In spite of this, Athens was also a ruthless empire – they gained wealth by conquering other Greeks. Those they conquered were not given citizenship and could not participate in the democratic Athenian system. They would submit to Athenian authority or the Athenian military would kill every man, woman and child among them. Athenians had to pay for their government, and this was how they did it.


Ostraka / Creative Commons

Athens introduced ostracism into their democracy. They wanted the power to eliminate any person they wanted to from the city for any reason. They had an election once every year. They didn’t have to ostracize anyone, but once each year they had the option. They would cast their ballots on ostraka (singular ostracon) – a shard of clay – and the person with the most votes was banished from Athens and any of its territories for ten years. If two factions were fighting or if someone was causing trouble, then they could simply ostracize the faction leader or the troublemaker. All citizens got a vote and only one person, not an entire group, could be ostracized. After ten years, the person who was ostracized could return. In one case we know of one who returned and was immediately elected as a judge. We find misspellings as well as small notes attached to the votes on the ostraka we have recovered. However, people began organizing into factions to use this as a political weapon, and Athenians voted to discontinue the practice.

Ostraka02  Ostraka03

Ostraka with names of Aristeides (left) and Themistocles (right) / Creative Commons

In 482 BCE, Athenians cast a vote to ostracize one of two men who had different ideas on how Athens should proceed with all of the wealth they had gained from conquest and subjugating new territories – Aristeides and Themistocles. Aristeides was ostracized, leaving Themistocles in Athens who advocated using the wealth to develop a navy with a new fleet of warships. They were facing imminent invasion by the Persian Empire who already invaded once in 490 BCE to punish Athens for assisting the Ionians in the Ionian Revolt against them. Darius announced that he would punish them for their interference.

Persians were never interested in conquering any part of Greece for their land – they just wanted to punish them. This first invasion under Darius in 490 BCE failed when he was pushed back at the Battle of Marathon, but ten years later Xerxes (son of Darius) returned with a vengeance to punish them for the interference as well the embarrassment of his father. They knew this was coming, and they showed their agreement with Themistocles via the ostracism of Aristeides that they needed to build warships for a naval force equal to that of the Persians. The decision to ostracize Aristeides and not Themistocles was momentous – it changed the course and history of Athens.

GraecoPersianWarRoutes01  Themistocles01  XerxesCoin01

Graeco-Persian War Routes (left), Themistocles (center), Xerxes coin (right)

The Athenians built a huge navy and enlisted the help of other Greeks. All Greeks did not join – of over 400 poleis, just over 30 joined Athens against the Persians. One of those joining was Sparta. Spartans had killed a Persian ambassador and knew Xerxes would come for them after Athens. As Xerxes headed to Athens, he first met resistance at Thermopylae (meaning “hot gate”). The Greeks chose this location for its narrow pass to force the Persians to fight through it. They knew the Persians would get through but would at least be slowed down. This was where the Spartans made their famous stand of the 300. They knew they would die, but remember that Spartans were not only not afraid of death but actually eager to die for Sparta. This slowed the Persians down long enough to give Athens time to evacuate the entire city. Xerxes reached Athens and destroyed it, achieving his first aim in 480 BCE. But the Greeks had a plan, and Themistocles with the Athenian navy lured the Persians into a naval battle at Salamis. The Athenians were victorious and forced Xerxes to retreat. Themistocles was the hero of the day. But the Greeks remained cautious not knowing if or when Xerxes would return. The Athenians then convinced most of the allies who had fought with them against the Persians to join them in a new alliance.

The timeline is ironic at beginning and end. In the 5th century (501-400 BCE), the Persian War began between Athens and Persia in 490 BCE, out of which the Greeks could claim some victory in forcing Darius to retreat. In 480 BCE, Xerxes did destroy Athens but was forced to retreat at Salamis. The Athenians organized a new league they developed in the Athenian Empire, which most alarmed Sparta. The 5th century BCE ended not with Greeks fighting Persians but with Greeks fighting Greeks in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The 4th century (400-301 BCE) saw the rise of the hegemonies – different poleis taking turns as the dominant polis. In ancient Greece, hegemony denoted the politico-military dominance of one polis over others. But by the end of the 4th century BCE with the rise of Macedonia (who conquered all of Greece), Persia would be invaded and conquered under Alexander the Great. The Persians invaded Greece at the beginning of the 5th century BCE, and just 30 years from the end of the 4th century BCE (331 BCE) the Greeks invaded and conquered Persia and subsequently ruled what was its empire.


Athenian Empire in 450 BCE / Creative Commons

The Athenian Empire subjugated other poleis and territories. Many poleis had voluntarily joined Athens against Persia, but in time Athens took them over and they were required to send annual tributes. Athens became extremely wealthy and powerful, using this wealth for Athens to fund its democracy and the structures it would build (such as the Acropolis). Thanks to Themistocles, they had the single greatest navy of all poleis and could easily intimidate or take them over. Their powerful naval force was reflected in their empire being along the coasts. They built everything on the basis of their navy.

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Athenian “Long Wall” / Creative Commons

Athens built their “Long Wall” between the city and the port at Piraeus. They had completely rebuilt Athens and constructed this wall as a defensive corridor between them and Sparta in the process. They decided their future was the sea. Their primary warship was the trireme that they used to out-maneuver and ram others with an attachment aft at the water line to sink the other ship. The ship itself was a weapon. This was bone-shattering combat with 200 men rowing this ship and slamming into another.


Athenian Trireme / Creative Commons

Athens had the largest navy in the Greek world that was used to support and spread their democracy. Remember, every time you change the nature of the military you also change the nature of the society and the state (just as Hoplite warfare made voting rights available to the middle class). Themistocles convinced the Athenians to build a navy of 200 warships, each manned by 200 citizens for a total human force of 40,000 men. There were only 10,000 hoplites. The navy was the largest military branch the Athenians had. But they needed to call upon even the poorest to serve in the military. However, unlike with the Hoplites, no expensive equipment was necessary for them. They simply needed to show up with a loincloth to row the boat. But these poor Athenians now demanded the same rights as anyone else in the military. More citizens than ever before were incorporated into the democracy – more than ever attempted by any other polis. At this point the Athenians had a radical democracy growing as an empire supported by the navy. Everything was built on the power of the Athenian ships. This is why the ostracism of Aristeides instead of Themistocles changed their course and history.


Pericles / Creative Commons

Pericles was one of the Strategoi (Ten Generals), elected as such in 471 BCE. He remained in that position almost uninterrupted until his death in 429 BCE. Athenians trusted him and wanted his leadership. He was also a great speaker and promoted three policies for Athens:

1) pro-democracy (radical democracy)
2) pro-empire (take over as many poleis as possible)
3) anti-Sparta (they hated democracy and hated Athens as a powerful empire).

This anti-Sparta stance led to an inevitable war from 431 to 404 BCE, the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens and each of their allies. It has been called the war between the elephant and the whale, the elephant being Sparta as stronger on land and the whale being Athens as stronger by sea. Sparta had no navy at all.


Thucydides and 1st Century Fragment from the History of the Peloponnesian War / Creative Commons

We know of the Peloponnesian War from Thucydides who wrote the most haunting account of the war you can read – History of the Peloponnesian War. In that book he provided a sage bit of advice even for the modern world when he wrote, “The nation that separates its soldiers and scholars will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”

He advocated that the military and brain trust needed to be one in the same. Athenians needed to understand war and its tactics. All Athenian citizens were expected to know these things because they had to decide on a daily basis what to do with the military. All decisions were made by the citizens in this radical democracy.


The Peloponnesian War, 431 BCE / Creative Commons

The Peloponnesian War was fought in two phases – a first phase, a lull, and a second phase. The first phase was the Archidamian phase from 431 to 421 BCE. Thucydides wrote that wars were easy to start and difficult to finish. Most decided to go to war before they know what they’re fighting about. He said the only predictable thing about war is that it is unpredictable. He explained how the policies championed by Pericles led to the war. Pericles convinced them that they would absolutely win. He said they simply needed to keep Sparta from capturing Athens and added that this could not happen because Spartans could never breach their long wall. He added a condition to this, which was that they would win unless they voted for something stupid. So the Athenians had tremendous confidence that victory was guaranteed – they could use the long walls for protection and to transport food. The walls actually did repel the Spartans, who returned home.

By Athenian custom, a funeral oration was given every year for all soldiers who had died in combat. Pericles was chosen after this first year in 431 BCE to deliver the oration. Thucydides provides a version of it. Pericles wanted to emphasize what was worth the lives of their young Athenian men. He said Athens was the greatest city that had ever existed and was the “school of Greece” – the leading intellectual and cultural center. Athens, he said, was worth dying for. Every nation has to convince its people of this. He stressed that they were great with an exceptional military and that they would prevail if they held steady. Nothing could defeat them. In the second year of the war in 430 BCE, a plague broke out in Athens that killed a third of the population in the middle of this war. This was unforeseeable. Pericles could not have known this, but they held him accountable and did not reelect him. He died the next year of this plague in 429 BCE. As far as Thucydides was concerned, the death of Pericles eliminated the stability of Athens. Ancient Greeks said the greatest stress to a democracy was war – the people were incapable of conducting a war in this manner because they were too erratic and emotional.

The Athenians kept making poor decisions until finally losing this war that they believed they could not lose, which is where we will pick up next time.