A Brief History of the Great Wars of Ancient Greece: Persian, Peloponnesian, Macedonian, and Roman

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  1. Ancient Greece
  2. Classical Greece
  3. Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age
  4. The Ionian Revolt: The start of First Persian War?
  5. Greco-Persian Wars

The famous and beautiful Corinthian helmet offered protection but only at the price of impairing vision and reducing hearing. Battle might consist of an opening round of skirmishing between the lightly armed troops. What followed was a charge of the two opposing hoplite phalanxes. Broken ground, fear, exhaustion, and human preservation instinct all made it difficult to maintain order, but those who did had a great advantage. Scholars debate whether the two phalanxes crashed into each other or whether they stopped just short of that and broke up into smaller units. In either case, only the spears of the men in the first three rows of the phalanx are likely to have reached the enemy.

Then came a grueling contest, like the one described by the poet Tyrtaeus c. Nay, let each man close the foe, and with his own long spear, or else with his sword, wound and take an enemy, and setting foot beside foot, resting shield against shield, crest beside crest, helm beside helm, fight his man breast to breast with sword or long spear in hand. Finally, one side would give way and run. Over the centuries, as Greece became richer and more egalitarian, a higher proportion of combatants fought in heavy armor.

Battles had a certain ritual quality. They began with religious rites, whose completion might prevent a side from taking action even when under attack, as happened at Plataea in where the Spartan Pausanias desperately sacrificed to secure favorable omens while suffering casualties from Persian archery.

Battle ended when one side withdrew, whether in good order or desperate flight, and the victorious side erected a trophy to symbolize its control of the field. Burial of the dead was a vital concern, and a further sign of defeat was when one side requested permission to recover their corpses for proper treatment.

As far as we can tell, casualties in archaic battles were often relatively light, although the aftermath of Sepeia in is a rare example of an attempt by the Spartans to eliminate the fighting men of their key local rival, Argos. Civilians usually got off unscathed. The rituals of conflict and the rarity of severe losses perhaps fed the illusion that battle was only a game—not that the notion bore reflection. The Aetolians of northwest Greece, for instance, were country folk who lived in distributed towns and villages.

They fielded extremely good lightly armed soldiers, who in inflicted a bloody defeat on an Athenian hoplite force on undulating wooded terrain where mobility was of much greater use than heavy armor. Most scholars agree that the rise of hoplite power had political consequences, as Aristotle said Pol. One view is that new rulers, called tyrants, seized power on the backs of their hoplite supporters, who wanted to change the traditional aristocratic domination of their state. The link of cause and effect can, however, be reversed so that an illegal seizure of power by one particular aristocrat led that individual to rely for support on the emerging hoplite class, which then had to be rewarded through greater involvement in political decisions.

First Pheidon, tyrant of Argos c. It was perhaps Pheidon who defeated Sparta at the Battle of Hysiae in In another sign of the growing importance and effectiveness of the hoplite, large numbers of Greek mercenaries served in Egypt under King Psammetichus r.


Ancient Greece

Meanwhile, Sparta was on the rise as a military power. By the same token, Sparta started down the road of becoming a garrison state and Greece's leading military power. Sparta's regime and unique way of life probably emerged gradually between and Spartiate status depended on having sufficient wealth from the family estates, which were worked by helots, to make the necessary monthly contributions to the communal syssitia messes.

But Spartans were no brutes. The Spartan elite was cautious and prudent and contained some of the Greek world's most strategic thinkers. Spartan armies were led by their kings, who down to the end of the sixth century might go on campaign together; thereafter, only one king participated in a particular campaign, to avoid disagreements.

In the absence of a king, a regent might take charge, as Pausanias did at Plataea. Meanwhile, in the seventh and sixth centuries, Athens too began to realize its potential as a great power. First came the unification of the various parts of Attica, and then came a period of unrest, reform, and tyranny — At first the system was weighted toward the interests of small landowners but, after , when Athens became a naval power that relied on the landless poor to row its ships, Athenian democracy became more egalitarian and inclusive, although Athenian culture generally resisted leveling tendencies and balanced the interests of rich and poor—in spite of the complaints of the elite.

During the sixth century, Athenian forces were commanded by an annually elected magistrate, the polemarch, but after the Persian Wars a board of ten strategoi generals was supreme. The army was brigaded into tribal units: the traditional four Ionian tribes down to the reforms of but thereafter ten units. These new tribes were composed of village units from various parts of Attica, so that the tribal contingent had the advantage of some local cohesion but did not represent a solid swathe of territory.

The Spartans were not unique in expecting prosperous men of middling wealth to serve as hoplites. From ages 20 to 39, hoplites were eligible for active service in the field. Greek warfare reached new and unprecedented heights of bloodshed, destruction, manpower, and expense while its weapons were turned on civilians as rarely before. It created such sculptural masterpieces as the Charioteer of Delphi and the Aphrodite of Cnidus, and it built that architectural marvel, the complex of buildings on the Athenian Acropolis including the Parthenon.

It was the finest cultural flowering in the history of the west if not of the world; meanwhile, rivers of blood were flowing. Ancient Greek battle is sometimes thought to have been decisive but in the classical era it rarely was. Mainland Greeks no longer had the luxury that they enjoyed in the archaic era of fighting in relative isolation from the rest of the world.

Political mobilization was too great, the resources deployed too large, the balance of power too evenly matched, and the rules too flexible for either side to admit defeat easily. War involved more men than in the archaic period, and the major conflicts involved groups of states, or a leader supported by allies and noncitzen mercenary troops.

It was often bloodier and turned on civilians. Naval battles and sieges became a regular part of the military art. The stakes, in short, were higher than before. Throughout the classical period, the Persian empire was the central geostrategic fact of the Greek world in the eastern Mediterranean, with Carthage often playing a comparable role in the west. By the late sixth century, Persian expansion had subjugated all of the Greek communities of the coastline of Asia Minor and was spreading across the Aegean and over the Hellespont into Thrace.

The Persian Wars helped to both define what it was to be Greek and shape the national identities of some major states. Peoples who spoke the same Greek language, who worshiped the same group of deities, and who followed a broadly similar lifestyle in which, above all, the rule of law and the celebration of freedom were elevated as ideals, had combined with the common purpose of resisting foreign despotism, and this established the defining features of what it was to be Greek. Athens was the first victor through its hoplites, who charged the Persian formations at Marathon with only a contingent of 1, allies from Plataea in support.

The fact that there were people in Athens who would have been prepared to welcome back the exiled tyrant Hippias, who was accompanying the Persian force, was obscured in the celebration of the victory, but it was probably this threat that had triggered the first Marathon run. The Spartans had arrived too late to take part at Marathon, but the next Persian attack in , led by King Xerxes in person, placed the Spartans in the front line, to their eternal glory.

The Persian invasion was signaled long in advance, since Xerxes had to prepare the route, first having a canal dug across the neck of the Athos peninsula to avoid the dangerous voyage around the southern tip where a previous Persian navy had been destroyed, and then, arranging supply dumps for his colossal expedition.

Those Greek states committed to resistance—Athens, Sparta, and 29 others—collaborated in a Hellenic League with Sparta in overall command; in effect this was a slight expansion of the Peloponnesian League, which Sparta had been developing over the previous half century. Sparta's finest hour came in the heroic defeat at Thermopylae, which became immortalized in stories of the Spartiates fighting under Leonidas to the bitter end with hands and teeth after spears and swords were broken.

As a later funerary inscription at Thermopylae proclaims: Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,. That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Classical Greece

The Spartan myth obscured the fact that the were accompanied in their fatal struggle by unnumbered and nameless helots, whose corpses could not be distinguished from those of their masters, as well as a larger contingent from Thespiae in Boeotia. The Spartan ability to control their image was always an important element in their success.

The triumph of the Greek fleet at Salamis, coupled with the fact that the Athenians had evacuated their territory, leaving their city to be captured and in due course burned by the invaders, reinforced their reputation for upholding freedom no matter the cost. The year also saw another great Greek victory against a foreign threat, this one in Sicily, where Greek colonies controlled much of the eastern and southern coastlines while the Carthaginians were dominant in the west.

The Hellenic League's attempt to secure assistance from Syracuse and other cities had failed, partly because of disagreements over leadership but partly, perhaps, because Xerxes may have arranged for Carthage, a colonial foundation of his Phoenician subjects, to coordinate an attack with his advance into Greece. In the event, a Greek coalition, led by the cities of Syracuse and Agrigentum, defeated the Carthaginian forces outside Himera, pushing back Carthaginian influence for decades.

In was discovered what appears to be the mass grave of soldiers killed in the battle, potentially offering important skeletal evidence about the experience of ancient soldiers. When, after their victories at Plataea in central Greece and Mycale on the Ionian coastline in , the Greeks went on the offensive, encouraging Greek communities to renounce their attachment to Persia, the Spartans soon proved unacceptable as leaders, either unenthusiastic or, if committed, overbearing and concerned primarily about personal benefit. As a result, the main contributors to the Aegean campaigns, who were mostly Ionians and other islanders, invited the Athenians to take over the leadership and a new league was born.

Initially league members contributed either by supplying ships or financially, by paying phoros tribute , but the balance progressively shifted from physical service to cash payments so that Athens obtained a welcome subvention for the costs of its navy, which patrolled the sea on behalf of its allies. The Persians did not give up without a fight. In Asia Minor, Xerxes gave fiefdoms to friendly Greeks in the north the families of Gongylus from Eretria and of Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king , while further south Themistocles was given territory after being expelled from Athens.

As a result, the Delian League managed to recruit very few members on the mainland north of Miletus.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

The Persians also retained footholds in southern Thrace, an area rich in resources, including wood and tar both essential for shipbuilding and gold and silver mines, but also a useful springboard for any further aggression in Europe. As a result, Athens devoted considerable energy to driving out the last Persians, whose final stronghold was Eion on the river Strymon.

In the Persians established a colony on the Strymon in a strategic position called Ennea Hodoi Nine Ways , only to be driven out by the Thracians, who massacred the colonists at the Battle of Drabescus. Thereafter, in spite of Athenian protests and repeated expeditions to recover it, this important base in the north remained free until 35 7 bc, when King Philip II of Macedon annexed it.

As hegemon leader of the Delian League, Athens displayed considerable energy and secured striking successes, which worried other Greeks, especially the cautious Spartans.

The Ionian Revolt: The start of First Persian War?

Regular service on league expeditions made the Athenian military ever more professional, especially its trireme crews and captains but also its hoplite marines. Athenian sailors and soldiers were given regular if modest pay by the state to cover the cost of purchasing supplies. The Delian League quickly evolved from a voluntary organization of willing participants into one where some members were reluctant recruits.

In the early days there were problems when a few island states declined to join, presumably calculating that they could enjoy the benefits of league activity without contributing to its costs. As the Persian threat receded, others reassessed the value of their contribution and attempted to leave. In such cases the league's response was clear, and these states were forced to join or rejoin. In the light of the Greek experience during the Ionian Revolt, when disunity and refusal to obey a leader had contributed to the collapse of the revolt and the defeat at Lade, this insistence was prudent.

It did, however, contribute to perceptions of growing Athenian domination. By Athenian attempts to dominate their home waters in the Saronic Gulf led to conflicts with Corinth and Aegina, both significant allies of Sparta. In the ensuing conflict, known today as the First Peloponnesian War c. In the league, discontented allies revolted, some with Persian encouragement, while in central Greece Athens failed to retain control of the Boeotian cities, where Thebes reasserted its authority and traditional attachment to Sparta.

One consequence of this crisis was the removal of the Delian League treasury from Delos, where it might have been vulnerable to Persian attack, to Athens. This gave the Athenians even tighter control of league business and also meant that the aparche , a one sixtieth share of the income, was now dedicated to Athena so that the acropolis effectively became the Athenian reserve bank.

The league had also in agreed peace terms with Persia; those members that thought this would end the purpose of the league were swiftly disabused. The peace only lasted 14 years: Athens quickly recovered from the setbacks of the s and its restless energy worried the Spartan allies, notably Corinth and Megara, which persuaded Sparta to go to war to liberate the Greeks from Athenian domination. The resulting Second Peloponnesian War — was the most dramatic part of the long conflict between Athens and Sparta. The historian Thucydides made the Peloponnesian War in a literal as well as a figurative sense.

Yet he also made the war in another way. Although we speak of the Peloponnesian War as if it were a fixed event, like the Second World War, in fact it is an artificial construct. As a revisionist, Thucydides aimed to show that the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians, as he called it, was a single war. This protracted conflict brought about changes in Greek warfare that can broadly be labeled professionalization.

In terms of leadership Athens prized daring and innovation in its commanders. In the Gulf of Corinth Phormio achieved spectacular naval successes against larger Peloponnesian fleets. On land the Athenian general Demosthenes learned from a defeat by the Aetolians in the unconventional tactics that allowed him to overcome the Spartan garrison on Sphacteria in , one of the great Athenian successes.

Most Spartan commanders were cautious and traditional, but in the early stages of the war Brasidas demonstrated that initiative and innovation could bring success; in the war's final stages Lysander overcame the Athenians after grasping the strategic importance of money and tactical advantages of time, to the chagrin of many conservatives. Regular action also raised the quality of citizen troops, and the protracted duration of the conflict led to increasing numbers of mercenaries being deployed.

Finances would prove crucial. Naval activity was, by contrast, extremely expensive and the Spartans initially struggled to produce the funds to maintain significant fleets. Athens relied on the resources of the Delian League, both the annual income from tribute payments and the accumulated reserves from previous years, but after only five years of war strains in its financial underpinning began to emerge, with the result that the Athenians imposed a property tax on themselves and raised tribute payments from their allies; the fact that the income from the latter was being used to prosecute a Greek war made the extra demands unpopular.

Money eventually decided the war. Athens squandered substantial resources of money, ships, and manpower in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Sicily — , which gave opportunities for its Aegean allies to revolt and for Sparta to strike. At the same time, Athens had annoyed the Persians by supporting a rebel in Caria, with the result that King Artaxerxes responded favorably to Spartan requests for financial support, especially since Sparta agreed to return the Greeks in Asia Minor to Persian control.

Greco-Persian Wars

As is often the case in war, the Peloponnesian War was a proving ground for new and horrible forms of civilian suffering. There were expulsions Aegina, ; Scione, , imprisonments and enslavements Torone, , massacres Aegina, ; Melos, ; Mycalessus, , and judicial murders Plataea, Both sides pursued forms of economic warfare.

Pylos served as a base for runaway helots, while Cythera was crucial for trade with Egypt and Libya. Meanwhile, spurred by intelligence from the Athenian defector Alcibiades, Sparta established a fortification of its own in Athenian territory at Decelea garrisoned —40 4. This cut Athens off from inexpensive, overland supply routes from Euboea, where some of its agricultural resources had been placed for safety; denied Athens access to its silver mines; and served as a rallying point for Athenian slaves who sought freedom.

Thucydides 7. Thucydides devotes some of his most intense passages to the bloody revolutions in Corcyra in and 3. A civil war followed — , until the democrats, aided both by Thebes and by internal divisions in Sparta, managed to retake power.

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In the aftermath of Spartan victory, Persia was confirmed as the dominant force in Greek affairs for the next half century. Spartan attempts to control the Greek world were undermined by the behavior of some of its own citizens: Spartan harmosts military governors quickly became hated representatives of an insensitive and unresponsive power. Sparta attempted to place a friend on the throne by providing significant support to the coup of Cyrus, younger brother of Artaxerxes. After that failed, Artaxerxes was able to thwart Spartan plans to liberate Asia Minor by deploying his famous archers gold darics, which were minted with an image of a crouching archer.

When Athenian power and confidence appeared to be recovering to a worrying degree, the threat to back Sparta again after the King's Peace rapidly brought the Athenians to heel. At Athens, losses in manpower and wealth were too great and the legacy of internal political division too bitter for Athens to regain its former glory. The case of Mantitheus is revealing. Trained and financially qualified as a cavalryman, he chose to participate in the expedition to Haliartus in 39 5 as a hoplite, not for military but political reasons: cavalrymen were suspect because of their former support for the Thirty, and it was believed that they were more likely to escape from this dangerous confrontation with the Spartans than the slower infantry.

Mantitheus provided spending money for two hoplites from his deme , presumably because the state could not make its regular payments Lys. Athens formed a second naval league in with the implicit aim of defending fellow Greeks against Spartan domination. It never became a reliable basis for a recovery of Athenian power.

At the same time, Sparta was suffering a crisis in military manpower. The original 9, full Spartiates of the seventh century had dropped to only about 1, by During the later fifth century the balance in its infantry regiments between Spartiates and perioikoi shifted progressively in favor of the latter, while helots were enrolled as hoplites on the promise of freedom; Brasidas had used some of these neodamodeis new people for his Thracian campaign in — Rather than making openings for new blood, elite Spartans concentrated wealth in fewer hands as the effect of defensive marriage strategies was reinforced by the inevitable elimination of some families through the deaths of their young men in battle or from disease.

As a result, increasing numbers of Spartans fell below the property qualification for membership of the military messes, creating a class of inferior hypomeiones , men whose potential as soldiers was no longer being developed for the state's benefit. Warfare was becoming more experimental and unpredictable. During the Corinthian War in the s, the Thebans deployed in abnormally deep formation at Nemea, while at Lechaeum in the unthinkable happened when a Spartan infantry contingent was overwhelmed by a force of Thracian peltasts under the command of the Athenian general Iphicrates.

Peltasts, named for the small, light shields or peltai that they carried, had long been used by Thracians on the fringe of the Greek world roughly modern Bulgaria , but now they moved into the center. There was also a plentiful supply of mercenaries, the product of the protracted fighting and consequent civil strife in the late fifth century. These professionals demonstrated not only the ability of Greek hoplites to fight successfully on varied terrain and against various types of enemy, but also the value of armies equipped with various categories of troops such as the traditionally despised archers and slingers.

Long an infantry powerhouse, Thebes did not awaken as a leading power until Sparta intervened in its affairs to impose a puppet government in Thebes rebelled successfully in the winter of — as the result of a democratic coup led by two brilliant idealists, Epaminondas and Pelopidas. Thebes now became Greece's leading military power by uniting the region of Boeotia under its leadership to gain full control of its considerable manpower resources.

Epaminondas has a reputation for tactical innovation: by expanding the use of cavalry as skirmishers, concentrating numbers on one wing of the phalanx, and using elite troops as a vanguard, Epaminondas turned Thebes into Greece's leading land power. In , the Theban army under Epaminondas crushed the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra, killing 1, men including Spartiates and the Spartan king Cleombrotus. In the next few years, Epaminondas led the Thebans into the Peloponnese, where they freed the Messenian helots, restored Messenia to independence after some years of servitude, and even threatened the central villages of Sparta.

This proved a fatal blow to Spartan power, since it destroyed the economic basis for Sparta's military system. The Iliad is an epic poem set in the Trojan War while the Odyssey tells the story of the adventures of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan war.

The Fall of Sparta - Battle of Leuctra - Ancient History - See U in History

First recorded Olympic games. The games were held at Olympia. Known as tyrants they seized power from the aristocracy and took over rule in their stead. The laws of Athens had previously been a set of oral laws. Draco introduced a new set of harsher laws which were written down for all to read.

For many crimes the punishment was death. The First Persian war began when Persia sent an invasion force into Athens in retaliation for its participation in a Greek raid on Persia. But this new democratic regime hardly had a chance to catch its breath before it faced the greatest crisis Greece was to confront in the early Classical Age the fifth century BCE.

The massive and powerful Persian Empire attacked Greece, not once but twice. It is not possible to do the Persians Wars justice here, only to note that, grossly out-numbered and vastly out-armed, the Greeks managed in both wars to push the Persians out of Greece mainly by setting aside traditional internal differences and fighting together for their common independence.


It was, no doubt, the finest hour in ancient Greece and just about the only time the Greeks made common cause in antiquity. Athens emerged from the Persian Wars triumphant. Using their navy and merchant marine, the Athenians took control of the seas around Greece. With renewed prosperity and a keen sense of their own importance in international affairs, they set about repairing the damage incurred during the wars and extending the traditions established prior to the Persian invasion, in particular, drama, painting and architecture.

Part of the reason for this surge in the arts was the confidence born of victory and independence. In antiquity, to win a war was to gain the assurance that one's gods were pleased, which meant that the ceremonies and celebrations performed in their honor must be to their liking. From that vantage point, it only makes sense to continue and even extend them. Thus, the Classical Age was scion and heir of a sense of righteous vigor. Led by Pericles , a man who had to be re-elected to office every year but who was nonetheless firmly in control of Athens for much of his life, the Athenians set about expanding their commercial interests.

Wealth soon poured into the city from an alliance called the Delian League which they had formed after the war for the benefit of all Greece, but their own mostly. This new prosperity fostered many different cultural endeavors. The Parthenon , for instance, rose on the site of an old wooden temple to Athena on the Acropolis , the natural outcropping of rock in the middle of the city.

During the Second Persian War, the Persian king Xerxes had burnt the old temple to the ground, a destruction which, devastating as it was, opened the way for a new, more modern and more elaborate shrine to the patron goddess of Athens. On the intellectual front, the best thinkers in the Greek-speaking world also flocked to Athens and imported a new way of looking at life dubbed philosophy "love of wisdom".

At first these so-called sophists —the term originally meant "craftsmen"—became teachers and popular lecturers and then began to uproot the traditional modes of thought and later morality in Athens. Sophist as a moniker eventually came to be a slur implying "quack" and "charlatan," but there was no denying, at least at the outset, that these "artisans" taught valuable skills which won for their students many a law suit and much political advancement. Underlying most of the sophists' tenets was a sense of relativism, that there is no fundamental good or bad, a dangerously cynical posture that bordered on atheism and threatened to erode the moral structures on which civil order, especially in a democratic society, depends.

One sophist, the most famous, Protagoras , went so far as to say, "Man is the measure of all things. The challenge presented by these sophists was met by perhaps the greatest team of thinkers in human history, Socrates and Plato. This teacher-and-student duo led the charge to set morality back on a firm foundation of strict philosophical argumentation and to counter the relativism of the sophistic movement.

All cynics and sceptics since have had to face up to the dialogues of Socrates in which, as recorded by his student Plato, the master attacks various free-thinkers and debunks their wide-ranging claims that moral absolutes do not exist. It is still not clear which side won, but with this pair, staunch moralists gained a valuable and much-needed ally in the long on-going war between idealism and practicality, conviction and compromise, what ought to be versus what has to be. The glory of Athens grew top-heavy by the later decades of the fifth century BCE.

Made greedy by the wealth they had come to expect over time, the Athenians started expanding their realm by force. In response, Sparta initiated a war with Athens in BCE in an effort to curb the Athenians' imperialistic designs, a quest for world domination as the Spartans saw it.