The ancient Greeks at war: hoplites, the phalanx and the greatest battles

Greek city-states are famed for their cultural expression, but the grim reality was that none could thrive without mastering the art of war

A trieme is rowed towards a naval battle in a scene depicting the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC

Classical Greece (c480–323 BC) is chiefly remembered for its poetry, statues and extraordinary works of architecture such as the Parthenon. Yet for all the energy the ancient Greeks expended on forging art for the ages, they also dedicated a great deal to mastering the art of war.

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One of the main reasons for this was competition. In the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Greece wasn’t a single country like it is today. It was made up of lots of smaller city-states (from Athens to Sparta, Corinth to Thebes), all competing for finite land or resources. Such rivalries were often resolved at the point of a sword. Then there was Persia. This regional superpower attempted to conquer Greece more than once.

The resulting conflicts produced some of the most celebrated clashes in history – the Athenians’ victory over the Persians at Marathon (which, prior to the battle, reputedly saw Pheidippides run 150 miles from Athens to request help from the Spartans), and Lysander’s brilliant naval triumph over Athens to end the Peloponnesian War, to name just two.

Just as Classical Greece saw enormous leaps forward in politics and culture, so it also witnessed advances in military technologies. These included the trireme, the galley that helped Athens rule the waves in the fifth century BC, and the fearsome Macedonian phalanx.

By the end of the Classical period, Alexander the Great was using these advances to turn the tables on the Persians and forge an enormous empire. Greek warfare would now be exported across the known world – with history-shaping consequences.

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The Spartan war machine

All Greek city-states took their military seriously. But only one lived and breathed martial prowess, and that was Sparta. Sparta was a true warrior-society, as men discovered at the earliest of ages. At the tender age of seven, boys were plucked from their families and entered into a 23-year military training regime designed to turn them into consummate warriors.

From the outset, the trainee fighters were taught that loyalty to their city should always take precedence over self-preservation. This mantra was reflected in the austere nature of their training: they were subjected to continuous (often violent) competitions, given meagre food rations, and encouraged to steal food in order to prepare themselves for life in a warzone. Worse still, they were often encouraged to mistreat the helots, Sparta’s slave class.

Women, too, bought into the warrior ethos. They were expected to keep physically fit, while mothers reportedly told their sons before they left for battle, “Come back with your shield, or on it.”

This unstinting dedication to war made the Spartans feared opponents, famed for their bravery. Such courage earned them a place in history: 300 Spartans were famously among those who fought against a massive Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae.

In 404 BC, the Spartans used their martial prowess to unseat Athens as the dominant power in the Greek world at the climax of the Peloponnesian War. Just over 30 years later, the Thebans invaded the region of Laconia and freed many of the helots. For all their military acumen, the Spartans’ spell at the top table of Greek powers was to be short-lived.

Hoplites and the phalanx: the footsoldiers of ancient Greek armies

When the Greek city-states went to war, it was the hoplites who formed the backbone of their armies. The hoplites were not professional soldiers but primarily free citizens (often farmers and artisans) able to afford linen and bronze armour. From the eighth or seventh century BC, hoplites started fighting in the phalanx, a formation that helped them achieve a string of notable victories over the Persians, such as the triumph at Marathon in 490 BC.

Hoplites went into battle carrying a long spear called a dory. This was eight feet of iron-tipped brutality, with a deadly blade at the top end and a spike at the bottom end, which acted as a counter-weight and a secondary killer. The spears used in Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx were even longer: 13–21 feet.

In his left hand the hoplite carried the aspis, a heavy wooden shield measuring around one metre in diameter. The shield rested on the fighter’s shoulders – and, courtesy of a leather fastening for the forearm, was particularly manoeuvrable.

If his spear snapped or the chase was on for a routed enemy, the hoplite often turned to his short sword: the xiphos. The xiphos featured a blade of around two feet and was usually carried on a strap under the fighter’s left arm.

Their bodies were protected by a cuirass, a breastplate and backplate fastened together. This was sometimes fashioned from bronze but was more often made up of layers of canvas or linen glued together to form a stiff shield. Their helmets werer often decorated with a horsehair crest – these could be black and white, or multicoloured. Helmets were sometimes decorated with bronze animal horns and ears, and could even be painted as well.

If one hoplite was a fearsome prospect, then how about 256? That was the number that joined forces to form the Macedonian phalanx, a square infantry formation that was a cornerstone of Alexander the Great’s extraordinary conquests in the fourth century BC.

Triemes: the galleys that helped Athens rule the waves in the fifth century BC

No ancient Greek city-state could hold its own without some degree of mastery of the seas – and at the heart of the quest for maritime power was a war galley called the trireme. The trireme was the dreadnought of its day, a state-of-the-art killing machine that could race into battle at top speed and pack a destructive punch when it got there.

It’s thought to have been crewed by around 170 oarsmen in three tiers (known as thranites, zygites and thalamians) along each side of the vessel, propelling it across the waves at speeds of up to 8mph. But it really came into its own in the heat of battle, courtesy of a bronze-sheathed battering ram affixed to the prow, which was used to sink enemy ships. And if that didn’t do the trick, the oarsmen were complemented by a posse of hoplites and archers primed to board enemy ships.

Excavations suggest that the Athenian trireme was the epitome of the type, playing a crucial role in the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Salamis. Can it be any coincidence that the vessel’s heyday – the fifth century BC – coincides with the height of Athens’ power?

There were two trireme masts and sails – a mainmast and a mainsail amidships (in the middle) and a boatmast and boatsail forward. If a trireme went into battle, the sails were left on land and the masts were taken down and laid in the boat.

Three of the most significant clashes in Greek history

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War (460–404 BC) saw Sparta and Athens squaring up for a clash that changed the course of history. The war can be divided into three stages: the first a 10-year series of inconclusive clashes; the second, a six-year truce. Yet there was nothing inconclusive about the third phase. In 405 BC the Spartan general Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, leading to Athens’ surrender. Sparta was now the undisputed top dog in the region.

The battle of Marathon

When Athenian forces attacked a huge Persian invading army at Marathon in 490 BC, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Victory would provide a huge shot in the arm for the nascent Athenian democracy; defeat would see it swallowed up by the Persian empire. Fortunately, the Athenians’ commander Miltiades executed a brilliant battle plan, drawing the best Persian troops into his army’s centre before surrounding and routing them. The scene was now set for ancient Greece’s golden age.

The Macedonian Wars

These four conflicts, fought between the Greek kingdom of Macedonia and Rome in the third and second centuries BC, saw a dramatic reversal in fortunes. Macedonia under King Philip V bested Rome in the first war, but suffered defeats in the second and third. The fourth saw Macedonia turned into a Roman province in the second century BC; Rome would remain the dominant force in the Mediterranean for generations.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide to ancient Greece