More than one thousand years before the beginning of the Christian era, a Greek expeditionary force laid seige to the city of Troy in Asia Minor. Homer’s epic account of this gives a graphic, if fragmentary, picture of warfare in the early classical world.
Homer’s Iliad is not history, but it is historical fiction, and it is the most obvious point at which to begin an account of ancient Greek warfare. The Homeric poems were composed in the eighth or nineth century BC, but the events which they described echo a much earlier past. The theme of the Iliad is announced in its opening lines. It concerns a quarrel between two Greek leaders in their war against the city of Troy and it traces the grave and far-reaching military consequences of this quarrel. Achilles, the young Greek commander with whose attitudes and behaviour the Iliad is chiefly concerned, could be courteous and even generous but, when roused, he abandoned himself to violent and implacable fury. The first victims of his wrath were the Greeks themselves. After quarrelling with the commander-in-chief of the Greek allied forces, he withdrew his support from the common war effort. Later, when his dearest friend, Patroclus, had been killed as the result of his behaviour, Achilles’ anger was turned against Hector, the enemy leader at whose hands Patroclus had met his death. Achilles avenged Patroclus and, in his usual implacable manner, barbarously outraged the corpse of his conquered foeman. But the Iliad ends on a conciliatory note: Achilles overcame his anger and restored Hector’s body to the Trojans for decent cremation.
In military terms, the story of Achilles’ anger means that phase of the Trojan War in which the Greek army, deprived of its full complement, was fighting, sometimes desperately, on the defensive. The Greek counter-offensive against the Trojans began only when Achilles’ bitterness was diverted from his own commander and focused again upon the enemy. The Iliad is, therefore, concerned with only one phase of the whole Trojan War.
The other great epic said to be “by Homer” is the Odyssey. It tells of the return of one of the Greek leaders, Odysseus, to his island home of Ithaca, off the north-west coast of Greece. One might describe it as a “sequel” to the Iliad, and it contains many references to the events of the Trojan War. It has been observed that the Iliad describes the Homeric world at war, while the Odyssey is an account of that same world at peace; though peace in this context means – as perhaps it has come to mean in our own times – a period of disorganized as distinct from organized violence.
Other poems, now lost, seem to have aimed at completing the history of the early Greek world. These “Cyclic” epics, as they were termed, are summarized in prose synopses on some manuscripts of Homer’s poems. The causes and early events of the Trojan War were recorded in a verse narrative generally known as the Cypria – perhaps because the poet who composed it was a native of Cyprus.
The story of other incidents in the Trojan War was told in the Little Iliad and The Sack of Troy. The first relates the death of Paris, the Trojan prince whose abduction of Helen from Greece had been the occasion of the war. The second poem contains the well-known story of the Wooden Horse and of the capture of Troy by the Greeks after a ten-year siege. The Trojan Aeneas and his followers, in this account, escape furtively from the city, aghast at warning omens, before the fatal night of its capture and sack. But there are representations in early Greek art of Aeneas carrying his aged father to safety, as later described by Virgil.
Another of the Cyclic epics was called, alternatively, the Aethiopis or the Amazonia. It told how the Trojans were aided by Penthesilea, the queen of those legendary women warriors the Amazons. But Penthesilea was killed by Achilles in battle. The same fate awaited Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, who also led a relief force to Troy. The Aethiopis went on to describe the subsequent death of Achilles himself, who fell when storming one of the city gates, the victim of inspired archery.
Throughout antiquity, poets, dramatists, painters and sculptors treated and developed the themes of the Cyclic epics; but this treatment necessarily interpolated the standards and usages of later times into the ancient background. The main literary evidence for our subject must remain the Iliad of Homer. Archaeological evidence is of course another question. We shall discuss it later.
The commander-in-chief with whom Achilles quarrelled was Agamemnon. A consideration of the role which he plays in the Iliad suggests that his apparent military and political supremacy was as much a question of honour as of jurisdiction. He was entitled to a special prize out of any booty taken. At the beginning of the Iliad, he had sacrilegiously helped himself to a priest’s daughter, but when the god Apollo marked his displeasure with a visitation of plague (as in unhygienic siege conditions he must frequently have done) Agamemnon was obliged to return his favourite concubine to her father without ransom. We should notice at this point that the general assembly of the Greeks, which met to discuss the plague situation, had been convened by Achilles, not by Agamemnon; Agamemnon, resenting this, compensated himself by impounding one of Achilles’ concubines.
There is a kind of democracy here. It is not a democracy based either on the rights of man or of the citizen. The concept of human rights was unknown in the ancient world, founded as its civilization was on the institution of slavery. As for citizens’ rights, they certainly had no place in the Homeric world. But one can see that there was a nicely balanced separation of powers among the Greek leaders. Agamemnon could not afford to flout the opinion of his army, especially when it was backed by Achilles’ armed resources. On the other hand, Achilles felt unable to withhold his own captive concubine when Agamemnon sent heralds to collect her. Agamemnon was, after all, nominally in command, and he had the right to a prize.
It was, moreover, Achilles’ turn, for all his ungovernable temper, to respect public opinion. Agamemnon originally claimed in the assembly to be compensated by what, in the absence of any public fund, would have amounted to a capital levy on the whole army. Achilles countered with the more popular suggestion that the army should compensate Agamemnon later, when more booty was available. The politics of the amendment were irresistible, but Agamemnon retaliated angrily with an amendment of his own. He would be compensated not by a levy on the rank and file, but by one of the leaders, preferably Achilles himself.
Like others among Homer’s heroes, Agamemnon is the subject of divergent traditions. According to one account, his position as supreme commander was a purely ad hoc appointment, the result of general consensus, since he and his brother, the wronged Menelaus, had carried out a recruiting drive throughout Greece to raise forces to restore Helen and avenge her abduction. In this case, the widespread sympathy which they enlisted for their cause must have been linked with the hope of gain and honour on the part of the other Greek rulers. There is, however, another story, according to which Helen’s father had exacted a vow from her assembled suitors that they would support her chosen husband against any challenge to his married rights. The existence of this oath suggests some kind of feudal allegiance, owed by the other Greek lords to Agamemnon’s family; this probability is strengthened by the further story that Odysseus feigned madness in order to evade service in the Trojan expedition: something he need not have attempted if he were free from obligation.
In contrast with the Greek leadership, the authority of the Trojan royal family was unequivocal. Its members were generally united and worked as a team. King Priam and his sons commanded the allegiance not only of adjacent communities in the Troad, but of a far-flung empire which straddled the Hellespont (Dardanelles), extending both into south-east Europe and Asia Minor. There was no question of purely war-substantive command such as Agamemnon’s position sometimes seems to have entailed.
Hector, Priam’s eldest son by Hecuba, the current queen consort, was both commander-in-chief and Troy’s most formidable fighting man. Again, this contrasts happily with the Greek situation, in which Agamemnon and Achilles were rivals for military prestige. The Trojan government, comparable perhaps with some dynastic governments in the Middle East today, had supported and ratified Paris’ abduction of Helen. Troy’s wealth, derived from its command of Black Sea trade routes, made it a target for predators. Yet we should not dismiss the story of Paris and Helen as lacking all historical basis. By Homeric usage – for which parallels can easily be found – he who married a queen was entitled not only to her dowry in the form of gold, silver and movables, but to territory and jurisdiction as well. Paris, having eloped with Helen, married her. She did not live with him in Troy as his mistress. Even today it is possible, as a result of differing national marriage laws, for a woman to have different husbands in different countries. When Paris was killed in action, his brother Deiphobus married Helen. The Trojan royal family seems to have been determined not to relinquish its claim to a kingdom in mainland Greece.
There is, perhaps, in his harmonious family government, one discordant note, which could have resulted in a palace revolution had Troy survived the war. Aeneas, who, at the end of Book Two of the Iliad, seems to have ranked second in command to Hector, was descended from a cadet branch of the Trojan royal house. In Book Thirteen it is made clear that he was dissatisfied with the meagre honours which he had received at Priam’s hands. Later, Achilles taunted him with having an eye to the royal succession, and indeed we hear of a divine prophecy according to which Aeneas was destined one day to rule over the Trojans. The Sack of Troy, as has already been noted, records his premature and surreptitious flight from the doomed city, and among late authors there are even some who accuse him of having sold Troy to the Greeks. However, the portrait in the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid of an honest man, attentive both to his domestic and religious duties, is the tradition which has reached us, and perhaps this is the picture which would in any case have persisted, if it had not been admirably in accord with Virgil’s political commitments.
In reading the Iliad, it is easy to form the impression that the Trojans themselves were of Greek extraction. For the most part, they had Greek names. They conversed easily enough with their Greek foemen, now negotiating a truce, now exchanging boasts and threats. The assumption of a common language may, of course, be regarded as a poetic convenience, but such convenience is denied by Homer to the Trojans when he describes their relations with their allies. At the end of Book Two, Iris, the messenger of the gods, impersonating a Trojan sentinel, advised Hector to obviate the language difficulty by delegating authority to the leaders of the national contingents.
In this connection, it should be recalled that Homer has no word applicable to all the Greek-speaking peoples. He usually refers to those who served under Agamemnon as Achaeans – sometimes as Argives or Danaans. But although these local designations are extended to mean much more than the inhabitants of Achaea of the city of Argos – once ruled by King Danaus – they do not necessarily include all persons of Greek language and culture. Apart from other peoples of Asia who supported Priam, there were allies from Lycia, led by the prince Sarpedon, who, despite some chronological confusion, was said to have come originally from Crete. Glaucus, his lieutenant, was also a Lycian. Homer describes how, during a lull in the fighting, Glaucus had a few friendly words with the Greek hero, Diomedes. The Lycian explained how his family came originally from Argos and Diomedes immediately discovered that they were bound by ties of hereditary friendship; their grandfathers had in the past, as host and guest respectively, exchanged gifts in Argos. Accordingly, the two men, now fighting on different sides, vowed to avoid each other in battle and themselves exchanged armour in token of friendship. Sadly, it is implied that Diomedes had an ulterior motive; Glaucus’ armour was of gold, worth more than ten times as much as Diomedes’ bronze panoply.
Arms and Armour
Homer refers elsewhere to gold armour, but seems to despise it. The usual material for weapons was bronze. Iron is well known in Homer, but is used for making implements, not weapons – though iron arrowheads existed. Methods of producing iron were presumably still primitive and it appears to be valued as a substitute for bronze rather than as an improvement upon that particular material.
The characteristic offensive weapon in the Iliad was the spear. It was made of ash wood and was for throwing rather than thrusting – though Achilles killed Hector with a thrust of his spear. Hector’s own spear is recorded as being 11 cubits long (about 18ft, 5.5m). Swords are referred to as being large and sometimes two-edged. When not in use, they were slung in a sheath from a baldric. They seem to have been used for cutting rather than for thrusting.
Shields were body-length. They were suspended from a strap round the neck and knocked against a warrior’s ankles as he walked. They were made of bull’s hide and were plated with bronze. The shield of Ajax had seven layers of bull’s hide; of these, the spear of Hector penetrated six, but was arrested by the seventh. Ajax’ shield is also described as being like a tower; he was a man of enormous stature, who both needed and could manage such a shield. But the use of small, round shields may be inferred, notably from the wearing of greaves. Achilles’ greaves, which were loaned to Patroclus, were fastened with a silver clasp. Greaves were possibly more like gaiters, not necessarily of metal, though there is a reference to the Achaeans as wearing bronze greaves.
A Homeric hero’s helmet was characteristically of bronze, though leather caps were also in use and must have been more common with the rank and file. The bronze helmet was surmounted by a horse-hair plume, which nodded in the air with awe-inspiring effect. The helmet itself was effectively resistant and a sword sometimes shattered on encountering it.
Protective metal armour seems to have been mainly the privilege of the leaders, and for this reason it required a leader to defy a leader in battle. Otherwise, the situation was that of infantry thrown against tanks. Armour was very precious, and when a hero had fallen there was usually a fierce fight for possession of his arms and armour. However, subject to these limitations, the rank and file were not frequently mentioned as being adept with the spear. Achilles’ Myrmidons, who were something of a local corps d’élite, wore some kind of breastplate or corselet, probably not of metal. Diomedes’ followers are mentioned as being equipped with shields, which they used at night as pillows, while their spears stood upright, thrust into the ground on their spiked butts. Diomedes himself had a carpet for a pillow rather than such a shield. On the Trojan side, shields were also standard equipment in the archer Pandaraus’ contingent; these shields were used to screen him while he let fly a treacherous arrow during the time of solemnly sworn truce. Homeric arms and armour, it must be remarked, are the subject of much controversy. In the present context, we must limit ourselves to generalizations; but even so it is difficult to avoid statements which are open to challenge.