The Greek Military Revolution I



The Battle of Leuctra, 371 bce.

Three years after Sphacteria, at the battle of Amphipolis in 422 bce, both the Spartan and Athenian generals were killed and the new Athenian leader, Nicias, negotiated the Peace of Nicias a year later. Although both parties agreed to keep the peace for fifty years, it took only six years for the truce to break down. The second phase of the Great Peloponnesian War was initiated by Alcibiades, a nephew of Pericles, elected to the generalship in 420 bce. In 415 he convinced the Athenians to attack Syracuse, a Sicilian city-state friendly to the Peloponnesian League. Alcibiades argued that its conquest would give the Athenians a strong source of support to carry on a lengthy war against the Spartans. But the Sicilian Expedition was ill-fated. Alcibiades himself was removed from the leadership of the expedition on a charge of profaning the religious mysteries. Rather than return to Athens and stand trial, he fled to Sparta, where he gave advice on how to defeat the Athenian expeditionary force. To make matters worse, Alcibiades secured assistance from Persia, who gave both ships and men to the Spartan war effort.

In the mean time, the Athenians pursued their Sicilian policy. In the autumn of 415, the Athenian fleet occupied the harbour of Syracuse, landing 5,100 hoplites, 480 archers, 700 Rhodian slingers, 120 light infantry and 30 cavalry. With sailors and allies, the entire expeditionary force surpassed 27,000 men. According to ancient custom, the attacking army began constructing a double encircling wall, the inner wall (contravallation) designed to hold in the besieged, the outer wall (circumvallation) to fend off any relief force, while the attackers held the ground between the two walls. More Athenian troops landed in the spring of 414 and it seemed Syracuse was doomed. But the commanding general pushed the construction of the walls so sluggishly that the Spartans were able to reinforce the garrison at Syracuse and build counter walls, squeezing the Athenians into the lower ground near the harbour. Additional reinforcements reached Syracuse from Corinth, Thebes and other Spartan allies.

Athens countered in the spring of 413 with the infusion of some 5,000 hoplites and skirmishers. But after a daring night attack failed to seize the high ground, the besiegers’ momentum began to slow. Meanwhile, a substantial Athenian fleet of nearly 200 warships was gradually destroyed by the Syracusans and Spartans in a series of naval actions offshore. Unable to escape by sea, the Athenians attempted to escape by land into the interior of the island. Attacked while on the march, the last survivors of Athens’ 40,000 troops were killed or captured. Six thousand Athenian prisoners were sold into slavery. These heavy losses at Syracuse had immediate repercussions. The democracy was weakened and an aristocratic oligarchy was temporarily established between 411 and 410.

Despite the disaster, the Athenians refused to give up, raising new armies and sending out new fleets. But during this last phase of the conflict, the Iono-Decelean War (413–404), Sparta, now assisted by Persian coin, was able to compete with Athens for command of the sea. The final crushing blow to Athenian hegemony came in 405 when a Persian-backed Spartan fleet destroyed an Athenian fleet at Aegospotami on the Hellespont. Cut off from its Ukrainian wheat, Athens was besieged again by the Spartans and surrendered in 404. Athens’ walls were torn down, the navy disbanded, and its empire destroyed.

The Great Peloponnesian War was finally over. The next seventy years of Greek history witnessed continuing warfare among the poleis, with the leading roles shifting between Sparta and Thebes. During this time, the Greek heavy infantry phalanx still ruled the battlefields of Hellas and the imaginations of Greek commanders. But the tactical lessons of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, specifically the inclusion of light infantry in the tactical mix, were beginning to have an impact on how the Greeks waged war.

The hoplite heavy infantry formation was, in many ways, a tactical anomaly. Exclusive reliance upon heavy infantry, particularly in a country as mountainous as Greece, seems odd, especially considering the expense in both time and equipment. Heavy infantry by itself can make sense only in an environment where other armies were also utilizing heavy infantry. This proved to be the case in archaic Greece from c.750 to c.500 bce. But the Greeks continued to emphasize the superiority of heavy infantry throughout the Hellenic period down into the fourth century bce, even though their actual military experience of opposing hoplite forces supported by light infantry and cavalry proved how effective a limited combined-arms force was against an army employing a single weapon system.

So how does one explain the Greeks’ preoccupation with the hoplite formation? The answer lies within the cultural character of classical Greek society. The phalanx was not simply a tactical formation – it represented a way of life, a code of moral conduct that was much more deeply ingrained in Greece than in most military societies. All free Greek men thought of themselves as warriors; it was a requisite as a citizen in Greek society. Moreover, the ritualized character of hoplite battle made change very difficult, even after the Greeks came into contact with the combined-arms tactical system of the ancient Near East. Resistance to these foreign institutions was, according to one authority on the period, ‘moral and cultural and not based upon rational analysis or military science’.

Greek victory in the Persian Wars contributed greatly to the perceived dominance of the heavy infantry phalanx. Although some Greeks realized that Persian errors also contributed to victory, the more common belief was that it ‘represented the triumph of the spear over the bow or heavy infantry over light’. The Athenian experience at Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War augmented the Greek view of light infantry, but it was only one step toward a fully integrated army. The Greek city-states refused to adopt a complete combined-arms tactical system. This refusal cost them their freedom when King Philip of Macedon marched south and defeated polis after polis using a well-balanced tactical system.

As already noted, the Greeks learned a great deal from the Persians in the military art of logistics. The Greeks would begin learning these lessons in the decade directly following the close of the Peloponnesian War. Persia’s support of Sparta during the war led to a greater respect for Greek heavy infantry by the Persians. After the Peloponnesian War, Greek mercenaries became a sought-after commodity in the armies of Near Eastern kings and nobles. In 401 Greek hoplites were employed by a pretender to the Persian throne, Cyrus the Younger, who challenged his older brother, the Great King Artaxerxes II

(r. 404–359 bce). In preparation for an armed coup d’état, Cyrus assembled a force of 40,000 to 80,000 men, including 13,000 Greek mercenary hoplites, in Anatolia. The Great King’s force consisted of perhaps 60,000 to 100,000 men, including 6,000 cavalry, and 200 scythed chariots, designed to attack enemy infantry with their bladed wheels. Cyrus marched his force from Asia Minor into Mesopotamia seeking battle with his older brother. The two armies came together on the field of Cunaxa, about 100 miles north of Babylon.

The resulting battle of Cunaxa in 401 ended in a victory for Cyrus’ forces and proved again the dominance of Greek heavy infantry hoplites over the lightly armed troops of the Persian Empire. But the pretender himself was killed in the battle and the army he led disintegrated in the aftermath, leaving over 10,000 Greek mercenaries roughly 1,500 miles from the Ionian coast. Choosing to make their way up the Tigris River toward the Black Sea, the Greek mercenaries were first pursued by regular Persian troops, then by guerrilla mountaineers, and finally by the forces of the northern Persian satrap.


One thought on “The Greek Military Revolution I

  1. Pingback: Development of the Hoplite Structure | Weapons and Warfare

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