The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age I

For twenty years Alexander’s generals and governors fought over his sprawling empire. Even after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 when the major successor states emerged, these kingdoms continued to fight each other in the internal wars of succession. They fought rebellious Greeks and natives, they attacked lesser powers who struggled to exist between them, and they repelled invaders from the outside world. A Hellenistic Greek might define ‘peace’ as merely the short break between wars. War became an endemic part of life in the Hellenistic world as the populations of Greece, Asia Minor and Syria had to endure the campaigns of competing rulers. Kings, such as the Seleucids, owed their royal status to victory in war. They had to be active military leaders just to maintain their thrones.

The great irony of the Hellenistic Age, at least for this study, is that although warfare is endemic, and the use of ambush was at its peak, our sources suddenly dry up. We have no Herodotus, no Thucydides and no Xenophon to supply our evidence. If the history of Hieronymus of Cardia had survived, we would have had an eyewitness account of the wars of Alexander’s successors. At least we have Diodorus and Plutarch who used his works, and with Polybius, Polyaenus and Frontinus added we can catch an occasional glimpse of what was going on militarily. What we can say, generally speaking, is that the tendency towards specialisation and professionalisation that had begun in the fourth century was enhanced during the Hellenistic period by the new needs of kings, and the requirements of cities and leagues.

The actual forms of conflict in the Hellenistic Age were varied, and corresponded to the different goals of warfare. Disputes might lead to raiding, seizing cattle and other moveable goods, or the burning of farms and the kidnapping of farmers, women or agricultural slaves. Polis warfare, too, could take on a whole spectrum of variations including different modes of local warfare. In this atmosphere, cities and their citizens needed versatility in their choice of military options. Hellenistic war was not just made up of large battles such as Raphia, where 140,000 men fought, but also ambushes and surprise attacks. Indeed, the majority of the Hellenistic male population experienced warfare not in great tactical battles, but in the form of temporary raids, incursions into the territory of the enemy, surprise attacks against cities and occasional street fights. The professionalisation of military units did not diminish the importance of citizen militias; it simply added a whole new array of soldiers with varied skills that could be drawn up.


Because warfare in the Hellenistic Age became more specialised, it required more training of troops. The contrast between the training of a citizen and that of a mercenary is brought out by the speech of Polydamos at Sparta in 374. He was quoting Jason of Pherae when he said: ‘… there are only a few men in each city who train their bodies rigorously. But in my forces there is not a single man who cannot match me in the capacity for hard work.’ In some Hellenistic cities they dispensed with the mercenary peltast of the late Classical Age and replaced him with trained citizenry, who could play a similar role, but without any of the social and political problems the use of hired peltasts posed.

Angelos Chaniotis, in his study of Hellenistic warfare, gives an overview that suggests that military training had a more or less uniform structure in most areas, ‘the result of mutual interest rather than common origins’. Chaniotis points out that a clear indicator of the specialisation of troops is the use of more technical terminology. A wide range of specific military terms can be seen in Hellenistic literature; some of these go back to the fourth century but they culminate in the Hellenistic period. The specific designations for troops beyond the generic designations for the cavalry, the phalanx of hoplites, light-armed and the fleet reflect the existence of specific weapons, special training and specialised skills. This specialisation was not limited to professional armies, but extended also to citizen armies. Their special skills were sometimes a matter of local tradition. The Cretans, for example, were famous as archers, the Achaians were slingers and the Thessalians were cavalrymen. Improvements could be made on these traditional weapons: for example, a particular type of sling, the kestros, was invented during the Third Macedonian war.

For many boys, military training started earlier than their registration as ephebes; it began in the gymnasium, where exercise and physical conditioning were thought be good training for warfare. The gymnasium was one of the best-documented institutions of the Hellenistic city. Their training gives us a hint about what weapons would be used. In a small place such as Samos, the programme in the gymnasium included prizes for use of the catapult, use of the lithobolos (an engine used for hurling stones), use of the javelin, archery and fighting with shield and lance (hoplite battle or hoplomachia) as well as with small shields of the Galatian type (thyreomachia). The same selection of disciplines is found in Sestos in Thrace.

After their military training, young men were assigned to both military and paramilitary duties. We have evidence from Crete that they performed policing duties, especially in the countryside and they controlled the frontier of the city. In other cities, we see young men manning the forts on the frontiers. Similar troops are known from Athens and Asia Minor. In Athens, the kryptoi (‘the secret ones’) protected the fertile countryside. There is evidence from Caria of groups of young men serving as mounted ‘patrol of the mountains’ (orophylakesantes), and as mounted guards assigned to patrol the borders of Boeotia. These young troops operated on the periphery of the city and have been defined by some as ‘liminal groups’, not unlike foreign mercenaries and, therefore, operating outside of the rules of hoplite battle.

We are particularly well informed regarding the Cretan soldiers who, from the fourth century on, are to be found in almost all armies of the Mediterranean, often on opposite sides. Even Rome enrolled Cretans. Examples of ethnic stereotyping occurred because of this specialised training. Polybius brands the Cretans with the label ‘brigands and pirates’ because of their raiding abilities. This kind of moralising demonstrates Polybius’ prejudice, but says nothing meaningful about how effective or useful such troops were, nor how proud they were of their local traditions. We, know for example, how proud the Arcadians were of their mercenary tradition. Lycomedes, the Arcadian statesmen, said that the Arcadians were chosen for service overseas because they were the best fighters with the sturdiest bodies among the Greek peoples. With the emergence of the widespread use of mercenaries, a number of peoples achieved their moment of renown thanks to their specialisation in the use of particular arms: the bow for the Scythians and Cretans; the sling for the Rhodians; and the javelin for the Aetolians, Acarnanians and Thracians.


As we saw in the last chapter, from the beginning of the fourth century armies already contained significantly higher numbers of light infantry and cavalry than classical ones had fielded. Peltasts and light-armed troops remained important throughout the Hellenistic period, but of all the military developments of the Hellenistic Age the one that has drawn the most attention is the use of mercenary troops. Although mercenaries are documented from the earliest period of Greek warfare, the Hellenistic period saw a huge increase in the number of regions that supplied mercenary soldiers. Greek males had always been able to travel and seek their fortunes a long way from home. Mercenaries were initially drawn from remote, poor or mountainous regions – Crete, Achaea, Thrace, etc. – which is why they were often looked down upon. They were expected to depend for their keep on the success of the campaigns for which they had been enlisted. They took part in various battles in the Peloponnesian war and continued to fight in the service of outside powers such as Egypt or Persia.

With the campaigns of Alexander, thousands more Greeks had the opportunity to serve as mercenaries, and this demand only grew under Alexander’s successors. In fact, mercenaries came not merely to supplement but, in many areas, to displace the citizen hoplites. Hellenistic kings mobilised large numbers of these troops in their wars for the division of Alexander’s empire. The supply of Greek soldiers needing employment thus coincided with this new intra-Hellenic demand. These same men could later be settled as veterans in new cities and military colonies. The job of xenologos, or recruiter of mercenaries, became a lucrative position. The kingdoms that emerged from this process needed trained military manpower in order to man garrisons, avert barbarian invasions, control native populations and fight against other kingdoms.

The mercenary did not become popular among Greek citizens. The profession was usually portrayed as a miserable one, especially by writers of Greek comedy who wrote for a settled, urban population. The average citizen not only scorned the man who had to earn his keep by fighting, but also feared him since the mercenary was a potential threat to his own existence. Gangs of mercenaries threatened the Greek poleis in the fourth century. Aeneas Tacticus reflects the political instability of the times when he warns city authorities of the danger of arms being smuggled inside the city, which could then be used by mercenaries and hostile groups of citizens to overthrow the existing order.

This changeover to mercenary troops was deplored by people such as the Athenian orator Isocrates, who mourned the replacement of a citizen militia by mercenaries in much the same terms as Machiavelli would later write about Florence. Aristotle drew an explicit moral contrast between the citizen hoplite’s preference for death in battle over the disgrace of flight and the professional mercenary’s preference, despite superior fighting skills, for saving his skin. On the other hand, in the defence speeches of the fourth century from Athenian courtrooms, speakers who had served as mercenaries under Iphicrates in Thrace emphasised how honourable their period of service had been.

Moralising aside, as long as Hellenistic states continued to engage in the pursuit of power by force at each other’s expense, they would increasingly turn to mercenary soldiers who would not only pay for themselves but also enrich, even temporarily, their employers. True, such soldiers would not find themselves commemorated for patriotic self-sacrifice if they died in battle the way that citizen-soldiers had been by the Classical Greek poleis. Neither would the panoplies of armour taken from the enemy dead be displayed in the temples of the victors or at a pan-Hellenic sanctuary site in the same way or in the same spirit as before. Their reputation was not helped by soldiers sacrilegiously looting religious shrines such as Delphi, or by plays that held the miles gloriosus up as a stock comic figure.

In one way, Aristotle’s charge was unfair. These new mercenaries were no more or less ready to risk their lives in battle than citizens called away from their peacetime occupations. These men were professional, not only in being full-time soldiers, but also in being more innovative in military technique than citizen hoplites. Demosthenes’ complaint against Philip of Macedon that he campaigned all year-round using mercenaries and cavalry, archers, light-armed infantry and siege engines simply reflects his nostalgia for a past model that was simply gone. The short campaign culminating in the pitched battle becomes increasingly replaced by ambushes, stratagems and sieges of the kind that had existed in the earlier period, but now they came to the fore.

The important feature of these new mercenaries was that they were adept at the new mode of fighting. Griffith believes it was this fighting for which the mercenary was best adapted, especially as the reformed peltast of Iphicrates had become probably the model for mercenaries in general. Mercenaries were not merely auxiliaries now, but the exemplary practitioners of a new mode of fighting. It was not that heavy-armed infantry had become useless, or that Greek morals had declined, but rather that there were more options for the kinds of techniques that could be used in warfare, and a rise in the number of situations where ambush would be appropriate.

Warfare was still regarded as a normal feature of interstate relations, and risking death in battle was still seen by the young Greek male as the supreme manifestation of virtue. A young man could still be brought up to admire the exploits of warriors from the past, but the norms, values and beliefs that had motivated a citizen-soldier were increasingly unlikely to be replicated in an environment where military prowess might require different skills. Greek culture had always accepted lethal violence against fellow Greeks as normal behaviour. As long as assassinations, civil strife, proscriptions and executions were commonplace, and the recurrent themes of murder, revenge, blood-guilt, retribution and even human sacrifice appear as dramatic themes, why would an ambush be so shocking?

Yet, the moralising continued. Polybius rails against the Cretans. He accuses them of specialising in ambushes and treachery:

The Cretans both by land and sea were irresistible in ambuscades, forays, tricks played on the enemy, night attacks, and all petty operations which require fraud, but they are cowardly and down-hearted in the massed face-to face charge of an open battle. It is just the reverse with the Achaeans and Macedonians. I say this in order that my readers may not refuse to trust my judgement, because in some cases I make contrary pronouncements regarding the conduct of the same men even when engaged in pursuits of a like nature.

All these activities were the regular ones of light-armed soldiers. Ambush was exactly what these soldiers were solicited for and everyone was buying their services. The Cretan cities were the objects of frantic solicitations on the part of the Hellenistic sovereigns and many other cities, in particular Rhodes. Rhodes sent ambassadors to the island of Crete to conclude treaties of alliance with individual cities or groups of them. The treaties were aimed principally at ensuring stable supplies of troops for the powers of the Hellenistic world.