Hellenistic Military Developments I

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Hellenistic Military Developments I

To speak of military developments in the Hellenistic period is to assume that significant changes in warfare or technology justify a separate category called “Hellenistic.” To a great degree, this speaks of military developments in the Hellenistic period is to assumption is false. In fact, the most significant developments in Greek warfare took place in the course of the fourth century. To the world of Dionysios of Syracuse, Iphikrates of Athens, and Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedonia belong the credit for revolutionizing warfare in the areas of mercenaries, infantry, the use of cavalry, and siege weapons. If we argue, with respect to warfare, that the Hellenistic world begins not at the death of Alexander the Great in 323, but with the accession of his father Philip in 359, then we would be truer to the annunciation of a new age. For the most part, the Greeks continued traditions existing in the Classical period but simply magnified them into what one scholar aptly described as “gigantism”: large professional (mercenary) armies, greater specialization of arms and armor, terrifying machines of war, and huge ships. War was still settled the “old-fashioned way” – by men fighting men on the battlefield, but it was no longer the exclusive province of the citizen army of the Classical polis. Warfare in the Hellenistic period belonged primarily to the professionals and to the technical experts. And it was certainly the business of kings.


In the Classical period, when faced with a military crisis, Greek city-states called out their able-bodied citizens [and resident aliens (metics) in Athens] over 18 years old to form ranks in a hoplite phalanx, a closely packed, serried formation of men each carrying a nonthrowing thrusting spear and armed (ideally) with a round shield (hoplon, from whence comes the name “hoplite”), helmet, greaves, and breastplate. They might also carry a short sword. Having chosen wide and level ground to maneuver masses of troops (which explains the number of important battles fought in the plains of Boiotia and Thessaly), they marched against their enemy, who was similarly equipped and arranged. This was hoplite warfare. This style of warfare continued into the Hellenistic period, but in the course of the fourth century, it underwent a number of changes, primarily due to the reforms of Philip II of Macedonia. These reforms would lead to a new kind of phalanx, termed the “Macedonian,” and would eventually be adopted by most Hellenistic states (on this, see following discussion). The principle, however, remained the same: mass formations of armed men pushing against each other in the front ranks and thrusting with spears for a lethal blow.

In the course of the fourth century, there also occurred an increasing reliance on and recruitment (xenologia: Diod. 18.58.1; 19.57.5) of professional soldiers, mercenaries, called either xenoi (foreigners) or misthophoroi (men-for-pay). The use of mercenaries was not a new phenomenon in the Greek world; in fact, as early as the Archaic period, Greeks had served as paid soldiers to Assyrian, Egyptian, and Persian royal employers, but these were in relatively small numbers and for a limited term of service. The large number of mercenaries that appeared at the end of the Peloponnesian War and into the fourth century seems to usher in a new age of military thinking. We might mention, for example, Xenophon’s famous account (Anabasis) of 10,000 Greek soldiers in the ill-fated Persian expedition on behalf of the usurper Cyrus; the huge numbers of mercenaries hired by Dionysios I of Syracuse to fight the Carthaginians for possession of Sicily and to advance his imperial ambitions (Diod. 14.41.4; 43.3); and the mercenaries of the Athenian general, Iphikrates in the early fourth century and those Athenian condottieri who followed his lead, Chabrias, Chares, and Apollodoros (Paus. 1.29.7). Even the fourth century Spartan king, Agesilaos, sold his services twice as a mercenary captain. In 372, Jason of Pherai created a huge army, supported by 6,000 mercenaries, to sustain his power in Thessaly. The Phokian generals, Philomelos, Onomarchos, Phayllos, and Phalaikos seized Delphi and its famous oracle in the Third Sacred War (356-346) with the assistance of mercenaries and dared anyone to take it back. Onomarchos and Phayllos became infamous [and impious for plundering Apollo’s sanctuary and melting down gold and silver dedications for coin to pay the mercenaries (Diod. 16.56.5-6)] for offering high wages, one and half to two times the normal rate. Philip II of Macedonia defeated the Phokians, liberated Delphi, and entered into southern Greek affairs with a shiny new Hellenic pedigree. Phalaikos, under the terms of a truce with Philip, was allowed to withdraw to the Peloponnese with his 8,000 mercenaries (Diod. 16.59.2-3).

Tainaron, on the southern tip of the Peloponnese, became famous in the late fourth century as a recruiting center and clearinghouse for mercenaries and their prospective employers. For example, during the Lamian War (323-322), the Athenian Leosthenes commanded up to 8,000 mercenaries recruited at Tainaron (Diod. 18.9.1-3); Aristodemos, general of Antigonos Monophthalmos, secured permission from the Spartans to recruit 8,000 stratiotai in 315 (Diod. 19.60.1); and in 303 Kleonymos, son of the Spartan king, Kleomenes II, enrolled 5,000 mercenaries in response to an appeal from Tarentum in southern Italy for military assistance against hostile Lucanians and Romans (Diod. 20.104.1-2).

In the wars of the Alexander’s generals and throughout the third century, mercenaries were ubiquitous. Kings and cities sought out the services of mercenaries for their armies or garrisons. The market lessons of Philomelos and Phayllos were not lost on the successors of Alexander the Great. In 318, Eumenes, locked in a fierce struggle with Antigonos Monophthalmos, sent his trusted friends throughout Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean as recruiting agents, offering top drachma (axiologous misthous) for soldiers. According to Diodorus, the pay was so attractive that “many from the Greek cities” joined up. Then, as now, money speaks. When Antigonos and Demetrios Poliorketes invaded Egypt in 306, Ptolemy bribed their soldiers to defect in such numbers that it posed a threat to the entire expedition (Diod. 20.75.1-3).

If one reads selected passages from Isokrates (Panegyricus 115, 168) and Demosthenes (First Philippic 24), one might conclude that the arrival of the professional soldier in significant numbers led to the demise of citizen armies and the end of the Greek city-state. Some Greeks did react negatively to these developments, but most of the evidence is situated within the context of Athenian rhetoric or comic stereotypes of New Comedy and its adaptors in the Roman world. We have argued elsewhere that Menander’s nuanced and often sympathetic portrait of mercenary captains in his comic plays bears little resemblance to the exaggerated, cartoon character of Pyrgopolynices in Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus.

No one, not even Demosthenes, in the fourth century b. c. seriously questioned the military necessity of hiring professional soldiers to augment a city’s own military forces. Aineias Taktikos, probably an Arkadian general from Stymphalos writing in the 350s (How to Survive a Siege), warns of the danger of maintaining more mercenaries than citizen troops because of security concerns (12.2-5), but he takes it as a given that professional soldiers have become a regular element in offensive and defensive military operations. Both the risks and benefits were fully appreciated by Dionysios, tyrant of Syracuse, fifty years earlier. In 406, he won the tyranny by introducing great numbers of mercenaries into the city, inciting as much fear in the Syracusan population as did the enemy Carthaginians (Diod. 13.96.1-4). Yet, later in 396, having conquered the Carthaginian city of Motya with the services of these mercenaries, he faced a mutinous group of them and was forced to buy them off with grants of land once belonging to Leontinoi. He then proceeded to recruit other mercenaries to maintain his power (Diod. 14.78.1-3).

Athens manned its garrisons in part with mercenaries as early as the mid-fourth century and this practice continued into the Hellenistic period. For example, IG ii2 379 (dated to 321/0 or 318) mentions a strategos epi tous xenous in charge of to xenikon and “may represent our earliest Attic inscription documenting a force of foreigners in service to Athens and the administrative apparatus to manage it.” In 319/18 the Athenians voted honors for a mercenary captain, and an inscription dated to 298/7 records xenoi serving with Athenian citizens at the garrison at Sounion (IG ii2 1270). Foreign units (tagmata) even competed under their commanders, Homilos, Demeas, Isidoros, and Pyrrhos, in two events designated for ethne in the agonistic program of the Athenian Theseia in the second century.

Inscriptions from Greek cities throughout the Hellenistic world document the presence of mercenaries in garrisons, either serving as the instruments of control by a king or maintained by the cities themselves. One of the most informative (albeit problematic) documents detailing conditions of mercenary service is recorded in a treaty (dated 263-241) between Eumenes I of Pergamon and his mutinous mercenaries serving at Philetaireia and Attaleia. The negotiated clauses of the inscription include access to low-cost grain and wine, guaranteed leave, back pay, guardianship of orphans, and duty-free rights to leave Pergamene territory. In this treaty, we have concrete proof of the ability of a selfrepresenting group of mercenaries to leverage concessions from their employer or have him face the military consequences. Aineias Taktikos had warned of such dangers a hundred years before, as Dionysios of Syracuse experienced firsthand.

Groups of soldiers found their way into strategic military settlements, particularly in the territories of the Seleukids, and sometimes blended into the landscape through grants of citizenship. In Egypt, the early Ptolemies established Greek mercenaries on plots of land (kleroi) with the requirement that these “cleruchs” would serve in the army during times of war. At other times, they farmed their lands. They were subject to taxation. Although legally owned by the king and reverting back to him on the death of the cleruch, by the end of the third century the allotment had become hereditary property. The Hellenistic kings needed manpower, and the mercenaries were ready and willing to fill this need.

Some Athenians were receptive to mercenary service and appear in the armies of the Successors between 315 and 301; for example, in 315, Ptolemy sent the Athenian Myrmidon to assist Asander, Macedonian satrap of Karia, in his struggles against Antigonos Monophthalmos (Diod. 19.62.2-5); in 312, Kassandros appointed the Athenian Lysandros as commander of Leukas (Diod. 19.88.5); in 308, “many Athenians” enlisted in the army of Ophellas (Ptolemy’s governor of Cyrene) in his campaign against Carthage (Diod. 20.40.6); and Athenian citizens accompanied Demetrios Poliorketes to Cyprus in 307 and shared in his defeat at Ipsos in 301. Some of the captured Athenians chose to enlist in the army of the victor, Lysimachos, rather than return home when ransomed.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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