Warfare is a terrible and tragic part of human existence, and the Greeks knew this all too well. Their men fought its battles, their women and children witnessed its horrors in and around their communities, and their leaders struggled with choices between their ultimate aspirations and the pressing challenges of warfare. The Greek way of war therefore demonstrates how Greek culture and society both (1) informed the decisions made during wartime, and (2) were challenged by a proto-utilitarian form of ‘military necessity.’
The first major military threat to the communities of Ancient Greece came in the Greco-Persian Wars. When the Greeks of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) rebelled against the Persian king, they received considerable support from their Greek neighbors to the west. This rebellion failed, however, and the Persians began planning a full-scale invasion of Greece as retribution for their support and participation in the revolts (Martin 99). From the outset, the culture of these two peoples could not have been more different. The Persians viewed individuals as subjects of the state, without value outside the role they fulfilled to the empire and therefore without rights outside those explicitly granted by the government. In contrast to this, the Greek’s maintained a much higher view of the individual, which demanded both the equal protection of laws and shared responsibilities to the community, even though civic participation was limited to free, male citizens.
These differences were further demonstrated by the composition of each army. The Persians marched on Greece as conscripts of a king they had probably never seen (much less met), while the Greeks fought alongside their family and neighbors. And even when a Greek king was present (such as the legendary Leonidas of Sparta) he fought not as their superior but as their peer, as even the Spartan word for a full citizen (homoioi) implies (Martin 77; Cartledge 111-129). Because of this sense of identity, freedom, and community, the behavior of the Greeks during the Persian Wars reflected the very best of human courage in battle. They never forgot that they fought for their wives, children, and homelands, and because of this were motivated to heroic feats of bravery and sacrifice. Even today we draw inspiration from their examples, as is the case with the 300 Spartans and their allies at the pass of Thermopylae (see Pressfield’s historical novel, Gates of Fire, the precursor to the graphic novel and film franchise, 300) and the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon.
Greek ingenuity was also at its best. While Sparta led the Greeks on land, Athens ultimately led them at sea, producing naval victories that are just as impressive as their victories on land. Most spectacular was the victory at Salamis, where the Athenian commander Themistocles forced the vast Persian fleet into a narrow pass (practically eliminating the Persians’ advantage in numbers), where the Greeks were able to ram the Persian vessels and fight them off ship by ship (Martin 104). The effect of these two Greek victories was both practical and psychological; Xerxes was forced to return with his fleet back to Persia, leaving behind a much weaker ground force under the command of Xerxes’ general, Mardonius, whom the Greeks soon defeated.
War, however, does not always (or even usually) reveal the best parts of a people’s culture. Even in the Persian Wars, leaders were forced to employ no small amount of political creativity to gain the support needed to achieve these victories. These cracks in the unity and character of the Greeks fractured completely a generation later when open war broke out between the two leading communities of Greece: Athens and Sparta. The causes of the Peloponnesian War are still debated, but when ‘entangling alliances’ exacerbate age-old rivalries in trade, political philosophies, and territorial expansion, it does not take an historian to figure out the likely result. This does not mean, however, that war was inevitable or that there were not leaders on both sides of the conflict who spoke against it. And when war was decided, the wisest on both sides sought limited goals and a quick resolution, particularly the Spartan king Archidamus and his Athenian ‘guest-friend’ Pericles (Kagan 1-54).
Thucydides’ record of the Peloponnesian War provides a number of examples of the potential for humans to choose violence, brutality, and cruelty over the more noble behavior we should rightfully expect of one another. Corinth was more concerned about her honor and rights regarding Corcyra and Potidaea than the impact her actions would have on her allies. Sparta also chose the baser side of war in her later treatment of Potidaea. When she captured the community the Spartans put most of the men to death for not being able to affirm that they had “rendered Sparta any service in this war”—a tacit acceptance of Persian utilitarianism foreign to Greek thought up to that point (Kitto 151).
Athens was no more immune to these problems than her enemies. When the island of Lesbos revolted, the Athenians sent a ship to Mitylene, the primary settlement of the Lesbians, with the inhumane task of slaughtering the men and enslaving the women and children. Though they changed their minds and rescinded the order the next day, the second ship only barely prevented the massacre by making port on Lesbos as the first decree was being read to the citizens of the community (Kitto 143-147). Unfortunately, within a decade such moderation was lost completely when Athens killed or enslaved all the residents of the neutral community at Melos (Kitto 151-152).
There was also internal political turmoil caused by war, especially at Athens. In the preceding paragraph, we have already seen that the Athenian assembly was prone to overreaction and hasty decisions, but they had an equally troubling time trusting the decisions of their leadership. One telling sign of this is the frequent removal of Athenian generals (as happened with Thucydides[Kitto 147-148] and Alcibiades [Pressfield’s Tides of War]). Even Pericles himself experienced these vaccinations in public approval, though he had spoken against the war and led a successful defensive strategy of attrition designed to wear down the Spartans to exhaustion (Kitto 141-142). As a result of this turmoil, Athens for a time even established an oligarchic government, though after its brief reign the city gradually restored its well-known democratic form (Kitto 137).
War both manifests and challenges the character and culture of a people. At the outset of war, culture initially informs the purposes and methods of the conflict. But when these purposes and methods are tested by changing circumstances on the ground, such crises often lead not only to a refining of tactics, but also to a challenge to culture itself. The Greeks experienced just such a cultural shock in their wars against enemies from both without and within. The result was a Greek culture that was first defended, then surrendered, and thankfully reasserted for the benefit of all of us who have come along since.