Greece in the Fifth Century – An Athenian Perspective

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

There are no two ways about the fact that Greek males were extremely belligerent. To reverse Clausewitz’s famous dictum, politics for the Greeks was a continuation of war by other means. Athenians of the fifth century B.C. often engaged in intense wars and raised citizen soldiers, called hoplites, for waging amplified battles.

Phalanx, the rectangular formation of heavily armed hoplites arranged in an eight-man battle line
Phalanx, the rectangular formation of heavily armed hoplites arranged in an eight-man battle line. (Image: Olga Kuevda/Shutterstock)

Most communities in Greece seemed to be engaged in continuous conflicts throughout the year. As a result, Greece in the fifth century was marked by the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, which had momentous consequences for Greece. As for Athens, there were often several theaters of war, in which the Athenians participated with enthusiasm and vigor.

The Athenian Way of Life

Historians considered most Greeks as either rich or poor. Men from well-to-do families were expected to equip themselves with hoplite armor. But, there is increasing evidence to suggest that there was a sizable population of middle-class in Greece, who supplied the hoplites or volunteered to row the Athenian warship, trireme.

A Greek trireme.
An old Greek trireme boat. The trireme was an ancient boat used by the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It gets its name from the three rows of oars it had. (Image: Elenarts/Shutterstock)

The Athenian military was a collective and civic responsibility. Since, the warriors served with their relatives and neighbors, the onus of going to war was on the individual and the rest of the citizen body. Every male citizen in Athens was required to serve in the military and they were all part of the citizen militia from the age of 18. These citizens were farmers, tradesmen, and gentlemen of leisure.

The males of the community accepted the fact that their lives were at stake on a regular basis while trying to save other lives. Needless to say, the leave-taking by the warriors was very poignant as the families wouldn’t hear from their loved ones for months and in some cases, even for years

To stay away from war was not even an option in the Athenian way of life. It would be interesting to note that all intellectuals in the fifth century were an integral part of these battles. The greatest of philosophers, Socrates had to fight in three battles while the tragic poet Aeschylus boasts of slewing the Persians at Marathon in the epitaph that he wrote for himself.

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Compulsory Military Service

Military service for men was compulsory in Athens on reaching the age of 18. It included two years of training as an ephebe or a cadet. Ephêbos literally meant ‘poised at the moment of youth’. The first year of training taught the use of sword and spear as well as bow and catapult. This meant that the ephebe trained as both a hoplite and a light-armed warrior. The second year involved serving as a patrolman at forts along the borders of Attica.

After the two years of training, the Greek men would be inevitably liable for military service. The entire citizen body was divided into 10 tribes, with one hero for each tribe. The eponymous heroes were the patrons of the 10 Athenian tribes and the notice or call for these men to join the army would be attached to the monument base of these eponymous heroes in the Athenian agora. The amount of food to be brought also would be mentioned in the notice, which gave the citizens an idea of how long the campaign would last.

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This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Superior Hoplite Equipment

One of the reasons for the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon was due to the superior hoplite equipment. A hoplite literally means a ‘soldier armed with a hoplon’. The hoplite equipment carried a circular shield about three feet in diameter, which was made of wood or stiffened leather. It had a bronze covering and was held to protect about half of the soldier’s body and half of the body of the man standing to his left. The primary weapons of a hoplite warrior included a thrusting spear about eight feet long, and a short sword. A bronze corselet or breastplate, a pair of greaves, and a bronze helmet were also worn for protection.

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The Phalanx Battle – The Hoplite Experience

Hoplite battles commenced once the seer confirmed omens were favorable. This would prompt the general to give orders and the soldier would then march forward singing hymns addressing god Apollo.

The rectangular formation of heavily armed hoplites arranged in an eight-man battle line was known as phalanx. The hoplites had to be cautious to keep the formation while engaging in the battle. The strength of the Greek phalanx lay in the team work of the soldiers as they had to stand their ground without breaking their formation. If they were unable to maintain the formation, they would put the lives of their fellow soldiers in danger. This was because the shield protected the man on the left. Thus, there was no place for individual heroics in the phalanx. The simple objective was to break into the enemy line altogether, which meant holding the formation tightly while breaking into the other side.

If the opponents were Greeks, they would stand in a phalanx formation too and the two combatant groups would stand directly opposite to each other. The hoplite soldier would push hard with his shield and do a lot of stabbing at the unprotected parts of the enemy’s body. They would run towards each other and the moment of impact would be like the collision of two tanks. However, it was only the front line of the phalanx that would get a sense of the performance of their team.

The duration of the battle was less than an hour during which the hoplites were severely dehydrated and exhausted. And at some point, one of the phalanx would start giving up. However, it would be worth mentioning that most battles were won tactically. The triumphant, however, did not bother to pursue their enemy and were content with erecting a trophy on the battlefield.

Funeral for Soldiers of War – The Athenian Way

A Panhellenic law or an all-Greek law applied when the Athenians fought against their Greek counterparts. Even the defeated could go back to the battlefield and recover the dead. But, the scene was entirely different while fighting against the Persians.

Funeral oration speech by Athenian statesman Pericles at the end of first year of the Peloponnesian War
Funeral oration speech by Athenian statesman Pericles at the end of first year of the Peloponnesian War. (Image: vkilikov/Shutterstock)

The Athenians generally cremated their dead in the battlefield and brought back their ashes to Athens. At the end of the campaign, the ashes of all the war dead were entombed in separate cypress wood coffins for each tribe. A man of high caliber and reputation was chosen by the demos (Athenian Assembly) to deliver the funeral speech. The Athenian statesman Pericles, who was chosen to give the speech on behalf of the dead, used it as an occasion to celebrate Athenian values. But the Athenians too took exception sometimes; like the entombing of the 196 soldiers who died at Marathon in the battlefield itself, as a mark of respect for their heroic actions.

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Common Questions about Greece in the Fifth Century – An Athenian Perspective

Q: How did the Athenians differ from Spartans in their preparation for war?

Athenians indulged in athletic contests and annual sacrifices to refresh their minds while the Spartans received constant military training. In the words of Athenian historian Thucydides, unlike the Spartans Athenians knew how to kick back.

Q: How was the army mobilized in Athenian society?

The deployment to the army in the Athenian society was on a regional and tribal basis. There would be appropriate notices to the age group that would serve within the tribe. Needless to say, younger men were more frequently called for service than the older ones.

Q: How strong was the role played by generals in a phalanx battle?

The fact that the helmet in the hoplite equipment did not have piercings for the ears weakened the role of generals once the battle started. This is because the soldiers could not hear any orders once they were engaged in the battle.

Q: What was a trireme?

‘Trireme’ is derived from trierês, meaning ‘three-fitted’ referring to the three banks or tiers of oars. It was an ancient light-weight Athenian warship powered by 200 people. It included 170 rowers, 10 hoplites, 4 archers and 16 crew members. The trireme was described as the greyhound of the seas as it was designed to achieve maximum speed and maneuverability. It was also angled with a bronze ram to sink enemy ships.

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