Ancient Greek Warfare

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Welcome to the Miller Gallery of Evolution of Warfare in Ancient Greece!

Greece is a unique area to study when wanting to view something over a long period of time. First of all, Greece has been inhabited for millennia, with early records of men at Franchthi Cave in 20,000 BCE. Not only were men present, but we also have some sort of documentation of the Greek civilization through art, archaeology, and even writing. Greece, then, is a prime setting for making an analysis of the development of something over the scope of thousands of years.

Why, then, do we focus on war? Certainly there has always been some sort of draw to the idea of blood and guts and glory. However, when it comes to Greece, war has been a major anthropological marker. Warfare is Greece is both a product of the geography and the producer of the dynamic changes in Greek history.

Each of the pieces here may not seem significant itself, yet they each mark a wider trend or phenomenon of civilization or warfare in Greece in its respective time.

This Cycladic figure, likely from the island of Naxos, gives an idea of the weaponry typifying the Early Bronze Age. Here the figure is wearing a baldric across his body and a dagger on his hip. The prevalence of figures such as this has been predicted to mirror the general upheaval and warring state of the Aegean in this time period.
This bronze dagger reflects the anthropological phenomenon of the emergence of the metal in tools. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, neither of which originate in Greece. The emergence of bronze points to the ability of early Greeks to trade across water and land. It also indicates a move toward stronger and more serviceable tools and weapons. Furthermore, the nature of a dagger suggests warfare involved hand-to-hand combat at this time.
Depicted on this vessel is a dipylon shield. Though it may seem minor, the shape of the shield can provide us information about society at that time. The cutouts in the middle allowed for soldiers to stab with swords at opposing enemies. The large shields were often for full-body coverage, making them heavy and less maneuverable. It came to be replaced by bronze body-armor and smaller hoplos shields that allowed for the fighting of allied soldiers side by side, as opposed to taking on enemies in isolated fights.
This hydria depicts a scene from one of our greatest sources of information about ancient warfare: the Iliad. Homer's epic is dated by many historians around the 7th century BCE, though they believe the apocryphal Trojan War was during the Dark Ages. The epic has served as a source for our knowledge regarding warfare in Homer's time. The piece on this jar shows Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector around Troy and shows how the men may have been armed. As seen in the scene above, battles involved two-horse chariots, javelin throwing, some semblance of a phalanx, but mostly one-on-one hand combat with shield and sword. Such heroic autonomy in the troops was furthermore a reflection of the Dark Age society.
This vase depicts a hoplite warrior in pursuit of a Scythian archer. The emergence of hoplite warfare was a major development of the Archaic Period of Greece and a major reason for military success. A phalanx consisted of tightly packed troops armed with a spear, short sword, and hoplos (small round shield). Hoplite warfare was a manifestation of the development of the poleis system. The mode of war served the polis by unifying the people, because if one man broke rank the whole division was doomed. Additionally, it began to create social stratification for only those who could fund their own armor were able to fight and gain the benefits of war. Hoplite warfare was a result of the polis system and contributed to poleis' success.
Ships appeared on Greek pottery as early as 8th century BCE, but production of a naval fleet accelerated in the 5th century. Following the first Persian campaign, Themistocles prompted Athens to build a navy in order to fulfill the Delphic prophesy that, "A wooden wall shall not fall." This piece depicts naval warfare, at which Athenians excelled. Around the rim viewers see infantry men disembarking and triremes--narrow and quick boats with 170 rowers, built for maneuverability. The development of triremes and a fleet enabled Athens to emerge as an empire in the Aegean.
The presence of city walls was one of the major defenses for city-states of Archaic and Classical Greece. Since siege warfare was underdeveloped at this time, enemies would attempt to find weak spots in the walls while hoping to starve the defenders out, as seen in this cup. One of the most notable examples of defensive walls was the "long walls" of Athens. By the 450's BCE, the walls of Athens stretched to the port at Piraeus, meaning they would never be cutoff from the sea. Pericles was especially fond of the Athenian ability to withdraw within the walls while still having access to the resources of the outside world.
Athena Nike was a goddess especially relevant to Greeks in times of war. Nike was the goddess of victory and prevalent in art during times of war. The Temple of Athena Nike was constructed between 427-424 BCE during the Peace of Nicias. As part of the Acropolis, the temple and this frieze sought to establish and affirm Athens' greatness despite the chaos of the Peloponnesian War.
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