War and Greek society in the archaic period

War and Greek society in the archaic period

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Although not well known, the archaic period is a time of great change in ancient Greece, just emerging from the "dark ages". We see many innovations, such as the alphabet, a demographic boom or the birth of the city (polis). Here is the definition given to the city: it is an "independent state, with a relatively small territory (chôra), centered on an agglomeration where the governing bodies sit, and which is embodied in the community. of citizens (politai). ".

The situation at the start of the Archaic period

This birth occurs in the 8th century according to the scenario of synoecism: it is a grouping of villages with one imposing itself as a central agglomeration. This birth of the city, takes place through Greek colonization from the 8th century. There are mainly three sectors: southern Italy, Sicily and the shores of the Black Sea. As soon as the Greek cities appeared, they began to wage war against each other.

At the end of the geometric period (900 - 750 BC), an aristocracy emerges. The Lefkandi site in Euboea reveals the excavation of a house from the period 1000 - 950 BC, residence of a warrior who was buried with his weapons. The aristocracy of warriors is the origin of the dominant stratum in ancient Greece.

The Homeric war is often described as an indistinct melee comprising hero duels and infantry clashes. It is the model of heroic confrontation, which is based on the fight of individuals a little isolated and who show courage and strength in front of the rest of the army. Archeology shows that the 8th century is the era of warriors' graves. It is the time of the modification of the weaponry: the breastplate and the sword, as illustrated by the famous tomb of Argos. The horse is a sign of social distinction more than a military tool. It is used by aristocrats, especially for sporting events and funerals of aristocrats.

Tanks are not used in battles and there is no cavalry, combatants are always infantry. The horse is therefore above all a mark of social distinction, as mentioned above, because it reflects membership in an elite. We do not fight with the horse, but it allows you to move, hence a wider field of action. Aristocrats are knights, not horsemen, it is indeed a mark of status, but it does not help in war.

Hoplitic reform: a revolution

In the 8th century, it is the golden age of the fighting aristocracy and from this 8th century, this aristocracy is called into question.

The archaic aristocracy is by definition the government of the best (aristoi), of a hereditary nature: being part of a lineage (a genos) is essential (example of the Alcméonides in Athens). There are the Geomores ("land holders"), all aristocratic families in Syracuse (Sicily); the Eupatrids (etymologically "those who have good ancestors"), all aristocratic families in Athens; and the Hippobotes ("horse breeders"), all aristocratic families in Euboea.

The two other layers of society are free men (peasants & artisans), not aristocrats, they do not have the possibility of participating in political life; and the (non-free) slaves, who are more and more numerous.

The aristocracy is therefore characterized by wealth, the possession of political power, judicial power (they dispense justice because they are the only ones to know the law which is oral and unwritten), religious power (they control cults of the city: the priests belong in a hereditary way to an aristocratic family). Finally, they have a number of uniquely honorary privileges. This explains the absence of a feudal system at that time.

We observe new ways of waging war, as soon as the hoplitic reform is set in motion. Around 700-650, these are the first wars between Greek cities, for example the war in Lélantine (Trojan War) between Chalcis and Eretria or the conquest of Messenia by Sparta (Laconia). The hoplitic reform occurs in the period between 700 and 650 BCE. It essentially results in the appearance of hoplites, heavily armed infantrymen, whose hoplite range includes offensive armament (doru pike, about 2m long, and a sword) and defensive armament which includes a helmet, a breastplate. , cnemids (leggings), a round shield (hoplon) about 1m in diameter and with two grips on its internal face (cuff and handle).

The hoplites fight in a specific formation called the Phalanx, which has alignments in length, seven or eight rows deep). Its structure is based on the round shield. For an isolated fighter, this shield has no interest, but in the formation of the phalanx its true value appears. The phalanx asks for solidarity between the combatants. The Chigi vase (see image), made around 650-620, gives us the oldest representation of a phalanx. The rhythm is given by the Aulète (the flute player behind the hoplites).

The phalanx has its own values: patriotism in the foreground and the beautiful death par excellence. We refuse the throwing weapons because we believe that it is synonymous with cowardice: we must fight our enemy face to face and directly, we respect the discipline of the group, we show courage. Indeed there is a refusal of flight in combat and cowardice. The soldier must return with his shield, otherwise he will be dishonored and considered a traitor in most cases. Values ​​are therefore based on It therefore based on the citizen-soldier. War usually takes place in the summer.

A battle is codified. We first observe the thrust then follow the scrum and finally the trophy. The winner is the one who remains in control of the battlefield chosen by the two adversaries, and in the end it is the one who had the fewest deaths. He manifests his victory by a traditional gesture, he erects a trophy on the battlefield with the arms of the vanquished. The winning side also has the obligation to return the bodies of the vanquished to its opponent. The loser must send someone to negotiate the recovery of the bodies.

The hoplitic battles resembled what the Greeks called an agon (a kind of competition, a sporting event).

The evolution of the Greek city under the pressure of war

Principle was: the warrior must pay for his equipment himself, which is relatively expensive. This socially limits the category of those who can be recruited as hoplites. After the hoplite reform, the number of combatants increases (the aristocrats are not enough). The combatants are therefore recruited from well-off peasants rich enough to afford a variety of means: involvement of the "zeugites" (well-off peasants, with a team of labor, the zeugos). Free men were generally too poor to afford the hoplite panoply, these are the "thetes".

The Zeugites, since they fight for the city, demand the sharing of political power with the aristocrats. This is a questioning of the power of the aristocrats which will lead to the rise of a new type of regime: tyranny, a regime in power exercised by a tyrant (note that the qualifier of "tyrant" does not has no negative value for the Greeks of the time). A tyrant is an aristocrat who seized power through a coup d'état and who exercises this power in a monarchical manner. The Greeks regard it as an illegitimate form of monarchy.

Warships are very different from merchant ships. Warships are rowing ships, while merchant ships are sailed. They have an offensive force that is revealed in the spur attached to the bow. The Pentecontere is an archaic warship powered by 50 rowers. From the beginning of the 6th century, naval powers emanate, such as the city of Corinth, Samos and Aegina. Corinth and Samos are at the origin of a new technology in terms of naval power because they invented a new warship called the “trière” and which had 160 oarsmen in three superimposed rows (see the image on the left which is a recreation of a trie: the Olympias). Following this new invention, it was necessary to enlist numerous crews in the maritime cities. Some rowers were slaves, but most of them were recruited by citizens too poor to afford the hoplitic panoply, that is to say the thetes. Poor citizens were therefore called upon to fight, which led the thetes to also claim a part of political power.

War and society are closely linked in the archaic era. From the 8th century, emanates a new type of soldier: the hoplite. Through technical developments and the new values ​​it carries, the hoplite becomes more efficient than an ordinary soldier. This novelty, which has spread throughout Greece, is not negligible, and it is in Sparta that we observe the most successful of all these values. The ethical values ​​of the hoplite remain a model in the history of patriotism and are still relevant today. Thanks to technological progress, the way of fighting has evolved, and these various evolutions have forced to recruit more soldiers. Thus arose the challenge to the exercise of political power only by the aristocrats. Isn't this the start of the democratization process that has started?


- Greece in the Archaic Era, by Oswyn Murray. PUM, 2001.

- The Greeks in the archaic period: From the middle of the 9th to 478 BC. J.C, by Jean-Nicolas Corvisier. Ellipses, 1998.

- Amouretti and Ruzé, The ancient Greek world. Superior hatchet, 2008.

Video: What the Ancients Knew - Greece


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