war, art of, Greek

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Xenophon (c. 428—354 bc) Greek historian, writer, and military leader

Aeneas Tacticus

Thucydides (c. 455—400 bc) Greek historian

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Before the second half of the 5th cent. bc, the Greeks seem to have made no attempt to systematize military theory. The only such works to have survived are Xenophon's Cavalry Commander, his fictional account of Cyrus' organization of his army in the Cyropaedia, and the treatise on siege‐craft by Aeneas Tacticus. We are thus largely left to infer the Greek art of war from the warfare itself.

Early wars, Thucydides 2 says, were fought between neighbours, and even the exception he mentions—the 8th‐cent. Lelantine War—seems just to have been a series of such conflicts; see greece (history), Archaic Period. They were also clearly fought for territory, involving a simple strategy, and this remained true even when the object was no longer territorial aggrandizement but hegemony, for ravaging could usually compel confrontation, and, if the invaders won, the acceptance of a more or less subordinate relationship.

As for tactics, it is hard to discern what, if any, were employed. The Iliad (see homer) is the earliest surviving account of warfare, but it is uncertain how far it reflects reality in giving prominence to a few heroes and their exploits. If it does, there was really no place for tactics, and even when Tyrtaeus begins to emphasize the need to maintain cohesion, and missile‐armed troops like Homer's spear‐throwing heroes have become quite unimportant, we still learn nothing about how a battle was won, other than by an exemplary display of courage.

The first time the Greeks had to think in more complex strategic terms was probably during the Persian Wars, but even then the Athenians probably never thought of anything else but of confronting the invader at Marathon (see marathon, battle of), and in 480, though confrontation in the open was evidently to be avoided, the Greeks initially seem to have decided just to try to hold the invader as far north as possible; in 479, when they took the offensive, they also simply moved to confront the enemy at Plataea (see plataea, battle of). Tactics, too, seem still to have been primitive, with the possible exception of those employed at Marathon. At Thermopylae, acc. to Herodotus, the Spartans made use of feigned retreats (see thermopylae, battle of), but Plataea was again a matter of head‐on collision.

The development of Athenian sea power added a new dimension to warfare, and during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were initially baffled by the Athenian strategy of taking refuge in the fortified Athens–Piraeus complex and relying on sea‐borne supplies. But this was a recipe for survival rather than victory, and raids on the Peloponnese and even the establishment of permanent bases on and off its coast, could not defeat Sparta. The nearest Athens came to victory was when, as Alcibiades is said to have claimed, the Spartans had to fight for their all at Mantinea (see mantinea, battles of), and it was the Spartans who eventually turned the tables by using sea power to cut off Athens' sea‐borne supplies.

The first battle of Mantinea was also the first battle won by tactics. The Spartan victory on the right may have been normal in a hoplite battle, but the way in which they then took their opponents' right in its shieldless flank as it attempted to retreat across the battlefield, was not.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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