Warfare in Ancient Greece

As the economic resources of Greek city-states and individuals increased during the seventh century BC, armies of foot soldiers were formed within the wealthier city-states. Known as hoplites, these soldiers were characteristically equipped with about seventy pounds of armour, most of which was made of bronze.
The typical panoply included an eight to ten foot (244cm – 305cm) thrusting spear with an iron tip and butt, and bronze armour consisting of a helmet, cuirass (chest armour), greaves (shin guards), and a aspis (large shield) about 30 inches (76cm) in diameter. The heavy bronze shield, which was secured on the left arm and hand by a metal band on its inner rim, was the most important part of a hoplite’s panoply, as it was his chief defence.

In nearly every medium of Attic art of the sixth century B., the hoplite and warfare feature prominently, as military service was a primary distinction of citizenship – a mark of status and often of wealth, as well as a means of attaining glory. Furthermore, the initiatives taken during the latter part of the sixth century to standardize the Homeric epics in written form fostered a broader interest in heroic subject matter. In Athens, military service was determined by a citizen’s social and economic position. In the early sixth century BC, the archon (ruler) Solon instituted four classes defined by income and gave each class a proportionate measure of political responsibility. The second wealthiest class, the hippeis (“horsemen”), earned enough from their land to maintain a horse and so fought as cavalry; the third wealthiest group, the zeugitai, were able to afford the equipment of a hoplite; the wealthiest class, the pentakosiomedimnoi (“five-hundred-bushel men”), supplied the leaders for the armed forces; and the poorest class, the thetes, were hired labourers who served as oarsmen in the Athenian fleet, or as archers and light-armed men on land.

Backed up by archers and light-armed troops, the hoplite phalanx remained the most important fighting unit for centuries. They advanced in close formation while protected by their overlapping shields. A successful battle often consisted of one phalanx, hundreds of men across and eight or more warriors deep, pushing against an enemy’s phalanx until one or the other broke formation, exposing its hoplites to danger and death.

Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece

The ancient Greek conception of the afterlife and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the sixth century B C. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, whereHades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures – the “shades” of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld (Odyssey 11: 489–91).

The Greeks believed that at the moment of death, the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time – honoured rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad 23: 71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis (laying out of the body), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Lamentation of the dead is featured in Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.

The most lavish funerary monuments were erected in the sixth century BC, by aristocratic families of Attica in private burial grounds along the roadside on the family estate or near Athens. Relief sculpture, statues, tall stelai crowned by capitals, and finials marked many of these graves. Each funerary monument had an inscribed base with an epitaph, often in verse that memorialized the dead. A relief depicting a generalized image of the deceased sometimes evoked aspects of the person’s life, with the addition of a servant, possessions, dog, etc. On early reliefs, it is easy to identify the dead person; however, during the fourth century BC, more and more family members were added to the scenes, and often many names were inscribed, making it difficult to distinguish the deceased from the mourners. Like all ancient marble sculpture, funerary statues and grave stelai were brightly painted, and extensive remains of red, black, blue, and green pigment can still be seen.

Many of the finest Attic grave monuments stood in a cemetery located in the outer Kerameikos, an area on the northwest edge of Athens just outside the gates of the ancient city wall. The cemetery was in use for centuries – monumental geometric kraters marked grave mounds of the eighth century BC, and excavations have uncovered a clear layout of tombs from the Classical period, as well. At the end of the fifth century BC, Athenian families began to bury their dead in simple stone sarcophagi placed in the ground within grave precincts arranged in man – made terraces buttressed by a high retaining wall that faced the cemetery road. Marble monuments belonging to various members of a family were placed along the edge of the terrace rather than over the graves themselves.

Greek Gods and Religious Practices

The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, each with a distinct personality and domain. Greek myths explained the origins of the gods and their individual relations with mankind. The art of Archaic and Classical Greece illustrates many mythological episodes, including an established iconography of attributes that identify each god. There were twelve principal deities in the Greek pantheon. Foremost was Zeus, the sky god and father of the gods, to whom the ox and the oak tree were sacred; his two brothers, Hades and Poseidon, reigned over the Underworld and the sea, respectively. Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, was queen of the gods; she is frequently depicted wearing a tall crown, or polos. Wise Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, who typically appears in full armour with her aegis (a goatskin with a snaky fringe), helmet, and spear, was also the patroness of weaving and carpentry. The owl and the olive tree were sacred to her. Youthful Apollo, who is often represented with the kithara, was the god of music and prophecy. Judging from his many cult sites, he was one of the most important gods in Greek religion. His main sanctuary at Delphi, where Greeks came to ask questions of the oracle, was considered to be the centre of the universe. Apollo’s twin sister Artemis, patroness of hunting, often carried a bow and quiver. Hermes, with his winged sandals and elaborate herald’s staff, the kerykeion, was the messenger god. Other important deities were Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysos, the god of wine and theatre; Ares, the god of war; and the lame Hephaistos, the god of metalworking. The ancient Greeks believed that Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in mainland Greece, was the home of the gods.

Ancient Greek religious practice, essentially conservative in nature, was based on time-honoured observances, many rooted in the Bronze Age (3000–1050 BC), or even earlier. Although the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, believed to have been composed around the eighth century BC, were powerful influences on Greek thought, the ancient Greeks had no single guiding work of scripture like the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Muslim Quran. Nor did they have a strict priestly caste. The relationship between human beings and deities was based on the concept of exchange: gods and goddesses were expected to give gifts. Votive offerings, which have been excavated from sanctuaries by the thousands, were a physical expression of thanks on the part of individual worshippers.

The Greeks worshipped in sanctuaries located, according to the nature of the particular deity, either within the city or in the countryside. A sanctuary was a well-defined sacred space set apart usually by an enclosure wall. This sacred precinct, also known as a temenos, contained the temple with a monumental cult image of the deity, an outdoor altar, statues and votive offerings to the gods, and often features of landscape such as sacred trees or springs. Many temples benefited from their natural surroundings, which helped to express the character of the divinities. For instance, the temple at Sounion dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea, commands a spectacular view of the water on three sides, and the Parthenon on the rocky Athenian Acropolis celebrates the indomitable might of the goddess Athena.

The central ritual act in ancient Greece was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at an altar in front of the temple, with the assembled participants consuming the entrails and meat of the victim. Liquid offerings, or libations, were also commonly made. Religious festivals, literally feast days, filled the year. The four most famous festivals, each with its own procession, athletic competitions, and sacrifices, were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. People from all over the Greek-speaking world attended these PanHellenic festivals. Many other festivals were celebrated locally, and in the case of mystery cults, such as the one at Eleusis near Athens, only initiates could participate.

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
Attributed to the Tithonos Painter
Period: Classical
Date: ca. 480–470 BC

Hermes, the messenger god, moves swiftly across this vase on some errand for Zeus, the ruler of the gods. Dressed in travelling clothes with a chlamys (short cloak) and a petasos (broad-brimmed hat), he wears winged sandals and carries a herald’s staff, a kerykeion, which terminates in entwined snakes. Greek heralds carried the same symbol as they travelled from city to city.

Marble grave stele of a little girl
Period: Classical
Date: ca. 450–440 BC

The gentle gravity of this child is beautifully expressed through her sweet farewell to her pet doves. Her peplos is unbelted and falls open at the side, while the folds of drapery clearly reveal her stance. Many of the most skilful stone carvers came from the Cycladic Islands, where marble was plentiful. The sculptor of this stele could have been among the artists who congregated in Athens during the third quarter of the fifth century BC to decorate the Parthenon.

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup)

Attributed to the Amasis Painter

Period: Archaic

Date: ca. 540 B.C.

Depiction of Hoplite warriors

Source: Colette Hemingway: Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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