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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Warfare in Ancient Greece

picWarriors are among the most common figures with which Greek pottery was decorated. While many images of warriors (and athletes) are taken to be scenes of daily life, images of warriors sometimes represent mythological warriors (perhaps Theseus and his comrades fighting against Amazons on [ 51.4.9 ]). The precision with which soldiers were painted has provided invaluable documentary information on the development and use of military equipment (e.g. the deceased soldier's helmet on [ REDMG:1951.159.1 ]). The heroic and glamorous representations of soldiers have also given us insight into the esteem in which they were held by the societies they fought to defend.

Warfare was rife in the ancient world and it involved large sections of the population for much of each year (remember that Achilles and the Greeks under the command of Agamemnon fought at Troy for as many as 10 years!). The predominance of war in every day life is reflected in its frequent depiction in pottery. It is very common to see scenes of soldiers leaving home [ 29.5.1] or engaged in fighting [ 51.1.2 ]. Sadly, many of the pots that feature young soldiers were used after their deaths to hold their cremated remains.

The infantry, i.e. hoplites armed with spears, conducted most warfare in mainland Greece during the Archaic and Classical periods (8-4 c. BCE). Hoplites are easily recognised by their round shields [see 25.8.1]: Spartan soldiers were instructed not to leave the battlefield without their shields! The ground troops suited the hilly terrain of Greece, although Greece is also surrounded by sea. For this reason the Greeks developed their navies: Athens was particularly famous for its success at sea in the first half of the fifth century BCE.


Horsemen were also important (see, e.g. [ 48.2.1 ]), but chariot warfare (as seen on [ 49.8.8 ]) seems to have been part of Greece's mythical past. If the Archaic and Classical Greeks had direct experience with four-horse chariots on the battle field, it was probably from battles in far away places, such as Persia or other eastern lands whose landscape consisted of huge plains.

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File last modified: 02 Aug 2012