Politics & Policy

Military Lessons of The War

Citizens work at their defense.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War has recently been released by Random House. This week National Review Online is excerpting Chapter 10 of the book. Below is the third installment; the first can be read here and the second here. Check back tomorrow for part four and click on Amazon to purchase A War Like No Other here.

Over three decades of fighting unleashed the creative talents of thousands of Greeks in the singular effort to kill one another without ethical restraint or much ostensible deference to past protocols. Just as the horror of World War II even today still prefigures all current military strategy and practice–from strategic bombing and atomic weapons to massed tank assaults and carrier war–so too innovations over thirty years of fighting ended old concepts and for the next three centuries, until the coming of Rome, unleashed the Greek creative talent for killing.


Before the Peloponnesian War the Greeks at least paid lip service to the notion of protocols, or the “laws of the Greeks” (nomima). These were murky and supposedly widely shared Hellenic ideals that had arose to mitigate the destructiveness of war. While there were always violations and atrocities in the past centuries, there was nonetheless the dream that war could and should still be decided by two opposing land armies in an open battle. It mattered little whether such reactionary idealism actually was true in all wars between the city-states. Rather, the nostalgia tended to retard military innovation and curb the brutality and length of many wars.

The Peloponnesian War–in the manner that the carnage of World War I, with its massive conscript armies, machine guns, gas, and artillery, ended the romance of a good nineteenth-century fight–put such parochial notions to rest. More than sixty years after the war ended, the orator Demosthenes lamented how the old understandings of a past age had not survived into his own time:

Whereas all the arts have made great advances, and nothing is the same as it was in the past, I believe that nothing has been more altered and improved than matters of war…. The Lacedaemonians, like all the others, used to spend four or five months–the summer season–in invading and ravaging the territory of their enemy with hoplites and civic armies and then retire home again…. They were so bound by tradition or rather such good citizens of the polis that they did not use money to seek advantage, but rather their war was by rules and out in the open.

War “by rules and out in the open” was rightly seen as an impediment to the sheer efficacy of killing as many as possible given the constraints of time and space. Winter campaigning was common on both sides. After Delium, Athenian dead from Sicily to Asia Minor were left to rot. Captives, whether in Plataea, Melos, or Scione, were often butchered, perhaps cumulatively in the several thousands over the course of the war. Civilians were the only targets at Mycalessus.

The tenets of the Peace of Nicias were almost immediately violated. Slaves were critical to the fleets of both sides, as their desertion and emancipation were key strategies in the war. Sanctuaries, whether at Delium or on Sicily, were not considered sacrosanct. Those who surrendered were either butchered or mutilated after Aegospotami, and held hostage with threatened execution after Pylos. Generals like Demosthenes and Nicias were executed after defeat–something that did not occur in the earlier wars of the fifth century in Boeotia. Even the reactionary Spartans early on in the war recognized that the old hoplite protocols had become “moronic” (môria) and irrelevant, echoing the Persians’ earlier slurs that the pedestrian Greeks had once fought “foolishly,” “without wisdom,” and “absurdly.”14

Spartan hoplites not only lost their battle on the island of Sphacteria to once despised light-armed troops but also surrendered and were willing to become hostages, an act that would have shamed Leonidas and his 300 a half century earlier at Thermopylae. The hoplite myth was over. To win the Peloponnesian War, Sparta not only built a fleet but also enrolled thousands of helots and created a large corps of horsemen. In the war’s fourth-century aftermath fighting became far more deadly, amorphous, and concerned with the ends rather than the ethical means.15


Status, wealth, and reputation–”all that” was integral to how war was waged in Greece prior to 431. Yet by the war’s end an Athenian’s wealth or parentage no longer necessarily determined the nature of his military service. This too was a revolutionary breakthrough and throughout the next centuries would soon improve the overall ability of Greek militaries. Of course, aristocracies never quite die, and their twin offspring of influence and nepotism always favor those blessed by money or birth. But for the great majority of Greeks, the old prewar social calculus–the wealthy on horses, agrarians as hoplites, the poor as rowers and skirmishers, slaves as baggage carriers, infantry attendants, and cooks–was rendered obsolete.

The losses from the plague, Sicily, and the slaughter of the Ionian War all meant that bodies were needed, with scant attention paid to wealth or status. Furthermore, it was not clear that a horseman was always more valuable than an infantryman, or the latter in turn more deadly than a rower. The result was that in times of crisis the wealthy sometimes fought as infantrymen, farmers rowed, and the poor were equipped by the state as hoplites.

Because such newfound forces were actually superior to the old class-demarcated services, the ultimate wage was an increase in military efficacy and a democratization of warfare. A half century later, the new national army of Philip of Macedon was the beneficiary. Although he was a thug, he was also a military visionary who could not care less whether his hired killers were rich, poor, citizens, or former slaves; but he did worry a great deal about whether they could be trained to fight his way and follow his orders.

The Peloponnesian War taught Westerners that the logic of military efficacy should trump tribalism, tradition, and arbitrary constructs of wealth and power. Plato, who wrote in the aftermath of the three-decade disaster, saw this more clearly than any other Greek thinker–and resented it bitterly.


Before the Peloponnesian War, a fundamental expression of full citizenship was infantry or cavalry service. Aristotle thought the very rise of the polis was a direct result of a growing class of small landowners who could afford arms. That way the farmers established a more inclusive citizenship by a property qualification in lieu of birth, the new cutoff line being those who could obtain their own heavy armor and thereby fight as hoplites in the phalanx.

After the devastating losses from the initial years of the Peloponnesian War, the limitations of such a parochial idea were soon transparent. At Athens, there may have been over 20,000 resident alien males of military age, many of them prosperous and intensely patriotic. Their numbers were dwarfed by more than 100,000 slaves–adult males and quite capable of fighting. Sparta for its part sat atop a volcano of 250,000 helots. Even Corinth, Argos, and Thebes all had sizable numbers of rural servants, who often carried the armor and supplies of hoplites on brief campaigns.

The trick was to tap such huge manpower reservoirs without undermining the rather exclusive civic premises of the parochial city-state. The Greeks soon found themselves in some of the same dilemmas as the tottering old Confederacy during the American Civil War: in times of crisis slaves could be valuable combatants; but should they fight well, then their very courage might undermine the entire logic of their purported inferiority. Outside of Messenia, chattel slavery in Greece was not predicated on race or ethnic identity. Thus, it escaped the paradoxes brought on by an unsupportable pseudoscience of racial inferiority. People became slaves through accidents–a captured city, a lost battle, or a servile parent. Nevertheless, once the unfree were allowed to fight in exchange for their freedom, a natural question arose: what exactly was the capricious logic that made them remain forever inferior?

Brasidas, for example, drafted thousands of helots and extended freedom to them. The ultimate dividend from such emancipation may not have been just increased Spartan manpower but a subsequent rising unrest among the helot population in the decades after the war, when such stalwart Brasideans returned home and constructed their rather vicious fallen commander as a great crusading “liberator.”

At Athens, from the very start of the conflict resident aliens, or metics, served as reserve and garrison troops, while slaves probably rowed far more often in the imperial Athenian fleet than was noted by the aristocratic Thucydides. At Arginusae the assembly promised freedom to any slave who would embark on a trireme. Thousands went on to prove that they were indispensable for the Athenian victory. Prebattle observers may have thought the Peloponnesians had the far better crews; but the Athenian victory proved that there was something about the democratic élan of the empire that could turn slaves and the poor into rowers as good as Sparta’s more experienced and skilled mercenary seamen.

Later Greek and Roman history reflects this additional revolutionary legacy of the Peloponnesian War, as the fourth-century Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman armies were multicultural, multiracial, and professional. The militaries of both Sparta and Athens in the war’s aftermath were full of mercenary slaves and ex-slaves, without which they could never have replaced the manpower losses of the prior thirty years. In the chaos following the war, the Ten Thousand mercenaries who accompanied Cyrus the Younger on his quest to claim the Persian throne were a motley assortment of Peloponnesian War veterans, ex-slaves, and resident aliens, united only by their skill at arms, their shared need for money, and the notion of being Greek.

Before the war, far more adult male Greeks were noncitizens than citizens of the city-states. But it took the war to strip that veneer of pretense away, and show that a man’s status did not predetermine his value on the battlefield. War, then and now, is a destroyer of protocol, privilege, and tradition, and that is not altogether always a bad thing.


In Book 1 of Thucydides’ history Pericles outlines the limitations of the Peloponnesian adversaries. They had no capital. Unlike the Spartiates, most of the allies in the Peloponnesian coalition were agrarians who needed to farm at precisely the time it was best to fight. In contrast, Athens was a sophisticated polis with vast sums of coinage in both circulation and as specie on reserve. Pericles’ adversary, King Archidamus of Sparta, agreed, and so warned his rural Peloponnesians that they were not equipped to fight a long, multifaceted war with even a seasonal militia. This new conflict, he warned, was quite different: “War is not so much a matter of men as of monetary expense.” He proved absolutely right.

The great irony of the war was that the very requisites for victory–an enormous fleet, money for rowers’ pay, and officers deployed overseas for long periods of imperial service–were inimical to the historic assumptions of rural and isolated Sparta, which heretofore had had no monetary economy. Persia finally filled the void, gave Spartan generals untold amounts of gold, and made up losses in men and matériel almost immediately. As long as Greeks were killing Greeks, the satraps of the Persian Empire were happy to subsidize the carnage.

Yet in the war’s aftermath, with the Persian subsidies gone, the implosion of the Spartan empire was directly attributable to its new financial responsibilities of administering a fleet and distant subject states that were so at odds with its old insular moral code. Money and manpower, not always just courage and class, quite literally won wars. The Peloponnesian War offered another bitter lesson, one that would also arise during the transition of Rome from republic to empire. Consensual government started in Greece as a limited enterprise. These constitutional states were predicated on a civic militia cloaked in amateurism and localism, and determined to protect the property of a minority of its citizens. But as the invective of Athenian conservatives from Plato to Aristotle illustrated, war over decades and across thousands of miles required mobilization, weaponry, and capital–and only the new resources of a more centralized and powerful state could meet those vast burdens.


In the Greek psyche wars were traditionally purported referenda on courage and discipline, not to be decided by tricks, the quality of weapons, or accidents. Add to that code the intrinsic aristocratic distrust of rote labor so common in Greek thinking. Factor in also the ubiquity of slavery, whose cheap labor tended to discourage technological innovation. Thus, a good case could be made that for all the genius of the Greek city-state, until the later fifth century it was remarkably slow in applying its clear achievements in science, philosophy, and architecture to a practical crafting of weapons of destruction. A society that could sculpt the Parthenon friezes and easily lift them high up on the architraves of the temple apparently had no means of tearing down a simple enemy wall during a siege.

That stagnation too began to end in the Peloponnesian War, as both sides scrambled to invent new siege techniques at Plataea, weird devices like fire cannons at Delium, and constant naval modifications at Syracuse. Innovations from horse transports to the idea of forward fortified bases (epiteichisma) and swarms of missile troops were commonplace throughout the war, and often deeply resented. Thucydides reports the lamentation of one Spartan prisoner on Sphacteria, who, when chided about the surrender of Greece’s best infantrymen to poor javelin throwers and archers, snapped that the old hoplite courage was not worth much when an enemy showered his phalanx with arrows and missiles, killing the brave and cowards alike.

The major sieges left an indelible impression on both attacker and besieged, especially when the belligerents had experimented with siege towers, flamethrowers, and elaborate circumvallation. As a result, within four years of the end of the war, Dionysius of Syracuse, during the siege of Motya (399), crafted the first true artillery in history, crude nontorsion catapults that were known as “belly bows” (gastraphetes), and resembled something like oversized medieval crossbows.

Such ad hoc artillery soon led to true torsion catapults, perhaps first crafted by the engineers of Philip II of Macedon in the 340s. Considerable propulsive power could be stored by twisted hair, rope, or sinew through the use of stocks, winches, or springs. On release such machines might hurl stones or specially crafted bolts over three hundred yards, as efficiently and accurately as seventeenth-century gunpowder artillery. All this innovation marked not just a technological continuance of the ingenuity shown at the sieges of Plataea, Delium, and Syracuse but was made possible by the liberation from traditional moral restraint upon war making that had occurred during the Peloponnesian War. The success of the war’s major campaigns, from Potidaea and Plataea to Mytilene and Syracuse, depended on craftsmen who could either build or tear down walls in the most efficient and rapid manner.

Defensive engineers were also quick to grasp the lessons of the value of fortifications and the need to counteract them with even more powerful artillery, as a veritable arms race ensued, characterized by constant response and counterresponse. Most of the present-day ruins that dot the Greek countryside date not from the fifth century but from the fourth and later, as the arts of military construction and destruction accelerated, hand in glove.

The vast circuits of the Peloponnesian cities of Mantinea, Megalopolis, and Messene and rural forts on the frontiers of Attica, Megarid, and in the Argolid were constructed in just this period of the early and mid-fourth century. The chief improvements learned from trial and error during the Peloponnesian War consisted of a systematic use of ashlar blocks, binding courses, embrasures, internal trussing, more extensive foundations, and drafted corners to assure wall stability at vastly increased heights and breadths. Forts were framed with towers over thirty feet in height that housed small antipersonnel nontorsion catapults to prevent besiegers from approaching too near the circuits. Some of the embrasure windows were equipped with elaborate shuttering systems designed to open and close as wheeled catapults laid down continuous fire.

Historians could argue over whether the rush for both urban and rural fortification in the postwar period was an unwise diversion of Greece’s finite resources, or itself spurred on economic activity while providing needed defense. But the archaic dream that Greece should remain unwalled was dead forever. Citizens, not just soldiers, began to plan for their collective defense in wars that were as likely to break out at their doorsteps as in distant fields.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.


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