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Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Revised edition

Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Revised edition

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by Victor Davis Hanson

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The ancient Greeks were for the most part a rural, not an urban, society. And for much of the Classical period, war was more common than peace. Almost all accounts of ancient history assume that farming and fighting were critical events in the lives of the citizenry. Yet never before have we had a comprehensive modern study of the relationship between agriculture and


The ancient Greeks were for the most part a rural, not an urban, society. And for much of the Classical period, war was more common than peace. Almost all accounts of ancient history assume that farming and fighting were critical events in the lives of the citizenry. Yet never before have we had a comprehensive modern study of the relationship between agriculture and warfare in the Greek world. In this completely revised edition of Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, Victor Davis Hanson provides a systematic review of Greek agriculture and warfare and describes the relationship between these two important aspects of life in ancient communities. With careful attention to agronomic as well as military details, this well-written, thoroughly researched study reveals the remarkable resilience of those farmland communities.

In the past, scholars have assumed that the agricultural infrastructure of ancient society was often ruined by attack, as, for example, Athens was relegated to poverty in the aftermath of the Persian and later Peloponnesian invasions. Hanson's study shows, however, that in reality attacks on agriculture rarely resulted in famines or permanent agrarian depression. Trees and vines are hard to destroy, and grainfields are only briefly vulnerable to torching. In addition, ancient armies were rather inefficient systematic ravagers and instead used other tactics, such as occupying their enemies' farms to incite infantry battle. Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece suggests that for all ancient societies, rural depression and desolation came about from more subtle phenomena—taxes, changes in political and social structure, and new cultural values—rather than from destructive warfare.

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Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece

By Victor Davis Hanson


Copyright © 1998 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92175-7


Military Organization

An army of invasion in the classical age usually sought decisive battle, but it needed to utilize the countryside of its adversary to accomplish that goal—both to feed itself and to provoke the enemy to fight by attacking farmland. Consequently, Greek armies brought along mobile light-armed troops, built field camps from local materials, had specialized tools, and were careful to time their arrival to particular cycles of the farming year. Almost every consideration of a Greek army—logistical, tactical, strategic, psychological, and technological—was in some way connected to agriculture.


After entering enemy farmland an invading army attempted to keep its phalanx in formation and its hoplites in rank, whether or not enemy forces appeared. So, for example, King Archidamos on his initial entry into Attica reminded his soldiers:

Although we appear to be invading in overwhelming numbers, and it seems assured that our enemy will not face us in battle, still we must not for these reasons let down our guard while on the march. The officers and soldiers of each city must on every occasion expect to find themselves in danger.... Follow wherever your officer leads, and above all, be careful to stay in formation, keep up your defense, and promptly follow the orders you receive. (Thuc. 2.11.3)

During the five Peloponnesian invasions of the Archidamian War, hoplites were rarely free to leave their ranks, lay down their arms and armor, and scatter to ravage cropland. Similarly, during Teleutias's march on Olynthos (382 B.C.), he kept his "very large" army in close order as he advanced, burning and ravaging the countryside (Xen. Hell. 5.2.39). When the Thebans once sent out their entire army on a punitive expedition against Thespiai, enemy peltasts initially forced their retreat and "at no point allowed them to scatter from their phalanx" (Hell. 5.4.42). Another large Theban army overran the Corinthia in 369 B.C. and destroyed "whatever was of value in the plain" but still had to be kept in some order the entire time as a precaution against the numerous enemy cavalry patrols in the area (Hell. 7.1.20).

Since hoplite troops were expected to remain in rank in case of sudden attack, naturally they could not always cover the countryside effectively, and thus were not well suited for the task of destroying enemy crops. Instead, we should imagine that light-armed troops, unencumbered by body armor, accompanied hoplites and fanned throughout farmland in small patrols while the main infantry force either stayed in protective formation or marched more slowly in mass. Ancient writers of military tactics continually stress this point. Onasander, in his treatise on the duties of the general, warned against allowing unorganized foraging and ravaging parties to venture forth. The ideal practice was "to dispatch along with the light-armed and unarmed men protective forces of cavalry and infantry who shall have no concern at all with booty but rather are to stay in formation and guard the raiders" (10.8). Aeneas Tacticus took for granted that any well-organized, sensibly led army followed this universal practice:

It is necessary that you realize that when the enemy goes to war with good sense and skill, he first of all brings up his strongest contingents in formation, keeping on the lookout for a counterre-sponse and ready to go on the defensive. In the meantime, some of his forces spread out and ravage the countryside. (16.4)

We can be sure that in actual practice invaders relied on light-armed parties, not hoplites, to destroy agriculture. (See updated commentary, page 210 [Light-Armed Troops].)

During the Athenian seaborne retaliation raids against the Peloponnese, scattered bodies of light-armed troops did the actual devastation. Hoplites were deployed for protection and marched in rank to keep the vulnerable ravagers safe from enemy sorties (Thuc. 4.56.1). Another example can be found during the annual Athenian invasions of the Megarid, when there was little enemy opposition, and agricultural devastation was the key objective. Then we hear that a "considerable number" of psiloi (lightly armed troops) went along (2.31.2). The only explanation for their inclusion on these punitive campaigns was the need to attack enemy cropland—pitched battle was not imminent, and so they were not really required on the flanks of the phalanx nor as skirmishers before the initial clash. Their value was to sweep the Megarid, searching out farms and hamlets, while the presence of the Athenian phalanx ensured heavy infantry response would be either decisive or nonexistent.

It should be assumed also that the Peloponnesians used chiefly light-armed soldiers during their ravaging activity in Attica. At one point, patrols who seek to reach the rich fields near the city are mentioned (Thuc. 2.22.2); these advance parties must have been made up of cavalry and light-armed contingents, who could run suddenly onto farmland and then depart at the first sign of resistance. This assumption seems confirmed later when Thucydides relates how Athenian cavalry prevented "the mass of enemy light-armed troops from leaving the protection of their hoplites and ravaging the croplands near the city" (3.1.2)

If we can believe a passage in Diodorus (13.72.4), King Agis in 408 B.C. attempted to march on Athens from Dekeleia with a large force, half of which was composed of light-armed troops. They, too, must have come along solely to ravage the rich land near the city's walls, while the hoplite body intended to keep the Athenian defensive forces busy. Nor should we forget that many states relied on their cavalry to check ravagers—a strategy that could be effective only against vulnerable light-armed troops, not really directed at hoplites in formation. Elsewhere, there are other instances that confirm the key role in agricultural devastation played by light-armed parties (e.g., Xen. Hell. 1.2.2–3, 5.4.42; and cf. other suggestions of this strategy at Arr. Anab. 3.30.10; Thuc. 8.41.2).

One wonders who served in this loose corps of light-armed troops. We do know that the great majority of hoplites were accompanied on expeditions by at least one servant, usually a slave. It seems logical, and is sometimes suggested, that this large service body of slaves could also engage in ravaging the countryside once the hoplites had driven the enemy from the field. But for obvious reasons this practice cannot have been widespread. Would not slave attendants be the worst troops to turn loose in the countryside to destroy crops? Even as mere camp followers they were not always trustworthy, and often liable to desert their masters (e.g., Thuc. 7.75.5). Once they were given the relative freedom to roam through fields and orchards with either weapons or tools they might well not come back. Second, by definition they were servants, charged with carrying a hoplite's weapons, provisions, and bedding and doing other odd jobs. We should assume, then, that they kept near the phalanx, attending to their masters, and tending to their tasks. (See updated commentary, page 211 [Hoplite attendants].) Instead, the light-armed troops were in large part "the very poor, landless men, despised and neglected." This group provided a great deal of the labor power for devastation, and it must have operated in a manner often independent from the main body of heavily armed troops. All soldiers who were not hoplites must have been included, with the exception of archers, slingers, and other special corps of peltasts or light-armed contingents, who were highly trained and at times expected to join in against hoplites in battle (as, for example, at Aitolia, Amphipolis, Spartolos, and Sphakteria). Thucydides remarks on the eve of the battle of Delion:

At that time no standardly equipped light troops were present, nor were any available to Athens. Those who had marched along on this expedition were many times more numerous than their enemy counterparts—but the majority of them had followed along without adequate armament, part of the many citizens and foreigners on hand in the city who made up this invasion force. Because they were the first to leave for home, only a small number still remained. (4.94.1)

The implication is clear that a large, loosely organized group from Athens had followed the hoplites into Boiotia, helped with the fortification of Delion and the ravaging of the countryside (we hear of vines being cut down), and then left for home when they were no longer needed. The idea that ravagers might plunder as they destroyed obviously was an added incentive to many irregular troops who followed in the wake of the invading hoplite corps.

So it seems likely that a prime purpose of bringing any light-armed troops along at all on campaigns in the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. was to have a substantial force of ravagers on hand. For example, when Epameinondas entered Lakonia unopposed in 370 B.C., "many light-armed and unarmed troops also followed along in hope of plunder so that a massive wave of 70,000 soldiers entered the country.... They invaded an unravaged and untouched land and burnt and plundered as far as the river and the city" (Plut. Ages. 31.1-2). Indeed, in the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. light-armed troops were not especially valuable for anything else. Their role in pitched battle was not impressive, since they were extremely vulnerable to both cavalry and hoplite charges. Even after the revolution in tactics and armament in the fourth century B.C., a chief attraction of organized light-armed companies and peltasts remained their success at ravaging (e.g., Isoc. 4.144), for which their speed and mobility were advantageous.

To sum up: armies of invasion were accompanied by lighter-armed auxiliaries, whose job was to range over the countryside destroying and plundering property as they ravaged cropland. Such troops were mobile and quick, but they were also vulnerable to sudden enemy counterattacks, inasmuch as they were loosely organized, poorly disciplined, and relatively unprotected.


It was the frequent practice of the Greek army of invasion bent on the ravaging of the countryside to build a temporary, fortified camp. Naturally, protection at night in hostile territory was needed, and in daytime a headquarters was desirable to coordinate light-armed ravaging patrols and hoplite protective cover. In his description of Archidamos's invasions into Attica, Thucydides implies that the Peloponnesians routinely first established a camp, and then proceeded to use this as a base for ravaging (Thuc. 2.19.2; cf. 3.1.2, 4.2.1). Likewise, during an Athenian ravaging expedition into Boiotia, troops first established a camp, devastated the land, and then returned there for protection at night (3.91.5). In fact, we should assume that in most cases armies ravaged only after establishing a secure base of operations (e.g., Thuc. 4.45.1, 4.54.4, 5.64.5; Xen. Hell. 3.2.2–3).

Besides offering security, the construction of temporary ramparts could directly aid in destroying cultivated crops. Unlike their Roman counterparts, who constructed their stockades from finished stakes that were transplanted from camp to camp, Greek armies cut downtrees on the spot and piled the brush and timber into the rough form of a wall. Consequently, nearby orchards of cultivated fruit trees were prime targets each time a new camp was constructed. The Thebans during their stay in Lakonia (369 B.C.) built their stockade using as "many of the fruit trees that they had cut down as possible, and so in this way guarded themselves" (Xen. Hell. 6.5.30). At Syracuse the Athenians recognized this dual advantage of protection and simultaneous devastation when they felled the surrounding trees to form a palisade around their ships. Before the battle of Mykale the Persians cut down fruit trees belonging to the Milesians in order to form a walled camp against the Greek seaborne attack.10 We hear that Agesilaos during his invasion of Boiotia was able to force his reluctant allies to ravage the orchards around Thebes by moving his camp three to four times a day. In this way, his men "became obligated to cut down fruit trees for wood in order to build their huts" (Polyaen. Strat. 2.1.21; cf. Xen. Hell. 5.4.38).

Nor were fruit trees the only property liable to destruction and subsequent use in fortification. The Athenians under Hippokrates at Delion, besides using native timber for stakes, also cut down the surrounding vines and threw them into their rampart along with stones and bricks pulled down from the houses nearby (Thuc. 4.90.2).

Xenophon relates how the Spartans moved their field camps frequently (Lac. Pol. 12.5; cf. also Onasander 6.13; Xen. Hell. 5.2.38). This had two results: damage to friendly territory could be distributed equitably, and in enemy country devastation could be spread as far as possible. Sometimes even defensive troops and residents alike were obligated to ravage their own territory to obtain wood for fortifications against the enemy. Lycurgus recalled of the Athenian defensive measures after Chaironeia: "The land gave up its trees, the dead their gravestones, and the temples arms. Some began to build walls, others to make ditches and palisades" (Leoc. 44). When Mardonios retreated into Boiotia he "ravaged the surrounding countryside, even though the Thebans had gone over to the side of the Medes. This was not because of any enmity of the Thebans, but on account of his own pressing needs, for he wanted to build a fortified camp for his army" (Hdt. 9.15.2). Likewise, Thucydides relates that in the face of an advancing Athenian wall, the Syracusans were forced to use their own olive trees in a counterfortification (6.99.3).

So, before enemy contingents had begun formal agricultural devastation, we can assume that their mere presence in a fortified camp caused some degree of damage, mostly to fruit trees and on occasion vines and vine stakes. While such ravaging was probably limited to a very small area around the camp and not so flagrantly designed to prompt an immediate enemy counterresponse, it, nevertheless, utilized, in a most effective way, available labor to do two necessary tasks at once. A strong invading force also could sometimes require the local population or opposing troops hastily to protect themselves by using timber from their own orchards and vineyards—and in a way ravage their own territory. M. D. Gutman describes these exact circumstances in the Low Countries during the late seventeenth century:

War led to the destruction of crops and farmers' resources in two significant ways. First, some armies destroyed property inadvertently or through the necessary undertakings of war. For example, troops who marched through a region, stopped overnight, or built a camp destroyed growing crops.... Also, the construction of lines of fortification had the same result because the armies needed a clear view of their surroundings and the approach of potential enemies.

A rather different type of camp in hostile country was the epiteichisma or epiteichismos, a permanent, fortified garrison aimed at plaguing the enemy year-round. A great deal has been written about the strategy and function of epiteichismos, and there is little that needs be contributed to the discussion. One small point, however, requires brief clarification, because it relates directly to the question of agricultural devastation. It is usually assumed that the chief purpose of a year-round fortification in enemy territory was simply to devastate the cropland more thoroughly. For example, according to this line of reasoning, the Spartans sought and achieved a much greater degree of agricultural destruction once they had occupied Dekeleia than earlier, when they came only seasonally under Archidamos. Although there may be some truth to this, the practice of epiteichismos seems to have had rather a different aim: "L'installation d'un 'epiteichismos' pouvait done avoir deux objectifs: un object if economico-militaire, le controle d'un territoire, et un objectif plus largement politique, l'incitation à la révolte." Cropland, of course, could be and was ravaged, but this activity was incidental in comparison. Effective devastation was often better accomplished by large yearly invasions in force when a sufficient body of ravagers could overrun the countryside as part of a more direct challenge for the enemy to march out and fight.

Epiteichismos, on the other hand, was the only lasting way of inciting slave desertion, causing political turmoil by providing sanctuary for exiles and troublemakers, interrupting food supplies to the city, keeping enemy forces on constant patrol, and staging bothersome raids to get plunder and cause terror. Consequently, in the classic instances of epiteichismos—a tactic more common during the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath—we usually hear of the activity of thieves and plunderers, exiles, and runaway slaves and the loss of access to farms. Very rarely, if at all, is there mention of systematic destruction of cropland by the enemy garrison. Epiteichismos had a different purpose than annual invasion of the countryside and was more part of a strategy of exhaustion than a catalyst for decisive pitched battle between hoplite phalanxes; it may not be an exaggeration at all to say that it did not involve the traditional strategy of agricultural devastation. (See updated commentary, page 212 [Epiteichismos].)


Excerpted from Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson. Copyright © 1998 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Walter Donlan
Excellent....Hanson's literary style is clean and lucid, a delight to read.
Colin Duncan
Presents a closely argued and thoroughly supported critique of an entire tendency in classical scholarship to think uncritically about agriculture.

Meet the Author

Victor Davis Hanson is Professor of Classics at California State University, Fresno, and author of The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1986), The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995), and Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (1996).

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