Ancient Greeks At War

Simon Elliott

The ancient Greeks had some incredible military achievements, but all are in the shadow of Alexander the Great.
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I grew up with a passion for the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and fondly remember drawing my first Roman chariot with wax crayons on old computer print out paper aged about five! That love of all things ancient translated into something of an obsession as an adult, hence my son being called Alexander! Later in life I have now realized my dream of being a best selling and award-winning historian of the ancient world, with no fewer than 10 books now published to date. However, my largest and most lavishly illustrated volumes are Romans at War and the forthcoming Ancient Greeks at War, both through Casemate Publishing. It is the latter that I reflect on here given it is the work I have most recently completed.

Bust of Pericles

In this new book I have covered a vast chronology and geography, ranging from the Minoan period through the rise of Rome in the eastern Mediterranean, and from the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in Italy through to the Punjab and central Asia. It references many events that still resonate in our world today. Think for example of the difference in the narrative of world history if the Achaemenid Persians had won any of the key stages of their conflicts in the Greco-Persian Wars against the Greek poleis, if Philip II hadn’t been sent as a hostage to Thebes as a teenager, or if the Hellenistic kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean had been able to hold off the growing might of the Roman Republic for at least a few generations.

However, the best example of a truly startling legacy from this period is that of the mighty Alexander the Great. This was truly the ultimate young man in a hurry. A leader who, in his own lifetime, came to believe he was a demi-God, the conqueror of his known world. A warrior who always led from the front, the very idea he should hold back an affront to his visceral martial nature. As Plutarch says (Lives, Alexander, 41):

“Alexander made a point of risking his life…both to exercise himself and to inspire others to acts of courage…”

Yet, interestingly, his immediate legacy in the aftermath of his death was one of failure, given he neglected to set in place a succession plan fit to maintain the integrity of his vast conquests. Indeed, one can easily imagine the key players at the very birth of the Hellenistic world staring uneasily at each other over the dying king in the smoky dimness of his bedchamber in Babylon, with Alexander’s alleged last words only fuelling uncertainty over the future. Most of these characters were to play a leading role in the subsequent Wars of the Successors that ran through various phases from 322 BC to the assassination of Seleucus I in 281 BC by Ptolemy Ceraunus. When this succession of conflicts ended Alexander’s empire was no more, split asunder into various Hellenistic kingdoms striving to maintain his legacy, at least in name, until the Romans in the west and Parthians in the east in turn defeated them.

Alcibiades, being taught by Socrates

Fortunately for Alexander, this failed Hellenistic attempt at imperial longevity proved a distraction in terms of his legacy, given subsequent generations saw it very differently. This was because his astonishing conquests were later viewed with awe, truly capturing the imagination of millions and creating a legend that set the bar impossibly high for all future conquerors, kings and military leaders. All such aspirants failed in comparison, at least in the eyes of their contemporaries, and often themselves. The many we could list in the ancient world include Antiochus III (himself a key participant in many of the events detailed in the book), Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar (who wept at the statue of Alexander in Cadiz, and the subject of one of my earlier Casemate titles), Augustus, Nero, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Alexander Severus, and later Justinian the Great and Charlemagne. There have been far more subsequently, all striving to emulate the success of the boyish world conqueror, but failing. Thus Alexander’s conquests, for good or ill, have become a metaphor for imperial over-achievement.

However, if we move forward in time to today, at this chronological distance it is difficult to determine the legacy of Alexander in our own world. Individual views tend to be bi-polar, based on one’s personal politics and geographical origin. The king is either eulogised or demonised, with the popular trend today towards the latter. Indeed, for many today the over-arching importance of Alexander lies more in the minefield of philosophical and moral debate than in the practical politics of the age.

This modern view totally ignores a vast swathe of contemporary nuancing. Foremost was the unending threat perceived by the Greek-speaking world from the Achaemenid Persian Empire, so evident in the Greco-Persian Wars which are detailed in full in the book. Challenging this provided both Philip II and Alexander with their primary motivation as they sought glory in the east. Alexander’s success here cannot be underestimated. It lifted forever the eastern threat to the Greek-speaking world. It also removed the main barrier preventing the spread of Greek culture and settlement eastwards. For the first time the Mesopotamian frontier became part of the Greek world, while in Bactria and India Hellenistic settlement was profligate. Thus the combined results of his conquests in halting the spread of Persian influence westwards, and spreading Greek culture eastwards (for good or ill) as far as India for the next 500 years, is Alexander’s most tangible historical achievement.

Yet this is just one example I choose, admittedly the most high profile from the book, to set out how the legacy of the likes of Leonidas, Themistocles, Pericles, Alcibiades, Lysander, Epaminondas, Philip II, Olympias, Antigonus Monophthalmus, Ptolemy, Seleucus and Antiochus III still resonates in our world today. That is why I can confidently say that, in so many ways, the world of the Ancient Greeks at War is still alive with us, it being both a source of inspiration, and also of many lessons to learn as each generation comes and goes.


Dr Simon Elliott is an award winning and best selling historian, archaeologist, author, broadcaster, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent, Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology, Ambassador for Museum of London Archaeology, Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels and President of the Society of Ancients. His latest book is Ancient Greeks at War, published by Casemate.