Politics & War
Just as the geography of Greece is divided by rivers, rugged mountains and seas, its peoples are split. They are governed by independent city-states (poleis) and the cities are linked by a complex network of treaties. Sometimes several poleis will form leagues to oppose a powerful rival or support a common cause but these leagues seldom last long in the face of competing goals. This complexity is central to Greek life and is reflected in the hearts of the Greeks and their gods. Yet despite the fierce independence of the city-states they all share the notion of a single Greek nation; one people with one religion and one culture.
The age of new legends begins in the 370s BCE. The once-mighty Spartan Hegemony that controlled the Peloponnese and kept the Persians at bay has fallen. An alliance led by Thebes, Athens and Corinth checked Sparta's northward advance by attacking when the Spartan army was in Anatolia. The alliance quickly fell apart as the victors quarrelled over the spoils. There now exists a precarious balance of power between the major poleis. Democratic Athens looks to the Aegean Sea to expand its trading empire. Thebes plots to become the new superpower of Greece. The oligarchy of Corinth seeks to control all trade across the isthmus and the monarchy of Thessaly watches its northern border for Macedonians and Dacians. Martial Sparta nurses its wounded pride and rebuilds. The many smaller poleis and Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean look out for themselves and the interests of their citizens. These colonies have no political ties to their mother cities as many are home to political exiles from larger cities.
Civilisation flourishes beyond Greece's borders. To the east the Greeks' old enemy, the Persians, are rebuilding their strength after taking back their holdings in Anatolia from the Spartans. Persia’s massive land army now has its eyes on expanding the borders of the already huge empire. One such border is with the scorching deserts of Arabia, a place of nomadic tribes and the mysterious djinn. Egypt is decrepit and dying, clinging to empty monuments to gods and rulers long forgotten. Along the coast of North Africa the power of Carthage grows as it increases its naval strength and forms armies that field war elephants. To the north of Greece in the forests and mountains are the tribes of Dacia. These barely-civilised barbarians are slow to trust and quick to fight. In the west the upstart city of Rome is stealing territory and even Greek customs with alarming aggression.
For thirty years Sparta dominated Greece. They secured their position by defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War of 404BC but then lost it by stretching themselves too thin. The Spartan King Agesilaus became overconfident and took his army into Persia. He left General Lysander behind to organise the occupation using puppet governments and garrisons, all of which became personally loyal to Lysander.
Political intrigue began to undermine the Spartans, with Lysander's rivals growing jealous of his empire. The infighting weakened Spartan rule and four years ago Thebes was liberated. A small band of exiles sneaked into the city at night and overthrew the puppet government. Thebes rose in open revolt and pushed the outnumbered Spartans out. Despite repeated campaigns against them the Thebians held on to their freedom, buying time for other cities to overthrow their Spartan rulers. The liberated cities grouped around Thebes to form the Boetian League which broke the back of Spartan Hegemony at the battle of Leuctra.
Now there is no superpower dominating Greece, though Thebes wishes to claim the title. They are the ascending power and wield great influence over their former allies. However, they now spend much of their time bickering with fellow victor Athens over the prestige of winning the war.
Though beaten and much reduced, Sparta remains a considerable power and most of its army escaped Leuctra. Whilst Sparta’s star may have fallen for now, it will rise again.
The basic political unit is the polis, or city state consisting of a central city surrounded by the rural hinterland that sustains it. All Greeks are one people, but it is their polis that defines their culture and loyalty to the home city is fierce.
The organisation of a city varies greatly. Athens and Thebes lead the way in giving power to the people. They are the only poleis where policy and laws are made by massive meetings of citizens. This system was created in Athens a few hundred years ago to curtail the power of a corrupt aristocracy and the constant rise and fall of tyrants. The aristocracy has been deposed by political bosses and wealthy merchants but citizens, a fraction of the Athenian population, can vote. Athenian-style democracy is seen to be an aberration in the eyes of traditional Greeks in other cities.
Sparta and Thessaly represent the other extreme, with traditional kings wielding supreme power. Sparta is unique in that it has two royal lines with one, the Agiads, senior to the other, the Eurypontids. The reason for this has been lost to time but it means there is always a legitimate and strong king in the city while the other wages war afield.
In other cities there is a monarch but they are ceremonial figures. True power is held by a council of elders, called an oligarchy. These are a mix of priests, patriarchs of old families and wealthy traders. They provide stability because while a king can easily turn to tyranny, a council is less prone to do so. Periodically councillors, nobles or even entire governments are forced into exile by a disaffected population.
All three forms of government have failed before, leading to the rise of tyrants. These opportunists use a moment of weakness or chaos to seize power and rely on force and populism to hold on to it. Almost all tyrants try to pass power on to their children to become a new monarchy but most heirs lack the popular support of their parent. Tyrants are not by their nature evil or oppressive, they just came to power by unconventional means. The most powerful tyranny in currently in Greece is Syracuse, ruled by Dionysius the Elder.
Leagues and Hegemonies
Greece has no national government and has never been unified. Power at a national level is wielded by the strongest and most influential poleis which build leagues around themselves. This formal alliance of poleis binds them to mutual defence and free trade. Leagues are formed over the long term to build trade or to contain the spread of a competing league but short-term leagues may form to fight a war with specific aims. Mostly they coalesce around a single powerful polis trying to spread its power, and these leagues can be very one-sided. However, leagues may involve a number of small poleis banding together to protect themselves from the bigger powers and these leagues are more balanced.
The nearest Greece ever comes to a national government is when a league spreads over most of the country. This is a hegemony and may appear in many forms. The Spartan Hegemony was built by victories and held together by force. Currently Athens and Thebes are competing to dominate a cultural hegemony built by wealth and held together by more ephemeral links. Instead of occupying cities with garrisons they fill them with merchants and artists spreading Athenian or Thebian ideas over all Greece.
It has been over a century since the last attempted invasion by a foreign power, leaving the cities to fight among themselves. The cause and scale of these wars has ranged from grand alliances to overthrow hegemony down to ownership of mines.
Whilst much of Greek culture is shaped by war, there are few professional soldiers beyond small mercenary bands, city guards and Spartans. At times of war all ranks of society become soldiers and each has to provide their own equipment and thus their wealth dictates what role they fulfil. The richest with their horses become cavalry while the poorest without armour serve as skirmishers.
The phalanx of hoplites was a Spartan innovation and now forms the basis for all Greek warfare. Armed with a dory spear and a short sword, hoplites are named after the hoplon shield they carry. Each one is decorated with symbols of their polis and personal motifs. A few phalanxes use the longer sarissa spear, but their greater training and expense makes them rarer.
The basic phalanx formation is of 500 to 1500 men in a shield wall eight rows deep. Each row has a leader and the unit has commanders at the front and rear to maintain order.
With only limited and infrequent training the simplicity of the phalanx makes it an appealing formation, though they lack speed because of the density of men, weight of their armour and the length of the spears. With only protection at the front, the formation is vulnerable to attacks from the sides and rear.
With their shield on their left arm, hoplites usually seek cover under their neighbour's shield and phalanxes have a tendency to drift rightwards. The more experienced troops are placed on the right edge, where their discipline helps maintain the formation. This makes it a position of prestige in each phalanx and on the battlefield at large.
Skirmishers harass phalanxes trying to break their formation. The most common skirmisher is the peltast, named after their wicker pelte shields, who are armed with javelins. With only thick leather armour they focus on mobility around the battlefield and avoid direct contact with the enemy. The poorest of society, the conscripts and the slaves, serve as psiloi - unarmoured troops without a shield and equipped with simple, often ineffective, missile weapons.
Cavalry are the rarest force on the battlefield due to the expense, and only the richest cities are able to field more than 500 at a time. Each rider is equipped with a xyston (spear), a xyphos (short sword) and cuirass (light armour) but no shield. While cavalry do perform drills and lead peacetime processions, their use on the battlefield is limited by their low numbers and simple saddles. With no stirrups and only basic tack, most of a rider's attention is spent trying to stay in the saddle. Rather than charge the enemy, cavalry are used to harass skirmishers, screen phalanxes and pursue the fleeing. Because of this limited role, many wealthy Greeks prefer to serve as hoplites where there is more honour and glory to be gained.
The short campaign season combined with a desire for decisive outcomes leads to large set piece battles, sometimes on prearranged battlefields. Greek generals look for flat battle sites with uncomplicated terrain and a good surface. The more interesting the terrain, the more chance there is that the hoplite phalanxes will lose formation which could cause disaster. Generals lead from the front, boosting the morale of the troops and proving their bravery. However, by placing themselves at the heart of the melee they are unable to direct the battle once it begins.
Tactically, many battles are identical. The phalanxes form up side by side, presenting a continuous shield wall across the battlefield. Cavalry is placed on the flanks to protect the phalanxes' vulnerable sides while the skirmishers start in front of the shield wall trying to disrupt the approaching enemy formation. As the gap closes the skirmishers retreat through gaps between phalanxes and the decisive clash of shield walls begins.
After the battle the dead are ransomed back to the losing side for proper burial at home. Unclaimed bodies are given the most basic of burials but always with the proper rites and respect for the dead. Despite the brutal and close quarters nature of the combat, it is rare for a battle’s casualties to be greater than 5% of the combatants because neither side has any interest in slaughter. With so many of the working population of a polis forming the army, large casualties can deal significant economic damage even to the victor. Badly weakened losers are less able to pay tribute, giving the victor no desire to pursue a fleeing enemy. Pursuit is only done to capture slaves or to prevent the fleeing hoplites from reforming their phalanxes and returning to the battle.
The greatest shame in combat is to flee the battlefield, abandoning your brothers-in-arms by dropping your hoplon and running. The hoplon is not just for personal defence, it is for the defence of your neighbour, your phalanx, and your polis. Throwing away such a symbol of unity and kinship earns the title of ripsaspis - one who threw his shield. Only social ruin awaits these cowards. The weakness of the wooden, bronze and iron weapons means that it is common for equipment to break during battle. Returning home with a broken weapon shows a soldiers bravery as they have clearly been deep in the fighting.
Despite the prosperity the sea brings to many of the cities, navies are small. Triremes are expensive to build, crew and maintain. Until the Persian wars, Greek navies consisted of fewer than 30 ships and these were used for moving land troops.
Ship-to-ship fighting is about ramming and boarding. Poor communication limits fleet tactics to lining up side by side (periplus) or forming up line astern (diekplus). Captains then attempt to manoeuvre their ships to strike the side of the enemy while trying to avoid being struck themselves. However, no matter what the opening gambit, combat descends into close-quarters fighting and boarding attempts as oars became smashed and ships lose mobility.
Pankration is a martial art composed of strikes with fists and legs, counters, arm locks, choke holds and throws. The preferred stance is with the knees bent and the hands at eye level, palms towards the opponent. The fighting style requires space for movement and is of little use in phalanxes and large battles. When used in competitions, the only rules are that eye gouging and biting are forbidden and that bouts last until one fighter surrenders. This is signalled by raising an index finger. Competition referees are armed with big sticks to enforce the rules.