Ancient Warrior Societies, Blog 1, The Warrior Ethos of Ancient Greece

Ancient societies were warrior societies, they had no choice, all citizens had to fight for their city in time of war.  War was part of life, we read how King David was tempted by the sight of Bathsheba bathing on her roof when he let his general go to battle, for it was spring, after harvest, the time when all kings go to war. We read how Socrates served in the Athenian hoplite infantryman in the Peloponnesian War, all noblemen bought the weapons and armor and helmet and shield to serve as a hoplite, and most freeman without landed property served as rowers in the Athenian triple-decked fleet of trireme warships.

There were no conscientious objectors in the ancient world, the ancients would have found the concept absurd.  Battles between neighboring cities could be somewhat ritualized, with the winner negotiating terms with the losing side, but if the battle was more brutal all the men on the losing side could be slaughtered and all women and children could be enslaved, or sometimes they were also slaughtered.  The Roman armies enslaved most cities and tribes they conquered, though maybe they could show leniency towards cities who opened their gates to their armies, or maybe not.   Warfare accounted for most of the slaves in the ancient world, in Athens an estimated one in four people were slaves, in Rome the portion of slaves was much higher.


The Greeks were the most formidable fighting force in the Near East.  The mighty Persian empire loaded their army on ships to fight what they thought would be an easy victory, but were decisively defeated by Athens and Sparta and their allies both on land and on sea in two separate wars.  This established the reputation of the Greeks, later a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, hired a Greek hoplite infantry army to fight for the crown of Persia.  The Greeks dominated the battle, but Cyrus was killed in the fighting.  Losing their patron, the Greeks were forced to fight their way through the Persian Empire back to the Black Sea and then to Greece.  This showed that the mighty Persians were vulnerable, later Alexander the Great of Macedon would conquer all of Persia and some of India also.

The Greeks may have been the founders of Western Civilization, but they were first and foremost a warrior society.  If the Greeks weren’t formidable warriors they would have been conquered by the mighty Persian Empire, which means that there would be no Socrates, no Plato, no Xenophon, the Greeks would not have been able to leave us a cultural legacy.  Some of the Greek yearning for battle was satisfied by the ancient Olympic games open only to Greek cities, most of the Olympic competitions were competitions by warriors, it was not unusual for contestants to perish during the Olympic competitions.

When writing my blogs on the Iliad and the Odyssey, I was struck by the similarities between the stories of the Iliad and stories of Indian courage and stoic fortitude when facing life’s struggles, when facing your enemy, when risking all to argue for the life of your loved ones in the camp of the enemy.[1]

The Greeks did not look forward to a happy place when they crossed the River Styx.  When the heroes of the Iliad descended into Hades, they were but mindless shades that flitted about forgetfully in the dark abyss below.  When Odysseus descended into the underworld he could only converse with the shades of the dead through an offering of blood to revive their memories.  What survived the death of the heroes was their cleos, their honor, the memories of their valor displayed on the battlefield, their valiant deeds of war that would be sung by the bards to their children and grandchildren.

The Greek heroes chose to fight for ten long years for honor of King Menelaus, whose wife, Helen of Troy, was kidnapped by the Paris, Prince of Troy.  The mighty men of Troy chose to fight to the end, though they knew their fight was futile, though they know that in the end Troy would be sacked and their women and children would be enslaved in distant Greece.  The wife of Hector of Troy begs her husband Hector not to return to the battle, not to make her son an orphan, not to make her a widow, but Hector answers her in the Iliad:

“I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
I’ve learned it all too well.  To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself.
For in my heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
King Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear.”[2]

This section in the Iliad expounds the stoic fatalism of the Greeks:
“There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls,
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, now good times in turn.
When Zeus who loves the lighting mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrow only,
he makes a man an outcast – brutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.”[3]

If you were to access the modern criticism that the ancient Greeks had an oppressive patriarchal society you fall far short of the mark, for the Greeks and indeed the Romans and all other long-lived ancient cultures were not merely patriarchal, they were instead downright brutal.  The Greeks and Romans were not merely patriarchal, the Greeks and Romans were true warrior societies.

If you have any doubts, consider the main theme of the Iliad, the very first word is the RAGE that is raging in the heart of Achilles, the rage Achilles feels towards King Agamemnon.  During the years before the sack of Troy the Greeks had been marauding the towns surrounding Troy, capturing many of the local women to serve as concubines, Briseis belonged to Achilles, while Agamemnon had Chrysis, daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo who brought a plague to the Greeks when they refused to release Chryseis.  Angry that he was compelled to release his slave girl to halt the plague, Agamemnon seized Achille’s girl, Briseis, reasoning, Chryseis, Briseis, they both sound alike, what’s the difference?

Likewise, the misadventures of Odysseus in his decade long journey home from the Trojan War begin when his tribe raids a coastal town, seeking plunder and capturing women as slaves, but they linger too long and are attacked by the men of all the surrounding towns.  The Greeks under King Odysseus

During the tales of the misadventures in the Odyssey the entire crew is lost due to their hubris, and only Odysseus is left on the shore of his native Ithaca.  This tale resembles a Clint Eastwood western movie, Odysseus, his son Telemachus and some loyal slaves, armed with bows and arrows and some swords, face down and slaughter over a hundred suitors who seek to confiscate his home and estates.[4]

Ancient Warriors Blog 2


[2] Homer, “The Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), Book 6, p. 210.

[3] Homer, “The Iliad,” Book 24, p. 605.


About Bruce Strom 184 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.