The Athenian Army

From the very beginning, the Athenians were compelled to fight for their new democracy. Their dramatic victories over the Boiotians and Chalkidians in 506 B.C. led many to attribute Athenian military success to their political system. This notion was greatly enhanced by the extraordinary victory of the Athenian army over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C.

On numerous subsequent occasions, Athenian citizens were called upon to go into battle against other states, both Greek and foreign, most often against oligarchies and aristocracies, since the Athenians tended to ally themselves with other democracies.

Fragment of an Athenian (Attic) red-figure bell-krater (mixing bowl), Stb century B.C. H.: 0.12 7 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 15837. A warrior with helmet, sword in scabbard, spear and shield (device: snake) attacks an opponent to the left (now missing).

The army was managed by the polemarch, together with ten generals, one elected from each of the tribes. In their attempt to ensure equality, the Athenians by the 5th century allotted most offices, even the highest archonships. Some positions, however, such as treasurers and the water commissioner, were simply too important to be left to the luck of the draw; these remained elective and therefore became real positions of power whereby a politician demonstrated popular support and remained in office for many years.

The generalships are the clearest example of this practice, and many of the leading statesmen of Athens held the position. Perikles, for instance, never served as eponymous archon-nominally the highest post in the state-but he was elected general of his tribe year after year, and from that position he guided Athenian affairs for decades.

By far the largest component of the army was the infantry composed of hoplites, citizens fighting in a full set of armor. They went into battle protected by a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (shin guards), carrying a large round shield and long thrusting spear. On occasion, the state would issue such equipment to citizens who could not afford a set of their own.

Athenian (Attic) red-figure lekythos (oil container), late 6th century B.C., attributed to the Roundabout Painter. H.: 0.138 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 24061. The Roundabout Painter was named for this vase, which shows three warriors and a trumpeter running around the body of the jug. The warriors wear helmets and greaves, and carry shields ornamented with various devices: an anchor, insect, or serpent.

Citizens received military training during their service as ephebes from age 18 to 20:

The people elect two athletic trainers and instructors for them, to teach them their drill as heavy-armed soldiers and to use the bow, javelin, and sling.... They go on in this mode of life for the first year; in the following year an assembly is held in the theater, and the ephebes give a display of drill before the people and receive a shield and spear from the state and they then serve on patrols in the country and are quartered at the guard-posts. Their service on patrol goes on for two years; the uniform is a mantle; they are exempt from all taxes.... When the two years are up, they now are members of the general body of citizens. (Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 42.2-5)

Richer Athenians enrolled in the cavalry, as always, a smaller elite military force made up of those wealthy enough to own and maintain a good mount. The state carried out an inspection and registered each horse on an annual basis, so that the owner could draw a maintenance allowance. Several dozen lead strips recording the color, brand, and value of the cavalry mounts have been found in the Agora, where the cavalry trained.

Inscribed lead strip from the cavalry records, 4th century B.C. L.: 0.073 m. Athens, Agora Museum IL 1563. Recovered from a well in the northwest corner of the Agora, this lead strip carries an inscription recording the registration of a horse. On one side is the name of the owner, Konon; on the other a description of the horse, a chestnut, with a centaur brand, as well as its price, 700 drachmas. Such strips were clearly used for the annual assessment of the cavalry and would then form the basis of a reimbursement by the state should the horse be lost in battle. At the end of the year these records would become obsolete and could be reused or discarded, as in the case of this example found in a well. From the series of similar strips recovered in Athens we learn that the maximum assessment of a horse was 1,200 drachmas, well below the value of many horses and representing the maximum limit of the state's responsibility; the minimum amount was 500 drachmas.
Lead armor tokens, 3rd century B.C. D.: 0.018-0.021 m. Athens, Agora Museum IL 1575 (helmet), 1573-1574 (breastplate), 1579 (shield), and 1572, 1576-1577 (greave). Each token is stamped on both sides. On one side a piece of armor is shown: a helmet, breastplate, shield, or greave, and on the other side, the letter Α (alpha), Γ (gamma), or Δ (delta). These tokens might have been used as exchanges for state-owned armor. The letters may have designated sizes for the armor pictured on the other side. Public armor was most likely kept on hand for the arming of irregulars, thetes, and perhaps even slaves, at the time of mobilization, whereas Athenians on the official hoplite register were legally responsible for procuring their own military equipment. By the 3rd century B.C. there was only a small standing army, so the number of irregulars must have grown to include much of the city's middle-class population.

Here, too, were found the clay disks stamped with the name of the hipparch (cavalry commander) Pheidon. The 4th-century B.C. historian Xenophon describes the duties of a cavalry commander:

First, he must sacrifice to propitiate the gods on behalf of the cavalry; second, he must make the processions during the festivals worth seeing; further, he must conduct all the other obligatory displays before the people with as much splendor as possible (The Cavalry Commander 3.11 translated by E.C. Marchand).
Clay tokens of a cavalry commander, 4th century B.C. D.: 0. 02 9-0.034 m. Athens, Agora Museum MC 1164-1165, 1169-1170, 1179, 1183, 1189, 1190. The tokens are stamped with the title, hipparch, cavalry commander; his assignment: "at Lemnos;" and the man's name and deme: Pheidon of Thria. The eight examples reproduced here are part of a group of thirty similar tokens found in the same well, at a level dating to the second half of the 4th century B.C., as the inscribed lead strip describing Konon's horse. During the 4th century, the cavalry commander at Lemnos was not only one of the principal officers of the cavalry but also the ranking Athenian official on the island. In a remarkable example of correlation between archaeological and literary evidence, Pheidon may be the same individual mentioned in a fragment of the 4th-century B.C. comic poet Mnesimachos, who wrote: "Go forth, Manes, to the Agora, to the Herms, the place frequented by the phylarchs (other cavalry commanders), and to their handsome pupils whom Pheidon trains in mounting and dismounting" (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 9.402).
Clay tokens or passports of a border commander, 4th century B.C. D.: 0.039-0.04 m. Athens, Agora Museum SS 8080, MC 1245. The tokens were inscribed with the name of Xenokles, his deme, Perithoidai, and his title, Peripolarch. The peripolarch was the military officer responsible for the frontier garrisons and the border patrols. These tokens were probably used as passports and for messengers reporting to and from military headquarters.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).