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War, Profit, Loss, and the Hellenistic Greek Polis: A Balance Sheet

Graham Oliver

          Although the Hellenistic polis suffered from inferior resources compared to those of the Hellenistic kings, a relatively large proportion of its limited revenue was channeled into the military (Chaniotis 2005: 115-6).  Military operations were expensive and consideration will have been given to the cost of warfare.  This paper considers what factors were weighed up in a balance-sheet approach to warfare.  Warfare as both inter-state conflict and disturbances during peacetime (e.g. piratical raids; see Migeotte 2008) threatened the security of the polis.  For many Hellenistic poleis war had become much more of a defensive concern.  This paper considers how far poleis were more concerned with the avoidance of loss, or minimization of threats to the welfare of the state as opposed to monetary profit per se. Readiness for war and warfare were often an investment in the well-being of the polis.  The paper focuses on evidence from the fourth to second centuries BCE.

            Section I considers the concern for the financing of military operations:  poleis were clearly required to “cost” actions that demanded the mobilization of military units.  Some inter-state agreements provide important evidence.  Hierapytna and Rhodes decreed different obligations to support each other in times of trouble and specified closely some of the logistics and economies of their mutual aid (Austin 20062 no. 113 = Syll.3 581 = SVT III 581).  Military operations required specific financial calculations and projections.  It is clear that the negative side of the balance sheet of war is easier for us to discern than the positive side.

            In Section II we turn to the other side of the balance sheet.  Brun and Descat (2000: 216-23) have outlined the profits that individuals could draw from war, but not all warfare was destined (nor designed?) to capture booty or produce financial gain.  Military operations required money, but funding for such undertakings re-cycled funds for military operations back into the civic sphere.  Not all poleis would have used mercenary forces; citizen soldiers provided the foundation for the armies of many poleis (Ma 2000).  What was crucial to many military operations was the protection of the financial interests of the polis.  Rhodes and Hierapytna specify threats to their own revenues as factors that would initiate the terms of the treaty they had drawn up.  And there are many examples where warfare was waged to prevent losses to the resources of the polis.

            The paper concludes that for the Hellenistic Greek polis, a balance-sheet approach to military operations was more than likely to show a financial loss.  But if individuals, not only from within the polis but also from outside, were able to provide for shortfalls in civic finances then shortfalls might have been balanced out. If we broaden the perspective, however, then we can see that investment in warfare protected the resources of the polis and therefore the financial interests of its members.  If we appreciate the realities of the financial burdens of warfare and the benefits of using civic resources (both financial and human), we can gain a much clearer understanding of the mentalities with which Greek poleis confronted the prospects of security and warfare in the Hellenistic period.

(521 words)

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Profits and Losses in Ancient Greek Warfare

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