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Political Hoplites: Infantry against Oligarchy in Classical Greece

Matt Simonton

Scholars have traditionally considered the military one of the key factors underpinning the distinctively egalitarian political trajectory of ancient Greece. Whether it is the influence of hoplite tactics on Archaic government or the contribution of the navy to Athenian democracy, military participation has been thought to have a significant effect on the broadening of political participation (Hanson, Strauss, Raaflaub). Somewhat surprisingly, however, historians have been slow to analyze the Greek army not simply as a background condition to politics but as a direct participant in actual political struggles (exceptions: Hornblower 2004, Lee). The present paper offers a partial corrective to this oversight by elucidating the means by which hoplites in the Classical period resisted takeovers by oligarchs. The armed forces – or rather, the settings and circumstances under which armies assembled and communicated – were ideally suited to coordinating large groups of people against a small usurping faction.

It is first necessary to see that gatherings of the army are simply one example of a larger class of collective activities that threatened oligarchies. Plato in Book 8 of the Republic identifies several settings as particularly dangerous to oligarchies, including “attending a festival [theōria] or going on campaign [strateia]” (556c). The danger of these and other situations is that they bring together ruler and ruled in a setting that highlights the numerical superiority of the many and the comparative weakness of the oligarchs. (An episode from Xenophon’s Cyropaedia offers a comparable warning.) Such scenarios are conducive to common knowledge and large-scale coordination, to use terms developed by Chwe and applied recently to the ancient world by Ober and Teegarden. As it turns out, Plato was right that oligarchs had to be careful about festivals, since numerous sources show democratic revolutions taking place during festival settings (Simonton). The question is whether military musters and campaigns functioned in a similar way.

The paper identifies two interconnected levels of democratic resistance within the armed forces: small groups and large-scale mutinies. Multiple sources (Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus, Xenophon) describe small, impromptu meetings in which disaffected hoplites share their grievances and explore the idea of revolting against non-democratic commanders. Oligarchs (and tyrants) normally tried to eliminate opportunities for the common people to gather and communicate, but the nature of an armed camp rendered such conversations difficult to control.

If the common soldiers managed to gather and conspire in small groups in this way, often all it took was a single incident to cause the groups to align and carry out a full-blown mutiny. For example, I examine an episode from Thucydides (4.130ff.) in which a violent Spartan commander triggers an uprising of the army at Mende and a collapse of the oligarchic regime there. The commander’s very public manhandling of a democratic partisan from the ranks of the hoplite army serves as a focal point for the rest of the pro-democratic forces present. Spartans were notorious for their anti-social behavior (Hornblower 2000), but in the Mende episode domestic political issues of democracy vs. oligarchy were more important than the meddling of a Spartan outsider. Similar incidents from Diodorus and from elsewhere in Thucydides attest to the seriousness of the problem for oligarchies and help to explain warnings against oligarchic mistreatment of the common people (Aristotle, the Rhetoric to Alexander, Aeneas Tacticus).

Interestingly, while the army encouraged democratic collective action, it could also be used to suppress oligarchic conspiracies. I conclude with an example from Aeneas Tacticus (11.7-10), in which the author relates how the prostatēs of the people at Argos defended the democracy by having the populace stand watch under arms according to tribe. This arrangement prevented a group of conspiring oligarchs from assembling by scattering them across the different civic subdivisions, in which they were vastly outnumbered by pro-democratic hoplites. The large, inclusive nature of the hoplite army thus both empowered the majority and defused oligarchic threats.

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Popular Politics and Ancient Warfare

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