Primary History

Ancient Greeks: Greeks at war

  • Whom did the Greeks fight?

    The Greek states often fought each other. Sparta and Athens fought a long war, called the Peloponnesian War, from 431 to 404 BC. Sparta won. Only the threat of invasion by a foreign enemy made the Greeks forget their quarrels and fight on the same side. Their main enemy was Persia.

    The wars against Persia lasted on and off from 490 to 449 BC. The Persian kings tried to conquer Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire. In the end, it was Greece which defeated Persia, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in the 330s BC.

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  • The Battle of Marathon

    The Battle of Marathon was a famous Greek victory against the Persians. About 10,000 Greeks, mostly from Athens, fought an army of 20,000 Persians led by King Darius. The Greeks surprised their enemies by charging downhill straight at the Persians.

    Marathon is remembered for the heroism of a Greek named Pheidippides. Before the battle, he'd run for 2 days and nights - over 150 miles (240 km) - from Athens to Sparta to fetch help. Then he fought at Marathon. After the battle, he ran 26 miles (42 km) non-stop to Athens, but died as he gasped out the news of victory. The modern Marathon race is over the same distance as his epic run from Marathon to Athens.

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  • Fighting in formation

    The backbone of the Greek army was the hoplite. He was a foot-soldier, and his weapons were a long spear and a sword. He also had a round shield. Hoplites fought in lines or ranks. Eight to ten ranks made a formation called the phalanx. Each soldier held his long spear underarm. Enemy soldiers saw only a mass of spears and shields, that was hard to break through - and hard to stop once it started moving forward. Lots of phalanxes massed together became like a giant human tank. The Greeks had archers and cavalry, but it was the phalanx that won many famous battles.

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  • What armour did Greek soldiers wear?

    A hoplite had to pay for his armour, unless his father was killed in battle. Then he was given his father's weapons and armour. Rich men had metal armour, shaped to the chest, but others wore cheap armour made of linen cloth. Layers of cloth were glued together, to make a tough, bendy jacket, which could be covered with metal plates.

    A Greek soldier carried a big round shield, made of wood and metal. On his legs he wore metal guards, called greaves. On his head he wore a metal helmet, often with a crest on top. The crest was usually made of horsehair, and stuck up to make the soldier look taller and fiercer.

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Fun Facts
  • Greek ships usually carried 20 or more hoplites (soldiers) for deck-fighting.

  • If a Spartan soldier was afraid and ran away, he was in disgrace. He had to prove his bravery in the next battle.

  • Spartan boys had to train without underwear, and wore just one tunic - winter and summer.

  • 'At ease', a soldier rested his spear end on the ground and his shield on his thigh. He sometimes did this to show he wasn't scared of an enemy too.

  • Army wagons carried shovels, axes and sickles (for harvesting grain, for food).

  • On the march and in battle, orders were given by blowing horns and trumpets.

  • Body armour was made from linen cloth, in layers glued together to make a stiff shirt. This was lighter and cheaper than metal armour.

  • Spartans did not join the other Greeks to fight at Marathon. They stayed at home to take part in a religious festival.

  • After a victory, a general gave a shield to a temple to thank the gods. The remains of these victory-shields have been found.

  • Greek soldiers sang as they marched into battle, to the music of flutes and trumpets.

  • A phalanx soldier carried his shield on his left arm. His shield helped protect the man next to him. Only the soldier on the far right of the line was exposed to the enemy.

  • Some of Alexander's Greek soldiers carried very long spears - over 6m/19 ft long!.

  • A metal helmet was heavy. A soldier usually pushed it up on top his head, pulling it down over his face before a battle.

  • Soldiers carried their food in a bag: usually barley, cheese, salted meat and onions.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.