ACTICAL AND STRATEGIC
COMMUNICATIONS IN ANCIENT GREECE,
FIFTH CENTURY BC
ACTICAL AND STRATEGIC
COMMUNICATIONS IN ANCIENT GREECE,
FIFTH CENTURY BC
This dissertation will examine how effective the transmission of orders was in Ancient Greece in the fifth century BC.
We will focus both on short–range tactical meansof communication, such as vocal orders, and on wider–ranging strategic methods such as fire–signals. This largely neglected topic falls within the wider purview of ancient military intelligence,which has received some attention over the last decades
.Following recent re–examinations of Greek Warfare, we will argue against the prevalent idea that fifth century Greek armies neglected communications.
In this we will be following, and furthering, the works of scholars such as Everett Wheeler and Frank Russel, among others.
While neither Wheeler nor Russell focus exclusively on the transmission of orders, their respective theories on generalship and intelligence gathering are invaluable to any examination of our own topic.
Our main goals concerning tactical communications will be threefold. We will firstly determine whether vocal orders were audible on an ancient battlefield; secondly, we will examine whether Hellenic generals were in a position to issue commands; and thirdly,
we will analyse how far Greek armies could be counted upon to follow instructions. As for strategic communications, we will aim to prove that the Greeks were capable of delivering more than rudimentary pre–arranged messages via their fire–signals.
We will also examine how crucial strategic communications could be in the planning of a military campaign.
This dissertation will thus contribute to the ongoing movement of re–consideration that hasgripped ancient Greek military history over the last decades, and hopefully temper seemingly outdated notions concerning Hellenic communication
while tactical intelligence ‘would take over at the point where two sides arenearly in sight of each other and includes short-term material influencing the choice of a battlefield’.
While these definitions seemingly present a clear and obvious difference between both terms, Rankov stresses that some overlap is inevitable.
Alcibiades, for instance, was in the middle of combat when a messenger brought him news from afar.
This message thus falls both within the purview of tactical and
strategic communications: the messenger set off miles away from the battle and bore news unrelated to the ongoing clash,
yet he delivered his information to a general in the middle of combat.
This is not the result of a faulty definition on Rankov’s part. Rather, we must look to the vagaries of warfare to explainthis phenomenon,
as well as the piecemeal nature of our sources who often do not provide enough clarityto easily distinguish between the two definitions.
Since ourtopicirestricted to military communications, we will adopt the same terminology as Austin and Rankov but offer a slightly different definition: tactical communications
will include any and all methods of communication that occur within the battlefield, where as strategic communications willr evolve around those methods of transmission used in the widertheatre of war.
To offer a practical example, Brasidas’ order to form hollow square at Lyncestis was a form of tactical communication, whereas the fire-signals sent to Alcidas’ fleet were a form of strategic communication academics to actively work with the locals. Students in particular should be encouraged to seek out such‘irregular’ sources of information instead of relying on more official methods:
I would have never foundthe ruins if not for my chance meeting, convinced as I was that if the experts at the Museum could not
help me, no one else could No army can function without proper communications.
Even the best trained men are useless if they cannot be told where to go and what to do. This is one aspect of warfare that has remained constantthroughout history, and it stands as the driving motivation behind this dissertation:
how effective was the transmission of orders in fifth-century Greece? Could a commander affect thc ourse of anon going battlethrough his tacticalorders?
How important were strategic communications in the planning and executionof a campaign?
AndcouldtheGrcommunicateunforeseen events through their fire-signals?
Militarycommunications, as a topic, fall within the larger purview of military intelligence.
The latter,however, has received some attention by scholars of late, whereas a more precise examination is stillneeded for the former.
Boris Rankov, whose work focuses on the study of ancient Roman intelligence,
separates military intelligence into two major categories: strategic and tactical.
According to his definition,strategic intelligence is ‘principally concerned with the assessment of an enemy’s intention and ability towage war’,
whereas tactical intelligence ‘isconcerned with identifying the location, strength, andintentions of an immediate enemy on the march or on the battlefield.
An earlier definition of his followsmuch the same idea: he defines strategic intelligence as ‘the analysis of everything that happens before the arrival at the battlefield’
Syracuse, and the initial stages of the flight of the Ten Thousand. This unusual military formation demanded a greater degree of flexibility, cooperation, and communication than the phalanx and as such arguably represents the epitome of tactical communications among Hellenic armies.
The second part will consist of two more chapters. The first will establish whether or not the Greeks could communicate unforeseen events through fire-signals.
We will examine the siege of Plataea, as well as Alcidas’ naval expedition against Corcyra, two episodes that strongly suggest fifth century Greek fire- signalling methods were far more effective than what later authors such as Polybius have claimed.
Apart from our literary evidence, this chapter will also include a practical experiment aimed at establishing thbenefits and detriments of the earliest known Greek fire-signalling method: Aeneas Tacticus’ hydraulic telegraph.
This fourth century invention was an ingenious way to easily communicate a number of predetermined messages, though it could not transmit anything that had not been agreed upon before.
Polybius claims this system was the most advanced of its age, which in turn implies that previous systems could not communicate unforeseen events either. Our experiment will show that the advantage of Aeneas’ system was not its sophistication or effectiveness, but rather its ease of use.
The second and last chapter will follow the expedition of king Agis II of Sparta against Argos, and will prove how crucial strategic communications could be during a military campaign.
Whatever information we uncover over the course of this dissertation will contribute to furthering our understanding of Greek warfare overall.
Proper order transmissions are the bedrock of any successful
army, and an examination of how they functioned in ancient Greece is overdue.
The reason for separating the fifth and fourth centuries has its roots in the works of previous historians.
On those rare occasions where scholars have granted a cursory glance at Hellenic communications, t
here seems to be a generalconsensus that the fourth century saw a marked increase in the quality and overall use of order transmission among the Greeks.
However, these conclusions seem to be the result of the unfortunatedisparity of information between the fifth and fourth centuries.
A telling illustration is Rosemary Moore’s survey of the role of the general, which has a separate section on the fourth century, but relegates the fifth century to a section on the archaic age.
Our research, therefore, will aim to explore the fifth century in more depth in an effort to uncover as much as possible about Hellenic communications at this earlier stage of their history
Any examination of military communications will invariably touch upon many areas of warfare, such as generalship or tactical flexibility.
Fortunately, most of these areas have attracted the attention of modern scholarship far more than military communications. Generalship Concerning generalship
in Greek warfare, the main theory that seems to be supported even today is that Hellenic leaders were unable to command their troops in battle.
This dissertation will suggest otherwise. It is thought that a Greek general could only plan ahead, his role effectively over once he set his men in line.
A direct consequence of this perceived limitation was that generals would almost always lead fromthe front, where they would be unable to survey the battlefield or send orders.
The high mortality rate among Hellenic leaders is often seen as evidence of their presence on the front-lines. Much like Homeric war-leaders, the classical general would only serve to inspire his men, and his death would not matter from a strategic standpoint. These theories have all been supported by Hanson,
who further claims that agrarian hoplites would have actively rejected battle-managers for fear of serving the interests of an uncaring elite.
He believes that a general who failed to lead from the front could damage morale, citing modern examples such as general
Joffre’s routine during the First World War in support of his argument. Only in the fourth century B.C.
would Greek generals start to value their survival, and place leadership above personal valour.Schwartz
has recently reasserted the idea of the ‘front-line general’, though he does note that at least some leaders were demonstrably not stationed at the front.
He believes that hoplite armies would prefer front-line fighters over battle-managers due to the supposedly egalitarian nature of the phalanx.
He further claims that a general’s death could inspire his men to greater deeds, that it did not necessarily bring about defeat, and that the high death rate among strategoi proves their presence in the front lines.
While Hanson and Schwartz are correct in stating that the sight of a leader fighting his own battles would be good for morale,
this dissertation will aim to temper the idea of the front-line general. We will first dispel the notion that the death of a leader did not have
an adverse effect on the outcome of the battle, or that it necessarily proves his presence at the front
We will then examine several battles where the respective leaders demonstrably led from the rear, and offer proof that a rear-line general could galvanize his troops just as well as a front-ranker
. Paul Cartledge, for his part, largely aligns himself with Hanson and Schwartz.23 He adds, however, that a shift occurred somewhere during the Peloponnesian war, with men such as Brasidas,
Lysander, and toa lesser degree king Agis II, setting an alternative example of generalship for future generations.
Chapters two and three will analyse the actions of king Agis II and Brasidas, respectively. We will suggest
Impact Statement:Military communications are at the centre of most martial practices.
As such, any examination of
the topic will impact Greek military history as a whole,
in one way or another. This dissertation will specifically aim to disprove outdated theories concerning the transmission of orders in Greek warfare.
In so doing, we will contribute to the ongoing re–evaluation of Hellenic military history, and contribute material to important issues such as the undecided hoplite debate.
More importantly, however, this dissertation will demonstrate that no battle analysis can be considered complete without a solidunderstanding of how communications functioned.
How can one claim to understand the tactics of Delium
or Marathon if they cannot confidently describe the methods of communication available to the Greeks?
While we will be focusing on the relatively well–recorded period o Peloponnesian
in this dissertation could form the cornerstone of a study into earlier and lesser–known periods such as the Pentekontaetia.
The main challenge to such an enterprise will be the lack of
yet whatever meagre information is uncovered could be linked to the evidence includedin this dissertation to establish patterns of development, or even potential regional trends.
This dissertation could also, hopefully, contribute to a renewed interest in the otherwise neglected ruins of early warning systems in modern Greece.
Many densely populated areas, like Argos orAttica, are dotted with the ruins of dozens of watchtowers that are left untended and ignored.
Some of these towers are located within private property, and known only to the local farmers who have livedalongside them for generations.
I discovered as much while visiting the Argolid. The members of theArchaeological Museum of Mycenae were incapable of directing me to the towers I needed to examine
for the completion of my fourth chapter,
but I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the Mitrovgenides while wandering blindly near their lands.
They immediately guessed my purpose and guided me to my
A renewed academic interest in early–warning systems could, therefore, hopefully contribute to local growth by securing grants for the preservation of these ruins and encouraging