Did the ancient Greeks wage their wars according to strict rules and regulation? Was their way of war, as some scholars refer to it, “agonistic”, like an athletic contest? This idea was once widespread, especially when it comes to the Archaic period (ca. 800 to 500 BC), but on closer examination the notion falls apart.
Examples from written sources that are often cited in support of a rulesbound way of warfare are few and far between. The “Battle of the Champions”, described by Herodotus, featured a pitched battle between Argives and Spartans that was peculiar to say the least: each side picked 300 warriors to engage in combat, with the last man standing deciding the outcome of the conflict.
Naturally, things didn’t exactly go as planned and the final result is messy: Herodotus no doubt recorded this story both because the use of strict rules and the fact that a battle of this type clearly didn’t work, were deemed worthy of note.
Then there is the Lelantine War, a nebulous conflict that usually gets dated to around 700 BC. In this conflict, the cities of Chalcis and Eretria fought for control of the Lelantine Plain on the island of Euboea. A fragment from the poet Archilochus is sometimes cited to suggest that this was a war fought with close-ranged weapons only. There’s a multitude of issues with this conflict as reconstructed, and it seems quite safe to assume instead that it probably never happened at all.
A duel between Ajax and Hector
Another slim bit of evidence for the existence of at least one or two rules of war comes from Homer’s Iliad. Of course, this is a poem, a literary work, about a fantastical war, fought in a place long, long ago, between prenaturally strong humans and demigods. As far as evidence goes to support the notion that ancient Greeks – or perhaps more specifically, Archaic Greeks – fought according to a fixed set of rules, this, too, leaves something to be desired.
Nevertheless, the encounter is interesting. In the seventh book of the Iliad, the Greek hero Ajax and the Trojan champion Hector meet on the battlefield. Ajax issues the challenge, and, in the translation of Richmond Lattimore, he says (Il. 7.226-232):
Hektor, single man against single man you will learn now for sure what the bravest men are like among the Danaans even after Achilleus the lion-hearted who breaks men in battle. He lies now apart among his own beaked seafaring ships, in anger at Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people. But here are we; and we are such men as can stand up against you; there are plenty of us; so now begin your fight and your combat.
Hector isn’t flustered by this challenge. He responds, with a mild dose of misogyny, as follows (Il. 7. 233-243):
Aias, son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, o lord of the people, do not be testing me as if I were some ineffectual boy, or a woman, who knows nothing of the works of warfare. I know well myself how to fight and kill men in battle; I know how to turn to the right, how to turn to the left the ox-hide tanned into a shield which is my protection in battle; I know how to storm my way into the struggle of flying horses; I know how to tread my measures on the grim floor of the war god. Yet great as you are I would not strike you by stealth, watching for my chance, but openly, so, if perhaps I might hit you.
After this brief exchange, they immediately cut to the chase. In the manner of other Homeric warriors, they chuck their spears at each other, which get stuck into their shields. They yank the spears out and proceed to use them at close range, attempting to stab each other.
Hector attempts to pierce Ajax’ large shield, but in an authentic turn of events, the bronze spearhead is bent back and rendered useless as a result. Ajax is more fortunate, able to draw blood with his spear. At this, Hector improvises by picking up a large stone from the battlefield and slamming it into Ajax’ shield. Unperturbed, Ajax hurls a boulder at the Trojan champion, with Hector’s shield buckling under the weight.
Two heralds appear
At this point, the heroes both draw their swords, which serve as sidearms. But before they are able to engage further, two heralds (kērukes) appear. Homer says that these are Idaeus, a Greek, and Talthybius, a Trojan, and he emphasizes that they are “both men of good counsel” (Il. 7.276).
They put their staves between the two men and Idaeus tells them to stop fighting, because it is becoming dark. Indeed, in the Iliad, fighting usually starts around dawn and ends towards nightfall, when the bodies of the dead are collected. Whether this limit is a hard-and-fast rule is a point of scholarly debate.
Indeed, Ajax tells them that he wants to hear what Hector has to say about this, as it was Hector who had challenged the Greeks to combat. Hector says he agrees with the heralds, saying that they should “give over this fighting and hostility for today; we shall fight again, until the divinity chooses between us, and gives victory to one or the other” (Il. 7.290-292).
The implication is that if Hector had wanted to, he could have continued to fight. In this case, Hector decided to honour tradition and cease the hostilities, at least for now. Then, as a mark of respect, the two heroes exchange gifts. Hektor gives Ajax a sword and scabbard. In return, Ajax gives Hector a war-belt (zōstēr).
Two enemies exchanging gifts on the battlefield at Troy is not without precedent. When Glaucus, a Trojan ally, meets the Greek hero Diomedes, “in the space between the two armies” (Il. 6.120), the latter demands to know who his enemy is. This is a bit of a strange question, and, indeed, Glaucus even remarks upon this (Il. 6.145).
Still, Glaucus is not unwilling to boast of his lineage, which offers the poet the opportunity to recount the story of Bellerophon. When Glaucus is done, Diomedes plants his spear in the ground and tells Glaucus that their grandfathers were friends. By extension, he claims, this means that Glaucus and Diomedes are also friends, and should therefore try to avoid each other on the battlefield.
Glaucus agrees to this, and to cement their friendship, they exchange armour. The poet remarks that Glaucus temporarily lost his mind as he exchanged his golden armour for Diomedes’ bronze (Il. 6.234-236). This story is the origin of the ancient expression, “gold for bronze”, used to denote an uneven trade.