Skip to main content

The Laws of War in Ancient Greece

  • Adriaan Lanni

One of the earliest and the most famous statements of realism in international law comes from ancient Greece: the Melian dialogue in history of the Peloponnesian War. In 416 B.C.E., the Athenians invaded Melos, a small island in the Aegean that sought to remain neutral and avoid joining the Athenian empire. Thucydides presents an account of the negotiation between the Athenians and the Melian leaders. The Athenians offer the Melians a choice: become a subject of Athens, or resist and be annihilated. The Melians argue, among other things, that justice is on their side. The Athenians dismiss arguments from justice as irrelevant and reply with a statement that many scholars believe represents view: “We both alike know that in human reckoning the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.”

Hide All

1. For references, see Hornblower, Simon, Commentary on Thucydides (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 2:8192.

2. Thucydides 5.89 (The Peloponnesian Wars, trans. Jowett, Benjamin, rev. and Brunt, abridged P. A. [London: New English Library, 1966]).

3. The most famous written convention is the treaty reportedly conducted between the archaic city states of Chalcis and Eretria banning the use of missile weapons (Polybius 13.3.2-4; Strabo 10.1.12). Herodotus (1.82; 9.26) also mentions a couple of bilateral agreements to limit the scale of war by specifying the number of combatants per side or providing for a battle of champions. The historicity of these treaties has been questioned by scholars. See, for instance, Wheeler, Everett L., “Ephorus and the Prohibition of Missiles,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 117 (1987): 178–82; Ober, Josiah, “Classical Greek Times,” in The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World, ed. Howard, Michael, Andreopoulos, George J., and Shulman, Mark R. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 12. In any case, if such agreements to exercise restraint in war did exist, they seem to have been exceedingly rare in the archaic period and nearly unheard of in the classical period. Thucydides (5.41) does refer to a treaty between Sparta and Argos in 420 B.C.E. in which the parties agreed that disputes would be decided in a single pitched battle, but suggests that this type of convention was old-fashioned.

4. Aeschines 2.115.

5. Herodotus 6.92; Diodorus 16.23.2-3, 29.2; Wees, Hans van, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (London: Duckworth, 2004), 10 and 255 n.19.

6. Representative passages are collected in Phillipson, Coleman, The International Law and Custom of Ancient Greece and Rome (1911; Buffalo: William S. Hein & Co., 2001), 1:58. Both nomoi and nomima are used to refer to “the laws.”

7. Plato, Republic 471a; Euripides, Medea 536–40.

8. Phillipson, , The International Law and Custom of Ancient Greece and Rome, 1:5960.

9. For example, the prosecutor in Lysias 30 never states the law under which he is bringing the case.

10. Lycurgus 1.9.

11. Thomas, Rosalind, “Written in Stone? Liberty, Equality, Orality and the Codification of Law,” in Greek Law in Its Political Setting: Justifications, Not Justice, ed. Foxhall, L. and Lewis, A. D. E. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 31.

12. Thucydides 4.98.

13. Thucydides 3.52.

14. Thucydides 3.56.

15. Thucydides 3.52.

16. Polybius 5.9-10; 4.62, 67.

17. Herodotus 7.136.

18. Herodotus 9.79.

19. Meron, Theodor, “The Humanization of Humanitarian Law,” American Journal of International Law 94 (2000): 249.

20. Thucydides 3.56 (trans. Warner, Rex, History of the Peloponnesian War [Baltimore: Penguin Press, 1954]).

21. Most famously, Pausanias (1.14.5) tells us that Aeschylus's grave made no mention of his plays but described his service at the battle of Marathon. In a similar vein, Socrates' admirers often repeated the story of how he distinguished himself while serving as a hoplite by saving the life and armor of the wounded Alcibiades during battle (Plato, Symposium 220d-e).

22. Herodotus 7.133-136.

23. Pausanias 1.36.3.

24. Solon Fr. 13.11-32 (West) provides a Greek version of the doctrine of “sins of the father visited on the children.”

25. Parker, Robert, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 126–30; Parker, Robert, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 210–14.

26. Aristophanes, Birds 1606–25; Clouds 398-402. For discussion, see Garland, Robert, Religion and the Greeks (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1994), 22.

27. Plutarch, Demosthenes 20.1. AsParker, (Athenian Religion, 214 n.60)points out, in other cases Demosthenes appears to have taken oracles seriously. Nevertheless, the story suggests that there was enough uncertainty about divine signs and sanctions to make it possible to counsel openly flouting them.

28. Most notably, Nicias doomed the Sicilian expedition by refusing to set sail from Syracuse after a lunar eclipse (Plutarch, Nicias 23). But we are told that Nicias was an unusually superstitious man.

29. Two excellent short introductions to Greek religion areZaidman, Louise Bruit and Pantel, Pauline Schmitt, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, trans. Cartledge, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989) andGarland, , Religion and the Greeks.

30. Odyssey 1.6-8; Polybius 5.11; 31.11; 32.27.

31. Pausanias 10.28.3; Xenophon, Agesilaus 10.1; Polybius 5.10; Phillipson, , The International Law and Custom of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2:246–49.

32. Thucydides 4.97-98; Bederman, David J., International Law in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 246.

33. Thucydides 4.97.

34. Thucydides 4.98.

35. Iliad 1.442-45; Polybius 16.33; Phillipson, , The International Law and Custom of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2.269–71.

36. Alexander, for example, spared the priests when enslaving the population of Thebes (Plutarch Alexander 11).

37. E.g., Thucydides 5.49.1.

38. E.g., Xenophon, Hellenica 4.7.27.

39. E.g., Thucydides 7.73.2; Herodotus 6.106; 7.206.

40. E.g., Herodotus 1.150, 6.87; Xenophon, Hellenica 5.2.29; for discussion of this norm, see Goodman, M. D. and Holladay, A. J., “Religious Scruples in Ancient Warfare,” Classical Quarterly 36.1 (1986): 158–60; Krentz, Peter, “Fighting by the Rules: The Invention of the Hoplite Agon,” Hesperia 71 (2002): 2627.

41. Xenophon, Hellenica 4.7.2.

42. Thucydides 7.73.2, 8.9.1; Herodotus 7.206.

43. Herodotus 7.136.

44. Iliad 1.334.

45. Pausanias 1.36.3; Herodotus 7.133-136.

46. Herodotus 9.78-79; 4.202-205. This norm did not exist in the Homeric period.

47. Thucydides 4.98; Euripides, Suppliant Women 311, 526.

48. Euripides, Suppliant Women 19, 311, 526.

49. The best known exception, the Boeotians' refusal to give the Athenians their dead, is justified by the Boeotians as a reprisal for the Athenians' fortification of the sacred precinct in Delium (Thucydides 4.97-101).

50. Stacey, Robert C., “The Age of Chivalry” in The Laws of War, ed. Howard, et al., 2739.

51. Plato Republic 332a; Lysias 9.20;Whitlock-Blundell, Mary, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

52. Cohen, David, Law, Violence, and Community in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 6186.

53. Krentz, Peter, “Deception in Archaic and Classical GreekWarfare,” in War and Violence in Ancient Greece, ed. Wees, Hans van (London: Duckworth, 2000), 167200.

54. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.5.73.

55. Aristotle Politics, bk. 1, chap. 6, lines 6-7, 1255a6-8; see also Polybius 5.11.

56. Pritchett, W. Kendrick (The Greek State at War. Part V [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991]) provides lists of massacres (218-19), enslavements (226-34), and ransom exchanges (247-71).

57. Herodotus 6.80.

58. Thucydides 1.106. Other examples: Xenophon, Hellenica 4.4.12; Thucydides 4.96; Diodorus 12.10.1; Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 31; Wees, Van, Greek Warfare, 135.

59. Euripides, Heracleidae 961–66.

60. Euripides, Heracleidae 1009–11.

61. Ducrey, Pierre, Le Traitement des prisonniers de guerre dans la Grèce antique, des origines à la conquête romaine (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1968), 290.

62. E.g., Xenophon, Hellenica 4.6.4; Thucydides 2.14.1; Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 27.

63. The rape of women rarely merits mention in our historical sources. For discussion, see Schaps, David, “Women of Greece in Wartime,” Classical Philology 77 (1982): 193213.

64. But the Athenians did kill all the women and children of Mycalessus (Thucydides 7.29).

65. Thucydides 2.70; Xenophon, Hellenica 2.3.6.

66. Thucydides 3.36-48.

67. Cleon, who argues for extermination of the entire male population, does make an argument from justice, but he argues, absurdly, that the Mytileneans had done a great wrong to Athens by revolting.

68. E.g., Koh, Harold Hongju, “Why Do Nations Obey International Law?Yale Law Journal 106 (1997): 2603; Helfer, Laurence R. and Slaughter, Anne-Marie, “Toward a Theory of Efficient Supranational Adjudication,” Yale Law Journal 107 (1997): 337–66; Franck, Thomas M., The Power of Legitimacy among Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 183–94; cf. Goodman, Ryan and Jinks, Derek, “How to Influence States: Socialization and International Human Rights Law,” Duke Law Journal 54 (2004): 621.

69. For discussion, see Goldsmith, Jack L. and Posner, Eric A., The Limits of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1417.

70. Goldsmith, and Posner, , The Limits of International Law, 3. Goldsmith, and Posner's, work has sparked debate in the legal academy: “Symposium on The Limits of International Law,Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 34 (2006): 253484; Hathaway, Oona A. and Lavinbuk, Ariel N., “Rationalism and Revisionism in International Law,” Harvard Law Review 119 (2006): 1404.

71. Hanson, Victor Davis, “The Ideology of Hoplite Battle, Ancient and Modern,” in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience, ed. Hanson, Victor Davis (New York: Routledge, 1991), 314. For similar views, seeOber, “Classical Greek Times,” andConnor, W. R., “Early Greek Land Warfare as Symbolic Expression,” Past and Present 119 (1988): 329.

72. Ober, , “Classical Greek Times,” 13; see also Ducrey, , Le Traitement des prisonniers de guerre dans la Grèce antique, 334–36; Hanson, Victor Davis, The Western Way of War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 14-18, 36, 223.

73. Ober, , “Classical Greek Times,” 1517; Connor, , “Early Greek Land Warfare,” 20; cf. Hanson, Victor Davis, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House, 2005), 299300.

74. Hanson, , A War Like No Other, 146; Hanson, , The Western Way of War, 37; Connor, , “Early Greek Land Warfare,” 27; Ober, , “Classical Greek Times,” 1819.

75. Hanson, , A War Like No Other, 90.

76. Hanson, , The Western Way of War, 3739; Ober, , “Classical Greek Times,” 1819.

77. Ober, , “Classical Greek Times,” 2021.

78. Ibid., 18.

79. Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules.”

80. Van Wees, , Greek Warfare, 115–50.

81. Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 27.

82. Polybius 13.3.1-8.

83. Wees, Hans van, “The Development of the Hoplite Phalanx: Iconography and Reality in the 7th Century,” in War and Violence in Ancient Greece, ed. Wees, Hans van (London: Duckworth, 2000), 146–56; Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 2930.

84. Van Wees, , Greek Warfare, 116.

85. Ibid., 135;Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 3031.

86. Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 3031 (collecting examples); Van Wees, , Greek Warfare, 135.

87. E.g., Thucydides 2.14;Krentz, , “Fighting by the Rules,” 27.

88. Enslavement: Herodotus 3.59, 6.66, 6.23, 7.156; Diodorus 11.21, 11.25, 11.62, 11.65, 11.88, 12.9; Thucydides 1.98; Diodorus 11.62, 11.65, 11.88; Thucydides 1.113; Athenaeus 13.10. Massacres: Thucydides 1.30, 1.50, 1.100.3;Plutarch, Pericles 23. For a detailed catalogue, seePritchett, , The Greek State at War, 5.218-19, 226-34, 247–71.

89. Aristotle, Politics 1255a6-8.

90. Plutarch, Agis 21.

91. Thucydides 7.73.3.

92. Thucydides 8.9.

93. Herodotus 6.106, 120. A similar case occurred in 479: When the Persians threatened Athens, Athens applied to Sparta for help, but the Spartans refused to send a force because of a religious festival. The speculation that the Spartans were using the norm against fighting during the festival as an excuse seems unlikely, since the Spartans sent a very large force with great speed as soon as the festival ended (Herodotus 9.7-10). For discussion of instances where a state refused to send forces to help an ally under attack because of a local religious festival, seeGoodman, and Holladay, , “Religious Scruples,” 159.

94. E.g., Thucydides 5.54, 75-76.

95. E.g., Thucydides 3.3, 3.56; Xenophon, Hellenica 5.2.29.

96. Thucydides 3.3.

97. Thucydides 3.56.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 112 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 836 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th July 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.