Battle casualties in ancient Greece

I had a fantastic question sent over to me by one of your fellow listeners today. After a moments thought I considered the answer to be worthy of a new blog post. Paul, the member, enquired as to the treatment of the dead and wounded in the aftermath of the many battles that occurred in ancient Greece. Thanks so much for your question sir, I'll do my best to answer it below.

Given the sheer amount of warfare that took place during the historical period of ancient Greece we know surprisingly little of what took place in the aftermath of such events. There are interesting parcels of information within the sources though, and a relatively accurate picture of what happened with the dead and wounded, post combat, can be constructed.

A differentiation needs to be made between the casualties of the victor, and those of the loser. Whilst the victor had command of the field and the luxury to designate rites as they saw fit, the defeated were at the mercy of those that bested them.

Depending on the nature of the battle and the defeat, the losing side in some instances had no need to worry about their wounded, as there were often none left in a state worth treatment. In the press of phalanx warfare with one side pushing back another, any fallen soldier was trod to death, bashed with a swiftly lowered aspis or dispatched by way of a dory's (spear) end spike which was known as a saurotor or, lizard killer. Although downed, a debilitated soldier still presented a threat to a hoplite striding forward and as such it was the practice of Greek armies to finish off enemies as quickly as possible. Besides, had their comrades wanted to help in most instances they were unable. As we learnt in episode 23 with Professor Bardunias, most land battles resulted in the defeated army running for their lives and seeking to avoid their pursuers. There was little time to offer succour to unlucky comrades when you trying to save your own skin.

So, the nature of the battle, and the defeat too, played a large role in the type of treatment casualties could and would receive. There is a fantastic passage within Thucydides' Peloponnesian war that I'll relate to you here, it really adds some amazing colour to this story. In book 7 the author/general describes the nadir of Athenian fortunes as their Sicilian campaign of 415-413 BCE turned into an utter disaster. Unable to capitalise on earlier successes, the Athenian invasion force found itself hemmed into a narrow, walled, enclosure between the walls of mighty Syracuse and her southern harbour. These dire straits were the result of ineffectual siege techniques and the Athenian navy being outclassed by their Syracusan counterparts. Having no other option, the two leaders of the invasion force, Nicias and Demosthenes, resolved to break out with their army and make a run south and away from Syracuse. The operation began on September the 13th, accurately dateable due to a lunar eclipse that occurred on August the 28th, when some 40,000 survivors attempted a retreat. Thucydides gave a graphic account of the wounded that were unable to make the journey on their own, though some crawled for as long as possible. The next passage is quoting from Book 7, chapter 75 of the History of the Peloponnesian war.

The dead were unburied, and when any man recognized one of his friends lying among them, he was filled with grief and fear; and the living who, whether sick or wounded, were being left behind caused more pain than did the dead to those who were left alive, and were more pitiable than the lost. Their prayers and their lamentations made the rest feel impotent and helpless, as they begged to be taken with them and cried out aloud to every single friend or relative whom they could see; as they hung about the necks of those who had shared tents with them and were now going, following after them as far as they could, and, when their bodily strength failed them, reiterated their cries to heaven and they lamentations as they were left behind. So the whole army was filled with tears and in such distress of mind that they found it difficult to go away even from this land of their enemies when sufferings too great for tears had befallen them already and more still, the feared, awaited them in the dark future ahead.

It is one of the most pathos laden pieces in the entire work and never ceases to bring a chill to my spine. The survivors were eventually captured, finishing their days in the dreaded quarries of Syracuse where they were worked to death in toil. Suffice to say that they were cruel times.

There are instances when a defeated army was offered the opportunity to attend to their dead, such a time happened after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Here the Macedonian army led by Phillip II and his son Alexander (the not so great, yet) crushed a largely Thebo-Athenian alliance on the fields outside of the eponymous town. The victory cemented Macedonian hegemony over Greece proper and also witnessed the destruction of the Sacred band of Thebes. Consisting of 150 homosexual pairs of warriors for the past 40 years this contingent were the premier fighting force in Hellas. Instrumental in the Spartan defeat of 371 BCE at Leuctra they nonetheless were no match for the hammer and anvil tactics of the Macedonian forces. Many ancient authors recorded that the defeated Thebans reached some kind of accord with the temperamental Phillip and were granted the option of returning to the battlefield to bury their dead, an option they took up.

In the early 19th century a few British travellers rediscovered the site of the battle using a copy of Pausanias' guide to Greece. The discovery led to large scale excavations later that century and during these a quadrangle burial site was discovered containing 254 skeletons laid out in seven rows. The picture below is a contemporary drawing of the find and you can see that many seem to be in pairs, some even in poses of affection. It is understood that this is the final resting place of the sacred band of Thebes.

To the victors go the spoils, but not only that the right to commemorate their fallen and tend to the wounded without fear of reprisal. However, once again there is no simple answer to how the wounded were treated in the aftermath of battle. If the victory occurred close to the home base, be it the polis or camp, then its easily imaginable that the ambulatory were transported there for treatment. Via litter, pack animal or borne upon the shoulders of at least 2 healthy hoplites. But, in the case of a far flung campaign solutions would have been on more ad hoc basis.

Let's take Alexander the Great's campaigns into the far flung east. Once his Macedonian army crossed into Asia minor transport back home was untenable. Every abled body warrior, slave and beast was required to push further onward to satisfy the desire for conquest held by the king. It is known that Alexander founded cities for the wounded and sick to inhabit once their accumulation became a burden on the armies march. There are also recorded anecdotes of the king himself assisting some of his wounded soldiers on the march.

In the retreat of the 10,000 from Trapezus to Cerasus, along the southern shores of the black sea, the wounded were loaded on ships for the journey while those able marched.

You get a sense that where and when possible the injured or disabled were treated with as much dignity and respect that was possible. As much as could be maintained whilst still holding operational integrity. The callousness you sometimes see was more a result of expedience and the needs dictating the musts.

How were they medically treated? This is a tricky one. We don't have very good accounts prior to the 400 BCE mark but as you can see by the picture above, Homer's Achilles was certainly concerned by an arrow wound sustained by his friend, Patroclus. This scene, from the Iliad, is from a vase fired at the turn of the 5th century BCE.

It isn't until the advent of Hippocratic theory that medical practices became more the domain of reason rather than one purely superstitious. Hippocrates was born on the Island of Kos, in the Dodecanese, around 460 BCE. Known as the father of medicine he perhaps is better described as the father of modern medicinal procedure. Coming from a long line of doctors, his father and grandfather were both reportedly practitioners of some repute. He studied his trade and developed his theories in the Islands Asklepion, a sanctuary part temple to the god of healing Asklepios and part hospital. The photo below is from my trip to Kos in 2007 and shows the entrance to the complex.

Developing many theories around medicine that are still used in their fundamental forms today he is possibly most famous for an oath still sworn by Doctors in the modern era, the Hippocratic oath. It is central to the tenants of doctor patient confidentiality and also the 'to do no harm' concept.

Salient to this post he was also the first Greek doctor to lay down the principals for the treatment of inflammation and infection, two types of conditions very common in the wake of sword and spear combat. He codified these conditions into different category's, those of redness, swelling, heat and pain, seeking to address them all individually to improve patient outcomes. Alcohol was used extensively to sterilise puncture and cut wounds. His practices had widespread appeal.

He also perpetuated his knowledge by teaching aspiring doctors, thus propagating his concepts within the minds of his caring student. He legendarily gave his lessons beneath a large Plane tree in town. The tree still stands, or at the very least perhaps a descendent of that tree. You can see me below, sitting beneath that very tree. It's seen better days and has metal girders supporting some of its venerable bulk. And no, I didn't gain any wisdom from the attempt, but, the water from the Ottoman fountain was quite refreshing.

Finally, what of the victorious dead. That might be an oxymoron but I'll run with it. Well they had the honour of being either cremated, or buried, with honour on the field of their final triumph. In some instances, if convenient, they were taken home and buried in ceremony, but more often then not the place where they took their final breath was their final resting place.

At the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, a conflict our Spartans were infamously late for, the Athenian and Plataean force routed King Darius' Persian one. A stunning victory that saw 6000 Persian corpses by its end but miraculously only some 203 allied deaths. 192 Athenians and 11 Plataean's according to Herodotus. In two mounds, one for the men of Athens and one for those of Plataea, the dead were interred with heroic honours. The photo below shows the mound for the Athenians, both are still visible today and the site of the battle itself is well worth visit. Though I would drive rather than run, personally.

If a King or Hero fell on the field then he was often transported home for burial and a Heroon (cult sanctuary) was set up as well for the honouring of the one thus interred. King Leonidas despite having a hero sanctuary constructed for his worship within Sparta, never had his body recovered from Thermopylae. The furious Xerxes had his corpse beheaded and crucified, this was considered sacrilege by the Greeks who surely had the event on their collective minds as they charged the Persians at Plataea a year later. Topics we'll be covering in this years series of episodes.

Hope you all enjoyed, take care.


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