I'm curious about why the different city-states in Ancient Greece fought war against each other and how did their leaders motivate their people to take up arms, leave their families and farms and go to war against their neighbours? And how did they morally justify the killing of other farmers and sacking their cities and countryside?

I'm not talking about defensive wars like when the Persian Empire invaded, but rather wars when Greece or the city-states themselves started it. I'm not sure "Greece" was "a thing" back then, each city-state was perhaps pretty much "its own country" so to speak, but I've heard that they tended to team up against outside invaders from time to time.

One reason I can see for a city to attack another city would be if one city is starving and the war is a way of gathering resources for their own survival. If that was the case then I can see how they could see that as "morally justified", fighting for their own survival, and that could be a motivation for the farmers to take up arms and follow their leader into battle. Are there any examples of wars or battles from Ancient Greece that were fought for this reason?

Another reason I can imagine is that the leader wants glory and riches, but how then would he go about convincing his people to go along with that, to sacrifice their own life for his glory? Propaganda? How then would such propaganda be distributed before the information age with news paper and stuff like that? Any examples of these kind of power struggles that were purely for the military glory?

Revenge is of course also a classical motif for war, but revenge for what, what started it all in the first place in such a case?

Are there any historical documented sources from city-states leaders leaving a record of their motivations for invading a neighbouring city?

Also, didn't a lot of ancient philosophers from Ancient Greece think a lot about morality and ethics? What were their takes on war against other city-states?

  • 11
    You're basically asking, "why do humans wage war", as there isn't much specific to Ancient Greece in your question...
    – DevSolar
    Mar 9, 2019 at 17:59
  • 7
    Chimpanzees have been observed waging organized violence against each other so I think looking at Greece as the beginning of this phenomena is a mistake. People have been fighting each other since they were people. Mar 9, 2019 at 18:40
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    Please don't reply in comments
    – MCW
    Mar 9, 2019 at 22:05
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    Why would they justify virtuous behavior?? Prior to the invention of capitalism, the best way to enrich your family/tribe was to take it away from someone else.The question dramatically underestimates the value of glory to the Greeks; I suspect most of them would have given up goods in exchange for prestige that can only be earned through combat.
    – MCW
    Mar 9, 2019 at 22:09
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    @DevSolar while the question may be worded slightly naively it does raise the point that most "civil" (fought among people of a similar language and culture) wars were waged by kings and lords seeking to increase their own power something which should have been somewhat antithetical to being "free men". Indeed some historians have speculated that the democracy in Athens was established to stop the civil wars. Thus it is not unreasonable to ask why couldn't the Athenian democratic system spread to all of Greece?
    – Hao S
    Mar 13, 2019 at 23:23

1 Answer 1


Why did Ancient Greek city-states fight each other and how did they moraly justify it?

This is a great question. I choose to answer it by not just discussing the motivations for their internal wars but the systemic reason why Greece was so unstable (no empowered central authority). How the lessons have influenced the evolution of other governments. I site the American founding fathers Madison, Jay, and Hamilton who must have asked themselves this same question centuries ago. They each reference Greece and her instability in the Federalist Papers and propose strategies to avoid her mistakes while trying to capitalize on what made Ancient Greece great in their own proposed confederation, the United States Constitution.

Short Answer:

The Greek City States were autonomous entities. As such they fought for the same reasons nations fight.

  • Economic Gain
  • Territorial Gain
  • Nationalism
  • Revenge
  • Internal or Civil War

In General similarities don't promote compromise as your questions presumes but rather promoted struggle. Similarities breed competition for resources. Competition breeds conflict. Without an empowered central authority, when similarly matched peoples live in proximity; continuous and prolonged warfare is the norm. So it was in Ancient Greece, so it was in Europe for a thousand years.

Federalist No. 8. - Hamilton
But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probable, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe—our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.

The failures as well as sucesses from Ancient Greece were instructive to the founding fathers of the United States when they formed their federated government roughly modeled on the lessons learned from Greece.

Detailed Answer

One reason why the Greeks were so good at fighting, was because their overall governmental structure, involving a great number of loosely organized independent city governments, devoid of a central authority promoted conflict. It left no alternative to conflict when one city came into disagreement with another. Thus the Greeks had much experience fighting, mostly each other. It was relatively rare for an outsider like the Persians or Carthaginians to come under conflict with a Greek City States in their 900 years between (1200 BC and 340 BC with the Rise of Macedon); when they did they generally found that the Greeks with all their experience fighting each other did well against foreign invaders.


Economic Gain

The 20 year long First Messenian War between Sparta and the city state of Messenia.

First Messenian War
The immediate provocation was an incident of cattle theft. Polychares of Messenia, an athlete and Olympic victor, leased some grazing land from Euaiphnos the Spartan, who promptly sold the cattle to some merchants, claiming pirates had stolen them. As he was making excuses to Polychares a herdsman of the latter, having escaped from the merchants, intervened to acquaint his master with the real facts. Apologizing Euaiphnos asked Polychares to let his son go with him to obtain the money from the sale, but once over the Spartan border he murdered the son.


Lelantine War.
According to tradition, the war was caused by a conflict about the Lelantine Plain. This very fertile area had for a long time been used for agriculture, including the cultivation of vines.

Territorial Gains

First Sacred War
Fought between the Amphictyonic League of Delphi and the city of Kirrha. The conflict arose due to Kirrha's frequent robbery and mistreatment of pilgrims going to Delphi and their encroachments upon Delphic land.



First Peloponnesian War
Spartan leadership bred resentment among the Greek naval powers that took the lead in carrying the war against Persian territories in Asia and the Aegean, and after 478 BC the Spartans abandoned their leadership of this campaign.5 Sparta grew wary of Athens' strength after they had fought alongside each other to disperse the Persians from their lands. When Athens started to rebuild its walls and the strength of its naval power, Sparta and its allies began to fear that Athens was becoming too powerful. .


Second Sacred War
The Second Sacred War took place during 449 BC and 448 BC and resulted in an indirect confrontation between Athens and Sparta during the First Peloponnesian War......
The war started in 449 BC when Sparta intervened and detached Delphi from Phocis and handing the city back to the Delphians, in effect making Delphi independent....
Immediately after the Spartans left, the Athenians recaptured Delphi and handed it back to the Phocians

Internal or Civil War

Phyle Campaign The Phyle Campaign was the civil war that resulted from the Spartan imposition of a narrow oligarchy on Athens (see Thirty Tyrants) and resulted in the restoration of Athenian democracy.

See: Wars Involving Greece.

Systemic Instability of Ancient Greece

Two or more independent nations with similar populations capabilities, and needs; without empowered unifying principles, like central government are destined to fight. They are unstable because of their similarities not despite of them. So said Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in different Federalist Papers. The propensity of equal peoples each with independent governance to come under conflict was cited many times in the American Federalist papers which noted this propensity specifically from, but not exclusively from Ancient Greece. The federalist papers note the problem as well as solutions demonstrated by the history of the ancient Greeks. These arguments were used to justify controversial decisions incorporated in the United States Constitution.

Hamilton Federalist Paper 9:
A firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived...


Hamilton & Madison Federalist 18:
Had Greece, says a judicious observer of her fate, been united by a stricter confederation and preserved in her union she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.

And Madison discussing the Achaean league and Lycian Confederacy. Two attempts by groups of city states to band together and unify themselves for their common security. Madison notes that in both cases the component parts despite their similarities broke apart due to the strength of those base components and were not unified due to the greater need.

Madison Federalist 45:
We have seen, in all the examples of ancient and modern confederacies, the strongest tendency continually betraying itself in the members, to despoil the general government of its authorities, with a very ineffectual capacity in the latter to defend itself against the encroachments. Although, in most of these examples, the system has been so dissimilar from that under consideration as greatly to weaken any inference concerning the latter from the fate of the former, yet, as the States will retain, under the proposed Constitution, a very extensive portion of active sovereignty, the inference ought not to be wholly disregarded. In the Achaean league it is probable that the federal head had a degree and species of power, which gave it a considerable likeness to the government framed by the convention. The Lycian Confederacy, as far as its principles and form are transmitted, must have borne a still greater analogy to it. Yet history does not inform us that either of them ever degenerated, or tended to degenerate, into one consolidated government. On the contrary, we know that the ruin of one of them proceeded from the incapacity of the federal authority to prevent the dissensions, and finally the disunion, of the subordinate authorities. These cases are the more worthy of our attention, as the external causes by which the component parts were pressed together were much more numerous and powerful than in our case; and consequently less powerful ligaments within would be sufficient to bind the members to the head, and to each other.


John Jay, Federalist Paper No. 4
Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you please, into three or four independent governments--what armies could they raise and pay--what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense? Would there be no danger of their being flattered into neutrality by its specious promises, or seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquillity and present safety for the sake of neighbors, of whom perhaps they have been jealous, and whose importance they are content to see diminished? Although such conduct would not be wise, it would, nevertheless, be natural. The history of the states of Greece, and of other countries, abounds with such instances, and it is not improbable that what has so often happened would, under similar circumstances, happen again.

The Ancient Greeks tried to form an empowered Union, the Lycian Confederacy. This also was instructive for the American founding fathers.

The Lycian Confederacy
The Lycian confederacy made three contributions to the American Constitution.

  • First, it was a model of a federal union the strength of whose parts in the national councils is proportionate to their size.
  • Second, it showed the possibility of popular government that was representative.
  • Third, it offered the example of a strong national government with its own strong officers and the power to make laws that applied directly to individual citizens.

From the Comments:
I'm still curious about the motivations and moral justification from the point of view of the farmers, do you have any insight into that? Why would a farmer join the army to fight for some other piece of land for someone else, unless of course it was his own land that was taken away? If you already have a piece of land to farm, why risk your own life to fight fore some other piece of land?

This question is very general. There were many Greek City states with many forms of government. There were also multiple ages where City States persisted from the Greek Dark Ages, Archaic period, and Classical Age. Across all these variables war could mean 1 battle lasting a few hours or a pursuit which would take years. Motivations probable varied.

Suffice it to say pride in ones city, faith in ones leaders(which sometimes citizens chose), were powerful factors as were territorial expansion and the security that would bring(the bigger your city was the better), personal war booty, revenge, and personal honor. In the Archaic period when one city went to war it wasn't just the soldiers, the entire citizenry went, Likewise when one city Lost, the entire city could pay the price.

First Messenian War
The war's first battle was the Spartan attack on Ampheia, a city of unknown location now, but probably on the western flank of Taygetus. A swift night march brought them to the gates, which stood open. There was no garrison, nor were they in any way expected. The first sign the Ampheians had of war was the Spartans rousing people out of bed to kill them. Some few took refuge in the temples; others fled for their lives. The Spartans sacked the city then turned it into a garrison for the conduct of further operations against Messenia.16 The Messenian women and children were captured. The men who had survived the massacre were sold into slavery.

to fail to answer when your city called you to arms, would be to renounce ones citizenship and renounce one's land and possessions. If your city lost those things were gone and you were likely a slave, If your city won and you failed to participate, your fellow citizens likely weren't going to be too fond of you.

In later period, Classical Greece, wars became longer and armies became larger. The lethality of war went up but so did the stakes one was fighting for.

For the Ancient Greeks war wasn't an event which occurred once in a persons life. War was a constant. Generally a Greek City state could be at war for long periods more often than they were at peace. War was part of life, it was part of the Ancient Greek way of life; as was preparing for war.


  • This is a fantastic answer! Thanks for all the highlighting with citations and links for further reading. This is a great starting point, and very interesting to get the perspective from US as well. However I'm still curious about the motivations and moral justification from the point of view of the farmers, do you have any insight into that? Why would a farmer join the army to fight for some other piece of land for someone else, unless of course it was his own land that was taken away? If you already have a piece of land to farm, why risk your own life to fight fore some other piece of land? Mar 10, 2019 at 13:19
  • In medieval England 40 days of military service was part of the "tax system" that a Lord owned to his Lord or the King. In ancient Rome you could become a Citizen and be rewarded with land after "retirement" from the army, so that was one incentive for romans to join the army. But Greece didn't have a professional army in quite that sense, it was more like a militia. What was the incentive for a grek to join the army, other then protecting one owns land or for the glory? Why kill some fellow greks in order to take some land for some other fellow grek, and not for oneself? Mar 10, 2019 at 13:26
  • I suppose one motivation could be: "Look, if they can take his land today they might take your land tomorrow. Join us now and we will defeat them, before it is too late." Mar 10, 2019 at 13:28
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    @KristofferHelander I added to the end of my answer.
    – user27618
    Mar 10, 2019 at 18:16
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    @KristofferHelander, I thought your question was very interesting and was the sort which employed many classical observers of history. I'm sorry it was closed. It would have been fun to read other's answers who were not afforded the opportunity.
    – user27618
    Mar 10, 2019 at 23:10

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