Our sources on how the Greeks in classical times celebrated their military leaders’ victories are scattered and, with rare exceptions, singularly lacking in detail. Enhanced reputation and prestige, along with booty, land, dedications, money, crowning with garlands and invitations as guest of honour at the homes of the most eminent citizens, could be among the rewards for success on the battlefield. The victorious general, of course, also had the honour of setting up the trophy (tropaion) on the battlefield.
Although we can probably assume that the victorious general (assuming he had survived and that he was not still abroad) would have had a prominent place in any triumph or parade, the focus was more on dedicating the spoils of war to the gods at temples and honouring those who had died bravely in battle. A paean might also be sung, although it was perhaps more commonly used just before a battle. Captives and slaves might be paraded, but most Greek battles were local affairs and the Greeks were often reluctant to enslave or humiliate other Greeks, in part because shifting alliances often meant that yesterday's defeated enemy might be tomorrow's valued ally.
Credit for victories achieved belonged not just to their leaders but also to the hoplite citizen army and the polis as a whole. Garlands were not just worn by the victorious leader but also by those who had distinguished themselves in battle. Special prizes (aristeia) for bravery were awarded; on occasion, these went to the leader but more often they were given to other individuals or groups. These prizes were also sometimes awarded by allies (the case of Themistocles being perhaps the most famous). During the later classical period, though, it would appear that victorious leaders did gain more credit than they had in earlier times, particular in the years after the Peloponnesian War.
What is also noticeable about surviving victorious generals (notably Themistocles and the regent Pausanias) during the classical era is how quickly and how many were brought down – disgraced, exiled, and / or condemned – by jealous rivals and / or by their own arrogance and / or later conduct. Contrast these with the near untarnished reputations of Leonidas (though he lost), Brasidas and Epaminondas, all of whom died bravely in battle. In short, the honouring of a victorious leader above all others seems to have happened primarily upon their deaths.
DETAILS & EXAMPLES OF REWARDS FOR VICTORIOUS LEADERS
The three main contemporaneous, or near contemporaneous, historical accounts – Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and Xenophon’s Hellenica – have (with a few exceptions) little to say on either victory ceremonies or the details of how victorious leaders were honoured, but there are a few useful passages. Further snippets of evidence can be gleaned from plays (e.g. Aechylus, Euripides), archaeological evidence such as inscriptions, and from later writers such as Plutarch (e.g. Life of Aristides) and the geographer Pausanias' Descriptions of Greece. Also, when considering the examples below, consider the words of the Athenian orator Demosthenes (died 322) in Demosthenes against Meidias, Androtion, Aristocrates, Timocrates, Aristogeiton:
...no man would say that the battle of Salamis belonged to
Themistocles, - it was the battle of the Athenians; or that the
victory at Marathon belonged to Miltiades, - it was the victory of the
Demosthenes then contrasts this with more recent times:
But today, men of Athens, it is commonly said that Corcyra was
captured by Timotheus, that the Spartan battalion was cut to pieces
by Iphicrates, that the naval victory off Naxos was won by Chabrias.
It really looks as though you disclaimed any merit for those feats of
arms by the extravagant favours that you lavish on the several
On the immediate, tangible rewards for the general Miltiades’ key role in the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), Herodotus says little directly:
After the Persian disaster at Marathon, the reputation of Miltiades,
already great at Athens, very much increased.
Miltiades’ main reward for the victory was reputation and the benefits it could bring, rather than public inscriptions in his honour (which were denied). The benefits of reputation in Miltiades’ case were considerable:
He asked the Athenians for seventy ships, an army, and money, not
revealing against what country he would lead them, but saying that he
would make them rich if they followed him; he would bring them to a
country from which they could easily carry away an abundance of gold;
so he said when he asked for the ships. The Athenians were induced by
these promises and granted his request.
However, the expedition was a failure, Miltiades’ motives for it were questioned and he ended up dying from his wounds in an Athenian prison.
Themistocles, despite his key role in the defeat of the Persians at sea, was actually denied aristeia by his own people. Herodotus explains:
After the division of the spoils, the Greeks sailed to the Isthmus,
there to award the prize of excellence to him who had shown himself
most worthy of it in that war. But when the admirals came and at the
altar of Poseidon gave their votes to judge who was first and who
second among them, each of them voted for himself, supposing himself
to have done the best service. The greater part of them, however,
united in giving the second place to Themistocles. So they each gained
but one vote, while Themistocles far outstripped them in votes for the
The Greeks were too jealous to assign the prize and sailed away each
to his own place, leaving the matter undecided; nevertheless,
Themistocles was lauded, and throughout all of Hellas was deemed the
wisest man by far of the Greeks.
Understandably displeased, Themistocles turned to the Spartans for recognition. According to Herodotus, they rewarded him handsomely:
The Lacedaemonians welcomed him and paid him high honor. They bestowed
on Eurybiades [the Spartan navarch] a crown of olive as the reward of
excellence and another such crown on Themistocles for his wisdom and
cleverness. They also gave him the finest chariot in Sparta, and with
many words of praise, they sent him home with the three hundred picked
men of Sparta who are called Knights to escort him as far as the
borders of Tegea. Themistocles was the only man of whom we know to
whom the Spartans gave this escort.
Back in Athens, though, Themistocles’ arrogance and the envy of his enemies eventually led to him being ostracized.
Pausanias, who led the Greeks at the decisive Battle of Plataea (479 BC), was rewarded with a large amount of Persian booty (there was a lot to go around) and recognition throughout Greece, but it wasn’t long before he was being censured by his own city for a stunningly arrogant inscription (subsequently erased) on a monument celebrating the victory over the Persians. He ended up a condemned man.
At the end of his relatively successful year as navarch (388 BC), the Spartan Teleutius was, according to Xenophon in Hellenica, honoured by his men:
Here one presented him with a crown, and there another with a victor's
wreath; and those who arrived too late, still, as the ship weighed
anchor, threw garlands into the sea and wafted him many a blessing
with prayerful lips.
Also in Hellenica, there is the example of the Spartan King Agesilaos II (c.444/443 – c.360 BC) being honoured by his allies on the battlefield, thinking that the battle was already over:
At this moment some of the foreign division were already in the act of
crowning Agesilaus with the wreath of victory, when some one brought
him word that the Thebans had cut through the Orchomenians and were in
among the baggage train. At this the Spartan general immediately
turned his army right about and advanced against them.
When, indeed the battle was finally over,
Gylis the polemarch received orders to draw up the troops in battle
order, and to set up a trophy, every man crowned with a wreath in
honour of the god, and all the pipers piping.
That wreaths were common is not in doubt. In the aftermath of the Athenian victory at Battle of Arginusae (406BC), in a speech in defence of the generals at their trial, Euryptolemus - in the generals' defence - argued that
…you will better satisfy the demands of justice by crowning these
conquerors with wreaths of victory than by punishing them with death
at the instigation of wicked men.
The Athenian general Iphicrates (c.418 BC – c.353 BC) was mentioned by Demosthenes. Again, details are lacking, but the orator considered the general to be
a very fortunate man, with his bronze effigy, his free board at the
Town Hall, and other grants and distinctions.
In another example of the brevity with which rewards were treated by Thucydides in particular, the historian simply notes that, for his actions in repelling the Athenians at Methone (in Messenia), Brasidas
…won the thanks of Sparta by his exploit, being thus the first officer
who obtained this notice during the war.
Following a string of successes, Brasidas found himself honoured by several cities. For example, in Scione, the people (according to Thucydides)
welcomed Brasidas with all possible honours, publicly crowning him
with a crown of gold as the liberator of Hellas; while private persons
crowded round him and decked him with garlands as though he had been
This, admittedly though, was not following a specific victory; Brasidas’ greatest honour was to come only after his death in victory at the Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC):
…all the allies attended in arms and buried Brasidas at the public
expense in the city, in front of what is now the marketplace, and the
Amphipolitans, having enclosed his tomb, ever afterwards sacrifice to
him as a hero and have given to him the honour of games and annual
Also greatly honoured in both life and death was the general Timoleon, a Corinthian active in Syracuse. Plutarch mentions that Timoleon
...lived in a house which the Syracusans had bestowed upon him as a
special prize for his successes as general...
He was further honoured in death for his many actions, military and non-military, to the benefit of Syracuse:
A number of days having been allowed in which the Syracusans might
prepare for his funeral, while the country folk and strangers came
together, the whole ceremony was conducted with great magnificence,...
The bier was escorted, too, by
many thousands of men and women, whose appearance was one that became
a festival, since all were crowned with garlands and wore white
raiment; while cries and tears, mingled with benedictions....And finally, when the
bier had been placed upon the funeral pyre, Demetrius, who had the
loudest voice of any herald of the time, read from manuscript the
following decree:— "By the people of Syracuse, Timoleon, son of
Timodemus, from Corinth, is here buried at a public cost of two
hundred minas, and is honoured for all time with annual contests,
musical, equestrian, and gymnastic, because he overthrew the tyrants,
subdued the Barbarians, re-peopled the largest of the devastated
cities, and then restored their laws to the Greeks of Sicily."
CLASSICAL GREECE, HELLENISTIC GREECE AND ROME COMPARED
Contrasting Hellenistic and Classical Greek practices, Tonio Hölscher in Images of War in Greece and Rome (2003) observes that:
In Hellenistic times there was a further change of attitude to both
victory and defeat. Victorious kings such as Alexander the Great are
represented in highly unclassical attitudes of almost supernatural and
explosive individual energy.
Then, comparing Rome with classical Greece,
Roman war rituals lead us into another world. They are almost never
represented in the arts of the private sphere but appear almost
exclusively on public monuments. In imperial Rome wars were fought not
by upper class citizens but by professional troops commanded by Roman
generals and officers, so that war was not a social and cultural
experience but a matter for the state. As a result, Romans do not much
care for their fallen dead, because death in war - except for some
great heroes of the past - was not glorious but shameful. Only
victories counted. While war rituals in archaic andclassical Greece
were closely focused on the social values of bravery and on the fight
itself, Rome developed a much larger system of war rituals within
which fighting and battles were presented as merely one aspect among
Daniel P. Tompkins, 'Greek Rituals of War'. In 'The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World'
A. H. Jackson, 'Hoplites and the Gods: The Dedication of Captured Arms and Armour'. In Victor Davis Hanson (ed.), 'Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience'
Tonio Hölscher, 'Images of War in Greece and Rome: Between Military Practice, Public Memory, and Cultural
Symbolism'. In 'The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 93' (2003)
J. E. Lendon, 'Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity' (Yale University Press, 2005)
F. Jacoby, 'Some Athenian Epigrams from the Persian Wars'. In 'Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 14,No. 3' (Jul. - Sep., 1945)
W. K. Pritchett, 'The Greek State at War, Part II' (University of California Press, 1974)
Lucia Novakova, 'Celebrating victory: art and war booty in Classical Greece'. In 'ILIRIA International Review – Vol 9, No 2' (2019)