A Gallant and Well-Exercised Militia

Friday, February 26th, 2010

At one point, Athens had a gallant and well-exercised militia:

The Athenian system of military training was never, at its best time, to be compared for excellence to the Spartan. Yet the result at Marathon, and on many other occasions, proved that in its earlier and better days, the Athenian armed force well deserved the description of a “gallant and well-exercised militia.” The fact, too, of such a citizen as Socrates serving repeatedly as a private soldier, proves that then the soldier-citizen system was effectually carried out.

At the siege of Potidaea, Socrates won the prize of valour, but voluntarily yielded it to his pupil Alcibiades. Alcibiades himself confessed that he owed his life to Socrates; and that in a certain action, where he was severely wounded, Socrates alone prevented both his person and his arms from falling into the hands of the enemy. At the battle of Delium, during the Peloponnesian war, where the Athenians were defeated by the Boeotians, Socrates also behaved with the greatest bravery; and it is said that he saved the life of Xenophon, who had fallen from his horse: Strabo says he carried him several furlongs, till he was out of danger. After the battle, as Socrates was retiring with Laches and Alcibiades, he told them that he had just received an admonition not to follow the road that most of their men had taken. They who continued in that road were pursued by the enemy’s cavalry, who, coming up with them, killed many on the spot, and took the others prisoners; while Socrates, who had taken another route, arrived safe at Athens with those who accompanied him.

The division of labour had not then reached that point when philosophers and politicians could sit in whole skins at home, and with a “dastardly spurt of the pen,” or as dastardly a wag of the tongue, send their brethren forth to battles, the dangers of which they did not share.

But if the time for such division of labour had not then actually come, it was fast coming, and was very near at hand. The poison of the orators was rapidly doing its work upon the Athenian democracy; and we have the testimony of Plato for the fatal effect it produced during the course of one generation.

Leave a Reply