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Ancient Greek warriors with armor and weapons.

Weapons Control in Ancient Greece: When an Accident was Deadly

Weapons control is a hot topic in the United States. With the recent shooting in Florida in February 2018, discussions of gun control are at an all-time high. Yet this discussion is not limited to the US; with the age of media, there has been an influx of reporting on violence as well, and the debate regarding weapons control has spread worldwide. Gun control is the primary topic of interest, and because of this, one might wonder whether previous cultures ever experienced a need for rules regarding weapon holding. Of particular interest is whether the idealized culture of ancient Greece met with this same debate.

In ancient Greece, (and of course its close Egyptian, Hittite, and later Roman neighbors), weapons were a prominent aspect of life. War was a consistent threat—whether from an exterior source or from within. Weapons were often kept nearby, or on one’s person, and leaders were always—even now—protected by some form of guard. Weapons are not a new topic of conversation.

Interestingly enough, conversations on weapons control are not new either.

Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC.

Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC. ( Public Domain )

Weapons Weren’t for Everyone

The ancient Greeks, to whom the United States has often turned for guidance in various affairs, are one of the earliest known examples of enforcing weapon control. Once again, due to the constantly changing nature of pre-democratic Greece, and the various wars in which the Greeks played a prominent role (the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Pyrrhic Wars, etc.), weapons were intricately tied into Greek culture. However even the Greeks saw a limit to the necessity for weapons within a civilized state.

Weapons were bought and owned by the rich; for one to participate in most Greek armies (as they were individualized by city-state) a soldier needed to possess enough money to buy their own swords, shields, spears, etc. In essence, weapons could be considered synonymous with wealth. Men could sport weapons freely in wartime, and could have an unlimited (as far as research can tell) number of weapons in their homes; there is no record of a limit to the number or types of standard weapons. However, the Greeks did set a limit on the prominence of weapon exposure in ancient Greece.

Knelt warrior with de-cladded sword – possibly Achilles waiting for Troilus. Tondo of an Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 560 BC. (Public Domain) Greek warriors had to obtain their own weapons.

Knelt warrior with de-cladded sword – possibly Achilles waiting for Troilus. Tondo of an Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 560 BC. ( Public Domain ) Greek warriors had to obtain their own weapons.

Greeks Argued Against Mixing Arms and Politics

Evidenced in literature from the Archaic period forward (800 BC–480 BC), men could not enter the agora, or marketplace, with a knife strapped to their waists; men could not walk into any form of religious space with a sword, other than a ceremonial one (usually carried by the presiding priest).

Further, men could also not enter any form of political space with a weapon. In fact, this point has long been punctuated by the story of an ancient Greek man called Charondas, the same man who demanded that a law be put into place banning the carrying of weapons within the Assembly (political body) of the Greek colony of Catania in Sicily.

Charondas, as the story goes, insisted that all those who entered the Assembly must leave their weapons outside the political center of the city; in most city-states, this Assembly was located in or near the agora. However accidents happen; with weapons, accidents often lead to death. Unfortunately for him, even Charondas was not exempt from this fate.

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. (Public Domain)

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. ( Public Domain )

Returning to the Assembly after spending some time out of the city, Charondas forgot to swing by his home and leave his own weapon (which he was carrying for protection during his travels) there. Upon entering the Assembly, his mistake was realized by his associates, and he was ridiculed for forgetting his own law. To prove his dedication to the law, he rectified his error by removing his dagger from his person and committing suicide.

Keeping the Community Safe?

Charondas’ dedication to the protection of the members of the Assembly is undeniable. The importance of maintaining a community free of threatening articles is also undeniable.

There are various pros and cons to adopting and adapting ideas from the social and political world of ancient Greece. As weapons are currently a hot topic, perhaps there might be some interest in opening a discussion regarding the control of weapon possession and use in the ancient world. After all, many modern democracies drew initial inspiration from the ancient Greek δημοκρατία; now might be an important time to revisit those earlier values.

A lithograph plate showing ancient Greek warriors with a variety of different weapons and armor

A lithograph plate showing ancient Greek warriors with a variety of different weapons and armor. (Public Domain )

Top Image: Ancient Greek warriors with armor and weapons. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters

Bibliography

“The Ancient Greeks’ Surprising Views on Weapons Regulations.” Tales of Times Forgotten. http://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2017/10/07/the-ancient-greeks-surprising-views-on-weapons-regulations/

Lane, Melissa. 2013. “How the Greeks Viewed Weapons. The New Yorker . Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/how-the-greeks-viewed-weapons

Sears, Matthew A. 2018. “What the ancient Greeks can teach us about gun control.” The Washington Post . Accessed February 23, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/02/21/what-the-ancient-greeks-can-teach-us-about-gun-control/?utm_term=.c4e27562514d.

Thucydides. Histories of the Peloponnesian War: 1.5. (trans. JM Dent, 1910.) Accessed February 23, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D5

Comments

Maybe those who failed to uphold their legal responsibilities in protecting the citizens should consider the actions of Charondas. 

I find your call for suicide by those leaders who believe in the Second Amendment heartlessly appalling. I am shocked.

in Athens, as far as vase paintings can be trusted to provide accurate descriptions of actual life, we see aristocrats strutting in the streets carrying spears in the first half of the century, then the spears disappear somewhere in the second half and are replaced with staves.

It was the doing of the tyrant Peisistratus, who in his first tyranny in the 1st half of the century, had organized a bodyguards of commoners with cudgls to oppose the aristocrats, and who took power solidly in the second half of the century and disarmed the citizens in Athens.

As much as I dislike gun nuts, this is a terrible argument for "weapons control". Basically, greeks didn't withold weapons because you could accidentally kill your neighbor. As you noticed, weapons were only owned and stored by rich citizens - and the vas majority of the population was not. Weapons control in this instance was no more and mo less than a form of military subjugation of the greater society by the select few. If slaves had weapons those "citizens" woudn't feel very safe.
So the issue wasn't "protecting freedom", but rather preventing it.

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