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The term strategos (plural strategoi; Greek στρατηγός) is used in Greek to mean "general". In the Byzantine Empire the term was also used to describe a military governor (see Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy). In the modern Hellenic Army, it is the highest officer rank.

The office of Strategos in Athenian democracy

From 501 BC the Athenian democracy elected ten generals elected each year, one for each of the ten democratic 'tribes'. Originally the generals worked together with the old polemarch ('war leader'), but while the name remained this figure soon lost all military function . Strategos literally means 'leader of the army', hence the translation general, but once Athens at the instigation of Themistocles became a naval power, the generals had charge of the navy as well. The ten generals were equals of each other without any ranking: at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC the generals decided the battle plan by majority vote. Particular assignments, however, might be given to individual generals and from some point there was a regular division of reponsibilitiess. At times at least some generals were elected in a purely honorary capacity: the poet Sophocles had a spell as general in advanced old age. In the event of a general's death or dismissal a replacement would be elected for the remainder of the year.

The 10 generals were among the hundred or so officials who were elected under the democracy and among these they were the most prominent. The tendency under the democracy was to select officials by lot, but generals needed to be both experienced in war and capable of operating on the level of interstate relations, which in the Greek world generally was an aristocratic preserve. It is probable that the generalship was open to any citizen, but in practice only prominent upper class citizens were elected. The generals were paid but only when on campaign. It could however be an extremely lucrative office to hold, as they received a share of the booty and interstate diplomacy could involve lavish gift giving, legitimate or otherwise.

Throughout the 5th century BC there was a very strong link between the board of generals and the leadership of the state. The generals were often prominent in the initiation of policy within the assembly. They did not do so however by virtue of the power of their office. Formally speaking, if they rose to address the assembly, they did so only in their capacity as citizen. The premier example is Pericles, re-elected many times including a generalship every year between 443-430 BC. According to the historian Thucydides, his dominance was so great it was democracy in name, but monarchy in fact. (If a monarchy, it was one where the subjects could sack their king whenever they chose; see below)

In the 4th century BC there was a shift, those guiding policy in the assembly and those leading armies usually being different people. This was because of the increasing complexity both in military affairs and in the administration of the city. On the military side, the use of mercenaries became more and more common, with sometimes even mercenary leaders being given citizenship so they could be elected general. With the loss of its 5th century empire, the finances of Athens became much more precarious and a series of new financial officials rose to prominence. These, together with expert speakers in the assembly, edged the generals out of their political role. By the 4th century too the generals were elected from the people as a whole and were no longer linked to the tribes.

Generals were frequently subject to impeachment and prosecution in the courts. Penalties ranged from execution, banishment and fines. The fines imposed might be truly monumental, figures that could swallow up the estates of the very richest Athenians. In 430 BC Pericles himself was removed summarily from office by the assembly and fined. After the victorious naval battle of Arginusae in 406 BC, all eight generals in command on the day were tried and sentenced to death for failing to rescue survivors, though not all came home to accept the penalty.

The Athenian military was organised on democratic principles and discipline was relatively weak. There are a few (doubtful) cases of summary executions carried out carried out by generals on campaign, but the normal mode in the case of severe derelictions of duty by soldiers was for the general to bring a prosecution before a court with the serving men acting as jurors. The generals themselves like any democratic office holders underwent review (euthunai, literally 'straigthenings') the year following their service. This review could be used to trigger a full court session at which the general would be on trial with those he had commanded sitting in judgement over him. This was not a scenario under which brutal disciplinarians are likely to prosper. .

Some of the more notable Athenian strategoi from the 5th century BC:

Pericles the great proponent of Democracy in Athens




Thucydides the author of The Peloponnesian War




See also Archons of Athens for a list of the known strategoi.


Hansen M.H. 1987, The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes. Oxford.

Hamel, Debra 1998, Athenian generals : Military authority in the classical period. Leiden.

Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1996: strategoi.

The office of Strategos in other ancient Greek states

Other Greek states also possessed the office of Strategos. Notable among these was the Achaean League, whose most famous strategoi were Aratus and Philopoemon.

Modern use

In the modern Hellenic Army, strategos is the highest officer rank. All but one of the other Greek general officer ranks are derivations of this word: antistrategos and ypostrategos, lieutenant general and major general, respectively; brigadier general, however is taksiarhos, after taksiarhia, which means brigade .

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