Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.09.11

Debra Hamel, Athenian generals. Military authority in the classical period. Mnemosyne Supplement.   Leiden:  Brill, 1998.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 90-04-10900-5.  

Reviewed by Lynette Mitchell, Oriel College, Oxford
Word count: 1212 words

As H. rightly points out in her introduction, no broad-ranging survey of the fundamental tasks of the Athenian generals has previously been available. In this monograph, H. sets out to remedy this, and at the same time to investigate the relationship between the board of generals and the Athenian demos. It is H.'s central contention that in military affairs the sovereignty of the demos was absolute, and that the generals were unable to influence to any significant extent the conduct of campaigns either in their preparation or in their execution.

The monograph consists of four parts: strategoi and the campaign; strategoi and their subordinates; strategoi and their colleagues; and strategoi and the demos. In them H. discusses issues both old and new, such as the power of the generals to convene assemblies, the involvement of generals in the drawing up of armies, the negotiations of terms of surrender and distribution of booty, the relationship between generals and their troops, the election (or not) of generals with special powers, and the disciplinarian role of the demos over the actions of the generals. There are also sixteen appendices which deal with matters peripheral to the immediate scope of the book.

In her basic thesis, H. must indeed be right. Ultimate control of campaigns and campaigning did rest with the Athenian assembly. The Sicilian campaign of the middle years of the Peloponnesian War clearly illustrates not only how the demos was closely involved in the setting-up of expeditions, but also how it could intervene in the course of the campaign against the advice of the generals on the ground. Thucydides' characterisation of Nicias also shows the fear of reprisal that could limit the actions of generals, and prevent them from acting on their own initiative, even if this was in fact in the best interests of not only the campaign but also the Athenians themselves.

However, in her explication of her argument, H. is too determined to prove her case. This not only leads her to over-simplify some issues, but also means that she misses more interesting questions in order to prove the more mundane. For example, it is absurd to say that, because some decisions (such as the awarding of aristeia) were devolved onto subordinates, the generals' powers were limited to a significant degree. Any chain of command must act in this way. What is important was that the generals were ultimately responsible for the awards.

H. does deal with the fascinating question of whether the soldiers, formally or not, could force their generals to action. But here she does not go far enough. While she does discuss the effect of the soldiers' displeasure on the generals and the role of subordinate commanders in the decision-making processes, she does not consider the interesting possibility (although it is an implication of her argument) that the troops may have acted in some sense as 'an Athenian assembly abroad', as we seem to see the fleet behaving at Samos in 411 (might there not be parallels in the army of the Ten Thousand or Alexander's army in Asia?). In this connection, the notion that the citizen-soldier considered himself just as much citizen as soldier (implicit in H.'s discussion of troop discipline) is worth pursuing further.

H. does discuss some problematic passages. She reviews the difficulties pertaining to Thucydides' claim that Pericles failed to convene assemblies in 431, yet, as so often, she insists on reading the texts literally, and does not consider other (perhaps literary) explanations (in this case, Thucydides' characterisation of Pericles). But a number of other difficult cases are not discussed, even though they may have produced a more nuanced response. For example, it may well be right that the Athenian assembly did stipulate the terms on which a campaign should be brought to an end (whether in a treaty or otherwise), but it was obviously the case that in some instances they didn't (or couldn't) make their real wishes explicit. For example, the generals in Sicily in 427-4 did as they were officially told to do (to help the Leontini in their war against Syracuse: Thuc. 3.86), but because it wasn't what the Athenians wanted them to do (i.e. to cut off the grain supply to the Peloponnese, and in fact to try to take Sicily: Thuc. 3.86.4, 4.65.3), they faced a trial on their return when they agreed to the Sicilian peace settlement. This resulted in a fine for one of the generals and exile for the other two. This tells us a lot about the conditions under which the Athenian generals were forced to operate. They did indeed live in fear of not fulfilling the demos' wishes, but this was not always a matter of carrying out orders that were etched in stone. Sometimes they were forced to second-guess what was actually expected of them, making their job even more perilous, especially when they were dealing with a demos which could be fickle and did not necessarily know its own mind! We might consider here also Timotheus in 374/3 who was tried for not undertaking his campaign to Corcyra straight away as ordered by the Athenian demos. But since they did not give him the resources actually to do it, he was forced to head off north to raise money on his own account first, and was then tried because he arrived in Corcyra too late (Xen. Hell. 6.2.12-13; Diod. 15.47.2). Some light might also have been shed on the murky involvement of the Athenian generals involved in the freeing of the Cadmeia in 379/8, who were later tried (Xen. Hell. 5.4.10, 19; Diod. 15.25.2-26.2; Dein. 1.38-9). The question needs to be asked on whose initiative they became involved. Perhaps their own? If so, what does this tell us about the powers of generals? And even if they were sent officially, their prosecution speaks volumes about the inherent dangers in relations between assembly and generals.

Other issues are passed over too readily. For instance, H. accepts without question Fornara's reconstruction of the election of generals and his explanation of the double-doubles, although a number of his so-called doubles (and triple) are difficult, and there still appear to be years where tribal order appears to be too closely maintained simply to be random (for example, 433/2, 424/3, and even as late as 357/6!). She also seems to be unaware of Piérart's seminal article ('À propos de l'élection des stratèges athéniens', BCH 98 (1974) 125-46), which (although perhaps mistakenly) informs the current orthodoxy on the subject.

This is a dissertation-cum-monograph which unfortunately shows too clearly the marks of its origins. It could have done with greater revision, not only to create a more unified book (the argument for some important points, such as Pericles' alleged generalship of Attica -- an issue which is not at all clear-cut -- are annoyingly delayed; some of the appendices could also have been integrated into the text), but also produce a more subtle argument. It is a stimulating topic, and there are many fascinating questions waiting to be answered. However, in her eagerness to prove that the demos was indeed sovereign, H. does not always see these questions, or always have the courage to face them head on. She could have produced more interesting answers if she had.

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