Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.20

Victor Davis Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece. Revised Edition.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998.  Pp. 281 + xviii.  ISBN 0-520-21596-6.  $35.00 (hb).  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Iain Spence, University of New England
Word count: 1944 words

This work is a welcome revision of the first edition of Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (hereafter WACG) published in 1983. Hanson has produced this revised, up-dated, and corrected version as a result of the great increase in interest in the subjects of ancient Greek warfare and agriculture, topics he rightly believes are 'at the heart of the discovery of the true nature of the Greek polis' (p. xi). The developing interest in this area, and the scale of his revisions, are sufficient to warrant the publication of this new edition. It will not only help introduce a new generation of readers to the topic but will provide renewed impetus to those already working in the area, including those familiar with the earlier edition.

According to Hanson, apart from corrections of misprints and minor errors, the main differences between this and the 1983 WACG are some restructuring, the addition of notes updating the reader on new research since 1983, the transliteration of all Greek script and an associated reduction in the amount of quoted Greek. The changes to the use of Greek were prompted by his desire to provide 'wider accessibility to readers outside the world of classical scholarship' (p. xi). However, I am not sure he has entirely succeeded in this. The loss of the Greek original detracts from the value of the work to those who can read Greek, while transliterated Greek quotations are presumably just as impenetrable to the non-Greek speaker as the original (cf. p. 237). The decision to include the updated research as notes at the end rather than incorporate it into the text also makes the volume less user-friendly than it could have been for the non-specialist.

Although there has been a little restructuring, the book essentially retains the same structure as the 1983 WACG. What Hanson has done is to re-write the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each section, transform the chapter on 'The Vocabulary of Agricultural Devastation' into an appendix, and add at the end of the book a running commentary (and updated bibliography) based on current research. However, there is another difference -- a significant toning down of some of the arguments in the original edition (more of this later). As might be expected, Hanson's ideas have matured and developed over the past fifteen years and the revised edition reflects this. It has a more balanced view of the topic than the previous edition (which in places rather over-stated the case), making this an even more valuable book than its predecessor.

The main thesis remains the same as in 1983: that agricultural ravaging did not create permanent damage and was designed to provoke hoplite battle not cause economic collapse. WACG develops this over three parts (each consisting of several chapters), as follows: 1. The Attack on Agriculture; 2. The Defense of Agriculture; and 3. The Effectiveness of Agricultural Devastation.

Part 1, The Attack on Agriculture, covers ancient Greek military organization and how agricultural areas were ravaged. This is a sensible discussion of the topic, which successfully establishes that hoplites were not very effective in causing physical damage to farmland -- because they needed to stay in formation they could cover only a limited area and cause limited damage. Hanson correctly concludes that the bulk of the damage done to farmland must have been caused by light troops, but points out that these were vulnerable to countermeasures from cavalry, other light troops, or even hoplites.

In the second chapter he discusses the methods by which crops and buildings could be damaged. Again, this is a sensible and convincing discussion which makes particularly good use of Hanson's extensive modern farming experience to show what is possible (and what is not) when using hand-held tools to damage crops and trees. Hanson demonstrates here the major physical exertion, the large numbers of men, and the large amount of time required to damage areas under cultivation. Given this, Hanson argues, physical damage was generally limited and designed to cause an enemy to march out and engage in hoplite battle (or to act as a vehicle to vent frustrations if they did not do so) rather than to inflict permanent economic damage. This too, is a plausible conclusion, based firmly on the ancient evidence and Hanson's own agricultural experience.

However, the implication (developed fully on pp. 178ff.) that the threat of damage was more important than the actuality of damage is the least credible aspect of Hanson's argument. He himself acknowledges the inherent contradiction in Greeks marching out to defend their land from ravaging which according to him was ineffectual (p. 179). In the new WACG he has taken up Lin Foxhall's excellent suggestion that damage to some farms could affect social cohesion and therefore a collective response was necessary to avoid this. However, this is only one part of the equation and Hanson apparently misses the simplest and most obvious answer to the question of why hoplites marched out to defend the whole chora -- that although ravaging did not inflict permanent damage, the short-term damage was more serious than he suggests.

The ancient evidence supports this, indicating that in most cases the loss of even one year's crop was seen as a problem on a state level (cf. Polyainos Strat. 4.6.20.). The cumulative effects of several year's ravaging in a row is likely to have been even more severe. Xenophon, Hell. 5.4.56, 7.2.10, and 7.2.17, written by an experienced Athenian soldier, show that ravaging could cause difficulties for classical Greek states -- despite the fact that this damage was not permanent. On an individual level, a Greek farmer who lost one crop could well see his family go hungry, if not actually starve. Damage may have been temporary and limited in area, but few farmers could afford to run the risk that their crops might be among the ones affected. So, there was a powerful motive for them to march out collectively in defence of all the state's farmland, a motive which neatly dovetails with Foxhall's point that a collective response was important to the state's interest in maintaining social cohesion.

Part 2, The Defense of Agriculture, covers fortification, evacuation, and sorties. Again, this is a sensible and detailed discussion of how the Greeks defended their farmland. The discussion of fortifications is supplemented (pp. 228-9) by a good overview of the literature since 1983, although here (as elsewhere) Hanson summarises the material rather than decides between competing theories. The section on sorties (pp. 122ff.) is largely unchanged from the 1983 edition and, in terms of its discussion of the cavalry, better than I remembered it. The discussion of the literature since 1983 is thorough and balanced and will provide new readers with a good overview of recent research.

Part 3, The Effectiveness of Agricultural Devastation, covers the issue primarily through a case study -- the devastation of Attica during the Peloponnesian War. This is interesting as the Peloponnesian War has often been taken as the prime example of the effectiveness of agricultural ravaging. Hanson successfully demonstrates that both ancient and modern writers have consistently exaggerated the permanent effects of this ravaging. However, he now accepts that the loss of agricultural slaves must have had a more serious effect than he had previously assumed (p. 132). Unfortunately, the implications of this for the extent and duration of the adverse effects of the ravaging is passed over a little superficially.

The distinction between plundering and ravaging (p. 161 and also appendix) is perhaps too sharply drawn, and I suspect that in some cases the ancient writers may not have been used the vocabulary as precisely as Hanson generally suggests. I think he is correct to note (p. 186) that when ravaging occurred 'perhaps plundering can never be ruled out', and that some words can mean either plundering or ravaging (p. 190). However, this caution is not rigorously applied to the rest of his discussion of the vocabulary.

In general, Hanson has toned down his arguments (rightly in my opinion) in two main areas. The first is his acceptance that the hoplite ideal waned in the fifth and fourth centuries and that Greek warfare became increasingly more sophisticated (pp. xiii, 202-5). The 1983 WACG, his subsequent works on warfare, and the Hanson-influenced work of John Keegan all suffer from a rather hoplite-centric view which tends to neglect the increasing sophistication of Greek land warfare and the increasing importance of light troops and cavalry. This has now been somewhat redressed, although perhaps more in the revised introduction and updated commentary than in the body of the book.

The second area is also significant. One of the problems with the earlier edition was Hanson's insistence that agricultural devastation caused only short-term damage to crops and infrastructure and therefore had no lasting effect. This omitted a potentially important effect of ravaging -- loss of rural labour (both slave and free) which could lead to more serious and longer-term effects. The 1998 edition accepts that 'displaced populations' and 'labor power losses' could cause major problems for agriculture (p. xiii). However, this is not sufficiently emphasised in the body of the text. For example, in the context of the physical destruction of crops and trees he claims that the common threat to turn the country into 'a sheep walk' was rarely realised (p. 10). Unfortunately, in the references he cites (Isocrates 14.31 and Diod. Sic. 15.63.2) the threat is made in the context of depopulating the countryside (or preventing the inhabitants from working it) -- not ravaging it to the point where the only agriculture it can support is grazing.

Although welcome, both of these shifts in view illustrate a difficulty with the approach Hanson and his publisher have adopted in revising WACG. Retaining the original text with minor modifications but adding an updated commentary at the end has several advantages. It presumably reduced the amount of rewriting, guaranteed the cohesion of the original argument, and gave considerable control over the management of the new material. This in turn would speed up the revision process and allow the work to reach the public more quickly.

Unfortunately it also has two disadvantages. The first is that the reader has not only to keep an eye on the footnotes, but also a finger in the back of the book so that the updated commentary can be consulted at the appropriate moment. This can be rather a distraction from the main argument. The second disadvantage is the difficulty of integrating the new material when it is largely held in endnotes. This results is an occasional disjunction between the new material in both the text and the commentary and the main body of the text. Fortunately, this disjunction is in terms of emphasis rather than outright contradictions. Nevertheless it does detract a little from ease of use and from the overall effect of the book.

However, despite the minor criticisms raised above, WACG is a good book (and a timely reminder of how far Hanson was at the cutting edge of research in this area in 1983). It is an excellent synthesis of analysis of the ancient evidence and practical farming experience, especially involving viticulture and fruit growing. The more balanced and mellow discussion and updated commentary make this a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in Greek warfare and agriculture and the relationship between the two.

Finally, one thing this work has taught me is a personal lesson -- I need a shift in research emphasis. The fact that I am listed in the index as 'G.G.' instead of 'I.G.' Spence clearly suggests that I have become too closely associated with horses and cavalry for my own good.1


1.   Gee-gee is a british nursery word for horse (ed.).

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