Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.55

Burkhard Meissner, Oliver Schmitt, Michael Sommer, Krieg, Gesellschaft, Institutionen: Beiträge zu einer vergleichenden Kriegsgeschichte.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2005.  Pp. 448; pls. 25.  ISBN 3-05-004097-1.  €69.80.  

Reviewed by Everett L. Wheeler (
Word count: 2597 words

[Contributors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

A conference at Wittenberg 1-4 May 2003, "Krieg -- Gesellschaft -- Institutionen", occasioned this collection of papers, which seeks an Olympian perspective on war as an historical phenomenon under the rubric of war and society. This approach contrasts with another current mania, face-of-battle studies, no less concerned with war and society in their own way but featuring a grittier, more terrestrial and sanguine approach from the individual participant's perspective. This German volume follows three earlier Anglophone tomes on war and society, whose editors endorsed (without confessing their debt) the assumptions and structuralism of the French Annales school,1 although not all contributors to those volumes shared the same methodological obsession. Here a cultural approach -- currently the "in" thing in war studies -- occasionally hints at Annaliste structuralism but without a doctrinaire commitment.2 For that we can be grateful. Certainly the theme of war and society is too important to be the monopoly of a single methodological approach, particularly one that reduces the often-cataclysmic events of war to an "epiphenomenon." Indeed the editors also boldly claim contemporary (read: Iraq War) relevance for the papers.

Coverage, extending from Bronze Age Egypt and Assyria to the reign of Heraclius, features five papers on the Near East (173 pp.), four on Greeks (106 pp.), and five on Romans (127 pp.), of which three are Late Antique. Early Rome and the Middle Republic are missing. Four of the seventeen contributors have current or former affiliations with Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. As often with such acta, the shotgun approach splatters pellets of Wissenschaft, with few hitting the mark. Only one paper (Le Bohec) successfully attacks a scholarly problem, although others (Fuchs, Bonatz, Brosius, Schmitt) provide useful summaries of their topics. Several (Miller, Meissner, Whitby) read like surveys for an undergraduate textbook and a few (Hauser, Sommer, Trombley) are problematic. In general the papers (even in post-conference revisions) neither address each other nor constitute a coherent contribution to a comparative study of ancient war and society. Despite vergleichende Kriegsgeschichte in the work's subtitle, only Schmitt's survey of Late Antique tribal societies (Germans, Huns, Arabs, Mauri) involves comparative work.

The resurgence of interest in ancient war studies over the last twenty years has brought a host of enthusiasts out of the closet. Unfortunately, quantity has often not translated into quality, as the wheel is frequently being re-invented (or even discarded) through bibliographical ignorance and/or doctrinal allegiances, and few are adequately equipped for the daunting complexities of thinking about war as a general historical phenomenon. Miller's paper on pharaonic Egypt gives some sense of this: the Egyptologist thoroughly familiar with the minutiae of the documentary and material evidence but uncomfortable in trying to analyze a major phenomenon like war in Egyptian society over several centuries. In contrast to the cautious reserve of earlier generations of scholars for direct inquiry into "what it all means," recent volumes on war and society display a fearless zeal to ask big historical questions, but in the end they promise much and deliver little, despite the occasional useful treatment of specific topics. The first three papers of this volume, Meissner and Schmitt's introduction, Andreas Mehl's opening address to the conference, and Imanuel Geiss's universalist musings on war and power, illustrate the point.

The conference finds its justification in an alleged reticence of Germans since 1945 to think about war. Battle-less French and Anglophone work on war and society is praised without reference to specific works and kudos also goes to the experimental archaeologists for their how-they-must-have-done-it efforts. A cultural approach permits inclusion of the Near East for comparative purposes of sources, methods, and results and demonstrates for future work the futility, given the lack of sources, of studying tactics or strategy and reconstruction of battles. In lieu of a final chapter of conclusions, Meissner and Schmitt offer their own agenda for future work, the supposed fruits of what the conference demonstrated. These are: (1) the connection of war and social structure: a central power's promotion of expansion regardless of its own strength/weakness and the irrelevance of a warrior class; (2) the relationship of the central power to the military; (3) religious-ideological justifications for war; (4) asymmetrical warfare; and (5) the influence of technical progress and innovation.

But much of this is either banal or dubious. Even conceding the absence of a German war-and-society volume in the French-Anglophone Annaliste mode, a survey of German scholarship since 1960 would hardly support a view that Germans -- even if limited to Althistoriker -- do not think about war. Meissner and Schmitt of course must tiptoe around the tremendous contributions of Germans to Roman army studies. Limesforschung is not mentioned. Even in Greek history German discussions of generals/kings, international affairs, international law, equipment and weapons, military affairs in Greek authors, war and religion, studies of individual wars, war and the polis are by no means rare. Mehl's endorsement of the view contradicts his own publication of a book on Seleucus I and an article on early Hellenistic international law.3 German ancient historians have been thinking about war and in innovative ways.4

The editors' rejection of battle studies only re-states what serious scholars already know. Without additional evidence, saying something new about an ancient battle -- even the few with adequate sources for attempted reconstruction -- is next to impossible, although such has not deterred wargamers and face-of-battle enthusiasts from creating their own fantasies. Yet the editors' smug rejection of strategy, tactics, and battles finds a contradiction in publication of Trombley's paper, a detailed blow-by-blow operational analysis of the Persian war of 540-544, sprinkled with criticisms of command decisions and spiced with amateurish references to Clausewitz, Frederick the Great, and Machiavelli. Trombley offers the type of old-fashioned operational history, at which academics long sneered and which gave military history a bad name. This is Fortschritt? Of course Trombley's paper raises other objections, as he fails to demonstrate his assertion that "lessons learned" in 540-544 promoted Roman success in the next Persian war of 579-591 and found canonization in Ps.-Maurice's Strategikon. He has published only half of a paper.

The Near Eastern papers are most welcome and, given the traditional compartmentalization of ancient studies at German universities, their inclusion may indicate automatically (from a German perspective) insertion of a comparative element. Yet these papers do not provide new methodological insights for Graeco-Roman historians. Indeed the common thread of divine justification for war in the papers on Assyrians, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Achaemenid Persians, the most coherent section of the collection, represents a missed opportunity to say something significant for comparative history.

Readers who, after completing the whole volume, return to the Einleitung to assess Meissner and Schmitt's agenda for future work, will be not only struck by its lack of originality but also perplexed about how this agenda was derived from this set of papers. Points (1) on connections between societal structure and war and (3) on religious and ideological justifications for war are two topics already widely discussed, and the role of societal structure in military participation is not original with Braudelian Annaliste structuralism. Point (2) on the relationship between a central governing power and "the military," raises the issue of militarism, an old chestnut, although not many ancient societies featured "the military" as a separate entity and distinct interest group. Point (5) on the role of technological progress and innovation derives from Meissner's own paper on siegecraft and the Greek state in the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C., in which little new in evidence or insights can be found. The failure of advanced technology and superiority in material resources to guarantee victory is a simple fact well-known to historians and even anthropologists,5 although often not grasped by politicians and policy makers. Closely associated with point (5) is (4) on asymmetrical warfare, a new trendy buzzword, whose popularity coincides with the current Iraq War. Gleiss accurately exposes asymmetrical warfare as merely a new term for an old practice in a paper otherwise notable only for the gross generalizations (disputable in detail), of which universal historians are so fond, and for his own political opinions on current American and Israeli policy in the Near East. Germans formerly discussed asymmetrical war as Kleinkrieg. An Austrian dissertation examined its role in antiquity thirty years ago, when Germans supposedly were not thinking about war.6 Reference to asymmetrical warfare in several papers suggests that the Zeitgeist of the current Iraq War haunts this volume.

Although detailed critiques of all papers cannot be undertaken here, at least a few merit comment. Fuchs and Bonatz present stimulating and informative overviews of the Assyrian concept of war. Fuchs' decision, however, to frame his paper around the question of whether the Neo-Assyrian Empire was a military state seems contrived. Has anyone argued the opposite? Bonatz makes excellent use of Assyrian reliefs in outlining the ideological basis of Assyrian warfare and relating it to the myth of the war god Ninurta. From a comparative perspective the paper raises the issue of the respective roles of ideology and practical considerations (i.e., strategy) in state policy, a question also prominent in recent debates about Roman strategy. Do Assyrian kings undertake hydraulic projects and seek expansion in the west merely to re-enact the myth of Ninurta? Bonatz does not address the problem. But, to offer a quibble, Assyria never conquered Urartu, as Bonatz claims (p.61), and Nemrud Dag, if the site in Commagene is meant, is nowhere near the sources of the Tigris in western Armenia (p.73). Brosius' study of an emphasis on the peace and harmony of the Persian Empire in Achaemenid ideology contrasts nicely with the Assyrian passion for portraying destruction and cruelty in their reliefs.

Inclusion of a Parthian paper merits praise, as the Parthians despite their longevity have become the forgotten Iranian intermediary between Achaemenids and Sasanids. Hauser justly exposes the excesses of Josef Wolski and his students in overemphasizing the influence of the Parthians' nomadic origins on later institutions, and he even doubts the descent of Parthians from the tribe of the Parni. His paper, rich in new, interesting perspectives, nevertheless discounts older views for his own arguments from silence. However one assesses Wolski's scholarly judgments, he almost single-handedly kept the field of Parthian studies alive for decades and advocated understanding the Parthians from their own perspective long before appreciation of "the other" became trendy. But for Hauser, even Wolski is guilty of orientalism.

The four Greek papers are disappointing, and Meissner's piece has already been mentioned. Parker's perfunctory survey of war and culture in Archaic Greece seems rather uninformed about recent rich debates on the origins of the phalanx and hoplite warfare. If Parker, however, is cautious about the connection between the phalanx and the development of democracy, Raaflaub is certainly too sure about it. A vocal proponent of the school that would turn the Homeric poems into an accurate witness of Greek society in the late eighth and early seventh centuries B.C., he recycles previous arguments for mass battle in the Iliad at much greater length than necessary and with some special pleading. Like other Homeric historicizers, his method involves a process of selection. Raaflaub is beating a dead horse, as participation of commoners in Homeric battles after Latacz' 1977 monograph was already no longer in dispute, but a date for the phalanx and the supposed sophistication of Homeric warfare (also stressed by Meissner) are debatable. Any political ramifications of a presumed increase in the military participation ratio c.700 B.C. remain unproven. Birgalias' brief survey of citizenship and military participation at Sparta raises a fresh voice in the field of Spartan studies, which often seem an Anglophone monopoly of the cottage industry spawned by Moses Finley. Not all will probably share Birgalias' beliefs that the Spartan agoge and a Spartan phalanx date to the Second Messenian War and that Plato invented the view of Sparta as a society focused on war. Intriguing is his suggestion that the class of freed Helots called Neodamodes received grants of land, although the basis for this view is not clear.

Among the Roman essays, Le Bohec wins the prize for the volume's best paper. He judiciously refutes Marxist-inspired historians who have imputed economic motives to Caesar's Gallic conquests. In a remarkable turn of the tables he puts economic aspects of the campaigns into their contemporary Roman context and demonstrates the anachronism of Marxist views. Sommer studies changes in scenes of adlocutio in the period between Caligula and Constantine and argues that they demonstrate a departure from a supposed Republican symbolism as an act of reciprocity between patron (emperor) and client (army). Some may find the argument about reciprocity an exaggerated "Akt der Kommunikation." But more embarrassing, he not only prints a primitive version of a fragment of Hadrian's Lambaesis speech (p. 339 n.8), apparently unaware of a better reading at ILS 2487 and the new edition of the speech with detailed commentary,7 but also repeatedly identifies the addressees of this fragment, the legionaries of the III Augusta, as the cohort VI Commagenorum. Of the three Late Antique papers Schmitt's useful paper on war and tribal societies stands out and owes not a little to his earlier study of buccellarii. His demonstration of the internal pressures on barbarian chieftains to maintain their positions through military success, booty, and gift distribution scarcely supports the politically correct view of Roman frontiers popular in some Anglophone circles. Whitby's breezy survey of war and state between Diocletian and Heraclius espouses many currently fashionable views about the Late Roman army: it was efficient, not Germanized, and still predominately infantry. But the jury is still out on the army's efficiency and degree of Germanization, and Trombley rightly reasserts the significance of cavalry in the sixth century. After all, I might add, horses are expensive and mere numbers are not a key to tactical usage and priorities.

Finally, this volume is truly distinguished for the absence of proofreading. Cataloguing the errors soon became an exercise in futility. Superfluous hyphens, omissions, and misplaced commas are supplemented by frequent repetitions of half sentences and in one case even duplication of a half page of text (pp.77-79). No one proofread the book, and potential purchasers should be so advised.


Oliver Schmitt, Burkhard Meissner, "Einleitung," pp. 11-14

Andreas Mehl, "Zur Tagung," pp. 15-18

Imanuel Geiss, "Krieg und Macht als historische Universalien," pp. 19-34

Andreas Fuchs, "War das Neuassyrische Reich ein Militärstaat? pp. 35-60

Dominik Bonatz, "Ninurtas Gaben. Assyrische Kriegsideologie und ihre Bilder," pp. 61-88

Marcus Miller, "Die Auswirkungen des Krieges auf die altägyptische Gesellschaft," pp. 89-116

Thomas Krüger, "Der Weg zu einer Konzeption von Frieden ohne Kriegführung in der hebräischen Bibel," pp. 117-34

Maria Brosius, "Pax persica. Königliche Ideologie und Kriegführung im Achämenidenreich," pp. 135-61

Stefan R. Hauser, "Die ewigen Nomaden? Bemerkungen zu Herkunft, Militär, Staatsaufbau und nomadischen Traditionen der Arsakiden," pp. 163-208

Victor Parker, "Die Kriegskultur der Archaischen Epoche Griechenlands," pp. 209-27

Kurt Raaflaub, "Homerische Krieger, Protohopliten und die Polis: Schritte zur Lösung alter Probleme," pp. 229-66

Nikos Birgalias, "Guerre et identité politique a Sparte," pp. 267-89

Burkhard Meissner, "Politik, Strategie und Kriegführung. Anmerkungen zum klassischen und hellenistischen Griechenland," pp. 289-315

Yann Le Bohec, "César et l'économie pendant la guerre des Gaules," pp. 317-33

Michael Sommer, "Der Kaiser spricht. Die adlocutio als Motiv der Kommunikation zwischen Herrscher und Heer von Caligula bis Konstantin," pp. 335-53

Michael Whitby, "War and State in Late Antiquity: some economic and political connections," pp. 355-85

Frank Trombley, "The Late Roman practice of war on the Syrian Frontier (A.D. 502-641): leadership, infrastructure and operations," pp. 387-416

Oliver Schmitt, "Kriegführung und tribale Gesellschaft," pp. 417-44.


1.   See J. Rich and G. Shipley, edd., War and Society in the Greek World (New York/London 1993) and idd., War and Society in the Roman World (New York/London 1993); K. Raaflaub and N. Rosenstein, edd., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica (Cambridge, Mass. 1999), with my reviews in Journal of Military History 60 (1996) 763-66 and The Historian 63 (2001) 893-95.
2.   For the foibles of both the war-and-society and the cultural approaches to military history and a brief assessment of current trends in military historiography, see J. Black, "Determinisms and Other Issues," Journal of Military History 68 (2004) 1217-32.
3.   Seleukos Nikator und sein Reich (Louvain 1986); "Doriktetos chora: Kritische Bemerkungen zum 'Speererwerb' im Politik und Völkerrecht der hellenistischen Epoche," Ancient Society 11-12 (1980-81) 173-212.
4.   E.g., J. Rüpke, Domi Militiae. Die religiöse Konstruktion des Krieges in Rom (Stuttgart 1990); E. Flaig, Den Kaiser herausfordern. Die Usurpation in römischen Reich (Frankfurt a.M. 1992); H. von Stietencron and J. Rüpke, edd., Töten im Krieg (Munich 1995).
5.   Cf. H.H. Turney-High, Primitive War: Its Practices and Concepts, 2nd ed. (Columbia 1971) and The Military: The Theory of Land Warfare as Behavioral Science (West Hanover 1981).
6.   Martin Wieser, Der Kleinkrieg in der Antike. Beitrag zur Militärgeschichte aus der Sicht der vergleichenden Geschichtswissenschaft (diss. Innsbruck 1976).
7.   Y. Le Bohec et al., Les discours d'Hadrien à l'armée d'Afrique (Paris 2003).

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