Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.03.26

Neil Morpeth, Thucydides' War: Accounting for the Faces of Battle. Spudasmata, Band 112.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2006.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 3-487-13256-7.  €49.80.  

Reviewed by John Lewis, History and Political Science, Ashland University (
Word count: 3412 words

The publication of John Keegan's The Face of Battle in 1976 brought an alternative to the traditional "eye of command" approach to battle narratives, the so-called "face of battle" perspective. The "eye of command" is focused on the actions of commanders and the problems they face, but is only secondarily concerned with the experiences of real soldiers. The "face of battle" -- energized by Keegan's self-conscious identification that "I have not been in a battle" -- rather understands war from the "Saving Private Ryan" perspective, but offers little guidance as to why the soldiers found themselves in a particular campaign. The analytical problems in both approaches were explored by Kimberly Kagan in a recent book The Eye of Command, in which she interprets Caesar's Gallic Wars as the eye of commander perspective, in contrast to Ammianus Marcellinus' emphasis on the experiences of individual soldiers. The issue comes down to what constitutes the best description and explanation of war's essential nature: is it the command decisions and principles guiding the general movements of troops, as seen from the widest point of vantage? Or is it the particular actions of the soldiers, and the blood and guts in which they and their civilian counterparts are slaughtered? Can we quantify and schematize something as chaotic as a battle? From the historian's perspective, the meaning of war is on two levels, and the difficult task is to connect them, so as to understand the tragedy and its causes.1

Neil Morpeth (M), Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, is concerned precisely with the relationships between the particular and the general -- between the faces of men on the ground, and the wider meaning of what they are doing -- and he explores quantitative language in Thucydides in order to illuminate the qualitative nature of the war. Thucydides' War combines a detailed enumeration of ship and troop movements, arranged in tables and chart, with essays, commentaries and source references that connect those movements to broader themes in the work. Parts of M.'s book function well as essays; other parts -- especially the tables and the commentaries to them -- may be better used as a reference resource. Questions come to mind about the intended audience at various points; but, in general, a reader will need a good background in Thucydides to appreciate M.'s arguments. The book is at its best when it delves energetically into some particular event, and draws out its abstract meaning with reference to the grand themes in Thucydides' thought.

M. has divided his study into five main sections, of very different lengths. The introduction presents M's view of Thucydides (pp.1-56); chapters 1.1 and 1.2 then detail the intentions of the study in terms of quantification and qualification (57-98). The third section consists of eight tables and four charts, which enumerate the numbers of troops and ships that are in operation, and the numbers of casualties of each (99-109). These tables define the categories and the organization for the extended notes and commentary that follow, the fourth section (111-268). The study concludes with two appendices, which present, in two extended tables, the text passages from which the figures in the tables are taken (269-320). There is a 27-page bibliography.

M's introduction focuses on "Thucydides as Teacher of Contemporary History," a title that is at odds with the stated purpose of the book, which is to engage with "the character of Thucydides' war, that is, its presentation of information ideas, and observations, rather than entertaining any hope of capturing the always elusive essence of the writer himself. The war itself and its reportage is the focus of this work." (2) But M. of course tells us about Thucydides himself, by connecting the man to his abstract ideas through the particular events of his history. M. states that "[t]he writer regards the task ahead as an exploration of Thucydides' enumeration of the faces of war" (4). This is a true but insufficient description of the book, because the purpose of enumeration here is to better understand the how and why of the war on a level far deeper than the numbers of forces and casualties. M. is further concerned to define history not as a characterization of, or an account between, "ethical and unethical (or moral and amoral) actions and behaviours," but rather "the courses, causes and puzzles of eventful human actions." He wants, in my reading, to avoid the twin errors of promoting abstract conclusions without reference to particular occurrences, versus the enumeration of particulars without considering their abstract meaning.

In such an approach, the siege of Plataia, or the plague of Athens, becomes at once a microcosm of the broader conflict, as well as an arena for distinctly human, individual experiences. Such events are general, quantitative and objective, as well as particular, qualitative and subjective, and must be considered from all of these perspectives. M. writes: "Plataia provided an early opportunity to concentrate upon an incident as a microcosm and harbinger of the forces, fears, rivalries and 'chances' which were elemental to the spirit and character of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians." Yet, also, "[t]he faces of war present themselves" (16-17). Wide generalizations about political and ethnic identities are focused down on the 'Plataian' woman who gave an axe to Theban hoplites trying to escape from Plataia; why did she do this? Similarly, the broad carnage of the plague is given a particular face: that of the un-enumerable citizens, but also of Thucydides himself, who suffered from it and necessarily introduced a personal element into his account.

To use such events as microcosms is not new, of course; on the one hand, it is widely recognized today that Thucydides presents particular incidents that have broad parallels in different times and places. On the other hand, there is great value in explicitly considering the particular meaning of such incidents, all the while inductively deriving the broad meaning from the particulars. It is M.'s use of enumeration for this purpose that defines his distinctive approach.

M. explicitly builds on the enumeration theme in his use of quantitative expressions to reveal qualitative experiences. The contrast between the particular and the general is expressed as the qualitative and the quantitative, the subjective and the objective, or the personal and the public. For instance, M. creates "scales of trauma" (23) and "traumatic scales" (31) between generalizations about the plague and its particular effects. In 3.87, Thucydides identifies 300 deaths in the cavalry class, which broadens into the "no fewer than 4400" hoplites -- but the scale of the plague is even greater among the bulk of the citizens; the number of dead could not be found (anexeuretos arithmos). The sense of the historian's limitations lends gravity to the calamity for the entirely of Athens, as well as to the "very real human costs" for each person in it. The Athenians were "weighed down" (from the verb piezein) "more than anything" (ti mallon), and the quantitative phrase points to "a serious decline in morale, generalized trauma, and quite simply, a real loss of confidence and optimism as well as having had material significance" (34-6).

Morpeth has misread the text here; Thucydides writes hoti mallon, with the meaning that there was nothing that did more than the plague to affect the Athenians, or to impair their strength. There is a valid implication that the plague affected the Athenians worse than any "thing," but that is not what the text says. Not does it say "more than anything." Despite the mis-reading, the general methodological point M. is maintaining remains that close awareness of the quantitative aspects of the history can open up new vistas of qualitative understanding. By tracing the movement of troops, ships and other forces quantitatively, and counting the relative levels of loss in the plague, Thucydides has provided a solid basis for the ongoing, active engagement that constitutes historical inquiry.

In Chapter 1.1, pp. 57-65, "Introducing the Numbers in Thucydides," M. invites readers to consider the basic issue of how quantitative terminology can hold qualitative meanings. The numbers in Thucydides "should be viewed as particular experiential expressions of then contemporary Hellenic warfare" (57). M. describes the aims of his research as five-fold: (1) to examine the idea of qualification, as it applies to large numbers and "guesstimates"; (2) to provide tables and charts "to record and visually represent the numbers in Thucydides"; (3) to provide notes to the tables and charts, to act as commentaries; (4) to provide the evidence for the figures in the tables and charts (the appendices); and (5) to rework the numerical material provided by Catherine Reid Rubincam in two articles.2

In chapter 1.2 (pp. 67-98), M. discusses qualification and quantification more closely, developing ways in which qualitative meanings develop from quantitative language. In considering these "two views" he looks for, first, the presence of ideas associated with "numerical or proximate counting and ordering"; second, "cultural perceptions and reckonings of abnormally or exceptionally large forces"; and, third, the dramatic and literary impact of the term myriades. M. explores the nuances of this term in the Athenian retreat ay Syracuse; he concludes, for instance, that at 7.75 Thucydides wishes to impact the emotions of the reader all the while imparting an intellectual appreciation of this historical moment. M. expands his consideration of the cultural perceptions of such terms by reaching into Herodotus and Diodorus, and thereby attempts to bring an emotive, qualitative purpose together with an intellectual grasp that rises above the arithmetic.

There is much that is interesting in this chapter, including exercises in "proportional reasoning" as "qualitative reckoning," and nuances of "reckoning" versus "counting" and "calculating," but also some belaboring. That Herodotus's account of the Persian invasion used large enumerations of troop sizes to impart a sense of awe and wonder in the Greeks is not news; "[t]hus Herodotus did more than just enumerate the barbarian forces; he impressed upon his readers a sense of overwhelming power" (77). To enumerate the Persian field kitchens seems to over-extend the point, as does the (obvious) claim that Herodotus's account of Xerxes's forces was intended to evoke a spectacle. M. does very well illustrate how a term such as merê may denote a military segment or unit, rather than a fraction of a force, which would provide a strong concrete meaning for his readers, rather than an abstract, fractional relationship. Similarly, M. reworks the conclusion that the Spartans did more psychological than material damage during their invasions of Attica in the first years of the war -- this may not be the best example of how such language works (93).

What follows these chapters are eight tables, arranged in pairs, with each pair on a single page (99-109). Four of the tables are given graphic form as histograms. The pairs of tables are categorized as follows:

I. Athenian and Allied Ships in Operation
II. Peloponnesian and Allied Ships in Operation
Totals Depicted in Bar Graphs, Charts I and II

III. Athenian and Allied Troops in Operation
IV. Peloponnesian and Allied Troops in Operation
Totals Depicted in Bar Graphs, Charts III and IV

V. Athenian and Allied Naval Losses
VI. Peloponnesian and Allied Naval Losses

VII. Athenian and Allied 'Manpower' Losses
VIII. Peloponnesian and Allied 'Manpower' Losses

Each of the tables provides, in rows, the figures for each year from 433 to 411. Given the inconsistency of the evidence and the problem of double-counting, some years are blank, and a few have options. The arrangement of the data in the tables has a certain visual effect -- enhanced when displayed in graphs -- but raw figures of this kind require a context and explanation, and here is where some discomfort begins. To gain that context, one must start jumping around the book. For example, to learn the source of the information for Athenian and Allied 'Manpower' losses in the year 425, which is given as 4,750 in Table VII, one must leaf through Appendix II, find year 425 (pages 311-312) for the three relevant text passages in Thucydides, each provided with a very brief description. E.g., "(425) iv.14.1 One whole crew taken prisoner (1 x 200 = 200 men) and 5 ships captured."

To interpret the figure in the table, the reader must turn to the appropriate note for the table being used. The tables define the arrangement of the commentary, which is neither by year nor by passage, but rather by the categories in the tables, sub-sorted by year. To find M.'s comment on Athenian and Allied 'Manpower' losses in 425, for instance, one must go to the commentary section, and find the note to Table VII. This is on pages 185-202, and is an expansion of his statements about the plague in Chapter 1.2. In other words, M.'s full treatment of 'Manpower' losses in year 425 is found in four places: in the introduction, where he discusses the implications of Thucydides' report that the number of civilian casualties was impossible to know; in Table VII, which gives the total annual casualty figures (p. 109); in the comment associated with the figure in the table (pp. 185-202), and in Appendix II, which gives the relevant passages (pp. 311-12). It can be difficult to investigate a given passage thoroughly, since there is no index and no index locorum, and thus no way short of searching pages to find the entirety of M.'s analysis. This became frustrating in part because there is good information and analysis here, which is worth finding.

M.'s comments to the 'manpower' losses in year 425, Table VII, begins by noting that the numbers of dead Athenian citizens are grouped together in the year 425, which marks the end of the final onslaught of the plague. M. reiterates the figures in III.87 (noted above, from the Introduction), then expands upon two ways these figures can be understood. The first is to register "the cumulative horror of the nosos" through "incalculable loss" (pp. 185-6). This is a means to focus on the pressures of the evacuation of Attica; M. offers other passages in Thucydides, as well as a reference in Gomme's commentary, to emphasize the "psychological dimension of war's 'direct' and 'indirect' casualties." The second way of understanding these figures is to consider the use of quantitative signifiers to demonstrate a heightened intensity of loss for his contemporaries in a diseased, or dying, polis. The numbers serve to illustrate relative as well as cumulative measures of loss, through comparisons with cavalry and hoplite casualty figures, and a sense of uncountable losses among the citizens themselves -- including its human effects across the entire range of the population. M. cites Gomme and Jones at length, as well as several demographic studies, thus challenging readers to consider the population makeup of Athens in relation to these figures.

But this comment, a reader must remember, has been referenced from Table VII -- it is not the whole story for the action in the year 425. Tables I, III, IV and VIII also have notes for this year, and the information in those notes is relevant to calculating and understanding losses. The note to year 425 in Table I (148-151) focuses on the operational aspects during the year, in particular, Demosthenes' command, and Athenian efforts in Corcyra, Sicily and Pylos. The rationale behind the figures for the year include the problems associated with determining the numbers of ships involved, which includes much more than manpower losses. Readers must consider the broader strategic context of the war, including the 24 Athenian ships dispatched for operations in the straits of Messina, and the 80 assigned to support operations against the Corinthian heartland.

Note 6 to Table III, year 425, focuses on the troops associated with these operations in the same year (18,820 total), and engages with "guesstimating" the total forces from the figures given for particular operations. M. sees one role for these figures as providing a proportional understanding of Demosthenes' command, but he also asks us to consider operations against Pylos and Sphacteria as more than "a harbinger of Athens' hubris," but also as "political ambition harnessing novel and able military skills." Note 3 to Table IV, year 425, restates in a sentence the note made in the first appendix about inclusion of the Lakedaimonian forces. But the long note to Table VIII, year 425 (234-56) digs more deeply into the effects on the Spartans following their loss at Sphacteria. The depths of the loss are revealed not only in the large number of commanders killed under conditions most taxing (including their retrievals of the bodies), and in the reactions of the Spartans to the capture of their men, but in the grim way that their struggle to survive, followed by their captures, established their long-lasting fame. M.'s strategy forces readers to consider events from multiple perspectives -- but to do so they must first follow the categories defined by the tables, and then reconstruct what has been deconstructed.

In some cases, M.'s shorter notes to a particular year can assist a reader in grasping the implications of estimates that Thucydides has not provided. Table VIII tells us that 201 casualties were inflicted upon the Spartans and their allies in the year 411 (109). Appendix II (319-20) references seven passages in Thucydides to condition the obviously undercounted figure in the table. (The figures for Sparta, year 411, in the appendix are horizontally out of synch with the three adjacent columns -- readers must take care not to simply read across columns for other information.) Note 10 to table VIII, year 411, brings forth the death of the Spartan commander Pedaritos, along with un-numbered other casualties. Two ships, for instance, were lost (8.103.2), presumably with their crews, which suggests that "vigorous, especially reckless, pursuit or action has its risks." More losses occurred at 8.106.3-4 -- which were followed by a positive impact on Athenian morale. As often in this book, I had a sense that I was familiar passages from a perspective I had not before taken. And that is surely a compliment to the author.

M. appends his commentary with a special note on the 'polis-cide' of Melos (261-68). Time has not diminished the impact of Thucydides' pen -- or of Euripides' Trojan Women, produced four months after the massacre. Even if Athens pushed neutral Melos into active opposition, and that opposition increased the anger of the Athenians, it remains impossible to firmly quantify the population and the forces involved. The passage remains not a debate or a dialogue, but "an articulate and ruthless exposition on power and archê-driven necessity" (265). By highlighting the principles at stake, such small states illustrate the qualitative effects of war, as we have already seen in the microcosms of the siege of Plataia and the plague of Athens. Thucydides' text becomes what it was intended to be -- a lesson for all time -- when M. brings in the fog of war surrounding the contemporary events of our own day, especially the difficulties involved in enumerating the faces of war in Iraq today.

In the end, M. has written a work that will help serious students of warfare, of Athens and of Thucydides, to gain a better appreciation of the connection between the hard, dry figures of military enumeration, and their meaning in real human tragedy and loss. The introduction and opening chapters can be read as independent discussions of the issues at stake, while the tables, the commentary and the appendices can be used as references to the text. The text references in the appendices for the figures were, to my eyes, particularly valuable. The commentary is laced with secondary sources including contrary points of view. Yet a certain sense of unevenness is present throughout -- the text reads, at times, like an invitation to consider the cognitive implications of Thucydides' figures, at other times it projects a certain repetitiveness, of themes that have been oft considered elsewhere. M. also descends, not often but at times, into language that obscures more than reveals: "The idea of the contemporary is not an immediate condition in which neither present-time readers and writers nor Thucydides, the once present-time writer, cannot appreciably exist because it is (or once was) so recent." (43) Yet this unevenness itself demonstrates M.'s point that warfare is a brutal business, for which the schemata of battle are imprecise, the calculation of battle losses is fraught with problems, and those calculations should be used to aid our understanding of the depths of losses that they simply cannot quantify.


1.   John Keegan, The Face of Battle (NY: Viking, 1976). Kimberly Kagan, The Eye of Command (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
2.   Catherine Reid Rubincam, "Qualifications of numerals in Thucydides" American Journal of Ancient History, Vol. 4 (1979), pp. 75-99; and "Casualty figures in the battle descriptions of Thucydides," Transaction of the American Philological Association, vol. 121 (1991), pp. 181-98.

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