Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.45

Philip Sabin, Michael Whitby, Hans van Wees (ed.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. Volume 1, Greece, The Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xxx, 663.  ISBN 9780521782739.  $240.00.  

Reviewed by Peter C. Nadig, DFG-Projekt Antike Kriegskosten Universität Erfurt (
Word count: 1764 words

Table of Contents

The Cambridge history of Greek and Roman warfare covers Archaic and Classical Greece, the Hellenistic period and also the Roman Republic until around 100 BC (Volume Two deals with the Late Republic and Imperial period till Late Antiquity) and contains fifteen chapters by various contributors. Apart from the three introductory chapters in the present volume all other parts of Greek and Roman Warfare are structured the same way: international relations, military forces, war, battle, warfare and the state, and war and society. The military forces and battle chapters are sometimes divided into an A and B portion dealing with the forces/battles on land and at sea respectively. The book is very comprehensive and a welcome starting point in approaching ancient military studies. The editors as well as the authors can be congratulated on their efforts in producing this important reference work.

This handbook aims to be a comprehensive overview of war in antiquity encompassing new research and recent discoveries, and therefore offers a refreshing contrast to earlier standard works by Delbrück or Kromayer and Veith, for example.1 It is not intended to be a narrative account of numerous wars and battles but rather "a thematic analysis of the main aspects of warfare in the ancient world" (XV). Yet it is teeming with numerous fascinating details that can only be touched upon in the following summary.

The first introductory chapter by Victor Davis Hanson discusses the modern scholarship on ancient warfare, primarily from the 19th-century to the present (pp. 3-21). "The Paradox of War" is the subtitle of Simon Hornblower's interesting chapter on warfare in ancient literature (pp. 22-53). He investigates the paradox that the ancient writers profess a dislike of war while being fascinated by it and that the prominence of war is in disproportion to its frequency and practical significance. Hornblower examines the historical reality and the trustworthiness of ancient historiography on war. The reconstruction of ancient warfare is the theme of Michael Whitby's contribution (pp. 54-81).

Part I is on "Archaic and Classical Greece". Jonathan M. Hall's chapter (pp. 85-107) provides an introduction to the agonistic age and covers the mechanics of international relations, supracivic leagues and amphictyonies, and hegemonic alliances. It closes with a summary of the new world order after the Peloponnesian War. Peter Hunt (pp. 108-146) outlines the various types of military forces the Greeks employed and their hierarchy: hoplites and their armoury, cavalry -- which played a minor role in southern Greece in this era -- peltasts, archers, slingers, and the navy. In further sections he explains military units and officers, training, and the manpower of Greek armies (citizens, metics, slaves, mercenaries, and elite units). Chapter 6 (pp. 147-185) by Peter Krentz takes a look at the organisational side of warfare from the call to arms (or oars), supplies, timing of campaigns, the departure of troops, their encampment, the defenders options, looting and ravaging, combat, epiteichismos (i.e., constructing fortresses in enemy territory), the fate of the defeated, and the return home. Everett Wheeler gives a thorough analysis of land battles (chapter 7 A: pp. 186-223), beginning with an introduction "defining the battlefield of debate", in which he makes a critical assessment of past and present scholarship on the emergence of the phalanx in the seventh century BC and ancient perception of Greek infantry superiority against outsiders. Wheeler continues by explaining the development of the phalanx, the mechanics of hoplite combat and the emergence of generalship after the Persian Wars. This is followed by an equally stimulating contribution by Barry Strauss (chapter 7 B: pp. 223-247), who covers the history of Greek warships, the hard training and the various naval operations in which triremes could be employed, and on the development and experience of siege warfare. Chapter 8 (pp. 248-272) by Vincent Gabrielsen concerns warfare and the state in Archaic and Classical Greece. The focus lies here on the producers of violence and the profits of war, where he singles out centralisation, finance, imperial revenue, and war in Athens in the century before the death of Alexander. In the following chapter (pp. 273-299) Hans van Wees deals with the impact of warfare on Greek society. He cites Sparta as an exception in terms of extreme dedication--in the rest of Greece military standards were rather low--, and he points out that the demands of war did not dictate the daily routine of the people or shape their social and political structures, but "it was the demand of social, political and economic life which shaped warfare" (p. 273). In three sections he investigates the leisure class, competitiveness and pleonexia (greed), and society and politics.

Part II on the Hellenistic World and the Roman Republic starts with Richard Billows's chapter on international relations (pp. 303-324), where he examines the different relationship patterns of this period: Hellenistic states between each other as well as with cities, and the relations between cities. The two last sections concern early Rome and its contact with the Hellenistic world. A very detailed summary on the land forces by Nicholas Sekunda in chapter 11 A (pp. 325-356) follows. Sekunda discusses the changes in military demography and military tactics during the times of Philip and Alexander, particularly the Macedonian phalanx and focuses on the same aspects under the successors of Alexander, with additional coverage on units such as thureophoroi (infantry more suited for smaller Greek armies), mercenaries, cavalry, and exotic troop types. The latter includes cuirassed infantry, scythed chariots, and elephants.

Part III is on the confrontation with Rome and the resulting changes in Greek and Roman armies. One significant change occurred after Pydna, when Hellenistic armies abandoned the phalanx and began equipping their infantries in "Roman style", a process that increased in the following century. The naval forces are treated by Philip de Souza (chapter 11 B, pp. 357-367) in three sections: the development of the polyremes, shipbuilding, and manpower in the Hellenistic kingdoms, Rome and Carthage.

The chapter on war for this period is by Jonathan P. Roth (pp. 368-398), who pays attention to the changes in strategy, logistics (food supplies), and campaign mechanics. The latter involved the new aspect of professional and mercenary troops no longer being dispersed after a campaign season, as was typical for citizen armies. The concluding paragraph discusses the human costs of war on a larger scale and how it affected military personnel and civilians. Battles (chapter 13, pp. 399-460) are shared by Philip Sabin (land battles) and Philip de Souza (naval battles and sieges). Sabin provides a joint thematic analysis in order to point out the differences and similarities in Hellenistic and Roman armies of the Middle Republic. In addition, he pays attention to the changes in battles which had become larger and far more complex as in the preceding era. He takes two perspectives: first "the grand tactical level" = the general's battle (deployment, command, manoeuvre, outcomes) and second "the tactical level" = the soldier's battle (exotic weapons, cavalry, infantry). A concluding part is on the question of determinants of success. De Souza assesses the tactics, the Roman employment of the entering bridge (corvus), casualties (usually very high for rowers), catapults on board ships, access control of ports by naval forces and surprise attacks, and presents an extensive summary of sieges with all the aspects and challenges involved. The chapter on "warfare and the state" by John Serrati (pp. 461-497) is split in equal parts between the Hellenistic world and Rome. The author presents a chronological overview with a special focus on Hellenistic imperialism and the financial dimension in Roman military activities. The book's last chapter by J.E. Lendon, (pp. 498-516), is on war and society. He contrasts "military excellence as craft" in the Hellenistic world to "military excellence as virtue" among the Romans and examines the consequences for each side.

This is followed by a chronological timeline from the Late Bronze Age down to 101 BC, a glossary of Greek and Latin terms, a list of ancient authors, a source and general index, and an extensive bibliography.

Volume One of Greek and Roman Warfare is an accomplished handbook reflecting the current state of research on this subject. It leaves the narrow focus of earlier reference works and studies, which have focused largely on textual analysis, topographical studies and recent experience or individual events. It also attempts a closer look at what actually might have happened to soldiers and troop units in "the generic 'face of battle'" (pp. 401-402), an approach prompted by Keegan's important study.2 The economic aspects of war as well as military expenses are touched upon in some of the chapters. Not all details are covered, e. g., the financial gifts Roman soldiers received when partaking in the triumphal parade of their general is not mentioned here. This tradition served as a precedent for later more costly developments in the Late Republic. The bibliography contains most of the relevant works and will guide students and scholars alike to further reading. Several of the German titles cited contain spelling and grammatical errors, however.3 Greek and Roman Warfare includes several maps (pp. xviii-xxx), illustrations and photos which highlight some of the points made by the contributors. These quibbles notwithstanding, this book is an extremely interesting and stimulating read.Most of the military facts assembled and discussed here are embedded in the works of the ancient writers, while other information is gleaned from archaeological data and occasionally from subsequent modern experiment. Thus many finer points of ancient military organisation or engagement (be it hoplite combat or naval manoeuvres) might escape notice on a casual reading of Thucydides, Xenophon or others. This main analysis -- common to all contributions here -- is the major strength of this book.

Introduction: the historiography of ancient warfare:
1. The modern historiography of ancient warfare. Victor Davis Hanson
2. Warfare in ancient literature: the paradox of war. Simon Hornblower
3. Reconstructing ancient warfare. Michael Whitby
Part I. Archaic and Classical Greece:
4. International relations. Jonathan Hall
5. Military forces. Peter Hunt
6. War. Peter Krentz
7. Battle.
(1) Land battles. Everett Wheeler
(2) Naval battles and sieges. Barry Strauss
8. Warfare and the state. Vincent Gabrielsen
9. War and society. Hans van Wees
Part II. The Hellenistic World and the Roman Republic:
10. International relations. Richard Billows
11. Military forces. Nicholas V. Sekunda
12. War. Jonathan Roth
13. Battle.
(1) Land battles. Philip Sabin
(2) Naval battles and sieges. Philip de Souza
14. Warfare and the state. John Serrati
15. War and society. J. E. Lendon
Chronological table
List of ancient authors.


1.   J. Kromayer, G. Veith, Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft IV.3.2). Munich 1928; H. Delbrück, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, vol. I, 3rd edn., Berlin 1962.
2.   John Keegan, The Face of Battle, New York 1976.
3.   Sion-Jenkis is not Sion-Jenkins. This error even crept into the notes.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 14:13:30, Monday, 13 April 2009