Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.55

L.L. Brice, J.T. Roberts (ed.), Recent Directions in the Military History of the Ancient World. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians, 10.   Claremont, CA:  Regina Books, 2011.  Pp. 222.  ISBN 9781930053700.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Stephen O’Brien, University of Chester (

The subject of ancient warfare has become popular both academically and with the public in recent years. With Recent Directions in the Military History of the Ancient World the editors seek to present a volume of use to both specialists and non-specialists in the field, one which reviews recent trends in the research of ancient military history, provides an overview of the bibliography of these trends, and generally demonstrates the health of the discipline.

The editors’ introduction establishes the parameters upon which the volume is based. Authors were instructed to limit their literature review to the last 15 years, and to focus on newer approaches to the study of ancient warfare. The majority of the literature reviewed is English-language, as a consequence of the intended audience for the volume. A perceived imbalance against the Ancient Near East and Late Antiquity is redressed by the inclusion of chapters on them alongside the more familiar Greek and Roman material. The editors acknowledge that reviews of the ancient military history of Persia, North Africa and naval warfare are desirable, but were beyond the scope of the volume. The introduction also charts the theoretical development of ancient military history over the past century, from traditional “drums and trumpets” approaches, through the “face of battle”, “war and society”, and “military revolution” schools of the 1970s, and culminating in the multiplicity of methodological and theoretical approaches employed today. Though some aspects of the approaches discussed may require greater explanation for a non- specialist audience, this provides a suitable background for the chapters which follow.

Seth Richardson’s “Mesopotamia and the ‘New’ Military History” covers a period of three millennia in the Near East, a task which the author concedes is impossible to accomplish in a comprehensive fashion. Instead, four main areas of interest – the military and society, the military as a society, the military and the state, and the military and ideology – are examined in a thematic study. On the question of the role of warfare and military organization in state formation old assumptions regarding their importance are overturned, as the evidence suggests a minor role for the military in the state-formation period. The case is well-made, although a claim that early bronze weapons were not battle- effective seems questionable. Richardson correctly notes that the evidence from Egypt appears to show a much more central role for military violence in state-formation, making generalizing conclusions inadvisable. A substantial section of the chapter is devoted to economic matters in the form of sections covering issues of landholding and payment for military service, and on the operation of military economies. Regarding landholding, the importance of land in creating obligations to military service is stressed, although it is noted that whether this meant actual service or payments to support troops is difficult to ascertain. Richardson argues that by the first millennium a “military economy” can be described in the Neo-Assyrian empire after 745 BC, although he is less clear on the consequences of this. A section on scale and diversity in warfare notes the growing scale of military forces up to 60,000 men in the 18th century BC, and suggests that the functional nature of the documents which record such numbers lends them credibility. The involvement of the military in mass deportations and recolonizations from the mid-second millennium also convincingly makes a case for the importance of the military in the diversity and instability that this created.

Perhaps the most intersecting aspect of the ritual aspects of warfare covered in this chapter is the matter of liver- divination and its role as a form of military intelligence. Richardson calls attention to the present lack of understanding in how this was integrated with more familiar forms of military intelligence. The role of letters and other documents in counteracting the official narratives of triumph with stories of hardship is well-handled, and leads naturally onto a discussion of the political role of the army, with the agency exercised by military units being made clear. This section also deals with questions of gender, although the evidence is found to be ambiguous as to a significant gendering of soldiers or their enemies, with metaphors from the animal world, rather than gender, characterizing the defeated.

Everett Wheeler uses a metaphor from Lewis Carroll to categorize the military historians of Ancient Greece as “Mad Hatters or March Hares”. His “Mad Hatters” are those who follow traditional historicist methodologies, while the “March Hares” represent the adoption of theories and methods from the social sciences. Wheeler acknowledges that the metaphor is an over-simplified model of recent trends in the military history of ancient Greece, but deploys it skilfully throughout the chapter. Both the “war and society” and “face of battle” schools of thought are shown to have dominated the field over the last twenty years, and both are seen as belonging to the “Hares”. More criticism is directed towards the “face of battle” school, with Victor Davis Hanson’s use of post World War II “buddy theory” and his belief in the Greek invention of decisive battle being a particular focus of attention. Wheeler is also at pains to note the debt owed by both Hanson and John Keegan to the nineteenth-century French officer Ardant du Picq.

A more recent development in continental scholarship is addressed by Wheeler as “history and memory”. This approach is centred on the difficulty of reconstructing history from what are always fallible human memories. Wheeler is sceptical as to whether there is a sufficient depth of sources from antiquity for this approach to be deployed. Slightly more favourably received is the Schlachtenmythen (“battle myths”) genre, which studies the construction and manipulation of battles in the memory of a participating society.

Revisionism is handled in a single section, with topics covering the existence of rules in warfare, peace, international law, domestic military affairs, and war and the economy. Wheeler does not address the perennial “open” or “closed” phalanx debate, citing instead his chapter in the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, although given the intended non-specialist audience a short summary would arguably have been appropriate here. The division between “Hatters” and “Hares” is noted to be less prominent in the historiography of Alexander and the Hellenistic period, and Wheeler argues persuasively for greater attention to be paid to the reforms of Philip II. The chapter provides much food for thought, but the scepticism of the author towards much of the work of the “Hares”, and the lack of coverage of certain topics (there is little here on gender, for example) perhaps make it a curious entry given the stated aims of the volume.

Sara Phang tackles the subject of the Roman army in the Republican and Imperial periods. This chapter stresses the advances that have been made by applying themes and methods from broader Roman social and cultural studies to the military, ending the traditional isolation of the subject. The chapter is also noteworthy for its use of archaeological evidence, although the emphasis is firmly on traditional historical sources. A prominent theme is the anachronistic nature of concepts such as “grand strategy” and machine-like discipline and drill, which have been applied to Roman military history. In the latter case the argument for a looser formation is well made, although the casual reference to these formations being “considerably looser and wider than either ancient hoplite or early modern infantry formations” masks the perennial and ongoing debate about hoplite formations.

In keeping with the volume’s focus on new approaches to ancient military history, Phang’s chapter eschews traditional technological discussion topics in favour of approaches featuring demographic, political, economic, and cultural factors which linked the military to broader Roman society. These approaches take ancient military history into new territory. The impact of warfare upon culture is illustrated by the anti-Hellenic ethos of an austere military propagated in the wake of the conquest of the Hellenistic East, despite the Roman adoption of some Hellenistic traditions of victory and luxury. The increasing separation between the senatorial class and the military during the Imperial period is explored. Despite this, Roman soldiers are cast as sub-elites, possessing access to wealth, literacy, and dominant cultural forms. Army demographics are shown to have received considerable recent attention, with the older idea of an increasingly “hereditary” military recruited from the children of soldiers being undermined by the small number of soldiers who raised families. The increasingly provincial nature of recruitment and the blurring of ethnic identities within the military are also discussed. The current status of gender and sexuality studies within ancient history gives rise to a number of interesting avenues of study, including the effects of the Roman construction of masculinity on the ideology of imperialism: rape-victim iconography was used in the depiction of conquered peoples. It is suggested that military approaches to gender and sexuality lag behind those of Roman history in general, with further valuable contributions possible. Phang’s chapter provides a good introduction to many new directions in ancient military history, although the constraints of space mean that more detail would sometimes be desirable.

Doug Lee’s “Military History in Late Antiquity: Changing Perspectives and Paradigms” covers the period of the early third to early seventh centuries AD, an era which Lee notes contained a number of major historical events with military dimensions. Attention is also drawn to recent scholarship challenging preconceptions of imperial decline as being inevitable – an intellectual inheritance from Edward Gibbon – and sometimes finding more positive aspects to the period. This can certainly be seen in the assessment of the army’s organization and effectiveness. A previous view of the limitanei (troops based in frontier provinces) was that they were inferior to the comitatenses (troops of the emperor’s mobile field army) by dint of their position as landholders causing them to be seen as a “peasant militia”; this sees revision due to the fact that limitanei were used for offensive operations as late as the sixth century, and that they did not necessarily work the land. More broadly, the point is made that Late Antiquity sees notable military successes as well as failures, and that failures might be due to poor leadership and planning rather than an inherently ineffective army.

The issue of technological change is also discussed, with changes to equipment occurring, perhaps most notably in the form of heavy armoured cavalry. However, Lee argues that infantry remained centrally important. Moreover, given that the period did not see any huge developments in military technology, social factors relating to the army may be more profitable avenues of research. These are covered in a section on demographics, recruitment and identity. Perhaps the most interesting part of the chapter, this section discusses the focus of recruitment on “martial races” from inside and outside the empire, and their rise to military and political prominence. Questions of personal identity also feature, with the matter of the citizen status of “barbarians” being said to have received little attention. The religious allegiances of the military are shown to have been fluid, as might be expected of a period characterised by conflicts between Christianity and Paganism. Gibbon’s view that Christianity weakened the empire’s military capability is challenged, as Christianity could have positive effects upon morale, and bishops were known to organize defenders during sieges. It is further suggested that Christianity provided a new ideological aspect to the wars with a Zoroastrian Sasanian Persia that held a substantial Christian minority within its borders.

Overall, criticism may be directed at the nature of some of the entries in the volume, which through either the historiography that they cover or the views of their authors cleave more closely to traditional approaches to military history than might be expected in a volume devoted to “new directions”. Phang’s chapter is exemplary in the prominence it gives to new thinking. Still, the volume admirably achieves its aim of producing an overview of military history which is accessible to scholars and students from outside the field of military studies. For those within the field, the ability to see perspectives from other periods, and mine the bibliography, will also be valuable.

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