Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.41

Toni Ňaco del Hoyo, Fernando López Sánchez (ed.), War, Warlords, and Interstate Relations in the Ancient Mediterranean. Brill’s Impact of Empire Series, 28.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 504.  ISBN 9789004354043.  €130.00.  

Reviewed by Brian Turner, Portland State University (

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Sixteen years ago, J.E. Lendon published a still impactful review of scholarly attempts to explain ancient foreign relations. 1 In a vintage Lendonian metaphor involving battleships and submarines (!), two schools of thought emerged from the fog. The primitivists relied upon a kind of anthropological lens, sought to avoid the employment of modern assumptions, and argued for the primacy of culture. Modernists or Realists descended from Thucydides, understood that power and fear were calculable constants, and left less room for humanity’s other variables. The collection of articles in War, Warlords, and Interstate Relations, the twenty-eighth volume in Brill’s well-respected Impact of Empire series, illustrate the continued relevance of the Realist approach, even as it exists in a very different world than the one in the mid- twentieth century that made Thucydidean calculations so appealing, and, perhaps to some, even comforting. That said, many of the volume’s contributors readily admit the various pitfalls that run alongside a strict employment of Realist theories on our ancient evidence and as a result they reveal a more nuanced treatment of war in the ancient world.

Warlords publishes the results of the 2013 ICREA Conference on Multipolarity and Warlordism in the Ancient Mediterranean, cent. 4-1 BC, held at the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya (Barcelona). In the first chapter, the editors explain the contributors’ employment of social science lenses. The first, multipolarity, recognizes that various states contend with one another in largely anarchic interstate systems. The second, warlordism, is, it turns out, much harder to define, although “a ruler who draws on military force and somehow lacks legitimacy,” (Coşkun’s definition, 204), might be the most inclusive, even if most open-ended option. With varying conclusions (discussed below), each individual contributor dealt with the problems associated with the definitions of these concepts as well as their applicability. The editors, meanwhile, set the volume within its historiographic context, especially in regards to William Harris’ forceful critique of the Realist school in his 2016 survey Roman Power. 2 Harris, like others before him, feared (or recognized) a modern “political science doctrine” that tended to relieve states of the consequences of violent and imperial actions. 3 What makes the present volume so thought-provoking is that the emergence of warlords as an analytical concept challenges the strict Realist interpretation of the multipolar world that tends to view states equal in motivation, even if unequal in capabilities. In other words, Warlords forces us to reconsider our understanding of the ancient state and the complexity of interstate relations in the ancient world.

After the Introduction, the rest of the volume is divided into three parts. The first explores Achaemenid Persia, Fourth Century Greece, and Carthage. Christopher Tuplin connects the concept of warlords with the employment of mercenaries during the Achaemenid period and suggests a link between the use of mercenaries and warlordism. Next, Polly Low challenges the zero-sum, for the-state-or-against-it conception of 4th-century BC Greek military leaders. According to Low, these warlords operated within a “complex network of intra- and inter-state interactions” (51). Daniel Gómez-Castro views the Spartan Lysander as a warlord who accepted and even encouraged violent conflict to fulfill his own goals, which happened to coincide with the goals of the Spartan state. Nicholas Sekunda argues that mercenary leaders like Iphicrates should not be classified as warlords because they tended to serve the interests of the state. This theme is continued in the contribution of José Pascual González who examined the impact warlords, or rather military commanders, had on their own states during the fourth century BCE. Finally, the last two chapters in this section take the reader away from Greece and consider the Phoenician world. Manuel Álvarez Martí-Aguilar reassesses a passage from Trogus to illuminate a “colonial network based on Tyrian identity” (115) that helps explain Punic imperial expansion in a multipolar Mediterranean world. In this section’s final contribution, Louis Rawlings illustrates the impact of the relationship between the Carthaginian state and the warlords the Carthaginians encountered during their imperial expansion.

The second major section covers the Hellenistic Age and the Roman world. Fernando López Sánchez employs the concept of warlordism to illuminate how peripheral powers (Gaulish chieftains) influenced central powers (Hellenistic monarchs). In a piercing contribution challenging the defining terminology used in the volume, Altay Coşkun compiles and analyses a group of warlords from Hellenistic Anatolia. While admitting the difficulty of using such precise terminology, Coşkun recognizes the benefit of such studies for challenging the legitimacy of the state’s use of violence. Arthur Eckstein employs precise definitions of power from the field of International Relations to argue that Roman involvement in Greek affairs from about 188 to 168 BCE amounted not to empire but “merely a ‘sphere of influence’” (236). Craige Champion then concludes that from the Greek perspective many second century BCE Roman commanders could or would have been viewed as warlords. Like López Sánchez and Coşkun above, Champion nicely illustrates that the perception of the ancients matters as much as, or at least, greatly influences, any attempts we may now make to define the warlord. John Rich and Nathan Rosenstein next discuss the concept of warlordism within the Roman Republic. Rich cautions against the current line of thinking that archaic Rome was dominated by aristocratic warlords and their bands of followers.4 He also argues that in its prime, “the Republic’s own institutions and ethos kept it secure from warlordism” (276). Rosenstein, meanwhile, wonders why no warlords appeared to emerge in Rome between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE. Employing a similar methodology to Eckstein, above, Michael Fronda and François Gauthier conclude that in Italy prior to the Second Punic War Roman power is best described as a “sphere of influence” rather than a true empire. As a result, Roman and Italian actions during the Second Punic War appear as a “kind of regional warlordism” (309). Eduardo Sánchez Moreno, much like López Sánchez and Coşkun, illustrates the role of peripheral actors, in this case the Lusitanians in the multipolar Mediterranean world. Sophia Zoumbaki, in an analysis of the career of Sulla, and Toni Ňaco del Hoyo and Jordi Principal, in a review of Sertorius’ actions in Spain, illustrate the applicability of the concept of warlord within the interstate system that existed at the beginning of the first century BCE. Finally, in wrapping up this section, Boris Rankov recognizes the interconnected relationship between soldiers and their generals in the late republic and examines how that species of warlordism influenced the early imperial army’s systems of units, ranks, and rewards. His chapter nicely illustrates that in the ancient world, warlords could field what we might consider professional armies, rather than the ragtag group of disenchanted adventurers that the modern imagination may conjure.

The final section, A Necessary Epilogue, offers two comparative case studies. Jeroen Wijnendaele shows how warlords dominated the geopolitics of the western empire in the mid-fifth century CE. The chapter emphasizes a growing rift between these warlords and the central state, along with its apparatus, in terms of the legitimacy of power. Finally, Rafael Grasa places the concept of warlordism in a modern, especially post-Cold War context. He ultimately challenges the reader to question what is thought about the (state’s) legitimate use of violent power.

Readers will find many engaging and interconnected discussions throughout the volume, but here I will emphasize two. At the heart of every contribution lies a simple question: why do some people follow others in the collective acts of violence we call war? Remarkably, Tuplin (29) sees little evidence that charisma was an important arrow in the warlord’s quiver. Low recognized that loyalty to the state could be confusing, while Gómez-Castro questions whether Lysander was competing with the Spartan state or serving as an arm of it. Sekunda’s study of the recruitment of mercenary units (often to serve at the behest of a warlord) could render an argument for small-unit cohesion as it illuminates the loyalty of recruits. Pascual Gonzàlez recognizes that the military leaders of fourth century Greece ostensibly led political factions that were based upon family, wealth, and hierarchy. Rawlings sees the lure of power that existed outside the regular civic offices, especially as developed through personal relationships. Coşkun, meanwhile, sees a role for charisma and rewards (loot, land, promotion, or honor) as motivation for service. Rankov, in a different kind of argument for a different kind of army, suggests a similar set of motivations. Rich, meanwhile, proposes that republican institutions and values explain Roman loyalty or at least its endurance. Ultimately, what we find repeatedly are scholars working to identify the boundaries between private and public allegiance.

And this brings up a second major theme. Several contributors question the form and formulation of the ancient state and its assumed monopoly on the legitimate use of force (see Low 38; Coşkun 220; Ňaco del Hoyo and Principal 395). Many contributors exclaim (the seemingly obvious point) that the modern state did not exist in the ancient world (see Low 38; Gómez-Castro 55; Coşkun 217; Champion 234; Rosenstein 295). While introducing the dualities of citizenship that existed in the federal states of the fourth century BCE, Pascual González, perhaps, best illustrates the issue by bluntly asking: “[w]hat kind of state are we talking about?” (90). If the ancient state was somehow different than the modern one, how can modern theoretical concepts explain ancient events?

We might say that this returns us to Thucydides, the ancient progenitor of the Realist theory that was then reared by Machiavelli and raised to maturity in a geopolitical context best illustrated by Cold War concepts like the Domino Theory or Mutually Assured Destruction. What Thucydides invented, and two millennia of scholarship has refined, is now applied again to the ancient world. It is a ring composition that Herodotus himself could appreciate – if Herodotus’ historical framework were not so different from that of his Athenian counterpart. Indeed, it may well be that other theoretical positions existed in the ancient world that, as an alternative to Thucydides’ domineering Realism, may just as well explain ancient, and perhaps even modern, foreign relations. 5

In the end, the arguments presented here invite more case studies, or indeed monographs, challenging the nature of the ancient state and warfare, not only within the chronological and geographic bounds set by this volume, but far beyond them. In particular, comparisons with other ancient sites (say Warring States China) may help illustrate the applicability of the theoretical framework that has been employed. Furthermore, I see no reason why, as was done in this volume, we should stop such studies at the advent of the Roman imperial period. There seems to have been various individuals that could be considered warlords, if they were not already considered rebels or insurgents.6 Ultimately, the present volume succeeds most when it moves past such narrow and precise definitions. It is where concepts and theories are used to provoke and challenge rather than delineate and determine that historians open doors to further research that will challenge what we have come to think of as the standard narrative about ancient military and imperial history.


1.   J.E. Lendon, “Primitivism and Ancient Foreign Relations,” The Classical Journal 97.4 (2002): 375-384.
2.   W.V. Harris, Roman Power: A Thousand Years of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
3.   Harris, Roman Power, 42-3, and see his associated notes and bibliography.
4.   See J. Armstrong, War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), and F. Drogula, Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
5.   See, for example, J.E. Lendon, “Xenopon and the Alternative to Realist Foreign Policy: “Cyropaedia” 3.1.14-31,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 126 (2006): 82-98.
6.   T. Howe, and L. L. Brice, Brill’s Companion to Terrorism and Insurgency in the Ancient Mediterranean. Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies: Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Leiden: Brill, 2016), and in that volume, note B. Turner, “From Batavian Revolt to Rhenish Insurgency,” 282-311.

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