Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.02.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.02.24

Matthew A. Sears, Understanding Greek Warfare. Understanding the ancient world.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2019.  Pp. 140.  ISBN 9781138288607.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Clemens Koehn, University of New England (

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Ancient military history remains a booming area of Classical Studies. In the last decade, major collective works have been published.1 While these publications provide wide-ranging overviews of various periods and aspects of ancient warfare, their design (and price) is better suited for specialist scholars than for undergraduates. We are therefore grateful to the publishers for including a volume dedicated to ancient Greek warfare in their Understanding the Ancient World series of introductory textbooks; as such, it is the first book on this topic especially designed for tertiary teaching purposes.

The book follows the general chronology of Greek history. The first chapter deals with Bronze Age and Homeric warfare. Sears discusses aspects of warfare in the second Millennium BCE, such as the deployment of chariots and massed infantry. He then engages with the complex scholarship on the nature of Homeric battle, including discussion of the extent to which massed phalanx-style infantry formations were already in use, or alternatively, whether the battle order was more fluid and open compared to later developments. While generally providing a good account, he does so in a somewhat distorted manner when he argues that “scholarly boxes [are] too neat and tidy” (p. 19). No scholars involved in the discussion would claim that pitched battles were the only form of Homeric warfare, as Sears implies. The remainder of the chapter examines the imitation and perception of Homeric warfare by later generations of Greeks. Sears concludes the chapter with a discussion of an Homeric duel; here, his statement that the combined throwing and thrusting of spears in Homer is “a form of combat unattested in other Greek sources” (p. 26) is rather contestable, as the comparison of textual and pictorial sources from the Archaic period proves.2

The second chapter deals with warfare in Archaic times up to the Persian wars. Sears discusses the rise of the phalanx, the vexed question of the ‘Hoplite revolution’, the various interpretations of othismos (literal vs. figurative), etc. In the end, he tends to favour the so-called ‘orthodox’ view, in which there is not much development of the phalanx during the Archaic and Classical period. Unfortunately, he does not cite major recent contributions such as Adam Schwartz’ Reinstating the Hoplite (an orthodox work), or Chris Matthew’s Storm of Spears.3 Sears cursorily mentions his own experiments with hoplite equipment (p. 37), which would have made it all the more appropriate to give the reader his opinion of Matthew’s results. Sears continues this chapter by discussing the political implications of the ‘Hoplite revolution’ and by analysing two case studies of hoplite battles: Thermopylae in 480 BCE and Nemea in 394 BCE. A short discussion of the pictorial representation of the hoplite, his image strictu sensu, concludes this chapter.

In compliance with his chronological approach, Sears then discusses naval warfare, since during the Persian wars the navy became Athens’ major instrument of waging war. This chapter focuses exclusively on Athenian naval developments in the 5th century, analysing Salamis in 480 BCE and Naupactus in 429 BCE as case studies for sea battles. Sears does not discuss any later naval history, the important developments of the late Classical and Hellenistic periods are ignored. While he generally provides a solid overview of naval matters in the 5th century, it is rather inappropriate in this context not to find any mention of significant contributions such as H.T. Wallinga’s study of the naval aspects of Xerxes’ campaign, or Boris Rankov’s final report on the reconstructed Olympias.4 Furthermore, Sears’ discussion of Aeschylus’ presentation of the Persian defeat at Salamis is rather one-sided. Of course, there is a stream of scholarship that interprets the Persians as blatant celebration of Greek triumphalism; but at the same time, there are also many scholars who stress the highly empathetic aspects of this play, given that it basically consists of numerous scenes of collective and personal mourning and grief after the loss of so many lives.5 In an introductory textbook, but not only there, one has to follow the principle of audiatur et altera pars, otherwise one’s own point of view is not contextualised.

In the fourth chapter, under the rather misleading title ‘Total War’, Sears discusses military developments during the Peloponnesian war. Given its importance as a trigger for many changes, the decision to dedicate a full chapter to this major conflict is absolutely justified. Sears first discusses the implications of having an author of the status of Thucydides as the main source for the war. Sears then gives a lengthy outline of the war as such, and then continues to discuss military developments such as siege warfare and the role of light-armed infantry. The chapter concludes with an interesting discussion of the new generation of military leaders that the war generated, such as Brasidas and Alcibiades, and an overview of the war as portrayed in contemporaneous Athenian dramatic productions. The latter is quite topical, but one has to be cautious not to make too many connections between actual events and the dramatic staging, at least with regard to tragedy. That Euripides’ Trojan Women is a direct answer to the Athenian atrocities at Melos, is rather unlikely on the basis of the chronology (and, in addition, one should not forget that it is part of a trilogy on the Trojan War, so the mythological context is more complex).6 It is strange that in this chapter, Sears does not follow his usual structural paradigm by including a section dedicated to providing close-up case studies of battles. For instance, the major battles of Delium in 424 BCE and Mantineia in 418 BCE are surprisingly not reviewed.

The fifth chapter covers the fourth century until the rise of Macedon. Sears discusses to what extent the phalanx formed from a civic militia still mattered, or whether mercenaries now dominated warfare. An analysis of the battles of Lechaeum in 390 BCE and Mantineia in 362 BCE concludes this chapter. Again, although Sears provides a wide-ranging overview of various developments, he fails to analyse the growing importance of cavalry; standard works such as the monographs of I.G. Spence and R.E. Gaebel are nowhere referenced.7 His brief discussion of the development of artillery under Dionysios I in Syracuse in the 390s, does not consider the scholarly debate as to whether Dionysios oversaw the invention of artillery per se or of torsion artillery in particular. Here, Sears seems to follow the outdated hypotheses of Marsden and neglects to consider the views of more contemporary scholars.8 Sears has also overlooked the fact that Andreas Konecny’s article on the Lechaeum battle has been translated into English and published in an influential essay collection on peltasts.9

The sixth chapter is dedicated to the rise of Macedon under Philip and Alexander’s conquest of Persia. Sears adumbrates the sources, and then focuses on Philip’s military reforms and Alexander’s subsequent campaigns. He selects the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE, and the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE, for in-depth analysis. He concludes the chapter with a brief evaluation of other scholars’ assessments of Alexander’s military genius. Sears bases his discussion of Philip’s reforms on Minor Markle’s summa on Macedonian arms and armament, but fails to refer to Markle’s major thesis, that the army had been fully equipped with the new sarissa only under Alexander and that Macedonian phalangites still used a variety of conventional weaponry. The vast literature on the precise length and use of the sarissa since the publication of Markle’s work is nowhere mentioned. 10

The last chapter covers Hellenistic warfare. Sears initially discusses the polis level, and then examines the new large kingdoms and their armies. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Polybius’ famous comparison between phalanx and legion, and two case studies, this time not on battles but on leaders: Pyrrhus and Hannibal. The inclusion of the latter is fully justified, since the Carthaginian army as well as its leaders clearly fought in a Hellenistic manner. Sears does not discuss the late attempts by Seleucids and Ptolemies to adjust to the Roman manipular system.11 Whether the cavalry really “fell by the wayside, replaced by the reemergence of the phalanx as the be-all-and-end-all of Hellenistic warfare” (p. 181), is rather contestable. The decision in Hellenistic battles was still primarily sought through the cavalry on the wings, but without defeating the phalanx, the battle could not be won (as Raphia in 217 BCE illustrates)

Sears’ book is written in a casual and sometimes informal style, and it therefore will certainly appeal to undergraduates. However, despite its ostensible comprehensive coverage, there is often a conspicuous absence of scholarly debate. Sears provides his own translations of sources, but they are arguably not accurate on several occasions.12 Sears makes the undergraduates aware that important scholarly work exists in other languages besides English; but his repeatedly used formulation “though in German/French, this is an important book” sounds rather odd. This being said, Sears’ book offers a detailed presentation of the vast and difficult topic. As regards its suitability as a textbook for educational purposes at the tertiary level, it will have significant utility.


1.   Including the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007), and the Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (2013).
2.   Eg Call. 1 West; Tyrt. 11 West; the famous Chigi vase, hardly properly analysed by Sears, and other depictions of warriors using spears fitted with throwing loops for both throwing and thrusting. On p. 42, Sears cites Callinus and Tyrtaeus but assumes that the warriors there are operating both with javelins and thrusting spears. However, the mode of fighting is the same as in Homer, the formulation in Call. 1.5: καί τις ἀποθνήσκων ὕστατ᾿ ἀκοντισάτω refers to a spear as well as a javelin, as the formulation in Tyrt. 11.25: δεξιτερῇ δ᾿ ἐν χειρὶ τινασσέτω ὄβριμον ἔγχος can clearly refer to movements before throwing the spear; this is exactly the same vocabulary as in Homer. For a more detailed analysis of this hybrid mode of fighting see now C. Koehn, In Speergewittern. Zur Semantik von “Fernkampf” und “Nahkampf” in der griechischen Archaik, in Mnemon 18 (2018), pp. 46-70.
3.   A. Schwartz, Reinstating the Hoplite. Arms, Armour and Phalanx Fighting in Archaic and Classical Greece, (Stuttgart 2009); C. Matthew, A Storm of Spears. Understanding the Greek Hoplite in Action, (Philadelphia 2012); one could have mentioned also F. Echeverría Rey, "Hoplite and Phalanx in Archaic and Classical Greece: A Reassessment", in Classical Philology 107 (2012), pp. 291-318.
4.   H.T. Wallinga, Xerxes’ Greek Adventure. The Naval Perspective, (Leiden 2005); B. Rankov, Trimreme Olympias. The Final Report, (Oxford 2012).
5.   See e.g. the discussion in: A. Favorini, "History, Collective Memory, and Aeschylus' Persians", in Theatre Journal 55 (2003), pp 99–111.
6.   See now D. Kovacz, Euripides: Troades, (Oxford 2018), pp. 8-15.
7.   I.G. Spence, The Cavalry of Classical Greece. A Social and Military History, (Oxford 1993); R.E. Gaebel, Cavalry Operations in the Greek World, (Norman 2002).
8.   Cf. P. Kingsley, "Artillery and Prophecy: Sicily in the Reign of Dionysius I", in Prometheus 21 (1995), pp. 15-23; H.M. Schellenberg, "Diodor von Sizilien 14,42,1 und die Erfindung der Artillerie im Mittelmeeraum", in Frankfurter Elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 3 (2006), pp. 14-23; D. Campbell, "Ancient Catapults. Some Hypotheses Reexamined", in Hesperia 80 (2011), pp. 677-700.
9.   N.V. Sekunda-B. Burlinga (eds.), Iphicrates, Peltasts and Lechaeum, (Gdansk 2014).
10.   See as a more recent example C. Matthew, "The Length of the Sarissa", in Antichthon 46 (2012), pp. 79-100.
11.   N. Sekunda, Hellenistic Infantry Reform in 160s BC, (Lodz 2001).
12.   Some examples: p. 52: Hdt. 7.211: “as soon as the barbarians had overtaken them” – it means rather “as soon as the barbarians had reached them” (the Spartans could hardly turn around if already been overtaken); p. 107: Thuc. 6.15.4: “This state of affairs went a long way towards ruining the city” – it must rather be “They (sc. the Athenians) ruined the city in a short time” (this refers to the time after the expulsion of Alcibiades in 406 BCE); p. 130: Xen. Hell. 6.4.28: “He (sc. Jason) was the greatest man of his time and not to be despised by anyone” – the sense is certainly more nuanced: “He was the greatest of his time in that regard that he was not easily despised by anyone.”

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