BMCR 2004.03.26

Army and Power in the Ancient World. Heidelberger Althistorische Beiträge und Epigraphische Studien, 37

, , , Army and power in the ancient world. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien ; Bd. 37. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2002. viii, 204 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515081976. EUR 44.00.

Army and Power in the Ancient World had its origins in a roundtable symposium on “Armée et pouvoir dans l’Antiquité” at the 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences in Oslo in August 2000. It contains chapters on Assyria, on India (5th and 4th centuries BC and on Achaemenid Persia, three chapters mainly on archaic and classical Greece, two on the Hellenistic kingdoms, and four on the Roman Empire.1 The contributors are based in seven different countries and their essays are likewise diverse. Although all the chapters concern the relationship between an army and a society, and most of them focus more narrowly on possible links between political and military power, they vary greatly. Some cover “Army and Power” broadly and survey a span of many centuries, for example, Walter Mayer’s “Armee und Macht in Assyrien.” Other chapters are more narrow, for example, the essay of Hans Van Wees and Vincent Gabrielsen’s response on the role — or lack thereof — of armies and navies in the politics of the Greek city-states. The introduction (two pages only) describes the history of the panel and volume but does not attempt any synthesis of the myriad subjects and approaches displayed in the chapters. Three of the chapters are followed by responses; otherwise there are few cross-references and little intellectual engagement between the different contributors. Nevertheless, almost all of the essays are individually valuable: most are by eminent scholars writing in their specialties; the surveys are concise and authoritative; the more narrow chapters are substantial and occasionally provocative; the responses provide additional depth and balance. Historians of war and society with comparative or ancient interests will find it worthwhile to own this collection.2 Other scholars may wish to consult those chapters relevant to their particular field of specialization. To this end, I have provided summaries of the different chapters below. These admittedly vary in their depth depending, not on my judgment of an essay’s worth, but on my level of expertise in the various periods and states covered — something which declines with chronological or geographical distance from classical Greece.

Walter Mayer, “Armee und Macht in Assyrien,” (pages 3-23).

Walter Mayer presents an authoritative survey of the powerful Assyrian army in its social and political context. He begins his essay with an overview of the available sources for Assyrian history and their difficulties: with different types of evidence scattered over more than seven centuries, it is hard to tell whether an isolated account of a campaign is representative of practices at that time — not to mention those a few centuries earlier or later. Accordingly, some of Mayer’s arguments take the following form: the Assyrians must have had a large and well-organized logistical network to feed and equip their army or they could not have succeeded as they did. Nonetheless, the evidence does permit some important observations about the army itself. It contained a number of specialized troops such as cavalry, archers, slingers, miners and sappers. These were usually part of the professional core of the army and were supplemented with a mass levy for a given year’s campaigning. There seems to have been little distinction between civil and military officials. In particular, the king led all campaigns in person while the Grand Vizier or the Crown Prince remained to rule in the capital. The problem of supplying the army led to the impoverishment of Assyria’s nearby vassals and to increasingly lengthy and expensive campaigns as well as a greater reliance on non-Assyrian soldiers. Mayer concludes that the “almost perfect militarism” of Assyria (p. 21) led inevitably to its over-expansion and destruction.

Romila Thapar, “The Role of the Army in the Exercise of Power in Early India,” (pages 25-37).

Romila Thapar’s chapter on “The Role of the Army in the Exercise of Power in Early India” is one of the most explicitly theoretical of the essays: “There is a link therefore between the formation of an evolved state and the organization of its army” (p. 25). Thapar thus connects the development of a professional army with an increase in social complexity and stratification. Specifically, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, India’s city-states, the gana-sanghas, were less economically developed and possessed a more rudimentary state structure than its kingdoms, the rajya. Accordingly, they were less likely to possess a professional standing army. Thapar also makes a number of miscellaneous points about Indian armies and their relation to castes and governments, based on a range of Indian sources — and, surprisingly often, Greek texts about Alexander’s campaigns in India.

Pierre Briant, “Guerre et succession dynastique chez les Achéménides: entre ‘coutume perse’ et violence armée,” (page 39-49). As the title of his persuasive and sophisticated chapter suggests, Pierre Briant focuses on the role of military power in the Persian royal succession. He points out that, although Darius I emphasized his victories over his rivals, subsequent Persian kings tended to gloss over their military struggles with other claimants to the throne and focused on their lineage instead. Consequently, obtaining the Persian throne may have depended on victory in battle in even more cases than our sources attest. But, if the succession depended on control of the army and brute force, what are we to make of Greek reports of the “rules,” the νόμοι, that governed the Persian succession. Briant mainly takes a critical approach to these rules as post facto constructions that served to justify the results determined on the battlefield: Persia was not, in fact, a constitutional monarchy (p. 46). He does not end up, however, with a simple contrast between an ideology of rule-based succession and the reality of violence. Rather, military prowess was salient among the approved virtues of Persian kings, so their victories in battle over their rivals could provide corroboration of their other claims to the throne. Alexander’s challenges to Darius III to fight him for the throne came from a Macedonian and were recorded by Greeks; they corresponded to Persian royal ideology as well (p.49).

Pierre Ducrey, “Armée et pouvoir dans la Grèce antique, d’Agamemnon à Alexandre,” (page 51-60).

Pierre Ducrey provides a broad-ranging survey of the connection between military command and political power within Greek states from the Bronze Age through fourth-century Macedonia — a hefty brief for ten pages. His treatment of the world of Homer centers on the obvious connections between military command and power, but he emphasizes the political weight of the assembled men as a check on the authority of the kings and nobility. Although Ducrey entertains the notion that the Euboean cities in the Dark and Early Archaic period may indeed have been ruled by a cavalry elite, he is more skeptical of the role of hoplites in the seventh century. In particular, he endorses the view of tyrants as aristocrats whose backing came primarily from their armed companions — and later from mercenaries. In the classical period, he considers the extent to which military success could be parlayed into political power at Sparta and Athens.3 He concludes his treatment of the classical city-states by emphasizing that tight civilian control of military commanders was just as typical of Thebes and Sparta as of Athens. His final section argues that in Macedonia military and political power were as tightly bound as in Homer but that the king’s authority was again limited by the power of the assembled soldiers.

Hans van Wees, “Tyrants, Oligarchs, and Citizen Militias.” 61-82

In this rich and provocative chapter, Hans van Wees argues that armies and navies did not influence the politics of Greek city-states. The variety of effective and inexpensive weapons available made it impossible for richer citizens to physically dominate their cities by virtue of the mere possession of horses or hoplite equipment. Nor could a class gain political dominance by the organization and solidarity that military service might bring: most armies were organized ad hoc for a single campaign and then dispersed. Finally, armies and navies were not homogenous but included men from different classes. Van Wees uses an argument he has made elsewhere: to judge from the enumeration of the Solonic classes in the Athenaion Politeia (7.3-4) there was not enough land in Attica for all hoplites to have possessed the wealth needed to be zeugitai; Consequently, hoplite armies must have included thetes as well as affluent zeugitai — but only the latter were required to serve.4 Although the connection between military service and rights was conspicuous in Greek political ideology, Van Wees has no difficulty in finding exceptions where people without political rights participated in warfare.5 Nevertheless, the argument that the political organization of a state depends on its military is not a modern but an ancient theory. In particular, it plays a prominent role in Aristotle’s Politics, which is therefore Van Wees’s next target: “the modern notion that there was a direct connection between the hoplite army and tyranny has no basis in Aristotle, while Aristotle’s notion that there was a direct connection between cavalry and oligarchy has no basis in historical reality” (p. 77). Van Wees concludes that changes in political systems were typically due to the activity of small, tightly organized factions rather than the mass of the population regardless of its military role. Thus, Van Wees ends up with an exclusively top-down picture of classical Greek politics, one that seems a bit extreme to this reviewer.

Vincent Gabrielsen, “The Impact of Armed Forces on Government and Politics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis: A Response to Hans van Wees.” 83-98

Although he agrees with some of Van Wees’s main points, Vincent Gabrielsen’s chapter consists mainly of detailed criticisms, which cannot all be summarized here. He notes that the desire of unpopular governments to disarm the citizens shows that the possession of weapons had some direct influence in political struggles. Although Gabrielsen accepts an economically diverse hoplite army in the classical period, he is less sure about the archaic situation. Appendices to his chapter expand two of his main criticisms. First, he questions the distinction between the richer hoplites subject to the draft from the katalogos and the poor, who fought only as volunteers: we have evidence for conscription of thetes — even for the navy. Second, the argument that the zeugitai were quite rich — and, consequently, that there wasn’t enough land in Attica for many of them — depends on the description of the Solonic classes in Athenaion Politeia 7.3-4. This passage has led to all sorts of scholarly difficulties and was probably based on conjecture rather than knowledge either of the economic realities of Solon’s times or of the actual wealth of typical zeugitai in the classical period. Taken together, the essays of Van Wees and Gabrielsen provide a valuable reconsideration of an important issue in classical Greek history.

Angelos Chaniotis, “Foreign Soldiers-Native Girls? Constructing and Crossing Boundaries in Hellenistic Cities with Foreign Garrisons.” 99-113

In this fascinating chapter, Angelos Chaniotis first draws a simple sketch on the political level: garrisons were “an instrument of subordination” imposed on cities by the superior might of a Hellenistic monarch (102); their withdrawal was typically heralded as the restoration of liberty. But, below the level of the domination of one state over another, relations between garrisons, their commanders, and the population of a city — over what might be a long period of occupation — were complex. Basing his arguments mainly on epigraphic evidence, Chaniotis describes the fear of undisciplined soldiers but also the role the army may have played in the representation of monarchical ideology and the interactions of soldiers and citizens in religious observances and in the gymnasium. Although friendly relations are evident in actions such as civic benefactions by officers and the common soldiers’ contributions to gymnastic funds, Chaniotis does not minimize the gulf between the soldiers and the locals: for example, “the overall impression is that they [garrison soldiers] preferred to worship deities other than those indigenous to their place of service” (108). When we come to the “Foreign soldiers-Native Girls?” question of the title, C’s answer is basically “Not very often” — at least in Greek cities. The origins of the wives of garrison soldiers are sometimes attested: they seem typically not to have been locals and were often from the same areas that supplied the mercenaries in the garrisons.

John Ma, “‘Oversexed, Overpaid, Over here’: A Response to Angelos Chaniotis.” 115-122

If Chaniotis’ main achievement was the complication of a strictly political view of the relations of garrison and town, Ma adds further layers of complexity and interest to Chaniotis’ picture. The claim that garrisons were protecting a city could be a specious piece of kingly propaganda — as in Chaniotis — or could merely reflect the facts of the case. The economic exploitation of garrisoned cities must sometimes be added to the picture of political domination. Troops were not always housed in separate quarters but might be billeted among the citizens, leading to even more intimate, yet often tense and hostile, interactions. Quite possibly, it was only the officers of a longstanding garrison that could be co-opted into the citizen elite as benefactors of the city; the common troops may have maintained a more stable and separate group solidarity. Ma suggests further investigation of soldiers’ funerary practices, of interactions outside of an entirely Greek context, and of the economic relations between garrison and city.

Géza Alföldy, “Kaiser, Heer und soziale Mobilität im Römischen Reich,” (pages 123-150).

This valuable chapter treats several central issues of social mobility in the Roman army. First, Alföldy admits that the actual chances for advancement were not that high even in the army: for example, in the middle of the second century AD, the rank of primus pilus was accessible to those who rose through the ranks and brought with it equestrian status, but there was only room for 60 primi pili among the 180,000 legionaries (124). Nevertheless, several other considerations highlight the importance of social mobility in the army. Most obviously, the chances for advancement outside the army were even worse. In addition, smaller gains in status and prosperity, such as attaining citizenship or, for example, the rank of duplicarius, were significant to those who accomplished them. At the very least, to a poor civilian, becoming a soldier was a good dream — as attested in Artemidorus — because it meant “work and wages” (125). Alföldy’s second focus is the way that an emperor could harness the desire for advancement to make the army a powerful support of his rule. The emperor controlled all high-level promotions and sometimes even intervened at lower levels. Alföldy is able to cite many examples of such imperial promotions — though, at lower levels, these must have been reported precisely because they were exceptional. Such interventions tended to make the army into a tool of the emperor: the ambitious were willing to take on special tasks in hopes of advancement and those already promoted were grateful to the emperor. An interesting sidelight is that war seems then — as perhaps always — to have been a boon, albeit a dangerous one, for the ambitious soldier.

Yann Le Bohec, “L’armée romaine et le maintien de l’ordre en Gaule (68-70),” (pages 151-165).

Yann Le Bohec’s chapter has two themes. First, he gives an account of 69 AD, “the year of the four emperors,” in the context of the contrasting viewpoints of the common people and the elite, the soldiers and officers. This enables him to hint at the potentially complex realities behind statements such as “Gaul supported Galba” or the “army opposed Vindex,” both of which probably require qualification (153-154). This account sets the scene for his second investigation: was the Imperium Galliarum a Celtic rebellion against Rome or was it just another military insurrection in a period of civil war? Although Tacitus views the rebellion as a foreign threat and thus expresses bewildered outrage at the collusion of Roman legionaries, Le Bohec generally favors the latter of these alternatives. The main leaders of the rebellion were aristocrats from the most pro-Roman sections of the Gallic elite. Only the rebel Mariccus was not from such a high and Romanized stratum of society and probably led a truly nationalist rebellion against the Romans.

Brian Campbell, “Power without Limit: ‘The Romans always win,'” 167-180.

Brian Campbell focuses on the role of the Roman army both in the conquest of territory and in the maintenance of Roman rule once an area had been subjugated. He covers topics ranging from the extirpation of cities in war to extortion by individual soldiers, to the suppression of banditry and the administration of justice by centurions. Although he mentions some more positive aspects of the army’s role, his overall picture is bleak, with an emphasis on brute force, terror, and exploitation: for example, Campbell argues that “all out war was one instrument of Roman power even within the confines of the territories they ruled . . .” (173) This is a salutary reminder. Campbell sometimes succumbs to the temptation to offer his views on everything having to do with the Roman army or wars, which occasionally makes the essay seem disorganized and cursory.

Benjamin Isaac, “Army and Power in the Roman World: A Response to Brian Campbell.” 181-191

Benjamin Isaac does not respond to Campbell but rather focuses on the violence that marked the relations between soldiers and civilians.6 Isaacs begins with cases where a Roman army perpetrated large-scale massacres against a city within the empire. Some of the cases are well-known — and the practice in general seems exceptional — but Isaac does adduce some startling evidence, such as a case where the army’s massacre of the male population of an Egyptian town is known only from a papyrus dealing with the tax consequences of this event. These dramatic events represent the most organized cases of military violence, but it was pervasive on a small-scale too. From his evidence about the type of behavior expected from soldiers, Isaac concludes: “the assumption is that soldiers will be violent and rapacious, both when acting in their capacity as an internal police force and when they were off duty. This resulted in endemic abuse and extortion …” (189). This picture may be exaggerated since Isaac focuses on Judaea, where we have particularly good evidence for the relationship of the army and the provincial population, but which may not be typical. The rebellions there and their brutal suppression may have contributed to a more violent and hostile atmosphere than in a typical Roman province. This minor caveat notwithstanding, Isaac does show that lapses from the Roman ideal of the rule of law were far more common than one would infer from laudatory inscriptions or some legal texts.


1. The book also contains a short introduction and indices of names, subjects, and citations, the latter divided into literary and epigraphic sources. The footnotes contain full references, so there are no independent bibliographies.

2. Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein (eds.), War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica Center for Hellenic Studies Colloquia 3, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) treats a similar theme and also contains essays by experts on a variety of pre-modern societies. Raaflaub and Rosenstein (eds.) is more than twice as long and is more unified in approach: all its chapters are substantial general treatments of a given army and society in contrast to the mix of issue chapters and brief surveys in Chaniotis and Ducrey (eds.). Raaflaub and Rosenstein (eds.) also contains three overarching, synthetic chapters. Its superiority as a general scholarly introduction and as a collaborative work of comparative history does not, however, diminish the value of the essays in Chaniotis and Ducrey (eds.) taken individually.

3. On Athens, Ducrey (p. 58 fn. 15) uses the data and endorses the conclusions of Debra Hamel, “Strategoi on the Bema: The Separation of Political and Military Authority in Fourth-Century Athens” AHB 9.1 (1995) 25-39 that active politicians were less likely to be military men in the fourth century, contra Lawrence Trittle “Continuity and Change in the Athenian Strategia,” AHB 7.4 (1992) 125-129.

4. Hans Van Wees, “The myth of the middle-class army: military and social status in ancient Athens,” in Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen and Lise Hannestad, eds., War as a Cultural and Social Force: Essays on Warfare in Antiquity (Selskab, Denmark, 2000) 45-71.

5. Hans Van Wees, “Politics and the Battlefield: Ideology in Greek Warfare,” in Anton Powell, ed., The Greek World (London, 1995) 153-178.

6. Rather, Isaac aims to investigate the themes of MacMullen’s Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire in the early empire (page 181 fn. 1).