BMCR 2005.07.66

Greek Warfare. Myths and Realities

, Greek warfare : myths and realities. London: Duckworth, (Reprinted, 2005). xiv, 349 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629670 £20.00.

Van Wees has written an ambitious scholarly work that attempts to look at (as he calls it) “the bigger picture” of ancient Greek warfare from archaic times through the classical period (p. 1). The book is meant to be the first single-volume work since Garlan’s La guerre dans l’antiquité to place battle in its political, social, and economic context. In providing a broad historical framework for the development of military practice and attitudes toward war, he considers why Greeks waged war, who did most of the fighting, what fighting methods were used, and how land and sea battle marked social distinctions. As the subtitle of the work ( Myths and Realities) suggests, van Wees contends that many conventional views (both ancient and modern) of the practice and causes of Greek warfare rely on something other than objective fact.

As befits a book that means as much to correct misinterpretations as to present new views, much of the ancient evidence adduced is neither startling nor new. Instead, the author aims to read familiar sources with a more discerning eye. Van Wees regularly cites his own previous scholarship, the fundamental (and more detailed) research of Pritchett, as well as Hanson, Ober, Krentz and Gabrielsen. The work is well-illustrated, with 24 drawings (many by the author himself) and 26 plates. Typographical errors are few and immaterial.1

In many ways this wide-ranging primer in the evidence and controversies related to the study of ancient battle reads like a corrective to Victor Davis Hanson, in particular to Hanson’s characterization of hoplite battle and what might be called the hoplite ideology. While van Wees is bold enough to claim that “current models of Greek warfare are based on an unduly selective and somewhat naïve reading of the limited and unreliable ancient evidence” (p. 1), this book is not a polemic. Its tone is not shrill, and it does not descend to personal attacks. Van Wees takes the arguments of other scholars quite seriously, praising Hanson in particular for framing “the best and most detailed defence of the dominant view of hoplite battle” (p. 290 note 3); he simply, and adamantly, disagrees with some prevailing opinions.

The book has six parts, each broaching a broad topic in more-or-less chronological order:

In Part I, War and Peace, van Wees argues against the views of some scholars that Greeks were always either at war or preparing for war. While battle was common, equally common were cultural institutions that defused crises and forged peace: kinship diplomacy, amphictyonies, formal declarations of philia, alliances, treaties, arbitration, and truces. Van Wees primarily attributes those battles that did occur to an endemic, competitive, and ever-expanding desire for gain and prestige among individuals and states alike. Here van Wees is careful to distinguish this quest for honor or affluence from the acquisition of what modern historians and the Realist school would term “power”: “. . . to the Greeks power was not an end in itself, but only the means to a further end, which was precisely to win respect and wealth. We should not invert the Greek hierarchy of values, nor gloss over the tension between prestige and profit, by subordinating both to a supposed ultimate goal of power” (p. 33). As battle was a venue for the rapid procurement of wealth and glory, this “natural” inclination toward competitive acquisition accounts for the cultural expectation for, and of, a warrior class. In turn this warrior ideal explains, among other things, the carrying of weapons in peacetime in the archaic period and the praise of martial prowess by poets such as Tyrtaeus. As “manhood” came to mean “courage,” the culture further excluded and marginalized women, especially in times of war. Itinerant mercenary service naturally developed as a means of livelihood for those unable to succeed in their own city. Van Wees rightly discounts a fourth-century “explosion” of mercenaries whose origin others have attributed to a new mobility necessitated by post-Peloponnesian War poverty: mercenary service was not unusual before the fourth century, and distinctions among mercenaries, immigrants, colonists, and pirates were less apparent than some scholars assert. In the fourth century the population of mercenaries rose because of a rise in demand for soldiers; the demand was not a result of there being more mercenaries.

Part II, Citizens and Soldiers, attempts to dismantle the claim that changes in warfare preceded and contributed to wholesale social and political change. After briefly tracing the evidence for the development of hoplite weaponry and tactics by analyzing both literary and material sources, van Wees suggests that a fully functional hoplite militia evolved quite slowly, perhaps over some 250 years. Only after the Persian Wars does evidence suggest something close to an egalitarian citizen militia employing standard weapons in a unified manner. Scholars who link the emergence of hoplite tactics with a concomitant rise in social, political, or economic equality are mistaken: “The middle-class hoplite army is, in short, a myth based on an isolated and ill-founded ancient generalisation” (p. 60). Far from blurring distinctions in class and wealth, battle — or, at least, the literary descriptions of battle — provided a further means to reinforce societal divisions. The sources obscure these divisions, for from Homer through the classical period they generally privilege the privileged. Analysis of political institutions within historical times further debunks the egalitarian model. Given that after 594 BCE, in an Athens divided into political classes by measure of wealth, working-class hoplites were specifically excluded from political life, van Wees concludes that “it cannot have been the rise of the hoplite phalanx, therefore, which brought about the emergence of more democratic political systems, as many scholars have thought” (p. 81). Also, the central and often decisive role played on the battlefield by the more numerous non-hoplites and non-citizens — the light-armed skirmishers, slaves, and mercenaries — tended to be ignored by the ancients. Van Wees attributes such selective silence to a cultural bias defining “honorable” battle as heavily-armed, face-to-face assault, among elites, whereas hit-and-run or projectile battle was considered cowardly and low. But this prejudiced view had little to do with military reality; instead, “it was not the needs of warfare but the prevailing political and social order which determined who counted for something and who was dismissed as marginal” (p. 85). Only when hoplite tactics had reached their full bloom and the Macedonian armies had proven dominant did a grudging allowance for the importance of non-hoplites emerge.

In Part III, Amateur Armies, van Wees shows that for the most part — Sparta is the exception — archaic and classical land armies were comprised of ill-trained non-specialists. No sites or methods were used to prepare citizen militias for battle. Until the late fourth century, when Athens instituted ephebic training, the gymnasia, the province of the wealthy, were the only instruction grounds for soldiers. The rather random and haphazard organization of Greek military life extended to matters of command, mobilization, provisioning, and discipline. While the command model evident in Homer — wherein kin-groups or family bands obey a leader because bonds of friendship, debt, or fear, rather than a sense of military duty — eventually eroded and gave way to state structures, the coercive and organizational reach of the government was limited. Much was left to the initiative of the individual soldier. Even the highly regimented Spartan systems of discipline and command, which Lacedaimonians claimed were traditional and fixed, were adapted over time to changing military needs.

In Part IV, Agonal and Total Warfare, van Wees suggests that a purely agonal, ritualistic period of Greek warfare is a myth and that the range of Greek battle experience was broad in all periods. Open-field battle did take place, but small-scale raids on agricultural settlements were far more likely. Common too was border defense, even from the classical period (contra Ober) or earlier. Although archaic and classical military conflict was marked by observance of rules of sacrifice and religious truce, it was characterized also by a willingness to ravage land, to besiege, and to destroy cities. While battle was not some sort of rule-laden game, there seem to have been some commonplaces by the classical period: battle was initiated by responding to a charge; mutilation of bodies was not tolerated; a request to recover the dead amounted to admitting defeat. Should warfare lead to siege, the Greeks of the classical period already had multiple ways to engage in efficient assault, and further advances came in the fourth century. After the fighting, the dead were buried. In Homer and earlier periods individuals might be buried separately, but by the late fifth century in Athens and elsewhere group burial emerged as the norm. Wounded victors could expect little public support for their pains; the defeated expected slavery or slaughter.

Part V, The Experience of Combat, looks at the slow evolution of battle from Homeric times through the archaic and classical periods. In a profitable analysis of Homeric battle, van Wees arrays descriptions of warfare among the Highlands warriors of Papua Guinea alongside battle scenes from the Iliad. While some may doubt the value of such cross-cultural parallels in analyzing ancient epic poetry or ancient warfare, this comparison provides a plausible explanation for the narrative strategies used to relate military engagement. Van Wees also demonstrates that only in rare cases in Homer does there seem to be some sort of “warrior code”: soldiers employed any and all means to dispatch their enemies. Within such a framework there was little place for unchecked or extreme emotion. Here van Wees counters Detienne’s description of Homeric warfare as a contest of leading individuals gripped by rabid fury; such a description sets up a false contrast between Homeric battle and hoplite tactics: “A less selective reading of the Iliad reveals the hero as a less exotic figure, different from the hoplite by degree rather than by category” (p. 165). Van Wees also rebuts the work of Jonathan Shay by showing how Homeric battle experience differs markedly from the modern. By utilizing art and text van Wees next demonstrates a three-phase transition from Homeric to archaic engagement. First, the hoplite shield emerged ca. 720-700 BCE. Second, about the middle of the sixth century, thrusting spears supplanted throwing spears. Third, only near the end of the archaic period, ca. 500 BCE, do sources suggest the birth of specialized units and closed-rank fighting. Revisiting some of the points in Part II, van Wees stresses that social changes anticipated these military changes: as mature hoplite engagement was relatively egalitarian, the society needed to reach a point of relative social and political equality before adopting such a military structure. But even in Herodotus, the old-style, “Homeric” free-form battle is evident. It was only in the classical period that heavy infantry became specialized and fought as a separate unit from cavalry and light-armed. Van Wees argues that warfare of any period never amounted to a pushing match. Further, hoplite tactics were never static; methods of battle continually evolved. Scholars who have viewed battle as a massive rush to a decisive collision misread the evidence. There was no single, devastating, and battle-ending blind push, but rather ranks of well-ordered fighters who fought while moving forward. Ancient references to a “push” are metaphorical.

Part VI, Ruling the Waves, traces the development of sea combat and naval command structures, particularly at Athens. In contrast to earlier times, when private individuals ruled the seas, by the classical period the state had taken control of naval affairs. Naval service soon became specialized. Those engaged in most aspects of nautical service tended to be from the lower classes, and, although the Greeks recognized the value of sea power in general, the culture continued to privilege amateur land armies. By the classical period, despite the rise of more centralized control of the navy, mustering a crew and dispatching a flotilla were neither easy nor inexpensive endeavors. Difficulties of logistics and provisioning matched or exceeded those encountered with land armies. Specialization and cost demanded hierarchy based on both wealth and skill. Hence, those who would attribute a democratic or egalitarian propensity to members of the navy might be missing the mark: the hierarchical structure might have highlighted societal divisions.

In a brief conclusion, van Wees reiterates a thread common throughout the six parts of his work: centralization within state structure led to a more developed military system. The wealth that had formerly served a private individual as a means to offer battle could then be directed to common military endeavor. As egalitarian and democratizing forces took hold within the state, they spread to military tactics.

Three appendices complete the work. The first broaches the vexed issue of the size of Athenian hoplite and metic populations. Van Wees attempts to solve apparent discrepancies by reconsidering our understanding of the age-class system. The second appendix reviews the evidence for the Spartan army’s size and organization. Van Wees suggests that the Oath of Plataea is an overlooked source. He also corroborates Thucydides’ description of the number of Spartans engaged at Mantineia in 418. Reviewing weaponry, armor, and the style of battle, the final appendix fixes a date of 700-640 for the type of battle described in Homer.

The great strength of this work — its expansive breadth — also leads to some minor weaknesses. First, at times the work’s overall structure causes some degree of repetition and disjunction: a discussion of the rise of hoplite tactics appears in Parts I and V, Parts I and II both discuss widespread mercenary service, amateurism in the land army discussed in Part III awaits full comparison with naval professionalism until Part VI, the link between social change and military evolution is discussed in Parts II and V. Also, as Homer is used as a point of reference for the early archaic period, the information provided in the third appendix might be more useful earlier in the work. Second, although van Wees does not want to focus on “minutiae” (p. 1), at times the details he does provide prove curious. While he only rarely marshals inscriptional evidence, the controversial Themistocles Decree appears several times as testimony for the late archaic period. Having noted that the Herodotus does not mention a trophy at Marathon, van Wees remains silent about the fact that there was a trophy there. Though at times material evidence is used to great effect (in discussion of the Chigi vase, for example), we are left wanting more: for instance, might a discussion in Part VI of the earlier (LH IIIC) Kynos vases put early naval engagement in a fuller context? Finally, as our sources tend to focus on two city states, the book reads more like a study of Athens and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Sparta, than on Greek warfare in general. But the broad picture provided by such a work cannot and should not include everything. The fact that the reader wants to hear more from van Wees is no doubt a sign of the author’s great insight.

Perhaps because the war in Iraq or the steady loss of members of the World War II generation, there has been a recent flurry of both scholarly and popularizing books about ancient warfare: we find (among others), Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts (2005), Chaniotis’ War in the Hellenistic World (2005), Strauss’ The Battle of Salamis (2004), and the forthcoming Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (which van Wees is currently co-editing). Some, especially Hanson and Ober, have also used ancient history to frame a particular view of the modern world, chiefly in regard to the military and political experience of the United States. Others — most powerfully in Rhodes’ Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology (2003) — have criticized the readiness to reconcile such vastly disparate times and places. While the historical impulse may urge us to use the past to assess the present, van Wees’ book reminds us that an accurate understanding of the past should be an ancient historian’s first concern.


1. Errors listed by page: p. v: misplaced “5”; p. 123, “Figs”: read “Figs.”; p. 154, “preference, Spears”: read “preference. Spears”; p. 170, “manner of the classical phalanx, they”: read “manner of the classical phalanx; they” ( vel sim.); p. 234, “to be subordinate to be the law”: read “to be subordinate to the law” ; p. 235, “and said ‘The bag …'”: read “and said, ‘The bag …'”; p. 268 n. 28, “Gabielsen”: read “Gabrielsen”; p. 269 n. 38, “achaic”: read “archaic”; p. 274 n. 12, “this”: read “these” ; p. 280 n. 15, “was”: read “as” ; p. 281 n. 26, “suskania”: read “suskênia” ; p. 294 n. 4, “in use That spears”: read “in use. That spears”.