BMCR 2005.08.20

War in the Hellenistic World: A Social and Cultural History

, War in the Hellenistic world : a social and cultural history. Ancient world at war. Oxford: Oxford (Eng.), 2005. xxiii, 308 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0631226079 $27.95.

In War in the Hellenistic World, Angelos Chaniotis aims to survey “the various ways in which war shaped Hellenistic society, mentality, and culture, and also the ways in which wars corresponded to contemporary social conditions and reflected cultural peculiarities of this era” (p. xxi). Chaniotis (C.) claims in the preface that the book, an addition to Blackwell’s Ancient World at War series, is intended primarily for students. He also admits his bias towards employing examples from “Greece” (indeed, frequent references to Crete reveal C.’s particular interest in the island), a reasonable limitation to render such a vast topic accessible to students. This broadly successful survey touches on a wide range of topics, necessitating a rather lengthy summary. Readers who are more interested in an overall critique may wish to skip ahead to the sixth paragraph.

The book is organized into twelve relatively short thematic chapters, ranging widely in topic but united by the common theme of the centrality of war to nearly all aspects of Hellenistic society. While the chapters themselves are not formally arranged into sections, they might be categorized in three broad groups. First, a number of chapters focus on intersection of warfare, politics, and diplomacy in the Hellenistic period. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-17) demonstrates the ubiquity of warfare among Hellenistic states both large and small, concluding that the frequency of war resulted in large part from two sources of instability: the nature of Alexander’s conquests, which led to wars between the diadochoi, and the increasing intrusion of Rome into the Greek world, leading to shifting alliances and resistance movements. Chapter 2 (pp. 18-43) argues that despite the changing military and diplomatic realities of the age — e.g. powerful kings limited the autonomy of subordinate states by treaties and foreign garrisons, and mercenary armies increasingly reduced the importance of citizen militias — military ethos and politics remained inextricably linked. Many duties of the political class were bound up in war, for which they could expect to be commemorated by the community, thus reinforcing the privilege of the elite class. Status was transmitted directly by wealth and by honors that were bestowed on an individual and his descendants and indirectly by descendants who followed the examples of their ancestors in war and politics. In this way, by the age of Augustus the Hellenistic aristocracy became “so deeply rooted in the economy, the society and the institutions of the Greek cities, that it continued its existence within the Imperial period. The Hellenistic wars had contributed to its genesis, but they were not needed for its survival.” (p. 41) Of course, the legitimacy of a Hellenistic monarch rested largely on his military power (Chapter 4, pp. 57-77). The Hellenistic monarch was essentially a warrior king for whom the army was an important source of monarchical legitimacy and whose authority was rarely questioned so long as he was successful in war. C. refers to the reciprocity between monarch and community as interactive kingship, concluding that war was central to the interaction between a Hellenistic monarch and various other individuals or groups.

Second, five chapters deal with the relationship between war and different aspects of social history. Chapters 5 and 7 (pp. 44-56 and pp. 115-142) focus on the economic ramifications of warfare in the Hellenistic age. Wars imposed a huge financial strain on communities because of their frequency, greater reliance on mercenaries, and more sophisticated (and costly) defensive works, thus compelling communities to depend more on individual benefactors, including Hellenistic monarchs. Battles, devastation of fields, and destruction of farmsteads would have scarred the countryside and seriously disrupted a community’s economy, while the victors could expect booty and territory, implying that economic motives were behind many wars in this period. According to C., the Hellenistic age “was in many respects an age of professional specialists. We observe this in the performing arts, in politics, in the economy, and in warfare” (p. 78). Overall, warfare became much more professionalized, and military specialists such as engineers and mercenaries profited from conflict. There was an ample supply of the latter, according to C., because land was increasingly consolidated into fewer hands, leaving many people landless. Chapters 3 and 6 (pp. 44-56 and pp. 102-114) examine war and gender. Chapter 3 demonstrates that the education of young men was often equivalent to military training. Young men underwent important rituals that marked their transition to full membership in the community, and these rituals frequently had military overtones, infusing young men with a martial ethos. Chapter 6 looks primarily at the effects of war on women. Although ancient rhetoric assumes warfare was a masculine domain and often portrays women as passive victims of war, women frequently played an active role in Hellenistic warfare. For example, Hellenistic queens instigated wars, and occasionally aristocratic women contributed funds for city defenses. More interestingly, women “frequently participated in street battles” (p. 107), and C. cites an anecdote from Aineias the Tactician in which the women of Sinope dressed in military gear so that the city’s army would appear bigger. Still, women remain relatively anonymous in narrative sources of Hellenistic wars. Lastly, Chapter 8 (pp. 143-165) is dedicated to the relationship between warfare and contemporary trends in religion. C. argues that “[r]eligious aspects of warfare gained great significance in the Hellenistic period” (p. 144) because of the importance of war in Hellenistic ideology and in political legitimization. The prevalence of warfare in the period encouraged the devotion to various savior gods ( soteres). Hellenistic battle narratives often feature miraculous events and divine intervention, the propaganda of war frequently involved claims that the enemy had committed wrongs against the gods, many religious rituals were related to warfare, and military success and failure could be interpreted as signs of divine favor or abandonment — all underscoring the close link between religion and war.

Third, Chapters 9, 10, and 11 discuss Hellenistic warfare as it was represented in texts and preserved in memory. The focus of Chapter 9 (pp. 166-188) is literary texts. For the Hellenistic historian war reveals the characters of groups and men because it is the most dangerous enterprise an individual or community would face, while dedicatory inscriptions tend to highlight the generosity of a benefactor by emphasizing the magnitude of communal suffering in war. Hellenistic political leaders, like their modern counterparts, tried to justify their decisions to go to war, and it is difficult to disentangle the ‘real reasons’ a community went to war from the propaganda and justifications recorded in the sources. C. also notes that the contemporary sources do not assume that peace was a normal or desired condition for all mankind, but rather a temporary and welcome respite for specific communities from the harsh reality of frequent conflicts. Chapter 10 (pp. 189-213) analyzes the aesthetics of warfare in the Hellenistic age, arguing that visual art and literature from the period often portray violence, including scenes of battle, in graphic fashion not because the Hellenistic audience took pleasure in such scenes, but because it was realistic. In both written and visual sources (such as the Alexander mosaic) the anonymity of and confusion of battle is juxtaposed with the clarity and leadership of individuals, while depictions of warriors highlight the external manifestations (scarred and bloodied) of internal virtue. Chapter 11 (pp. 214-244) explores the means by which war was remembered. Hellenistic historiography stressed the centrality of war; important victories were often recalled in speeches, lengthy dedicatory inscriptions, and festivals and celebrations; and the Hellenistic urban landscape was thick with monuments to war. In this way the memory of war was both preserved and also served to draw attention to definitions of self and other. C. observes that there was a shift in war memorials from the Classical period, which stressed civic communities, to those of the Hellenistic period, which “increasingly focused on the contribution of protagonists: the charismatic ruler or the great military commander” (pp. 242-243).

Chapter 12 (pp. 245-253) closes the book by summarizing how warfare profoundly affected the Hellenistic world, especially the ways in which endemic warfare involved the transgression of not only physical and political but also social and cultural boundaries. During war, money and land changed hands, populations were displaced, and occasionally individuals or groups were freed from prescribed societal roles. Warfare encouraged both technological advances and to some degree the spread of Hellenistic culture, with all of its local variants. Regarding religion, “[p]erhaps the most fundamental boundary broken by Hellenistic wars is that separating mortals from the gods” (p. 252), as kings became gods and the gods made themselves present among mortals during wars to perform miracles.

I have tried to point out specific, interesting arguments that C. puts forward. The overall theme of the book — that war was central to many aspects of Hellenistic culture — is not remarkable. However, the book’s primary purpose is not to turn the study of the Hellenistic period on its head, but rather to introduce the topic to students (pp. xxi, xxii), and so it should be judged on its appropriateness for this task.

C. has produced a solid survey text on war and society in the Hellenistic Age that, as the lengthy preceding summary suggests, offers generally comprehensive coverage of the topic. The only glaring absence is the lack of detailed analysis of how wars were fought (tactics, strategy, grand strategy, contemporary military science) and with what (armaments, military technology), though these are touched on in passing at a number of points throughout the book. The book also does not really deliver on the Ancient World at War series’ promise to consider the “face of battle.” Both will probably disappoint the enthusiasts of foxhole history, but this does not detract from the overall quality of the work. Indeed, fans of ancient military history have recently been treated to a wide range of books on various aspects of warfare in the ancient world, including but not limited to Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, revised edition (1998), Raaflaub and Rosenstein (eds), War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (1999), Daly, Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War (2002), Strauss, The Battle of Salamis (2004), Rosenstein, Rome at War (2005), van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2005) (recently reviewed at BMCR 2005.07.66), as well as the seven other volumes either published or in preparation for the Ancient World at War Series. These should satisfy almost any related curiosity.

Warfare in the Hellenistic World has much to recommend its use in an undergraduate course, especially one targeted to advanced students. Besides its coverage, it is generally well-argued; it includes an excellent and up-to-date bibliography; and each chapter closes with an annotated bibliography organized by chapter sub-heading that cites relevant primary sources and modern scholarship in both English and non-English language — more than enough for curious undergraduates (or even grad students and academics) to use as the starting point for future research. C.’s emphasis on epigraphic evidence should also be lauded, since epigraphy is so important for our understanding of this period and since undergraduates are not exposed enough to this genre of literary evidence. It is helpful that many of the inscriptions cited can be found in translation in Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest (1981), and Bagnall and Derow, Historical Sources in Translation: The Hellenistic Period, second edition (2004), allowing an instructor to use them as companion texts and to allow students to evaluate the strength of C.’s arguments in light of the evidence.

I do have some criticisms, though they may be rooted in my own pedagogical biases. First, C. clearly tries to make Hellenistic warfare relevant to a modern audience by frequently referencing recent political parallels and current events. Thus we have (among others) multiple references to Saddam, WMD, and the Iraq War, a German soccer player wearing a “Thanks, Jesus” T-shirt, and the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. From a stylistic standpoint, these sorts of modern comparisons are not my cup of tea. More importantly, do they further students’ understanding of the Hellenistic world? In the case of Saddam, perhaps. But I suspect that in a few years such references will render the book dated.1 More problematic is the German footballer, who is compared in Chapter 8 to the dedicators of a third century statue to Herakles soter because they all display a “naive belief” (p. 143) in a personal savior god. The ancient-modern comparison may be appropriate; the pejorative language is unnecessary. Later in Chapter 8 C. associates the increased belief in divine intervention during the Hellenistic period to a bout of mass delusion (pp. 145, 160). I suspect that C.’s cheeky language is meant to entertain a student audience. However, the dismissive tone is counterproductive for getting students to understand how the ancients comprehended the divine rather than simply ridiculing ancient religion as foreign and weird.

C.’s otherwise matter-of-fact presentation tends to smooth over some controversial issues. For example, in the section on “War and Agriculture” (pp. 121-129), C. adopts the opinio communis that warfare had a profound short-term and long-term impact on agricultural production, citing the excellent work of Foxhall, but he barely mentions Hanson’s serious challenge to this view.2 Likewise, C. assumes that the loss of agricultural production resulted in part from a loss in agricultural manpower because workers were fighting or hiding, but he previously argued that mercenaries were in high supply because land was consolidated into the hands of fewer owners (p. 80). The large number of mercenaries in service suggests a surplus of manpower overall, which may have mitigated war’s effects on agriculture, but the prose does not call attention to such alternate explanations.3 For advanced undergraduates, I prefer texts that are problem-oriented and force the students to confront complex historical debates and the often-conflicting evidence that must be reconciled to resolve them.4 This being said, C.’s arguments are on the whole persuasive, with copious primary source references, thus providing a good model of historical writing for students to follow.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is no effort to define the Hellenistic age other than in the preface (p. xxi) and the back cover, where it is identified only as the period of 300 years from the conquest of Alexander to the defeat of Cleopatra.5 Since the salient features of the Hellenistic period and important discontinuities with what came before and after are not clearly articulated, the specific correspondence between war and contemporary cultural peculiarities does not emerge as forcefully as it could. At points in the book C. does succeed in highlighting the distinctiveness of Hellenistic warfare and culture, but more often the relationship between war and society in the Hellenistic age, as presented, appears indistinct, and one is sometimes left wondering to what degree Hellenistic warfare was substantively different from war in other periods of ancient history.6

Still, despite these criticisms, War in the Hellenistic World is a worthy addition to the growing body of recent scholarship on ancient military history. It should find use in undergraduate survey courses in Hellenistic history or culture (especially if coupled with a more general study and a collection of sources), or in comparative courses in ancient war and society. Also, I would not hesitate to recommend it to interested students, academics, and non-experts as a point of departure for further inquiry.


1. As for the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, the students in my classes are (depressingly) approaching the point when they will not even have been born when there was a Soviet Union. Such increasingly cultural remote political and cultural analogies tend to confuse rather than clarify.

2. Foxhall, “Farming and Fighting in Ancient Greece,” in Rich and Shipley (eds), War and Society in the Greek World (1993); Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, revised edition (1998) [in which Hanson is, admittedly, less extreme in his arguments about the ineffectiveness of ancient armies at destroying enemy crops and causing economic hardship]; the brief reference to Hanson is found on p. 124. Here C.’s analysis suffers from the exclusion of evidence from Republican Rome, especially concerning potential the long-term and short-term economic effects of devastation of the Italian countryside during the Second Punic War; for a summary of the debate see Cornell, “Hannibal’s Legacy: the Effects of the Second Punic War on Italy” in Cornell, et al. (eds), The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal (1996).

3. For an interesting comparison to mid-Republican Rome, see now Rosenstein, Rome at War (2005), who argues that Rome’s frequent wars that pulled large numbers of young men off the farms and into armies actually created economic opportunities for those left behind and resulted in significant population growth in Italy.

4. An excellent example is Cameron, Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity (1993).

5. I call attention to a typographical mistake, normally a quibble but in this case a more serious error: in the preface, the dates given for period from Alexander’s conquest to Cleopatra’s defeat are incorrectly “323-330 BC,” presumably for “323-31 BC.” The only other typo that I found in this otherwise handsomely produced paperback was on p. 52 (“tratidional” for “traditional”).

6. The interrelatedness of military success and political legitimacy, the emphasis of a martial ethos among the political elite, the tendency of political leaders to justify the decision to go to war, the interlinking of warfare and religion, notions of the masculinity of war, the centrality of war in historical narratives, for example. were certainly not peculiar to the Hellenistic period. C. also notes that much of the “military revolution” that transformed the hoplite armies of the fifth century to the more specialized phalanxes of the Hellenistic period took place in the fourth century (pp. 20-21), suggesting that Hellenistic armies exhibited continuities with their Late Classical counterparts. Many of the structures of Hellenistic culture endured into the Roman period, as C. argues with regards to the hereditary ruling elite (pp. 39-41).