BMCR 2006.02.14

Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity

, Soldiers & ghosts : a history of battle in classical antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xii, 468 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780300128994 $35.00.

Table of Contents

J.E. Lendon’s subject is ambitious, nothing less than the evolution of battle in Greece and Rome; he traces developments from Archaic through Hellenistic Greece and from the early Republic to the Late Empire. It’s a tall order, but this unusually stimulating and original book fills it.

Lendon’s thesis is that historians have overestimated the influence of technology on tactics. Instead, he insists on the importance of politics, society, events, and above all, culture. He makes his case in graceful and stylish prose and he keeps the reader’s interest. Clear arguments alternate with lively examples, which are in turn embedded in gemlike narratives. For instance, Lendon deftly sketches the battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) and illustrates the Greek virtue of holding one’s position in the phalanx by the case of Amompharetus, the “stubborn Spartan” whose refusal to budge threatened the entire Greek army yet won him glory. The Roman desire for champion duels is shown in the case of Marcus Valerius “the Raven,” who defeated a Gallic chieftain in single combat with the help of a raven that conveniently attacked the Gaul (349 B.C.); the story is probably apocryphal, as Lendon notes, but nonetheless revealing.

The real work of titling books nowadays is usually done by the subtitle; here, for once, the title is apt. In Soldiers and Ghosts, Lendon argues that ancient armies usually looked backward. Unlike moderns, the ancients measured themselves less by efficiency than by pedigree. They aimed to live up to the ancestral ideals of their cultures even, at times, when those ideals were counterproductive or fatal. Hence, ancient armies were staffed by soldiers but haunted by ghosts.

Lendon examines a number of case studies of battle tactics, chapter by chapter: among them are fighting in the Iliad, the battle of champions at Thyrea, Thermopylae and Plataea, Delium, Leuctra, Issus, Paraetacene and Gabiene, for the Greeks; and, for the Romans, the story of Valerius, Pydna, Gergovia, Ilerda, the siege of Jerusalem, Strasbourg, Julian’s invasion of Mesopotamia, and Adrianople.

Let us sketch Lendon’s arguments, beginning with the Greeks; “sketch” is the right word, because it is hard to do justice to the subtleties of his discussion. For Lendon, the evolution of ancient Greek battle tactics was not a case of better killing through technology. The Greeks did not follow a straight path of military efficiency. They were guided, rather, by culture, especially by the legacy of their past. Lendon identifies primordial competitiveness and reverence for epic as the two main values of Greek culture affecting the evolution of battle tactics.

Competition is a universal human value, says Lendon; for the Greeks it left an indelible stamp on the military. Individual competition was what the Greeks saw in their hoplite phalanx: although phalanx combat was perhaps the ultimate group activity, the Greeks awarded prizes for the best performances in battle — military Oscars, as it were. Competition promoted military discipline and drill by getting Greek soldiers to vie for honors. The Macedonian kings Philip and Alexander took this a step further by promoting — and demoting — soldiers according to their battle record.

But the greatest single cultural authority in ancient Greece was its leading epic poet, Homer, and his two great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, especially the Iliad. “The heroes of epic,” writes Lendon, “always sat invisible upon the shoulders of the Greeks, whispering their counsel” (p. 37). No matter how un-Homeric the evolving reality of warfare, the Greeks continued to think of themselves as warriors in the heroic mold. Squaring the circle of new tactics and old epic-style competition was probably the central problem of ancient Greek military culture, according to Lendon. In the era of city-state predominance, the solution was to conceive of the city as hoplite: Sparta as Achilles, as it were. The rising power of Macedon also appealed to Homeric images: “Philip and Alexander harnessed this traditional [Macedonian warrior] ethos by bringing the world of Homer back to life and so turned the ramshackle levy of old Macedonia into an army of world conquest” (p. 138).

Lendon discerns a conflict in classical tactics between the desire of the rank and file for pure combat and that of the generals for victory. Both sides trotted out their Homer. One group referred to the need to stand and fight, just as the heroes did before Troy, while the other pointed to Odysseus as proof that strategy and not prowess is the ultimate virtue. From Archaic to Hellenistic Greece, tactical guile slowly but surely got the upper hand, but it never wiped out the epic ideal of heroic competition.

Lendon anticipates an objection to his emphasis on Homer: that this merely repeats the bias of antiquity’s elite literary sources. Just because Herodotus took his Homer seriously, it doesn’t mean that the Spartan regent Pausanias did, much less the ordinary hoplite. Lendon argues, in response, that people who look to epic for justification must have looked to it for inspiration too. He concedes that no individual case of Homeric inspiration can be convincingly proved, but suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: “the wider pattern is beyond doubt” (p. 161).

Before leaving the Greeks he offers two intriguing insights. Sea power and siegecraft were always foreign to the hoplite mentality, and Lendon suspects that Homeric influences were at play. He wonders whether the absence of siegecraft in Homer “channeled the Greeks away from thinking in terms of mechanical attacks on walls” (p. 160). There are no descriptions of naval battles in Homer either, which might have given the admirals of Greece’s new trireme fleets in 480 freedom to pick and choose from epic: they adopted Homeric guile without ritualized combat, thereby paving the way for the sophisticated tactics of Artemisium and the cunning of Salamis.

Turning to Rome, Lendon criticizes the time-honored idea of iron discipline as the secret to Rome’s success; this notion may say more about the Renaissance, which purveyed it, than it does about Rome. He also casts doubt on the concept of unit cohesion as the key to Roman victory, for the simple reason that the legions preferred competition among the ranks to cohesion. Instead, Lendon emphasizes four prime cultural motives for Roman combat: innate Roman conservatism, Greek military science, and above all, disciplina and virtus. These last two terms need to be defined.

Virtus, literally manliness, meant martial courage to the Romans. It was better displayed individually than in a group. “It was the fiery ambition of Romans, especially young Roman aristocrats, to excel those around them in virtus that led them to seek out single combat” (p. 177).

Disciplina, explains Lendon, is a broader term than the English “discipline.” It connotes not just obedience and punishment but a wide array of military excellence including training and building. Imposed from above, disciplina was meant to be internalized and it was meant to be competitive: “It was this ethic of restraint that allowed commanders control over their soldiers” (p. 312).

In the absence of a Roman Homer, Lendon focuses on contemporaries or near-contemporaries to the events they describe, writers such as Polybius and Caesar, Josephus and Ammianus Marcellinus. He avoids the trap of primitivist notions of Roman customs, suggesting even that the Romans might have picked up their interest in single combat from their Celtic opponents in the fourth century B.C.

The secret of Rome’s success was its ability to preserve and adapt the age-old values of virtus and disciplina. Take for example, the Middle Republic’s switch from the phalanx to the manipular legion. Lendon paints a vivid picture of the competition of abilities and age classes in the four echelons of the legion: “The manipular legion was a solution to the problem of how to reconcile a competitive culture of individual dueling with the unaggressive mass fighting of the phalanx” (p. 189).

As in Greece so in Rome there was, as Lendon sees it, a long-running conflict between brave but foolhardy soldiers pursuing virtus and cunning, stratagem-minded generals holding the men back and channeling their aggression until the right moment — that is, imposing disciplina. Despite many differences, Scipio Africanus, Caesar, and Vespasian all behaved similarly. The result was creative tension, leading to victory. The relatively clumsy maniples gave way to the more maneuverable cohorts (largely as a result of Greek intellectual influence, in Lendon’s judgment); the citizen-legionaries ceded the heavy lifting to the non-citizen auxiliaries; the fundamentals remained largely unchanged.

The Roman military stood firm until Late Antiquity, when its leadership made a fundamental error. It took models derived from the past, especially Greek models, too seriously. “Imperial nostalgia for the military past” (p. 260) and “military antiquarianism” (p. 280) played a role in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was one thing to pay lip-service to the heroic past, another to engage in heroics. The result was Julian’s fatal march into Mesopotamia and Valens’ rendezvous with destiny at Adrianople.

As he marches through ancient military history, Lendon offers nuggets of military wisdom. For example, he quotes Aemilius Paullus, the Roman victor of the battle of Pydna (167 B.C.), saying that a good general does not fight a pitched battle unless it is absolutely necessary or an absolutely sure path to victory. Yet his Paullus has a certain air about him of George McClellan, the Union general who hesitated too long in the American Civil War. We can’t help wondering whether Paullus would have avoided battle entirely at Pydna had his army not forced his hand.

Maps, photos, and line drawings are interspersed throughout the text. A detailed chronology and short glossary are most helpful. Documentation consists of endnotes and a long and detailed chapter-by-chapter bibliographical essay that is as useful as it is impressive. Lendon has done an enormous amount of research, but he knows how to wear his learning lightly. His practice of reserving most scholarly arguments for these sections makes the text of the book all the more readable. It is on that text and its theses that most readers will judge Soldiers and Ghosts.

Does the text convince? Is Lendon right? This reader would prefer a multifaceted analysis to Lendon’s more or less monocausal explanation; that is, an analysis that balances political, social, and even technological influences with cultural ones. After all, iron weapons, triremes, catapults, Macedonian pikes, Spanish swords, long, convex Roman shields: all were improvements in technology. Greek and Roman warfare did not develop in a vacuum, and change more often came from the shock of foreign influences than this book allows. And speaking of culture, what of the influence on tactics of such Greek ideals as concord, freedom, and equality or such Roman ones as status or friendship? Never mind. By writing a clever, comprehensive, thesis-driven, well-documented, smartly written and very readable book, Lendon has taken a giant step in encouraging debate about the evolution of ancient battle.