BMCR 2007.02.33

The Eye of Command

, The eye of command. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. viii, 271 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472115219. $24.95.

Kimberley Kagan (K. hereafter) is no longer a dedicated classicist, though she displays a very sound command of the classicist’s tools, be they linguistic, analytical or theoretical. In view of this, it is revealing to read a monograph on aspects of ancient military history by a historian with a broad interest in warfare. Indeed, K. lectured at the United States Military Academy between 2000 and 2005 before taking up a position in International Affairs, History and the Humanities at Yale. In essence, K.’s volume constitutes a re-examination of Sir John Keegan’s now-seminal The Face of Battle.1 This influential 1976 work posited that a firm understanding of battles — at any point in history — may be gained from examining the experiences of soldiers’ accounts of engagements between small units. In short, a thorough familiarity with the dynamics of the face of battle leads to a more informed understanding, or so it is argued, of why any given battle resulted in the way that it did. Yet, in K.’s belief, historians cannot hope to gain a complete mastery of any particular battle solely from this approach. Rather, the historian needs to take into account the view of the commander, and the way in which his view shapes the outcome of a battle.

A brief word on the book’s organization will allow a better understanding of K.’s argument. The book is divided into two parts. The first, entitled “The Face of Battle”, encompasses three chapters, these being “The Face of Battle”, “Eyewitness to Battle: Ammianus on Amida” and “Strasbourg as a Face of Battle Narrative”. The second, entitled “The Eye of Command”, also includes three chapters, these being “The Eye of Command”, “Caesar’s Eye” and “Friction: Caesar and the Battle of Gergovia”. Thus the book juxtaposes Keegan’s approach to military history, which is demonstrated by means of selected battle narratives in Ammianus’ Res Gestae, with K.’s favoured approach, which is exemplified through the military descriptions of Caesar in his Bellum Gallicum. To put it simply, K. uses the two narrative techniques, employed by Ammianus and Caesar respectively, to demonstrate that Caesar’s ‘eye of command’ style enables the reader to gain a much better oversight of what occurred in battle and, what is more important, why it occurred.

More than anything, The Eye of Command represents an extended dialogue with The Face of Battle. Happily for some readers, prior knowledge of the latter work is not assumed, though one might as well add that some knowledge of Keegan’s oeuvre (in addition to that of Clausewitz) would be beneficial to any reader seeking to gain the most from The Eye of Command. Still, all the most pertinent sections of Keegan’s text accompany the argument. Thus K.’s intention is to demonstrate the importance of an ongoing debate on the theory of military history, though I did find her concluding statement that “A historian … can understand much more of a battle’s complexities through the eye of command” (p. 200) to be a little too neat, if not verging towards dogma. The real value of Keegan’s The Face of Battle was that it prompted us to look more closely at small group activity at the coal-face, so to speak, rather than pay unwarranted amounts of attention to élite-centric military narratives that recreate battles as large-scale chess tournaments between those in overall command. As a mid-point between two extremes, K.’s book seeks to demonstrate that the commander, though he may not have a complete understanding of his troops’ responses from a psychological perspective or from the point of view of morale, nevertheless has the minimum amount of awareness needed — evidence for which, according to K., exists in Caesar’s writings on the Gallic War (though Keegan, it seems, would disagree) (p. 181).

Although Keegan’s work did pay some attention to Caesar and his writings, it is somewhat surprising that K. bases her argument in favour of the ‘eye of command’ thesis almost exclusively on the Bellum Gallicum of Julius Caesar, to the general exclusion of other commander-historians. One wonders why the writings of more modern commanders such as Napoleon do not rate much of a mention, let alone those of more contemporary military leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf. On the opposite side of the fence lies Ammianus, a writer who, as stated above, displays a Keegan-style ‘face of battle’ approach (p. 22). In particular, K. cites Ammianus’ descriptions of Strasbourg (A.D. 357) and Amida (A.D. 359) (p. 28), an event in which Ammianus took part. In her discussion of his Amida narrative, K. makes much of the historian’s personal involvement. Ammmianus’ confused description of the attack of Persian heavy cavalry and elephants on the Roman stretched column immediately before Julian’s decease (25.3.2-5) also aligns well with K.’s overall thesis regarding Ammianus’ ability to impart “the perspective of the participants” (p. 28).2 Note, too, K.’s comment that, as a (generally) horse-borne staff officer, Ammianus’ infantry narratives “do not emerge from his own personal combat experience” (p. 29), even though he was close by on these occasions. Yet, if Ammianus can be a ‘face-of-battle’ historian without always participating in the contests that he relates, one wonders why K. does not give much attention to the battle descriptions of an ‘eye of command’ historian — even Caesar — who was absent from some (or all) of the events found in his narrative? Does the eye-of-command historian, then, have to be an eyewitness of sorts, even if some of the events are perceived rather than seen? This is not made especially clear and warrants revisitation.

The reader also gets the feeling that the focus on Ammianus and Caesar may be overly rigid for a monograph with generalist ambitions. There are some cursory references to battles of other eras (e.g., the Somme on p. 50; Agincourt on p. 57), but in-depth comparative analysis is infrequent, except for the exceptionally well-written conclusion (pp. 181-200), which provides a valuable synthesis of the work’s more important points. Indeed, I could not help but wonder whether K.’s work on the Bellum Gallicum could be useful with regard to (re)interpreting the Bellum Civile (another work in which much of the military action takes place away from Caesar’s gaze), or even if it could be used to shed further light on the authorship, and manner of composition, of the three ‘Caesarian’ works dealing with the Spanish, Alexandrian and African wars. Likewise, in what category does an author such as Xenophon, also a soldier-historian, fall? What of Thucydides? And what sort of approach did armchair historians such as Tacitus employ when they dealt with battles in their narratives? Were their accounts infused with material gained from the ‘face of battle’, or did they rely almost exclusively on more detached ‘eye of command’ observations, married to rhetorical topoi? Thus a more broad-ranging approach might have added further interest to those primarily interested in ancient historiography.

The volume’s focus on causality also merits discussion. K. takes pains to point out that, in deference to Keegan’s thesis, that the psychological impact of weapons, death and dying at the face of battle may have some ultimate say in the engagement’s outcome (e.g., p. 17). Yet one might wish to have seen greater emphasis placed on troop morale. To be fair, K. does detail the way in which over-enthusiasm on the part of Caesar’s troops led to failure at Gergovia (52 B.C.) (pp. 169-170 and 174). K. also makes the claim, in her concluding remarks, that Caesar “paid great attention to the morale of his soldiers” (p. 181). This point, however, is not especially well harnessed in the text proper, although the conclusion does shed some welcome light. Troops with poor morale may break if charged, contrary to their commander’s intentions, while those with stronger morale may absorb blows, retaliate in some measure, and regroup, confident that they can master any situation. One need only think of Scipio Africanus’ supremely confident troops at Zama in 202 B.C., for whom roughly eighty Punic elephants, even if most of them never met their intended targets, were no real cause for concern, nor was Hannibal’s third line of seasoned infantry veterans — even when the going got tough.3 Greater consideration of morale, not only during but also before the battle, would have added further depth to K.’s discussion of concepts such as nonlinearity and complexity (perhaps even the microevents or microcauses of chaos theory), the former of which, as she rightly points out, can be used to help with explaining “phenomena that resist accurate mathematical modelling” (p. 100). The same holds true with respect to understanding the results of modern sporting contests, though we need not detain ourselves on this point here. On pp. 116-117, K. lists the various variables that a commander has to take into account before a battle begins, including his “emotional stability”, but the quality and temperament of the troops go unmentioned on several occasions where discussion is arguably warranted. Mutual trust between commander and troops allows a commander to orchestrate a battle with much greater surety in the knowledge that a) complexity is reduced (and, as a consequence, Clausewitzian friction minimized) and b) that there is a greater possibility of predicting cause and effect.

On matters of detail, K. shows herself to be very well informed. Some matters, however, are worth mentioning. For example, on p. 23 (with p. 204, n. 1), K. seems to imply that Ammianus’ work was presented altogether “shortly after the year 390”. K. adduces some of John Matthews’ writings on the topic, even though, for example, Matthews holds that “the history was brought to completion in 390 or 391″ (my italics).4 K. speaks of Ammianus’ description of elephants at Amida, noting that this stems from personal observation (p. 32). This might be so, at least in part, yet it is worthwhile to bear in mind the rhetorical nature of the language that Ammianus employs.5 Indeed, much of his ‘elephant-language’ is a reprise of earlier descriptions, although K. does state that “specific information … frames literary descriptions of combat itself” (p. 32). A dedicated Caesarian scholar might also wish to refine K.’s broad claim that Caesar’s letters to the Senate “may have been the basis for the Commentaries” (p. 110). In addition, classicists may not approve of K.’s decision (or was it that of the publisher?) to steer clear of Latin and Greek in the first half of the book. This generally poses no real problems, though one shudders a little to see statements such as “[Ammianus’] … use of the word entangled is significant” (p. 37). The Latin ( implicatas) is happily found in the notes (p. 208), but why cannot the Latin be juxtaposed with the translation in the text (as it is, for example, on pp. 122-123, 125-126 and 142-145)?6

With respect to format, the volume incorporates five illustrations and a like number of maps. The photographs are all of well-known sculptural pieces. The maps pertain exclusively to Caesar’s campaigning in Gaul — there is not a single diagrammatic representation of Strasbourg to be seen. There are forty pages of endnotes. Many are discursive and thus will not be used by many readers. In any case, a good many (if not far too many) references are merely to textual loci. Again, one wonders why these could not have been placed in the text, especially when most refer to either Ammianus or Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum ? They could have been more usefully placed in the text, although this was probably the publisher’s decision. The bibliography is relatively brief at ten pages, and more representative of relevant scholarship than exhaustive. The same cannot be said about the very detailed index, though one wonders how many readers not familiar with Clausewitz, the physical sciences or game theory will look up themes such as “complexity” (p. 261), “friction” (p. 263) or “nonlinearity” (p. 267).

In sum, K.’s approach makes for a somewhat theoretical exegesis, yet one which, for most readers of BMCR, will still add a substantial amount to their knowledge of Caesar and Ammianus. In particular, K.’s notion that Ammianus describes battles from the perspective of the participant (e.g., Strasbourg) owing to the formative experience of Amida is important (p. 60; p. 66). Of even greater merit is her demonstration that, pace Keegan, the “orders of senior commanders” are not“irrelevant” to a battle’s outcome (p. 11). Some sections of the book, however, may represent somewhat heavy going on account of the discipline-specific constructs employed. The retelling of battles, especially in the Caesarian section, is also a little stolid — perhaps the more analytical approach found in the conclusion might have been warranted elsewhere. Despite these minor grumblings, K.’s book, for the most part, is successful and persuasive, albeit in need of greater focus and synthesis in some sections. Anyone who employs Keegan’s ‘face of battle’ approach in their own historical work should certainly read it. In an era of (hopefully) burgeoning academic interdisciplinarity, this book represents something of a wake-up call to those accustomed to read their Xenophon or Caesar in splendid isolation from contemporary historical, sociological or psychological theory. Indeed, one might very well wonder how many students of Arrian’s Anabasis or Xenophon’s like-named work have read Clausewitz, much less Keegan? I cannot recall being encouraged to do so. K.’s engaging work asks many questions of military history as a discipline. Military scholars of antiquity would do well to take note.


1. J. Keegan The Face of Battle (New York, 1976).

2. See also Amm. Marc. 25.5.2-3. Again, Ammianus articulates his own personal confusion at being surprised by the Persian elephants and cataphracts (heavily-armoured horsemen).

3. On the morale of Scipio’s troops vis-à-vis those of Hannibal, see M. B. Charles and P. Rhodan, “Magister Elephantorum: A Reappraisal of Hannibal’s Use of Elephants”, CW 101 (2007), forthcoming.

4. J. Matthews, “The Origin of Ammianus”, CQ 44 (1994), p. 262, n. 52; see also id., The Roman Empire of Ammianus (London, 1989), 8-9 and 27. For a summary of scholarship on the possibility of the final six books of the Res Gestae being composed (if not presented) together, see chapter 4.3 of M. B. Charles, Vegetius in Context: Establishing the Date of the Epitoma Rei Militaris, Historia Einzelschriften 194 (Stuttgart, 2007), forthcoming. In short, a good many scholars, including Matthews, believe that the Res Gestae appeared in what one might anachronistically term ‘instalments’ (perhaps declaimed in public), especially if Matthews’ views regarding Ep. 1063 of Libanius are taken into account; cf. C. Fornara, “Studies in Ammianus Marcellinus I: The Letter of Libanius and Ammianus’ Connections with Antioch”, Historia 41 (1992), 328-344. The timeframe for publication is thus difficult to determine, though this is obviously not the appropriate forum in which to discuss such a vexatious issue. In any case, it is the terminus ante quem that remains most contentious for students of Ammianus.

5. On this theme, see M. B. Charles, “The Rise of the Sassanian Elephant Corps: Elephants and the Later Roman Empire”, Iranica Antiqua 42 (2007), forthcoming, with P. Rance, “Elephants in Warfare in Late Antiquity”, Acta Ant. Hung 43 (2003), p. 365, with n. 48.

6. A similar approach is found on p. 38, where K. provides a list of eight words from Ammianus in the context of “The intense vocabulary of motion”.