Leonhard Burckhardt’s (henceforth B) Militärgeschichte der Antike is a clearly written, concise introduction to military history in the classical world, which is intended for an audience that has little if any prior knowledge of the subject. Although it is a small book, it is comprehensive, ranging in date from Iron Age Greece (c 9th/8th BC) to Late Antiquity (3rd/4th AD). Both literary and archaeological materials are considered as evidence and each chapter contains information about major events that led to changes and developments in the Greek and Roman military. The specific strength of this book is that it is not simply an historical account, but it explains the effects various events had on military development. In particular B succinctly shows how soldiers adapted their tactics, weapons and military organisation to changing circumstances and, conversely, he demonstrates how modifications made in one aspect, such as weaponry, also contributed to transformations in fighting techniques and military ranking. All of the information is given brief attention, and a reader with a wider knowledge of the subject might find this frustrating. Yet, to put this criticism positively, given the intended audience, this brevity cleverly serves the book’s function as an introduction compelling readers who have developed an interest in the subject to carry out further research whilst at the same time providing a solid background for those who simply want a basic understanding of the topic. Thus, it is highly recommended as a general introduction or an undergraduate textbook for those who can read German.
Following the introduction, the book is divided chronologically into twelve chapters. The book’s introduction, Krieg in der Antike (war in the ancient world), is used to explain to the reader how modern perceptions of ancient warfare are colored and, in some cases, misinformed, by both extant literature and the contemporary media. B argues that Homer’s epic poems and the surviving histories that describe the feats of heroic figures, along with film productions such as Gladiator and comics like Asterix, paint exaggerated impressions about omnipresent warfare, military organisation and tactics in the past, even if there is some historical basis to them. Hence, he argues for the need of a more critical awareness of military history, which he not only aims to give his audience, but succeeds in doing.
In the first chapter warfare in Iron Age Greece from the ninth to sixth centuries BC is described. The Iliad is the main source used to depict early military heroes and the types of weapons and fighting employed at the time since there is little archaeological or historical information available from this period. B begins by explaining how the hand-to-hand combat and the harrowing injuries sustained by the soldiers described in the epic helped to form an ideal image of a military hero, whether named or unnamed, and the virtues expected of them, such as bravery. Associated with the image of a brave warrior are their weapons and armour such as the shield, helmet, lance and spear, all of which are described by B in the text. It is made evident that these early depictions of Homeric heroes were important for later Greek and Roman perceptions of military virtues because the acts of bravery were referred to in later classical literature to exemplify how soldiers were expected to perform in the ancient world.
Following on from this, the development of the military in relation to the polis from the sixth to fourth centuries BC is explained in chapter two. B elucidates the fact that there was not a professional army at the time, but solders were citizens who joined together to fight when necessary. Although they were citizen soldiers, military tactics and weaponry advanced in light of both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. With the rise of the phalanx, hoplites attained a more standardised system of fighting in a group rather than relying on hand-to-hand combat. It is also noted that the hoplites’ military equipment was not uniform in design, as so often depicted in modern reproductions.
The Athenian navy in the fifth century is the topic of the third chapter. Discussion is given to explaining how the funds were raised from the mines at Laureion in south Attica in the early fifth century to create a stronger navy, which led to Athenian hegemony over the sea. Along with the construction of the triremes came a new structure of command and ranking system of crew who served on the ships: captain, steering master and rudder master, for example. At the end of the section it is noted that at this time motivational speeches focusing on military virtues are beginning to be used to encourage the soldiers to fight together for victory, which was especially important when the soldiers and navy were not part of a fully professional army.
Up until this point in the book the focus has been on Athens, but in the fourth chapter, B makes it apparent that the military did not form in an identical manner across the Greek city states. Thus attention is given to Sparta and how its elaborate military training system was cultivated. The history of Sparta’s rise to military power is presented, beginning with the aftermath of the battle of Plataea in 479 BC when Sparta took control of the Peloponnesian contingent to help Greece defeat the Persians and concludes with Sparta’s rise against Athens to ultimately defeat them in the Peloponnesian war.
The subject of chapter five is the changes in the military as a result of the Peloponnesian war. Having created a reputation for military discipline, the Spartans were hired as mercenary soldiers, and B uses the account by Xenophon in his Anabasis as an example of this when the Spartans were hired to fight with Cyrus to wage war against his brother Artaxerxes. Following the historical description, details are given about the development of the peltast, a light infantry soldier who carried a crescent shaped shield, and new military equipment, such as the catapult.
In chapter six B notes that with the formation of more specialised and disciplined soldiers, Philip II and Alexander the Great built up a professional army and increased training so that the soldiers would be prepared for extended campaigns to expand their kingdoms. B explains how the use of the sarissa, a four to five meter long lance, under Philip II, was a contributing factor to soldiers attaining greater discipline because the weapon had to be moved in unison. B also shows that the god-like image of the monarch Alexander invented for himself was a further incentive for encouraging the soldiers to support him on his campaigns. Details of Alexander’s campaigns, including the places travelled to, the type of troops and numbers of infantry and cavalry, are presented as well.
Chapter seven centers on the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander. The readers are provided with details about the division of the empire into four main kingdoms and the changes that occurred in the military on account of this split. The cavalry raised for the earlier campaigns was, for the most part, abandoned for economic reasons, though it is observed that elephants were sometimes used. With the rise of the kingdoms came new types of units, such as policing troops in the Ptolemaic city. Defensive walls were built around cities, and in response weapons were created to break through them. Changes in the navy are also recorded with the construction of four- and five-rudder ships.
The next chapter turns to the history of the Roman army. B introduces the subject by dividing the development of the Roman army into five phases: the foundation of the city (c. 400 BC the use of the maniple (fourth to second centuries BC the development of the regular army (second and first centuries BC the standing army (first and second centuries AD and the evolution of the late antique soldiers (third to fifth centuries AD which are covered in the following chapters. He observes that the navy, cavalry and infantry were all formed before Rome became a dominant power. This chapter concludes with a description of military triumphal celebrations, as they were frequently recorded in historical accounts and on relief sculptures throughout the Roman period because of their role in promoting Roman policy and the army.
Chapter nine continues with a history of early Roman warfare with a discussion of the Samnite and Punic wars. Prior to the Samnite wars the Romans fought in a phalanx system, but it did not allow for the manoeuvrability needed in terrain in which the Romans were fighting the Samnites, so they developed the maniple. The maniple was divided into groups by age and experience and was used until the Marian reforms. B also describes the Roman camp layout from this period as discussed by Polybius, which is illustrated in the book; however, the drawing presented in the text is similar in plan to a much later Flavian ‘playing-card’ shaped fortification. Although the sections mentioned by Polybius are pointed out in the plan, the drawing is not a completely accurate representation of early fortifications, which were of various shapes.
The late Roman Republic and the campaigns of Julius Caesar are detailed in chapter ten. Here the military reforms of Marius are discussed because they had a significant bearing on ranking and organisation that would affect later military developments. The greatest change was the move away from the maniple to the formation of cohorts. From this point every legion consisted of ten cohorts of roughly 480 men each.
Following the death of Julius Caesar and after a number of battles, Octavian ultimately became the first emperor of Rome. As emperor, Augustus intended to expand the empire and to do this he required a large army that was formed of both legionary and auxiliary units. In this penultimate chapter, B explains the conditions of service and recruitment for both of these units. He also notes the development of the frontiers and the advances made by different emperors throughout the first two hundred years of the empire.
The final chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the crisis in the third century when the power struggles between the soldier emperors created deep factions in the army that ultimately could only be resolved by a complete reorganisation of the military with the reforms of Diocletian. The insurgences along the borders and changes to smaller more defensive fortifications are also discussed. The transformations described in this section lasted until the western empire was overtaken in AD 476.
The book concludes with a helpful list of up-to-date, recommended reading. Overall this work provides a thorough foundation for anyone’s foray into the subject.