BMCR 2010.12.64

New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare. History of Warfare, 59

, , New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare. History of Warfare, 59. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. xiii, 372; 19 p. of plates. ISBN 9789004185982 $199.00.


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This volume, which forms volume 59 in the Brill series “History of Warfare,” has its origins in a 2007 AIA/APA conference panel, which provided 6 of the 10 chapters (the editors’, plus Krentz, Potter, Rosenstein, and van Wees). The other four papers (Rey, Archer, Tuplin, and Rawlings) were specially commissioned.

There is much of interest here for those committed to ancient military history. This reader felt that individual papers within the volume achieved the volume’s aim “to synthesize, discuss, and unravel many of the debates outlined in the introduction” (19), but that the volume as a whole did not, since most of the papers did not address those debates. The introduction reviews previous literature, broadly conceived, including literature described elsewhere as “not academic history-writing, but the collection and study of military hardware as an object of interest in its own right” (102). Such a review is useful for students, but it would have been even more useful had it tried harder to relate the papers published here to those debates. The volume papers are collectively described as a cross-section of ongoing work, which employ different methods and materials; this diversity is presented as reflecting the vibrancy of ancient military studies (17, 19). The provision of full bibliographic details in the footnotes to each chapter, although many of the items appear repeatedly in the volume and in its consolidated bibliography, suggests that the chapters are intended to stand alone and have lives as independent documents, which again is very useful for students. There is no conclusion to the volume, which with the foregoing combines to give the impression that the book is a smorgasbord of scholarship that happens to be bound together, more like a regular issue of a journal than a book. If the papers have something in common, it is that most of them are focussed on matters that are normally “given shorter shrift in the standard works” (17).

Rey writes on ‘Weapons, Technological Determinism, and Ancient Warfare’ (21-56). His argument is that more attention should be paid to a raft of factors besides arms and armour, especially to the role of people, in all their wondrous diversity and idiosyncrasy, in explanations for success or failure on the battlefield. Technological determinism has a vibrant and diverse literature that could but is not used to strengthen and deepen the arguments here, from Schumpeter’s 1934 reflections on how innovations impact on business, through White’s 1962 stirrup that (as over-simplified in the epitomising) ‘caused’ feudal society, to Wyatt’s 2007 overview and contemporary debates about the social consequences of e.g. social networking sites or ‘the digital divide’.1 Arguments are now nuanced and sophisticated, and they have shown in particular that what we need to focus on is constellations of producers, technologies and users who impact on each other, not in a simple linear fashion but in feedback loops, so that to set up people and things in opposition is a rather old-fashioned approach to the issues.

Archer writes on chariots and cavalry in the first millennium (57-79), and argues that this is a story not of the supersession of one technology over another, but of the evolution of one from the other. The chariot was a mobile archery platform; cavalry developed as a modification of it for use in unsuitable rough terrain (i.e. it represents the same pairing of horses and riders, but the vehicle was left behind). Then as riding skills improved, horsemen came to act independently, as true cavalry. Chariots and cavalry performed the same sort of functions in battle, such as flanking and pursuit formations supporting infantry. Note in reference to the argument made on page 71, that the paired cavalry archers referred to by Archer, where one holds the reins while the other shoots, are illustrated in Fagan’s figure 3 at the back of the volume.

Fagan argues that there were standard Assyrian battle tactics (81-100). He describes and generously illustrates (17 figures) an Assyrian military machine that was multifaceted and flexible. The British Museum recently put online many first class images of some of the items in its collections, including some Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian siege scenes, here.

Tuplin writes by far the longest chapter of the book, on Achaemenid cavalry (101-182). Some of this is spent introducing the reader to many and various sources of evidence that are likely to be unfamiliar to a typical classicist, and which are here exploited in addition to the familiar Greek and Roman sources. It is a pity this chapter is not illustrated, because some of the material evidence cited is likely to be just as difficult of access as it is unfamiliar. After a comprehensive examination and exploration of what appear to be all the options, Tuplin concludes that we must not overestimate or privilege the place or function of cavalry in the Persian army. Tuplin is very cautious in these choppy waters, probably wisely in most cases, although his scepticism about iconographic depictions of gear that literary sources assert was made of cloth (125) may be misplaced. Flax is tough, and experimental archaeologists have shown that layers of linen glued together make good armour.2

Krentz argues, via discussion of the iconography of a red-figured cup by Douris (Beazley archive db number 205260, now in Baltimore), for a running charge as described by Herodotos (6.112) at the battle of Marathon (183-204). En route he offers a new and much lower estimate of the weight of arms carried by the average hoplite (21 kg or 45 lbs max., 196). This is also an important argument of Krentz’s 2010 book, cf. BMCR 2010.11.02. This reader was persuaded by the detailed and well supported argument.

Van Wees brings to scholarly attention an inscription neglected since its discovery in 1912 (205-226). This records a decision of the Eretrians c. 525 BC to require everyone to contribute to wages for those sailing beyond local waters. He argues that publicly funded navies were better developed, at an earlier period than Thucydides would have us believe.

Trundle explores the monetization of Aegean warfare, especially of the Athenian war machine, especially of the navy (227-252). He argues that monetization allowed for larger, more diverse forces, and fostered longer, more vicious campaigns. This continues and develops his work of 2004.3

Rawlings’ subject is the Carthaginian navy, especially in its role as an expression of the Carthaginian cultural and military outlook, and as a tool for the expansion and maintenance of Carthaginian power (253-287).

Rosenstein navigates the muddy waters of early Roman history (289-303) to reconsider the traditional tale of the development of the manipular army. As with any discussion of this period, much is speculation and rationalisation, based on the author’s presuppositions about society in that time and place and the way things generally work, things in this case being men with arms. He has been thinking about the Roman military for over two decades, so he has a very solid historical basis on which to speculate, but the implicit theorising could have been shaped and strengthened by acquaintance with an explicit discussion and example such as that provided by Bijker 1995.4

Potter’s chapter on Caesar’s campaign against the Helvetians closes the volume (306-329). His interest is particularly in the introduction of cohorts, and more generally in the changes in Roman army structure and tactics that had been taking place during the century up to the time when Caesar commanded cohorts in battle. His argument challenges several orthodoxies and makes a persuasive case for revision, for example in recognising the significance of the regional nature of legion recruitment after the Social war (rather than the ‘lower class’ nature of it after the Marian reforms), and the varied (rather than uniform) fighting styles simultaneously adopted by different Roman armies campaigning under different leaders against different enemies.

References are not always consistently or accurately cited (e.g. Battle in Antiquity is cited correctly as edited by Lloyd on 44 n. 56, but wrongly as edited by Lloyd and Gilliver on 84, n. 10 and elsewhere).


1. Schumpeter, J. A. (1934) The theory of economic development London; White, L. Jr. (1962) Medieval technology and social change Oxford; Wyatt, S. (2007) ‘Technological determinism is dead; long live technological determinism’ in Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch and Wajcman (edd) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies 3 rd ed. Cambridge Mass., 165-180.

2. Aldrete, G.S. and Bartell, S. (2010).

3. Trundle, M. (2004) Greek mercenaries London.

4. Bijker, W.E. (1995) ‘Sociohistorical Technology Studies’ in Jasanoff, Markle, Petersen and Pinch (edd) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies 2 nd ed. London, 229-256.