BMCR 2018.11.48

Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History. Mnemosyne, supplements, 409

, Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History. Mnemosyne, supplements, 409. Leiden: Brill, 2017. vi, 261. ISBN 9789004355361 €104,00.


In Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History, Roel Konijnendijk scrutinizes the literary evidence for Greek hoplite tactics during the 5 th and 4 th centuries BC. The author re-assesses the views of Greek warfare as conceived by modern scholars, rejects the traditional ideas of limited warfare, ritualized battles, and argues that the sources do not support these theories. The book is organized into six topical chapters. Chapter 1 examines the traditional theories of Greek warfare as conceived by 19 th century Prussian scholars. Chapter 2 reviews the topic of training and militia hoplites. Chapter 3 addresses the typical choices of battlefields. Chapter 4 examines traditional orders of battles in Greek warfare. Chapter 5 focuses on the battle tactics of Greek commanders. Chapter 6 concludes with a discussion of the aftermath of Greek battles and the results of defeat.

In the first chapter, “The Prussian Model of Hoplite Battle”, Konijnendijk provides a general summary of the historiography of ancient Greek warfare beginning with the interpretations of 19 th century Prussian scholars including Rüstow, Köchly, Kromayer, Veith, Delbrück, and others. In short, Konijnendijk summarizes their approach to classical Greek warfare as “…a ritual process, in which armies consisting nearly exclusively of heavy infantry met at a prearranged time in an open plain. This school argues that Greek battle lines were always arrayed in eight ranks, with the general on the right hand post of honor. Light infantry and cavalry played no role in the fight.” (37-8). This model is accepted as the norm for classical Greek warfare until the battle of Leuktra in 371 BC and the new tactics devised by Epaminondas. Konijnendijk makes the argument that the primary sources do not support this traditional view of Greek warfare.

In chapter 2, “Improvisers in Soldiering: Training for War”, the author begins his evaluation of Greek warfare with an examination of military training during the classical period. Konijnendijk reached the convincing conclusion that, with the exception of Sparta, Greek armies were composed of untrained militias, many of whom had an aversion to any sort of military training. (42). He also contends that misconceptions of Greek warfare are largely due to the fact that, before the early 4 th century, there are no military treatises and that earlier writers such as Herodotus and Thucydides only provided brief accounts of battlefield tactics. Using the early 4 th century works of Xenophon’s essays on Greek cavalry and Spartan military customs, his Kyroupaideia, Plato, and Aineias the Tactician, Konijnendijk makes the very convincing argument that Greek amateurism in military matters impacted Greek warfare and tactics.

The author proceeds with a systematic study of the various phases of battles in chapter 3, “The Finest, Flattest Piece of Land: Where to Fight”. This chapter questions the traditional view that battles were prearranged affairs that took place on open flat battlefields and that Greek commanders did not seek any sort of terrain advantages and often agreed to meet at a designated time to settle affairs. To support his argument that this was not the practice of Greek warfare, Konijnendijk provides in a chart on pages 88-9 a summary of the documented battles that took place during the classical period. This chart provides the sources which describe the battles, their dates and locations, as well as the trickery or deceit that occurred in each of these conflicts. On the basis of his assessment of the battles that were documented by ancient sources, Konijnendijk argues, “…we find that about two thirds of them were affected by attempts to deceive, surprise, or gain a terrain advantage”. (88). He also contends that Greek commanders were not compelled to follow any sort of rituals regarding the time and place and that they sought advantages whenever they could. The convention of meeting on an open plain only occurred when both contestants were confident of victory (91).

In chapter 4, “Deployed to Fit the Need: Forming up for Battle”, the author reviews the traditional view of Greek warfare and the emphasis on hoplites and phalanx clashes which are the focus of most ancient sources. Considering the rough nature of the terrain that is most typical of Greece, some scholars (Krentz, Van Wees, Patricia Hannah, Rawlings, Echeverria) have recognized that other troop types, such as light armed troops and cavalry, were also involved in classical warfare (96). Konijnendijk provides an excellent summary of the ancient sources that give reasonably detailed accounts of classical battles to reconstruct the deployment of the different troop types in these battles. While all of the ancient accounts (Thucydides and Xenophon) primarily focus on the role of hoplites, there are references to light-armed troops in many of these accounts. These sources also refer to cavalry operations, but they are often relegated to a secondary role in the sources. The second half of this chapter addresses the physical organization of hoplite phalanxes including the placement of troops within the formation as well as the depth of phalanxes. (116-138). Traditional scholarship always placed the “best” troops on the right-hand side, or post of honor; however, a thorough examination of the sources does not bear this practice out. Konijnendijk challenges this view and the outcomes of his investigation are summarized in table 3. This table provides a list of which segments of the phalanxes were considered the post of honor in over 20 battles (121-2). The results show that the right end of the phalanx was not the preferred post of honor in more than 50% of the documented accounts. The author also challenges the traditional view that hoplite formations were arrayed in a set number of ranks, such as 8, 12, or 16. Keeping in mind the point that there were no permanent units in most classical Greek armies (Sparta may be the exception), Konijnendijk evaluates the accounts of documented battles and provides a summary of the formation depths in table 5, which disputes the tradition of multiples of 8 ranks as the normal depth of hoplite formations (137).

In chapter 5, “Utterly Outmatched in Skill: Battle Tactics”, Konijnendijk disputes the notion that ancient Greek battle tactics were primitive and that phalanxes did nothing more than march straight ahead once they were drawn up for battle. The author also suggests that the previous two chapters indicate that Greek commanders did seek advantages over their enemies to maximize their success and that the deployment of contingents within a phalanx was the foundation of Greek battle tactics. He posits that the deployment of the individual contingents within the phalanx was the framework of Greek tactical thought, because of the limitations that commanders encountered including inadequate means of transmitting orders, the physical size of phalanxes, untrained soldiers, and the tradition of Greek commanders fighting in the front ranks (139-142). These limitations support the traditional theories that such formations were not able to modify or change their tactics once they were in motion, but the sources reviewed by the author from the late 5 th and early 4 th centuries challenge this notion. What is most notable is that in the documented cases where Greek commanders were able to change orders for their troops during a conflict, only “trained” soldiers such as the Spartans, Thebans, or elite troops accomplished this. There are 14 documented examples of this provided in Table 6 (149). On the basis of his examination of the sources available, Konijnendijk concluded that untrained Greek armies (the majority) were not able to modify tactics during a battle but that those armies who were, “…trained, well organized, or under the general’s immediate control”, enjoyed some tactical flexibility (150). The initial success of Sparta in the 5 th century was largely due to their ability to control their entire formation of trained soldiers while the practice of organizing units of elite troops provided some tactical flexibility to Greek city-states who otherwise retained largely untrained militias.

Konijnendijk examines the factors that contributed to defeat or success in chapter 6, “No Shortage of People to Kill: The Rout and Its Aftermath”. His assessment of the sources, which document the turning points in classical Greek battles, suggests that the rout of a phalanx was a gradual process in which group psychology led to defeat or success and was impossible to predict (188). The rout of a phalanx was the bloodiest phase of Greek warfare despite the traditional view that Greeks did not pursue their defeated enemies. (According to Konijnendijk, this theory is grounded upon one passage regarding Spartan practice in Thucydides 5.73.4). However, the author’s analysis of over 50 Greek battles indicates that it was the absence of pursuit that was unusual and therefore necessary for the ancient sources to explain (191). The results of these battles are listed in table 7, which indicate that out of over 50 battles, only 6 resulted in limited pursuit of defeated enemy phalanxes. The rout was the bloodiest phase of classical Greek warfare according to Konijnendijk, because fleeing hoplites were not capable of protecting themselves since they often discarded shields and armor in their attempt to escape and their formations disintegrated. Similarly, victorious hoplites were just as ill-suited to the pursuit of their enemies, which also contributed to the disintegration of hoplites who were pursuing vanquished foes as well. Konijnendijk contends that this phase of Greek warfare was so bloody because light-armed troops and cavalry were employed in the pursuit of fleeing hoplites to ensure that they were not able to reform (199-200). The author also argues that the amateur nature of Greek hoplites made them difficult to control, which contributed to their participation in the pursuit of their fleeing enemies, and this contributed to the destructive nature of Greek warfare.

In this work Konijnendijk provides a much-needed reevaluation of the traditional views of classical Greek warfare. Relying upon the accounts of classical Greek warfare, he provides a very persuasive rejection of the traditional views that suggested that Greek warfare was bound by rules and conventions and, therefore, was limited in scope and scale. Through a close analysis of the Greek battles that are documented in ancient sources, Konijnendijk also makes the convincing argument that because of the largely untrained militia who served in the phalanx and their limited tactical flexibility, classical Greek commanders sought any advantages that they could to defeat their enemies, including the pursuit and slaughter of fleeing troops. Konijnendijk’s monograph should be included in any future studies of classical Greek warfare and culture.