BMCR 2020.02.25

Battles and Battlefields of Ancient Greece. A Guide to their History, Topography and Archaeology

C. Jacob Butera, Matthew A. Sears, Battles and Battlefields of Ancient Greece. A Guide to their History, Topography and Archaeology. London: Sword, 2019. 385. ISBN 9781783831869 £24.00.

At first glance the book under review may appear to be just another scholarly celebration of the ancient historiography of Greek and Roman warfare, supplemented by a healthy dose of modern topographic study, eruditely written by two academically-trained classicists and ancient historians.1 That impression, however, does not do this book justice. In reality, the work offers fresh perspectives on the materiality of warfare by focusing on the topography of ancient battles — that is, on the battlefields themselves. Importantly, it also values and promotes personal interaction with ancient landscapes. The authors explicitly state in the Preface and Acknowledgments that “this is a book designed for the traveler to Greece” (p. vii), and one that encourages readers to visit the places themselves. Framing itself within the genre of practical travel guides, the book diverges significantly from any compendium of ancient battles arranged in chronological order.

The book’s structure is well suited to fulfilling the aims stated at the outset. Each chapter is devoted to a particular battle, featuring short descriptions of the site, historical outlines of battles, topographical notes on battle sites, and informative lists of ancient and modern sources at the end. For obvious reasons the authors’ narratives favor land battles (18 are described) as opposed to sea battles (only four: Salamis, Artemisium, Naupactus and Actium), which contributes to the decision to arrange the 22 battles first by region and then by date. 2 The introductory chapter “Ancient Greek and Roman Warfare” (pp. ix-xxiv) provides basic historical background without unnecessary details, which makes the battle chapters easier to follow. In effect, the scope of the book inevitably directs the modern traveler to close encounters with the ultimate expression of Greek hoplite warfare: the pitched battle. A heavy emphasis falls on the achievements of the Greek phalanx of the Classical period in the context of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, the Corinthian War, the Theban-Spartan War, and the clash with Philip II of Macedon, while the arrival of the Roman legions in Greece is examined through six decisive battles (Cynoscephale, Pydna, Chaeronea [86 BCE], Pharsalus, Philippi and Actium).

Butera and Sears rely primarily on Greek and Roman historiographical tradition for their brilliant descriptions, seamlessly intertwined with personal autopsy. The backbone of battle narratives is built on information from Greek and Roman authors, while only one inscription is cited as a primary source, the so-called ‘Themistocles Decree’ (p. 32).3 The text is aided beautifully by the 47 color photographs taken by the authors themselves during their visits to the battle sites. Thus they have followed closely the topography-based approach to the study of ancient warfare utilized by military historians like Johannes Kromayer and W. Kendrick Pritchett. For secondary sources it is obvious that the authors lean heavily on scholarship published in English, whereas the handful of cited titles in Greek, French, German and Italian concern exclusively the Roman expansion in Greece, e.g. the battles of Cynoscephalae, Pydna, Pharsalus, Philippi and Actium (pp. 220, 243, 262-263, 281-282, 378-379).

The graphic representation of battle tactics and troop movements, drawn attractively upon satellite photos from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), will be of immense help for any traveler trying to make sense of a battle site on the field. The result is well worth the effort on the part of the authors who, quite understandably, have assigned to these illustrations a prominent position in each chapter.4 These visual aids of the narrative can be further appreciated when one realizes that only in five cases — the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Leuktra and Chaeronea (in both 338 BCE and 86 BCE) — do we possess the luxury of having prominent topographical features like burial mounds and trophies erected in the aftermath, which can serve as more reliable markers when positioning oneself within an ancient battlefield. In most cases, travelers are at the authors’ mercy, having to rely on battle site descriptions, color photographs and GPS coordinates in the attempt to get their bearings in the countryside.

The authors should be praised for the idea to include archaeology in the subtitle of their book. On at least a few occasions, such as the battles of Amphipolis (pp. 191-199), Chaeronea (338 and 86 BCE [pp. 173-177]) and Actium (pp. 374-377), one comes across substantial references to archaeological evidence in support of the history-laden narratives. The authors are not to blame for this imbalance. Battlefield archaeology as such is not practiced in Greece, and the exceptional case of the capture of Olynthus by Philip II of Macedon in 348 BCE, on the basis of which John W. I. Lee developed the concept of ancient urban combat5, has to do with the aftermath of city sieges, not pitched battles. Nevertheless, archaeology, unlike history, brings out the physicality of ancient warfare before the eyes of a modern visitor, regardless of whether one is looking at shattered bones (Chaeronea, 338 BCE) or a victory trophy carrying original writing from the time of the battle (Chaeronea, 86 BCE). Further opportunities, cited by Butera and Sears, for acquiring fresh insights into the study of ancient battlefields are the geomorphological and photogrammetric prospections carried out in the vicinity of Pydna (pp. 240-241) and Philippi. Albeit few in number, and in the case of Philippi with inconclusive results (p. 282), such approaches are likely to enrich scholarly discourses about decisive battles that are traditionally dominated by written sources and topographic considerations. In several cases the archaeological bent of the historical narratives could have been stronger if more artifactual evidence was drawn into discussion.6

Apart from the introductory chapter, where six illustrations have been reproduced, throughout the book photographs of archaeological artifacts are scarce. The three exceptions include the Spartan hoplite shield captured by the Athenians during the battle of Pylos, now on display at the Agora Museum in Athens; the so-called “Ossuary of Brasidas” at the Archaeological Museum in Amphipolis; and the sculptural reliefs of the Aemilius Paullus Monument at Delphi (pp. 197-198, 238, 301, 313).7 This fact may be attributed both to the authors’ aim to stay more focused on experiencing topography as opposed to examining monuments or militaria in museums and to a restriction on the part of the publisher intended to reduce production costs.

The publisher has done an excellent job with the production of the book. Maps, satellite photos and photographs are of superb quality, which contributes greatly to its usefulness. The editing is perfect, and so is the typography. The guide is a must for military buffs and eager travelers, who should make it a necessary part of their travel kit when roaming the battlefields of ancient Greece, although the hard binding and the high-quality paper on which the book is printed make it a bit heavy to carry around. Because of its accessible writing style and a short index at the end, the guide will be equally useful for undergraduates, teachers and the general public. The annotated citations of ancient texts and modern studies accompanying each chapter is suitable for acquiring deeper knowledge, as well as for undertaking scholarly pursuits in the field of ancient warfare.


1. The steady flow of books on ancient battles supported by the Pen & Sword Military demonstrates their continuing interest in Greek and Roman warfare. E.g. Pietrykowski, J. Great Battles of the Hellenistic World. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books (2012); Taylor, D. Roman Republic at War: A Compendium of Roman Battles from 498 to 31 BC. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military (2017).

2. On the back of the book jacket it is stated incorrectly that the book “covers 20 battles”.

3. Perhaps an oversight has caused the omission of a full citation of the book (cited simply as ML 23) where the inscription has been edited: R. Meiggs and D. M. Lewis (eds.) A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC. Oxford University Press (1969; revised edition 1988).

4. One assumes that all graphic renditions superimposed on the satellite imagery have been prepared by the authors, since nowhere in the book is there an explicit statement to the contrary.

5. Lee, J. W. I. “Urban Combat at Olynthus, 348 BC”. In: Ph. Freeman and A. Pollard (eds.) Fields of Conflict: Progress and Prospect in Battlefield Archaeology (BAR International Series 958). Oxford: Archaeopress (2001), 11-22. Lee, J. W. I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek world”. In: Hanson, V. (ed.) Makers of Ancient Strategy. Princeton University Press (2010), 138-157.

6. For example, the work of Goette, H. R. and Weber, T. M. Marathon. Siedlungskammer und Schlachtfeld – Sommerfrische und Olympische Wettkampfstätte Verlag Philipp von Zabern (2004), 78-94, contains a useful presentation of data devoted to burial of the dead and the commemoration of the battle acquired through archaeological excavations at Marathon. Similarly, Kosmidou, E. and Malamidou, D. “Arms and Armour from Amphipolis, Northern Greece. Plotting the Military Life of an Ancient City.” Anodos. Studies of the Ancient World 4-5/2004-2005, Trnava (2006), 133-147 has further bearings on the archaeology of battles near Amphipolis. Völling, Th. “Römische Militaría in Griechenland: ein Überblick.” In: M. Feugère (ed.) L’équipement militaire et l’armement de la République. Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 8 (1997) 91-103 presents valuable data on the military equipment of Roman legions during the Late Republic found on various sites and sanctuaries. Occasional reference to the book by Holger Baitinger Waffenweihungen in griechischen Heiligtümern. Monographien des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums 94 Mainz (2011) may have augmented the traveler’s experience of a battle site by directing their attention to military booty, examples of which can be seen in Greek museums.

7. Curiously, the color reproduction of the fallen warrior from the East pediment of the Late Archaic temple of Aphaia, featured prominently on the book jacket, is uncredited.