BMCR 2020.04.55

Combined arms warfare in ancient Greece: from Homer to Alexander the Great and his successors

, Combined arms warfare in ancient Greece: from Homer to Alexander the Great and his successors. Routledge monographs in classical studies . London: Routledge, 2019. 248 p.. ISBN 9781138574595 $140.00.


To any who would argue that there is nothing new to be added to the study of battles and the general mechanics of war in the Greek world: see Graham Wrightson’s new book, a revised version of his Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Calgary.[1] Wrightson argues that by looking at the concept of combined arms (a modern term with rich ancient application and meaning, as Wrightson asserts, pp. 4-9), we can gain a better understanding of innovations and the overall progression in the history of Greek land forces from Homer to the age of Alexander and his successors. Far from being lone hoplite armies dueling it out on the battlefield, Wrightson notes, these forces included at times such other types of troops as cavalry or slingers or (perennial student favorites) war elephants on a large scale, even while their contributions never received as much credit in antiquity as the main land armies.  These non-hoplite troops were not just extras on the battlefield, but came to be as highly regarded and as heavily relied upon as the hoplite forces, creating a well-integrated trifecta of infantry-cavalry-missile troops.

After a two-chapter methodological introduction, which helpfully explains the terminology and the different types of armed forces to be considered, the book proceeds chronologically. There are three main sections with three chapters in each. Each chapter begins with an overview of the sources on the topic, then considers the types of military units in the armies under discussion—always some type of infantry and cavalry, but also various other missile troops, as relevant. Each chapter concludes with a consideration of evidence for combined-arms warfare in the armies of the period under consideration, including specific battles or campaigns as key studies.

The first section, “The hoplite revolution in Greece,” covers the period from Homer to the Persian Wars, although this period did not feature any substantial use of combined arms. In his analysis of Homeric warfare, Wrightson argues that while it features a variety of fighting men—both infantry and cavalry and archers, to name a few—there is no evidence for any use of intentional combined arms in Homer. In fact, there is no evidence even of the recognition of different military units as distinct, as the same warrior could fight as an infantryman at one point and an archer at another. The introduction of the hoplite changed this to some extent, but overall, the argument here is for very little difference between Homeric warfare and pre-Persian Wars Greek hoplite warfare: “The principal difference is that light infantry in Archaic Greece were unarmoured in contrast to the heavily armoured hoplite, likely because of cost. Hoplites still made use of throwing spears but rarely used bows, as the heavily armoured heroes did in Homer. Archers and slingers, and later javelin men, gradually became a visibly distinct group of infantry although they were not tactically separated. This lack of tactical separation of units in Archaic Greece precludes the existence of combined arms warfare” (63).

The first section of the book concludes with a consideration of the different composition and fighting styles of the Persian and Greek armies during the Persian Wars. Wrightson argues that the Persian army, while using a broad variety of fighting units, was unable to achieve combined-arms warfare, which reduced its overall efficiency. By contrast, the Greek city-states, although relying nearly exclusively on heavy infantry, proved superior to the Persian forces during both invasions, simply because “The Persians lacked a reliable heavy infantry force and were unable to adapt their battle plans to make adequate use of their many resources and troop types” (92). In other wars, the Greeks’ lack of a combined-arms approach was not a hindrance, because the hoplite armies proved capable of fighting any of the various troops the Persians fielded.

The book’s second section, “The implementation of combined arms in Greek warfare” covers the period from the Peloponnesian War to the Theban hegemony. While the Greek city-states’ successes in the Persian Wars initially discouraged subsequent innovation, Wrightson sees small steps in the direction of adopting combined arms as early as the Battle of Megara (458 BCE) and Spartolus (429 BCE), where Chalcidaean light infantry used guerrilla tactics to defeat the Athenian hoplite army. Even more poignant was the Sphacteria episode (425 BCE), in which the Athenian missile troops shocked the Greek world by defeating and capturing a Spartan hoplite army. Wrightson notes, however, the resistance to innovation that occurred in Athens following both Spartolus and Sphacteria. Athenian lack of innovative thinking is blamed also for the disastrous end of the Sicilian Expedition, where the Sicilian combined-arms forces defeated the Athenians, who were still relying largely on hoplite forces. Following the Peloponnesian War, Wrightson sees a rise in the use of something resembling combined-arms warfare by Greek forces—mainly a combination of hoplites, light infantry (e.g., peltasts, whose development gets heavy coverage in Chapter 5), and cavalry—but remarkably, only against non-Greeks. Finally, the very brief final chapter in the second section, which could have been rolled into the previous chapter, considers the Theban hegemony’s rise to military prominence through the inclusion of heavy cavalry—another step in the direction of combined arms.

The book’s third and final section, “Macedon and integrated warfare” begins with the reforms of Philip II and concludes with the Battle of Ipsus (301 BCE). This is the moment that the reader has been waiting for, as Philip II’s army was “the first in the Greek world to make full use of combined arms in every battle regardless of terrain” (161). Specifically, “In adding a dependable heavy infantry phalanx to Macedon’s previous reliance on numerous light infantry and a strong force of heavy cavalry Philip created a truly combined arms army. This was the first of its kind in Greece to make best use of the three basic types of unit, four if you count light and heavy cavalry separately as we should” (169). Alexander is credited with perfecting the use and leadership of this combined-arms army, often using it to defeat significantly larger armies, e.g., at Gaugamela (331 BCE). The final chronological chapter briefly considers Alexander’s successors, and looks in detail at the one remaining type of fighting that was not in use in the Greek world before then—combat elephants. Wrightson concludes that “Elephants briefly transformed warfare in the Hellenistic world, but it took time for generals to understand how best to make use of the animals and to overcome their deficiencies, an integral part of the theory of combined arms” (212).

Wrightson’s overarching argument about the gradual progression in the incorporation of combined arms into Greek warfare is original, but not without problems. First, the first two parts of the book identify little or no evidence for combined warfare. Thus the chronological narrative in these two parts contains little that is new and reads at times almost like a textbook survey. The book would more usefully have focused on the period of Philip, Alexander, and the Successors, with a much briefer overview of the earlier history of Greek warfare. Instead, as things stand, the final third of the book, which is meant to be the “meat” of the project, seems too condensed.

Second, there is no consideration of one of the most important innovations in Greek warfare in the fourth century: the rise of the catapult, and the concomitant greater efficacy (and deadliness) of siege warfare. Indeed, the book mentions but three sieges (four, if we include Troy).

Finally, the book has a weakness generally shared by most “traditional” narrative military histories: there is no consideration of the cultural norms that constrained innovation in Greek warfare, and which explain, therefore, the slow and very gradual process that Wrightson outlines. J. E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts, for instance, showed that because of cultural ideals of honor and Homeric warrior mentality, armies in Late Antiquity were not drastically different in some ways from those in the Homeric epics.[2] Furthermore, scholarship on Classical Greek laws or rules of war abounds, and addresses such issues as the incorporation of non-hoplites into hoplite warfare.[3] Last but not least, Adrienne Mayor’s work on biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world has shown that certain types of weapons in the ancient world could be as ethically fraught in antiquity as today.[4]

Nonetheless, Wrightson has written an engaging book, which would make an accessible general introduction to Greek land warfare for both college students and the general public, if only it were more affordable. The price of Routledge hardbacks is prohibitive for classroom or casual use, but there is always hope for a paperback!

[The reviewer humbly apologizes for the delay in submitting this review.]


[1] The academic study of ancient military history over the past two decades has largely been looking “beyond the battlefields (to use the title of one edited volume on the topic as an example—Edward Bragg, Lisa Hau, and Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis eds., Beyond the Battlefields: New Perspectives on Warfare and Society in the Graeco-Roman World, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). That said, popular publications providing more traditional narrative military histories are flourishing, indicating a healthy interest on the part of the general public in reading such studies. But this latter category of publications on military history, unlike the former, does not always aim to engage with academic audiences, although it sometimes still presents innovative approaches—e.g., the recent works of Adrian Goldsworthy, Barry Strauss, and (at an even more popular level) the podcasts and podcast-based books of Mike Duncan.

[2] J. E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

[3] In addition to the Ober-Krentz debate on laws of war, which Wrightson cites, there is the work of Adriaan Lanni, which argues for religiously-motivated laws of war in Classical Greece: Adriaan Lanni, “The Laws of War in Ancient Greece,” Law and History Review 26 (2008), 469-489.

[4] Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (New York, NY: Overlook Trade Press, 2008).