BMCR 2020.05.35

Greek military service in the ancient Near East, 401-330 BCE

, Greek military service in the ancient Near East, 401-330 BCE. . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xxvi, 265 p.. ISBN 9781108499507 $99.99.


The recruitment of Greek soldiers into the armies of the Near East during the fourth century BC has long been attributed to the alleged superiority of the Greek hoplite: armed with superior strategic insight and tactical expertise, Greek soldiers supposedly helped mitigate deficiencies in the Near Eastern armies. This notion—dubbed ‘The Greek Thesis’ by Pierre Briant—originates in ancient literary sources, and has effortlessly found its way into the vast majority of modern scholarship. In this monograph, Jeffrey Rop builds a robust case against The Greek Thesis, showing that the idea of Greek military superiority is unfounded. The volume’s secondary aim is to show that the increased presence of Greeks in the Near Eastern armies during the fourth century should be seen as ‘part of an international system based on political patronage and reciprocity’ (p. 2), within which Greek soldiers acted as political agents seeking to further the interests of their home poleis. Rop therefore reserves a key role for the Near East in his revisionist reading of the complex history of the fourth century, and forcefully argues that the recruitment of Greeks should not be attributed to shortcomings in the armies of the Near East, but acknowledged as a sign of the latter region’s unprecedented influence within Greece.

The first chapter (‘The Greek Thesis’) discusses the origin and development of The Greek Thesis and offers a methodology on how to reconsider its validity. Rop proposes that The Greek Thesis ought to be tested by examining each account of Greek military service in the Near East individually. He does so from a historiographical perspective, arguing that each account makes use of the literary tropes of the ‘Tragic Advisor’ or the ‘Dynamic Subordinate’, exemplified by a Greek whose advice goes foolishly unappreciated, or whose skill and expertise in the face of dramatic obstacles during the campaign ensure the victory. As asserted by Rop, this narrative device allows Greeks to be portrayed as never at fault for defeat, but always responsible for victory, and therefore underlies the success of The Greek Thesis. This literary analysis is fruitfully combined with traditional military history, and Rop continuously evaluates descriptions of the Greeks’ alleged military contributions in light of what would have been sound strategy or tactics. The book’s second line of argument is supported by a discussion of modern scholarship’s view of these Greeks as ‘mercenaries’. Rop convincingly argues that this term should be viewed as an anachronism which misrepresents and obfuscates the nature of these soldiers’ service: for while it is true that these men received wages, throughout the book it is clear that they were not simply available to the highest bidder. Instead, their service was politically motivated, and the Greeks are shown to have aligned themselves with whichever power might best promote their home polis’s interests.

Rop first tests his arguments against the expedition of the Ten Thousand in 401 BC in two ensuing chapters, respectively titled ‘The Battle of Cunaxa’ and ‘Greece and the Rebellion of Cyrus the Younger’. A close literary analysis of the fatal clash between Cyrus’s army and that of the Persian King reveals that the long-revered contribution of the Ten Thousand was in reality a catastrophe in strategy, and that the Greek hoplites’ lack of manoeuvrability in the open plains of Mesopotamia was successfully exploited by their opponent. Accordingly, Rop not only rejects the claimed superiority of the Ten Thousand—who can be said to have endangered the campaign—but also illustrates the strategic insight of Artaxerxes and his Near Eastern generals. This discussion is followed by an inquiry into the reasons why the Greeks were recruited, if their military contribution was meagre; it is here that the historical significance of the rejection of The Greek Thesis becomes manifest. Rop highlights that the Greeks’ loyalty was not ensured through pay, and that Cyrus and the Ten Thousand were instead committed to each other through the formal relationship of xenia. Indeed, the Anabasis introduces many of the Greek commanders as Cyrus’ xenoi—in the sense of guest friends, not mercenaries—who had been offered financial support in aid of their individual ambitions; and so, it is recalled that Cyrus funded Clearchus’ campaign in the Thracian Chersonese, Aristippus’ war in Thessaly, and Proxenus’ manoeuvres in Boiotia. Since these men’s careers were therefore dependent on Cyrus (and indeed on Cyrus’ victory), they were committed to the rebel’s success. In this way, the recruitment of the Ten Thousand does not reflect Greek military superiority, but rather Cyrus’ influence in Greece through his successful leveraging and cultivation of the xenia relationship between himself and competing Greeks. This is a challenging claim, and one that encourages reconsideration of Greek motivations for military service abroad throughout the fourth century.

In Chapter 4 (‘Greeks in Persia and Egypt, ca. 400-360’), Rop considers subsequent instances of Greek military in the Near East. He provides assessments of the service of the Athenian Conon in the army of Pharnabazus; of Chabrias’ service in the army of the Egyptian pharaoh Acoris; of Iphicrates’ recruitment by Pharnabazus; and of the Spartan King Agesilaos’ service in the Egyptian armies of Tachos and Nectanebos respectively. From this discussion, it emerges again that The Greek Thesis does not hold. These Greeks were not employed for their skill as hoplites, and their military contributions predominantly fell in the naval sphere; this might seem obvious for the Athenians, but Rop demonstrates that even the Spartan King Agesilaos’ main contribution was the provision of access to triremes. Once more, the Near Eastern generals are shown to have successfully devised strategic and tactical plans themselves, without intervention from the supposed specialists from Greece. Finally, Rop illustrates that in each case, the Greek men were recruited so as to create or reinforce alliances between the Greek states and the Near East, as indicated especially by the employment of Iphicrates and Agesilaus, whose service was sanctioned by their home poleis, Athens and Sparta.

Next up is the revolt of Artabazus and the so-called ‘Mercenaries Decree’ (chapter 5, ‘The Revolt of Artabazus’). According to traditional accounts, this decree was issued in 359 and demanded all coastal satraps to let their Greek forces go, sparking the revolt of the satrap Artabazus two years later. This decree has often been interpreted as evidence for the King’s fear of Greek soldiers on Persian soil, which makes it of crucial importance to The Greek Thesis. Rop, however, raises serious objections to this interpretation and to the validity of the decree itself, arguing that the traditional views and chronology do not adequately account for the respective parties’ motivations. Rop questions, for instance, why the Persian King would willingly let the Greek soldiers go, running the risk they would immediately enlist with a rival, or why Artabazus initially appears to have complied with the order. According to Rop, the accuracy of events is contingent on the version offered by Demosthenes’ Scholiast, which is the only one in which the ‘Mercenaries Decree’ features, and argues the decree is in fact a fabrication by the Scholiast. In Rop’s view, the true decree to which the scholiast refers is none other than the King’s order of 355 that the Athenians withdraw from Artabazus in order to end the Social War. Thus, the Mercenaries Decree was never issued, and Artabazus did not rebel but remained loyal until his exile in 353. In this chapter, Rop therefore offers an astute argument that provides a novel take on a longstanding and complex problem of fourth century Near Eastern history.

Chapter 6 (‘The Persian Conquest of Egypt’) sees Rop return to Egypt and discuss Greek service in the Near East during the time of Artaxerxes III’s campaigns against Egypt. He treats the rebellion in Cyprus and the Levant, the Persian invasion strategy, Nectanebos’ defence of Egypt, and concludes with an assessment of the international politics and Greek military service in Egypt. Rop once again successfully demonstrates the invalidity of The Greek Thesis through his thorough analysis: Egypt is shown to have recruited its Greeks primarily to boost their numbers against the large invading force, and the Greeks were not given special ranks or positions. The political nature of their service is evident in the fact that both Egypt and Persia only recruited from existing political allies.

In the final chapters (‘The Greco-Persian Defense of Western Anatolia’ and ‘The Fall of the Achaemenid Empire’), Rop concentrates on the rise of Macedonia and the campaign of Alexander. By now the conclusions should be predictable: alleged Greek superiority is the result of narrative devices used by the Greek and Roman authors, while Persian strategy and tactics were sensible in their own right. In Rop’s detailed analysis, the contribution of generals of Greek stock were modest. Memnon of Rhodes, for example, is said to have had no role to play in the victories attributed to him, but was instead responsible for some loss of territory. Once again, the presence of Greeks in the Near Eastern armies is explained by political motives, with Persian and Greek interests now aligned due to the growing threat of Macedonia. In this final case study, however, Greek enlistment for political reasons seems more straightforward than Rop acknowledges, and certainly more so than in earlier instances discussed. Diodorus, for example, affirms that the Greeks who had been rallied for Darius by Memnon enlisted because they shared the Persian hope (e.g. Diod. 17. 29.3-4); and Arrian’s Alexander likewise appears acutely aware of the Greeks’ political motivations, as evidenced by his distinct treatment of Greek soldiers who had enlisted with Darius before and after the Common Peace (Arr. An. 3.24.5). 

Overall, Jeffrey Rop’s Greek Military Service in the Near East is an exciting study of an often neglected period in ancient history. Its close analysis of battle narratives serves as an important reminder that the works of the ancient historians are literary artefacts and ought to be treated as such. At the same time, Rop’s novel interrogation of traditional military history offers a close survey of Greco-Persian relations in the fourth century and reveals that they were closer than has traditionally been assumed, making this monograph essential reading for anyone with an interest in the period.