BMCR 2022.02.22

New approaches to Greek and Roman warfare

, New approaches to Greek and Roman warfare. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781118273333 $69.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collected volume offers “new approaches” to ancient warfare. So what’s new? The most prominent theme, linking four of the thirteen essays, is that of military psychology.

Roman siege expert Josh Levithan’s piece on “moral and morale” in sieges investigates why sacks of ancient cities were so merciless, pointing out that by closing their gates those within a city had refused a fair fight in the fields outside, denying the besiegers the contest in the virtus of all combatants that an open-field battle promised. When the city fell they were not, therefore, entitled to the ethical protections a fair fight granted the defeated, since they were themselves fighting in an immoral fashion. Levithan also points out that the taking of fortified places required not merely normal military courage, but—from those few first over the wall—exceptional, almost suicidal, courage, setting an “oddly epic stage” (145); the long fatigues of the siege, followed by such extreme heroism, also made the successful besiegers think that they were entitled to the greater satisfactions (in slaughter, rape, and plunder) of an unrestrained sack. This paper deserves praise too for its sensitive treatment of the relationship between actual ancient combat and literary depictions of ancient combat, a particular interest of this reviewer, but judging by other work recent and forthcoming, an expanding area of scholarly concern.

Susan M. Heidenreich and Jonathan P. Roth discuss “The Neurophysiology of Panic on the Ancient Battlefield,” which raises considerable hopes in the reader, hopes that it does not entirely fulfill. The paper is almost entirely descriptive (panic is inspired by seeing something terrifying; neurons are activated here, there, and elsewhere in the brain; physical symptoms follow), and although in gross terms the modern medical description maps well onto ancient descriptions of panic (especially in Homer), it does not advance our understanding much beyond them. The major historical question about panic in battle, of course, is why it was so contagious, a fact mentioned in passing in this paper but not discussed at length because the work of neuroscientists has emphasized panic as an individual, rather than a mass, phenomenon.

Lawrence A. Tritle treads what to him is familiar territory in his discussion of the psychological effects of battle. What is new in this piece is a vigorous counter-attack against those who question the existence or salience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ancient Greek world. Volume editor Lee L. Brice, building on his previous work, offers a taxonomic treatment of Roman failures of military discipline in the Late Republic and early years of the Empire. He both defines different types of indiscipline to which the Roman army was subject—distinguishing conspiracy from mutiny from the expression of grievances from insubordination—and arrays incidents of indiscipline according to their causes.

A second theme, linking three essays, is logistics. The late Matthew Trundle re-emphasizes how primitive the logistics of archaic and classical Greek armies and fleets were: the duties of Greek commanders were limited to paying the troops so they could buy their own food, and to the provision of grain (for sale) where (rarely) it was not otherwise available. John W. I. Lee gives rich texture to this account, describing, in the absence of centralized logistical arrangements, the practices of Greek soldiers in gathering food, water, and firewood (helping to explain why slaves were so often brought on campaign by individual soldiers), and, in the absence of organized sanitation, the queasy-making fashion in which they were obliged to shift for themselves in that department. It is a pity that Trundle did not carry on his analysis into the time of Alexander, because his minimalist view of the logistical abilities and interests of Greek forces (a view shared, for example, by Hans van Wees) goes a long way to impeach the assumptions of Donald Engels in Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, whose work, still influential, operated on the assumption that an army had to carry all its calories with it, and did not properly grasp, as Trundle puts it, that “…traders came to and from the army. Some came to buy plundered goods with coins, while others came to sell food and services for coins. The army became a focal point of exchange” (25). Trundle also usefully emphasizes how important loot was to the remuneration of Greek soldiers, by simple distribution in early days, and by auctioning it in bulk for coin—which was then distributed to the soldiers—when coinage became universal. Usefully related to Trundle’s and Lee’s articles is Michael G. Seaman’s piece on archaic and classical Greek sieges. In both periods there were more of these than scholarship has conventionally thought, but the Greeks preferred assault—which was quicker—to circumvallation, which required logistical arrangements for a long wait that individual Greek cities could not manage. Only in later times, with coalition armies such as those of the Peloponnesian League and wealthy states such as Athens, did long sieges intended to starve out the enemy become practical.

Next, wounds and their treatment. In a disturbingly fascinating piece, Maria A. Liston (co-author of that sobering volume, The Athenian Bone Well [2018]) examines the handful of preserved bones from the Theban Sacred Band found in nineteenth-century excavations at the site of the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), and some skeletons dumped down wells in the Agora after the Herulian sack of Athens (AD 267). In the first case a tragically ruthless selection was made at the time of excavation: of 254 skeletons found, only ten heads and the bones of up to eighteen soldiers were kept. That selection of obviously interestingly damaged bones may bias the conclusions, but Liston points out the possibly significant fact that a number of the Sacred Band seem to have died not from points or blades or arrows but from blunt-force trauma to the skull: perhaps we need to re-evaluate the function of Macedonian shields and their rims. Others took wounds to the top, rather than to the front or sides, of their skulls. Were they finished off by the Macedonia cavalry, striking from above? The six bodies found in wells in the Agora after the Herulian sack tell a sadder story: three are women and two are children, presumably non-combatants. The one male skeleton appears to have been much mangled after death and then carried around on a pitchfork: an unfortunate Herulian, perhaps, whose body was mutilated by the vengeful Athenians?

Taking another approach to wounding, the erudite Philip Rance offers a brief investigation into Roman military medical care in late antiquity, after the crash of the epigraphic habit eliminated the inscriptions that tell us about medici in the army of the high empire. Heroically assembling miserable scraps of evidence—laws, papyri, the historians (especially Procopius), Maurice’s Strategikon—he can show that an organized medical service survived, with both soldier-medics and civilian employees. More details we may never have, but if we do, they are most likely to be unearthed by Philip Rance.

And, finally, there are two acute pieces on Roman auxiliaries. It has long been regarded as axiomatic that Roman auxiliary units, wheresoever they might be recruited from, when posted away from their place of original organization (as they usually, and for the sake of ensuring their loyalty, wisely were), would subsequently recruit locally, so that, for example, an auxiliary cohort of Germans posted to Britain would, after the first generation of its members died or retired, consist mostly of Britons (a few exceptions, such as the elite Batavian cohorts, who continued to recruit from home, have been admitted). In a perceptive article Alexander Meyer notices a handful of inscriptions that either record soldiers coming from the original region of recruitment long after a unit was posted far away from it, or refer to multiple ethnic groups (cives Galli and Britanni for example) in a single unit; both imply a longer survival of much of the original ethnic identity of the unit than has previously been suspected.

Continuing on Roman auxiliaries, Elizabeth M. Greene usefully gathers together the now-overwhelming evidence that women and children lived not merely in the civilian adjuncts to Roman frontier forts (the canabae), but within the forts themselves, and not merely in the great fortresses inhabited by Roman legions, but in the more modest bastions of the auxiliaries. As much as it offends our received impression of the Roman army as hyper-disciplined and somehow cleaner, neater, and better-polished than subsequent Western armies before the modern period, the more we examine small finds in the Roman army’s forts (shoes in particular, which especially reveal the presence of women and children), the more we grasp that the distinction between a Roman fort and a town was slight, and we must steel ourselves to see the Roman army as similar in many respects to a muddy, louche, diseased European army of 1630 or so.

The volume’s two other papers are harder to classify. Nathan Rosenstein argues that Roman warfare in the period of Rome’s greatest successes—the third and early second centuries BC—operated at a financial loss for years at a time, and was only possible fiscally because of the tax—the tributum—levied on Rome’s citizens. This is illustrated by contrasting Rome’s accounts-payable and accounts-receivable, and the main cost that Rosenstein emphasizes is the salary of the soldiers—the stipendium (see also his “Bellum se ipsum alet? Financing Mid-Republican Imperialism,” in H. Beck, M. Jehne and J. Serrati [eds.], Money and Power in the Roman Republic [Brussels, 2016] 114–130). But is it fair to complain that this cost appears to be calculated simply by multiplying the number of legions Rome deployed in a year by the daily salary of soldiers and then by 365—under the assumptions that all of Rome’s soldiers were paid all the year round? Would this be true, especially for campaigns in Italy, where the soldiers could easily go home once the campaigning season was over? More radically, what basis is there to assume that Rome—unlike every other pre-modern army of which we know in detail—succeeded in paying its troops what it theoretically owed them, or even tried very hard to do so?

Finally, Glen Bugh offers a very learned and up-to-date description of Hellenistic cavalry, its weaponry, and the controversies associated with it: this piece would have benefited greatly from illustrations of the coins and ancient artistic representations discussed.

There is, then, much new, and much good, in this volume. It would be no less good and newer still if the editor had not fallen ill during the process of production: almost all the papers were finished by 2013 (xiii) but the book only appeared in 2020. The editor is to be congratulated for his victory over so long a spell of ill-health, and the authors of the articles collected here are to be heartily commended for their patience. The volume was well worth the wait.

Authors and titles

Lee L. Brice ― Ancient Warfare and Moving Beyond “New Military History,” pp. 1-11.
Matthew Trundle ― Wealth and the Logistics of Greek Warfare: Food, Pay, and Plunder, pp. 17–27.
Michael G. Seaman ― Early Greek Siege Warfare, pp. 29–38
John W. I. Lee ― Daily Life in Classical Greek Armies, c. 500-330 BCE, pp. 39–51.
Lawrence A. Tritle ― Soldiers’ Home: Life After Battle, pp. 53–64
Glenn R. Bugh ― Greek Cavalry in the Hellenistic World: Review and Reappraisal, pp. 65-80.
Maria A. Liston ― Skeletal Evidence for the Impact of Battle on Soldiers and Non-Combatants, pp. 81–94.
Nathan Rosenstein ― Financing Imperialism in the Middle Roman Republic, pp. 99-111.
Lee L. Brice ― Indiscipline in the Roman Army of the Late Republic and Principate, pp. 113–126.
Susan M. Heidenreich and Jonathan P. Roth ― The Neurophysiology of Panic on the Ancient Battlefield, pp. 127–138.
Josh Levithan ― Roman Siege Warfare: Moral and Morale, pp. 139–148.
Elizabeth M. Greene ― Roman Military Communities and the Families of Auxiliary Soldiers, pp. 149–159.
Alexander Meyer ― Approaching “Ethnic” Communities in the Roman Auxilia, pp. 161–172.
Philip Rance ― Health, Wounds, and Medicine in the Late Roman Army (250–600 CE), pp. 173–185.