BMCR 2022.03.08

Greek warfare beyond the polis: defense, strategy, and the making of ancient federal states

, Greek warfare beyond the polis: defense, strategy, and the making of ancient federal states. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. Pp. xi, 154. ISBN 9781501747526. $39.95.


There is no lack of scholarship on ancient Greek military history or on matters related to areas “beyond the polis.” Yet, there are few studies devoted to the unconventional warfare of the upland ethnē of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. This short book, intended for specialists but accessible to non-specialists, and written by a combat veteran, attempts to bring these strands together.[1] By examining four case studies of specific military encounters, the book argues that “the upland peoples (ethnē) of Phocis, Aetolia, Acarnania, and Arcadia circa 490–362 maintained defensive strategies that enabled wide-scale, sophisticated actions in response to large-scale invasions, and they did so without the direction of a central, federal government” (1).[2]

Blome is rightly skeptical of the accounts of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, who held biases against the ethnē. Thucydides (1.5.3), for example, depicts them as backward people who rejected conventional hoplite warfare and only defeated their enemies by chance. Blome attempts to reassess these reports by integrating insights from modern archaeological and topographical studies. He frequently takes into consideration what various fieldwork reports reveal about the physical environment of each region in antiquity and how that might have influenced the shape of upland warfare. In so doing, Blome shows that the upland Greeks were not behind the poleis in political and military terms. They were capable of designing effective defenses based on the unique features of their territory.

Chapter 1 looks at the Phocian chalk raid against the Thessalian invaders c. 490. Herodotus’ (8.27-28) brief account says that the initial Phocian response to the invasion was to withdraw to Mount Parnassus. From there, seemingly cornered in a hopeless position, the defenders promptly implemented an original plan to repel the Thessalian army below. At dark, they covered their bodies in chalk, descended upon the enemy camp, and killed four thousand Thessalian soldiers. The chalk raid shows that the Phocians were well organized and capable of communicating with each other across the region. Having an intimate knowledge of their geography, they knew when and where to retreat and to attack the enemy.

Chapter 2 reassesses the Aetolian rout of the Athenians in 426. Thucydides (3.94-98) reports that the Messenians persuaded the Athenian general Demosthenes to invade Aetolia because the inhabitants lived in villages without walls and fought without a heavy infantry. The Aetolians swiftly abandoned territory to the Athenian invaders. Once the latter reached deserted Aigition, the Aetolians returned, catching them by surprise. As a result, the Aetolians killed three hundred of the Athenians.

Chapter 3 considers the Acarnanian response to a Spartan invasion in 389. Xenophon (Hellenica 4.6) records that the Spartans dispatched an army under Agesilaus to Acarnania in response to an appeal from the Achaeans, who were facing threats from the Acarnanians. Upon arrival Agesilaus sent an embassy to the Acarnanian koinon at Stratos. When they refused Agesilaus’ demands and the Spartans proceeded to invade their territory, the defenders advanced to higher ground and harassed their enemy by throwing stones and spears. The Acarnanians attacked, in waves and from various angles, and then retreated, leaving the Spartans no opportunity for a pitched battle. As a result, the invaders returned to the Peloponnesus having done little damage to Acarnania.

Chapter 4 examines the Arcadian defense against a Spartan invasion in 370. Xenophon (Hellenica 6.5.4-22) says that the roots of the encounter with the Spartans lay in the formation of the Arcadian League. Certain Tegeans, after refusing to join the new organization, appealed to the Spartans, who responded by dispatching Agesilaus with an army into Arcadia. The Arcadians engineered a trap for Agesilaus’ army but then allowed it to escape without attempting an attack. Refused a direct confrontation, the Spartans returned home. The Arcadian defense, therefore, although different from the other examples, proceeded from planning based on their environment.

The Conclusion reiterates the main arguments of the book. While each instance of upland defense against invasion was unique, all four “strategies” shared similar elements. The Phocians in 490, the Aetolians in 426, the Acarnanians in 389, and the Arcadians in 370 abandoned territory and took advantage of their geography in order to surprise and remove their enemies. It is risky, however, on the basis of just four examples, to generalize the military actions for all upland peoples across almost two centuries. Whereas the first two case studies describe a clear defeat of the invading force, the last two resulted in only the departure not the defeat of the Spartan army. Blome considers that the Spartan retreat from Acarnania in 389 was a success for the defenders because the Spartans did no irreparable damage to the region. If so, however, it was eclipsed by the Acarnanian alliance with the Spartans early in the next year. Blome argues that accepting this alliance was only a “calculated move” on the part of the Acarnanians, who allied with the Athenians and then the Thebans in the 370s (67). But these alliances come over a decade later, under different geopolitical circumstances, and shed little light on the motive for the earlier alliance with the Spartans. Likewise, in 370, the Spartans, recognizing the Arcadians would not face them in direct combat, withdrew from the area. Blome reasons that the defenders’ response was determined by their fear that the victorious Spartans would dismantle their nascent koinon.

This is curious since the second part of the book’s argument is that the upland peoples coordinated their defenses without the presence of federal institutions. Modern scholars have long recognized the influences of religion, social practices, and economic activity on the process of ethnogenesis and the formation of federal states among ethnē.[3] Blome, however, counters that the view of federalism as a sociopolitical culmination does not apply to upland peoples. Instead, he insists that these groups possessed a common identity and coordinated collective action without a central organizing authority. This fits well enough for the first two episodes, but Blome himself acknowledges that the Arcadian defense against the Spartans in 370 works against this position. The Arcadian League, although only a few months old, was instrumental in organizing the response to the invasion. The same may be argued for the Acarnanian defense against the Spartans in 389. Blome, emphatic that it was accomplished without a federal authority, questions whether Xenophon’s (Hellenica 4.6.4) koinon refers to a federal structure, but this is by no means certain.[4]

These criticisms aside, this concise book will be rewarding for specialists and non-specialists alike. Blome’s writing style is straightforward yet graceful. The text is practically free of any typographical errors or stylistic infelicities. Each chapter contains a map with the relevant locations in the text. The endnotes and bibliography exhibit the depth of Blome’s research.


[1] As Blome relates in the Preface (“The Iliad in Iraq”), the genesis of this book lies in his service as a U.S. Marine fighting in the mountainous terrain of Iraq.

[2] Although Blome leaves for the endnotes (110-111) his discussion of the modern debates over the word “strategy,” he makes sure to define in the Introduction what he means by it in these contexts: “a standing ethnos-level plan that exploited known and developing advantages to repel potential invasions” (8).

[3] Morgan, Catherine. 2003. Early Greek States beyond the Polis. London and New York: Routledge; Funke, Peter, and Matthias Haake, eds. 2013. Greek Federal States and Their Sanctuaries: Identity and Integration. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner; Mackil, Emily. 2013. Creating a Common Polity: Religion, Economy, and Politics in the Making of the Greek Koinon. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[4] Beck, Hans. 2001. “‘The Laws of the Fathers’” versus “‘The Laws of the League’”: Xenophon on Federalism.” Classical Philology 96: 358-362; Freitag, Klaus. 2015. “Akarnania and the Akarnanian League.” In Hans Beck and Peter Funke, eds. Federalism in Greek Antiquity. 66, 73-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.