BMCR 2024.04.17

Between Miltiades and Moltke: early German studies in Greek military history

, Between Miltiades and Moltke: early German studies in Greek military history. Brill research perspectives in humanities and social sciences. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. 118. ISBN 9789004540026.



The level of professional interest in ancient military history has changed through the centuries. After military thinkers of the 16th and early 17th centuries applied ancient tactics, organization, and technology successfully to the early modern battlefield, the usefulness of studying ancient military history came under serious doubt during the 18th century: Frederick the Great famously noted, in a foreword he penned to Folard’s translation of Polybius, that il n’y a rien à profiter de toutes les guerres qui se sont faites du temps du Bas-Empire.[1] Yet by the end of the following century, the study of ancient military history had become so popular among military men of the age that Alfred von Schlieffen, when he laid down his general ideas of operational warfare, had them published under the title “Cannae”,[2] even though the discussion of that battle made up only a very minor part of his study, which concentrated on the wars of 1866 and 1870 and also compared Frederick the Great to Napoleon. This great interest in ancient military history was not without its effects on the academic study of that history, and it is the interrelationship between military and scholarly interest that Roel Konijnendijk sets out to explore in his book, which takes its title from a line in a Festschrift for Hans Delbrück.

An introduction provides a brief background to the history of ancient history in Germany and the relationship between the study of military history and the Prussian general staff. The historical overview is rather short. Konijnendijk’s observations on the general staff occupy more space and are particularly valuable: he successfully highlights how the general authority enjoyed by the military, in a highly militarized society during the last decades of the century, made claiming similar authority difficult for civilian historians and challenging existing narratives extremely difficult.

The next three chapters trace how ancient military history was studied in Germany down to the end of World War One, looking in detail at the major studies produced throughout the existence of imperial Germany. The first chapter covers the work of Herrmann Köchly and Wilhelm Rüstow, whose collaboration spanned about a decade from the early 1850s to the early 1860s, resulting in several important works that significantly advanced scholarship on Greek warfare. In his discussion of the two scholars’ work, Konijnendijk stresses their criticism of how contemporary military writers approached the study of Greek warfare, often with, to quote Jonson, small Latin and less Greek.

The second chapter looks at the period of 1880 to 1895 and introduces the works of Max Jähns, Hans Droysen, Alfons Bauer, Hans Delbrück and Hugo Liers. By the 1880s, a significant rise in the general interest in antiquity had led to a corresponding increase in the production of introductions, overviews, and handbooks, culminating in major publication projects like the Handbuch der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaften. However, while the overall environment had changed as compared with the 1850s, with a larger number of scholars working on ancient military history; instead of producing a greater variety of approaches to that history, a general pattern began to solidify, with studies concentrating mostly on the kinetic aspects of warfare at the expense of its social, economic, or political dimensions. Konijnendijk points out that Hugo Liers, nowadays nearly forgotten, was the only one to challenge this narrative, and his work received little attention.

The third and final chapter takes a closer look at one of the great academic controversies of the time, that between Hans Delbrück and Johannes Kromayer, whose work would eventually cause the older studies to slip into near oblivion. The chapter provides a detailed account of their debate about the Battle of Sellasia, which eventually grew into a general controversy about how to approach the reconstruction of ancient battles. This itself makes interesting reading, but Konijnendijk stresses that the controversy had importance beyond the study of the Cleomenean War: it served to focus scholarly interest further on purely kinetic aspects of war, continuing the trend already much in evidence from the 1880s onwards.

Invariably, a brief study of what is essentially a vast topic can address certain aspects only in passing, or not at all. While Moltke does feature in Konijnendijk’s account, it is mostly in the context of the increasing professionalisation of the Prussian army. One wonders how much the near-idolization of Moltke after the war of 1870–1 has influenced the study of ancient military history,[3] which after all was always the study of history’s great captains as well. Also, the scholarship Konijnendijk discusses spans a half-century during which the political landscape in German-speaking central Europe changed dramatically. Again, one wonders about the relationship between contemporary political developments and the study of ancient military – and political – history; that ancient history was employed for contemporary purposes is shown, for example, in a rather monumental way by the huge Herman statue in the Teutoburg forest. Furthermore, the interdependence of studying ancient military history and contemporary military thinking and teaching is a phenomenon not exclusive to Prussia and its military tradition: other German states had general staffs as well, Austria and Bavaria being the obvious examples. Georg Veith, who is only mentioned in passing, was an officer in the Austrian army, which had a military tradition very different from the Prussian. Narrowing the focus to Prussia may deprive the issue of the level of granularity required for a full understanding, which would include comparing different approaches to the study of ancient military history. Of course, to some degree these remarks are unfair; covering even only some of the issues would have greatly exceeded the stated scope of the book and probably resulted in a massive tome.

Konijnendijk’s study is a useful overview of the early history of ancient military history in Germany – something that will certainly appeal to the expert while being, one cannot deny, a little ‘niche’ in character. Yet on looking closer at his study, there is considerably more to it. The story of how scholars of antiquity wrestled with the issue of laymen claiming authority in their field on the basis of their present-day profession sounds as familiar to ancient historians of the 21st century as it was for those of the 19th; behind it, however, lie much broader issues – like that of scholarship versus expert-ism and punditry, or the shaping of scholarly narratives by outside actors – which not only seem to be of particular relevance today, but are also a central aspect of how societies gather, manage and react to knowledge. To the history of the latter, Konijnendijk’s study makes a small but important contribution.

In all, then, despite its length and, one has to say, an eyebrow-raising price tag for a slim paperback volume, this is an eminently useful book. It also raises many more questions than it can answer, which is not at all a bad thing. The relationship between politics, military and the study of antiquity is in need of further exploration, and anyone interested in shedding further light on this would be well advised to take Konijnendijk’s study as a starting-point.



[1] Preuß, Johann David Erdmann, Oeuvres de Frédéric le Grand. vol. XXVIII: Oeuvres Militaires I. Berlin: Decker, 1856: 101.

[2] Schlieffen, Alfred von, Cannae. Berlin: Mittler, 1925 (originally published as a series of articles in Vierteljahreshefte für Truppenführung und Heereskunde).

[3] See Zuber, Terence, The Moltke Myth: Prussian War Planning, 1857-1871. Lanham: University Press of America, 2008.