Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 19.
Jon E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xii + 468, incl. 31 illustrations, and 10 maps. ISBN 0-300-10663-7. USD35.00, GBP 18.95.
Institute of History, Warsaw University, Poland
The subtitle of this book may mislead many who will expect to find in it battle descriptions, extensive details of armament, and a systematic, chronological treatment of the combat potential of ancient Greek and Roman armies. Instead, Lendon presents a cultural history of warfare. However, those thus misled should not be disappointed; without a doubt Lendon is in touch with the scholarship on strictly technical questions (in fact one has to underscore his rare competence in handling with modern scholarly literature on various periods, areas, and aspects of the Classical world). This is even more important as the book is directed primarily at the non-specialist. To write such a book and not to overwhelm reader with too much discussion of rival views is a real challenge.
Lendon's book is not unsystematic. The book is divided into two parts, one on the Greeks (pp. 15-161), another on the Romans (pp. 163-315), almost equal in size. In the first part, Lendon, leaving aside the Myceneans, starts his account with the Iliad. The Homeric chapter is both typical and atypical for this book. Atypical, since in other chapters the author picks out an event that he believes is the most representative or most instructive for a period (the battles of Thyrea for Archaic Greece, Plataea for the early fifth century BC, Delium for the Peloponnesian War, and so on), and takes the titles for his chapters, and builds his narrative around these events. On the other hand, the chapter is typical, since from the very beginning the author focuses on the competitive nature of Greek fighting. In the chapter on battle in the Homeric epic, Lendon, although still in touch with other scholars, exploits the results of his own studies. Thus he insists that the glory of a Homeric warrior was determined by the value of the enemies he slew. More often Lendon emphasises the ambiguous attitude of the epic towards the major problem of warrior ethics. Thus, not to hold a position is generally considered unheroic, but sometimes heroes flee or retreat without shame.
The chapters that follow repeat the pattern established in the Homeric account; they focus on the competitive warrior ethic in later epochs of the Greek history. Of course, technical matters and innovations gradually gain their place in subsequent periods (it would have been impossible to describe Greek warfare in the fourth century BC, and especially in the Hellenistic Age, without paying attention to the innovative experiments of more technical fighters). Lendon is still right to stress that the Hellenistic military revolution was a consequence of following the Homeric ideal of warfare as competitive skill. For Lendon Greece is always Homer-orientated, that means, even if it was innovative, yet it was also always conservative. One should stress the high degree of coherence that Lendon has achieved in his account of Greek warfare. Sometimes however, the price seems too high. Thus, his picture of Spartan education (pp. 111f.) is desperately conservative and includes anecdotal material (for example, the whipping of boys as an element of the Spartiate's training). Less satisfactory also are Lendon's overviews of general history introducing each chapter: thus, for example, the author does not mention the destruction of Thebes by Alexander the Great, and tacitly includes it among 'minatory slaughters' (p. 120). Similarly, when discussing the Hellenistic world after the battle of Ipsus (301 B.C.), he simply does not mention the kingdom of Lysimachus that flourished after 301 B.C. (p. 140) -- thus the picture he draws suits the world after the battle of Kourupedion in 281 B.C. better.
One would expect that Roman warfare, like Roman history in general, is easier to describe systematically than that of the Greek world. However, Lendon follows the pattern which, with some exceptions, he established so successfully with respect to Greek warfare (where a high number of important city-states prevents a scholar from a building up a systematic and detailed treatment). There is one important difference, in his account of Greek wars, Lendon starts from the very beginning (that is from Homeric verse), but his chapter on early Roman warfare (pp. 172-92) deals with the period from c. 400 to c. 220 BC (with the Valerius Corax episode of 349 BC highlighted -- more than four hundred years ab urbe condita! There is no Rome of the Kings, no Servius Tullius at all (except the reference in bibliographical notes on page 424). The omission of Servius Tullius, the proper father of the Roman legio, the creator of the census, and above all the second founder of the city and its model soldier, is surprising. Even if we do not know much (or in fact virtually nothing) about the tactics of the earliest legions, Roman military values were probably deeply rooted in the past. Lendon knows this perfectly well and sometimes goes back as far as to Horatii and Curiatii or even Romulus in his account (but I am not sure that this is sufficient to convince the reader that there was such a thing as Roman history, and not merely myths, in the period before the Republic). In the Roman context Lendon's main protagonists are virtus -- the moral quality that pushed Romans to acts of great heroism, but also resulted in the incredible aggressiveness of Roman warriors (contrasted with passive courage of Greek armies) -- and disciplina, which made Roman armies conducive to command.
Another recurring theme in this book is the Hellenistic influence on Roman warfare from the evolution of the archaic, moderately packed, phalanx through the manipular legion, to the cohorts, as well as the attempts to revive the old, distinguished phalanx under the Empire. The changing tactics of the Roman armies are illustrated by the pattern of their losses, in the manipular legion it was commanders who were expected to die or win, in the legion of cohorts, which was more controllable by the higher ranks, the centurions were over-represented among the casualties. Lendon stresses the duration (or revival) of the moral code which compelled various Roman commanders (including Titus and Julian) to risk their lives in front of the enemy. Just as the starting-point of the Roman section of this book was debatable, so too is the ending. The book does not examine Julian's Persian campaign at all (and some readers might have been expecting an account of the campaigns of Belisarius).
The main text is followed by rather selective notes, a glossary of Greek and Roman terms (as stated above, the book's intended readership is much wider than only Classical scholars), and bibliographical notes. The book is also preceded by a prologue recalling the Vietnam war of 1967. Readers will discover its connection with the rest of the book only gradually, but I believe it is intended to attract the attention of many potential purchasers. As a whole, the book is carefully edited: the drawings and photographs are of high quality (although black-and-white) and greatly enhance the text. The text itself has been highly praised by pre-release reviewers but the price paid for the literary quality of the book seems too high. The author therefore makes the ancients too modern (as when in the introduction to the Roman part on page 163 he suggests that the Etruscans collected rather than used Greek vases), and sometimes he becomes overly rhetorical, as in his description of the social origins of Caesar's soldiers: 'fewer nobles, fewer patricians: more young men of equestrian, rather than senatorial, birth' (p. 219), here the phrase 'the patricians' is inserted merely to reinforce 'the nobles', since the patricii lost their privileged status three hundred years before Caesar, and the Roman aristocracy (nobilitas), consisting of patricians well as plebeians, ruled Rome from the third century onwards. However, a general reader is led to think that 'the patricians' were still the proper Roman elite, equal to 'the nobles'.
Lendon could be criticised for his choice of events that he considers representative of the different stages of development of ancient warfare, but he has played an extremely difficult game, and his book is more than well-written, full of fascinating insights, and supplemented by a useful survey of current scholarship on Greek and Roman warfare (in the massive bibliographical notes on pages 393-440). Soldiers and Ghosts cannot be overlooked by any reader interested in the history of ancient Greek and Roman warfare.