Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 21.

Angelos Chaniotis, War in the Hellenistic World. The Ancient World at War. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xxiii + 308. ISBN 0-631-22608-7. UKĀ£16.99.

Timothy Howe,
St. Olaf College, USA

As befits a book intended for undergraduate instruction, War in the Hellenistic World offers a wide-ranging survey of 'the various ways in which war shaped Hellenistic society, mentality, and culture, and also the ways in which wars corresponded to contemporary social conditions and reflected cultural peculiarities of this era' (p. xxi). In keeping with the goals of Blackwell's Ancient World at War series, this book highlights the role of Hellenistic warfare within a cultural context and as such is a welcome addition to the cultural surveys of the period.[[1]] Because of its breadth and control of sources alone, War in the Hellenistic World is a useful pedagogical resource, although its emphasis on culture and social conditions may disappoint the student seeking a detailed discussion of Hellenistic tactics, military technology, weaponry, or the strategy of 'great campaigns'. Moreover, the focus on the 'Old Greece' of the southern Balkan peninsula and the Aegean basin might also disappoint those interested in the Hellenistic communities of the Near East.[[2]]

The book is organized into twelve chapters, all concerned with demonstrating the ways in which war shaped and defined Hellenistic society. Chapter 1, 'The Ubiquitous War' (pp. 1-17), Chapter 2, 'Between Civic Duties and Oligarchic Aspirations' (pp. 18-43), and Chapter 4, 'The Interactive King' (pp. 57-77,) define the ubiquitous nature of warfare in the Hellenistic period by explaining both individual and institutional reasons for going to war. Chapter 5, 'War as a Profession' (pp. 44-56), and Chapter 7, 'The Cost and Profit of War' (pp. 115-42), consider the socio-economic costs of endemic war as a profession to both the individual and community. Chapter 3, 'The Age of War: Fighting Yong Men' (pp. 44-56), and Chapter 6, 'The Gender of War' (pp. 102-14), discuss war and its role in shaping gender relations and ideologies. Chapter 8, 'An Age of Miracles and Saviors' (pp. 143-65) examines the mutual (occasionally competing) relationships between warfare and religion. Chapter 9 (pp. 166-88), and Chapter 10 (pp.189-213), discuss Hellenistic warfare as represented in literature and art, while Chapter 11 (pp. 214-44) defines how war influenced memory. Chapter 12, 'Breaking Boundaries: How War Shaped the Hellenistic World' (pp. 245-53), unites all of the book's themes by summarising the ways in which warfare has profoundly affected Hellenistic cultures. War disrupted not only physical and political boundaries but also social and cultural structures by transforming economies, religious structures and rituals, and even social and familial relationships.

Warfare in the Hellenistic World offers a solid introduction Hellenistic society, as seen through the analytical lens of war. The text is clearly and persuasively written, with an awareness of both the primary evidence and secondary literature. Indeed, from a pedagogical standpoint, the book's greatest strength is the annotated bibliography, offered at the end of each chapter, of both primary sources and modern scholarship. Also noteworthy is the emphasis on epigraphic evidence, which is often lacking in survey texts.

But Warfare in the Hellenistic world does have a few shortcomings. Foremost is its failure to define the Hellenistic period and differentiate Hellenistic -- as opposed to earlier or later -- institutions. There is no clear sense how this period differs substantively from that which preceded or followed.[[3]] Moreover, there is a similar lack of comparison between Hellenistic Greek and earlier non-Greek institutions and relationships. Since this book deals with complex social relationships, many of which have evolved from earlier models, it would be useful to see some comparison or explanation of how Hellenistic warfare -- and Hellenistic responses to warfare -- compared to, or contrasted with that of other well-studied historical periods of the same regions. Another problem pertains to the use of modern analogy; Chaniotis tries to make Hellenistic warfare relevant to a modern audience by drawing parallels to recent political events such as Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction, and the Iraq War. While such topics are much in the student mind now, and can be useful to bridge the gap between ancient and modern, they are time-specific. The sophisticated parallels Chaniotis is highlighting will not be as immediately comprehensible in a few years when the Iraq War has become just as 'historic' and opaque to undergraduates as the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

A final criticism comes from this reviewer's own scholarly research -- agricultural history -- but it points to a wider methodological issue. As one would expect from a survey text Chaniotis offers a synthetic, summarising narrative that keeps the themes he treats linked together. But such a survey-type approach tends to sidestep or skim the surface of important scholarly debates. For example, in the section on 'War and Agriculture' (pp. 121-29), Chaniotis concludes that warfare had a profound short-term and long-term impact on agricultural production. But this is merely one side of a complex, on-going debate.[[4]] Indeed, Victor Davis Hanson has argued that the negative economic and social impact of warfare on agriculture is a constant in the ancient world.[[5]] The bibliographical section at the end of each chapter should at least acknowledge that such debates exist.

In the end, despite these criticisms, War in the Hellenistic World is a useful pedagogical resource and a welcome addition to the social surveys of the Hellenistic period. Chaniotis offers a clearly written, well-supported analysis of the significant roles warfare played in shaping Greek politics, society, and economy.


[[1]] F. Chamoux (tr. Michel Roussel), Hellenistic Civilization (Oxford 2002[original edition Paris 1981]), for example, focuses on the society and culture of the Hellenistic and tends to gloss over the contribution of warfare.

[[2]] It should be noted that Chaniotis is aware of the lopsided focus on mainland and Aegean Greece (pp. xxif.). It is his intention to use these areas -- from which there is admittedly more documentation -- as exemplars and comparanda for discussing wider issues and relationships.

[[3]] Only the preface offers a concrete definition of Hellenistic period as 'the 300 years between Alexander's victories and Kleopatra's defeat ([sic] 323-330 BC)' (p. xxi). Presumably this should read '323-30 BC'. Incidentally, this was the only substantive typographical error noticed in an otherwise excellently edited volume.

[[4]] Here Chaniotis follows the work of Foxhall, 'Farming and Fighting in Ancient Greece,' in John Rich and Graham Shipley (edd.), War and Society in the Greek World. Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society (London 1993) 134-45, but he glosses over the contrary view of Victor Davis Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998[2]), and The Western Way of War (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000[2]), which argue for profound loss in both long- and short-term agricultural production due to war devastation.

[[5]] See Victor Davis Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (London 1999).