Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 24.

Hans Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. London: Duckworth, 2004. Pp. xiv + 349. ISBN 0-7156-2967-0. UK£20.00.

Richard J. Evans
School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University

Van Wees has two objectives in mind: to offer, following the example set by Garlan's work,[[1]] an 'integrated account' of Greek warfare in its 'social, economic and political context' and to 'explode a number of myths' associated with the Greeks at war notably ideas about citizen militias, battle rules, notions of peace and war, and battle tactics. 'Above all, this book will argue that the current models of the development of Greek warfare are based on an unduly selective and somewhat naïve reading of the limited and unreliable ancient evidence' (p. 1). The volume as a whole is divided into sections: Part I, 'War and Peace' -- why the Greeks fought (pp. 3-43); Part II, 'Citizens and Soldiers' -- who did the fighting (pp. 45-85); Part III, 'Amateur Armies' -- how the armies were organised (pp. 87-113); Part IV, 'Agonal and Total Warfare' -- how they conducted campaigns (pp. 115-50); Part V, 'The Experience of Combat' -- how they fought battles (pp. 151-97); Part VI, 'Ruling the Waves' -- how warfare at sea compared with warfare on land (pp. 199-231). Appendices (pp. 241-52), a bibliography (pp. 317-31), and indices (pp. 333-49) complete the work, which also contains numerous illustrations and black-and-white plates (between pp. 210f.).

Relationships between cities and the threat to these either from outside or within the Hellenic world with war as the result is the focus of the three chapters ('Kinsmen, Friends and Allies: The Society of States' (pp. 6-18), 'Justice, Honour and Profit: Causes and Goals of Wars' (pp. 19-33), 'Pleonexia: Structural Causes of War' (pp. 34-43), comprising Part I. Peace, contra the opinions of some, may have been a 'more desirable' norm than war (p. 18), but the limited resources of the region meant that the Greek cities were aggressively competitive and, while they could unite when faced with foreign threats, frequent wars between them was the outcome. Actual causes sometimes appear trivial, but 'respect in ritual matters' easily disguises the main motivational factors -- 'self defence, the pursuit of honour, and the pursuit of profit' (p. 19); and analysis of events such as those leading up to the Peloponnesian War show that 'communities with the greatest power were the most inclined to wage war . . . the greater honour a state claimed, the less defiance it could tolerate' (p. 25). And the more power and status a city possessed, the greater the likelihood of it aspiring to even more -- 'a sense of superiority encouraged aggression' (p. 34), the desire to be regarded as a 'warrior' or earning a living by war all spurred on the phenomenon.

Who were the men who fought: citizens, foreigners, slaves? How were these armed and how did their arms evolve? Finding answers to these questions, which are fundamental to an understanding of the Greeks at war, are the focal points of the three following chapters in Part II -- 'Men of Bronze: the myth of the middle-class militia' (pp. 47-60), 'The Other Warriors: light infantry, cavalry, servants and mercenaries' (pp. 61-76), 'Politics and the Battlefield: ideology in Greek warfare' (pp. 77-85). The evidence clearly shows that hoplites were drawn from the whole spectrum of citizens and the popular belief that there Greek armies were composed of a 'middle class . . . is based on an isolated and ill founded ancient generalisation' (p. 60). Moreover, hoplites were usually outnumbered by other types of soldier on the battlefield -- archers, peltasts, and cavalry and, indeed, on numerous occasions by mercenaries 'not because the number of citizens seeing active service was small, but because the number of mercenaries was so large' (p. 76). Citizens may have been keen to fight for their cities but this did not preclude the purchase of additional support when it was required, which means that the 'ideal of the citizen-soldier was always prominent but never became more than a small part of reality' (p. 85).

In Part III two chapters ('Bodies of Men: Training and Organisation of the Militia', pp. 89-101, 'The Bare Necessities: Mobilisation and Maintenance of Armies', pp. 102-13) are devoted to the mechanics of running an army. However, individual rather than collective exercise was the order of the day, largely depending on personal preference, and abstinence from such exertions was not frowned upon (p. 89). Group exercise and formal manoeuvres did not exist before the fourth century and the sort of administrative backup, which characterised Alexander's army and especially the Roman legions, was as yet a development in the future. Indeed the success of Macedonian armies precisely in the fourth century 'drew a line under the ideology of amateurism which had so long been dominant in Greece' (p. 95). In the ranks, meanwhile, cowardice could be punished, although only in a haphazard fashion and, if discipline appears to have been more apparent among Greek armies than among those of their external enemies, it was only because it was imposed by collegiality among the soldiers and not through an elaborate chain of command (p. 112). Once ' . . . an army had been assembled and its logistical needs met to the best of a general's ability, there was only so much that soldiers could be expected or made to do' (p. 113).

Part IV, again consisting of two chapters ('Rituals, Rules and Strategies: The Structure of Campaigns', pp. 118-30, 'Ambush, Battle and Siege: Changing Forms of Combat', pp. 131-50), now proceeds to an analysis of the military campaign. 'Whenever possible communities tackled invaders at the border, wherever possible with the aid of natural or man-made defences' (p. 129). Pitched battles were common, however, because it was almost impossible to ensure the defence of a city's chore, so witness the response of the Syracusans to repeated attack by withdrawing their formidable army inside the city walls rather than risk a battle when advantage was not fully on their side. If the enemy, whether Greek or barbarian, gained control of the countryside then a high level of destruction if not utter annihilation could be expected since the aim was to 'do as much damage (as they could), and if there were limitations to their search for honour of profit, these were imposed by logistical than by ethical restraints' (p. 150).

'Exactly how hoplites fought their fearsome battles is not immediately clear from ancient descriptions' (p. 152), which is why Van Wees deals in the three chapters ('The Deeds of Heroes: battles in the Iliad,' pp. 153-65, 'The Archaic Phalanx: infantry combat down to the Persian Wars, pp. 166-83, 'The Classical Phalanx: infantry combat transformed', pp. 184-97) of Part V with how battles were fought and how soldiers behaved in them. 'The impact of the Persian Wars themselves was mainly ideological. It added two new dimensions to hoplite claims of superiority: the notion that Greeks fought of their own free will ... and the idea that a hoplite never gave ground but fought to the death ...' (p. 183). Once again it was the advent of the professional Macedonian phalanx which changed Greek habits in land warfare forever, yet the poleis could not follow suit since they 'lacked the manpower and money to maintain standing armies -- and the Macedonian way of war made demands on skill, stamina and coordination which only fully professional forces could meet (p. 197). Here too the author draws some useful and illuminating comparisons, using as modern examples fighting among the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Finally, but hardly least in significance, is the state of war on the sea. Part VI comprising two chapters ('The Wall of Wood: Ships, Men and Money', pp. 202-14, 'War at Sea: Classical Naval Campaigns', pp. 215-31), dwells, naturally enough, on the evolution of the trireme -- the ancient equivalent of the modern battleship. But the trireme was obviously so much more than a ship of the line since it was the sole fighting vessel in the Mediterranean for several centuries, with some slight modifications. Again (p. 212) Van Wees warns against an expectation of great organisational or administrative advances in supervision of naval forces even if, in association with greater professionalism in hoplite formations, this 'paved the way for the use of professionals capable of executing sophisticated naval manoeuvres' (p. 214). Yet, it is precisely these professional seamen, overlooked in many modern accounts which assert that the nautichos ochlos was the radical democratic element in Athenian politics, who, as Van Wees argues cogently, ensured that the trireme crews remained highly hierarchical. The hardest, or least pleasant, tasks were done by hired foreigners and slaves (p. 230f.).

In keeping with his chronological subject matter, the source evidence is confined largely to the archaic and classical periods. This being so, perhaps understandably seeing the magnitude of the topic, some useful material, which would actually enhance the argument, is overlooked. For example, when discussing the use of tents (p. 107) by armies on campaign, reference could have been made to Arrian who easily illustrates how these became a status symbol for the diadochi, especially for those who were able to commandeer the 'Alexander tent'. Similarly, Diodorus' information is overlooked (p. 27) with regard to the sacking of the temple at Pyrgi by Dionysius I of Syracuse (incidentally this episode is not indexed), while Van Wees could also have mentioned the, similarly motivated, but ultimately abortive plundering of Lipari by Agathokles, also well covered by Diodorus. The mention of service in war 'for an extraordinary long time: from the age of 18 to 60' (p. 46) would have been made more dramatic if reference to Alexander's 'Silver Shields' -- the most sort after (by the successors), and incidentally the most feared brigade (3000 strong), of the Macedonian phalangites, after his death, even though most had ages in excess of 60 -- had been made.[[2]]

Van Wees's conclusions (pp. 232-40) are emphatic: warfare in ancient Greece had its origin in competition for resources, and the pursuit of wealth and honour by a polis was simply the reflection of the desires of its citizens, anyone of who might at some stage chose to seek out individual profit through hiring themselves out. This phenomenon remained a constant during the period. However, the actual process of fighting changed as there evolved a 'more centralised military organisation, ever closer combat in infantry battles, and more sophisticated technology in naval and siege warfare . . . The cause of this transformation was the development of the Greek State.' Van Wees has provided us with a thought-provoking exercise, replete with valuable detail which achieves its aim of debunking -- at long last -- many of those long cherished but, now seen to be, almost ludicrous misconceptions about Greek warfare in the archaic and classical periods. This work will certainly become seminal for future studies in ancient Greek military history; and the author should be commended for this contribution.


[[1]] Yvon Garlan (tr. Janet Lloyd), War in the Ancient World (London 1975, French original 1972).

[[2]] See the discussion of A.B. Bosworth, The Legacy of Alexander: Politics, Warfare and Propaganda (Oxford 2002) 101-02, 114, 142f., for the 'Alexander tent' and, 24 n. 63, 87, 139-41, 151, 155, 165f. for the 'Silver Shields'.