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Phalanx and fallacies

Ways forward in the study of ancient Greek warfare

Opinion is sharply divided among scholars regarding the development of the hoplite phalanx in ancient Greece. Here I try to identify some of the problems and offer solutions that may help to move the study of ancient Greek warfare forward.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

On the 3rd July 2014, I gave a lecture entitled “Phalanx and fallacies: ways forward in the study of ancient Greek warfare” at the International Ancient Warfare Conference organized at the National Library, Aberystwyth, Wales. This was one of the few instances where I actually wrote out my lecture in full. The text is published below.

Phalanx and fallacies

A key topic of debate in the study of ancient Greek warfare concerns the emergence and development of the hoplite (a type of heavy infantryman), the nature of hoplite battle, and whether or not the introduction of the hoplite also wrought changes in the socio-political realm.

Opinion is sharply divided among scholars, who are grouped into either an “orthodox” (traditional) or “heretical” (gradualist) camp. According to the orthodoxy, the emergence of the hoplite is associated early on with the use of phalanx (i.e. massed formation) tactics and indicative of social change in the form of a rise of “middling” farmers. The gradualist camp generally do not believe that the introduction of hoplite equipment went hand-in-hand with either tactical or socio-political changes, at least not until a (much) later stage.

Last year saw the publication of the conference proceedings Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece, edited by Donald Kagan and V.G. Viggiano. This book is remarkable, not because of the quality of the work – though some of its chapters are indeed useful and interesting – but because it so aptly illustrates some of the major problems in the field of the ancient Greek warfare.

In this paper, I am not concerned with particular interpretations, but instead want to draw attention to the rather unsophisticated way in which important issues in the study of Greek warfare are generally treated. In order to illustrate the points that I want to raise in this paper, I have to make use of examples, which should not necessarily be thought of as some kind of personal attack on the author in question, since I think we are, to a greater or lesser extent, guilty of the problems that I want to draw attention to here.

The main problems can, I think, be summarized as follows, making judicious use of generalizations that I hope the reader will forgive. (And I should also stress that many of the problems cited here are not unique to the field of Greek warfare, but are found more generally across various fields covered by students of history.)

First of all, students examining ancient Greek warfare tend to be myopic (i.e. hellenocentric), in the sense that they focus almost entirely on ancient Greece itself and ancient Greek sources, usually from a particular period, with little or no use made of comparative data. Compare this, for example, with the study of Roman warfare, where it is commonplace to compare Roman equipment, tactics, and so forth, with those of the peoples that they fought against, such as the Etruscans, Carthaginians, and various Celtic tribes. Greek warfare instead is regarded by and large as having emerged largely in isolation and is treated as somehow unique – often in conjunction with the fourth point raised below – and therefore not requiring comparative analysis.

Secondly, and by extension, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists tend to put their focus squarely on their own material. Thus, ancient historians and classicists rely almost entirely on texts, each with a different approach, while archaeologists limit themselves to producing detailed overviews of arms and armour. Whenever use is made of another discipline’s evidence, the treatment is often simplistic: a vase-painting may illustrate a point raised in Thucydides, or a verse fragment from a poem can be used to illustrate the existence of archaeologically untraceable types of armour. In other words, the study of ancient Greek warfare appears to be very much unidisciplinary, rather than multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary. In my opinion, only a holistic approach is worthwhile.

Thirdly, there is little scientific rigour that students of Greek warfare apply to how they approach their material. Theoretical frameworks, preconceived notions, and the like, are never made explicit, and one gets the impression that proper interpretation of the sources is on the same level as connoisseurship in the study of Greek vases, with a heavy emphasis on the reputation of the one doing the interpreting, leading to appeals to authority on the one hand, and ad hominem attacks on the other, both serving to strengthen one’s one points when more scientific argumentation is lacking. At the very core, it seems that most authors are completely ignorant when it comes to how one goes about constructing and testing hypotheses. How many realize that a theory is simply a hypothesis that has survived enough tests to become entrenched and should only remain standing as long as it has not been falsified?

Lastly, ancient Greek warfare seems to be one of the few areas of ancient history where rampant nineteenth-century colonialist ideology is still commonly accepted, as demonstrated by how the ancient Greeks are presented, by a frighteningly large number of modern authors, as originators of a supposed “Western way of war”. It is quite remarkable that despite all the advances made in the study of the past, it is still commonplace to regard the ancient Greeks as immediate ancestors of Western nations (mostly the United States and Western Europe), as inventors of democracy, philosophy, and a “Western”-style of warfare, despite literally decades’ worth of research that have proven these notions false.

Only in the field of Greek warfare can a modern author still publish a book in which, in all seriousness, the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) is presented as a struggle during which the Greeks “saved” the West from the Eastern despotism of the Persians. (I am thinking here specifically of James Lacey’s 2011-book, The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, one of several books capitalizing on the success of Victor Davis Hanson’s 1989-abomination, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece.)

Use of comparative analysis

The first problem in the field of Greek warfare is that is almost entirely focused on ancient Greece proper and relies exclusively on ancient Greek evidence. Why is this? I believe that students of Greek warfare have become such specialists that they, in general, know little or nothing about cultures that are not Greek, even if those cultures interacted with the ancient Greeks frequently.

One good example is that the many similarities between the Greeks and people in Anatolia usually go unnoticed; I spoke in an earlier lecture, as well as in my book Henchmen of Ares, of a Greek-Anatolian koine or cultural matrix. Anthony Snodgrass has repeatedly written about how the Greeks may have adopted, or been inspired by, metal armour from Assyria and Central-Europe. But few authors have taken the next logical step of engaging in comparative analysis.

The reason for this, in what will also become clear later, is that the Greeks are considered to have invented their mode of warfare more or less on their own and that, perhaps, they were also unique enough that comparisons are simply not warranted. In this context, Kurt Raaflaub’s contribution to Men of Bronze is fascinating, as it is a complete denial of the validity of comparative analysis when it comes to the “hoplite phalanx”. His case is built largely on the difference in nature between Near-Eastern and Greek armies, and that therefore the evidence from ancient Sumer or Assyria cannot be used to illuminate our understanding of the ancient Greeks. Raaflaub concludes, “the military development that eventually produced the phalanx was essentially a Greek one” (p. 102).

Raaflaub suggests that in order for comparisons to be useful, they must be made between entities that are more or less identical. But if one carries this to the logical extreme, the result is that nothing can be compared. Granted that the Assyrian Empire was a different entity from the average Greek city-state – whatever that may be: see Smith 2003 for a sobering assessment of the risks involved in classification! – but this does not mean that comparative analysis as a whole should be cast to the wayside. Indeed, there are examples where they can prove most illuminating. Hans van Wees, for example, has drawn inspiration from anthropology to aid in the interpretation of the Homeric epics, and he has pointed out the similarities in warfare between New Guinea tribesmen on the one hand and Homeric warriors on the other (2004, pp. 154-158).

There are, of course, certain precautions that need to be taken when comparing one culture with another. When making comparisons, we have to be clear that the two did not exert any influence on each other. This would have been a point of critique that Raaflaub could have raised, but didn’t. After all, there is a strong reason to believe that the Greeks were inspired by the Assyrians when it came to developing bronze helmets, and Daedelic art of the seventh century has long been recognized as having Assyrian influences. Secondly, when comparing different cultures, we have to ensure that the comparison is done on the grounds of more than one characteristic: Hans van Wees’s use of the New Guinea tribesmen fulfils both criteria, as the tribesmen cannot possibly have been influenced by Homer (or vice versa) and there are more similarities between the tribesmen and Homer’s heroes than their style of fighting alone.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how the term phalanx has become more or less calcified as far as its meaning is concerned. Nowadays, phalanx is used – similar to how Lorimer used it in the 1940s – to refer to a group of men deployed in a rectangular formation and arrayed in ranks and files. The term “hoplite phalanx” has become commonplace, but there is, for example, no mention in Herodotus’ Historiai of the phalanx ton hopliton, the “hoplite phalanx”. We do encounter the phrase in the works of later Greek historians (e.g. Xen. Anab. 6.5.27; cf. 1.8.17 and 6.5.25). Perhaps this suggests that phalanx fighting was not yet fully formed, or still relatively new? In any case, some modern authors were also sensitive to the problem, as shown by the following comment by F.E. Adcock in his Greek & Macedonian Art of War (1957), p. 3 and n. 5:

I use phalanx as a convenient word to describe a body of infantry drawn up in close order in several ranks which are also close together. [Footnote: The word was first generally applied to the famous Macedonian phalanx, which was a variant of the hoplite formation with special characteristics of its own.]

So even if one were somehow reluctant to leave the safe confines of the Aegean, there is ample room to compare cultures within the Aegean. Has anyone ever made a detailed comparison between the Macedonian phalanx and the supposed hoplite phalanx? Not to my knowledge.

Likewise, few have commented on the fact that when Alexander crossed into Asia, he faced off against armies that operated in a manner more or less similar to his own, even if the particulars may have been different. We can extend this further into the past: when the Greeks of the seventh century BC fought in the armies of ancient Egypt or Assyria, how were they deployed, and did this differ significantly from how native troops or other mercenaries were arrayed on the battlefield?

Such questions are almost never asked nor answered.

Holistic approaches toward the evidence

When I speak of a “holistic” approach to the evidence, I mean an approach that takes into account as much evidence as possible. For Archaic and Classical Greece, we have, comparatively speaking, a fairly sizeable body of material – texts, iconographic evidence, material remains – readily available.

Yet, most modern authors focus on the class of evidence that they are most comfortable with and treat other types of evidence only incidentally. Classicists and historians focus on texts, each with their own particular focus, while archaeologists rely on a study of the material remains. Other types of evidence are used to illustrate particular points: the Chigi Vase “confirms” the existence of the phalanx in the late seventh century first posited on the basis of texts, while a passage from Archilochus might support the archaeologist’s assumption that Argive shields were heavy.

What we need, however, is a more holistic approach the evidence. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I attempted to adopt just such an approach to Greek warfare, from the Late Bronze Age down to the Persian Wars, in my PhD dissertation. In my thesis, I devoted one chapter each to every type of evidence. Hence, I wrote chapters on burials with arms, finds of arms and armour at sanctuaries, fortifications, the iconographic evidence, the Homeric epics, Archaic poets and inscriptions, and finally a chapter on Herodotus’ Historiai. I then compared and contrasted the different narratives that emerged in each of these chapters in order to forge a fresh overview of warfare in Greece from the Late Bronze Age down to the Persian Wars (i.e. Brouwers 2013). Such approaches to the evidence are, however, rare, and usually more limited in scope.

The proper interpretation of the iconographic material is an acute problem when it comes to ancient Greece in particular. There is no consistent approach to the material, nor has a useful methodology been developed regarding the interpretation of vase-paintings, reliefs, freestanding sculpture, and so forth. Specific problems have been tackled by a number of authors, most notably Anthony Snodgrass in his Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (1998). In this book, Snodgrass tested the assumption that the Homeric epics were, one way or another, a major source for artists of the Archaic period. His results were negative: whenever a vase-painter, for example, had to depict a scene from myth, he more often than not used a version not familiar to us from extant texts or certainly not from Homer.

More rigorous theoretical frameworks

If there is one thing that unites most modern work on Greek warfare, it is the severe lack of any explicit theoretical frameworks. Seldom if ever do authors make clear just why they picked this subject and not another, nor do they explain how they approach the subject. Instead, we are often met by a seemingly detailed treatment of the evidence right off the bat. The evidence may change: classicists focus on texts and philological matters, historians on ancient narratives, and archaeologists on the material remains. But what stays consistent is that theory is usually ignored entirely; just focus on the evidence and make it fit a consistent narrative and you are good to go. However, this lack of awareness when it comes to theory and method means that there are various types of errors that can slip into one’s work.

One example is the so-called Everest fallacy, where the exceptional is regarded as the rule. When it comes to Greek warfare in the Archaic period, Herodotus looms large. Among the battles discussed is the so-called Battle of the Champions: the Spartans and Argives decide to settle their differences by sending 300 picked champions each to fight it out. In the end, both sides claimed victory for different reasons, and the all-out battle between larger armies that they wanted to avoid in the first place erupts anyway, with Sparta emerging as the clear winner (Hdt. 1.82). Modern authors use this and similar instances – such as the Lelantine War, based on a fragment of Archilochus – as examples of “ritualized” warfare.

However, what these modern writers forget is that these battles are recorded by Herodotus and others not because they were typical, but because they were extraordinary. In all likelihood, most battles were not decided by picked champions. This ties into the notion that Greek warfare was “open and honest”, as espoused by Hanson and similar-minded authors. For a debunking of this notion, consult, for example, Peter Krentz’s “Deception in Archaic and Classical Greek warfare”, in: Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000), pp. 167-200.

Another, related example is what Anthony Snodgrass referred to as the “positivist fallacy”: the idea that the evidence that we have of the past, both texts and archaeological remains, document significant events of the past. The earliest hoplite arms and armour appear shortly before 700 BC and become commonplace around 650 BC, when heavy-armed warriors are often depicted with bronze armour, Argive shield, and thrusting spear. The assumption is that the appearance of this type of warrior must be significant, an impression reinforced by a reading of dominant historical texts.

The result is that most modern authors, when they write about Archaic and Classical Greek warfare, focus heavily on the hoplite. Since other types of warriors did not feature heavily in Thucydides, they must therefore have been insignificant in reality. It confuses authorial intent with the realities of the past. As such, the number of books written on Greek cavalry and light troops is small. But as the recent colloquium on Greek warfare in London (April 2012) has shown, there is cause to seriously doubt the existing narrative. Durinng that colloquium, Roel Konijnendijk, for example, made a case that cavalry was far more important in the Classical period than has hitherto been assumed.

Likewise, we often have great difficulty in determining what is representative and what is not. What remains of the past is just a tiny part of what once existed, and we are forced to create a coherent reconstruction of the past with these scraps of information. In some cases, it seems obvious that the evidence is not representative: burials with arms are clearly constructed with a particular intent. When we find a man buried with half a dozen swords, we do not assume that he actually took six swords with him to the battlefield. But should the same interpretive care not also be applied to, for example, finds of armour at sanctuaries? Here is a passage from Hans van Wees’s Greek Warfare (2004), p. 50:

More importantly, even those who did make use of the new armour did not necessarily adopt all of it. It is true that in archaic Greek art the great majority of hoplites is fitted out with the entire panoply, but actual finds of armour show that art presented a highly selective image of life. Judging by the hundreds of pieces of equipment dedicated at Olympia, in the archaic period about one in three soldiers wore greaves and one in ten a metal cuirass.

In the associated footnote, Van Wees acknowledges that perhaps some pieces of armour are perhaps over- or underrepresented, but still claims that “they offer a more reliable indication of proportions of actual use than representations in art do” (p. 266). Why is this the case? Is it not equally possible that cuirasses were kept by the victors or molten down, whereas smaller pieces were more readily deposited at the sanctuaries? Can the material deposited at the sanctuaries not be as subjective as finds from tombs or pictures on pots? The problem is that the idea that the material from the sanctuaries is somehow more representative is just an assumption at this point, perhaps rooted in the most nebulous concept of all, “common sense”. What is necessary is to make explicit why one class of evidence is favoured over another.

Of course, some modern authors simply accept that the data that we possess is limited and open to a variety of interpretations, and that all interpretation is, in their view, valid. I am thinking here in particular of the work by Christopher Tilley and Michael Shanks. Their interpretive archaeology is characterized by their use of Constructivism, i.e. the idea that knowledge of the past is constructed in the present (Shanks 1996, p. 4).

This is often thought to contain a high degree of cultural relativism, which makes their work easy to criticize, even though this isn’t exactly true. Shanks’s Art and the Greek City-State: An Interpretive Archaeology (1999) is a great example of his particular approach to solving this problem. For the most part, the approach, informed by Constructivism, is a mixture of hermeneutics (engaging with pots in a “dialogue” to get a deeper understanding) and narrativism (explaining through creating narratives); see also Hodder 1992, pp. 183-200.

Characteristic to Shanks’s approach is that it is rooted in evidence: pots are discussed in considerable detail and his work includes statistical analyses. Unlike most authors, he goes into detail regarding his approach and also why he picked this particular topic for study. The answer is in keeping with interpretive archaeology: he picked the topic because it was of personal interest to him (see, esp., Shanks 1991, pp. 9-12).

One of the key problems in the field of Greek warfare involves explaining when and how hoplite warfare came about. When it comes to explanation, there are different approaches one can take, but the easiest is the so-called narrativist approach, which I think most modern authors use unwittingly. It is closely related to the hermeneutical approach, where we get a better impression of the source in question the more we read it and engage with it.

In the narrativist approach, relationships between “facts” and “events” are created by the writer in question; they are not necessarily self-evident and rely in fact on the author in question making the connections. It is, therefore, to a considerable degree a subjective approach to the source material, but one that is difficult to avoid. Instead, the burden is on the author to make explicit his or her reasoning: why, for example, is hoplite warfare considered to be a consequence of the “rise” of “middling farmers”?

This brings me to a final point that I wish to raise, namely the fact that most authors forget basic tenets of the scientific method, namely that a hypothesis should be tested, that a theory is nothing more than a hypothesis that seems, after initial tests, to be accurate, and that a theory likewise should remain intact only insofar as it cannot be falsified. In the natural sciences, a hypothesis is tested through experimentation. There are instances where hypotheses based on a study of the ancient sources can be tested, for example through experimental archaeology and re-enactment. See, for instance, some contributions to The Cutting Edge: Studies in Ancient and Medieval Combat (2007), edited by Barry Molloy.

In other cases, the key to testing a hypothesis – or indeed a more entrenched theory – is to attempt to falsify it. Yet, in actual practice, I hardly ever see any attempts by modern authors to actually engage with their own ideas and those of others on this basic level of scientific enquiry. One notable exception is Lin Foxhall’s contribution to Men of Bronze (pp. 194-221), in which she used information from archaeological surveys to answer a simple question: “Can we see the ‘Hoplite Revolution’ on the ground?”

In particular, she engages directly with some of Hanson’s ideas and concludes that at least one aspect, based on the archaeological evidence, is incorrect, and that elsewhere he is anachronistic. Even for the Classical period, it is difficult to find traces of the “small independent farmer” on the ground (op. cit., p. 217). Foxhall ultimately suggests that perhaps “we are seeing different things in the archaeological and historical records” (p. 218), which seems to me intended to soften the hard conclusions offered by the archaeological survey data. Regardless, this is one instance in which an existing theory is actually put the test and the results are negative.

A useful exercise at this point is to dissect a particular example of modern authors’ inability to usefully interact with existing contrary hypotheses and theories, resulting in appeals to authority and/or ad hominem attacks. Let’s take a look at the following passage from the very end of Kagan and Viggiano’s introduction to Men of Bronze (p. xxi):

The editors of this volume do not expect the following essays to end the debate over hoplite arms, tactics, and their relationship to the rise of the polis and the larger issues of Greek culture. On the contrary, the idea behind the conference was to determine how well the orthodoxy holds up in light of recent research and criticism. Second, we wanted to challenge the revisionists to clarify their position with a view to offering a coherent paradigm as a more plausible alternative, if possible. In that respect, the objective is to initiate a debate that should result in either a restatement of the traditional narrative or nothing short of rewriting the history of the early Greek polis.

This passage is a confused mess of a number of different ideas, symptomatic for the rather frustratingly chaotic introduction as a whole. First of all, it is clear that the authors themselves are firmly in the orthodox camp, and this coloured their entire approach to the conference, which was not intended to be a forum to freely exchange ideas but rather intended to show “how well the orthodoxy holds up”, while at the same time challenging “the revisionists to clarify their position with a view to offering a coherent paradigm as a more plausible alternative, if possible” (emphasis mine).

The boundaries are drawn rather firmly: the orthodoxy can only be overthrown if the revisionists offer “a more plausible alternative”. Should the latter succeed, the results would be cataclysmic: “nothing short of rewriting the history of the early Greek polis”. Nowhere else in the book does the “Greek polis” feature prominently as a concept, nor is it explained anywhere, nor do the authors make clear how a reinterpretation of Greek warfare would lead to a radical rewriting of the history of that concept. The orthodoxy is presented as a venerable old man, threatened to be overthrown by upstarts who apparently lack “a coherent paradigm”, as if coherency is the one criterion to define a theory’s survivability.

What the object of the conference should have been, in my opinion, was to evaluate current ideas and test existing theories, while bringing new hypotheses to the fore. However, what we got instead was two groups of people, where one group – the “revisionists” or “gradualists” – attempted to introduce new ideas, while the other – adherents to the “orthodoxy” – simply restated the same ideas again and again, as if reprinting them again and again will make them inviolable. A good example is Hanson’s contribution to Men of Bronze, printed as the final chapter to the book, to which I shall return later.

Ideological concerns

Just as most authors do not explain their theoretical frameworks or clarify their approach to a particular subject, so too do they generally ignore the very real problem of confirmation bias. The latter is usually rooted in how the ancient world, and ancient Greece in particular, is regarded. The usual assumption – is this is all it is, really – is that the ancient Greeks are regarded as the ancestors of what is deceptively called “Western civilization”. Did the ancient Athenians not invent democracy? Did they not give us philosophy and drama? And does their way of fighting – about which we apparently know sufficient to make sweeping statements that cover the whole of the Greek historical period from ca. 800 to 300 BC – prefigure our own?

The problem, of course, is that such perceived continuity from the ancient Greek world to our own should be proven, not accepted outright. When we assume that there is a direct line from Pericles to Obama, nothing is proven, only assumed. When we do this, we ignore the influence of the Romans, as well as the not inconsiderable influences that the Middle Ages exerted on social, cultural, political, and – indeed – military developments in Europe.

We ignore the fact that the notion of our Classical heritage was created, more or less, during the renaissance and other early stages of the Early Modern era. During those centuries, the Classical past was made to fit the needs of contemporary thinkers, writers, artists, and politicians, like Procrustes mutilating his guests to fit his iron bed. For example, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a noteworthy book, not because of what it tells us about the Roman Empire, but of what it tells us about Gibbon (1737-1794) and his age.

This assumption that the Greeks were just like us is a powerful force in much writing on Greek warfare. The key example, of course, is Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War (2000 [1989]). Early in the book, Hanson employs a rhetorical trick to convince the reader of his particular approach to Greek warfare, which I find reprehensible from both a historical and contemporary point of view (p. 13):

We have put ourselves out of business, so to speak; for any potential adversary has now discovered the futility of an open, deliberate struggle on a Western-style battlefield against the firepower and discipline of Western infantry. Yet, ominously, the legacy of the Greeks’ battle style lingers on, a narcotic that we cannot put away. […] There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush?

Hanson gets the honour of writing the final chapter to Men of Bronze and uses that to restate what he has written many times before. Perhaps as a result of feeling cornered, he also makes a mistake that one would find hair-raising to find in the work of a first-year student, namely a blatant appeal to authority: on page 269, he writes that the orthodoxy was established “over a centuries-long tradition in scholarship by scholars as diverse as F.E. Adcock, J.K. Anderson, H. Delbrück, Y. Garlan, A.W. Gomme, G.B. Grundy, J. Kromayer, W.K. Pritchett, A. Snodgrass, and dozens of others”.

Aside from the fact that many of these authors may not be recognize their ideas in the orthodoxy as presented by Hanson, the fact that a particular hypothesis or theory managed to survive – alongside competing hypotheses and theories! – does not mean that it cannot or should not be overthrown. Indeed, one can make an equally impressive list of authors that support the “gradualist” point of view, and some of those authors would be the same cited by Hanson. The gradualists are not, as Hanson suggest, a recent phenomenon; witness, for example, A.D. Frazer’s “The myth of the hoplite scrimmage”, Classical Weekly 36 (1942), pp. 15–16.

Hale’s contribution to Men of Bronze raises an interesting point, even though it is largely based on earlier research by Luraghi, but the conclusion is a disappointment. Hale posits the idea that the hoplite warfare was created not in Greece, but on the battlefields of the ancient Near East frequented by Greek sellswords. So far, so good. But when Hale has to answer the question why these Greeks were used en masse by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others, his answer suddenly appeals to the Volksgeist of the Greek people, and makes a direct connection between geography and physical attributes that comes straight from the nineteenth century:

Greece was a harder land than most. Starting in the eighth century, its sons began to surpass all other dwellers around the Mediterranean in sheer physical strength and toughness, the ability to wield heavy hoplite arms and carry them over long distances, and a fierce and battle-ready mentality. The cost of this mastery was the physical training required to manage the shield for long stretches of time. From this necessity sprang the masculine Greek mania for physical fitness, the idiosyncratic Greek pride in displaying and depicting their muscular, naked physiques, and the corresponding scorn for the stereotypical pale, soft, untanned bodies of Asiatics.

Or, of course, as Hans van Wees remarked in his lecture at the Greek warfare colloquium in London last April, the main reason that Greek mercenaries were of interest to the ancient empires of the Near East was probably not because they were inherently superior or used superior equipment or tactics, but rather because they simply added more manpower. The fact that this did not occur to Hale is a testament to the strength of current ideological thought in the field of Greek warfare, and one – in my opinion – to be deeply regretted.

Closing remarks

As I come to the end of my paper, I hope that I have not come across as overly negative. The point of this paper is not to scold anyone, but simply to make you aware, as I see it, of some of the fundamental problems in the study of Greek warfare. My examples were meant to illustrate these problems and do not necessarily suggest an overall negative opinion about the contributions made by these authors to our particular object of study. To sum up, I wish to restate the four ways in which I think the study of Greek warfare can be pushed forwards.

Firstly, we have to make use of comparative analysis. The ancient Greeks did not operate in isolation and they should therefore not be studied in isolation, either. Instead, I believe that we can make useful comparisons between the Greeks and earlier as well as later cultures, known either archaeologically or anthropologically, as well as between Greeks and other peoples that they came into touch with. Why, for example, have there not been any detailed studies on the relationship between Etruscan and Greek warfare? The famous Chigi Vase, for example, may have been Corinthian in make, but it was found in an Etruscan tomb, and may have been used by Etruscans before being deposited in the grave.

Similarly, we need to adopt a more holistic or interdisciplinary approach to Greek warfare. We should break away from our focus on just those types of evidence that we are comfortable with and treat other classes of material with equal rigour. This means that we sometimes have to operate out of our comfort zone or – heaven forfend! – work together with colleagues from other disciplines. But engaging with as much available evidence as possible is necessary to arrive at new insights; otherwise, we may never get out of, for example, just rewriting Herodotus over and over again.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to make our theoretical frameworks explicit. If you have no idea what kinds of theories and methods you employ in your work, it is time to engage in some introspection. It is perfectly acceptable to tell the reader what your biases are and how you approach a particular topic. Indeed, you can even tell the reader that you picked the topic because it is of personal interest to you. But make sure that it is obvious to the reader exactly why you picked this or that subject, why you chose that bit of evidence and not another, and how you arrive at your conclusions. Good scholarly writing is not just about writing an appealing narrative: it has to be grounded in good scholarship or – in a word – science.

Finally, and related to the foregoing, is that we have to be aware of how our own ideas about the past – and, indeed, even the present – may colour our interpretations of it. If you wish to write a political pamphlet in which Greek warfare is linked to modern ideology, that is your choice: just be sure not to couch it in terms that make it seem like a scholarly work that represents a particular historical “truth”. If you insist that the ancient Greeks were just like us, then this is something that needs to be demonstrated, not simply accepted as true from outset.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece (2013).
  • Ian Hodder, Theory and Practice in Archaeology (1992).
  • Donald Kagan and V.G. Viggiano (eds), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (2013).
  • Peter Krentz, “Deception in Archaic and Classical Greek warfare”, in: Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000), pp. 167-200.
  • Barry Molloy (ed.), The Cutting Edge: Studies in Ancient and Medieval Combat (2007).
  • Michael Shanks, Classical Archaeology of Greece (1996).
  • Adam Smith’s The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities (2003).
  • Anthony Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (1998).
  • Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.