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Understanding Greek Warfare

A new book by Matthew A. Sears

It is not easy to summarise Greek warfare in a single work. Matthew Sears’ Understanding Greek Warfare pulls it off by not rattling any cages.

Written by Roel Konijnendijk on

There is a lasting fascination with the warfare of the ancient Greeks both within and outside the academy. Books, movies and games attest to the wide appeal of Greek military history, inspiring many to seek out reliable reading and learn more. Yet there are few works that offer undergraduate students and interested laypeople a full and accessible introduction to the subject. To fill this need, Matthew A. Sears has taken on the task of writing his own textbook, Understanding Greek Warfare (2019): a volume of 220 densely packed pages, with illustrations, a few useful maps, and a bibliography for further reading.

Apart from a chapter on naval warfare, Sears treats his subject in chronological order, starting with the Late Bronze Age and ending with the coming of Rome. There are chapters on the rise of the hoplite phalanx, the Peloponnesian War, fourth century warfare and the rise of mercenaries, Philip and Alexander, and the warfare of the Hellenistic period. The chapters are neatly balanced – each about 30 pages long – and typically contain an overview of key developments, a section or two on important themes like military professionalisation or reflections on war in theatre, and a detailed account of two representative battles or commanders. Along with the general bibliography, each chapter comes with a brief list of recommended works on its specific subject.

Given the book’s enormous scope and modest length, choices had to be made about what to include. Some topics commonly covered in recent works on ancient warfare are regrettably not represented here: there are no sections on “war and society”, the economy, religion, or the role of women. Only some of these aspects are touched on in passing. Even so, this is not a narrow military history of battles and campaigns. Sears stresses the interconnectedness of war, politics and ideology throughout, and covers a wide range of subjects, sources and scholarship. He summarises effectively and writes engagingly, offering exactly the kind of first introduction the book is intended to be. To the expert, chapters like the one on the Peloponnesian War may feel generic and somewhat superficial, but this is only because the author is covering a huge topic as efficiently as possible in the limited space available.

Sears is at his best when he draws together disparate topics into succinct and insightful discussions of key developments. His section on Early Greek warfare lays out how Homer’s epics may reflect the real military practices of the empires of the Late Bronze Age. His account of the rise of fourth-century strongmen neatly describes the political and financial limitations of the military efforts of the Greek states, and shows how men like Jason of Pherai, Dionysios of Syracuse and Philip II were able to rise above them. Such sections show that Sears is equal to the challenge of writing up a coherent account of the entire history of Greek warfare in a way that explains rather than obscures its peculiarities.

But the work is not always so lucid. Commonplaces of older scholarship are sometimes repeated uncritically even when they are obviously misconceived. Sears still calls the hoplite’s shield a hoplon (p. 32) even though the Classical sources practically never call it that, and refer to the shield consistently as an aspis. He adopts the highly artificial model of hoplite battle derived from Rüstow and Köchly’s work from the mid-nineteenth century, in which all pitched battles were decided by a supposed second clash between the victorious right wings of each army (p. 44) until Epameinondas finally released the Greeks from this tactical straitjacket (p. 54). He states emphatically that the Peloponnesian War involved only two pitched battles (pp. 53, 96-97), ignoring a long list of other engagements between hoplites in the open, including all the battles of the Sicilian Expedition. He rehearses the notion that the availability of mercenaries in fourth-century Greece was due to the devastation and impoverishment caused by the Peloponnesian War (p. 122), even though most of these mercenaries came from regions unaffected by that conflict. He states that the sarisai of the rear ranks of the pike phalanx served as a shield against missiles (p. 153) – a bit of common knowledge based on a single line of theoretical speculation in Polybios. Both of the commanders he selects as exemplary of the Hellenistic period (Pyrrhos and Hannibal) defy his repeated assertion of the orthodoxy that the armies of this era no longer knew how to use cavalry effectively.

These may be minor points, but they are signs of a larger problem. The book shows too much deference to traditional narratives. Sears is refreshingly critical of the veneration that ancient and modern writers have shown towards Perikles and Alexander, but elsewhere he seems in thrall to a kind of “Great Men” narrative in which all developments in Greek warfare are the sole achievement of visionaries like Themistokles, Alkibiades and Iphikrates. Characteristically, he accepts the ancient idea that Philip of Macedon learned all his military skills from Epameinondas while he was a hostage in Thebes (pp. 136, 152-3), even though there is hardly anything similar about the known tactics or leadership styles of the two commanders. The desire to close the loop, excluding the possibility of any military ingenuity by some obscure non-genius, seems to remain too strong.

The account of Xerxes’ invasion feels even more old-fashioned. Those who participated in the Greek “struggle for freedom” (p. 53) are variously described as “heroic” (p. 55) and “patriotic” (p. 72) while the defeat at Thermopylai is papered over as “in many ways a moral victory” (p. 73). Outdoing centuries of scholarship and popular culture glorifying the hopeless fight at the pass, Sears actually argues that the Greeks would have won the battle easily if not for Ephialtes’ treason (pp. 53, 72). Unaffected by any scholarship on the Achaemenids, this eulogy will have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing many readers’ pre-existing Hellenocentric bias.

Finally, Sears’ account of the emergence of hoplite warfare is wholly constructed around the century-old “grand hoplite narrative” most famously championed in recent years by Victor Davis Hanson. What goes for a balanced approach to scholarly controversy in the section on the rise of hoplite and phalanx is actually six pages of Hansonite orthodoxy, followed by a single paragraph of critical notes from revisionists (pp. 32-39). The orthodoxy is characterised as “evocative and compelling” (p. 43) and Hanson’s work on hoplite combat and the role of the hoplite in Greek history receives particular praise, though interspersed with a few corrections (p. 43-46).

The overall impression is that Hanson’s views are basically sound (with some caveats) and therefore rightly influential. But Hanson intentionally presents his evidence through a strong ideological filter, especially where the supposed agrarian middle-class hoplite is concerned. His effort to turn traditional views on the rise of the hoplite phalanx into an origin story for a perceived “western way of war” and, ultimately, for the supposedly unique “western” achievements of rationalism, individualism and equal rights, is pregnant with present-day socio-political implications. We should be wary of judging the pillars of his white supremacist project on their own merits – even aside from the fact that they have been subjected to decades of sustained scholarly criticism. Sears’ largely traditional account does not reflect the state of the field.

These problems likely go back to the fact that, in many areas, the bibliography is not what it could have been. While recent articles are cited on some specific topics, such as the combat agate found in a grave at Pylos or the role of the Macedonian cavalry at the battle of Chaironeia, many key works that have appeared over the last fifteen years are missing. There is no reference to scholars such as John Dayton, Adam Schwartz, Louis Rawlings, Jason Crowley, Josho Brouwers or Fernando Echeverría. There is no reference to any of the revolutionary work on Sparta that has been steadily produced by an international network of scholars under the aegis of Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell. While Hans van Wees’ works are represented, there is no mention of his Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute (2013) or his chapter in Kagan and Viggiano’s Men of Bronze (2013), both of which affect the account of developments in the Archaic period in fundamental ways. To be sure, the bibliography does not claim to be comprehensive, and allowances must be made for the need for rigorous selection in an introductory work. But the result is a book that is in many ways less up-to-date and less insightful than Rawlings’ The Ancient Greeks at War (2007).

Considering these problems, I find it difficult to recommend this book. I have stressed at the beginning that Sears’ task was a daunting one, and that he often acquits himself admirably of it; he has produced a solid and readable overview of an enormous topic that combines frequent sharp analysis with a mostly well-judged selection of material. But it strikes me less as a tool with which to teach than as a baseline from which to start teaching. It does more to establish the ideas we must strive to move past than to demonstrate how this might be done. Rawlings’ work remains the better, though unfortunately much pricier, introduction to Greek warfare.