Great Battles of the Classical Greek World by Owen Rees

Book Review by Martin Holmes

This book reads like a breath of fresh air. Admittedly, when I first picked it up I was ambivalent, even reluctant, to read it. After all, hasn`t ancient warfare been done to death already? Documentaries and movies and novels about the Greco-Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars abound. Historians, classicists, archaeologists - both professional and amateur - have discussed and re-discussed Greek warfare for decades. Did we really need another budding historian raking over the same old ground, I wondered? How much more can be said about Thermopylae and Sparta, Xerxes and Persia? Wasn`t it time to search for greener pastures?

Thankfully, my doubts were unfounded. Great Battles of the Classical Greek World, despite its somewhat dull title, is not a regurgitation of the same old story. Indeed, the primary reason Owen Rees wrote the book was to question the stale, static view many people - scholars included - have of classical Greek warfare, and to propose a new, fresh way of looking at things. He argues that the prevailing model or idea of classical Greek warfare, namely blocks of hoplites organised into phalanx formations fighting on open ground, is out of date. The classical Greeks, he argues, were far more innovative than popularly believed.

To prove his point, Rees organises his book into four sections: 1) The Peloponnesian War; 2) The Spartan hegemony; 3) Siege Warfare; and 4) The Greco-Persian Conflicts. Each section contains three to six chapters, each one outlining and assessing a particular battle. A total of seventeen are studied. Some are famous, such as Marathon, Amphipolis, and Sphacteria; some, such as Olpae and the Long Walls of Corinth, are less so. Unlike most historians, Rees often does not quote directly from the primary sources to prove his point. Instead, he notes the relevant sources at the beginning (eg., Xenophon, Anabasis, B.1-8.1), provides context and relevant background, and then writes a concise account of the battle and its aftereffects. This enables interested readers to consult ancient sources directly and compare them to his own, while keeping the chapters free from long-winded quotations and copious footnotes which, he believes, distracts and confuses some people.

What results is a concise, lively, and ultimately remarkable study of classical Greek warfare. Emphasising the quirky and the original, he persuasively argues that, not only is the traditional model obsolete, it is also misleading. Of the seventeen battles he discusses, only four conform to the phalanx-against-phalanx model. The other thirteen deviated significantly. At Olpae, for instance, the Athenians did not win because their phalanx was superior but because they hid a few hundred men in the bushes who, at an opportune moment, charged the enemy from behind and shattered their formation, killing the enemy commander in the process. At both Amphipolis and Marathon victory emerged not from rigid formation and group discipline but from loose, foolhardy charges across unfavourable terrain towards a superior enemy force, succeeding through a combination of surprise and near-reckless bravery. Reading Rees, I was reminded just how inventive the Greeks could be, and how much dumb-luck and sheer audacity contributed to victory on the battlefield.

The chief achievement of the book, I think, is its section on sieges, an area somewhat neglected by historians. Unlike the Assyrians before them or the Romans afterwards, the Greeks were not adept at sieges, developing little technology beyond the ladder and the battering ram. Sieges were neither honourable nor desirable, and were avoided wherever possible. Because the Greeks lived in poleis, though, and were often at war with one another, sieges were inevitable. Lacking the required technology and desire to see them through, Rees remarks that sieges were often ended by treachery and deception; underhand methods were key. At Sphacteria the Spartans were hounded into submission not by hand-to-hand fighting between hoplites but by starvation, fire, and an unrelenting artillery barrage of arrows and slingshot. The Siege of Plataea involved building walls and counter-walls, mounds and counter-mounds, blazing fires, and, in the case of the defenders, a deadly sally in the dark of night to assassinate their attackers and effect an escape.

The only issues I have with the book are positive. On the one hand, it was not long enough! Some aspects, particularly the section on the Greco-Persian Conflict, were too short. No doubt Rees had a word limit with his publishers, and probably he did not wish to burden his readers with overly long accounts, yet even two or three more pages on each battle would have raised the book up a notch. On the other hand, Rees occasionally does not go into enough detail, and does not explain certain things. Why did the Thebans and Boeotians organise themselves into deep formations? At the Battle of the Nemea he suggests it was due to fear. Yet was that why the tactic originated? If so, why were they so afraid of their fellow Greeks? Throughout the book Rees remarks that the Thebans, more than most Greek poleis, were willing to aid and abet Persia. Why? In the conclusion he notes the fascination the Greeks had with war and battles, and how this fascination impacted their culture and social life. Again, why? Most perplexingly, a full map of ancient Greece and the Aegean was missing, leaving it up to the reader to find (or remember) the locations of Thessaly, Arcadia, Syracuse, Babylon, and so on.

These issues, however, are superficial. Owen Rees`s Great Battles is a great read - even more so considering it is his first book. I recommend it to everyone passionate about classical Greece or even the ancient world in general. Military historians especially may be impressed by his vibrant retelling of intrigue, fanatical courage, and twists of fate on the classical Greek battlefield.

I eagerly await the release of his companion volume: Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World.

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