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Josho Brouwers

Five books to understand Greek warfare

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If you want to make a serious study of Greek warfare, these are the five books I would recommend that you give a look.


Now, at the outset, I have to make clear that I am clearly biased when it comes to my own ideas as regards Greek warfare and the kind of authors/books that I would recommend. For example, I have serious reservations with the whole notion of Greek warfare somehow being the foundation for "Western warfare", as I have explained in a few blog posts, as well as my first book, recent lecturs, etc. As a result, you won't find me recommending books like Hanson's The Western Way of War, or Paul Cartledge's recent abortion on Plataea.


What I will recommend, however, are authors that offer a good overview of Greek warfare and who also manage to set their ideas against the backdrop of current debates in academia. You may disagree with them, but at least they make clear what they think, why think this, and who they agree or disagree with. In other words, the books listed below are useful not just because they offer overviews of Greek warfare, but also because they provide a context for their ideas and are thus a suitable jumping off point for your own studies, with plenty of references.


J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Antiquity (2005)

I cheat a little bit, since Lendon's book deals with both Greek and Roman warfare. However, the reason for this is Lendon's idea that Homer's shadow loomed large across the military traditions of Greece and Rome, and that they can thus be viewed as part of a continuum of sorts. The book is well written and has plenty of references. What takes the book to the next level, however, are the bibliographic notes (starting at page 393). If you don't know anything about the study of ancient warfare, start reading here, and Lendon'll get you up to speed over the course of a little under 50 pages.


Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004)

Hans van Wees is probably best known for his PhD thesis, Status Warriors: War, Violence, and Society in Homer and History (published in 1992), but this book represents the results of two decades' worth of study. It serves as a counterpoint to Hanson's Western Way of War, but also builds on Van Wees's earlier work. Lendon's book is very much based on ancient texts. Van Wees is also a historian, but adds insights gleaned from archaeological and iconographic sources (not always completely successful, I think, but my quibbles are minor), and also manages to make some ethnographic comparisons that are interesting. Written in a pleasant style and with plenty of pictures, this is a good book to have on your shelf.


Louis Rawlings, The Ancient Greeks at War (2007)

Both Lendon and Van Wees have written their books with very specific ideas about Classical warfare in mind, often set specifically against particular academic debates. If you are looking for a more straightforward introduction to ancient Greek warfare, I think this book by Louis Rawlings would be the perfect starting point. The chapters are arranged according to theme, allowing you to get to grips instantly with regard to, for example, the connections between warfare and economy in ancient Greece.


Victor Davis Hanson (ed.), Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (1991)

You probably never expected me to recommend any book by Hanson, but this edited volume actually isn't that bad, all in all. Of course, it does include Hanson's rather idiosyncratic notions as regards Greek warfare being the ancestor of modern warfare in the West, but it also contains some interesting contributions by the likes of J.K. Anderson, Everett Wheeler, Peter Krentz, and others. Pamela Vaugh's paper on the identification and retrieval of corpses from the battlefield is certainly interesting, as is Krentz's treatment of the salpinx, and A.H. Jackson's paper on the dedication of arms and armour. The collection as a whole is certainly worth giving a read and the extensive notes make it useful as a jumping-off point for further study.


Anthony Snodgrass, Arms and Armour of the Greeks (1999, revised; 1967)

Snodgrass's PhD thesis, Early Greek Armour and Weapons (1964), was the basis for this booklet that deals with Greek warfare from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period. It is outdated in some respects, but there haven't really been any books in recent years that try to deal as fully with the archaeological material as Snodgrass has. This is what makes this book important: the fact that it's written by an archaeologist rather than a historian, and thus devotes more time to a fuller treatment of the relevant objects. If I'm allowed to cheat a little bit, Tim Everson's Warfare in Ancient Greece (2004), does a decent job of updating Snodgrass's original PhD thesis and you should probably try to get a copy of that work, too.


Despite active interest in Greek warfare, there hasn't been a book that really deals equally with both the historical and the archaeological data for the period as a whole. Publications on Greek warfare, especially more general treatments, are almost invariably written by ancient historians. Archaeologists on the whole seem more content to produce catalogues and similar treatments of the material, usually letting historians – who are typically not trained in the proper interpretation of material remains – to tell the grand narratives. As a result, there is still that one great book on ancient Greek warfare left to write, preferably by a more rounded scholar or, indeed, a team consisting of at least one historian and one archaeologist.

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You might like to read Christopher Matthew's "A storm of Spear" then, one of the very rare books that attempt to look at as many archeological remains and ancient representations of warfare as possible to reassess ancient greek warfare without the bias of previous authors and then to confront the "truth as it comes from the ground" with the various theories floating around on the topic. 


"Men of bronze : hoplite warfare in ancient greece", edited by D. Kagan andG.F. Viggiano is also a nice read by the way, if only to see were the lines of scholarship were drawn in 2008 (a pity the book came out 5 years after the conference...)

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