Monday, December 20, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Everett L. Wheeler (ed.), The Armies of Classical Greece. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. lxiv, 528 p. : ill., maps. ISBN 9780754626848. $275.

Reviewed by John Buckler, Gloucester, Mass.

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Table of Contents

The reviewer wishes first to apologize both to E.L. Wheeler and to the editors of BMCR for the unfortunate, but unavoidable, delay in submitting this review. The book contains an introduction of 64 pages and a selection of 24 articles in English divided into the five categories of (1) Archaic Warfare, (2) Religious, Social, Economic, and Legal Aspects, (3) Classical Hoplite Battle, (4) The Peloponnesian War: 431-404 BC, and (5) The Age of Xenophon and Epaminondas: 404-362 BC. As all of the contributions have been previously published, there is no need for further comment on them here. Yet a legitimate question arises whether all of them deserve inclusion. W.S. Ferguson's piece on the Zulus and Spartans, though something of a pioneering work on anthropological comparisons, seems rather long for the value of its contribution to the collection. Wheeler (p. xliv) has so concisely epitomized J.L. Myres' note on the "unannounced war" that its inclusion is otiose. It is likewise difficult to agree that D. Whitehead's study of klope polemou, (pp. 289-299), a stolen victory in war, contributes much to the section's theme. A.K. Nefiodkin's article on scythed chariots (pp. 493-502) covers a subject of minimal tactical importance and could well have been omitted. While these few examples possess their own merit, one can question how truly pertinent they are to the subject.

Wheeler relies on N. Whatley's famous article (pp. 301-321) on Marathon to deny that modern scholars can accurately reconstruct ancient battles. If they cannot, an essential part of the subject remains sealed to posterity. Despite Whatley's disbelief, J.A.G. Van der Veer, Mnemosyne 35 (1982) 290-321 (cited on p. xlix, n. 111) accurately combines topographical investigation with the literary sources to provide a sound account of the battle. Nonetheless, in another case Wheeler (p. l) endorses Whatley's incredulity when he opines "Despite certainty about the location of Plataea, the topography of the battle (479) remains an enigma". The statement astounds. While not simple, Plataia is hardly incomprehensible. For the battle A.R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks, (London 1962), 519-524; W.K. Pritchett, Studies in Ancient Greek Topography, I (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1965), ch. 8, and others have all demonstrated how accurate knowledge of the terrain yields an incomparable understanding of the texts that in turn results in a surprisingly complete picture of the battle. The same thing can be said of very many other engagements. Wheeler includes (p. lxiv) Leuktra as the only other battle. In praise of V.D. Hanson's (pp. 503-520) study of it, he states that Hanson has "exploded the myth of Leuctra", which may not be the last word on the subject. At any rate Wheeler has failed to give considered attention to this vital aspect of military history.

Apart from Marathon Wheeler devotes little attention to the Persian War despite its fundamental significance to Greek and broader European history. The Persian demand of earth and water from all states (Hdt. 7.32, 132-133) demonstrated the general danger. It also defined the Greeks as a people who shared a common identity, culture, and language. The common threat demanded a common response. The Greeks answered by establishing for the first time a panhellenic political and military structure, the Hellenic League (Hdt. 7.145; 9.92.1) to plan and direct the common defense. The members jointly made the strategic decisions for it. They decided when and where to join battle, leaving the generals to make the tactical dispositions. This challenge also widened the political and geographical horizons of the Greeks, as they found themselves operating as far afield as Thessaly (Hdt. 7.172.2-173). They also fought on a much expanded scale not only in terms of armies and fleets but also in logistics, the importance of which became acutely obvious at Plataia, when Persian cavalry prevented their supply train from descending Mt. Kithairon (Hdt. 9.50). The Greeks also agreed that the Spartans should assume overall leadership. When they did so, they created the first military hegemony since the epic one of Agamemnon in the Iliad. Part of the military organization included a council of allied generals, most prominently those of Athens and Corinth. After Pausanias' disgrace, the Athenians kept the Hellenic League alive first as the Delian League and subsequently as the Athenian Empire. Thus pan-Greek defiance of Persia left both a political and a military heritage to the fifth century and beyond.

By largely ignoring the Persian War in the introduction, Wheeler fails to discuss two important aspects of it. The first involves the obvious superiority of the hoplite to the Persian infantryman armed with a short spear, sword, bow, and wicker shield. On the level ground preferred by hoplites the Persians also resorted to wicker walls, as at Plataia (Hdt. 9.61.3, 62.2-3) and Mykale (Hdt. 9.102-103). In the confined space of Thermopylai the Persian soldier could only confront the Greek hoplite frontally, in which case his shield and sword proved virtually useless. None of these engagements was a typical hoplite battle fought entirely on level ground. Yet that actually increased Greek confidence in the traditional method of warfare. Nonetheless, the Greeks failed to appreciate the vulnerability of the hoplite and his phalanx to Persian cavalry. Miltiades had earlier proved the exception at Marathon, where he waited until the Persian cavalry had re-embarked before attacking (Hdt. 6.112-113; Suda, s.v. choris hippeis), though not all accept the validity of this piece of late evidence. Plataia, however, demonstrated the value of Persian horsemen. They and accompanying archers forced the Greeks out of their position at the Gargaphian spring (Hdt. 9.49.2), blocked them from the waters of the Asopos (Hdt. 9.49.2-3), and pinned them down for an entire day before night allowed them to retire to a safe position (Hdt. 9.52.1). For whatever reason Persian cavalry failed to support Mardonios, but Boiotian horsemen successfully covered the flight of the defeated Persians (Hdt. 9.68). Yet until then cavalry had denied the open ground to the Greek hoplite. Victory in these cases justified Greek confidence in the traditional mode of warfare, but it also blinded them to the merit of horsemen when properly used. The omission of these factors made it impossible for Wheeler to link them to the increasing value of horsemen in later periods, including Delion (424 BC) in the Peloponnesian War and notably in the fourth century, when under Epameinondas they played a major role at Leuktra and Mantineia (cf. Hanson, pp. 503-520).

Regarding the Peloponnesian War, Wheeler (pp.liv-lv) raises the question of whether that epic conflict constituted a "military revolution", and suggests approaching the topic from a broad perspective. He is surely right to emphasize the military contributions of previous conflicts. In fact, the developments of the fifth and fourth centuries demonstrate evolution rather than revolution. All of the military components of the war already existed in 431 BC: hoplites, light-armed, peltasts, cavalry, rudimentary siege machinery, forts, triremes. Yet Wheeler does not discuss the diplomatic contribution to the question. For example, the fort at Dekeleia, though a major factor in the Spartan victory, had its antecedents, as H.D. Westlake (pp. 380-382) duly notes. Nevertheless, possession of Dekeleia alone did not defeat Athens. The Spartans could not win the Ionian War without a fleet, and in 412 BC the Persians provided them with naval and military support in return for the Greek cities of Asia Minor (Thuc. 8.37, 58). The Spartans then used their forces without military or naval innovations to defeat Athens. The Spartan- Persian alliance was the real revolution. By this treaty the Persians gained by diplomacy the objectives that they had vainly sought militarily since Xerxes' retreat. Thus, for a fuller understanding of this complex war one needs a broader perspective than a purely military one.

In broad terms Wheeler gives a review of some recent themes in Greek military history in which J. Keegan's The Face of Battle looms large. The book strongly influenced V.D. Hanson, whose work has made a huge impact on classical military studies. His The Western Way of War has demonstrated the undeniable significance of the social aspects of Greek warfare. Yet while admitting the popularity of Hanson's findings and those of his followers, Wheeler (p. xxii) concludes that they have led to much unoriginal work, replete with conjecture but largely lacking support from the ancient sources. Wheeler's discussion continues (pp. xxxii-xxxiv) with the vital subject of the evolution of the hoplite phalanx, on which A.M. Snodgrass (pp. 3-61) has made an invaluable contribution. He demonstrated that many strides lay between the massed forces of Homer's Iliad and the phalanx, a development that reached fruition in the fifth century. The primary function of the hoplite formation was to defeat its counterpart in set battle (Wheeler, pp. xli-xlii). That done, the victorious army fulfilled a second, strategical aim by destroying the enemy's agricultural produce. As is well known, V.D. Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, (Pisa 1983), 2nd ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1998) proposed and still defends the notion that hoplite armies could actually do little harm to farm land in the long run. Yet he has never satisfactorily answered the obvious question of why these armies continued to pursue a strategy that always failed. James A. Thorne (pp. 195-253) offers a cogent rebuttal that deserves serious attention. Wheeler (pp. lv-lvi) further examines the fifth-century epiteichismos, the building of a fort in enemy territory, as a response to agricultural devastation. Perikles (Thuc. 1.142.4) had suggested this possibility before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians successfully employed it at Pylos from 425 to 409 and the Spartans at Dekeleia from 413 to 404. H.D. Westlake (pp. 379-391) traces the continued use of such forts well into the fourth century. The Athenians then took the concept further by building a series of forts across their northern border, on which see J. Ober, Fortress Attica, (Leiden 1985) and Mark A. Munn, The Defense of Attica, (California 1993).

Among the most notable developments of the fourth century, treated in the last section, Wheeler (pp. lviii-lxiii) covers the increased use of cavalry, the rise of peltasts, and the prominence of mercenaries. Greek armies had become more complicated owing to the need to operate over different and difficult types of terrain. Here the peltast especially served the need by being able to maneuver where the hoplite could not. Iphikrates demonstrated the versatility of peltasts at Kremaste (Xen. Hell. 4.8.37-39). There he attacked the Spartan Anaxibios' hoplites as they descended a narrow and difficult mountain pass. The mobile peltast could also fight alongside cavalry in suitable circumstances. These factors resulted in the integration of cavalry, peltasts, and hoplites in Greek armies (Wheeler, pp. lxi-lxii). Associated especially with peltasts were mercenaries who began to play a larger role in the fourth century and the following years. Wheeler demonstrates their multiple functions in the March of the Ten Thousand. His good bibliography on the topic (p. lx n. 141) could have included V. Manfredi, La Strada dei Diecimila (Milan 1986) and R. Lane Fox, The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, (New Haven 2004).

In all, Wheeler has given a very personal survey of trends and contributions in Greek military history. The articles selected generally illuminate the more salient issues, while others remain of dubious worth. Very valuable is the wealth of new bibliography that will serve the reader as a worthy guide to this new avenue of investigation.

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