Friday, December 16, 2011


Marco Formisano, Hartmut Böhme (ed.), War in Words: Transformations of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz. Transformationen der Antike, Bd 19. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2011. Pp. ix, 431. ISBN 9783110245417. $112.00.

Reviewed by Francesca Spiegel, London (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Much as war has been part of human existence since time immemorial, it remains a sensitive topic, on which minds are divided.

The book I am reviewing here, War in Words: Transformations of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz, a conference volume edited by Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme from the University of Berlin as part of the research collaboration on Transformations of Antiquity, contains contributions from twenty-one European scholars, and is written partly in English, partly in German.

Individual chapters take the reader to many parts of the world: Troy, Carthage, Florence, Mongolia, Rotterdam, Prussia, Rome, Carrhae, London, Venice and Athens are all on the map. Certain chapters are abundantly illustrated; in fact, to add to the topical breadth of this work and the vast chronology it spans, it is an interdisciplinary collaboration, presenting variegated methodology through chapters by art historians, mediaevalists, classicists, and modern philologists.

The chapters are divided into topical sections: "I. Judging War", "II. Seeing War", "III. Writing War" and "IV. War: Techne and Tyche". Marco Formisano's editorial introduction advises that "little attention was devoted to the question of the degree to which the knowledge structure of war also became a model for other areas of knowledge" (p.3), that "war and discourse (…) stand in a historically significant field of tension with a wide variety of models of knowledge" (p.3), thus placing the volume within the "History of ideas" field. It strikes me that, overarching the variegated subject matter, a strong unifying theme in this book is the discussion of imitation, model and re-presentation, reception, tradition, the complexities associated with the handing down of ancient information. But the book offers far more. Special attention is given to un-canonical or less known figures. I must state at once that my competence to judge the contents at hand is quite mixed. In the following, I shall give a quick summary of the contributions.

Glenn Most opens the first section, "Judging War", with a brief, lucid and vivacious piece sketching the theoretical relations between war and justice, compiling a short history of the idea with reference to Cicero, Augustine and Grotius, before turning to Hesiod's Theogony, the birth of Dike, the utopian Olympus and the eternally difficult task for politicians to maintain peace on earth. In the next piece, Therese Fuehrer examines Augustine's view of the "bellum iustum" and its reception in Augustine's own time, as a cautionary advice on the destructive effects of war and an appeal for peace. Peter Schroeder continues the debate on "bellum iustum", focusing on the concept of trust in various authors, as the title suggests: "Sine fide nulla pax – Ueberlegungen zu Vertrauen und Krieg in den politischen Theorien von Machiavelli, Gentili und Grotius", brightly illuminating the scholastic antagonisms, Machiavellian polemic, and, from all three authors, views on the importance of a civilized society of citizens, as opposed to a life of piracy under the lex talionis. With closer focus on Gentili's comments on warfare against the Turks, detailing the diplomatic history and the difficulty of maintaining trust, Schroeder concludes that any political system based on trust can always be undermined by deceit; however, that it is the duty of those in power to be trusting and trustworthy, for the sake of peace.

The next chapter, by Enrico Rusconi, brings us to the late 19th century and Clausewitz himself. Rusconi offers an exposition of the Clausewitzian text, tracing the contemporary portrayal of "Prussiandom" versus French citizenship, the use of force in conflict, and the qualities of character required of soldiers in war, Clausewitz's reflection on war as compared to a game of chance, and the socio-political judgment demanded of those waging it. Rusconi also outlines the Nachleben of Clausewitz's treatise in German and English politics and history-writing.

Then follows a chapter dedicated to the Song Dynasty in China and its cultural handling of historical wars. "The convention that the military has been insignificant in Chinese history or somehow alien to Chinese history", explains Harriet. T. Zundorfer, "originated with Chinese literati, and was accepted and perpetuated by their Jesuit interpreters, and later reinforced by Western sinologists, who in their concern with politics and ideology, ignored the centrality of warfare to China's development" (p.90): a series of neglectful or plain erroneous readings of the traditional book on the Art of War, Zundorfer argues, appears to have successfully concealed the real importance of war and military action at the time which the literati, in fact, had an interest in minimising; the author then continues to a more factual reading of history.

The second section of the book, "Seeing War", just like the first opens with a classical philological paper, by Luigi Spina discussing the role of ecphrasis in epic and the role of narrative in general, in relation to treatises on war. Spina is concerned with the question whether a description of war can also be understood as a prescriptive account of equal gravitas to an instructive treatise; to this end, he adduces examples of Homer, Aristotle, Augustus' Res Gestae, Virgil, Quintilian and Aeneas Tacticus, whom he compares, arriving at the conclusion that description of battle in heroic accounts is as much prescriptive as an expressly didactic text.

The following two chapters are Art historical. The first, by Christof Baier and Ulrich Reinisch, based on fourteen illustrations, traces the development of architectural sketches in early Modernity, and the use of Roman military camp plans in the designing of new cities. The authors discuss Roman castra and their spatial cosmology, then present sketches of ideal cities by Machiavelli, Duerer, and Stevin, all the while reflecting on the social and political implications of such town planning design, also providing background information on mathematical learning at the time, as well as the geographical progression of ideas from Italy to the Netherlands in early Modernity. The chapter by Horst Bredekamp and Julia Ann Schmidt, titled "Der Architekt als Krieger. Bernardo Puccini and Galileo Galilei", supported by twenty-one illustrations, critically investigates the self-fashioning ideas of architect, geometrician and philosopher Galileo Galilei, his conviction that knowledge is power, that one cannot "read the world" without the apposite instruments, positing the geometrical compass as a symbol of aggression and a weapon.

The section "III. Seeing War" opens with a Classics paper on Achilles and Penthesilea, in which Katharina Volk retraces the relationship in ancient poetry between love and war; we hear of Sappho, Roman elegy, Lucretius, Ovid's Amores, the metric convention, and Achilles' duel with Penthesilea, its erotic undertones; it strikes me that nothing significantly new is being said in this chapter, although it is a neat and thoughtful exposition of the often enigmatic relation between war and eroticism. A very short chapter by Giusto Traina on the battle at Carrhae follows, presenting the different versions of history that have been built on the event. Werner Roecke takes us to the German middle ages, and, by using Wittenweiler's Ring, elucidates the medieval – often grotesque – depiction of war. The ancient war doctrines, so Roecke, had by the middle ages been re-cast and altered to suit a new situation; adducing the rise of Catholic views and the conventions of the chivalric tale, Roecke incisively explains the grotesque representation of war as one originating in feelings of horrified powerlessness, and refusal to believe that battle can be planned. Against this, he contrasts the ancient and again modern persuasion that war can, in fact, be planned, bringing us back to Clausewitz.

The representation of battle appears to have been a problem for Polydorus Vergilius, too, as Stefan Schelein writes in a chapter on humanistic historiography. Commissioned to write an English history for the Crown in the 16th century, Polydorus used Tacitus and Xenophon as his models. Schelein offers an examination of the manner in which ancient models served the humanistic historian in accounts of wars in England that took place during the middle and early modern ages.

Returning to chivalric poetry, Anna Bolzoni's chapter discusses, on the basis of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the manner in which the force of love as a literary image can supplant the theme of armed strife in epic. With reference to the famous "deprecation of firearms" passage, Bolzoni concludes that, to the Italian Renaissance, with the advent of peace there came an age of efflorescence in the poetic arts.

Coming back to England, Andrew Hiscock in the next chapter discusses the question "whether the Macedonian, or the Roman, were the best Warriour" and Sir Walter Raleigh's reflection upon inherited hatred between nations and noble families. Finding Raleigh to be an admirable advocate of tolerance and a lucid commentator on human society and human nature, Hiscock offers a critical reading of what Raleigh had to say about the ancient historiographers, Plutarch, Seneca, monarchy, democracy, and tyranny – not omitting that in the final reckoning Sir Walter Raleigh concludes that of course the Englishmen are the best warriors.

The fourth and last heading, "War: Techne and Tyche", comprises four chapters, one on Vitruvius, one on the late middle ages, one on Ariosto, and a concluding piece on Clausewitz.

Serafina Cuomo, in the first, discusses the tensions, respectively in warfare itself and in the historiographic recasting of war in narrative, between traditional force and courage, which she terms "virtue", and cunning forethought and battle planning, which she terms "skills". Using the Homeric character portrayals of Achilles and Odysseus as a paradigm, the author analyses Vitruvius's writing and his values. She compares Vitruvius to his contemporary writers Athenaeus and Aegistratus, concluding that Vitruvius must have valued skilful contrivance on the part of generals more than bravery on the part of soldiers. Rainer Leng's chapter on late medieval receptions of ancient warfare techniques, partly a cultural history, and partly palaeographical investigation supported by seventeen illustrations, seeks to summarise and assess the scant and geographically scattered evidence on the circulation and usage of ancient, late ancient and medieval Latin texts on war. Leng also discusses the illustrations of war devices that had been handed down and retraces the dark and complex story of how information was muted, altered and lost over time, so that over time "the illustrations were separated from the Vegetius-text, whereby its last connection with the ancient context was lost" (p.359, translation mine).

Matteo Valleriani brings us back to Italy with an essay on "The War in Orlando Furioso: A Snapshot of the Passage from Medieval to Early Modern Technology". His methodology consists in gathering terms that pertain to the semantic field of warfare devices, to assess whether these devices were used in the middle ages, the early modern period, or both, and to draw statistical tables of occurrences, with a view to detecting what sort of warfare exactly is meant by Ariosto. Whilst one may query the methodology or wonder just how a specific device can be placed with certainty in either of the historical periods, Valleriani's chapter, also supported by illustrations, is presented with the appropriate scholarly prudence and offers sensitive insights on how "Ariosto increasingly experienced a change of principles according to which he observed and analyzed the reality surrounding him: from a marvelous epic to a modern rational condemnation" (p. 388).

Hartmut Böhme's closing chapter, with careful reference to many of the other chapters, presents an examination of luck and chance in Clausewitz's thinking. Returning to the notion of chaos and unpredictability in war, the author comments on the geometric-mechanistic tradition, philosophical debate on potentiality and casuistic models from Aristotle to Kant, and Clausewitz's ambivalent position oscillating between "the domain of theoretical reason into that of critique of the faculty of judgment" (p. 409), concluding that given war's unpredictable nature and the dismissal of chance and luck as working concepts, to Clausewitz, "where judgments need be made, is the commencement of art" (p. 409-10, translations mine).

As will doubtless be evident by now, this book showcases inquiries on an unusual selection of authors and presents detailed investigations on topics often left to one side by scholars of the traditional received canon(s). I must count myself among the latter and thank the editors for the great learning experience. In this respect it is courteous and helpful that the book is edited from a diachronic and cultural-theoretical, rather than from a historicist perspective, as this allows those who might not be all that well acquainted with some authors, to access the topics notwithstanding. The vast variety of examples brought together here instructively complements the material usually considered in discussions of war (especially war as an idea) in a manner that challenges, and forces one to reconsider, any simplified or ideologically embellished view of war. War in Words offers such rare merits as scholarly honesty, genuine reflection and instructive value. It is at its heart quite European and as such, is informed by a type of reasoning and social thinking that very much embraces the moral legacy of the continental 20th century, which, many will agree, is an endangered species at present and yet a great advocate of humanistic learning. I recommend this book to all classicists.

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