Thursday, October 25, 2012


Fred Eugene Ray, Land Battles in 5th Century B.C. Greece: A History and Analysis of 173 Engagements. Jefferson, NC; London: McFarland, 2011. Pp. vii, 315. ISBN 9780786467730. $35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew P. Maher, University of Winnipeg (

Version at BMCR home site


Fred Eugene Ray's book comprises an investigation of every historically (and occasionally archaeologically) attested land engagement in the Greek world throughout the course of the 5th century BCE. Ray attempts to reconstruct the historical context of each battle in an effort to satisfy his objective of a comprehensive tactical-level survey of every engagement. While Ray naturally relies heavily on the ancient historical and modern sources for his analysis of the more significant battles (as is the general trend in studies of ancient Greek military history), in order to make sense of the specifics surrounding the more obscure engagements, he relies instead on what he calls "logical reconstructions" (p .1). In this regard, the methodology adopted is aimed at resolving issues lacking in direct evidence through both the correlation of "various peripheral indicators" (p. 1) and the heavy use of analogs in an approach he believes is "valid for stretching slim battlefield data to their logical limits" (p. 2).

After outlining the objectives, sources of evidence, and methodology of the book in the Preface (pp. 1-3) and Introduction (pp. 5-6), Ray proceeds in Chapter 1 (pp. 7-20) to establish the foundation for the rest of the book by way of an overview of the general characteristics of 5th century Greek warfare. Beginning with the most distinctive element of the Greek army, the hoplite, Ray briefly describes the origin of these citizen soldiers before providing a detailed description of the typical hoplite arms and armour and how they were employed in battle. Next, looking at the hoplites collectively, the author explores the typical Greek phalanx, its standard structure and divisions, as well as the characteristic tactics involved in fighting in such a formation. Besides noting the muscular demands of the system of concerted pushing in phalanx fighting, the author also focuses on the importance of valor and courage, the confidence in one's commander and ability to win, and the importance of group mentality in overcoming an aversion to killing. The rest of the chapter is concerned with the role played by the other elements comprising the typical 5th century Greek army, the light infantry and horsemen.

With this background information established, the succeeding chapters examine the specifically attested 5th century BCE battles in chronological order. Chapter 2 (pp. 21-58) begins in 500 BCE and includes all engagements before the Persian landing at Marathon in 490 BCE.1 In this chapter, Ray establishes the general formula by which each of the battles throughout the book is examined. First, he provides the historical background surrounding the combatants and the root of the conflict before attempting to assess the total numbers of each side. Next, based on both the local topography and the typical deployment and maneuvers of men in the phalanx (and, if present, the accompanying light infantry and cavalry), a reconstruction of the battle and its outcome are provided. As with the troop numbers and deployments, the estimated casualties from both sides are most often established by Ray using fixed arithmetical formulae. Considering the chronological scope of this book, it is not surprising that the remaining chapters are largely devoted to the two major conflicts that engulfed Greece during the 5th century: the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars.

In the short Conclusion (pp. 287-88) Ray brings together his most important observations in an attempt to dispel a number of misconceptions about 5th century Greek warfare. For example, Ray argues that the patterns show that the Greeks' arms and tactics were not superior to those of the Persians, and instead, it was the terrain that most often dictated which fighting style was best for each engagement. His analysis also overturns the fallacy that the Greeks fought better when fighting on home soil – in fact, he found that the opposite was true. Ray's analysis also demonstrates that the Greeks were not averse to employing deception or surprise attacks to achieve victory. Finally, Ray's careful catalogue of engagements helps to dispel any preconceived notions about the martial characters of both Athens and Sparta. Indeed, despite the popular notion of the invincible and aggressive Spartans, Ray demonstrates that in terms of total numbers it was actually Athens that initiated more battles during 5th century than any other Greek state, "while no army ducked battle more often than that of authoritarian and supposedly warlike Sparta" (p. 287). Similarly, Ray's catalogue of battles show that, again, in terms of total numbers, Sparta actually lost almost as many battles as they won during the course of the 5th century. Bringing the book to a close are four statistical tables which lay out all 173 land engagements of the 5th century explored in the book and the different factors surrounding each.

In the Introduction, Ray himself admits that piecing together these battles "is an unavoidably imprecise process that calls for a great deal of guesswork, and it's a must to use its result with great care and no small amount of skepticism" (p. 5). So first the skepticism, and foremost in this regard is the author's general unwavering use of fixed arithmetical formulae employed in his reconstructions of most battles. This is most apparent in his calculation of troop strengths and casualties. For example, the author derives most of his casualty estimates based on the rigid assumption that in a normal hoplite battle, losses for the victors should be around 3-5% and those for the losers should range between 15-25% (with pursuit, though considerably less if not pursued). Similarly, Ray's appraisal of total troop numbers is also problematic. When the number of troops is not known, the author will often employ the number of troops that are recorded by the ancient sources to have been present at a different battle, often separated by a considerable length of time. For instance, in the very first battle described in the book (in ca. 500 BCE between Corinth and Argos) Ray assumes that Kleonai (Argos' ally) mustered 500 men because that is what they contributed at the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC (p. 25). The problem with this rationale is clear: these two battles are separated by over 80 years and it is idealistic to assume the troop strength of a small polis would remain unchanged over three generations. Ray also employs another questionable method of estimating total hoplite numbers which is again related to his unwavering use of fixed statistical formulae. Centred around the idea that a normal trireme held some 40 hoplites, the author assumes that because Chios could boast 100 ships, it must have had an army of 4000 hoplites (p. 239). When the number of ships in a fleet are known, Ray uses the same formula again and again. Reconstructing the number of available spearmen based solely on the number of ships warrants skepticism, since at best, that number would represent a minimum number of hoplites. Finally, at other times, in the absence of any ancient references, the number of troops in a given battle provided by Ray are at best simply guesses.

The reconstruction of an army's troop strength is of great importance because the number of troops almost always determines the deployment and outcome in the author's analyses. A case in point is Ray's questionable examination of the Battle of Marathon (pp. 60-68). Deviating considerably from generally accepted accounts of this battle, Ray argues that including auxiliaries, the Persians and Athenians were on relatively even footing, with around 6000-6500 men per side. Ray argues that the inflated Athenian number (i.e., ca. 10,000 troops) was a result of the "confused unit strength of the four clans from Solon's time with the lesser complements that now resided within the ten new tribal taxeis" (p. 62). One must ask: why would the Athenians be confused? Herodotus himself could have talked to survivors or relatives of participants and there is no need to assume a confusion with Solon's reforms some 100 years earlier. Because Ray readily accepts the traditional figure of only around 200 Athenians lost, we are left to wonder why he refuses to accept the traditional figures given for the number of participating Athenian troops. Ultimately, I think the best argument that the Athenians and Persians were not evenly matched at Marathon and that the former were indeed outnumbered, is the famous pincer movement that sealed the Greek victory. Simply put, if the Greeks and Persians were evenly matched at Marathon, then there would have been no need for the Greeks to have thinned their ranks in the centre and there would have been no cause to employ Miltiades' celebrated maneuver.

Equally problematic is the author's exploitation of the most limited and fragmentary data in his reconstructions. The use of such projected and analog information warrants caution on the part of the reader. A clear example of this propensity for stretching fragmentary information to its logical limits can be found in the author's analysis of the Battle of Dipaea (pp. 121-122). The only documented evidence of this battle comes from one sentence in Herodotus and one from Isocrates, both of whom state the Spartans were victorious over a group of Arkadians, while Isocrates alone alludes to the fact that the Spartans may have also been outnumbered.2 Nonetheless, from this fragmentary information, Ray proceeds to assume that the Arkadians outnumbered the Spartans two to one; that the Spartans surprised the Arkadian host before it was all together; that the troops lined up in the plain south of Dipaea; that the men from Orchomenos were on left wing; and that the Spartan right beat Orchomenos' troops on the left, after which the Arkadians panicked and fled. Such an analysis based on limited information is fraught with so much assumption as to be essentially useless.

On a more superficial note, the large number of abbreviated symbols ensure that the tables provided at the back of the book are incredibly difficult to navigate. Furthermore, a table listing which ancient sources refer to which battles would have been useful. Finally, the book would also have benefited from considerably more maps and battle plans: the book contains only three simple maps and of the 173 engagements, only 13 are provided with any type of diagram.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Ray's endeavour has produced a carefully and well-researched book, the result of which is an important catalogue of Greek land engagements in the 5th century BC. Furthermore, his survey represents a very useful reference to anyone interested in classical combat. Although not a classicist, Ray provides in the introductory chapters sufficient technical background to the topic such that amateur or academic may easily follow the events laid out in the subsequent chapters. Moreover, although technical in places, this book is written with a poise and polish that cannot help but draw in the reader. Indeed, although filled with rational statistics and hard data, Ray's graphic descriptions of events on the battlefield evoke a sense of emotion often lost in analyses of ancient battles. Indeed, whether envisioning the fear that must have possessed the last of the Athenians as they were picked off one by one trying to escape Syracuse after their failed siege, or the calmness of the Spartans as they awaited certain death on that final morning at Thermopylae, or even the confusion felt by the allied Greeks at Plataea as they lost their way retreating during the night, it is clear that Ray's narrative puts the reader firmly in the shoes of the soldiers and provokes all of the appropriate and intended emotional responses.

Table of Contents

Preface, pp. 1-4
Introduction, pp. 5-6
I. The Spearmen: Greek Hoplite Warfare (500-401 B.C.), pp. 7-2
II. Arguing with Socrates: Territorial Disputes, the Ionian Revolt, and the Rise of Sparta and Gela (500-481 B.C.), pp. 21-58.
III. The Strength of Lions: Marathon, Himera, and the Invasion of Greece, pp. 59-108
IV. Prelude to Collision: The Pentacontaetia (478-432 B.C.), pp. 109-149
V. Danger and Glory: The Archidamian War (431-422 B.C.), pp. 150-198
VI. Daring and Destruction: The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Invasion (421-413 B.C.), pp. 199-236
VII. A World at Spear's Length: The Decelean/Ionian War to the End of the 5th Century (413-401 B.C.), pp. 237- 286
Conclusion, pp. 287-288
Tables, pp. 289-306
Bibliography, pp. 307-312
Index, pp. 313-315


1.   The title of this chapter claims to cover the battles between "500-481 B.C." although I presume it is a typographical mistake and should instead read "500-490 B.C." since only the battles before Marathon (490 BC) are described.
2.   Hdt. 9.35; Isoc. 6 99.

1 comment:

  1. I very much appreciate this excellent review, which I found detailed, honest, and accurate. As author of the book in question, I very much agree with your comments regarding the speculative nature of the reconstructions and the difficulties with use of both time-distant analogs and devices like repetitive numerical values for certain inputs. One would definitely prefer more contemporary analogs, but we often must make do with what is available, trusting in the case of lesser participants that deomographics did not change drastically and making adjustments where other indications justify them. Likewise, it would be great to have testable data from surviving ancient sources; sadly, these were often utterly lacklng and more speculative methods became necessary evils in making "best guesses" for a good many reconstructions (and making just such detailed evaluations of all significant engagements was a primary aim of the project). Thus, I sought to lay out my data and logic, make a best effort at the reconstruction on that basis, and leave it to the reader to agree (all or in part) or disagree (all or in part) as they see fit. Indeed, your observations on an alternate interpretation at Marathon are just the kind of comments that I hoped to encourage when undertaking the book. With regard to that particular action, there are a great many different views, and quite a few folks could quite reasonably object to any particular variant that one might advance. The "traditional" story, which I would peg to Creasy's influential "Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" (1852) certainly varies from mine (which is much closer to the one proposed by Hans Delbruck in the late 19th century). I would say, however, that just because something has become "traditional" does not certify it as the sole, resonable interpretation. With regard to the 10,000-man figure you cite, I agree that Herodotus might well have been able to provide a good value for Greek manpower at Marathon; however, he did not chose to do so and this number actually comes from Nepos (1.4.1). He was writing four centuries after the fact and his value (like many of his numbers) is of highly questionable accuracy and certainly subject to reasonable challenge on the basis of other methods of estimation as I have done. Herodotus does, however, give us the casualty figure for the Greeks, which should be more accurate (drawn from names on a monument at the battle site that was still intact even in Pausanius' day) and in contrast to figures for Persia, which seem to have been habitually overestimated by ancient Greek writers. - Fred Ray