Friday, June 13, 2014


Jason Crowley, The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite: The Culture of Combat in Classical Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 240. ISBN 9781107020610. $95.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Matthew, Australian Catholic University (

Version at BMCR home site

Research into the conflicts of the past has recently begun to realise that, in order to fully understand the nature of an ancient mode of combat, more than just an analysis of the weapons and tactics of the time is required. Warfare (in any age) is far more than just the men involved in the fighting and the tools that they used to engage in battle. What is additionally needed is an understanding of the psychology of those involved – what prompted them to enlist, what drove them to fight, and what compelled them to stand their ground. Keegan, in his The Face of Battle, states that 'battle, for the ordinary soldier, is a very small scale situation'.1 Everyone experiences the trauma of combat in his own way, and modern scholarship has now begun the investigation of what it was like (psychologically speaking) to be a warrior of the past. Recent works by Hanson (The Western Way of War) and van Wees (Greek Warfare – Myths and Realities), for example, include sections which examine the sights, sounds and emotional states that the Greek hoplite was subjected to on the fields of battle. Shay used the physical and mental carnage detailed in Homer as a backdrop for the examination and comparison of the turmoils of ancient and modern combat in Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, and Gabriel's forthcoming work The Madness of Alexander the Great and the Myth of Military Genius attempts to better understand the psychological reasons behind the actions of one of the best known military commanders in history. Crowley's Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite adds to this growing body of literature.

The book, based upon Crowley's PhD thesis, is relatively straightforward in its objective – to understand what inspired the men of ancient Athens to take part in the hoplite phalanx and engage in some of the most brutal of any form of warfare. Yet while the objective might be simple, attempting to answer such a fundamental question is complex due to all of the variables involved with understanding the nature of combat (in any time). Crowley offers a broad analysis of the Athenian military system, from the individual to the larger grouping of the phalanx, and greatly adds to the investigation of warfare in Classical Greece.

Following a brief introduction, the first chapter of the book examines 'The Architecture of Aggression'. This chapter considers what it is that inspires men to fight and looks at the dynamics of the combatant's 'primary group' (the small group that the soldier readily associates with such as his squad or platoon in modern military institutions). The chapter wades into the scholarly controversy over the importance of identifying with a 'primary group' and the importance (if any) that this affiliation has for the individual. The chapter then expands its focus to look at the next layers of influence on the soldier - the 'military group' (or regiment to use modern parlance), and the socio-political system of the state that the soldier is a part of. The chapter concludes by examining the various ways that an individual and a state can relate to each other and how this, in turn, affects how and why the warrior is inspired to fight.

Chapter two then takes some of these ideas and begins to apply them to Classical Athens; drawing on evidence mainly from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The recruitment of the men of Athens into the citizen-militia is discussed, along with methods of mobilisation. This then leads to an examination of the deployment of Athenian hoplite forces by file (lochos) and unit (taxis).

Chapter three returns to the examination of the 'primary group' – which Crowley identifies as the collection of individuals recruited from each of the demes of Attica into the Athenian military. The chapter investigates the possible organisation of this group and the place of the individual within it. The chapter then engages with the scholarly debate over the nature of the othismos of hoplite combat – with Crowley taking a firm position in the literal, pro-othismos, camp which interprets hoplite combat as containing a strong and physical pushing match between opposing sides. This viewpoint is then used as the basis for an examination of how this facet of hoplite warfare could have affected the individual's affiliation with his group and the part that this played within the broader context of the battles that were fought.

Chapter four further examines the 'military unit' and the scholarly contention over what this is and its value. Cases for a sense of regimental identity by those in hoplite taxeis are examined, as are cases for tribal identity within units composed of men drawn from different demes, but merged into larger tribal-based units following the reorganisation of the socio-political structure of Athens by Cleisthenes. Arguments against tribal identity are then advanced by Crowley, and the chapter concludes with arguments against the sense of regimental identity that have been put forward by previous scholars, and which were outlined at the beginning of the chapter.

Chapter five looks at the largest group that could influence the individual combatant – the socio-political system of the state he was a part of. The structure of Athenian society, the position of citizens and foreigners, and class stratification are investigated, as is the concept of what constituted manly behaviour in Athens, and how these translated to the conduct and view of war in the Classical polis. The role of religion, the participation of the individual within the rites and rituals of the time, and the behaviour of the gods in Greek myth are also examined to determine how the divine influenced the conduct of war and the mindset of the Athenian hoplite.

The final chapter, chapter six, revisits the relationships between the individual and the state first outlined in chapter one. The commitment of the hoplite to the ideals of the Athenian state are examined, as are the concepts of the legitimacy of both the demands placed upon the individual hoplite and the men who led him into battle, to round out this examination of psychology of the Athenian hoplite. The book ends with a brief conclusion, a comprehensive section of notes, bibliography and index.

Despite the comprehensive nature of the topics contained within the chapters of the work, Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite does have some issues. Crowley is clearly pro-Athenian and pro-democracy in his view and this is apparent in his writing. On page 99, for example, Crowley describes Athens as 'the most warlike, aggressive and militaristic state...the Greek world had ever seen'. Yet considering that the bulk of the evidence that is examined places any discussion in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, such honours would clearly belong to the Spartans, Thebans and Macedonians rather than to Athens. However, there is no comparative examination of the military institutions of any of these other states throughout the work. While not the stated focus of the book, the lack of any comparison of Athens to the other main military states of Greece, or even to professional units such as the Theban Sacred Band, means that much of the information provided for Athens is given without a broader context. Similarly, Crowley's dismissal of the tribal taxis as the hoplite's 'primary unit' in favour of the deme group appears to be based upon an idea of how much deme-ocracy contributed to the functioning of the Athenian military system (indeed, Crowley does not seem to have entertained the idea that the tribal taxis was the hoplite's 'primary group' and the phalanx as a whole his 'military group'). It seems that some of the conclusions put forward are the result of pre-conceived ideas of how good the Athenian hoplite was in combat, the contribution that democracy (and in particular the deme itself) made to that efficiency, and some of the arguments and evidence are selectively used to reinforce these ideas.

Other areas of the Athenian military are similarly ignored. Crowley briefly outlines in the second chapter, for example, the two methods that the Athenians used to enrol hoplites; the selection by katalogos or deme-roll, and the method of enrolling soldiers by age groups. Despite mentioning this second method of recruitment, enrolment by age group is not examined any further. Crowley attempts to justify this by stating that of the two methods, enrolment by katalogos was the more common practice. Yet, enrolment by age group did occur, and by Crowley's own admission would have resulted in a more random class of warrior being conscripted into the Athenian phalanx. Again, a lack of comparison between the efficiency and psychology of troops drawn from these two different systems greatly limits the contribution that the examination of enrolment by katalogos can claim to make.

Similarly, the chapter on the place of religion within the psychology of the hoplite is lacking an examination of one of the fundamental influences on why the men of ancient Greece were quite willing to engage in a horrendous method of fighting where, in modern terms, casualty rates would be considered military disasters – the concepts of pre-destination and Fate. These elements of the psyche of the ancient Greek man-at-arms were as old as Homer (if not older) and the Iliad is replete with instances where the divine interfere in human affairs so that a warrior will die only when the time allotted to him by the Fates is reached. Such a belief that a warrior would only be slain when his time had come would have had a major impact on the mental attitudes of the men in the phalanx of any city-state, regardless of how professional they were, and would also influence the mindset of those that survived – both on the battlefield and back at home. Again, the lack of any engagement with this major aspect of the psychology of the hoplite makes the conclusions of this section somewhat limited.

Cosmetically, parts of the work seem quite fragmented and this makes the line of argument hard to follow at times. This is no more evident than in the layout of chapter four – the examination of the military unit. After outlining the case for regimental identity in a way that makes the reader assume that this argument has been accepted by the author, it is left until after a discussion both for and against the notion of tribal solidarity for Crowley to argue against the idea of regimental identity – making any reading of the earlier sections based upon an acceptance of regimental identity totally redundant and in need of rereading with this alternate view in mind. Similarly the revisiting of the relationship between the individual and the state in chapter six seems out of place and may have been better located after these ideas were initially discussed in chapter one. While this may be a literary construct to bring the work full circle, it does make the flow of the text disjointed.

These considerations aside, The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite is still a very important work. It engages with many aspects that are vital to our better understanding of warfare in ancient Greece with a level of detail not found elsewhere and offers new opinions, hypotheses and insights. These in themselves are the great value of the work regardless of whether the reader ultimately agrees with the conclusions or not. If one of the aims of research is to promote ideas for further discussion, then Crowley has put together a 'must read' work that will ensure that the debate and examination of the mindset of the hoplite of ancient Greece will continue for a very long time.


1.   J. Keegan, The Face of Battle (London, Penguin Books, 1983) 39.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.