Sunday, January 31, 2016


Alfred S. Bradford, War: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 176. ISBN 9780195380903. $99.00.

Reviewed by C. Jacob Butera, University of North Carolina, Asheville (

Version at BMCR home site


War: Antiquity and Its Legacy is one of the latest offerings in Oxford University Press's Ancients and Moderns series, which aims "to show how antiquity is relevant to life today." As such, this book aims to reach a broad spectrum of non-specialist students and teachers who may be receiving their first introduction to ancient Greek and Roman war and warfare, as well as its impact on our contemporary, particularly Western, society. Professor Bradford is uniquely suited for such an endeavor, as he himself is a veteran of the Vietnam War and can attest to the lasting impact that ancient texts can have on contemporary soldiers and civilians alike.

The book begins with a brief introduction that outlines the continuities between the past and present. In this introduction, Bradford asserts that the Greeks and Romans were the originators of not only the vocabulary, but also the conceptualization, of war. Bradford also draws a clear division in this introduction between the Eastern and Western conceptualizations of warfare, and this divide will be maintained through almost the entirety of the book, with Bradford focusing particularly on Europe and the West. He begins this discussion in the first chapter with Homer's Iliad and will use this text as the foundation for all of the following chapters. As Bradford notes, the Iliad had a great influence on subsequent Greek and Roman authors and would shape conceptions of warfare not only in the classical world but also in the medieval, Renaissance, and modern societies of Europe. This work stands out, in particular, because of its emphasis on both the technical and psychological nature of war, and many of its motifs (such as the arming scenes) would come to influence later literature and art. Bradford is even able to add a personal touch here, as he can relate his own experience in combat with the stories of loss, vengeance, joy, and pain brought to life through Homer's characters. This type of discussion, though brief, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. It is certainly difficult to limit a discussion of the Iliad to a single chapter, but Bradford nicely highlights the notions of heroism, cowardice, emotion, friendship, loss, and violence that shape the lines of Homer's epic. Likewise, this chapter will serve as a thorough summary for newcomers to the epic.

The following two chapters are an outline and summary of major battles and campaigns from the Bronze Age to modern times, including brief mentions of the Vietnam conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a tremendous amount of time and information to cover in only two chapters, but these chapters are meant as a backdrop for non-specialists, and along with the first chapter create a basic background with which the reader can then explore the chapters to follow. It is here that Bradford first begins to draw connections between antiquity and the present, asserting that "in the major wars of the nineteenth century antiquity left its legacy in covert ways" (71), particularly as military and civic leaders alike were well versed in the classical past. He even draws connections between the tactics of Alexander the Great and the blitzkrieg of the Second World War. Throughout both of these chapters, Bradford highlights the persistence of the basic tenets of warfare, acknowledging that "that the organisation of [contemporary] military service and war itself would be readily recognisable to Greeks and Romans" (76). While such a claim is indeed bold, particularly in light of advances in technology and tactics, it is interesting to ponder whether, at its most basic, warfare consists of persistent and unchanging universals.

Chapter 4 is perhaps the most successful chapter in the book, as Bradford presents an overview of military history and theory, beginning with the historians and philosophers of Greece and moving through the psychologists and anthropologists of the modern world. Once again, to include authors from Hesiod, Plato, and Cicero to Machiavelli, Kant, and Clausewitz is a tall order and the treatment of each must necessarily be cursory, particularly within the confines of a single chapter. Nevertheless, Bradford is able to organize his discussion by claiming that all of these thinkers, theorists, and writers are, at their core, concerned with the same question: what makes a war "just" and/or "justifiable." Many may argue that this is an oversimplification of authors and texts that have been examined and reexamined by scholars for centuries, but Bradford's aim is to be both introductory and to show the continuities, such as they are, in these works. And, in fact, this framework allows him to introduce our own contemporary discussions pertaining to the "War on Terror" and the notion of "preemptive warfare."

The final two chapters, entitled "Writing War" and "Images of War," are less successful. The first is an overview of literary accounts of war, beginning with a very brief survey of Near Eastern and Biblical texts, before moving to treatments of war by classical authors. Here, Bradford focuses on the particular emphases of ancient authors. Homer, for example, is concerned with the gods and larger than life individuals, while the historians emphasized tactics and troops. And it is with the historians that Bradford focuses most of this chapter, outlining the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Arrian, Sallust, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, and Ammianus (Bradford is less concerned with historians like Suetonius or the authors of the Historia Augusta). More problematic, however, is the implication that the only written accounts of ancient warfare are literary, and in particular historical. There is no mention, for example, of the substantial body of documentary sources that survive in the ancient world (e.g. epigraphic texts and papyri), and this chapter would be greatly strengthened by the inclusion of the tablets from Vindolanda or the accounts from Dura Europos, to name only two. Interestingly, though, Bradford does touch on the long history of military memoirs, beginning with Xenophon and surveying through the Renaissance and modern periods. This chapter ends somewhat surprisingly with a list of some of Bradford's favorite memoirs and becomes something of a literary review rather than a discussion of the connections between the ancient and modern worlds.

The chapter "Images of War" also highlights the literary bias of this particular volume, despite the chapter's aim to present an overview of visual representations and commemorations of warfare. Bradford once again briefly mentions Egyptian and Near Eastern works of art before shifting to the Greek world, because, as he contends, "art in Greece was quite different… [because the works of art] complement the literary descriptions that we do have" (134-135). This is a problematic premise on which to begin any art historical discussion, and this problem is simply compounded by the fact that the book includes no images of any of the artwork discussed. Nevertheless, Bradford does highlight some interesting points about the audience for images of war, particularly the difference between a veteran and civilian audience and their reactions to the same piece of art. Bradford closes this chapter with a discussion of documentaries, cartoons, and photography, posing a compelling challenge for ancient military historians to view modern media in a new and powerful way. A very brief conclusion follows this chapter, and Bradford once again reminds the reader that "Greece and Rome can still speak directly to us" (147), and in this he is certainly not mistaken.

War: Antiquity and its Legacy is an ambitious work that aims to present a non-specialist audience with an overview of the Greek and Roman treatment of war and warfare and the impact that this treatment has had on later societies. In this, it is not entirely effective, as the connection between ancient and modern is often forced and left to be accepted at face value. For instance, in the chapter "Images of War," Bradford makes the following claim: "Where there is no direct line from the ancient depictions of war to the modern—photography, for instance—antiquity still furnishes a baseline against which to define change, and similarity, in attitude as well as technology" (143-144). Little justification for this conclusion is offered, and the reader is left wondering whether such a connection truly exists. More problematic is the stark division between Eastern and Western notions of warfare, especially when primacy is granted to Western works and ideas. Such Western bias is at odds with the contemporary push at colleges and universities to present a more cross-cultural and balanced interpretation of the ancient and modern worlds, and it is unclear whether such an approach is in fact beneficial for non-specialist readers looking to better understand the ancient world.

Finally, any author attempting to write for a popular audience is presented with the challenge of providing an exciting and readable text while also remaining historically accurate and nuanced. And in this, War: Antiquity and its Legacy is once again not entirely successful. Bradford often chooses to include superlative and hyperbolic statements that will engage most readers, yet he does this, at times, at the expense of historical accuracy. For example, Bradford asserts that "Alexander was the best educated and best prepared commander (with the best army) in all of world history" (35), and that the ambush of the Roman army by Hannibal at Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE was "the only case in military history of one army successfully ambushing another" (43). The first assertion is a matter of opinion, and one might offer such generals as Caesar, Attila, Napoleon, or Patton as reasonable alternatives; the second, though, is more problematic, as this is not the only case of such an ambush even from the Roman world. Three entire legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus were famously ambushed and annihilated by a Germanic force in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. Statements like these certainly add to the readability of such a work and will excite newcomers to the world of ancient military history, but dramatic statements should not be employed at the expense of nuance or veracity.

It is difficult to find a clear place for War: Antiquity and its Legacy in current scholarship. It certainly will provide non-specialist readers with a foundation for their exploration of classical warfare and its legacy; however, newcomers to the discipline might benefit from a book that engages with more current approaches and methodologies.

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