Monday, August 28, 2017


David Whitehead, Philo Mechanicus: On Sieges. Translated with Introduction and Commentary. Historia. Einzelschriften, 243. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. Pp. 510. ISBN 9783515113434. €84.00.

Reviewed by Aimee Schofield, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site

Whitehead's book provides a very welcome translation of and commentary on Philo of Byzantium's Paraskeuastika and Poliorketika. Previous editions of the text have appeared in German and French,1 with some limited extracts published in English.2 This edition presents a translation of the full text in English for the first time and allows it to be read in close to its full context, without the cherry-picking of passages which has dominated its translation into English to date. However, Whitehead goes far beyond providing a translation and parallel text. The book begins with a detailed introduction setting out the context of the treatise. Next come the edition and parallel translation, followed by commentary and appendices. For comparison, it is worth noting that Garlan's (French) edition of the treatise, including introduction and commentary, covers just over 100 pages; Whitehead's new edition goes into such detailed analysis that it reaches over 500 pages.

Whitehead's text is subdivided according to subject matter, following the organisational structure proposed in the Diels-Schramm edition, with textual differences from Diels-Schramm and Garlan clearly noted (63-64).3 Part A of the treatise deals with fortifications; part B focuses on ensuring that the city is well supplied for a siege; part C takes a broad strategic view for the defensive forces; and the final section, part D, looks at siege warfare from the offensive side. It is noteworthy that, unlike Aeneas Tacticus, whose Poliorketika is the closest parallel, Philo dedicates a single section to his advice for an attacking force; in Aeneas, this type of advice is scattered throughout the work.

The text itself is a relatively small part of the book as a whole (approximately 13%); however, it is supported by a highly detailed and painstakingly researched introduction and commentary, supplemented by five appendices which offer significant analysis of the text's relationship with other ancient sources on fortification, including Vitruvius, and further evidence on how fortification worked in practice through an assessment of SEG 43.311 (inscribed on the walls of Skotoussa in Pelasgiotic Thessaly).

Whitehead's introduction sets out in detail the textual, historical, and military contexts of the treatise, beginning with a critical history of the MSS which form the basis of Whitehead's edition, with notes on the content and quality of each MS and early edition. Whitehead also supplies an assessment of Philo's sources, complicated, as he notes, by the loss of earlier treatises by Aeneas Tacticus (17). The use of Philo's treatise by later authors is easier to determine, and Whitehead provides details of this in his introduction as well as in the appendices at the end of the work. The second section of the introduction focuses on Philo himself and attempts to find his place in the society of the Hellenistic world. Whitehead argues that Philo can be seen as a scholarly, rather than practical, figure, agreeing with Rihll's assessment of Philo as an authority on catapult building who had no hands-on experience. Whitehead's assessment here of Philo's experience of siege warfare itself (as opposed to catapult construction) appears well supported by the text.4

The third part of the introduction, on language and style, with its detailed analysis of Philo's phrasing and word choice, makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of the linguistic aspects of the composition of practical, military treatises. Particularly useful in this section is Whitehead's discussion of the translation of key terminology into English especially for towers and walls, where English either has no direct equivalent or fails to distinguish important differences in sense. For example, Whitehead highlights three of the main words wised by Philo for fortification (πυργοπιία, τειχοποιία and τοιχοποιία), noting that these are not generic terms and cannot necessarily be directly translated into English (28-29). Similar words (τοῖχοι and τείχη) are shown to have significantly different meanings, though they can only be rendered as 'walls' in English.5 Whitehead also comments on the frustratingly vague μηχἀνημα, which has evidently caused difficulties in translation for all those who have engaged with this treatise, along with more specific and translatable terms for machinery such as specific catapult types, rams, and tortoises (31-32).

As may reasonably be expected from one whose expertise in the Poliorketika of Aeneas Tacticus is so well established, Whitehead's comparison of the two texts and their approaches to city defence forms a large and significant part of the introduction, expanding Garlan's limited discussion in 1973 (33) and is an important piece of scholarship which will no doubt generate much debate in the field of military history.6 Whitehead argues that while Aeneas gives the impression of someone experienced in war and military leadership, Philo's understanding of war comes at a much more conceptual level (34). Yet the parallels drawn between the two treatises are as important to our understanding of how the Greek world conceptualised siege warfare as the differences between the two texts.

The commentary is as detailed as any reader interested in Philo's text could wish. Whitehead has chosen to provide highly detailed contextual, historical, and linguistic notes with a significant amount of literary analysis and cross-referencing with the classical canon and more recent scholarship. For each entry in the commentary, the Greek is given first in bold, followed by the translation into English in normal print, increasing the usefulness to readers' whose grasp of the Greek is more limited.

The level of detail and analysis within the commentary cannot be overstated. Whitehead's commentary on A84.3 (ἡ μὲν μαιανδρώδης τῇ πεδινῇ), for example, notes that Philo's use of μαιανδρώδης is a hapax legomenon with alternate forms appearing elsewhere in the Greek corpus (211). He draws on ancient sources and archaeological finds to explain what Philo may mean by this phrase. He notes that despite the text being problematic to translate, there is no evidence of textual corruption here (212), and points to further discussions of similar terminology. The note then moves on to discuss the practicalities of the type of wall-trace (i.e. the route taken by a wall surrounding the city) described by Philo here, drawing on the work of Winter and McNicoll in an attempt to track down real world examples of this type of trace from the ancient world (212-213).

In another example, B4.1-3 (και ἥπατα ἔξω τῶν ὑείων ἔχοντα τὴν χολὴν ἡλισμένα και ἐξηραμμένα ἐν σκιᾷ· ἀπαθέστερα γὰρ οὕτω διαμένει), Whitehead draws on Athenaeus and Pliny to demonstrate that in the ancient world livers were considered a normal foodstuff and especially suitable for preservation by drying or salting. He cites Didymus, Geoponica for evidence of how meat was preserved in the ancient world and investigates why Philo insists here that the gall-bladder be kept with the liver during salting and drying, concluding that "One can only posit a doctrine, read or acquired by him [Philo], that the preservation process itself was somehow enhanced if the gall-bladders had not previously been removed and discarded" (229).

The sheer size of the volume speaks to the lengths to which Whitehead has gone to develop a comprehensive picture of Philo and his place in the siege warfare of the Hellenistic world. It is unfortunate that there is not sufficient space to include Philo's other surviving work, the Belopoeika, which is agreed to have been a part of the same overall work,7 but reuniting the texts of Philo's overarching work is something which may take considerable time and scholarly effort. In any case, this first complete translation into English of Philo's work on siegecraft is an entirely welcome addition to the scholarly corpus.


1.   H. Diels and E. Schramm, Exzerpte aus Philons Mechanik B.VII und VIII (vulgo fünftes Buch). Griechisch und Deutsch. (Abhandlungen der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse no. 12: Berlin 1919). Y. Garlan, Recherches de poliorcétique greque (BEFAR fasc. 223: Paris 1974) 278-404.
2.   See A. W. Lawrence, Greek Aims in Fortification (Oxford 1979) 67-107, B. Campbell, Greek and Roman Military Writers: selected readings (London 2004), and W. M. Murray, The Age of Titans: The Rise and Fall of the Great Hellenistic Navies (Oxford 2012) 283-301.
3.   Whitehead uses Thévenot's page and line referencing system for ease of comparison.
4.   I have argued elsewhere that Philo has a much more practical attitude than the one with which he is credited here and by Rihll; A. Schofield "Filling the Gaps: Catapults and Philon of Byzantium" in Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, Volume 1 ed. G. Lee, H. Whittaker, and G. Wrightson, 2015: 36.
5.   On the other hand, Whitehead notes that 'Languages like Latin, French and German, with a plurality of words for "wall", can conveniently deploy it in a context like this: thus murus and paries (Vitruvius), die Wände and die Maureen (Diels-Schramm), les murs and les murailles (Garlan)' which is simply not possible in English.
6.   The difference between the two authors in terms of time period, geography, and language is dealt with early in this section of the introduction and caveats are imposed in comparing the two texts.
7.   This treatise can be found with parallel text and English translation in E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises (Oxford 1971).

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