Tuesday, February 5, 2019


Jessica Homan Clark, Brian Turner (ed.), Brill's Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society. Brill's companions in classical studies, 2. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. xviii, 382. ISBN 9789004298583. €149,00.

Reviewed by Mark Woolmer, Durham University (mark.woolmer@durham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Published as the second volume in Brill's series Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World, this collection of essays explores the strategic, political, social, and historiographical consequences of military defeat for the societies of the ancient Mediterranean. The volume principally illustrates the complexity of war, the diversity of its participants, and the differing ways in which defeat was perceived and experienced. Together, the selected case-studies reveal the variety of responses to military defeat across the ancient Mediterranean world, from the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian empires through the Greek world and on into the later Roman Empire. In addition to its wide geographic and chronological coverage, the volume also explores defeat from a diversity of perspectives. Thus, rather than simply engaging with the better-documented responses of kings, generals, and elite commentators, several contributions examine military failure from the viewpoint of regular soldiers, captives, and civilian populations. As with the preceding title in the series, the volume is arranged chronologically.1

Part One, an introductory chapter explicating the value of shifting scholarly focus from military success to failure begins by addressing the deceptively simple question, what exactly does it mean to be defeated in war? Recognising that there are degrees of capitulation, the editors take the conscious decision not to impose a systematic definition of 'defeat'. Rather, the term is broadly understood as: "any military outcome that is counter to the stated aims of the subject of enquiry and which requires that subject to respond from a position of disadvantage relative to their position had the outcome been reversed" (p. 6). The decision to adopt a broad definition and allow individual contributors to adjust or modify it not only emphasises the disparity in modern usage; it also reveals the varying assumptions and conventions that are found in different academic traditions.

The first three case studies examine military defeat through the eyes of the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. A shared aim of these chapters is to elucidate ways in which military historians can overcome problematic or biased evidence. In the opening chapter, Sarah Melville discusses the problems that arise when relying on accounts that emphasise victory and success rather than failure and loss. As Melville adeptly demonstrates, however, the Assyrians' almost single-minded preoccupation with military triumph also betrays a deep-seated anxiety about the consequences of failure and the mutability of life. Thus, by studying Assyrian triumphalism it becomes possible to identify their fears and anxieties concerning what would happen if they themselves were defeated. The following chapters by Jeffrey Rop and John Hyland both focus on the Achaemenid Empire. Rop explores the demise of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes and the manner in which Achaemenid kings responded to the military failures of their subordinates. In contrast to accepted wisdom, Rop reveals that Persian rulers did not as a matter of course punish military failure with execution. Rather, following a formal review of their conduct, defeated Persian generals were normally reassigned to new postings that played to their strengths and mitigated their weaknesses. In the case of Tissaphernes, Rop shows that his demise was not the result of a royal decree but was an assassination organised by political rivals. Part Two concludes with Hyland's examination of the post-battle activities of defeated Persian soldiers during Darius III's campaigns against Alexander the Great. Focusing on three activities in particular – survival, initial searches for shelter and sustenance, and the challenges of a long-distance retreat – Hyland proposes that logistical concerns and imperial infrastructures influenced the manner in which defeated soldiers behaved during the aftermath of battle.

Part Three focuses on military defeat in the Greek and Hellenistic world. The opening chapters investigate how the Athenians conceptualised the causes, consequences, and meanings of military failures. Edith Foster's contribution analyses the complex interrelationship between Athenian military defeat and historiography. Having shown that other Athenian artistic and literary traditions tended to ignore, trivialise, or heavily modify the negative consequences of war, Foster demonstrates how the emerging genre of historiography became a forum in which war losses could be discussed and evaluated. Although primarily a discussion of Thucydides' views regarding domestic politics as a causal factor in Athenian defeats during the Peloponnesian War, the chapter also examines why the Athenians suddenly became interested in reading about their own military failures. Engaging with several of the same themes, Max Goldman explores Demosthenes' decision to present the Battle of Chaeronea as victory of Athenian culture rather than the spectacular military defeat that it undoubtedly was. Through a close reading of Demosthenes 60, Goldman reveals the orator's skilful manipulation of the traditional and conservative nature of Athenian funerary speeches in order to downplay his own role in the defeat and to minimise its consequences.

Moving away from Athens, Matthew Trundle outlines the ways in which military defeat helped to define and shape Spartan history and identity. By charting Sparta's evolving relationship with military failure between the seventh and fourth centuries, Trundle shows that the idealisation of defeat, in particular in the aftermath of Thermopylae, helped give rise to the mythologised ideology of the Spartan warrior who chose death on the battlefield in preference to living with the stigma of defeat. Part Three's concluding chapter by Paul Johstono explores the socio-political consequences of the Battle of Panium in 200 BCE. Through an analysis of the demographic makeup of Ptolemaic armies, Johstono shows how the defeat had tangible and irreparable consequences for the Ptolemies. In particular, it marked the moment at which Ptolemaic armies first began conscripting men from a truly multi-cultural milieu. Whereas prior to Panium Ptolemaic phalangites were either Macedonian expatriates or mercenaries, in the decades following the majority were native Egyptians.

The fourth and final group of case studies discuss the concept of defeat in the Roman world from the Republican period into the later Roman Empire. The opening pair of chapters by Jessica Clark and Amy Richlin explore the presentation of Roman military failures within the literary traditions of the late Republic. Clark's contribution is particularly well placed as her key point – that Roman defeats were only recorded because someone, for some reason, wanted them remembered – is applicable to all of the subsequent case-studies. Concentrating on the military defeats suffered by Lucius Marcius and Sextus Digitius, Clark shows that Republican battle accounts were rarely intended to be straightforward assessments of strategic realties but rather were recounted as a way for someone to gain social or political currency. Richlin's contribution is equally important as it reveals the type and quantity of information that can be gleaned from Roman comedy, a source of evidence often overlooked by military historians. In particular, it highlights the insights that comedy can provide regarding the concerns and anxieties of Rome's actual warrior class.

Ida Östenburg's contribution explores the role that challenging landscapes and adverse weather conditions played in Roman military defeats in Italy and Northern Europe. Commencing with an analysis of the impact that weather and topography had on the outcome of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Östenburg then presents a broader inquiry into the importance of terrain and meteorological conditions in other Roman defeats. The chapter closes with a discussion of the portrayal of nature as a resistant antipode of Roman civilisation that was fought and eventually subdued. Next, Brian Turner examines the reported conduct of the Julio-Claudian emperors in the aftermath of major military defeats. Having shown that imperial responses to defeat were typically informed by the prevailing political climate in Rome, Turner moves on to explore the differing behavioural expectations that Roman society had for emperors and generals in the aftermath of military failure. Shifting focus to the common soldier, Graeme Ward investigates the ways in which military failures affected Roman imperial legions. Through an analysis of the memory sanctions employed against disgraced Roman legions – namely discontinuation, substitution, or erasure – Ward explicates the repercussions of military failure. Significantly, Ward shows how the memory sanctions inflicted on a legion provide vital clues as to the manner in which Roman emperors defined victory, defeat, and their own relationship with their soldiers.

The volume's concluding case-studies address Roman military failures from a predominantly non-Roman perspective. Sviatoslav Dimitriev returns to the topic of Chaeronea in order to explore the ways in which Greek authors living under the shadow of Roman rule used the rhetoric of defeat to connect with their readers. He demonstrates how military defeats in the distant, glorified (i.e. pre-Roman) past could be re-assessed and re-interpreted to satisfy the tastes of a modern audience. Similarly, Craig Caldwell focuses on the iconic defeat and capture of the emperor Valerian by the Sasanian Persians to reveal the divergent ways in which defeats were received and recorded in antiquity. Through engagement with a diachronically and geographically diverse range of sources, Caldwell shows how a shocking and unexpected defeat could be acknowledged and interpreted in vastly different ways. The volume closes with a summary chapter by Nathan Rosenstein which responds to the preceding contributions before identifying potential avenues for future research.

As with the preceding volume in the series, some chapters are outstanding whilst others less so. For instance, several suffer from the introduction of significantly more material than can effectively be analysed in such short contributions. Consequently, some of the contributions come across as slightly too speculative or wide-sweeping. More generally, the topic of military defeat in the ancient Mediterranean is far too large and far too nascent to be comprehensively covered in one volume. It is therefore not always easy to identify what connects the contributions other than that they all examine military conflicts from the perspective of the defeated. This occasional loss of clarity is compounded by the editors' decision not to impose an agreed definition for the term defeat. Furthermore, despite claiming to present a multidisciplinary approach, the vast majority of the contributions focus almost exclusively on the literary evidence. The result is that apposite archaeological, numismatic, and visual evidence is either given short shrift or overlooked entirely. By disregarding such important categories of evidence, the editors missed the opportunity to present a truly holistic analysis of the consequences of military defeat.

That being said, the best contributions combine astute literary analysis with rigorous historical research in order to highlight the diverse ways in which defeat was perceived, presented, and experienced in antiquity. Of particular note in this regard are the contributions by Foster, Johstono, Melville, and Richlin which, in addition to drawing out the nuances and intricacies of the evidence, demonstrate how historians studying military failure can overcome or supplement the problematic sources upon which they so often rely. A further strength of the volume is that it neatly illustrates the explanatory importance of defeat for understanding the complex history of the ancient Mediterranean. Trundle's contribution, for instance, reveals how it was military failure rather than success which had the greatest impact on Spartan self-perception and identity. The diversity of topics surveyed in this volume, in conjunction with the plethora of wide- ranging cultural comparisons, mean that it will be of interest not only to military historians but also to scholars of international relations, state doctrines, philosophical schools, and historiography.

Irrespective of any minor deficiencies, all fourteen case-studies are well written and researched. With the majority providing new insights into the differing ways in which defeat was experienced by the societies of the ancient Mediterranean, the volume is certain to become essential reading for anyone interested in military failure in antiquity. Overall, this is an important and engaging collection of essays which makes both a welcome and important contribution to an increasingly topical subject.

Authors and Titles

(1) "Thinking about Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society" - Brian Turner and Jessica H. Clark
(2) "Ideology, Politics, and the Assyrian Understanding of Defeat" - Sarah C. Melville
(3) "The Assassination of Tissaphernes: Royal Responses to Military Defeat in the Achaemenid Empire" - Jeffrey Rop
(4) "Achaemenid Soldiers, Alexander's Conquest, and the Experience of Defeat" - John O. Hyland
(5) "Military Defeat in Fifth-Century Athens: Thucydides and His Audience" - Edith Foster
(6) "Demosthenes, Chaeronea, and the Rhetoric of Defeat" - Max L. Goldman
(7) "Spartan Responses to Defeat: From a Mythical Hysiae to a Very Real Sellasia" - Matthew Trundle
(8) "'No Strength to Stand': Defeat at Panium, the Macedonian Class, and Ptolemaic Decline" - Paul Johstono
(9) "Defeat and the Roman Republic: Stories from Spain" - Jessica H. Clark
(10) "The Ones Who Paid the Butcher's Bill: Soldiers and War Captives in Roman Comedy" - Amy Richlin
(11) "Defeated by the Forest, the Pass, the Wind: Nature as an Enemy of Rome" - Ida Östenberg
(12) "Imperial Reactions to Military Failures in the Julio-Claudian Era" - Brian Turner
(13) "'By Any Other Name': Disgrace, Defeat, and the Loss of Legionary History" - Graeme A. Ward
(14) "Recycling the Classical Past: Rhetorical Responses from the Roman Period to a Military Loss in Classical Greece" - Sviatoslav Dmitriev
(15) "The Roman Emperor as Persian Prisoner of War: Remembering Shapur's Capture of Valerian" - Craig H. Cald well III
(16) 'Looking Ahead' - Nathan Rosenstein


1.   Timothy Howe and Lee L. Brice (eds.), Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Brill's Companions in Classical Studies: Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016.

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