Book Review: Ancient Greeks at War: Warfare in the Classical World from Agamemnon to Alexander


by Simon Elliott

Philadelphia and Oxford: Casemate, 2021. Pp. 288. Illus., maps, chron., gloss., biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1612009980

Warfare in the Hellenic World

This ambitious military chronicle is essentially an overview; a comprehensive survey, smoothly written by an expert popularizer of ancient history. A tour de force, the book is lavishly illustrated – though it must be mentioned up front that the work is unencumbered by footnotes. (The publishers probably concluded that these would slow the intended general readership down.)

Dr. Elliott, both a prolific writer and a veteran archeologist, elucidates the nuts and bolts of Greek/Macedonian armor, weapons, generalship, naval vessels, and tactical arrangements, as well as the specifics of a dozen crucial battles.

Moreover, Elliott succinctly lays out the social, economic, religious, geographical, and political factors underlying the incessant warfare that characterized these societies.

True, there is a lot of territory that Dr. Elliott chooses to cover…over thousands of years.

The reader first encounters a glossary, followed by an extensive timeline. Both are useful. I find it odd, however, to position such specific material up front; this kind of basic information is far more often in appendices.

Next is the first of five chronological chapters. Beginning in roughly 2000 B.C.E., this section tackles the misty histories of the island Minoans, the growth of the mainland’s Dorian-Greek Mycenaeans, and even the mysterious Sea Peoples, who shattered several Bronze Age polities. Apparently, these nasty maritime bandits may have had a few Greek elements within their ranks. I am looking at you, Philistines.

The stage is set for the Dark Age, the Archaic Period, and the glories of Classical civilization. Of course, the Persian and Peloponnesian wars receive a full review. Athens, Sparta, and Thebes all have their time in the sun. Then we have the rise of the northern Macedonian cousins and their shaping of the Hellenistic world.

The last of the five historical chapters ends with a grand finale – the Roman takeover of Greece. Dr. Elliott examines the steps by which a semi-Hellenized Italian republic ultimately vanquished both sturdy alliances of cities and Alexander’s powerful Successor kingdoms.

This triumph occurred largely because Rome was able to apply a nimble tactical organization on the battlefield – one more flexible than the stiffer – and, by then, stagnant – Graeco- Macedonian fighting system.

The “Anvil “and the “Hammer”. In his sixth and penultimate chapter, Dr. Elliott explains the developmental stages of “the anvil” – i.e., a blacksmith metaphor (probably coined by the Macedonians), which referred to the battle role of a dense core of ranked infantry spearmen.

This basic unit was the phalanx, composed of a city-state’s citizens, called hoplites. Its purpose was to fix an opposing line in place and then push back against it until morale broke, which led to disintegration.

After 700 B.C.E., the average phalanx consisted of a block of armored hoplites, arrayed in files 8 deep, carrying shields and thrusting spears that were roughly 8 feet long.

Over time, refinements like light auxiliaries - such as slingers or javelin throwers - were added to erode the enemy before contact. The Greeks tended to neglect archers and cavalry in their tactical systems. Certain cities added their own improvements: like, in Sparta's case, intensified, continuous training that created a professional military caste.

Around the 300s B.C.E., the phalanx had become much denser. In the Royal Macedonian army’s version, well-armored soldiers were assembled in files 16 deep, sporting 14-18 foot-long pikes (the sarissa) that took both hands to carry. The massive power of the unit’s advance had been greatly multiplied -- but so had its rigidity, which was the fatal weakness that the Romans later exploited.

Elliot then explores the crucial addition of “the hammer.” This extension of the blacksmith metaphor refers to supplementary forces like hard-charging lance cavalry and mobile elite infantry. These elements were mostly developed and utilized under innovators like Phillip II and his brilliant son. In synch with the pike-phalanx, the combination was devastating

In other words, the anvil continued to pin its opposite, but now the hammer pounded an opening through a weak point, or smashed at a flank, even if enemy cohesion elsewhere generally remained intact. That cohesion would often crumble, however, once the hammer was able to rain its blows on the rear of the line.

An Expert Guide. Fortunately, the author has the credentials to navigate readers through this vast and ill-documented historical journey. Besides his career as an archeologist and broadcaster, Dr. Elliott is a best-selling historian of several books on ancient conflict, such as Romans at War (Casemate, 2020). He currently serves as a Trustee of the Council for British Archeology.

This kind of interpretative expertise is particularly necessary in a broad-brush review of a slice of ancient history, given the many drawbacks – or complete absence – of its sources, which allow for much squabbling among scholars.

The author readily earns the reader’s trust by how he efficiently interprets such disputed issues in either his narrative or analyses. He presents the various arguments, announces which one he most favors, and why -- then moves on.

Dr. Elliot also includes 12 separate battle boxes that highlight particularly crucial engagements, especially those of Alexander against the Persians and the Diadochi against themselves. Of necessity, there are 7 two-page maps, which are clear and colorful. Nevertheless, several more, with a greater range of locations and terrain features would have been quite helpful.

Elliott is particularly thorough in presenting the fascinating career of Phillip II. This monarch’s memorable military achievements carved a Macedonian imperium out of the Greek world; yet, this major feat was soon eclipsed by those of his son, who overthrew Persia and briefly created the world’s largest empire. Overshadowed by his offspring, one-eyed Phillip doesn’t get enough credit for his brilliant reforms of the Greek way of war.

For instance, this reviewer (who considers himself fairly familiar with ancient history) was surprised to learn that some of Phillip’s early conquests were not preemptive attacks or driven by mere lust for territorial expansion. Instead, these land-grabs were strategic, intended to build up his core of heavy cavalry, which later proved to be so crucial a component of the “hammer” in Macedonian tactics.

Phillip wanted to provide “estates for his growing number of companion shock cavalry,” the author relates, “almost like a feudal lord would do to secure his knights’ financial security.”

Now, I would not have expected such detail to appear in a general survey work, so I applaud Dr. Elliott for his thorough research. This revealing insight is only one of many fresh (if unfootnoted) nuggets of information that he scatters through his comprehensive volume.

Here are a few more of the author’s fascinating tidbits:

· He notes that the word for the battle gear of Indian elephants was “hattathara”.

· He furnishes complete assignment lists of satrap governorships by Successor regents – first, Perdiccas right after Alexander’s death, and then Antipar’s after he squashed a mutiny of the field army in 320 B.C.E.

· He introduces us to the narcissistic tyrant of Athens, Demetrius of Phalerum, who erected 360 monuments across the city extolling his accomplishments. The son of Antigonas overthrew him in 307 B.C.E., and the Athenians immediately smashed the “former guy’s” statues, fashioning chamber pots from the wreckage.

In short, I fully recommend Ancient Greeks at War, an excellent survey for anyone seeking a solid grounding in Greek and Macedonian warfare systems, as we understand them now.


FootNote. For those who have finished Dr. Elliot’s book and who wish to explore aspects of its subject more deeply, I recommend two other fairly recent works:

The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy, by Myke Cole, published by Osprey Bloomsbury in 2021. The title says it all, which is also true of the second book, An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike-Phalanx at War, by Christopher Matthew, from Pen & Sword in 2012, which features a reconstructive, hands-on testing method of the sarissa. Elliott himself includes Invincible Beast in his suggestions for further reading.


Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is also the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts. His previous reviews include Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, Pioneers of Irregular Warfare, Mars Adapting: Military Change During War, and A Short History of War




Note: Ancient Greeks at War is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium and

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   

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