Book Review: Greek Warfare: Myth and Realities


by Hans Van Wees

London: Bristol Classical Press / Dulles, Va.: International Publishers Marketing, 2004. Pp. xiv, 350. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0715629670

Greek Warfare is a fresh, highly detailed, comprehensive look at the nature of war, warriors, and warfare in the ancient Greek world from Homeric times to the ascent of Rome.

In his introduction, Prof. van Wees (University College London), notes that there are two reasons he wrote this book.  One is to offer a look at warfare in the Ancient Greek world that encompasses the causes and objectives of wars and the interrelationships among war, society, and the state.  The second is to examine some of commonly held beliefs about Greek warfare that are not accurate, such as the notion that Greek armies were always composed of propertied citizens, or that war was more common than peace, or that their battles were “massive pile ups in which two masses of soldiers relied on physical shoving” to attain victory, some of these myths deriving from the accounts of the ancients themselves and others formed by modern scholars, often trying to fit ancient practice into modern models.  Van Wees divides the book into six parts, each consisting of several related chapters. 

“War and Peace” address the causes of war, stressing events from the Greek perspective, which is often at odds with that of our own times.  “Citizens and Soldiers” discusses who fought and how this changed over the ages as warfare and societies changed.  “Amateur Armies” reminds us that for the most part, whether in Homeric times or in the Golden Age, Greek armies were largely composed of militiamen.  “Agonal and Total Warfare” deals with religion, policy, strategy, and operational concerns while “The Experience of Combat” looks at what things were like “at the front” as the nature of war changed from the Heroic Age to the Golden Age, and “Ruling the Waves” deals with maritime matters.  A brief conclusion weaves these threads together. 

The appendices address some interesting historical questions, such as the strength of the Athenian army in the mid-fifth century BC and the evolution of Spartan military institutions, and give us some insights into van Wees’s methodology.

Intended for the very serious student of war in the ancient world, Greek Warfare will nevertheless prove rewarding even for the interested layman.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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