Some Thoughts on “A Greek Army on the March”
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Some Thoughts on “A Greek Army on the March”

John W.I. Lee, A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007. DOI Bookfinder link to the hardcover version.

John Lee’s book on the Greek-speaking half of the army of Cyrus the Younger does not seem to have found the audience which I think it deserves. That is a shame, because I found it very useful when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and I think that a wide variety of other people both inside and outside the university would find it helpful too.

Many books on life in the Ten Thousand have been written by retired soldiers or policemen, and implicitly or explicitly take the bureaucratic armies of the last hundred and fifty years as a model. Writers searched for a detailed chain of command with large units made up of small ones and a network of officers and non-commissioned officers, a relationship between the organization of the army in camp and the organization of the army in formation, and other things which modern armies have. It was possible to do this by ignoring or minimizing a large number of anomalies. John Lee had the courage to ask “what if we take Xenophon seriously? What if we accept that what he describes seems very different from a modern army, and ask him what he means?” And so he wrote a book about how the Ten Thousand functioned as a community of men and women living and marching and fighting together.

Lee suggests that the Ten Thousand operated with a negligible organization and bureaucracy by organizing themselves from the bottom up. Rather than appointing subordinates who appointed subordinates down to a group of five to ten men at the bottom, generals let the men organize themselves into messes of about as many men and hangers-on as could share a campfire, and each mess worked out how to distribute its baggage, collect water and fodder, make camp, cook, settle arguments, and do the other everyday tasks of life on campaign. These messes had nothing to do with the way that the army was organized when it lined up for battle. The generals let merchants or the locals worry about how to gather enough food for the troops to buy, or stole it and divided it amongst the troops.

(From the perspective of comparative military history, a split between the social organization of an army and the tactical organization of an army is common, and Lee’s results should give ideas to people who are struggling to make their reconstructions of the size of a Roman contubernium or ‘tentful’ into a simple multiple or fraction of their reconstructions of the depth of a file; consider the ‘lance’ in France and its neighbours in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, or a Victorian regiment where the officers leave their units to dine at a common mess every evening).

If John Lee is right, it means that experience in a modern army or police force has surprisingly little to tell us about how life in a Greek army worked (its hard to imagine one of Xenophon’s comrades filling out a form, or being told that he had to leave his messmates immediately to complete a training course on the other side of the Aegean). Instead, useful experiences to understand how the army kept moving might be travelling as part of a sports team, club, group of convention-goers, or other large group of friends with a common goal and destination. Military experience can teach many other important things, about working in the face of death under conditions to which people rarely subject themselves freely, but the bureaucratic and policy-driven aspect of modern armed forces is alien to what Xenophon describes. It also means that Classical Greeks had a stunning level of social intelligence. Anyone who has organized a party, class trip, or other group event can imagine how hard it would be to coordinate thousands or tens of thousands of men without a formal bureaucracy, yet as scholars like Hans van Wees have made clear, most Greek armies appear loosely organized and undisciplined by modern standards. Lee also complains that Greek re-construction and re-enactment are not as well developed as their Roman counterparts, so it is hard to answer questions like “what kinds of canteens were available to Greek soldiers and how much did they weigh?” or “how well do the different types of shoe available work in different weather and terrain?”

I also admire that this book focuses on the question “how” rather than “why” (although there are certainly references to the structures in Aegean societies as a whole which encouraged the Ten Thousand to organize themselves the way they did). Some academics don’t like that, accusing this kind of research of being “antiquarianism” or “chronicling” or other sinister terms, but to me antiquarianism is a perfectly fine and scholarly thing. “Why” is a very hard question to answer, and in many cases its hard to see how an answer could be either true or false, for the kinds of reasons which the Pre-Socratics liked to argue about (“If two men are throwing javelins, and a crowd gathers to watch, and someone in the crowd trips and knocks a neighbour into the path of the javelins so that he is killed, who is responsible?” One early version of this story is Plutarch, Perikles, 36.3). But “how” is always an interesting question, and at least in principle it has an answer which can be determined empirically. I am much more interested in learning about ancient people and the things they did and said than in arguing about abstractions which nobody in the ancient world would recognize.

Full Disclosure: Due to sickness, this post is written from memory about a book which I last read in 2013. I have met the author.

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0 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “A Greek Army on the March”

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Very good book indeed, I’m definitively using it for describing the age and life of Xenophon. Especially useful for me is analysis the reconstruction of Cunaxa battle, or the logistics, daily functiong of army etc. Very troughout, not to mention funny things like, Xenophon is very puritan author. Now after few years after end of my Greek courses at universtity I finally know the hidden meaning, that Agesilaus preferred destroying land of an enemy…

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Glad someone else found it and enjoyed it! I would pay a great deal for a chance to chat with Xenophon over some wine about some of the things which he hints at but does not say in so many words, like the Spartan army at Xen. Hell. 2.4.6 which was caught with its skirts up.

  2. Max Weber vs. Eduard Meyer on Marathon | Book and Sword says:

    […] only good book on the experience of life as a soldier in the early Greek world is John Lee’s A Greek Army on the March! Roman Army scholars write books like that which draw on archaeology and comparative evidence, but […]

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