Some Thoughts on “Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History”

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Categories: Ancient
A wall of gigantic rounded stones roughly shaped and placed together with a few smaller stones to fill gaps
Even the most overwhelming project can be completed if you take it one stone at a time! Photo of the Cyclopean walls of Mycenae by Sharon Mollerus, Wikimedia Commons, with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Konijnendijk, Roel (2017) Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History. Mnemosyne, Supplements History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, Band 409 (Brill: Leiden)

Since the 1990s, there has been intense debate about early Greek warfare. Most people agreed that there was something wrong with the versions available in English, but it took time to agree on just what that wrongness was and whether it could be fixed with a few small changes or was more fundamental. This book is another Cyclopean stone in the walls of the current consensus.

Konijnendijk argues that the California School of writers on Greek warfare (John Kinloch Anderson, William K. Pritchett, and Victor Davis Hanson) were basically refining the ideas of Austrian, German, and English scholars before the First World War. The continentals were interested in a comparative history of warfare with the practices of the Prussian army at the top, the Roman army in the middle, and early Greek armies near the bottom, while the English scholars tried to explain why Greek warfare as described by the Prussians was so peculiar. For a long time it seemed like these early writers had solved the problem so little was written on the subject in English. When a new group of scholars in Cold War California became interested in warfare, they launched a flood of research in English which almost erased the original German context of their theories. In short, the ‘orthodoxy’ is really a set of received ideas from 19th century Europe which survived until a group of ‘scientific historians’ began to question them.

Konijnendijk also lays out some of the strangest ideas about Greek warfare published before 1990. Anyone who has read Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon can list story after story of Greeks chasing down their enemies, stabbing them in the back, burning them alive in sacred groves where they had taken refuge, and so on. Often they came back to find that on other parts of their field their allies had lost, or were startled by a counter-attack and routed themselves. Thucydides says that the Spartans did not like these reckless chases (Thuc. 5.73.4): a mob of excited, jostling, running Spartiates were just as vulnerable to a counter-attack as any other hoplites. Armies without enough light-armed troops or cavalry bitterly complained that when they won they could not hurt their enemy, but if they ever lost they would be wiped out (Xen. An. 3.1.2). But in many modern writers on ancient warfare we find something different:

  • Rüstow and Köchly, History of the Greek Art of War from the Earliest Times until Pyrrhus (1852) p. 145 “If the hoplite line of one side gained the victory, broke the enemy line and drew the other arms with it in flight, the victorious phalanx was now poorly equipped to pursue the fleeing, unless it had cavalry and light-armed infantry for assistance. In fights of this period, the pursuit was invariably rather half-hearted. The lack of cavalry and long-ranged troops is, however, not the only ground for this. One wanted more than anything else to make an impression by means of the battle and the victory, one took control of the battlefield and thereby established one’s victory by setting up a tropaion of the captured arms …”
  • Whatley, “On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon” (1964 but written in the 1920s) p. 122: “There was no attempt to follow up a victory. The two sides went home with as little attempt to molest each other as do the rival teams after a modern football match.”
  • Hanson, Western Way of War (1989), pp. 35, 36: “Long drawn-out pursuit was also rare; unlike Napoleon, the victors were not aiming for the complete destruction of an enemy army. Indeed, pursuit of fleeing hoplites was not even crucial: most victorious Greek armies saw no reason why they could not repeat their simple formula for success and gain further victories should the enemy regroup in a few days and mistakenly press their luck again.”

Somehow the exception in the ancient sources became the norm in the moderns! I had forgotten about this because Peter Krentz debunked it in his great article “Fighting by the Rules: The Invention of the Hoplite Agôn” in 2002, and because its not one of the aspects of the California school which many people I know still believe, like many people still believe that hoplite gear was very heavy.

The book is very readable which is more than anyone can say about my German.

If I have one criticism it would be that this book is so tightly focused and text-centred that it excludes some things which could make its view even stronger. I have an article in press for a few years which argues that some of the brilliant scholars who refuted the California school unthinkingly reproduced its assumptions about what questions to ask and sources to rely on. Its one thing to ask whether hoplites fought in files two cubits wide or four cubits wide, another to ask whether we should look at Greek ethnic warfare or warfare in the Aegean region. (The article will appear in the proceedings of Melammu-Symposium 8).

The bibliography of about 380 items excludes some things, particularly works outside ‘academic’ classics and by presses that expect a book to sell thousands not hundreds of copies. This isn’t a monograph which addresses the archaeologists like Imma Killian-Dirlmeier, the writings of Peter Connolly, or the wargamers from the 1970s to the 2000s who looked at what academics had to offer in English, decided it was not helpful, and wrote their own books, some of them quite good. Looking at this wider context could have showed that the dominance of the text-focused Prussian school was not inevitable, and how these ideas spread before academics were writing books in English on them. But people writing a PhD in the UK are under strong pressure to complete it in three or four years, so they have to be ruthless about defining a research topic and not wasting time on anything else.

If you just want three books on early Greek warfare, I would still recommend Hans van Wees’ Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, Josho Brouwers’ Henchmen of Ares, and Xenophon’s Anabasis. But if you want to read more widely, I would recommend this. I hope that the wider world interested in early Greek warfare learns to talk about the Prussian, English, and California schools, just like the world interested in Greek catapults knows about the 19th century Prussian and French scholars who built the first reconstructions.

If you can’t obtain the published version, the original dissertation is available as Konijnendijk, Roel (2015) Ideals and Pragmatism in Greek Military Thought, 490-338 BC. Doctoral thesis, University College London. Scholars who want something to cite should check the printed version!

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6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History”

  1. russell1200 says:

    I recall a discussion in the miniatures rules community (DBM maybe?) where the author of an army list posited the Greek Hoplites as being something equivalent to exuberant heavy irregulars rather than as regular troops – Spartans excepted – as away to recreate the impetuous charges that he saw in his primary sources.

    This interpretation made them closer to a (spear armed) Viking war band than some people were comfortable with.

    But at some point, when they transitioned to the pike, there had to be a change. Although as the Swiss much later showed, even pike armed formations are much more mobile and faster than some people realize.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I think Phil Sabin added rules to “Lost Battles” to encourage quick results in 5th/4th century hoplite vs. hoplite fights too. The DBA Blades category creates some problems, Polybian hastati don’t behave much like Saxon huscarls or 14th century dismounted men-at-arms.

      Getting Greek men to accept the kind of training which was necessary to use the pike efficiently must have been a struggle! That is probably why many cities stuck with the Argive shield and doru or adopted the thureos.

  2. Vavča says:

    I briefly read this book (especially the first half), it has very fine arguments, smooth language. It’s definitevily useful for methodology for history of Ancient Greek Warfare. I can also recommend this book for the destroying of stereotypes in wars of Greeks Sometimes I was laughing while reading Konijnendijk opinions, problems with Thebans stands still from 19th century:)) Does anybody knows Dahm’s stance ?

    And notice me senpai! Russian school is missing altogether (at least I don’t know if Nefedkin or different Russian author is working on Greek military history – Theban hegemony). Are You interested in Russian school for ancient military history? I have some Russian books 40’s, 50’s (in Czech of course, and one Polish old book from 50’s, and some Czech books 60’s to 80’s which are derived from Russian authors, letters of Marx-Engeles about ancient warfare included). I can tell You their views of Greeks, especially on Theban tactics (Assyrians, Romans, Carthaginians are there too, but briefly). I was using Russian school for my interpretation of Leuctra and Mantineia were different (I made last reconstruction in my Xenophon book, perhaps this year first part goes out) But I doubt, You are curios for my interpretaton (which is based on Russian model), but I can write You my reconstruction (I did this already in my Bc. work).

    Except for missing link from Russia, and perhaps Italy, why not include French authors? Vernant, Mossé and other worked really hard in this! But generally I have much bigger problem with Konijnendijk work, raison d’etre of such work. Is this stepping stone in some future unknown themes? We have freedom of themes, yet I want to ask, was this really needed? We have many years available works of van Wees, P. Krentz for Ancient Greeks, no to mention, that Hanson admitted with others some mistakes in his theories. It’s commendable, that Paul Bardunias is working on this side, and sometimes has useful observation or info, which I overlooked in primary sources, my bad, but generally everybody knows, that Hanson camp lost).

    King’s College in London is very prestige address, in situation when we don’t have military history of Egypt 1064-332 BC (currently I’m reading Briant’s Darius in the shadow of Alexander, there was maybe lot’s more going on), I have to ask, is this wise allocation of sources for ancient military history? We are also missing research from Indian 6th-2nd CE BC, where we have some sources (I don’t know, what’s going on sites, also previous era 1000-600 BC is too meagre for some book), another India theme can be continuation 2nd CE BC till the end of Gupta Empire (4th CE AD). I firmly believe such works are very much needed.

    Not to mention scanty sources for weapons, armour of EIA from Near East, Europe (thank Hephaestus for Helmut Föll and few others). Also LBA isn’t closed chapter for me, do You remember Hullit? Reconstrucion, variants of armour for the Sea people is waiting and other problems, themes also can be made a new. But what can I do without Gates’s fortune? I proposed Egyptian theme to Charles University in Prague (we have projects, sources in Egypt, Sudan, Etiopia, guys are even friends with Anthony Spalinger), but it’s not on their list of priorities. Osprey Publishing says, it’s interesting, but no author in sight. Is anybody know, if Ralph Sawyer is working on something new? Chinese warfare is well supplied well:) Yet we have so little in books (era B.C. especially), my hands are tied for getting the journal Can somebody recommend it?

    End of my rant, over and out:))

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Pavel,

      yes, to me it looks like the big debate ‘was early Greek warfare a single monolithic thing, or something which changed over space and time; should we rely on contemporary, specific sources or airy generalizations about the good old days?’ is over. The former ‘heretics’ just made too many points which the California school could not answer, so the newcomers chose their side and now the academic debate is about things like combat mechanics where they can’t convince everyone. I am pretty sure that if you looked hard enough, you could find people who taught Thucydides’ idea about pursuing the enemy rather than Rüstow’s, but I can’t name them.

      I am sure that there will be people talking about hoplite revolutions and tame, ritualized warfare into the 22nd century, but there are still people repeating Droysen’s old idea about the Persians sucking the economic life out of their subjects; I don’t know what to do about that other than being braver to say when people are claiming the honour of academe without accepting the discipline of using proper methods (so if you are writing a comic book you can say what you like, but if you are a classicist writing a book on the Persian Wars with other classicists endorsing it, there have to be professional consequences if you say that Salamis saved Greece from becoming some kind of theocracy like you never heard of Max Weber).

      I re-read the history of research in Men of Bronze, it is very Anglo-centric.

      I don’t know much about Russian scholars other than Nefedkin, M.A. Dandamayev, and Černenko, I don’t read the language 🙁

      There is lots of work by French scholars on Hellenistic warfare, Greek and German archaeologists on material culture, and Italian scholars on Diodorus that is not yet part of the scholarly conversation in English. I also think there is room to write more case studies in the world history of combat mechanics, Danish riot police and New Guinea highlanders should just be the beginning! And what cavalry, archers, and peltasts did in combat is really neglected.


  3. Vavča says:

    I’m looking forward for next works about combat techniques, parallels in history of warfare. That’s why I’m studying eagerly cavalry combat, history from antiquity to Napoleonic wars, where memoirs are plentiful and superb (even one Polish book about war with Russia 1919-1921 was useful for me, and Im trying to get official training books of WWI era, postwar era manuals (1918-1938 of Czechoslovakia army). For light infantry vis my book above, archery has recently one good Ph.D. work Propably all know this:) Even if I don’t agree with idea, Scythians on vases are low class Greeks, it’s topnotch work, with plentiful informations, not normally known!
    If You want I can give some tips about books for cavalry in ancient world, it’s short list… But You are right, we need more studies on peltasts, cavalry

  4. Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx” | Book and Sword says:

    […] research on early Greek warfare, but the researchers on early Greek warfare ignore it. When the the California school and the Krentz/van Wees school hurl analogies at each other like skirmishers exchanging stones and […]

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