Wars Of The Ancient Greeks, by Victor Davis Hanson
In this book we find out something quite intriguing–how the author pays to keep his farm in operation and at the same time lament the passing of the yeoman farmers of the Greek classical age while at the same time dishing out unpleasant contemporary prophecy about the similar demise of our own independent family farmers. This volume finds the author in a somewhat gloomy mood about Greek warfare  and able to give a great deal of insight about the changes in Greek warfare over the period from Mycenaean Greece to the close of the Hellenistic period. These changes are notable and worthwhile, not least because they demonstrate increasing violence in the heart of the West and its rulers and provide some supporting evidence to various biblical understandings, although the author shows no interest whatsoever in biblical history or morality. Even so, this book is an example of an accessible popular book of military history that may not burnish the author’s reputation in the eyes of his fellow classicists, but certainly helped make him a household name among those of us in the misfit world of scholarly military history.
This book is a glossy and compact volume of just over 200 pages, part of the Smithsonian History of Warfare, edited by noted “Face of Battle” military historian John Keegan. The book itself begins with a helpful map list and a list of Greek wars that took place over the (more than a) millennium of history covered in his volume. The author introduces the Greek military legacy by pointing out the historical parallels between contemporary efforts at building Western-style militaries and the original of the species. The author talks about early Greek fighting in a relatively short chapter (1) that spans the history from 1400-750 and includes the fragmentary information we know from Homer and from archaeological research about the fighting of that time. Considerably more time is spent looking at the rise of the city state and the invention of hoplite warfare (2). AFter this the author looks at the history and ramifications of the series of wars fought between 490 and 362 that included the Persian Wars, first and second Peloponnesian Wars, and the wars of the brief Theban hegemony (3). The author then writes about the military revolution wrought by Philip of Macedon during his lifetime that ultimately doomed the independent Greek poleis (4) before concluding with a discussion of Alexander the Great’s destruction of Persia and the bloody warfare of the Hellenistic period (5) before ending with a downbeat discussion of the Hellenic legacy and various closing material including a glossary, appendix of notable Greek warriors, suggestions for further reading, statistics of the casualties of ancient battles, and index and photo credits.
There are a few things to say about this book that are notable. For one, this book appears to be a very worthy textbook for undergraduate (or maybe even graduate) coursework on Greek warfare. It is gorgeous, filled with worthwhile maps and photos, and gives a broad overview of Greek warfare along with some great suggestions for further reading through the subtle use of classical citations. The author clearly has something to say about the changing warfare of the Greeks and his own preference for hoplite warfare fought by conservative agrarians, whether he is speaking about Greek warfare or our own. The author’s comparison of our own age with the rising inequality and declining civic virtue of the Hellenistic age is notable and concerning. The book as a whole is accessible and it manages to shine a light on aspects of Greek military history that are seldom noted by those who are not very well read in the classics or in Greek history as a whole. By and large, this is a book to celebrate, even if it has a melancholy approach to making Greek military history relevant to today’s readers.
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