If the very short introduction promised in this meaty
little book's subtitle were all that its author accomplished in
surveying ancient (scil., Greek and Roman) warfare, that would be a
most welcome and valuable thing. But Sidebottom (Lincoln
College, Oxford) provides a great deal more, in particular a nuanced
exercise in intellectual history and a judicious corrective to
entrenched notions about western warfare:
"it is best for us to interpret the 'Western Way of War' more as an
ideology than an objective reality…. The book looks at both how war
was done and, the far less studied topic, how war was thought about"
1, "'At My Signal Unleash Hell': the Western Way
of War?" (1–15), Sidebottom shrewdly draws on the opening battle
scene in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), far the best of a
spate of "sword and sandal" films in the past decade or so. Here we
find many venerable stereotypes: on the one side, the disciplined
Roman legionaries in their orderly ranks and regulation armor,
deploying standardized weaponry and advanced technology, moving
smartly at the commands of a hierarchy of officers; on the other,
the motley crew of savage Germans, individually fearsome in aspect,
but ill-organized and undisciplined—a mob of barbarians screaming
incoherently and wielding an ad hoc array of weapons. The
chapter then delineates the sources of this familiar "cultural
construction" of the western way of war. The Greeks of the classical
era attributed their surprising victory over the Persians (499–479
B.C.) to the superiority of their governmental systems and their
military preparation and tactics as contrasted with those of the
barbarians: "The Greeks fight for freedom. They seek open battle,
which they will fight hand to hand, and win because of their
training and courage. The servile Persians fight at the command of
an autocrat. They are effeminate cowards, because as bowmen they
seek to avoid close combat, and as horsemen they are quick to run
away" (7). Similarly, the Romans cast the Carthaginians as products
of an inferior culture, a race of traders, greedy and treacherous,
given to rank superstition extending to human sacrifice. "Carthage
was feminized…. Carthaginian men … [wore] loose, unbelted clothes,
and lacked control of their sexual appetites" (9). That the
Carthaginians sought and won devastating "western style" pitched
battles against the Romans was explained away by claiming they had
relied on non-Carthaginian allies and the cunning (not courage or
genius) of Hannibal.
The chapter neatly sets out the archetypal givens of the western
ideology of war as a backdrop for the analyses in the rest of the
"Thinking with War" (16–34), describes how, for Greeks and Romans,
war—its imagery, lexicon, and history—permeated their literature and
art, shaping their thought even in fields well outside the strictly
military. Sidebottom sketches the prevailing ethnographic
typecasting of non-western "others": "small, decadent, clever,
cowardly" easterners; "big, primitive, stupid, and … ferocious"
northerners, be they Brittunculi ("wretched/little Britons"), Gauls, or Germans; and nomadic peoples to the
north, east, and south (Huns, Arabs, Moors, et al.), "lacking
agriculture and houses, let alone cities …, [and] considered the
polar opposite of Greek and Roman culture" (21). He also shows that
many gender stereotypes derived from the linkage—in the west—between
war and masculinity, in sharp contrast to barbarian Amazons and "a
succession of frightening, but perversely attractive foreign warrior
queens" (25) like Artemisia, Olympias, Cleopatra, Boudicca, and
Zenobia. The chapter concludes with a look at three distinctly
non-martial groups—Roman love poets, Greek philosophers, and
Christians—which "nevertheless constructed their personalities … in
terms of war" (28).
"War and Society" (35–52), examines both traditional and revisionist
positions regarding three cases of the effect (or perceived effect)
of war-making upon society: the "hoplite revolution" during the
Archaic era in Greece; the "agrarian crisis" of the last two
centuries of Republican Rome; and the "barbarization" of the Roman
army during the late Empire. Sidebottom is studiedly evenhanded in
assessing the pertinent debates of scholars: "all historical
interpretations are provisional and part of an ongoing process"
(51). Why so? Three reasons: the discovery of new material (e.g.,
archaeological); shifts in intellectual fashion (e.g., vis-à-vis
Marxism); and the desire of new generations of scholars to make
advances in scholarship (and, frankly, to secure jobs) by
questioning the dominant interpretations of their elders.
"Thinking about War" (53–64), surveys major thinkers of the ancient
world in the conviction that "their ideas on the causes of war, its
justifications, and its acceptable limits … not only tell us about
the past, but can inform modern discussions and attitudes" (53).
Herodotus and Thucydides, though they commented on the specific
causes of specific wars and, in the case of the latter, famously
discriminated between ostensible or expressed and the "truest"
motivations, did not espouse any overarching theory about the
morality of war in general. Plato and Aristotle propound
unprogressive doctrines about the legitimacy of war against others
(i.e., barbarians), who were by definition deserving of enslavement,
and the concomitant illegitimacy of wars of Greeks against Greeks,
save in the (extremely frequent) cases where security, honor, or the
avenging of a wrong was at issue. Sidebottom also discusses
attitudes toward civil strife (e.g., democrats vs. oligarchs on
Corcyra in Thucydides; the Catilinarian conspiracy in Cicero and
Sallust) and the assertion by Greek philosophers and Christian
writers in Imperial Rome that war was either altogether
unjustifiable (Dio Chrysostom and Epictetus) or righteous only when
required to bring peace or to correct men's morals (Augustine).
5, "Strategy" (65–81), begins with the grand strategies of conquest
attributed in ancient times to men like Alcibiades, Alexander, and
Julius Caesar or, on the barbarian side, Mithridates and Ardashir.
Modern scholars usually dismiss these as fantastic, but Sidebottom
cautions that, given the deficiencies of geographic knowledge and
cartography in ancient times, "big plans of conquest, in a small
world comprised of inferior peoples [see chap. 1] … could seem far
more achievable to the ancients than they do to our eyes" (69).
Turning to Edward Luttwak's well-known arguments about the "grand
strategy" of the Roman Empire,
Sidebottom registers major objections to it, especially the fact
that the Romans appear to have lacked both the mental outlook and
foreign policy apparatus requisite for so sophisticated a strategic
plan prosecuted over several centuries. The chapter closes with a
most salutary seven-page discussion of logistics, a far too often
neglected topic in histories of war-waging, whether ancient or
"Fighting" (82–111), offers a good, sound Keeganesque
description of "the physical and emotional experiences of the
ordinary combatant" (82), including the classical Greek hoplite, the
Macedonian phalangite, and the Roman legionary. Also examined are
the conditions of cavalry fighting, the conduct of sieges, and naval
warfare. Sidebottom then analyzes the destruction of a legion and
five cohorts at the battle of Atuatuca (sometimes spelled "Aduatuca") and its aftermath as recounted in Caesar's Bellum
Gallicum. He stresses the importance of logistics and failure of
leadership, with its consequent ill effects upon morale. This in
turn leads to a broader discussion of generalship in Greek and Roman
warfare, especially its gradual evolution from heroic, Homeric-style
participatory leadership in battle to the supervisory and
exhortatory functions of commanders as "battle managers." "The
'symbolic' aspect of the general's role was always appropriate,
whether in theory or practice, and if things were going well or
badly…. The 'battle management' of the classical commander was as
much, if not more, about motivating his men as about tactical
suggested by its title, "'People Should Know When They Are
Conquered': The Reinventions of the Western Way of War" (112–128),
the book's seventh and last chapter returns to Gladiator.
Sidebottom compares the popular cinematic realization of warfare
between Romans and barbarians with that found in the sculptural
program of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, erected by Commodus to
commemorate his father's wars against Germans and Sarmatians between
A.D. 172 and 175. With the aid of eight illustrations of
the Column, he ingeniously identifies similarities and, more often,
differences between the two depictions of the waging of war. This
leads on to a concluding discussion of ongoing refinements in our
understanding of the western way of war. As Sidebottom points out,
scholars like John Lynn
have shown that "for long periods of time, very few of the ideas
that make up the concept … have been present in the reality of
western European war-making" (126). Victor Hanson's provocative
expansion of his original formulation of the idea beyond Greek and
has met with convincing demurrals and corrections. The special
contribution of this book is its insistence that the theory of a
western way of war is a "long-lived, highly adaptable, and powerful
ideology" (128) rather than an objective representation of the
realities of warfare.
As if all
this were not enough, Ancient Warfare is equipped with a
twenty-two-page, expertly annotated guide to "Further Reading," a
breathless "Chronology" (ca. four millennia on four pages), five
minimalist maps, eighteen black and white illustrations, and a good
index. All in all, a lot of bang for the drachma (or denarius).
Sidebottom is to be congratulated on a lively, discerning, crisp
overview of the historical conditions and intellectual constructions
of ancient warfare.
Eastern Michigan University
See esp. Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War:
Infantry Battle in Classical Greece,
2nd ed. (Berkeley: U California Pr, 1998; orig. 1988).
 The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire
(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U Pr, 1976).
See esp. John Keegan, The Face of Battle
(NY: Viking, 1976; rev. ed. with illus. 1989).
See Battle: A
History of Combat and Culture
(Boulder, CO: Westview Pr, 2003).
In, e.g., Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise
of Western Power (NY: Doubleday, 2001).
 Or dollar: list price $9.95.