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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

“Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity”, by J. E. Lendon


468 pages, Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300106633

If we ponder the question of why things change in history, we often fall back on technology; we assume that societies change because they develop new tools or new techniques which cause further changes rippling through institutions and lives. But is this always so? Lendon explores the question by looking at how different ancient armies fought. Over the course of Greek and Roman antiquity, different armies fought in very different ways, and in casual histories one often sees this explained by technological advances. Yet this cannot be so, because in fact there were very few changes in military technology between the time of the Assyrians and the fall of Rome; nor can the change really be explained by the slow spread of ideas (the Romans were not such fools that it took them 200 years to understand the phalanx).

Lendon looks instead at the basic questions of how nations were organized and why men and nations fight (they do not fight, you may sure, just to win battles). Lendon argues that ancient nations selected weaponry and battle formations that reflected the basic structure of their societies and allowed them to achieve their goals. The wars of the classical Greeks were mainly contests for prestige between city states, and Lendon argues that they fought hoplite battles because this best allowed one group of citizens to test their courage and civic pride against another. The Romans of the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC, says Lendon, were obsessed with courage and the honor they could win for themselves and their families by feats of daring in battle, so they adopted tactics that allowed would-be heroes to perform those feats.

One of Lendon’s best sections describes the fascination with ancient Greek history that overtook the elite of the later Roman Empire. In the later empire the Romans abandoned the methods of fighting that had won them their empire in the first place, but instead of adopting new innovations they generally looked backward, copying as best they understood them the tactics of Alexander and even Agamemnon. They often seemed to be battling, not the forces arrayed against them, but the shadow of Macedon or Troy, and as we know, any victories they won against those ghosts did their own society precious little good.


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