Warfare in the Ancient World

Warfare in the Ancient World

I’ve just finished reading this concise volume and thought I’d note down a few observations about it.

It’s markedly different from other books I’ve read on ancient warfare in that it takes an instrumental, stripped-down view of the development of warfare in the ancient world. It looks at weapons systems as they were applied on the battlefield and in campaigns, with a focus on developments in combined arms, ‘articulation’ and logistics.

The concept of combined arms is one we’re probably all familiar with, and speaks for itself. Likewise logistics. Articulation though was a relatively new term to me, and denotes the capacity of battlefield units and formations to respond flexibly to different challenges. This is how the  glossary at the end of the book puts it:

“A military term defining the offensive capability of troops. Unarticulated troops usually lacked the drill and discipline to march and fight in close order, and usually fought in static, defensive formations. Well-articulated troops were capable of offensive action in close-order combat.”

The Roman legion, with its system of maniples, is portrayed as the supreme development of the articulated battle formation in the ancient world.

Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of the period, the book concentrates on key developments. One example of this is the metamorphosis of Greek and Macedonian warfare as a result of contact with the Persian Empire. The Greek phalanx was replaced by the combined arms approach of Philip of Macedon, who added cavalry and light troops to the traditional heavy infantry formations. Following the closely studied experiences of Xenophon, whose Anabasis was read extensively, the Macedonians recognised the importance of proper logistical support, which had previously been neglected in the Greek world.

The book covers an impressive sweep of history, from the Bronze and early Iron Age eras to the later Roman empire. Carey illustrates his points with detailed analyses of key battles, complete with maps. These include Megiddo, Kadesh, Marathon, Plataea, Sphacteria, Leuctra, Granicus River, Issus, Gaugamela, Hydaspes, Raphia, Cannae, Zama, Cynosephalae, Carrhae, Pharsalus and Teutoburg Forest.

The most useful and refreshing aspect of the book for me though isn’t the description of individual battles – many of which have been covered exhaustively elsewhere – but the author’s overview of the way in which each region or nation’s system of warfare developed over time.

For instance, Carey traces the transformation of the Roman military machine, describing its emergence from Etruscan methods of warfare and its subsequent development via the Camillan reforms into the early legion. He looks at the impact of the subsequent wars, and of the Marian and Augustan reforms, ending with an analysis of the decline of legionary warfare with the defeats of Carrhae and the Teutoburg.

It’s when he’s looking at the ‘big picture’ that this author is at his best.

The only criticism I would make of the book is that, for this ageing reader at least, the strategic and battlefield maps are rather on the small side. But this is a minor gripe about what is in general a well-written, rewarding and thought-provoking read. I’m not qualified to judge whether Carey’s conclusions are ones with which other military historians might take issue, but as presented here his arguments are both cogent and forceful.

In short, Warfare in the Ancient World is a worthy addition to the wargamer’s bookshelf.

Warfare in the Ancient World, Brian Todd Carey, publ. Pen & Sword 2005.

 

2 thoughts on “Warfare in the Ancient World

  1. Not a ‘coffee table’ book then?

    I bought a book on Greek Warfare years ago it was reviewed as ‘a superficial coffee table book’ but it covered everything I needed, maps, illustrations with descriptions and the print was bold on glossy pages.
    Did not try to reduce the bage count.

  2. Definitely NOT a coffee table book! TBH there are loads of books out there on this subject, but I found this one quite refreshing in that it seems to reflect the author’s strategic/overview approach, while still including individual battles to illustrate his arguments.

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