The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece

by Victor Davis Hanson

Rating: ★★★★

Hanson provides a grippingly 'up close and personal' examination of a specific conception of warfare that comes to us from Ancient Greece and still resonates to this day: the idea of a 'decisive battle', fought head-on and on fair ground, after which one side is clearly the loser and the other the victor. As illustrated adeptly in the early chapters, this is far from the most natural system for conflicts, which both then and now often included more flexible forms of conflict such as sieges, ambushes and tricky manoeuvring, not to mention guerrilla tactics.

The decisive battle, Hanson points out, was an institution particularly suited to Greek warriors, most of whom were only warriors for a brief time during the summer. Greek warriors were troops of mixed ages, heavily armed and armoured, and not well-suited to skirmishing or extended campaigns -- and they didn't have the time for it anyway, if they would soon be needed back home for harvesting. So the straightforward resolution for both parties was a straightforward collision -- the two hoplite armies would meet, line up, get into their uncomfortable armour, and charge directly at each other (listing a little to the right, as each man sought the shelter of the shield beside him). An hour or so was usually enough to completely decide whatever the conflict was, there were strong conventions for deciding who had won, and that was an end to it.

As a review of the means of Greek warfare, this would be an interesting enough book. However, Hanson brings a few extra qualities that make this book shine. Firstly, he brings some hands-on experience to his topic. Early on, the question arises of, well, why? Why did Greeks ever have these battles instead of (as Pericles would later innovate) just staying behind city walls and waiting for the invaders to go away? The conventional answer here is that the invading army would otherwise despoil the farms the polis rely upon. Hanson, however, actually owned a farm, and has some insight into how it's actually pretty difficult to significantly despoil Greek-style farmland. Olive trees are hard to damage and nigh-impossible to uproot, grape vines can for sure be cut, but vineyards contained thousands of such plants, and it would require significant amounts of manual labour to do lasting harm, some grain crops can be burnt -- but pretty much only just before harvest, exactly when the invading army is going to be needed at home. Hanson raises a different idea: that the need to fight invaders was less about long-term economic necessity, and more about territoriality, and the more abstract, almost spiritual harm that invaders cause by violating the national soil. I'm not entirely convinced by this line -- the invaders themselves being agriculturalists probably means they know exactly how to best inflict damage on a farm if they desire to -- but it's a brilliant line of inquiry, pressing in on the real roots of what we think we know about war.

The other great quality of Hanson's is his ability to not just present sources and extrapolation, but to create highly visual and intuitive renditions of Greek warfare, with evocative force. I'd understood before the relationship between Sparta's professionalisation of its soldiers and its long dominance in pitched land warfare, but Hanson does more than explain that. He takes you down to the viewpoint of the Attic warrior, crowded in amongst his friends and family, barely able to move or see, and gives you the intuition for why the Spartans were so scary, exactly how impressive it was that they could consistently do things like retreat in good order. He communicates the din of battle, the terror of the crush, the smell of voided bowels, the bellows and crashes of weapons and shields, the hopelessness of the wounded and the trampled. This was not, could not be, you realise, about skill at arms. Nobody in this mess needs to be dextrous. This really has to be about discipline and cohesion.

I've picked up a fair few book recommendations on Ancient and Hellenic Greek warfare recently. This is one I'd repeat to anyone with similar interests.