Review by DZIRHAN MAHADZIR
THE GREEKS AT WAR
From Athens to Alexander
By Philip De Souza, Waldemar Heckel & Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
Publisher: Osprey Publishing, 285 pages
THE Greeks at War, part of Osprey Publishing’s Essential Histories Special series, is actually a composite book that compiles previous titles from Osprey’s Essential Histories series into one volume, with new material added.
This book contains Dr Philip De Souza’s The Peloponnesian War 431-404BC and The Greek and Persian Wars 499-386BC, and Professor Waldemar Heckel’s The Wars of Alexander the Great 336-323BC. The additional materials are a foreword by the classics professor Victor Davis Hanson, and Dr Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ essay on the portrayal of Greek warfare in the cinema.
Overall, this is a good book that covers most of the key events, starting with the rise of Sparta and Athens, and the conflict between the Greek city states and the Persian empires. It moves on to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and then the rise of Macedon under Phillip II and his son Alexander, and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire. It concludes with the dissolution of the Macedonian empire upon Alexander’s death.
Interspersed with the historical description are portraits of civilians and soldiers, which give the reader an idea of what it was like for the average person caught up in those times, as well as graphics and maps of key battles and campaigns. There are also numerous pictures of artefacts and ruins from the period, with explanations of their significance.
Still, the book has its limitations, one of which is that the period from 386-323BC is largely not covered. This period was when the brilliant Theban general Epaminondas developed tactics which neutralised the Spartans’ military power. With the formation of an elite group of warriors known as the Sacred Band, and their ability to incorporate their hoplites, cavalry and light infantry effectively, the Thebans won a resounding victory at Leuctra (371BC). They killed a Spartan king in battle, something which had not happened for well over a hundred years, since Leonidas perished heroically with his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae (480BC). The Thebans eventually broke Sparta’s dominance.
But they were then feared by other Greek states, and Epaminondas himself fell while fighting Thebes’ former allies at Mantinea (362BC). Ironically, while he was neutralising the threat of Sparta, the man who would eventually destroy the Theban military and establish Macedonian supremacy over Greece, Philip II, was a hostage in Thebes and learning all he could about the Theban way of war.
Thus, it’s a pity that the publishers did not ask Hanson, who covered Epaminiondas thoroughly in his outstanding The Soul of Battle, to contribute a section on this, rather than just a two-page foreword. Neither are the events surrounding Xenophon’s Ten Thousand covered in detail, nor the Greek campaigns against the Roman empire.
Both are worthy of study: the former showed how an army of mercenaries could march through the Persian Empire to safety despite Persian efforts to stop them; the latter, why the Greek phalanx tactic was not enough to counter the Roman legions, as well as the Greek King Pyrrhus’ campaign against the Romans (280-275BC), that spawned the term “Pyrrhic victory”.
One could also question Lewellyn-Jones objectivity in praising Oliver Stone’s Alexander as remarkable, considering that he was a historical advisor for the same movie! However, the rest of his essay is informative.
De Souza uses the more accurate linguistic spelling of names, whereas Heckel uses the more common anglicised spelling. Hence, Kyros instead of Cyrus, and Dareios instead of Darius, among others. Both spellings appear in the book and this is bound to confuse those unfamiliar with Greek history – a problem that could have been easily resolved with some editorial notes.