Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

I recently came across a book entitled Warfare in the Ancient World by Brian Todd Carey. According to the jacket blurb, Professor Carey is a history lecturer in the American Public University System and vice-president of the Rocky Mountain World History Association. He tells us that the book is intended to accompany his undergraduate course at the American Military University: as he puts it, "unable to find a suitable text, I decided to write my own".

How peculiar. Isn't it school children who require text books? Shouldn't undergraduates be encouraged to read widely? "A little learning ...", as Alexander Pope said. Unfortunately, not even the author seems to have read widely. There are, on average, three end-notes per page (429 notes in all, spread over 149 pages). Something like 10% refer to primary sources: Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar - the actual descriptions of events surviving from antiquity. The rest borrow extensively from a core of modern American popular works: Arther Ferrill's The Origins of War: from the stone age to Alexander the Great; Richard Gabriel & Karen Metz's From Sumer to Rome: The military capabilities of ancient armies; Richard Gabriel & Donald Boose, Jr.'s The Great Battles of Antiquity: a strategic and tactical guide to great battles that shaped the development of war (phew!). He has consulted a similarly small cadre of modern British works, too: Warfare in the Ancient World, edited by General Sir John Hackett; John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World; and (of course) Peter Connolly's Greece and Rome at War.

But (and herein lies the problem) Professor Carey appears not only to have consulted, but to have borrowed heavily, while excluding more specialist works. How, for example, can anyone discuss Gaugamela, the great set-piece battle at the centre of Oliver Stone's recent movie, without referring to Eric Marsden's classic 1964 monograph, The Campaign of Gaugamela?

Academic disciplines like archaeology and ancient history are built on the study of the primary sources: the actual remains, supplemented by a reading of contemporary or near-contemporary textual accounts. For ancient warfare, we think of works like Victor Hanson's The Western Way of War, where the index of ancient citations runs to 11 pages; or Adrian Goldsworthy's The Roman army at War and Hugh Elton's Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425, each based on the respective author's PhD research. To give Professor Carey his due, these works certainly appear in his bibliography, but I wonder whether he has read them.

For example, in the chapter entitled "The Roman Empire at War", we are informed that "the role of Roman cavalry on the battlefield increased because of prolonged contacts with cavalry-based tactical systems in the east" (p. 123). What does this mean? That the emperor Augustus suddenly discovered how useful cavalry could be? Isn't Professor Carey aware, for example, of the frequent cavalry skirmishes during Caesar's African war of 48-46 BC? Or does he mean to imply that the characteristic infantry legions were supplanted by the forerunners of the medieval knight? Elton, for one, has estimated that "at Strasbourg in 357 [the future emperor] Julian had 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry". Very similar numbers are found in Arrian's array of AD 132, in his plan to repulse an invasion of the Alans. So, where's the "increased role"?

Also, shouldn't we mistrust any military historian who cannot get the names of famous Roman generals right? It was P. Quinctilius Varus (not Quintilius) who lost three legions in the Teutoburger forest in AD 9, and T. Quinctius Flamininus (not Flaminius) who defeated Philip V of Macedon at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. And "Scipio the Younger" (younger than whom?) is usually known as Scipio Africanus, and sometimes even Scipio Africanus the Elder!

It seems to me that Professor Carey has done his undergraduates a disservice. He has attempted to distill the contents of a few books which are already themselves distilled. In this digital age, it is surely more appropriate to post an annotated reading list as a web site, perhaps with a discussion forum to stimulate some intellectual activity. Then, indeed, Professor Carey's undergraduates can enjoy more than the shallow sip he has offered them.


  1. I'm a student of Carey's and I agree with this wholeheartedly. We're required to buy the book for his class. If it weren't for the forced market, none would move off the shelves.

  2. I was a graduate student of Professor Carey's. I took four classes with him over the course of my studies and enjoyed his teaching style and the content of his courses immensely. I have purchased and read both of his books and I have nothing but praise for both of them. I disagree wholeheartedly with your statement.

  3. I am also a student of profesor Carey's and he does not require you to purchase his books for his classes, he lets everyone know that they exist and humorously urges people to check them out if you are interested.

  4. I read both of these books while researching my thesis. Brian Todd Carey's work is indeed dilluted rewordings of already dilluted works. To boot, there's no life in his writing. Reading what could have been a 40 page work spread out for a few hundred pages was tedious. SAVE YOUR MONEY AND CHECK THIS BOOK OUT OF THE LIBRARY IF YOU MUST AT ALL.

  5. Jared S. Parsons18/3/07 7:28 am

    So you actually believe two books covering 47 centuries of warfare in 380 pages of text could be distilled into 40 pages? There are more than 40 pages of tactical maps in each volume alone. As one of Professor Carey's former graduate students and a current PhD candidate in history, I would be very interested in how you would do that. As for the dilluted works you speak of, can you be more specific? I, for one, would be interested in what your thesis is?

    I greatly enjoyed both of Professor Carey's books and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about warfare in the ancient and medieval periods.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Jared.
    You asked: As for the dilluted works you speak of, can you be more specific?
    Yes, I can. Taking chapter 5 (The Roman Empire at War) as an example, Professor Carey draws the bulk of his information from Michael Grant's Army of the Caesars, Brian Dobson's chapter on "The Empire" in Hackett's Warfare in the Ancient World, and Arther Ferrill's Fall of the Roman Empire. I've already read those authors' summaries of imperial Roman warfare, so why should I read Professor Carey's summary of those summaries?

  7. Jared S. Parsons19/3/07 8:28 am

    I believe they are called synthetic works and they are widely used by university professors in their classrooms. And actually I own those works myself and I do not see a problem with a new synthesis.

    What I do have a problem with are blogs like this where an anomymous blogger using a pseudonym can attack people and never have to submit himself or herself to any criticism. It is a cowardly way to conduct your business. There are 1,000s of bloggers out there who openly identify themselves and their credentials, giving their words a great deal more weight than this enterprise. Perhaps you should consider it.

  8. Attack people, Jared?! Don't be silly.

    I have posted a critique of a book, not an attack on the author. And furthermore, I have enabled a feedback mechanism (i.e., these comments) in order to submit myself (as you put it) to criticism.

    Cowardly, Jared?! Consider this: my comments here must be judged on their own merits; have you judged Professor Carey's book on its own merits? Or do you just like baiting long-dead Roman emperors?

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  10. Jared S. Parsons9/4/07 8:14 am

    Actually, with very little research you can verify the existence of Jared S. Parsons. Again Emperor, this forum allows anonymous attacks to take place against the character of a fine man with no consequences to you. The person aboves comments have no relevance to Professor Carey's academic or writing abilities, yet you allow such dribble to be published on your fine website. Step into the Light, Dear Emperor...and show yourself Or, at the very least, sack up be a responsible mediator of this discussion.

  11. "Actually, with very little research you can verify the existence of Jared S. Parsons."
    Why would I want to?!
    "Again Emperor, this forum allows anonymous attacks to take place against the character of a fine man with no consequences to you."
    It's what, in the United States, is called "free speech", Jared.
    "Step into the Light, Dear Emperor...and show yourself."
    And exactly what difference would that make? If you disagree with my original post, you are free to criticise, point by point. But you haven't done that.

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  17. When I posted my piece on Brian Todd Carey's book back in March 2006, I expected some defence of his work by those who disagreed with my critique. Indeed, initial responses were 2 in agreement, 1 against, and 1 non-commital.

    What I did not anticipate was the cathartic outpouring of negative ad hominem remarks directed at Professor Carey's private life. He has requested that I remove these remarks, and I am happy to do so.

    (Regrettably, as we all know, nothing ever disappears on the internet, but I hope that the posts in question never resurface on some internet archive.)

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  19. If you go to and check out his book reviews, all the 5 star ones are from one-time "and all Brian Todd Carey" reviewers and are, of course, not in a REAL NAME mode. It's also intriguing how these first time reviewers use lingo like 'tactical maps' and ALL CAPS FOR HIS BOOK TITLES and even more amazing that they list in order all the battles mentioned in each book....

    A little self-reviewing going on?

    Come on, who is going to only review 3 books, and all of them BTC's, and use such detailed historical syntax? Wouldn't a history buff knowledgable enough to discern battles also have commented on OTHER author's books?

    And, on July 26th, exactly ONE day after getting a 3 star review which suggests other books besides this ("I'd recommend Goldworthy's The Fall of Carthage or Bagnall's The Punic Wars. Both go into more depth and are more enjoyable than this.") , Kelly Richardson, who has only reviewed Carey's books, defends carey with ...

    "Supported by great tactical and regional maps, this book was a fine introduction to all three of the Punic Wars in half the pages of Golsdworthy's or Bagnall's books."

    Brian Todd Carey makes me sick. He's an obvious head case who is twisting his reviews.

    I'm a student of his and sleuthed this when forced to order his book for class.

    What an obvious joke.

  20. Reviewed on Amazon:

    I have read through this book and while it covers some important information two facts stick out.

    1. Everything is assumed to be true. Observations based on limited information are made throughout the text. This probably stems from point #2.

    2. Arther Ferril. The author uses him as a reference quite a bit and you can see Ferril in a lot of what is written in this book. To put it simply Ferril is very opinionated and arrogant, he makes sweeping statements with nothing backing it up beyond the fact that he said it. In particular Ferril has a great deal of love for Egyptian and Assyrian military and he makes grand statements about their capabilities with little to back it up.

    All in all this book is nothing major to write home about. If you like Ferril then you will like this book since it uses him as a source quite a bit.

    If on the other hand you want more substance then keep looking. The size of this book in comparison to the size of the topic being discussed should tell you that most things get a rather basic once over.