Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Western Way of War

Ancient Warfare book

I have been reading a short book called Ancient Warfare. A Very Short Introduction, by Harry Sidebottom.

The jacket blurb claims that the author "provides a fresh approach to all aspects of ancient warfare, from the philosophy surrounding it, to the strategy and the technical skills needed to fight". All aspects of ancient warfare?! This is a big claim to make for a 165-page book. And one which (surprise, surprise) is not entirely justified.

As far as supporting material goes, there are five nicely-produced maps; admittedly, they are not really tied into the text and I don't recall consulting them as I read, but so many history books appear without maps that their presence here seems to be "a good thing". And there is an interesting selection of black-and-white illustrations, including 8 scenes from the Column of Marcus Aurelius (a welcome departure from the usual Trajan's Column). Also, the "Further reading" section runs to 28 pages, so it is nothing if not comprehensive.

But what about the content? The title promises an "Introduction" to ancient warfare ... but is it? I certainly found it to be an interesting read. But does it really discuss "all aspects of ancient warfare"? There is a chapter on "Thinking with war", where Dr Sidebottom emphasizes that war was an all-pervasive constant in the ancient world, and a chapter on "Thinking about war", where he sketches the thoughts of ancient philosophers on the subject. There is a chapter about "Strategy", which includes a brief critique of Edward Luttwak's 1976 book (The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire), and a chapter about "Fighting", where he considers the battle experience of a hoplite, a phalangite, a legionary, and cavalry, touching upon the old chestnut about whether "only a few fight?" But, in terms of the overarching theme, what Dr Sidebottom has written is actually an extended critique of the opening battle scene from Gladiator. On p.1, we read:

"The film Gladiator opens with an epic battle in the forests of Germany. On one side are the Romans, in disciplined units with uniform equipment. They wait in full view, in silence, and prepare their relatively high-technology weapons. Their watchwords are 'strength and honour'. ... In combat they help each other, and display courage. On the other side are the barbarians. They have no units, and, clad in furs, no uniformity. Some carry stolen Roman shields, but they lack the catapults that represent the top level of military technology. Initially they conceal their force in the woods. Surging backwards and forwards, each man clashes his weapons on his shield, and utters wild shouts. ... They rush into combat as a mob, and fight as ferocious individuals. On one side is civilisation, on the other savagery."

It is Dr Sidebottom's thesis that Ridley Scott's Romans represent the accepted picture of The Western Way of War, and he is at pains to demonstrate that this is incorrect. Whether or not this cinematic construct actually does represent our view of western warfare must remain a moot point. In my opinion, Dr Sidebottom has simply set up a straw man which is easily knocked down.


  1. If you haven't already read it, try UVA professor J.E. Lendon's book Soldiers and Ghosts. I thought this was an exceptionally well done book about ancient Greek and Roman warfare.

    As for Sidebottom's book you have stirred my interest. I will pick up a copy. And the openning of Gladiator IS, while surely not how all Roman battles went, a reasonably accurate picture of a Roman battle.

    Excellent post Pius.

  2. Pius, I have a technical question for you. I see you removed some blog comments on one of your older posts. Exactly how do you go about removing comments on you blog? I have searched the Dashboard and no luck, I can't figure it out. Haven't had to do it yet, but I may have to one day. Thanks.

  3. Yup, Jeff. I'm afraid some folks were posting disrespectful comments about the author of a book I reviewed.

    When you're logged in as the blog owner, a little trashcan icon appears beside each comment. You can't edit them (afaik), but you can delete them.

    And I made brief mention of Soldiers and Ghosts here.

  4. Pius, what is the best book, in your opinion, I can read about the ancient Romans? I am looking for a book that is written really well, not in academic abtuse prose, but the prose of a careful writer.


    Oh, and I'm sure, being the good Roman you are, you can appreciate my 2/24 post.

  5. "what is the best book, in your opinion, I can read about the ancient Romans?"

    If it's a Romans 101 type of thing, Jeff, I enjoyed The Romans: From Village to Empire.

  6. Thanks Pius. Actually, I have read alot about Rome, but I'm always looking for a good recommendation. I don't have the one you offer. So I will be looking into getting it.