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The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare
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Book description

Warfare was the single biggest preoccupation of historians in antiquity. In recent decades fresh textual interpretations, numerous new archaeological discoveries and a much broader analytical focus emphasising social, economic, political and cultural approaches have transformed our understanding of ancient warfare. Volume I of this two-volume History reflects these developments and provides a systematic account, written by a distinguished cast of contributors, of the various themes underlying the warfare of the Greek world from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period and of Early and Middle Republican Rome. For each broad period developments in troop-types, equipment, strategy and tactics are discussed. These are placed in the broader context of developments in international relations and the relationship of warfare to both the state and wider society. Numerous illustrations, a glossary and chronology, and information about the authors mentioned supplement the text. This will become the primary reference work for specialists and non-specialists alike.


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  • 1 - The modern historiography of ancient warfare
    pp 1-21
    • By Victor Hanson, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
  • DOI:
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    Military scholarship about ancient warfare continued in both applied and theoretical approaches through the Middle Ages (the works on Roman military and civic foundations by Egidio Colonna and Christine Pisan), into the Renaissance (Machiavelli and Maurice of Nassau) and early Enlightenment (Henri de Rohan and Chevalier de Folard). Europeans increasingly were more apt to elucidate ancient fighting from their own combat experience than to look back to the Greeks and Romans for contemporary guidance in killing one another. Consequently, at the dawn of ancient military historiography a paradox arose: those in the university most qualified to analyse ancient literary evidence, inscriptions and archaeological data concerning classical warfare were by their very nature as academics often most removed from pragmatic knowledge of the battlefield. Despite occasional controversies concerning the methods and topics of investigating the ancient world at war, classical scholarship continues to ground the field firmly in the philological and bibliographical traditions of the last two centuries.
  • 2 - Warfare in ancient literature: the paradox of war
    pp 22-53
    • By Simon Hornblower, Grote Professor of Ancient History, University College London
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    Wars and fighting are very prominent in the literature of classical antiquity. This chapter looks at literary sources about war and fighting and the problems of using them. It concentrates on three types of fighter: archers, women, slaves. The chapter deals with the interaction between military and non-military institutions: the relationship between the state and organized violence, and attitudes to that relationship as they are displayed in the literary sources, are topics of central importance to the ancient historiography of warfare. It explores why there is so much about war in ancient literature if war was not regarded as the natural, normal state of affairs. Homer's Iliad, with its nearly incessant fighting, might seem to provide a complete reply to any notion that war was viewed by Greeks as unnatural. The chapter ends with six suggestions for the resolution of the paradox of war.
  • 3 - Reconstructing ancient warfare
    pp 54-82
    • By Michael Whitby, Professor of Ancient History, University of Warwick
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    Close examination of ancient historical narratives, whose authors' methods and attitudes need to be evaluated, is essential for all reconstructions of ancient warfare. This chapter discusses the problems of this material. The fullest and most regular information about ancient warfare is provided by the sequence of Greek and Latin historians whose accounts of significant public events were usually dominated by military action, but these are complex texts. The dominance of literary convention affected the earliest historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, since they were still subject to the influence of earlier traditions of narrative, especially the Homeric poems in the case of Herodotus. The basic business of gathering information created problems for constructing a clear narrative, both of the chaos of battle and the wider dimensions of warfare; in addition to the 'Whatley' problem of the partial memory of any participants, personal interests of key informants and national agendas must be considered.
  • 4 - International relations
    pp 83-107
    • By Jonathan Hall, Phyllis Fay Horton Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and Professor of History, University of Chicago
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    It is perhaps preferable to conceptualize international relations in terms of a dynamic interplay between the identity, characteristics, interests and objectives of actors; the actual process of interaction itself; and external structural determinants. Since international relations in the archaic period were conceived as a zero-sum game in which the gains of one party could only be secured at the expense of the other, arbitration of disputes was from fairly early on referred to third parties. By the fifth century the system of bilateral and unequal alliances that the Spartans had contracted was organized on a more formal basis to constitute what modern scholars call the 'Peloponnesian League', though the term that the ancients used was 'the Lacedaemonians and their allies'. The agonistic spirit in international relations was an anachronism. With the new asymmetric relations of power created by the rise of hegemonic alliances, the imperative to secure honour among peers and the satisfaction gained by achieving this became increasingly redundant.
  • 5 - Military forces
    pp 108-146
    • By Peter Hunt, Professor of Classics, University of Colorado
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    This chapter considers the military capacities and costs of different military forces. These capacities and costs, however, involved considerations rather more complex than, for example, the limited ability of arrows to pierce hoplite armour. The chapter covers the period from the lifting of the Dark Age (c. 750) to the end of the classical period (338). In 338 the Macedonian army of Philip II defeated a coalition of the most powerful Greek city-states, Athens, Thebes and Corinth, established Macedonian dominance over mainland Greece and put an end to hoplite dominance of land warfare. A brief description serves to sum up the treatment of military forces, since the Macedonian army in many ways represented the culmination of classical trends. The Macedonian army was powerful, not only because of the phalangite who replaced the hoplite as the mainstay of the infantry, but also because of the coordinated use of different types of military forces: cavalry of different types, peltasts, slingers and archers.
  • 6 - War
    pp 147-185
    • By Peter Krentz, W. R. Grey Professor of Classics and History, Davidson College, North Carolina
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    An Attic inscription from the early Peloponnesian War records an expedition of thirty triremes, each with five volunteer marines, forty hoplites, ten archers and ten peltasts. Fleets mentioned in Thucydides often averaged more than thirty soldiers per ship, and in fact most of the land battles in the Peloponnesian War were fought against invaders who came by sea. This chapter treats land and sea campaigns in parallel. On campaign Greeks took their armour and weapons, provisions, camping supplies, tools, and medical supplies. In his Acharnians Aristophanes vividly describes what the scene leading up to a fleet's departure would have been like. Greek soldiers also liked camping in sanctuaries, which offered good practical advantages for military camps, since they were prepared to house large numbers of visitors. Naval battles were even rarer than battles on land. The circumvallation sieges were hugely expensive. Greek campaigns simply ended with a general dismissal and a rush to get back pay.
  • 7 - Battle
    pp 186-247
  • DOI:
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    Assessment of Greek land warfare must also reckon with currently popular 'face-of-battle' studies. Viewed positively, the 'face-of-battle' approach has revived attention to the role of morale in battle and the details of small unit combat. For some a phalanx can be found in Homer and the introduction of hoplite armour did not 'revolutionize' warfare. The Persian Wars and fifth-century Athenian imperialism would call the agonal system into question and begin teaching the art of generalship. Naval and siege warfare played central roles in classical Greece, but they were much simpler, inexpensive and less lethal before c. 500 BC. Siege warfare was little known in the Greek mainland before that time; naval warfare was more common but still relatively undeveloped. New developments in these two spheres tended to begin at the eastern and western fringes of the Greek world, as a result of contact with foreign peoples, and then to make their way dramatically to centre stage on the Greek mainland.
  • 8 - Warfare and the state
    pp 248-272
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    States make war and war makes states. This chapter argues that the concept of state is perfectly compatible with polities in which legitimate force exists within an oligopolistic rather than a monopolistic system. Two kinds of violence producers were set apart. At one end stood the 'booty-chaser', represented by Homer's Odysseus and his historical successor, the Phocaean Dionysius. At the other end stood the fighting potential of an entire community, mustered and fielded by the central political authority. Thucydides also points to the circumstances that conditioned the emergence of the most pre-eminent classical Greek example of the monopolistic state and establishes the approximate date of this momentous event. The one Greek state to succeed where all others had failed is of course classical Athens. The chapter focuses on what ensured that success was partly possession of two major violence-related institutions, sea-power and hegemony, and partly a determined effort to achieve a high degree of financial independence.
  • 9 - War and society
    pp 273-300
    • By Hans van Wees, Professor of Ancient History, University College London
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    A defining feature of Greek society was the distinction between those who could afford to live off the labour of others, 'the rich' or leisured classes, and those who had to earn a livelihood, 'the poor' or working classes. A second defining feature of Greek society was pervasive competitiveness. Competition for wealth within a community aggravated the pressure on resources created by the leisure-class aspirations of its citizens. Aristotle noted that 'people commit the greatest acts of injustice for the sake of superiority, not for the sake of necessity': the root of conflict was pleonexia. Aristotle briefly argued in his Politics that the growth of hoplite forces had led to wider political participation, and added that it was in particular the small size of the 'middle group' which had previously allowed oligarchic regimes to flourish. Wars were common, and links between social and political structures on the one hand, and military institutions on the other, were close.
  • 10 - International relations
    pp 301-324
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    The relationship existing between the three major Hellenistic empires, the Antigonid in Macedonia and the rest of Greece, the Seleucid in western Asia, the Ptolemaic in Egypt and adjacent territories, was one of uneasy peace interrupted at quite frequent intervals by outbreaks of warfare in certain disputed border regions. In the case of relations between cities and kings, royal commands were phrased as polite requests, and were acceded to by the cities ostensibly out of a sense of proper gratitude to their benefactors. The relationship, both between two cities and between a city and individual foreign citizens, illustrates the degree to which friendly cooperation was considered to be the proper mode of interaction between Greek cities in the Hellenistic era. In embarking on the process of dominating the Hellenistic world, the Romans entered into relations with a culture older and far more sophisticated than their own, not least in regard to diplomacy and international relations.
  • 11 - Military forces
    pp 325-367
  • DOI:
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    Philip, Alexander and later Hannibal can be regarded as military commanders of genius, capable of guaranteeing the command and control of a heterogeneous military force. As the territory of the Macedonian state grew, Philip was able to expand its demographic and financial base. The expansion of the Macedonian and Roman manpower bases, which in turn enabled military and territorial expansion, was due to a willingness to extend citizenship and to incorporate allied contingents fully into their military structures. Although Macedonia had some of the best sources of shipbuilding timber in the eastern Mediterranean, neither Philip II nor Alexander embarked upon major programmes of warship construction. The standard warships of the Hellenistic period needed crews of c. 150-300, or more in the case of the larger polyremes. During the Second Punic War the Carthaginian naval effort was not as extensive as that of Rome, but it was still far from negligible.
  • 12 - War
    pp 368-398
    • By Jonathan Roth, Professor of History, San José State University
  • DOI:
  • View abstract
    War was a major source of income for Hellenistic monarchs. A remarkable number of innovative military figures arose in Greece in the fourth century: Iphicrates and Chabrias of Athens, Epaminondas, Pelopidas and Pammenes of Thebes, Agesilaus of Sparta and Bolis of Crete, to name only a few. It was, however, Philip II of Macedon who drew many of the new elements of fourth-century warfare together, creating a formidable military machine. The Macedonian king fashioned a true combined arms force, streamlined the logistics of his army, and fashioned an up-to-date siege train. Perhaps most significantly, Philip wrought a new form of political organization, the Greek monarchy, able to direct this new military machine with a single will. Hellenistic strategic decisions were generally based on military circumstances and the desire to defeat the enemy and secure victory. Beginning with the Peloponnesian War and continuing into the fourth century, one sees Greek logistics improving significantly.
  • 13 - Battle
    pp 399-460
    • By Philip Sabin, Professor of Strategic Studies, King’s College London, Philip de Souza, College Lecturer in Classics, University College Dublin
  • DOI:
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    This chapter pursues a generic approach to the battles of the Hellenistic and mid-Republican era to analyse them thematically in order to highlight differences and similarities and to cast light on battle as an overall phenomenon. The battles are analysed on two distinct levels: the grand tactical level examining the 'general's battle' of deployment, command and manoeuvre at the level of the army as a whole, and the tactical level. The chapter discusses the 'soldier's battle' at the sharp end itself, focusing on the interaction of differing troop types in actual combat. It closes by discussing the determinants of success in these engagements, and argues that only through an integrated understanding of battle dynamics at the two different levels can the clashes truly be understood. All naval battles were fought very close to land and might even involve land-based forces. The combat conditions of ancient sieges seem to have provided something of a dilemma for commanders in this period.
  • 14 - Warfare and the state
    pp 461-497
    • By John Serrati, Professor of History and Classics, McGill University, Quebec
  • DOI:
  • View abstract
    The defining element of the Hellenistic world is most certainly warfare. With his newfound sources of wealth Philip was able to bolster his already large native force with troops of every kind. Siege trains were relatively new in Greek warfare, and had previously only been employed with any effect by Dionysius I of Sicily; afterwards, Syracuse continued to be a centre of the study of siege technology, and this process culminated with the machines of Archimedes in the third century. One of the main characteristics of warfare among the Diadochoi was the fact they were not yet tied to states and were largely fighting over the empire that had been left by Alexander. The economic and administrative forms of Roman imperialism that were now taking place in the provinces could prove more lucrative and less dangerous for the ruling classes than military campaigning.
  • 15 - War and society
    pp 498-516
    • By J. Lendon, Professor of History, University of Virginia
  • DOI:
  • View abstract
    In the Peloponnesian War Athens is found hiring barbarian specialists, light infantry from Thrace. The conception of warfare as a collation of crafts had, it is attractive to suppose, a number of historical consequences. Military excellence as craft could also undermine civic harmony by reducing the dependence of the rich citizen upon his neighbours. By the third century Rome was a full member of the Hellenistic cosmos, trading and treating and fighting with Greece, the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Hellenized maritime power of Carthage. The Roman cult of virtus manifests itself in the degree to which Roman society was adapted to the making of war. For war held a different place in Roman than in Hellenistic culture. If the Romans were like the shark, the Greeks were like the dolphin: both ravening predators, but the one morose and single-minded, the other playful and inquisitive.

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