Book Review: Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, Volume 1

Geoff Lee, Helène Whittaker, Graham Wrightson (ed.), Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, Volume 1.   Newcastle upon Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.  Pp. xvi, 361.  ISBN 9781443876940.  £52.99.

Reviewed by Carlos Villafane, University of Liverpool (

The chapters in this volume are the product of the International Ancient Warfare Conference, held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in September 2013. Despite the large number of chapters—18—, the editors make it clear from the preface that these are just some of the papers presented at the conference. What is unclear is whether there will be a second volume of the same conference (the volume is named Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, Volume I), or simply that subsequent conferences will bear fruit for the subsequent volumes. The latter would make sense, since the conference has now taken place annually and expanded from Wales to Sweden.

9781443876940.jpgAs can be expected from the scope of the conference as well as the number of chapters, different time periods and topics are covered, from the Early Iron Age Aegean to the Roman world. There are no divisions (i.e. parts) in the Table of Contents. It must be said, however, that the editors make it clear from the beginning that the chapters “can be viewed in thematic sections” (ix), which is in itself a bold move but, in this case, makes perfect sense given the diverse approaches. As the volume’s subtitle suggests, the main aim here is to introduce “Current Research.” This is clearly laid out in the Introduction.

Novel features include the introduction of archaeological evidence, the use of “tactical manuals to inform history” (ix), the social and cultural aspects of warfare, the aftermath of war. Even though there are traditional themes of warfare covered here (e.g. logistics, tactics, weaponry, and naval warfare), the editors are keen to stress that the chapters in the volume all deal with new aspects and interpretations to these otherwise familiar themes. It is refreshing, however, to see themes seldom studied or investigated, such as Julie Laskaris’ chapter on the treatment of hemorrhage, Joanne Ball’s chapter on post-battle looting in the Roman world, Stephen O’Connor’s chapter on provisioning wagons, and Hannah Cornwell’s chapter on the role of peace-makers in Rome.

The initial chapters deal with archaeology. While papers on ancient weapons are not new to the study of ancient warfare—and an edited volume on ancient warfare might well be expected to contain a chapter on weapons—Matthew Lloyd’s chapter on the killing of swords offers a very different perspective on weaponry. Lloyd rightly argues that the presence of a weapon in a burial does not automatically implies the individual was a soldier (14-5). As he proposes, it is far more complicated than that. The beginning of the chapter deals with what he considers ambiguous but traditional terms that have been used by scholars, especially terms such as “burials with weapons.” He only discusses these terms briefly, however, as he quickly moves on to the “killed” sword practice, which, understandably and given the title of the chapter, takes precedence for the rest of the chapter.

Graham Wrightson’s chapter, on the other hand, deals with a more obscure subject, that of tactical manuals. When we think of ancient warfare, the usual suspects come to mind: weapons (as seen above), armies, soldiers, battles, battle formations, etc. But tactical manuals, despite their probable importance, have received much less attention, something the editors stress. Wrightson’s chapter addresses this gap; add to that the use of experimental archaeology, and we have a unique perspective on an ignored topic of research. The chapter is appropriately divided into two parts; the first deals with the philosophical aspect of Macedonian tactical manuals (the only ones discussed), and the second addresses in detail the manual by Asclepiodotus. The author presents a convincing argument that tactical manuals written by Greek philosophers like Asclepiodotus would not have been out of place at the time because it would have been a topic expected of them (78-9). Wrightson also explains how employing experimental archaeology—in this case the training of volunteers to use a sarissa in formation—gave validity to Asclepiodotus’ manual. Even if one were to disagree with Wrightson’s methods, he does rightly conclude that these types of manuals should not be ignored by scholars, simply because they are few and far between in antiquity.

Another interesting chapter deals with the events of the Ten Thousand in the march to Cunaxa. O’Connor’s chapter touches upon an aspect of ancient warfare seldom studied, that of army provisions and wagons (perhaps because, as he says, it is a controversial topic). O’Connor makes a compelling case for the existence of the wagons but against the view that they were present throughout the whole march. For example, his main arguments lie in the belief that the wagons Xenophon mentioned in An.1.10.18 were existent at Cunaxa but non-existent on the way to Cunaxa. O’Connor successfully provides plausible arguments as to why the provision wagons were not present during the march (e.g. that the pace of the marches was too fast for heavy wagons, p. 130).

Reading through these chapters, one quickly realizes why the editors’ main selling point from the very beginning was the introduction of new research and the specific emphasis on presenting new interpretations of already traditional areas of study and research. In other words, the volume intentionally represents a mix between obscure or seldom researched themes and traditional themes with new twists and new avenues explored.

Alberto Pérez-Rubio’s chapter on cavalry in the Celtic world falls into the latter category. Cavalry in ancient warfare has always been a fairly common topic of interest. Pérez-Rubio’s chapter, on the other hand, does not deal with Roman or Greek cavalry, but with Celtic cavalry. This chapter sheds light on the trimarkisia. This term, which is used to describe a Celtic cavalry practice of three horsemen, could be described as an obscure one, which is why this chapter would have benefitted from a quick definition in its opening lines. Nevertheless, Pérez-Rubio successfully tackles the term’s etymology (173-6) before going on to explain its link to and evolution from the use of chariots. Given the dominance of chapters dealing with Greco-Roman topics, Pérez-Rubio’s focus on the Celtic world offers a much needed balance and one that is expected from a volume on ancient warfare, rather than just Greek and Roman warfare.

Deacy and McHardy’s chapter on gender violence in ancient Greek warfare as seen through the lens of myth presents new interpretations of the well-known mythological scene of Ajax dragging Cassandra from the image of Athena. The authors argue, quite convincingly, that Athena can be considered as the kyrios of Cassandra once she is grasping the image of the goddess and that Ajax’s actions (dragging and removing the statue) constitute a form of gender violence against the deity. Both Deacy and McHardy successfully demonstrate the difficulties that arise when an attempt is made to understand Ajax as a wartime rapist (ambiguous terminology, differing modern interpretations). The application of evolutionary theory to ancient Greek warfare, however, remains problematic in this chapter. Ultimately, questions remain as to whether we can successfully apply evolutionary theory and psychology to ancient Greek warfare, especially in relation to the behaviour of Ajax, and whether or not there really exists an “expected behaviour of an ancient Greek warrior…which has potential evolutionary roots” (268).

When it comes to the topic of soldiers in the military, medicine rarely enters into the discussion. Laskaris’ chapter on treating hemorrhage in Greek and Roman militaries successfully addresses this important yet under-studied aspect of ancient warfare. While the treatment of wounded soldiers has received some attention in the past years, the treatment of specific types of wounds, (e.g. hemorrhages, which must have been common) has received less attention (1). After a brief chronological approach to the evidence, examining Linear B texts, Homer, and Xenophon’s report of the eight doctors who appear as if out of nowhere in his Anabasis, the author focuses on the Hippocratic treatises. Overall, Laskaris successfully shows how ancient doctors would have acquired experience of treating blood loss, which would have been useful in the military, by treating uterine hemorrhages in non-military contexts. My only criticism is that the chapter would have benefitted from further exploration of heavily charged concepts such as “civilian doctors” and “military doctors,” since they are referred to as two distinct categories throughout.

When we think of warfare, what happens during a battle has been heavily favoured by scholars at the expense of what happens before and after war. The last chapter that will be discussed here deals with a different aspect of the aftermath of battle. Ball’s chapter focuses on post-battle looting in the Roman world. She argues that missing from the historical record are the details of the process of looting, which is why the action of looting is little understood. Ball successfully employs modern comparative material to try to understand the mentality and the process of looting in the context of conflict, when she uses the Second Boer War, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Little Bighorn, and others (311-3). When it comes to Roman looting, she clearly differentiates between looted weapons and non-looted (i.e. left behind) items such as projectiles. Her conclusion is very clear. The classic idiom, “one man’s loss is another man’s gain” comes to mind and is precisely appropriate here because she finishes by saying that some artefacts that were left behind may not have been valuable at the time, but are of immense value to us now because they “hold the key to locating, identifying, and exploring Roman battlefields” (326). One could not agree more.

Overall, this volume on ancient warfare contains a healthy mix, not only of different aspects of ancient warfare, but a mix of new research, different perspectives. Most importantly, it contains a blend of under-researched and obscure topics that, given their importance to ancient warfare research, should have been treated much earlier than 2015. To highlight one small criticism, the general index seems to be too concise and restrictive for such a lengthy volume full of a myriad of topics from the Greco-Roman world.

Perhaps surprisingly, there has been a continuous rise in edited volumes on ancient warfare in the past few years (2), but one would be wrong in expecting that the present volume might get lost in this sea of ancient warfare volumes (3). Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research offers a refreshing and innovative perspective on an already very popular field of study, and perhaps it is fitting that the volume has appeared now when there are others contesting for the top spot in ancient warfare. Seeing that this is the first volume, we should look forward to future ones.


1.   One of the most recent is Salazar, C. (2013) “Treating the Sick and Wounded”, in B. Campbell and L. A. Tritle (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World, pp. 294-311. Given how influential Christine Salazar’s book on ancient war wounds was to the author, perhaps this chapter appeared too late for Laskaris to consult in this volume.
2.   One could arguably say that it started back in 2007 with the publication of Sabin, P., van Wees, H. and Whitby, M. (2007) (eds.) The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare: Volumes 1 and 2.
3.   See for example, Hanson, V. D. (2010) (ed.) Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Kagan, D. and Viggiano, G. F. (2013) (eds.) Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece; Campbell, B. and Tritle, L. A. (2013) (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World; and Caston, V. and Weineck, S-M. (2016) (eds.) Our Ancient Wars: Rethinking War through the Classics.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review


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