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Great Battles of the Classical Greek World


Author
Owen Rees
Type
Non-fiction
Status
In Print
Publisher
Pen & Sword Military (2016)

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This entry created 7 September 2017. Last revised on 7 September 2017.

123 hits since 7 Sep 2017
©1994-2017 Bill Armintrout
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Great Battles of the Classical Greek World

284 pages. Many small battle maps in text. Index, glossary, footnotes, bibliography, and primary sources listed for each battle.

Owen Rees, a first-time author who is also working on his PhD, tells us that his goal with this book is to create in the reader a desire to learn more about Greek warfare. He therefore presents 18 battles from Classical Greek history, selected for their historical importance, limited to battles which the sources allow useful reconstructions and which illustrate Greek warfare. (For instance, the Battle of Spartolus was rejected for lacking enough information for a reconstruction, while Thermopylae was rejected for being tactically 'boring'.)

The book begins with two pages of acknowledgements, two pages of preface, six pages of introduction (which explain the basics of Greek history and warfare), a two-page glossary, and a one-page key to the battle maps.

The main portion of the book is divided into four sections, each with a brief introduction:

  1. The Peloponnesian War
    • The Battle of Olpae (426/5 BC)
    • The Battle of Delium (424 BC)
    • The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)
    • The First Battle of Mantinea (418 BC)
  2. The Spartan Hegemony
    • Battle of Nemea (394 BC)
    • Battle of Coronea (394 BC)
    • The Battle of the Long Walls of Corinth (392 BC)
    • The Battle of Lechaeum (390 BC)
    • The Battle of Leuctra (371 BC)
    • The Second Battle of Mantinea (362 BC)
  3. Siege Warfare
    • The Siege of Plataea (429-427 BC)
    • The Sieges of Pylos and Sphacteria (425 BC)
    • The Siege of Syracuse (415-413 BC)
    • The Siege of the Drilae (400 BC)
  4. Greco-Persian Conflicts
    • The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
    • The Battle of Plataea (479 BC)
    • The Battle of Cunaxa (401 BC)

As the author explains:

Each chapter follows a similar formula of narrating the background to a battle, followed by a description of the battlefield, then the opposing armies, the battle narrative, and finally the aftermath – all except those in the section on sieges have a minor variance.

The primary sources are listed at the start of the background and battle sections. For example, the background for the Battle of Delium is based on Thucydides, IV.53-57, 666-77; Diodorus XII.65.1-67.1; the battle description is from Thucydides, IV.90-101.4; Diodorus XII.69.1-70.6. For this battle, additional material is provided in two-plus pages of footnotes. The author's approach is to focus on a single source, using other sources to supplement that source, and also seeking out the latest academic research.

Sample page

Each battle is illustrated with two or more black-and-white maps, showing significant terrain features and the position of the armies.

Sample map

Continuing with the example of the Battle of Delium, this chapter gives us five pages of background (basically, everything that happened in the Peloponnesian War this year), one paragraph describing the battlefield, three paragraphs describing the armies, two-and-a-half pages describing the battle (including three battle maps), and two pages of aftermath (including the resulting siege of Delium).

The book ends with a four-page Conclusions chapter, in which the author critiques the traditional model of Greek warfare as being phalanx versus phalanx – he emphasizes the role of cavalry and light troops, and the flexibility throughout the period under discussion.

While I am sure this book will make a useful reference, I thought that it failed in its mission to make Greek warfare interesting and exciting.

For a book about battles, there is both too much and too little background material – too much, because the author too often explains the entire war when the focus should be on the battle; too little, because the background often becomes a blur of places and names (with no regional maps provided).

The battle maps are plentiful and functional, but not inspirational. The armies are shown divided into units, but there are few labels, and the text often does not explain what the units are.

The author uses many action words to make his narrative interesting, though his word choice can be odd. (At one point, an army is noted as failing to take "affirmative action" – I think he means "offensive action.")

The author also fails to use the aftermath section in each chapter to emphasize why that battle is significant in Greek warfare. (Sometimes, this information is given in the section introduction, but not in the battle chapter.)

Taking Delium again as our example, the aftermath section says literally nothing about the significance of the tactics; the much earlier section introduction at least gives a paragraph on Theban massed formations, use of reserves, and redirection of troops. However, the author seems uncertain as to whether these were standard tactics or new developments in Greek warfare. Is the Theban formation used for the first time (section intro), or already Theban tradition (armies section)? Is the intervention of the cavalry an example of prior planning (section intro), an example of how commanders routinely could order changes in the middle of battle (battle section), or (as some other historians suggest) the first example of Greeks making tactical changes in mid-battle?

The author failed to make the subject matter interesting, and failed to adequately summarize the significance of each battle. Therefore, I cannot recommend this book.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.