Michael M. SAGE, Warfare in Ancient Greece: A sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xxvii + 252 ISBN 0-415-14354-3.
Review by Niall McKeown
University of Birmingham
If you want to open up a field of studies to a new generation of students, then write a good sourcebook. This is a very good sourcebook indeed. It covers land warfare from the time of Homer to the end of the Hellenistic era. There are some illustrative battles (for example, Chaeronea or Leuctra in documents 196-97 and 253-54) and campaigns (for example, the Persian wars 81 ff.), but this is a book primarily about the practice and ideology of warfare rather than a discussion of individual wars. The back cover of Sage’s book is very clear about his aims, including:
What made Alexander the Great an unbeatable general?
How did the Greeks feel about the “Barbarians” they faced in combat?
For the Greek polis, warfare was a more usual state of affairs than peace. The documents assembled here recreate the social and historical framework in which ancient Greek warfare took place over a period of more than a thousand years from the Homeric Age to the first century B.C. Special attention is paid to the attitudes and feelings of the Greek towards defeated peoples and captured cities.
The choice and spread of texts are both excellent (the military reforms of Philip is a particular example, 165-81), as are his own introductions to general themes and to individual documents. He gives as good an introduction to a whole host of issues of Greek political and social history as I have read. One might not have expected a fine summary of shame culture in a sourcebook on warfare, but it is there in a quick introduction to the social code in Homer’s poems (3). Warfare may be the main theme of the book, but it is very much put into its proper context. Why did the Greeks fight? What was the social impact of warfare? Only one small criticism, however. Just occasionally Sage assumes a little too much knowledge of a general reader. This is not to say that he gives too little background information. The problem can indeed be that he can sometimes give a little too much (for example, with document 130 on the battle of Mantineia in 418 B.C.)! As a major plus point the bibliography is a wonderful tool for students or indeed teachers seeking to work on any area of Greek warfare.
There was, however, one minor and one major element I missed, though neither could be said to be the fault of Sage. Firstly, the more minor issue. Some maps and illustrations would have been very welcome, though they no doubt would have increased the price of a very affordable book. Next, the more major issue. What would it actually have been like to fight, for example, in a hoplite battle? Just occasionally (for example, document 88 on Socrates’ retreat from Mantineia or the passage of Tyrtaeus in document 47) we are given a glimpse of the fear, the courage, the bravado. The difficulty, of course, is that our main descriptions of such battles (document 130 once again serves as a good example) do not necessarily give such information. Ancient authors assume knowledge of the experience of the common soldier. The authors had fought in such battles: so had their audience. Modern historians are loathe to indulge in reconstruction in the absence of such evidence. Perhaps this helps to explain that parts of chapter 3 can seem a little technical. I suspect that the reader would find it most useful to read the section on hoplite battles (72 ff.) before some of the other sections.
Sage makes clear that many of his sources were created for reasons different from those he seeks to use them for. One might take the examples of how the poetic aims of Homer affect the picture of warfare he supplies to us (11-12, 15), or the possible agendas behind Herodotus’ description of Plataea (document 139). He also warns against the legend of Alexander the Great (p. xxiv). The later section on Alexander (187 ff.) does, as promised, give an excellent guide to just why Alexander gained the reputation he did (though I would have liked perhaps a little more on Arrian’s hero-worshipping of Alexander and the effect of that on our picture of him).
This work reminds me in some ways of Wiedemann’s source-book on slavery or Lefkowitz and Fant’s on women, in that its appearance will vastly simplify the task of teachers and students in approaching its topic. If anything, it contains more detailed background material than either of those works. This is a book all students of warfare and indeed all students of Greek history should have.