Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction


“At my signal unleash war.”

Who wouldn’t like a book that begins with this masterful scene from Gladiator? Unfortunately, the movie did not quite match the true distinction between barbarian and “western warfare,” a term that Dr. Sidebottom seeks to define through Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction.

This post is not a book summary or a review of the book so much as what I found interesting. Here are my notes.

p6 Greek literature described Greeks as rugged, masculine, individualistic characters. In stark contrast were the Persians, who were cowards, fearful slaves of their king. Sidebottom even described art of the time period as helping this stereotype. On an ancient Greek crater (jug) is a picture of a naked Greek infantryman pushing forward to fight a fully clothed Persian who not only had lost control of his horse but also was falling back from the fight. The Greek was clearly a man, for we see his gender. The Persian’s masculinity, however, was hidden beneath his clothes and cowardice. Greeks felt that Persians had to fire bows at a range or ride horses because they were not men enough to fight in hand-to-hand phalanx formation.

Later, Romans continued this air of supremacy by their description of foreigners’ blood. Those from Africa had hot blood and not enough of it, thus being fearful of losing it and acting as cowards. On the other hand, those in the north had cold blood but were not smart enough to avoid losing it.

p23 To help morale, Romans often referred to new enemies (such as the Huns) by the names of former, defeated enemies (such as the Scythians).

p40 Much of history remains a guess. No one today actually knows how one’s placement in the Greek phalanx was decided. Similarly, the so-called hoplite revolution is unknown, with lack of actual evidence. Later in the book, Sidebottom described other unknown aspects of war. These included the pauses in fighting. After all, no one could fight hand-to-hand for so long without rest. But we are not sure if armies pulled back from the fight or how any rest occurred. We also aren’t sure if we can extrapolate ideas like “only one in four soldiers actually fight” from the modern period into the ancient world. It may have been true more recently in WWII, but no one knows about back then.

Around p56 Sidebottom continued with interesting descriptions of “just war.” For the Greeks, this concept did not just include defense, but revenge for any past wrong. Cicero defined it as war that was declared with a formal warning and demanded reparation. (Usually this reparation was purposely set so high that war was inevitable.) How was just war proven? By winning!

Later, Augustine used Cicero and the Old Testament for his definition. First, there was an appeal to authority. Thus, a Christian soldier could obey an ungodly ruler by placing any blame on the ruler. Augustuine also stated that it required the right frame of mind by bringing peace, correcting men’s morals, or destroying wars with words.

p99 During battle, morale was often surprisingly high aboard ships. The rowers operated as a team, so individual fear had less of a place. In addition, most sailors were too busy to panic. (Here he refers to N.A.M. Rodger’s study, and extrapolates to the ancient world.)

Much of history is as the victors wished us to see it. Unlike the distinction in Gladiator, the Romans raped, collected heads, and did all those despicable things that we think of as barbaric. For a better understanding of the truth behind war, I highly recommend Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction for its insight, excellent flow, and detail within such a short work (128 very short pages).



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