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Reviewed by:
  • Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians
  • John Walsh
Peter Hunt . Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xiv + 246 pp. Cloth, $59.95.

Put briefly, the theses of this book (a revised Stanford dissertation) may be stated as follows. (1) The role and importance of slaves in warfare of the Classical period were greater than is generally believed to be the case. This misapprehension exists because Greek historians of the Classical period (most notably Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon) routinely underestimate, even suppress, the contributions made by slaves to a city's success in war, whether in strategy or on the field, because of reluctance to face the fact that then slaves would be operating on the same level as was fitting for their free, and presumably better, masters. (2) Modern historians too have been unwilling to face squarely the extent of involvement by slaves in some of the most important campaigns and battles of the Classical period. Hunt attempts to rectify this situation through a thorough review of slaves' participation in Greek warfare [End Page 313] from the Persian Wars down to Xenophon. (The book concludes with a chapter of a comparative nature, on the Volones, slaves who fought for Rome in the Second Punic War; Islamic Mamluks; and slaves who fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.)

It is certainly true that historians of the Classical period do not present us with anything close to a complete account of slaves' participation in Greek warfare. But all modern historians of the ancient world complain about the same thing: the lack of ancient sources for matters in which they are most interested. In fact, as I was reading this book, I developed an impression quite different from Hunt's concerning the extent to which slaves in war are discussed by the historians under question. I was surprised by the considerable attention which these writers paid to the issue. Were Hunt's thesis about the reluctance of Greek writers to discuss the issue so obviously correct, I would have expected far less material than Hunt has managed to discover and collect.

Hunt's accounting is taken from the fifth century and is selective even at that. We are told about slaves' participation in battle at Thermopylae, Plataea, Pylos, Decelaea, Sphacteria, during Brasidas' campaign in the Thraceward region, and at Mantinaea and Arginusae. We know from Pausanias that slaves fought at Marathon. Herodotus does not mention them, and Hunt's suspicions (42) are representative of his position throughout the book: "The omission of these slaves is so striking one is tempted to call it suppression." The participation of slaves at Salamis is very likely, though not certain. Admittedly, many of these mentions are sketchy and most probably do not do justice to the role played by slaves, whether in combat or otherwise. But it may be more a matter of the glass being either half empty or half full, depending upon one's point of view. Consider the following conclusion: "Thucydides puts the Messenians and Athens' support of them in the background as he does all slave involvement in the Peloponnesian War" (63). Now, this may or may not be true for Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War, but it is certainly not the case in his Pentecontaetia. The defining moment in Thucydides' understanding of the importance of the Pentecontaetia for the Peloponnesian War is the course of events which led up to and followed the "open split" between Athens and Sparta (1.102.3). Given the brevity of his account of these years, the amount of space and depth of detail which he allows the Helots' revolt at Ithome and its aftermath is striking. Thucydides at times did concentrate on slaves' involvement in Greek warfare, presumably when he thought that its importance warranted such treatment. Similarly, slaves serving as rowers in the Athenian fleet at the battle of Arginusae most certainly did make a major contribution to the victory, and it is for this reason that their role is mentioned by no fewer than three contemporary sources: Hellanicus, Aristophanes, and Xenophon.

Hunt is skeptical about Herodotus' account of the Helots...


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pp. 313-316
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