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  • Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities
  • Everett L. Wheeler
Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. By Hans van Wees. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2004. ISBN 0-7156-2967-0. Photographs. Illustrations. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Indexes. Pp. xiv, 349. $22.95.

This bold title prefaces an attempt to reconceptualize Greek warfare from Homer to Aristotle. Van Wees, renowned for prolific publications on Homer and archaic Greece and the Greek editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, draws inspiration from Yvon Garlan's structuralist War in the Ancient World (1975) to espouse a more cultural anthropological and comparativist perspective. In this brilliantly presented, extensively documented, attractively illustrated, and reasonably priced book, readers of van Wees's publications will find few surprises (e.g., primitive tribes in New Guinea again explain Homeric warfare, pp. 154–58). Scholarly arguments, however, occasionally yield to catalogues of well-known examples (dateless and without context) of military-naval functions—a stab at comprehensive coverage for projected undergraduate or popular consumers. But the development of strategy is treated only incidentally; the origins of military theory and changes in the general's functions escape consideration. Often the real argumentation for much presented as "fact" lies in van Wees's published papers cited, although his fondness for hypothetical, self-generated economic and demographic "statistics" is unabated.

For van Wees, Greek attitudes to war and the causes and goals of war changed little between Homer and Aristotle. Neither the Persian Wars (490 B.C., 480–479 B.C.) nor the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) were watersheds, but rather Greek state formation c.550–c.450 B.C. with its improved state organization and finances spawned military and naval revolutions—a view coinciding with van Wees's postponing the classical hoplite phalanx to the 450s B.C. and the introduction of the trireme to the late sixth century B.C. Hence war is not an agent of change and "who fights" has no influence [End Page 1192] on a state's constitution: neither the hoplite phalanx nor the Athenian fleet fostered development of democracy. Further, four myths generated from an alleged selective, naïve reading of unreliable ancient evidence are exploded: armies of propertied citizen-militias, strict rules of battle, war as the natural state of international relations, and pushing (othismos) in hoplite battles. Thus Thucydides the realist did not understand Greek inter-state relations, Aristotle's middle class hoplites become a leisured class of wealthy farmers, and Herodotus misrepresented the tactics of the Persian Wars. Van Wees cynically finds profit—directly or indirectly—behind professions of honor or nobler causes of Greek wars and has no difficulty with the historicity of the "Themistocles Decree" and the "Oath of Plataea," which many believe to be forgeries.

The work's subtitle invites the immediate response from a reviewer: whose myths and whose realities are at play here? Space precludes detailed critiques. Not all will share the author's enthusiasm for historicizing the Iliad and some will find his interpretation of ceramic paintings to be very subjective. His case for the contemporary accuracy of sixth-century B.C. art depicting loose hoplite formations using the Boeotian shield is no more convincing here than in its earlier manifestations. Conversion of the classical hoplite phalanx from a closed to an open formation, an issue since 1942, privileges anecdotal evidence and van Wees adds little new to the debate. This reviewer remains unconvinced that he erred excessively in his own account of Greek tactical development from Homer to 362 B.C. in the forthcoming Cambridge History.

Problematic, too, is van Wees's methodology. As continuity in Greek warfare between Homer and Aristotle is a thesis to be proved, indiscriminately juxtaposing evidence ranging from Homer to the Hellenistic period suggests a certain circularity of argument. All evidence is given equal weight regardless of its date, locale, and context. Such represents an anthropological assumption of "universals" rather than appreciation of historical uniqueness, although many ancient historians no longer discern history from anthropology. Numerous arguments from silence and assumptions are also adduced to support the desired continuity. Further, the Greek world is taken as a whole without distinguishing regional differences. The hoplite phalanx did not...


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