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  • Response to Andrew Lambert
  • Barry Strauss (bio)

For a classicist, Andrew Lambert's essay resonates with both the grandeur and the misery of naval history. When it comes to ancient history, naval history is always a bridesmaid, never a bride. This is as true in scholarly circles as among general readers. Consider some indices.

For every scholarly book in ancient naval history, there are probably two or three in ancient military history. True, there have been successes. J. S. Morrison, J. F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov, The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2000) made a splash when it came out, but it is an exception. The most influential book in ancient maritime history in recent years is Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), but, in spite of its title, it focuses primarily on the land. Furthermore, in its discussion of the sea, The Corrupting Sea emphasizes trade. The authors say little about naval history. Naval warfare figures less than prominently in overviews of ancient warfare, such as the encyclopedic two-volume survey, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, ed. Philip Sabin, Hans van Wees, and Michael Whitby (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Although of late there has been an explosion of popular, nonacademic books on ancient warfare, few of them focus on sea power. John Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (Viking Adult, 2009) and my own The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece—and Western Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2004) are two of the relatively rare examples. Some recent ancient history books touch on naval themes: for example, works on Thucydides by Donald Kagan (Thucydides, Viking Adult, 2009) and Perez Zagorin (Thucydides, Princeton University Press, 2005), as well as books on the Peloponnesian War by Kagan (The Peloponnesian War, Viking Adult, 2003) and Victor Davis Hanson (A War Like No Other: How Athens and Sparta Fought the Peloponnesian War, Random House, 2005), and the best-selling edition of Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Free Press, 1998). None of these books, however, is primarily a work of naval history.

Land warfare dominates the literary marketplace. Consider, for example, the seminal works of Victor Davis Hanson on Greek infantry battle, such as The Western Way of War (Knopf, 1989), or Adrian Goldsworthy's insightful works on Roman military history, such as Caesar: Biography of a Colossus (Yale University Press, 2006), or J. E. Lendon's thoughtful Soldiers and Ghosts (Yale University Press, 2005), or any of a spate of good books on Alexander the Great or my own The Spartacus War (Simon & Schuster, 2009). As far as teaching, I know of no survey data, but it would be surprising if land fighting doesn't dominate courses on ancient warfare.

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A Phoenician bireme, ca. 800 B.C., from Leonard Whibley, ed., A Companion to Greek Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1916).

After all, most people prefer to read and think and learn about war on land rather than at sea, and for good reason. Land warfare is more familiar: everyone has marched or played with swords; few of us have rowed or sailed. For similar reasons, infantry history is more accessible than cavalry history. Ancient navies, like modern ones, focus on ships rather than individuals, which adds an extra step to the process of finding heroes, as many readers want to do. And so naval history tends to live in the shadows of the study of ancient warfare.

Lonely as the ancient naval historian may feel, however, he is constrained to admit a kind of rough justice in this state of affairs, given the realities of the ancient world. Naval warfare played a key role in antiquity, but most fighting took place on land. It would be interesting to try to quantify the relative amounts of land and sea warfare, but my overwhelming impression is that war on land predominated. The best-known commanders of ancient warfare were nearly all soldiers and not...


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