Book Review: Warfare in the Ancient World

by Scott Manning on April 11, 2010

Carey, Brian Todd. Warfare in the Ancient World. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2009. 184 pages.

Warfare in the Ancient World by Brian Todd CareyIn Warfare in the Ancient World, Brian Todd Carey has produced a collection of 26 ancient battles, which serve as a fine introduction to the topic. In between the battles, Carey mixes in descriptions of the rise and fall of empires and the evolution of open-field battle strategies, tactics, and equipment. Carey’s primary focus is the continuing changes between light and heavy flavors of infantry and cavalry, and the various combinations of the four. From Mesopotamia through the fall of Rome, Carey shows how civilizations and sometimes individuals influenced shifts in warfare.

The book details the battles using what it calls “tactical maps.” These wireframe maps provide a bird’s eye views of the positions and movements of troops and their commanders. In addition, they clearly indicate the various tactical systems (e.g., light infantry). Many books posses great content, but are plagued with maps that are painful to decipher or they possess no maps at all. Though Carey’s maps are in black and white, their content is very clear. These represent one of the most useful features of the book. Carey does a good job of explaining the troop movements in battles, but these pictures are truly worth a thousand words as the reader can easily visualize how Hannibal enveloped a larger force of Romans at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC).

Depending on the complexity of the battle, the book may provide two maps showing the different stages of the battle or as many as six maps (e.g., Marathon in 409 BC has two and Hydaspes in 326 BC has six). The battles include the major ones from ancient history such as Alexander’s three major victories against Persia, Hannibal’s brilliant victory over Rome at Cannae, and Scipio’s victory over Hannibal. Also included are battles not as easily accessible such as early Egyptian battles like Megiddo (1458 BC) and Qadesh (1285 BC), the small battle of Sphacteria (425 BC), and the Battle of Raphia (217 BC). Yet, all of these inclusions serve a purpose for the book. The Egyptian battles detailed the earliest known recorded battles in the western world with a high emphasis on chariots, the battle of Sphacteria demonstrated how a group of light infantry could defeat a group of Spartan heavy infantry, and Raphia showed both the usefulness and liability of war elephants. Carey chose these battles well, because even though they are not as popular as Alexander’s or Hannibal’s, they illustrate battle tactics of the period or provide glimpses of how military strategy was shifting.

The book has a no nonsense approach that avoids mythical events and the reader can expect to get just the known, reasonable facts. For example, on the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), Carey provides details on the number of Greeks and Persians, the maneuvers, and the results. However, he does not mention the hundreds of miles that Pheidippides supposedly ran from Marathon to Sparta, back to Marathon, and then finally to Athens. Even concerning the supposed mile-long run performed by the Greek hoplites before the battle, Carey points out how exhausting this would be and the troops more likely charged when they were 180 yards away from the Persians (44).

Another positive is that Carey does not overdramatize the events of the battles. War is a bloody affair, but unless the blood provides some necessary context, Carey does not dive into gory detail. One exception is concerning Philip V of Macedon and his first encounter with the Romans in 200 BC. In order to help the reader understand the impact of the Spanish sword carried by the Roman infantry, Carey quotes an ancient source, which describes the horror expressed by Macedonians as they saw “arms torn away, shoulders and all, or heads separated from bodies” as a result of the sword (103-104). The gladius, a nearly two-foot long double-edged blade wrecked havoc against the phalanxes of the Hellenistic powers, who were not use to such mutilation in battles. Carey also avoids pumping up heroes and villains. Concerning the Battle of Thermopylae, he describes the notion that Greek hoplite warfare was superior to other tactical systems as a myth (55). Though the events of the Persian Wars (499-469 BC) did little to dispel that myth, Carey demonstrates that the Greeks would eventually learn to incorporate other arms including cavalry, archers, and peltasts in their arms as they saw the usefulness through continued interactions with non-Greeks.

Carey’s narrative between battles unifies the text. Along with brief descriptions of the rise and fall of powers, he provides details on logistical and tactical changes. He dedicates several necessary pages to surmising the military reformations of Philip II of Macedon who revolutionized the military world. This, however, is also a weak point of the book. While it is easy for the reader to visualize how Philip increased the length of spears and supported his phalanxes with light infantry, it is very difficult to visualize the various Roman formations. The descriptions of Roman tactics include all the Latin phrases (e.g., scutum, hastati, principes) that are unfamiliar to the new reader of ancient warfare. Diagrams, similar to those of the tactical battle maps, coupled with Carey’s descriptions of maniple legion and the Marian reforms would have done wonders for comprehending the more complex battle formations.

Another, albeit minor criticism is the incompleteness of the Index. Though most of the battles receive an entry in back, some like Qadesh and Sphacteria do not. While these may seem like lesser-known battles not worthy of an entry, that makes it even more important that they are easily accessible to the researcher. Other odd exclusions are Salamis (490 BC), Artemisium (480 BC), and Thermopylae. Thought they do not have a series of tactical battle maps, the latter has nearly a page detailing the battle.

An important aspect of the book is that it focuses entirely on open-field battles. There are no details of sieges. Alexander’s eight-month siege of Tyre in 332 BC receives a sentence (76) and there is no mention of Caesar’s siege of Alesia in 52 BC. As for naval battles, Artemsium and Salamis both get a paragraph. The latter is hardly enough to understand how the Greeks defeated a numerically superior force of Persians. When the reader grabs this book, they should understand that it focuses entirely on open-field, land battles while sieges and naval encounters are only a minor part of the narrative if they provide necessary detail to the evolution of a campaign or war.

Carey admits his work is not comprehensive. However, he does hope that the book helps readers “better appreciate the sophisticated nature of pre-modern warfare and the importance of organized violence in shaping western civilization’s history and culture” (9). Those already familiar with ancient warfare may find little new information, but those interested in a solid introduction to ancient battles and tactics, will find a good amount of detail including the exhaustively covered Greek and Roman aspects along with the lesser detailed Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Persian, and post-Alexander Hellenistic influences.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Scott McCulloch November 28, 2011 at 6:34 PM

Thanks Scott – I’ve been looking for a good introduction like this.

The other book I have gave an overview of the battle, but didn’t dive much beyond the political context of the battle. (can’t remember the title at the moment)

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2 Scott Manning November 28, 2011 at 7:25 PM

Great. I hope it is helpful. That same author has a really good book on Hannibal, as well. It provides more detail to the campaigns and battles.

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3 Scott McCulloch November 29, 2011 at 12:07 AM

Thanks Scott – I’ve just ordered this, the book on Hannibal (by the same author), the landmark Arrian and ‘Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army’

The wife will be happy because she had been bugging me to pick christmas presents :)

Thanks again!

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4 Scott McCulloch December 14, 2011 at 6:54 AM

The book come today – big thumbs up from me!

Wish they had subjects at my university focused on this, although I was able to look into the use the Sarissa in one subject on Alexander.

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5 JD March 12, 2013 at 9:04 PM

I picked up this book based on a good review, I think this one. Anyway this is a great intro on the topic. I recommend it too.

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