Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome

This book seeks to demonstrate that an understanding of history rather than technological innovation is a better guide to the nature of contemporary warfare. Its ten chapters set out the argument that human nature drives and directs conflicts, and if war continues to be conducted by man it will retain a certain predictability. War is therefore inevitable as human judgement and action are dominated by emotion.

Each chapter focuses on a particular conflict or military strategy, beginning with an introduction that sets out the particular historical landscape and its key players, followed by an analysis of the relevant ‘ancient maker’ (statesman, general, theorist, or strategy), and an assessment of their success or failure. The author then broadens the discussion to consider the relevance of these strategies to later warfare, particularly present-day conflicts.

In chapter one, Tom Holland focuses on the first great clash of civilizations between East and West, the Persian effort to conquer the Greek city-states and absorb them into their expanded empire at the beginning of the fifth century BC. Holland shows that imperial powers create an entire mythology around the morality, necessity and inevitability of conquest. Their narratives are as important to military planning as men and weapons in the field.

In chapter two, Donald Kagan shows that rare individuals occasionally do make a difference to military outcomes. He focuses on Pericles’ thirty-two-year preeminence in Athenian politics, during which Athens protected the Greek city-states from Persian retaliation. Under his leadership, Athens maintained the general peace, resisted imperial megalomania, and fostered economic growth through a unified and integrated commercial system. The success of Pericles, and the failure of those who followed him, are timely reminders that when imperial powers transform into an instrument only of self-aggrandizement, they inevitably “implode”.

In chapter three, David Berkey traces the century-long evolution of walls and defense policies in Athens. These serial projects reflected diverse economic, political and military agendas, but shared a utility that kept Athens mostly safe from its enemies. They also offered additional manifest and ideological support for the notion of both “empire” and “democracy”.

In chapter four, Victor Davis Hanson focuses on the more obscure preemptive invasion of the Peloponnese (370–369 BC) by Theban general Epaminondas, which weakened Sparta’s oligarchic hegemony. Epaminondas led Thebes to a new position of prominence. He founded new citadels and strongholds, freed tens of thousands of Sparta’s slaves, and changed the political culture of Greece itself by fostering the spread of democratic governments among the Greek city states.

In chapter five, Ian Worthington reviews Alexander the Great’s efforts to create an Asian empire, and the difficulty he faced administering conquered Persian land with his ever-shrinking Macedonian resources. Alexander discovered that cultural sensitivity was necessary to win the hearts and minds of occupied Persia.

In chapter six, John Lee aims to prove that there is nothing new about contemporary urban fighting and the problems it poses for conventional infantry forces. The same challenges of gaining accurate local intelligence, winning the hearts and minds of civilians, and finding appropriate tactics to use among dense urban populations, were of keen interest to Greek military thinkers and generals alike, when fighting frequently moved from the battlefield to inside the polis.

In chapter seven, Susan Mattern analyzes the various ways Rome kept its multicultural and racially diverse empire together. A variety of insidious “hearts and minds” mechanisms were used to win over or co-opt local populations. Generous material aid, the granting of citizenship, provision of education, a uniform law code equally applied, and indigenous integration and assimilation into Roman culture and life convinced most tribes they had more to gain by joining rather than opposing Rome.

In chapter eight, Barry Strauss reviews slave revolts in antiquity, especially Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman state—to show that problems can be even worse for the challengers of state authority. If the goals of insurrectionists evolve beyond terror to include winning the hearts of local populations, or even carving out large swaths of permanently occupied or secured territory, then at some point they must find parity with state forces in terms of conventional warfare. The military odds still lie on the side of the nation-state, especially when war breaks out within its borders.

In chapter nine, Adrian Goldsworthy demonstrates how the upstart Caesar, through his conquest of Gaul, outfoxed and outmuscled his far more experienced and better-connected Roman rivals. The lesson Goldsworthy draws is that the use of force abroad inevitably has political repercussions at home, and can prove as dangerous to republican societies that field superior armies as to the enemies.

Finally, in chapter ten, Peter Heather makes the point that the forces of imperial Rome, at a time when we sometimes think they were ensconced behind forts, walls, and natural obstacles, ventured into enemy lands as a matter of practice to ward off and prevent potential invasions. The so-called barbarians on the borders of Rome, by the time of the later empire, were becoming more sophisticated, united and observant of the methods by which Roman armies were raised and financed – learning how they could be circumvented.

Edited By: Victor Davis Hanson, Publisher (Arabic): Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 2014

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