A Fragmented History of Ancient Generalship

Review of The Classical Art of Command: Eight Greek Generals Who Shaped the History of Warfare, by Joseph Roisman (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Joseph Roisman’s The Classical Art of Command: Eight Greek Generals Who Shaped the History of Warfare should have been written long ago. At first, the book might seem like just another in a long list about ancient generalship. However, as Roisman understatedly, but rightly notes in his preface, his subject has been lost in the sea of ink spilled over almost all other aspects of ancient warfare.

In order to fill this void, Roisman examines the military commands of eight Greek generals, as promised in the subtitle. Roisman chooses his subjects well, mixing popular, well-known generals with more obscure ones. Leonidas, the doomed Spartan king who stood at Thermopylae, and Themistocles, the hero of Salamis and founder of the Athenian naval empire are obvious first choices, but Roisman also includes the frequently overlooked Spartan navarch Lysander who shattered that empire. Similarly, one expects to see Epaminondas and Pelopidas, who together broke the power of Sparta and ushered in the brief period of Theban hegemony, but the author also adds the criminally ignored Demosthenes of Athens. He likewise does not neglect those who are generally considered politicians more than men of war, such as Pericles of Athens and Dionysius I of Syracuse.

A marble bust of Pericles.
A marble bust of Pericles, the preeminent general and statesman of the Athenians during their period of greatest power in the fifth century.

Roisman’s goal is not biography, but to provide case studies that show what Greek generalship was in the Classical Age. His rubric for measuring the generals includes four broad areas: planning, management, tactics, and personality. Planning to Roisman includes such things as logistics, overall strategy, and the building and maintaining of alliances, while management concerns how well the generals controlled both their own soldiers and allied contingents in the field. Tactics in the ancient Greek world generally consisted of picking the battlefield and deploying one’s forces, although Roisman also considers how capable the generals were at gathering and using intelligence about their enemies.

Lastly, but most importantly, is his consideration of personality. It is the personality of their generals that Roisman argues mattered to the Greeks more than knowledge or natural ability, and it is on this facet of generalship he focuses the most. As anyone who has studied Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar can attest, trying to create a mental profile of ancient leaders from the often contradictory surviving sources is usually an exercise in frustration. Nonetheless, Roisman does this well, using the generals’ actions and cultural background to attempt to recreate their mindsets. The results, while more cautious than groundbreaking, provide a deep insight into the Greek psyche and also serve as an important reminder that Greek culture was not as monolithic as it is often portrayed.

Roisman’s main strength in this work is his ability to condense complicated issues to a few sentences without (usually) oversimplifying them or glossing over the scholarly debates behind them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his introduction, where in a scant 23 pages, he conveys his rationale for choosing the generals, lays out his rubric for evaluating them, sketches a brief vignette that shows how different generals might have reacted to a similar situation in different ways, and closes with a short, yet effective, primer on ancient Greek warfare. Similarly, each chapter opens with Roisman setting the political, social, and military situation that the general faced in a concise analysis.

Greek amphora, or jug, from c. 540 BCE.
Greek amphora, or jug, from c. 540 BCE showing two hoplite phalanxes engaged in combat. Hoplites were the heavy infantry who formed the backbone of most Greek armies in the Classical Age.

Each chapter follows the same basic layout. After the scene-setting introduction, Roisman lays out the military career of his subject, including any political actions such as alliance building and efforts at peace, but ignoring anything that falls outside a narrow definition of military affairs. This strictness works well for some of his subjects, like Leonidas and Demosthenes, who are remembered mostly for a particular battle or campaign, but it hurts his analysis of men like Pericles, who spent thirty years as a general of Athens, and Dionysius I, who was both tyrant and military leader. Roisman’s attempt to separate the political and military aspects of these men’s careers, while understandable, greatly handicaps his analysis.

The above issue aside, it is hard to fault Roisman’s scholarship. Footnotes abound on every page, and his bibliography, which contains works across three different languages, shows familiarity with both the classics of the field and more specialized works. Roisman shows equal aplomb with the primary sources, combining disparate and even contradictory accounts with skill. He is also not afraid to question the most venerable ancient sources, Xenophon and Thucydides included. Roisman tends to follow orthodox views on controversial issues and to flatten debates for the sake of conciseness, but he does let his readers know where scholars disagree and provides references for those interested in digging further.

Despite Roisman’s many strengths, The Classical Art of Command fails to live up to its potential. While the chapters individually should please all but the most stringent of specialists, the book never comes together well as a whole.

This lack of continuity also contributes to the book failing to live up to its subtitle. In his introduction, Roisman notes that he chose the generals he did because they were illustrative of the type of generalship typical in Classical Age Greece. That’s a credible statement, especially given the diversity of military talent which he considers. He then adds that he chose men who “inspired later commanders in antiquity and beyond, or who were thought to be their models.”  At no point does Roisman ever truly demonstrate that the generals in this book transformed the Greek way of warfare, besides perhaps providing a kind of vague inspiration for later Greeks. Indeed, he even undermines his own claims when he notes that “it was rare for a Greek general to research battles fought before his times.” If such were the case, then these generals would have had little to no influence on Greek warfare, as Roisman does not claim that the generals in his book learned from each other.

Model of a trireme, the main fighting ships of the Greek navies of the Classical Age and beyond.
Model of a trireme, the main fighting ships of the Greek navies of the Classical Age and beyond. Themistocles used ships like these to defeat the Persians at Salamis, and Lysander used his own to defeat the Athenians and end the Peloponnesian War.

Lastly, the book flounders because it has no clearly defined audience. Although obviously a serious scholar himself, Roisman’s acceptance of the academic status quo on the majority of issues means that a serious student of the field will find nothing in here new or challenging. Likewise, any specialists will likely find his accounts and analysis reductive because of his brevity. On the other hand, this same conciseness makes for dense prose and Roisman lacks the engaging style of a Tom Holland or even a V.D. Hanson, making this work a slog for those with a only a casual interest in the subject. In the end, I would recommend this book only to someone outside the field whose interest in the subject outweighs their need to be entertained or even engaged.