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

Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, edited by Victor Davis Hanson (Princeton University Press, 2010), is billed as something of a prequel to Edward Meade Earl’s classic edited collection of essays on Makers of Modern Strategy (1943), beginning with Machiavelli. (Peter Paret, Gordon Craig, and Felix Gilbert edited a 1986 version of Makers of Modern Strategy).

The contributors/topics in Makers of Ancient Strategy include:

Tom Holland, The Greco-Persian Wars

Donald Kagan, Pericles and Thucydides

David L. Berkey, The Walls of Athens

V.D. Hanson, Epaminondas and the Doctrine of Preemptive War

Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great

John W. I. Lee, Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World

Susan Mattern, Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome

Barry Strauss, The Slave Wars of Greece and Rome

Adrian Goldsworthy, Julius Caesar

Peter J. Heather, Frontier Defense in the Later Roman Empire


Hanson, in his introduction, notes that the original Makers of Modern Strategy was focused on individual military theorists and generals, whereas the second version was built more around larger strategic themes and historical periods.  As for the perspective of Makers of Ancient Strategy, Hanson observes that few formal strategic doctrines have survived from antiquity, especially at the level of military theory.  The makers of ancient strategy were not abstract thinkers like Machiavelli or Clausewitz, or even generals who wrote about what they did and wanted to do, such as Napoleon and Schlieffen.  As a consequence, strategy in the ancient world is more often implicitly than explicitly expressed; and thus the conclusions reached by contemporary military historians are likely to be questioned and disputed because they involve much supposition and conjecture.  But this has the advantage of developing much material that is new to all but the most expert reader — or at least new manifestations of familiar things that are in fact quite old.

The Second World War and the Cold War are unavoidable presences in the respective backgrounds of the publications of Modern Strategy.  For Makers of Ancient Strategy, Mogadishu and the Balkans, 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are unavoidable presences.

Makers of Ancient Strategy concludes, or begins with, the premise that the military thinking and policies of the ancient Greeks and Romans remain surprisingly relevant for understanding conflict in the modern world. Human nature, which drives conflict, is unchanging. Much of the organized violence witnessed today – such as counterterrorism, urban fighting, insurgencies, preemptive war, and ethnic cleansing – has ample precedent in the classical era. For instance, the book examines the preemption and unilateralism used to instill democracy during Epaminondas’s great invasion of the Peloponnesus in 369 BC, as well as the counterinsurgency and terrorism that characterized Rome’s battles with insurgents such as Spartacus, Mithridates, and the Cilician pirates. The collection looks at the urban warfare that became increasingly common as more battles were fought within city walls. For those still enamored with technology-driven revolutions in military affairs, Hanson argues that the study of history, not recent in understanding of technological innovation, remains the better guide to the nature of contemporary warfare.  Even as the lines between conventional war and terrorism blur and as technology accelerates the pace and dangers of conflict, warfare has not been remade into something never before witnessed by earlier generations, so that we must now conceive of wholly new doctrines and paradigms to counteract such tactics.

If there is one common theme in the volume, it is the various ways in which armed force must be applied to the paradoxical problems of empire. The era of ancient Greece and Rome was an imperial one. “Imperial powers felt the need to create an entire mythology about the morality necessity, or inevitability of conquest.  Their narratives are every bit as important to military planning as men and material in the field.  Preemption, coercive democratization, and unilateralism are not singularly American notions; they have been around since the beginning of Western civilization and have proven both effective and dubious utility.  Alexander discovered that cultural sensitivity was necessary to win the hearts and minds of occupied Persia.  Yet as a professed emissary of Hellenism, Alexander’s aims in introducing what he felt was a superior culture that might unify and enlighten conquered peoples proved antithetical to his pragmatic efforts at winning over the population.”

Hanson has been challenged on the point that there is an essential continuity between ancient and modern, or rather post-modern warfare.   Nuclear weapons, which hold out the prospect of the end of particular or all civilization, is one of them – but perhaps the most notable (according to critics) is the phenomenon noted by writers like Edward Luttwak, that is, the growing aversion of much of the West to casualties and to the legitimacy of the use of force altogether as an instrument of state power (the United States being an exception, perhaps only temporarily so).   It has also been pointed out that Hanson’s collection ignores ancient strategy and strategists from outside the Western tradition. He argues that it was the Greek and Roman writers who created the discipline of history, defined in largely as the study of wars, as the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Livy attest.  The experience of Greece and Rome forms the common heritage of modern Europe and the United States.  The 19th and 20th century Western problems of unification, civil war, expansion, colonization, nation-building and counterinsurgency all have clear and well-documented precedents in both Greek and Roman culture.  But at the very least, this selection and perspective follows Hanson’s controversial argument about the continuity and superiority of a distinctive Western way of war.