Tag Archives: Classical Warfare

Mantinea 5

The Battle of Mantinea

The Battle of Mantinea was part of the Great Peloponnesian War (430-404 B.C.). The war was fought in an effort to defeat and contain the growing power of Sparta in Greek Affairs. The war was ultimately a failure as Sparta won in the end and dictated terms to Athens and her allies in the process guaranteeing that Athens would not dominate the Greek world.
The prelude to the battle itself was a gathering of Argive Alliance troops who attacked Tegea, about 5 miles south of Mantinea. The Spartans rallied to Tegea’s defense and began to divert a stream to flood Mantinean territory.

The main source for the course of the battle is The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  He covers the battle in Book V: 55-82 of his history.  The actual account of the fighting is 65-74.

Mantinea 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proposed location of the Mantinea battlefield
Proposed location of the Mantinea battlefield

The battlefield itself cannot be pinpointed with any great accuracy today.  However, based on the description of the location of various forces during the battle given by Thucydides it must have taken place to the eastern side of the Ancient Acropolis of Mantinea and the hills around ¾ of a mile away.

Respective Orders of Battle
Respective Orders of Battle

 

The preliminary to the battle was the Spartan army appearing near Mantinea arrayed in battle order. This startled the Athenian commanders who rushed to get their army formed and for defense. Once the armies were arrayed for battle the usual ancient pre-battle speeches were given and then both sides advanced towards each other.

The Athenians and Allies advanced recklessly screaming and shouting at the run while the Spartans displayed their usual discipline in battle by advancing at a measured pace to the music of flutes.

The evidence for tactical maneuver is in section 71 of Thucydides. He first explains the tendency of Phalanxes to move to the right as they advance; he then explains how the Spartan commander ordered the Sciritaeans and Brasidians to extend the line on the march while some of the reserve moved up to fill in the gap created by their movement.

Mantinea 4This allowed the Spartan army to present a united front to the Athenians while the Spartan Right flanked the Athenian Left.
That was the theory however it did not work out in practice as envisaged. Instead the Sciritae and Brasidians milled around without moving and thus created a gap that the Spartans were able to hastily fill.

As the two armies met the Spartans were initially driven back and a part of the Athenian line went on to ravage the baggage train of the Spartan army.

However, the Spartans led by King Agis soon rallied, attacking and driving in the Athenian line starting an instant rout where many Athenian troops fled without even striking a blow.

The Athenian cavalry stopped a slaughter by fighting a rear-guard action allowing the majority of the foot-soldiers to flee the battlefield.  Casualties were also lessened because the Spartans declined to press their pursuit being content with possession of the battlefield itself.

Casualties

The casualty numbers come from Thucydides Book V: 74. The lopsided nature of the numbers is typical of Greek battles. Most of the Athenian dead were probably not killed in the initial clash but were wounded and then and later killed during the pursuit and mopping up by the Spartans and their allies. The Greeks did not generally practice ransom of prisoners in wartime.
Spartans - 300
Argive Alliance - 1,100

It should be noted that the vast majority of the casualties were probably dead (90%-95%) according to the analysis first proposed by Hanson in The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece in 1989. Greek Hoplite warfare was extremely deadly because of the nature of the weapons used and the methods used to fight it.

References

1.Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War Chapter 5: available at the Internet Classics Archive

 

Book Review: Holy Wars: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land by Gary Rashba

HOLY WARS: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land is one of the better primers about conflict in the Holy Land to appear within the last few years.  It consists of 17 chapters covering the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan in 1400 B.C. to the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1982.  The more recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered in the epilogue.  The work is 288 pages and includes extensive notes at the end of each chapter as well as a well sourced bibliography and index.  The Kindle edition, which is what I have, was mostly free of editing errors and the only complaint I have is the maps did not render well.  That is a common problem with the B&W Kindle though and does not reflect on the book, the maps showed up excellently when viewed on my PC.

This book is not aimed at the academic historian but is rather intended for the more general audience who just wants to know more about the military history of this violent part of the world.  In that, Mr. Rashba does an outstanding job of clearly narrating significant events from throughout the history of the Holy Land while fitting those events into the flow of time.  He does so in a surprisingly balanced and objective manner despite the author himself claiming he was not sure if he maintained that balance due to personal connections to the events he describes.  I can happily claim he succeeded admirably in suppressing any personal bias.

His selection of battles and campaigns is good and comprehensive.  Mr. Rashba acknowledges where his sources are scarce and makes use of modern research, particularly archaeological research where it is germane to his account.  He covers some events, such as Napoleon’s Palestine campaign, that are mere footnotes in western historiography.  I was impressed with his treatment of the Mamluks and their battle against the Mongols in 1260 which is practically ignored in most English language histories, even histories of the Holy Land.  He covers the Roman response to the first century Jewish revolt  but only mentions Masada in passing.  In a way that is fitting as the capture of Masada was actually a side note to the campaign but as he mentions, the battle and Jewish Response to the siege has become iconic to the modern Israeli Defense Forces.

In all Holy Wars is one of the best surveys of the Holy Land I have ever run across and I am certainly glad I did.  This book should be on the shelf of anyone who seeks to understand the history behind the hatreds evidenced in modern Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.

 

The route of Xenophons March Up Country

Book Review: The Anabasis by Xenophon

I read part of this work in High School over twenty years ago and decided a few weeks ago to finish reading it. Now that I am done, I wonder why I waited so long. The book was written by Xenophon, and ancient Greek soldier and general, in the late 4th Century BC.

Xenophon’s account in The Anabasis is one of the first true (in several senses of the word) adventure stories to be transmitted from antiquity. There is as much adventure here as will be found in any modern day work of fiction. One of the things that makes this book so great is that as I was reading the book it was constantly in the back of my mind that these events really happened. The book is part adventure and part autobiography told from the 3rd person.

The background is that in 402 B.C. Cyrus the Younger of Persia hired an army of Greek mercenaries to help him overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II, the legitimate ruler of the Persian Empire. Everything went swimmingly until Cyrus was killed in battle. The Greek army hired by Cyrus was in a tight position, Artaxerxes did not have the force to crush without taking unacceptable casualties but he equally did not want them to escape. The Persian answer was to feign letting the Greeks start on their way home providing them provisions, guides, and quarters along the way. The the Persians tricked the Greek generals into attending a dinner under flag of truce and had all the Greek generals executed.

It is at this point that Xenophon steps forward and is elected general and co-leader of the remaining Greeks. The rest of the story is a recounting of the many trials and tribulations the Greek army of Ten Thousand makes its way home fighting numerous battles, encountering hostile people, terrain, and weather.

The Route of Xenophons March Up Country

The only complaint, if complaint it can be called, is that the speeches ascribed to various characters are not 100% accurate. This is true of many ancient Greek and Roman writers. What they did was to invent a speech that in its essentials expressed the same message as the actual speech did, perhaps they dressed it up a little. The ancient historians did not have a problem with this practice at all and just considered it god history, that is not true of modern historical practice.

In summation, if anyone would like to read the ancients and does not know where to start, The Anabasisis a good place to start. It is a great story and Xenophon’s prose is concise enough to not bore the casual reader.

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Book Review: Julius Caesar: Lessons in Leadership from the Great Conqueror by Bill Yenne

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

I am someone who loves the ancients and loves reading the their stories. That being said, I am much more likely to read Caesar’s Commentaries or Plutarch’s Life of Caesar than a modern day biography derived from those sources. In fact, I have read all those ancient works, most in both English and the original Latin. This book was a pleasure to read anyway.  Bill Yenne has put together a comprehensive account of Caesar’s life that someone unfamiliar with Caesar’s exploits can enjoy. The book is separated into twenty thematic chapters with epilogue, source note, and index. It is not a large book at only 193 pages but the author manages to pack everything he needs into those pages.

The book begins with an account of what we know of Caesar’s birth and early life and segues easily into the meat of the story, his exploits in Gaul and the Civil War. Bill Yenne is at his best when describing the military campaigns of Caesar. he brings the battles alive and his descriptions are vivid enough that the reader can form a mind’s eye picture of the terrain. He describes the political relationships between Caesar and the various Germanic and Gallic tribes well. He also does an excellent job of describing the course of the Civil War. The book is really more of a straightforward narrative of the events of Caesar’s life and he does not attempt to analyze Caesar’s actions for fault, that type of analysis he leaves to the reader, which very refreshing from my perspective.

I did not really see where the subtitle of the book came in as I was reading it. It was actually only after I finished the book that it hit me. As Mr. Yenne narrates the story he throws in asides about modern events that occurred in the areas where Caesar campaigned. The vast majority of these asides relate to the allied campaign in France in World War II but he does mention World War I a time or two. Generally he relates the differences between the modern campaign and the way in which Caesar campaigned there. I did not really feel that there were a lot of lessons pointed out for modern military leaders from Caesar’s campaigns or actions, at least nothing explicitly pointed out as such. That lack does not detract from the book itself though, it can stand perfectly alone as a biography of one of the greatest military leaders of all time.

The chapters flow easily from one to the other and the index is useful and actually more comprehensive than I expected it to be. The source note is just that, a note explaining the major sources he used in writing the book. I am sure it is not everything he consulted and I would much rather see a bibliography than source note, that is a minor complaint though as this book is meant for the lay market and not academia or college students.  The only other complaint I have is the lack of citations but that is also probably the latent academic in me complaining and does not really detract from the quality of the book.

As a biography of Julius Caesar for people who are not historians, Bill Yenne has produced an excellent book. One of the best aspects of this book is that he relied on the ancient writers who were closer to the events for sources. He also writes in a clear, easy to understand style that makes some of the complex events of Caesar’s life easy to understand. All in all this is an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone with a casual interest in antiquity or even those wishing to reacquaint themselves with the life of Caesar.