John Lynn on Greek warfare

Readers of this blog probably know that I don’t care much for Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War (or the sequel, Carnage and Culture). I am, of course, not the only one. People will always disagree with one another on pretty much all subjects, and I already tried to explain why that is the case in an earlier blog post. Today, I want to focus briefly on a book that succeeds at deconstructing Hanson’s influential notion of a ‘Western’ way of war.

The book is Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003) written by John A. Lynn. In light of my blog post on how people’s personal experience and viewpoints colour their interpretation of the past, it’s noteworthy to point out that Lynn, like Hanson, is an American and a professor of History (in this case not ancient, but early modern). This is important, I think, because the notion of a ‘Western’ way of war is especially current in the US and many who are critical of Hanson tend not to be Americans (with a few notable exceptions, like Peter Krentz). When your critics come from a completely different background, it’s easy to dismiss them as simply not getting what you’re trying to say.

It should be noted that Lynn’s book doesn’t focus solely on warfare in Classical Greece. In fact, only the first chapter deals with the subject, but it’s written specifically as a reply to Hanson’s earlier work. Fittingly, it’s called: ‘Written in blood: the Classical Greek drama of battle and the Western way of war.’ Lynn is not a specialist in Greek warfare (as becomes painfully obvious, below), but that’s okay. He is writing a general history of battle, after all.

Right from the outset, it’s clear that Lynn doesn’t oppose the traditional notion that hoplites fought in phalanxes from at least the seventh century BC onwards, that hoplites consisted of ‘yeoman farmers and artisans’ (still on page 3), and that hoplite battle tended to be short in duration and bound by conventional rules. His treatment of the nature of battle in ancient Greece is as conventional and unsurprising as what Hanson proposed back in the 1980s (and he himself of course built on much earlier work).

But a detailed re-examination of the way that the Greeks supposedly fought their wars in the Archaic and Classical periods is not of interest to Lynn, though he does note some critics (all Americans, by the way; e.g. Hans van Wees is never mentioned), and footnotes provide some further reading. A critical re-examination of the Greek way of war is not the purpose of the chapter. Instead, what Lynn wants to tackle is Hanson’s claim ‘that the Greek manner of fighting established a pattern that has endured for 2,500 years in the West’ (p. 3).

First, he lists ‘the conventions of Greek warfare’ (pp. 4–6), which is almost painful in how traditional it is, presenting a very old-fashioned view of Greek warfare that has been critiqued heavily in the past, for example by Peter Krentz (who is nowhere to be found among Lynn’s references). He then discusses hoplite arms and armour (pp. 6–8), in a section that could easily have been written by Hanson himself, and which again resurrects the notion – which I hoped had been long dead by now – that among ancient Greeks ‘the archer was seen as a coward and inferior to the hoplite’ (p. 7). Next is a section on ‘hoplite decisive battle’ (pp. 8–10) and ‘citizenship and the warrior role’ (pp. 10–12) – all very conventional and completely ignoring scholarship from the other side of the pond (let along written in other languages).

Finally, we get to the good stuff. First, Lynn summarizes Hanson’s notion of a ‘Western’ way of war (pp. 13–15), and how the effectiveness of it ‘is linked to, and explained by, social, political, and cultural foundations summed up in the term “civic miliarism”’ (p. 14). Hanson’s hypothesis is so all-encompassing, in fact, that Lynn writes ‘that it is hard to know where to begin a critique’ (p. 15).

He nevertheless does so over the course of the next few subsections. Since Hanson claims that the Greeks established a pattern for Western warfare that was adhered to for 2500 years, the first thing that Lynn examines is the issue of continuity (pp. 15–19). Lynn points out that ‘instead of developing his continuity with care and evidence, Hanson offers his readers bold but debatable claims’ (p. 16), and largely ignores discontinuity across a large span of time. Lynn concludes that ‘Hanson’s mature theory […] works best when on jumps from the late Roman republic to the nineteenth century’ (p. 19), but in that case there’s clearly discontinuity.

Likewise, Lynn takes Hanson to task as regards his opposition of the ‘Western’ way of warfare to what he refers simply as ‘Asian’ warfare (pp. 19–21). Lynn makes clear that we are not as well informed about the armies and battles of Asian cultures as we are about the Greeks or Romans, but what evidence we do have flies in the face of Hanson’s bold claims. For example, ancient Chinese armies were as disciplined and perhaps more so than Hanson’s Greek armies of citizen-soldiers.

In the next few sections, Lynn raises further objections to the notion of a distinctly ‘Western’ way of warfare. He gives a brief overview of warfare in both the Western world and beyond, and notes that Europeans were not very successful in battles found in mainland Asia, and also raises the point that leaders like Genghis Khan show that alternative forms of fighting could be equally as good and perhaps even superior (pp. 21–23).

Lynn briefly discusses the influence of Classical literature on the Renaissance and later, but he doesn’t take it quite as far as I think is probably warranted (pp. 24–25). You see, the idea that the West is culturally indebted to the Classical world is a notion that is born out of active emulation of what were perceived to be Classical ideals from the Renaissance onwards. It’s during the Renaissance that the Graeco-Roman world became ‘Classical’ and that the centuries between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance came to be regarded as the ‘Middle Ages’, dark and unsophisticated.

In the conclusion to the chapter, Lynn asserts that ‘claims that a Western Way of Warfare extended with integrity for 2,500 years speak more of fantasy than fact’ (p. 26). The final conclusion, however, softens Lynn’s critique by exalting the ideal of the citizen soldier: ‘In the citizen militia, morality and responsibility meet in an ideal of civic virtue. […] The link between philosophy, art, and combat is also part of the ever-present legacy of Greek warfare in the Western military tradition’ (pp. 27).

So, it’s certainly not a perfect treatment of Greek warfare. But if you’re interested in alternatives to Hanson’s thesis of a ‘Western’ way of war, this is a good book to start, especially if you’re inclined toward a more conventional interpretation of the mechanics of Greek combat. 

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