Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Smithsonian History of Warfare)

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This brilliant account covers a millennium of Greek warfare. With specially commissioned battle maps and vivid illustrations, Victor Davis Hanson takes the reader into the heart of Greek warfare, classical beliefs, and heroic battles. This colorful portrait of ancient Greek culture explains why their approach to fighting was so ruthless and so successful.

  • Development of the Greek city-state and the rivalries ...
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This brilliant account covers a millennium of Greek warfare. With specially commissioned battle maps and vivid illustrations, Victor Davis Hanson takes the reader into the heart of Greek warfare, classical beliefs, and heroic battles. This colorful portrait of ancient Greek culture explains why their approach to fighting was so ruthless and so successful.

  • Development of the Greek city-state and the rivalries of Athens and Sparta.
  • Rise of Alexander the Great and the Hellenization of the Western world.
  • Famous thinkers—Sophocles, Socrates, Demosthenes—who each faced his opponent in battle, armed with spear and shield.
  • Unsurpassed military theories that still influence the structure of armies and the military today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061142086
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Series: Smithsonian History of Warfare Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.06 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has written or edited thirteen books including Mexifornia, Ripples of Battle, and Carnage and Culture. He lives near Selma, California.

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Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Smithsonian History of Warfare)

By Victor Hanson

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Victor Hanson
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Early Greek Fighting (1400-750)

Palace war as evolutionary dead end: the collapse of Mycenaean Greece

Culture and civilization existed on the Greek mainland long before the city state (700-300). Earlier Mycenaeans (1600-1100) spoke almost the same Hellenic language as their Greek successors. Their gods were more or less the same Olympians. The distant memory of Mycenaean kings and generals, citadels and burial vaults provided the historical kernel to later Greek myth-making and epic. Many Mycenaean palace-sites were resettled by Greeks during the Dark Ages (1100-800) and the Archaic Period (700-500), proving a continuity of Greek occupation, unbroken from the second millennium to the Roman annexation.

But there all similarity ceases. The Mycenaeans' written language of record-keeping, Linear B, their political, social and economic organization, together with their values, were not passed on to the Greeks of the historical period. It comes as no surprise that the practice of Mycenaean warfare--itself almost Near Eastern in tradition--ended also with the sudden collapse of the palaces in Greece.

Until nearly 1200 Mycenaean warmaking was probably not very different from the fighting that had been practised for centuries to the east and south in the Mediterranean by the Egyptians and Hittites: onslaughts oflight-armed skirmishers and missile-men clustering around chariots equipped with well-armoured javelin-throwers and bowmen. From the Linear B tablet inventories, a few painted remains on vases, the finds of metallic armour and weapons, and Mycenaean memories in later Greek literature, we should imagine that the lord, or wanax, of local sovereignties at Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Pylos, Thebes, Gla, Orchomenos and Athens directed political, economic and military affairs from fortified citadels--palaces guarded by walls ranging from 10 to 30 feet in thickness and sometimes over 25 feet in height. Yet the circuits were usually quite small and never encompassed much more than dynastic residences and palace stores. Such massive fortifications--the remains of the walls were imagined by later perplexed Greeks to be the work of earlier superhumans and thus called Cyclopean--reveal the core values of Mycenaean palatial culture. Material and human capital were invested in protecting--and often burying--scribes, bureaucrats and royalty, rather than in fielding large armies of infantrymen to protect surrounding farmlands and general population through pitched battles. Later Classical Greek walls are not so thick, but encompass far greater territory--revealing the emphases of the respective cultures.

In the same way that land was allotted by the Mycenaean wanax to various segments of the population, and in turn harvests were brought back to Mycenaean palaces for storage and redistribution, so too the written records of the Linear B inventories suggest that the king and his chief military commander controlled the fabrication and stockpiling of weaponry and the mobilization of his subjects. Before 1300 bronze armour and weaponry were rigid and cumbersome, which suggests that the Mycenaean chariots were deployed almost like modern tanks, platforms for the discharge of missiles and arrows. These vehicles were used to run over and break through foot soldiers, and to serve as islands of protection for accompanying swarms of lightly clad skirmishers to enter and exit the fray. Chariot-drivers, archers, and missile troops, who were deployed in and about the citadel fortifications, were specialized warriors rather than part of a large militia.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Mycenaean culture in Greece and the dynasties in the Near East and Egypt were all threatened by new attackers. These seafaring marauders from the north--the polis Greeks thought them Dorians; modern archaeologists prefer 'sea peoples'--fought primarily on foot and in mass formation, without expensive chariotry, horses, or highly trained javelin-throwers and bowmen. And these northerners--as in case of the Spanish conquistadors nearly three millennia later in the Americas--learned that their flexible infantry tactics could overturn the entire military arm of a highly centralized regime.

In response to such aggression, we see for the first time the dramatic appearance of newer Mycenaean armour designed to be worn on foot, not on a chariot, and the simultaneous appearance, by at least 1200, of greaves, helmets, and round shields worked variously in bronze, wood and leather. Javelins, spears and large cut-and-thrust swords also become more plentiful. Vases suggest that the very last generations of Mycenaeans were reacting to foreign military challenges--if belatedly at least in a most radical way--by retooling and rethinking their entire military doctrine more along the lines of massed infantry. Throughout the thirteenth century the palace overlords--who designed, owned and stockpiled Mycenaean weaponry--must have learned that the prior tactics of chariot-based fighting and skirmishing were no match for well-armed, numerous and cohesive foot soldiers.

Despite this last-ditch change in weapons and tactics, by 1100 almost all citadels on the Greek mainland were destroyed and Mycenaean culture finally ended. This cataclysm of the early twelfth century has been ascribed to various causes: invaders, internal feuding, slave revolts, earthquakes, drought, piracy, or simple systems collapse caused by over-bureaucratization. Whatever the correct explication, there is less controversy that an assorted group of 'sea peoples' appear in Hittite texts and on Egyptian reliefs as barbarian hordes who sailed from the north, landed and challenged palatial kingdoms with mass infantry attacks. The later Greeks remembered them as Dorians, the sons of Heracles who destroyed everything in their path before settling in the Peloponnese. In any case, the sheer rigidity and over-complexity of the Mycenaeans left their palaces ill-prepared and inflexible against evolving tactics and armament of Hellenic-speaking but uncivilized fighters from northern hamlets outside the control of the citadels.

The military lessons were clear enough: loosely organized men, on foot, with heavy armour, were a match for chariotry, bowmen and centralized bureaucracy, Cyclopean walls or not. The Mycenaeans' eleventh-hour turn toward armoured infantry with spears was apparently too late to save the palaces, and they went the way of similar planned societies in the southern and eastern . . .


Excerpted from Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Victor Hanson Copyright © 2007 by Victor Hanson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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