The Greek and Macedonian Art of War
by F. E. Adcock

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

University of California Press: 1957
109 pages

April 2008

City-states at war

The quick and the steady:

The very liveliness of the Greek mind made panics — which, Thucydides says, are apt to befall great armies — one of the chances of war. The readiness to admit defeat was the other side of the vehement elan which Greek armies so often manifested.

By contrast, when Alcibiades in the Symposium is praising Socrates, he tells how, when the Athenian army was routed at Delium, Socrates "stalked along, regarding friend and enemy composedly, so that everyone could tell from far away, that if one attacks this man, he will repel him with stout courage. And so he came off safe with his companion."

Frank E. Adcock's lectures on The Greek and Macedonian Art of War are deceptively easy reading: delightful and informative. Adcock's relaxed presentation gives us a lot of material for thought in a smallish but high-quality book. The period discussed ranges from the archaic or Heroic Age (in the Iliad) to the Hellenic and even Roman, with glances at more modern generalship; but the bulk of the bell-curve here lies in the Classical period through Alexander's Successors.

Adcock leads off analyzing "The City-State at War". The city-states' wars run to brief campaigns, often decided by a single battle of citizen hoplites, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in phalanxes. Community solidarity is critical. There are no general staffs to coordinate maneuvers, so battles must be straightforward clashes on open, level ground. Further, the shortness of campaigns means that generals often have little or no previous experience of command.

The art of war develops under the pressure to win and even to survive; the strongest may come from outside:

The Persians had conquered from Iran to the Levant by the skill of their cavalry and archers, and this fact presented to Greek generals a problem which had to be solved if Greek freedom was to be preserved. The problem was to find a time and a place in which hoplites could win the day.

It appears beyond doubt that the Athenian general Miltiades could claim high credit for the victory of Marathon, not so much for his conduct of the battle as for his discernment that a moment had come when, for whatever reasons, he could take the Persians at a disadvantage, when he could launch a decisive attack in which the weight and thrust of his hoplites came into their own.

Even the stolidly maneuvering phalanx could be handled adroitly by a master, as in Philip's victory (aided by young Alexander) over the Athenians at Chaeronea, where Philip "created, as it were, a flank where no flank had been."

Archaic & Classical naval warfare

A lecture on naval warfare begins,

In the Heroic Age ships appear as transports, the servants of land warfare. They carry the Achaeans to the coasts of Troy, and they lie on the shore awaiting the day of return, or carry raiding parties to collect plunder or supplies. There is no hint in the Iliad that the Trojans had ships which might have forced the Achaeans to fight at sea.

The Heroic Age ships may use oars as well as sails, and in the post-Heroic Age ships become capable of fighting against each other. When that happens, the art of naval warfare begins.

Adcock discusses triremes and quinqueremes, and even sources of timber, but concentrates on tactics and strategy:

The period of Athenian naval ascendancy was the most striking of the periods for which the Greeks found the word thalassocracy — the command of the sea. Pericles, always perhaps more an admiral than a general, realized, like the unknown author of the contemporary pamphlet on the Constitution of Athens, and perhaps overestimated, the scope and effectiveness of sea power, especially in time of war.

It could secure the safe transit of food from the south of Russia to the wharves of the Piraeus. It could greatly hinder enemy trade passing up the Saronic Gulf, or along the Gulf of Corinth so long as there was a naval station near its entrance. It could convoy Athenian armies to any part of the Athenian Empire and carry raiding forces to any point on and off the coast of the Peloponnesus.

Cavalry, elephants, & psychology

Perhaps the most entertaining of the lectures is that on "Cavalry, Elephants, and Siegecraft". Do war elephants really contribute to winning battles? How risky is it to include elephants among one's own forces? Even horses are a qualified asset:

There is a pleasing passage in the Anabasis, in which Xenophon seeks to dispel his infantrymen's fear of the Persian cavalry by pointing out that ten thousand cavalry are only ten thousand men. "For no man," he says, "ever perished in battle from being bitten or kicked by a horse. The foot soldier can strike harder and with truer aim than the horseman, who is precariously poised on his steed, and as much afraid of falling off as he is afraid of the enemy." The one advantage he allows to cavalry is that it can take to flight with a better hope of survival. This ingenious plea was successful for its immediate purpose.
Strategy, generalship, & historians

Adcock goes into the interactions of major strategy with finance and with geography, for the Greek city-states and for Philip, Alexander the Great, and the Successors. The cities, whether aristocracies, oligarchies, or democracies, inevitably were less unified in policy and action than the latter, who "were not only their own chiefs of staff but their own foreign ministers."

Sometimes striking generalship is shown not in doing something daringly right, but in doing something so patently wrong as to have become a negative rule: don't divide your forces in the presence of the enemy, for instance; or let your troops begin looting while the enemy is still in the field:

Battles had been lost by victorious troops assailing an enemy's camp, but a battle was won when at Gabiene Antigonus took his chance and captured the possessions of the Silver Shields, which they ransomed by the surrender of their general, Eumenes, and desertion to his enemy. Antigonus accepted the victory, but he saw to it that the Silver Shields never fought in a great battle again.

In an appendix on literary sources, Adcock briefly discusses the early historians who contribute variously with more information than understanding: Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, and a very few others; the great exemplar is Thucydides:

... in the second half of the fifth century we do possess a contemporary historian of the very first rank, who did understand war. Thucydides describes it with a clear appreciation of what brought victory or defeat.

F. E. Adcock's own understanding of ancient warfare is deep; his distillation of the art is presented clearly and delightfully. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War for all its easy brevity repays thoughtful reading. War and the threat of war significantly delineated the ancient peoples, then as now. Our appreciation of Classical and Hellenistic culture, the foundation of the West, deepens as we see how the art of war was deployed by the Greeks and Macedonians.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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