Tim Pendry's Reviews > Warfare in the Ancient World

Warfare in the Ancient World by John W. Hackett
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May 20, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: ancient-world, archaeology, classical-civilisation, five-star, history, warfare

This is a solid set of essays from academic specialists on ancient warfare, from the Assyrians through to the last days of the Roman Empire, edited by General Sir John Hackett and with illustrations to fit the text from Peter Connally.

The text can be densely specialist in places, the diagrams (though extensive) could have been better thought through and the narrative is nearly a quarter of a century old but it provides a continuous account of the use of force by the succession of gangsters we call kings and emperors.

Specialists will demur at my generosity in giving five stars (the easy acceptance of the presumed division between the heroic age and the age of the phalanx is no longer widely accepted) but the flow between the chapters works well and we get a strong sense of history unfolding.

In essence, warfare in the ancient world can be characterised as the skilful use of massed ranks of armed men, with the same human force being used to bring down the walls of besieged cities. The phalanx and the legion dominate the story but both are mere variations on a theme.

Technological change is present but remarkably limited. There are changes in tactics but the aim remains to get position for a set piece battle and use your men well. Naval force is of limited value except against sea brigands and still relies on brute human labour as oarsmen and marines.

Even horse power, while having an important role in battle, is weakened by the lack of the invention of the stirrup. Elephants died in cold climates. Animals were as likely to be part of the problem behind a failure as the means for success.

The genius of ancient generals lay in both a quick intelligence about the calculated risk to be taken and their ability to create or take advantage of systems that relied on masses of men being incentivised, out of fear or interest, both to win battles and exploit populations.

Many of these systems - the Assyrian, the Alexandrine and the Roman - were little more than self-creating machines for rapine and plunder and we can see the seeds of Napoleon and Trotsky in the actions of the Ancients.

Little changes when it comes to the exercise of brute power. Terrorism against populations alternates with cutting deals with troublesome enemy elites, a form of natural instinctive game theory builds up empires until the next innovator can smash them.

Empires rarely implode from within though the classic split in the ruling order can weaken an Empire and open the door to a superior organisation. Revolts rarely succeed because they cannot build the critical mass of manpower or learn how to organise themselves against the organised.

Indeed, the achievement of Trotsky and other liberation Communists in this context - mobilising and creating a military machine to defend and promote a revolution - stands up alongside those of Alexander and Caesar though, of course, the ideals were soon lost to the necessities of Power.

There is a possible truth that only the brutal realism of Communism, with its culture of terror and expediency, can overthrow the world of kings and emperors completely. Power and military ruthlessness have been and will always be inextricably linked. This book shows us for just how long.

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