Print this page

Book Reviews: Warfare (Military History)

The Macedonian Empire - The Era of Warfare Under Philip II and Alexander the Great, 359-323 B.C., James R. Ashley, McFarland Publishers, 1998 (484 pages)
Reviewer: Nick Welman
What I usually do - when receiving a new book on Alexander - is just some carefree page-hopping. Two things caught my eye while browsing through Ashley's book. He remarks that since Fuller's book on Alexander's generalship (1960) no new comprehensive military study had been written. Ashley wants to fill the gap. A noble aim, I thought. But then, at page 100, I noticed the word "Neanderthals". Ashley assumes that the tribes encountered by Nearchos' fleet on the shores of the Arabian Sea were the last remaining pockets of these prehistoric men. Subsequently he dedicates almost a full page to Nearchos' 'battle with the Neanderthals'. Oh no, I thought, haven't we had enough? Alexander is already believed to have met with Amazons, griffins and sea-monsters. And now some 20th century writer adds Neanderthals to our bestiarium? Neanderthals were a human species specifically adapted to Ice Age conditions and are believed to have died out 28,000 years ago. There is nothing to warrant the claim that a pocket of Ice Age men could have survived 26,000 years on notably one of the hottest coastlines of the world - which had never been part of their original habitat. Modern researchers will indicate that Neanderthal men were sophisticated in their own way. When Ashley immediately assumes that some growling, stone age tribe must be Neanderthals, he comes close to insulting them. It made me suspicious and I continued reading with great care. Then, at various chapters of the book, Ashley maintains that the son of Indian King Poros was called Aristobulus. Now that is an eye opener. Aristobulus was an ancient author on Alexander. His accounts - in general - have been lost; but he was used as a source by Plutarch and Arrian. That the son of Poros would share his name, is quite strange. Aristobulus does not even sound Indian. So I checked Ashley's reference in Arrian. Arrian writes: "According to Aristobulus, Poros' son..." etc. It is evident that Ashley must have misread Arrian. It is a type of error that a serious author cannot allow himself. The list goes on and on. The Pisidian town of Termessos is called Telmissus by Arrian, but Ashley maintains that they are two different towns and places them on separate locations on his maps. In central Asia Alexander defeats the noblemen Catanes and Austanes, but Ashley again misreads Arrian and tells us that the 'Catane' and 'Austane' were tribes. These are just a few examples. There are major or minor errors on almost every page. The book should never have been written. Ashley's best moments are indeed his observations about ancient battles and ancient armies. He should have restricted himself to that. A short study on Alexander's warfare might have been within the author's capabilities. But Ashley totally overreaches himself and discusses subjects he can not handle. I started to pity James Ashley. His study is long, ambitious and it must have been extremely time consuming. But you can not take it seriously. It fuels misunderstandings. It is quite an expensive book too - so you should save yourself the 35 US dollars.

Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Donald Engels, University of California Press Ltd, London 1978 (189 pages)
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
This is the book for those who want to get into the nitty-gritty of how far the army marched in a single day, how many of each type of troops were present at each engagement, or even how long it took the army to break camp in the morning and how much grain the Companion Cavalry required each day. Meticulous in its approach, it's the kind of book an enthusiast for Alexander's warfare will no doubt refer to again and again.

Reviewer: Nick Welman
I have noticed that many people are fascinated by Alexander's histories because of human interest. What was his relation with his father? Why did he kill his best aides? What were the family ties within the Macedonian royal house? If this is your type of entertainment, Engels' book is not for you. I have always seen Alexander (as well as Philip II) as a great manager and leader. My interest in his military achievements is inspired by his awesome control over tens of thousands of men under his command. How did he do that? The foundations of his organization must have been very, very solid. So I sincerely believe we can still learn from his approach in order to manage modern organizations. Engels' book has become one of my dearest possessions. His formula to calculate pack animals and possible march distances for ancient armies (page 22) has even become something I started experimenting with - using MS Excel sheets. Engels has some accurate appendixes, calculating army strength, garrisons and reinforcements at any given point in time. These will come in handy when answering some specific questions about his army. If Engels emphasizes on one point, it would be that the Macedonians succeeded in creating an army in which every man could take care of himself in terms of food and supplies. Engels' book is not a 'great' book, but it is extremely useful if you wonder how Alexander's army managed to sustain itself under the most hostile conditions.

The Greek and Macedonian Art of War, F.E. Adcock, University of California Press Ltd, London, 1987
Reviewer: Christopher Bates
Adcock's 'The Greek & Macedonian Art of War' is in reality, little more than a collection of lectures, and in total covers only 102 pages (including Appendix!). Nevertheless it is a useful overview of Greek & Macedonian warfare, arranged in thematic chapters such as 'The Develoment of Infantry', 'Cavalry, Elephants, and Siegecraft' and 'Generalship in Battle'. Unfortunately there are no accompanying illustrations; however this can be remedied by reading the chapters whilst refering to works such as Warry's 'Warfare in the Classical World', or Gen. Sir John Hackett's (ed.)'Warfare in the Ancient World' which both contain excellent illustrations in abundance. Although the work is somewhat dated, being first published circa 1957, it's continuing relevance can be seen from it's regular appearance in the bibliographies of more modern works. The concise nature of the book can also be a great benefit for reference, and proves to be a useful starting point for further reading. It must be noted that this book does cover (as the name suggests) both Greek & Macedonian warfare, with the emphasis generally on the former. The Macedonian Infantry were skimmed over in two pages of the 'Development of Infantry' chapter! However, I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in Ancient Warfare.

The Generalship of Alexander the Great, J. F. C. Fuller, Rutgers University Press, 1960 (336 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Still in print, Fuller's book is simply your best buy if you are interested in the military aspects of Alexander's reign. What I learned from Fuller is to make a sharp distinction between strategy on one hand, tactic on the other. His maps and analysis of the major battles are probably still the best around. His last chapters - in which Fuller evaluates Alexander's leadership and his influence on the development of warfare - are well balanced. Some military studies on Alexander lack a proper degree of scholarship and therefore present facts that can be disputed. Fuller is blessed with a good combination of military insight (he had been an army man himself) and a very satisfactory academic approach. He modestly describes himself as a "student of history", not a scholar. In forty years nobody has come up with a better, more complete analysis of Alexander's military career.

Alexander: A History of the Origin and Growth of the Art of War etc. etc., T.A. Dodge, 1890; reprint 1996 (700 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
A book over a century old that is still in print and still consumed eagerly by those interested in ancient warfare? It is more of a relic than a work that can match itself with modern studies. Some of Dodge's observations are either outdated, proven wrong, or simply overly romantic. As a source, he should be treated with great care. Anyone writing about Alexander - an assignment or a paper - should avoid to base assumptions on Dodge. But as the book is still being read, Dodge must have done something right. And for sure he did. The charm of Dodge's book is that it comes from an era before war became utterly dirty. Writing in 1890, Dodge knew nothing about the inevitable impact of the Industrial Revolution on human suffering during wars. He knew nothing about the horrors of the trenches and poison gas during the First World War, nothing about the atrocities committed against millions of civilians in the Second World War. He could not have imagined the nuclear bomb, nor napalm, nor agent orange. Dodge's book is from another planet. In his title Dodge mentions the "Art of War". Now, in our modern times, nobody would be crazy enough to describe the conflicts in Vietnam, Korea or Afghanistan as the "art of war". But Dodge felt it was still appropriate to use that term. The value of Dodge's book is that the mental framework of the author was closer to warfare in the days of Alexander than any of us can imagine in this 21st century. Dodge paints a nostalgic picture of heroic men playing a dangerous game of life and death. Though the book should nevermore be used as a reference, it makes good reading, because Dodge - more than any other modern writer - still had the ability to relate to warfare in Alexander's time. What we can learn from Dodge is to replace ourselves into the minds of Alexander and his Macedonians, to whom "war" was a totally different concept than we experience today.

H. Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, History of the Art of War Volume I, 1920 (English trans. W.J. Renfoe, 1975; reprint 1990; 604 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Another military history book that is in fact over a century old. It shows it is about time someone came up with a truly refreshing, modern, general study. But Delbrück remains a one of a kind. During his lifetime Delbrück published three editions of this same book, the first one in 1900, the third completely updated and revised edition in 1920. His study was like a growing organism, incorporating new insights and nunaces in subsequent editions. As Delbrück plotted through the writing process of his Volume II (barbarian invasions), Volume III (medieval) and Volume IV (modern), he discovered parallels between Antique and later armies. This forced him to change his interpretation of his Classical sources repeatedly. In that process he developed some startling assumptions, still worthwhile to be considered today. In military literature one might notice that certain interpretations of Classic battles are still called the "Delbrück variant".
So, for example, Delbrück argues that King Darius' Persian army must have been quite similar to those Medieval armies of heavily armoured, mounted knights. At Issus, therefore, Darius can never have had the exaggerated 600.000 troops attested in our sources. An army of 25.000 is much more likely. Only at Gaugamela Darius might have had a slight numerical superiority over Alexander - but only in cavalry. As this is a review, I can not repeat Delbrück's fascinating arguments here. For anyone who is tempted to understand Delbrück's analysis, this book is a great buy. His reconstruction of Issus - especially Darius' battle plans - is still very convincing. You can not really appreciate e.g. Peter Green's approach without having read Delbrück.
If you are not interested in military history, skip this book. If you are, you will thoroughly like it. Though only some 80 pages are dedicated to Alexander, you will find fine overviews of Persian and Greek warfare in other chapters. Hans Delbrück's long introduction about possible army strengths and numbers is both revealing and enlightening. I am fully aware that Delbrück is old fashioned and his conclusions might have been disputed by later studies. Still there is something to say for his unique reconstruction of the Greek-Persian wars.

Training The Roman Cavalry: From Arrian’s Ars Tactica, Ann Hyland, Sutton Publishing, London, 1993
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
Anyone who has been on the back of a galloping horse, executing manuervures as a dozen other people are galloping towards you, will appreciate the depth with which Ms. Hyland explores tactics on horseback. Though tack had changed between the time of Alexander and Arrian, many of the same problems existed: how to train a horse to manuever in battle, how to develop the horse’s resistance to its own fear in the face of a battle, how to handle weapons from the back of the horse and more. The psychology of the horse comes heavily into play in any organized engagement, and the author explores this aspect of training as well. The reader can trace back from Arrian’s time and obtain a more complete picture of the use of cavalry in war. This book is a good tool for anyone writing about the ancient world. Many SCA members have also used it to develop horse drills while in full battle gear. It is not for the casual reader, but any serious scholar would enjoy it.

Alexander the Great; His Armies and Campaigns 334-323 BC, N. Sekunda and J. Warry, Osprey Military, 1998 (144 pages, illustrations by Richard Geiger)
  • The Army of Alexander the Great, N. Sekunda, 1988 (48 pages)
  • Alexander 334-323 BC: Conquest of the Persian Empire, John Warry, Osprey Publishing, 1991 (96 pages)
  • Alexander the Great, John Warry, 2001 (96 pages)
General warning: these individual titles appear to be slightly different versions of what is roughly the same book: similar text, similar pictures, similar diagrams. Unless we find someone who possesses all four of them, it is hard to point out the differences. For the time being we assume that the 144 page edition is just the combination of the 96 page Warry book and the 48 page Sekunda book. Makes sense, doesn't it? As all have the same price level, that one is probably your best bet.

Reviewer: Forum Contributor
Warry's book traces the course of Alexander’s battles against the Persians - and is probably a wargamer’s delight for its illustrations.

Reviewer: Forum Contributor
Sekunda's book is designed for the Men-At-Arms Series of books, this small text offers some discussion on the clothing, equipment, technical aspects and maneuvering strategies of Alexander’s army. The books in this series sometimes throw in details that are not proven, so be cautious.

Reviewer: Nick Welman
This Warry & Sekunda book is something of a book for all ages. Together with Thomas, the 9-year old son of a friend of mine, I have marveled at the colorful plates of fearsome Scythian warriors and determined Macedonian knights. The Osprey Military series is known to supply a niche market. Osprey publishes books about subjects of little interest to the general public. But it has steady stream of sales with those hard-cores who are interested in ancient military history. At the same time - maybe because there is little competition - Osprey's books are known to have some flaws. Sekunda and Warry list 110,000 Persians taking part in the battle at the river Granicus. We know from various studies this number must have been far less - probably closer to 15,000. Many facts about Alexander's battles presented in this book are actually subject to debate. So as a reference for studying Alexander, this publication by Sekunda and Warry has limited value. (Sekunda's contribution on the Persian army in Hackett's book on ancient warfare is actually much better; Warry's book "Warfare in the Classical World" is too.) If you can not resist the temptation to look at some modern artist's impressions of the Macedonian Hypaspists and Companions, then you might like this one. And if you are looking for a quick and exciting overview of Alexander's military achievements, this is the one to buy. Those who are seriously studying Alexander's times might be far more pleased with more scholarly publications.

"Warfare in the Classical World" by John Warry, Salamander books, 224pp, 1980 .
Reviewer: Chris Bates
The strength of Warry's book lies not in its text ( acceptable though that is, things have moved on since 1980!) but in the abundance of colour illustrations covering the period from 'Homer and Mycenaean Warfare' to 'The Coming of the Barbarians' . There are numerous diagrams and colour plates showing the arms, armour, and battle tactics of the ancient Graeco-Roman armies covered by this work; supported by maps, photographs, and art works. It is a delight to actually be able to see the evolution of helmets, sword types, and body armour which makes the visualisation of the more detailed modern academic studies that much easier to understand. The only criticism I have is that the book falls short of academic requirments in certain areas, notably the lack of a bibliography or references to primary sources, making it difficult to establish where, exactly, Warry has obtained his information. That aside, this book is a fundamental resource in the study of classical warfare, buy it - you will not be disappointed!

"Warfare in the Ancient World", edited by General Sir John Hackett, published by Sidgwick & Jackson 1989, pp256.
Reviewer: Chris Bates
This is probably the only book to really challenge Warry's 'Warfare in the Classical World'. This book does differ in several ways , notably it covers a broader timescale including chapters on the beginnings of warfare and the Assyrians. The bulk of the book however concentrates on the Graeco-Roman period, the various chapters being the work of individual contributors (including one dedicated to Alexander the Great by Dr Albert Devine). This book is much more academically inclined than Warry's; most chapters list the primary sources utilised, whilst there is also a bibliography of secondary sources used. The text is supported by excellent illustrations, courtesy of Peter Connolly, which really bring home the reality of what a phalanx looked like and the depiction of the phalanx clash at second Coronea could cause sleepless nights! I have a slight personal preference for Warry's book, though I am very happy to own both books!

W. Heckel, The Wars of Alexander the Great, Osprey Publishing (Essential Histories), August 2002
Reviewer: Nick Welman
I respect Waldemar Heckel perhaps more than any other scholar. But I figure Heckel just could not resist the temptation of fitting his academic work into a colourful popular format. That is what this book wants to be. The short bio's of Alexander's commanders are just a faint shadow of Heckel's elaborate work in his famous 'Marshals'. Just as Justin once abbreviated Trogus into a handsome epitome, this book is just a superficial abbreviation of Heckel's academic work. But I fail to see the point: it added nothing to my knowledge. Heckel used some illustrations and diagrams already included in earlier Osprey publications. He omitted those (e.g. battle maps) that are subject to debate, leaving us only with two very sketchy maps of Issus and Hydaspes. My biggest disappointment were the clumsy representations of the enchanting Alexander Mosaic: not the real thing, but ugly redrawings from the Ann Ronan Picture Library, failing to capture the mood of the original. And failing to capture the looks and expressions of Alexander and Darius. Is this my imagination, or does Darius really look like Saddam Hussein? A book that is obsolete to students of Alexander. Maybe suitable for starters? But then, Renault, Fox and Wood have produced far more enjoyable introductory material.