Conor Whately, A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Conor Whately follows in the footsteps of John Keegan’s Face of Battle approach to military history that has been around for a while now, but he digs deeper into the more encompassing sensory immersion of combat. However, Whately structures his book not around the five senses, as I expected, but in three sections: the Greek World, the Roman World, and Late Antiquity. Those are further sub-divided into prominent battles of the period. That allows Whately to consider the five senses collectively for each engagement. The chapters follow a similar pattern: context and sources, then Whately moves into the sensory experience.
Part I, the Greek World, takes us to the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE. Whately’s main sources for this chapter are Xenophon’s Anabasis with help from Diodorus Siculus and general archaeological finds. He describes the sights and sounds of two armies advancing to contact then in battle. This is reasonably well-covered ground, but Whately continues with the other senses: touch, smell, and taste. Some of this falls outside the battlefield but still affects the battle experience. Whately’s description of the Battle of Issus (333 BCE) emphasizes the role of sight. He again takes us through the background and sources before analysing the peculiar visual aspects of this battle.
We’re into the Roman world in Part II, following the pattern set for the Greek battles. Whately picks Cannae (216 BCE) as his first battle to study; a bold choice given how much has been written about it. But Whately again approaches from the sensory perspective, picking three senses to highlight: sight, sound, and touch. Given the massacre that befell the Romans, that makes for some unpleasant reading. Two sieges come next: Jerusalem (70 CE) and Masada (72-74 CE). Of course, food and water, or lack thereof, was an essential item for the besieged. Then there were the sights, smells, and sounds of the horrors that accompanied the sack of a city. At Masada, that was different with the alleged mass suicide of the defenders. Whately ends this section with the fascinating story of a woman trapped in a cave with other rebels during the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Late Antiquity occupies Part III, beginning with the Battle of Strasbourg (357 CE). Here Whately deploys all five senses to make sense of the battle: the sight of banners through the dust clouds, the sounds of horns and trumpets, the push of battle lines, and the role of food, the taste and smell of it, for well-fed soldiers. The Siege of Edessa (544 CE) concludes Whately’s survey with the by now customary overview of the sensual experience with particular emphasis on the ordeal of the besieged. Whately sums all this up by arguing that studying the sensory approach to ancient warfare, we can open up new insights into how wars were fought and the lives of those who fought them.
Whately promises much with this book, and for the most part he delivers. He is correct that his approach provides an extension of the Face of Battle approach to warfare, though his strengths are in the audio-visual aspects that are reasonably familiar to military history students. Much of his background and narrative sections tread common ground too. But none of that should detract from an engaging book written in an entertaining style by a historian whose work is embedded in the primary sources. It says something when you read a historian and want to read more of his work. I look forward to doing that. Other students of ancient military history will also undoubtedly lap this up.