Gabriele Esposito, Armies of Ancient Greece (Pen & Sword, 2020)
The long 5th Century BCE can rightfully be called the Greek Century. This was a time when many western ideas we take for granted came into effect, for better or worse. But in addition to their contributions to culture and politics, the Greeks brought in a system of warfare that to varying degrees formed the basis of all western armies into the pre-modern era. In this book, Gabriele Esposito surveys the Greek period from 500 to 338 BCE from the military perspective.
Esposito embarks on a trip through Greek history from their beginnings down to the Polis and Hoplite era. This is where he slows down for a better look at five Greek city states: Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Argos, and Corinth. Esposito gives the background to each but opts to focus his next full chapter on Sparta, which is fitting given their martial reputation. Athens receives attention next with a similar narrative history of events. With the two main players receiving their due consideration, Esposito turns to the major Greco-Persian Wars and tells that story. That leads almost seamlessly into the Peloponnesian War then into the wars of the 4th Century and the rise of Macedonia. That is where Esposito’s narrative ends and his survey of the armies and soldiers begins. He covers hoplites, of course, Peltasts, and the Ekdromoi, Psiloi, and Hamippoi light infantry. These included slingers and archers, some of whom were mercenaries. Esposito notes that cavalry was not a main component of Greek armies except on the flat plains of Thessaly and Boeotia. He describes the Athenians as his ‘perfect’ organization for a Greek army, and adds descriptions of the Spartan army, the Theban army, and the Argive army. Esposito concludes with a chapter on the Greek panoply and tactics.
Armies of Ancient Greece is boilerplate narrative military history for the most part. The standout feature is the sprinkling of colour photographs of reenactors in Greek and their Allies’ military attire along with their replica equipment. Not all the photographs match their adjacent text, however, which might be a bit misleading, particularly when it comes to the Spartans. And that is all there is by way of illustration, which is disappointing from a culture rich in military imagery and artefacts. The text is functional, telling the history adequately, but it lacks depth of analysis – the weak bibliography gives this away before we even get to the text. The lack of referencing is also irritating, especially on contentious issues such as the Spartan treatment of their Helots, or that Marathon demonstrated that “the balance of power was changing in Greece”, which is again unsatisfactory for a culture with an abundance of military texts. Ultimately, it is difficult to determine who the audience is for this book, but if you are looking for a straightforward and lightweight military history of the period with photos of reenactors then this will do the job.