This book covers one of the most dramatic centuries in ancient Greek history. At the start Sparta was dominant, having just won the Great Peloponnesian War. The Spartans didn’t enjoy their supremacy for long, and suffered a crushing defeat at Leuctra in 371 BC, only 33 years later. The aftermath of this battle left Greece divided just as Philip of Macedonia turned his kingdom in a major military power. Philip’s conquest of Greece was followed by the brief but dramatic reign of Alexander the Great, which transformed the Ancient World. Alexander’s death was followed by the four wars of the Diadochi (‘successors’), which began as a struggle to control all of Alexander’s empire, and ended with most of the participants attempted to hold onto their own little corners of the collapsing empire.
Many of the battles covered here are thus amongst the most famous in ancient history, but one of the key strengths of this book is that Ray covers a total of 187 battles, including many that are far less familiar, but often just as interesting. This includes the battles of the Sicilian Greeks, by this time dominated by the various dictators of Syracuse and their attempts to seize and maintain power and ongoing struggle against Carthage for dominance of the entire island. These Sicilian battles are interesting as one of the few examples of clashes between Greeks and non-Greeks (outside the battles of Philip and Alexander).
One of the things that makes this book unusual is the emphasis on the ‘decisive factor’ in each of these battles. This emerges in three ways - first on the level of the individual battle, looking at how each one was won or lost, second looking at the way in which that changed over time, as cavalry gained more importance and the type of infantry is use changed and third looking at how particular types of troops could be used to win a battle. The author presents a convincing theory about the relative strengths of the Macedonian pikeman and standard Greek hoplite in battles – both were present in the armies of Philip, Alexander and the Successors – suggesting that the pikemen could hold the line very effectively, but would be less effective as an attacking weapon.
This is a useful study of this period, providing an interesting overview of one of the most important periods in ancient military history. I’m not so convinced by the author’s estimates of the sizes of armies – our sources simply don’t agree with each other, and often exaggerate wildly, so any attempt to produce accurate figures almost always comes down to individual preferences, but in this case those figures rarely matter – the key to Ray’s approach is the ratio between the troop types, their deployment and their role on the battlefield, with the exact number of troops of secondary importance.
1 - Sparta Ascendant - Overseas Battles and the Corinthian War (400-387 BC)
2 - Battles Around the Mediterranean; Chalcidian, Boeotian and Spartan Wars (386-360 BC)
3 - Finding a Master; Rise of Macedonia; Sacred, Persian and Sicilian Wars; Conquest of Greece (359-336 BC)
4 - Action and Glory: Battles in the Era of Alexander the Great (335-324 BC)
5 - Many Great Combats: Battles of the Successors (323-301 BC)
Author: Fred Eugene Ray Jr