Ancient Greeks at War: Simon Elliott Interview

Simon Elliott

Our editor, Oliver Webb-Carter, met with the ancient historian to discuss his latest book on ancient Greek warfare.
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Simon Elliott, the epic clashes of the Trojan War described by Homer are our only real literary reference to the Mycenaean period of warfare – how would you best describe this version of Greek war?

In one word, confusing! Here we first have to overcome the uncertainty created by Homer most likely writing his Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BC at the beginning of the Greek Archaic period, but covering events in the Mycenaean (or immediate-post Mycenaean) period at least 500 years earlier. At the time of the latter the last vestiges of the formalised Minoan and Mycenaean style of warfare were still evident, with spear-armed ‘phalanxes’ and massed chariotry, but by Homer’s time this had completely disappeared, to be replaced by the far more individual style of warfare which arrived with the Greek Dark Age/ Geometric period. And of course, to make matters even more mystifying, Homer was probably writing only just before the advent of the proto-hoplite. So teasing out what version of Greek war Homer is describing is difficult, and as with much else when considering warfare in the ancient world, one has to use a degree of common sense.

During the Graeco-Persian Wars the outnumbered Greeks often got the better of their Persian counterparts in the use of their hoplite tactics – why was it so successful?

First, it should be remembered that just as with their Median forebears the Achaemenid Persians were a highly successful imperial power in their own right. We only really see them in a negative context today through the prism of classical world commentary which is largely based on the Greek version of events. However, even taking that into account, the successes of the Greek poleis and later Macedonians against them on the battlefield is still remarkable. I think the principle reason was the step change in heavy infantry warfare which the hoplite and later pike phalanx represented, the bronze clad warriors (at least initially) easily countering the missile-focused Persian way of warfare. Then, when Greek and later Macedonian heavy foot impacted the Persian battle line, the result was usually one sided. The Greeks were also often adept, or lucky, in being able to neutralise the principle Persian strike force, their Iranian cavalry, while later the Macedonians matched and then bettered it.

The intervening period between the Graeco-Persian and Peloponnesian wars featured stunning success by Cimon – why do you think he’s less well known today?

It’s a simple case of historiography in that his exploits are sandwiched between two of the most enigmatic, high-profile conflicts in world history.

During the Peloponnesian War the two antagonists were regarded as having traditional strengths (Athens at sea, Sparta on land), but some of their most prominent victories e.g. Pylos/Sphacteria and Aegospotami, occurred in the reverse – why was this?

19th c lithograph of Lysander supervising the destruction of Athens’ walls at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404BC

First up, another comment on historiography. Unless you dig deep and take a real interest in the period then one’s impressions are heavily influenced by popular culture. So for many people their view of Sparta is basically Leonidas and his hoplites fighting and dying heroically in the movie 300, rather than Lysander who was clearly far, far more successful in his own lengthy military career. Which elegantly then brings us onto why the likes of he succeeded at sea as well as on land, while the Athenians also succeeded on land as well as sea. Simple. We should remember that they were involved in an arms race, where Athens needed to protect its maritime trade routes which Sparta knew it would have to interdict to win, while former knew that if it couldn’t match the Spartans on land then it would never maintain the respect of the other poleis which both sides were forever courting as allies.

After the Peloponnesian War the Spartan hegemony was broken by the Thebans at Leuctra. How did they manage to defeat the seemingly invincible Spartans?

Military innovation, and myth busting! The Thebans proved particularly adept at learning the lessons from the often symmetrical engagements in the Peloponnesian War such that by the beginning of the 4th century BC they were able to challenge the likes of Sparta on land in way few poleis had been able to before. Blessed with a golden generation of military leaders including Pelopidas and Epaminondas, the Thebans realised that only through innovation could they rise militarily above their neighbours. Thus it was they who really first moved to a combined arms model of engagement where cavalry and light troops played a greater role than previously, and where they began to deploy their hoplites in much deeper formations, weighting a given flank to punch through an opposing battle line.

How much did Philip revolutionise ancient Greek warfare during the 4th century BC, and did he change battlefield tactics forever?

The first question is easy to answer, with a resounding cry of immensely! Few military innovators deserve the word revolutionary to describe their achievements, but Philip II certainly does. He took the Theban model to heart after his time their as a hostage, using it to develop his pike phalanx concept which, when matched with his pre-eminent companion shock cavalry, smashed all before it. This was the true Hellenistic anvil with hammer. However, additionally he recognised the true importance of light troops, and also – crucially as it turned out – siege warfare.


Philip of Macedon

However, the second question is more problematic to answer, and here I err towards the negative. It was under he and his son Alexander the Great that the Macedonians truly achieved a level of martial prowess that their successors often failed to match. Indeed, towards the end of the Hellenistic period the armies of the various successor states had reverted back to military establishments dominated by (in this case pike-armed) heavy infantry. The Republican Romans who then defeated them time and again were also using a heavy infantry-dominated model with their legionaries. So, in that sense, Philip’s innovations didn’t change battlefield tactics forever, even taking into account the return of the pike as a favoured weapon during the Renaissance.

How impactful was the introduction of elephants to Greek warfare?

Initially, very much so given the impression they made on Alexander, a true military innovator in his own right. He certainly lost no time in creating his own elephant corps, which became the model for those of the Successor kingdoms whatever the origins of the beasts. However, I think a large degree of this was prestige related, over and above their undoubted usefulness on the battlefield when used well. However, elephants failed to have the longevity Alexander no doubt expected as a component of armies of the classical world. In that regard, one only has to look at Julius Caesar who I would argue could have chosen to use elephants in the later stages of his civil wars against his optimates rivals, but chose not too. While elephants brought a degree of glamour to the military establishments of the Hellenistic kingdoms, Caesar later knew them to be just as dangerous to friends as foe unless used in the most ideal of circumstances.

There are many great generals of ancient Greece. Alexander stands tallest, surely, but who, for you, is the greatest?

A very tough question. Given his achievements in conquering most of his known world in such a short space of time, and in the process destroying the greatest empire of the age to that point in Achaemenid Persia, it has to be Alexander. Topically, I have just finished reading the page proofs of my next book which is also very relevant, Alexander the Great versus Julius Caesar: Who was the Greatest Military Commander in the Ancient World. Now that is a tough question, which I loved researching.

I have to betray a personal favourite commander, Eumenes – how do you think he stands up as a leader, alongside his Macedonian peers?

I love Eumenes for two reasons. First, he had a trait which later came to define the Romans, namely true grit. He came back time and again from adversity, always believing that in the long run he would succeed. And his fall, when it came, was due to betrayal, not defeat on the battlefield. Secondly, he stayed true to Alexander’s vision for his empire, and was no doubt a more loyal Argead than many who actually bore the name. Not bad for a Greek who many Macedonians looked down on because of his origins.

There are many candidates, but who was the greatest chancer of the ancient world?

Oh my word, there are so many to choose from! Alcibiades, Eumenes, Demetrius Poliorketes and Antiochus III to name a few. But I’ll be controversial here, I will say Ptolemy I. His audacious hijacking of Alexander the Great’s funeral cortege must have been truly shocking at the time, ultimately cementing in place the patchwork of post Alexandrian kingdoms (by setting this example) which ultimately ran counter to everything Alexander had believed in.

The post-Alexander era featured many great generals such as Antigonus, Eumenes, Craterus, Seleucus, Ptolemy and Demetrius and of course, Pyrrhus. Do you have a personal favourite?

Bust of Pyrrhus, from the Archaeological Musuem of Ioannina

Another very tough question, especially as I feel through researching Ancient Greeks at War I have got to know so many of them so well! OK, if pushed, Pyrrhus. Simply because the Romans, who let’s face it later smashed the Hellenistic armies more or less every time they fought them, thought him such a good opponent.

Finally, there are so many fascinating battles from the period your book covers. Do you have one that is most interesting to you?

Yes I do! The menagerie that is the Battle of Magnesia when Lucius Cornelius Scipio resoundingly defeated Antiochus III, finally muzzling the power of the Seleucid Empire which then began its sharp decline, drawing the Romans into the east. This was a battle that had everything, including elite Roman legionaries, Hellenistic pikemen, cataphract cavalry, elephants, camels, and even scythed chariots. Oh, and hovering the background (either physically or figuratively), Hannibal and his nemesis Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus! More Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones indeed!




Dr Simon Elliott is an award winning and best selling historian, archaeologist, author, broadcaster, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent, Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology, Ambassador for Museum of London Archaeology, Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels and President of the Society of Ancients. His latest book is Ancient Greeks at Warpublished by Casemate.

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