Sunday, 18 September 2016

Philosophy and Carnage in Ancient Greece

Wars of the Ancient Greeks
Victor Davis Hanson

When we think of ancient Greece, we remember the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. But the Greeks were also great military strategists.

In the Wars of the Ancient Greeks, historian Victor Davis Hanson says, “The phenomenal record of Greek military prowess is unquestioned. After Xerxes’ failed invasion of 480, Greece remained free from foreign invasion until the Roman conquest three centuries later — and the triumphant legions of Rome owed much of their battle success to the hallowed Greek approach to warfare. No non-western invader after 480 could occupy and hold the Greek mainland for long until the Ottoman subjugation two thousand years later.”

The book begins with Plato's quote on war: “Always existing by nature between every Greek city-state.” The Greeks of that era were convinced that war, and not philosophy, was the most important thing that the humans do. Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic have a strong focus on war and the use of land.

Apparently in ancient Greece good philosophy and good military prowess went hand-in-hand. Hanson points out that the Greek hoplites conducted unprecedented slaughter of their enemies in various battles. The only people who could kill the Greeks in large numbers were the Greeks themselves.

“Thousand of Persians were slain at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea against a few hundred Greeks. Alexander destroyed an empire of millions while losing less than a thousand phalangites in pitched battle; indeed he killed more Greeks and Macedonians than did his Eastern enemies. More Greeks perished in the internecine Peloponnesian war than all those slain by Darius and Xerxes a half century earlier. When Carthagians, Persians, Italians and Egyptians looked for military guidance there was usually a Greek willing to offer his society’s martial expertise for a price.”

It is noteworthy that the Greeks achieved success in wars even though they were morally opposed to militarism. Their philosophers, intellectuals, artists, religious thinkers, and even the common citizens, constantly demanded justification and explication for the use of military force. Every major war that the Greeks undertook — from the conflict between Sparta and Athens, to Alexander’s ferocious rampage through Asia — was trenchantly opposed and vilified by the major Greek thinkers. According to Hanson, the high level of intellectual debate “ironically often refined and ratified rather than simply hindered Hellenic attack.”

How do we account for the lethal military prowess of the Greeks? Apparently the Greek hoplites used simple tactics—usually consisting of armour-wearing troops armed with spear marching in disciplined phalanx formation—but they were virtually invincible when faced with rival armies that used different tactics.

Hanson rejects the idea that geography or climate has anything to do with the success of Greek military campaigns. He says that “ideas and values, not location or weather, were what distinguished the Greeks.” The Greek civilization was characterized by the rise of the city-state, where there was a culture of free inquiry, rationalism, and capitalism.

The philosophical success of the Greeks led them to make similar advancements in science, with the result that they were able to develop superior fighting equipment. The armour, shield, and the weapons, that the hoplites used were better than what the non-Greek armies had.

In Greek culture the generals were expected to be the masters in astronomy and geometry, along with having courage, practical sense, and knowledge of tactics and strategy. These generals trained their men to fight in phalanx formation which, it seems, was effective for breaking through the enemy formations and holding territory. The non-Greek armies in that era were not trained to fight in phalanx formation.

Aristotle, in Politics, has suggested that the hoplite fighting skills are related to their superior armour and the ability to fight in phalanx formation: “The earliest form of government among the Greeks after monarchy was composed of those who actually fought. In the beginning that meant cavalry, since without cohesive arrangement, heavy armament is useless; and experience and tactical knowledge of these systems did not exist in ancient times, and so power again lay with mounted horsemen. But once the Poleis grew and those with hoplite armour became stronger, more people shared in government.”

Written in an engaging prose, the Wars of the Ancient Greeks is quite readable. The book has lot of maps, photographs, and illustrations to add pictorial information for better understanding of Hanson’s solid analysis.

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