TOP 100 REVIEWERon 14 December 2011
This is a good book to have for anyone wanting to read about the main features of the most well-known battles of the Hellenistic World, and not only a "wargamers' guide" (although it is certainly also good for that). The maps illustrating the main phases of each of the 17 selected battles are nice and very useful in understanding the main phases. The chapters are well structured and clear. Each chapter - one per battle, apart from a conclusion (chapter 18) to which I wuill come back to shortly, follows the same pattern. A summary of the campaign to which the battle belongs to, and a short presentation of the battlefield provide context. The next section presents the respective armies and leaders and provides numbers and troop types as much as possible. The largest section is - unsurprisingly - the battle itself while the final section deals with the aftermath.
You should be aware, however, that this is a selection (the author's own, I presume). It is by no way exhaustive, neither does it include all of the "great" battles where at least one side was Philip or Alexander or one of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the other side being Rome or, mostly, the army of one of the Successors or another of the Kingdoms (or the Persian Empire). Note that the term "Hellenistic World" has been taken in one of its narrowest senses. So, do not be surprised if you do not find, for instance, the battle of Paneion (where, unlike at Raphia 17 years before, Antiochos III won a crushing victory over the Ptolemaic army). Neither will you find any battles opposing the Romans and the Carthaginians or the Carthaginians and the Sicilian Greeks (nothing on the Punic Wars, on the wars of Agathokles against Carthage or on Pyrrhos' campaign in Sicily against Carthage).
The other limitation is that, in its conclusion, the author reiterates the conventional view about the superiority of the Roman battle array over the Macedonian style pike phalanx. Since this comes straight from Polybios (a Greek but very Pro-Roman and biaised historian), it would have been worth discussing in more depth. In particular, it would have been interesting to compare more systematically the respective advantages of Roman and Macedonian, but also hoplite style of heavy infantry and to weight them against the role that other troop types could play and against the qualities and talent of the respective commanders. I have never completely bought into the narrative that the Macedonian pike phalanx was necessarily "inferior" to the Roman Legions, although it certainly was less flexible and adaptable. At both Kynoskephalai and Pydna, the phalanxes were caught on terrain that was unfavorable 8and which would have been unfavorable for ANY close order battle line). At the first of these battles, the Romans nevertheless had a hard time before they managed to turn the Macedonian phalanx and attack it in the flank. However, it should be remembered that the pike phalanx was only one part of the Philip/Alexander combination of strike and shock tactics and its role was generally to hold the ennemy infantry while the other component delivered the knock-out blow. This didn't happen when the Antigonid Kings (Philip V and Perseus) opposed the Romans. According to some historians, it was because Macedonian cavalry had deteriorated in quality since Alexander (or because they had reverted to the skirmishing role that Greeks gave to cavalry) as opposed to playing the role of shock troops that Philip and Alexander had designed for them.
For Philip & Alexander's battles, but also for Antiochos III, for instance, this was the role of the heavy cavalry. Note that at Magnesia for instance, one of the Roman legions was broken by the Seleukid Cataphracts well before the phalanx got itself into trouble. However, instead of rolling up the ennemy line, Antiochos III tried to storm the Roman camp some miles off the battlefield and therefore threw away his chances of winning the battle just as he had done at Raphia almost 30 years before. So, the real story is not so clear-cut as the author (following the very "pro-Roman" Polybios) makes it out to be.
Another gross simplification - or even a mistake - is to state that the Macedonian phalanx was widely adopted and employed across the Mediterranean but that, as a modified version of the earlier hoplite phalanx, it was fatally flawed because it was rigid.
The first part of the statement is incorrect. Neither Carthage, nor Syracuse, for instance, seem to have ever adopted a Macedonian pike-style phalanx. The Spartans and the Achaian Ligue did, but only during the second half of the third century. Instead, they stuck to a hoplite style phalanx. It seems that it was with such an order of battle that Hannibal was able to smash the Romans repeatedly before being defeated by them at Zama. It is also with a hoplite phalanx that Xanthippos, the Spartan mercenary general, destroyed the Roman legions of Regulus at Bagradas in 255 BCE. The point here is that statements to the effect that the Roman organization was so superior simply do not stand up to the facts.
Second, it should also be remembered that the Roman order of battle was itself an evolution from the hoplite phalanx. Originally, the term legion meant a levy of troops, not a specific type of organization.
Third, warfare during the Hellenistic period was more innovative that what is often suggested. For instance, and as the Romans were themselves making their hoplite-style army evolve, Greek and Hellenistic states also made a number of experiences (increasing role of light infantry such as peltasts, introduction of the thureoi, a medium infantry type between a hoplite and a peltast) that were all targeted to introduce more flexibility in the line of battle.
Even the statement that a pike phalanx was more complex to operate and therefore needed, on average, a more talented general than for a legion needs discussing. It is however a bit of a simplification (and even a caricature or a Pro-Roman stereotype) to oppose the rigid phalanx to the flexible legion. The main difference between these two evolutions from the hoplitic phalanx seems to be that while the Macedonian pike phalanx became a core part of an integrated battle force, along with shock cavalry and skirmishing light cavalry and infantry, the Romans still put all the emphasis on heavy infantry. While the Hellenistic system was more sophisticated, it was also more difficult to handle in a fully effective way (and this is where the statement above is correct).
The Hellenistic defeats against Roman Legions can all be attributed to the malfunctionning of the Hellenistic system, rather than the inherent superiority of the legions: either the shock cavalry didn't play its role or the pike phalanx was deployed on an unsuitable battleground, or both (you can also call it poor generalship, at least in certain cases). If one system is more sophisticated, elaborate and complex than another, more simple one, does that mean that one is necessarily worse (or better) than the other? I am not convinced it is that simple...