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Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare Hardcover – October 24, 2012
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Rose Mary Sheldon provides numerous examples to support her views and she builds a rather convincing. Above all, the main impression that this book delivers is that, instead of two opposed models, each side was essentially pragmatic and would use whatever could work. To the winner, there was certainly nothing inherently dishonourable in winning by stealth, surprise or deceit, although the losing might tend to disagree, if only to make excuses that would explain away its failures.
Another interesting point is to show that, while stealth and surprise attacks are possibly as old as warfare itself, their usage may in fact have increased as Greek warfare became more sophisticated during and especially after the Peloponnesian war. As well shown by the author, this is very likely to be linked to the growing professionalization of Greek warfare during the Fourth Century BC in general, the increasing reliance on mercenary forces with the appropriate discipline and training, and the development of swifter light infantry- the peltast type - in particular.
A related point is about the psychology of warfare and its practicalities, or what another author called “the face of battle” once upon a time. This is to show to what extent and why it may be more difficult to plan and execute a successful surprise attack, whether a raid or an ambush, than it is to face an enemy in pitched battle on an open plain and surrounded by fellow citizens.
A further point is the prejudice against ranged weapons (archery, in particular, whether horse archers or massed foot archers) whose use was considered “cowardly” because it meant killing from a distance without putting its own life in danger. Interestingly, traces of such a prejudice, which could be social and/or racial, can be found in Ancient Greek authors, in Roman ones, but also in much later authors, for instance some of the sources for the Hundred Years’ War between the Kingdoms of France and England. Interestingly also, and once again, the ones complaining that “this wasn’t cricket” – whether hoplites, legionaries or plate armoured men-at-arms – were essentially “blaming” the enemy for not fighting according to their (advantageous) rules and for choosing to fight in ways that gave them a better chance to win.
As already noted by another reviewer, the bibliography and the abundant notes are good. They provide ample material for whoever may want to further explore some of the aspects that are touched upon and discussed in this book. I did have a slight problem with the author’s style, although perhaps this was more of an editing issue. The book can be quite repetitive, with the same points and examples being made multiple times, and then summarised again and again. Apart from being somewhat tedious and distracting, these repetitions can also tend to weaken the case that the author seeks to make. At times, I got the – very subjective - impression that the author was belabouring points as if repetitions could make them somewhat more convincing. Four strong stars for a book that is well worth reading and mostly convincing in dispelling a number of "western" stereotypes.
If this was the first time this issue was brought to notice, Colonel Sheldon would receive accolades and cheers. Unfortunately this issue was already debated, although there are still many historians which simply dismiss this kind of operations in classical Greek warfare concentrating on the clash of phalanxes. For that reason I believe that this book is still needed.
This work has many excellent merits, the amount of research was immense and well done, the sheer amount of examples that Sheldon produces for each situation will dissipate most doubts regarding the fact that ancient Greek generals were efficient, trying to use their resources in the most effective way…and they wouldn’t miss the opportunity for a good ambush. She also proves that those kind of operations were frequent (not rarities) and that military leaders needed to be careful with reconnaissance and be imaginative (the most telling example was a simulation of an ambush using the fastest men so that the main army could retreat safely; that delayed the pursuing army and the “ambushers” returned to their army after the successful operation).
Another subject studied by the authoress was the way Greeks saw victory by trickery vs victory by strength. The Odysseus vs Achilles way of battle. Colonel Rose Sheldon reminds that Odysseus wasn’t only an ambusher, he was also a mighty spear fighter. She makes a case on oriental prejudice and that the use of ranged weapons was considered cowardly due mainly to social factors. That our own prejudices against ambushes and trickery are misplaced and easterners weren’t more prone to the use of those tactics then Greeks.
That is obviously a complex issue, because contrary to the authoress supposition, our present culture doesn’t descend solely from the Greek. Celtic and Germanic societies also had that same “prejudice” against ranged weapons (although obviously they also used them extensively). The single fight and the beheading of the foe was the most momentous event of the champion. And it’s almost impossible to prove that this trend was imported or exported by Greeks. The Italians (not only Romans), even before Magna Grecia had a spear fighter and duel mentality also. So probably the question of the highest valor being considered on face to face battle isn’t just a modern prejudice but a very ancient cultural and geographical issue. That doesn’t mean that all those cultures would miss a fine opportunity to unleash an ambush and defeat their foes that way…but nothing was greater for a Celtic warrior than a duel in front of his army, for example.
So, the authoress opposes “The Western Way of War” by Hanson, and occasionally “Soldiers and Ghosts” by Lendon. Both those books and the presently reviewed are excellent and remarkable works of investigation and analyses and I would advise any reader to consult them all.
There is also interesting information regarding the evolution of light troops, including the rise of the peltast, the Iphikratean Reforms, the ascension of the professional specialist and mercenary soldier, etc.
As spots to be improved in next editions I would recommend more useful maps with movement troops and places of the operations; when possible even probable troop positions. The correction of some small mistakes and introducing some of the examples in the correct place (just as an example, the attack of Heridippas against the Mysians of Pharnabazus should obviously been included in the section “The Fourth Century” since the attack took place in 395 BC (which by the way, that section should be a chapter in itself and not a sub-section within the chapter “Chapter 5 - Surprise Attacks – Fifth Century”).
The bibliography is a treasure in itself; and the immense notes are useful indeed for further investigation. All in all a very interesting book which raises questions old but always contemporary.