May 29, 2006

Harry Sidebottom – Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction

4 out of 5 stars

This is part of the OUP series of "very short introductions", written by Harry Sidebottom, who is a part time lecturer here at Warwick. This book, like the others I've read from the series, is very well written and comprehensive in coverage, but it's difficult to see just who it's meant to appeal to.

Ancient Warfare covers the basic mechanics of warfare in the Greek and Roman world, but its focus is really on modern conceptualisations and the current theoretical state of play in classical academia. The book covers such things as Luttwak's two models of empire, Hopkins's model of the agrarian crisis in Roman Italy, and the ins and outs of the hoplite revolution. Sidebottom utilises well various sources, both archaeological and historical, to illustrate the various competing academic interpretations. It's all nicely tied together, with an ongoing emphasis on the issues of interpretation.

The problem is that I can't think of a single person I'd recommend the book to. I read it because I had the good fortune to take a course by the author a couple of years ago, and still maintain a general interest in the ancient world. Without a general academic introduction to ancient history, I fear I'd have found the book tough going. It's difficult to say how the book would read to someone with no prior knowledge at all, but I think without the factual "hooks" on which to hang the theories, quite a look of the references would be wasted. The trouble is that most of the people who would fully benefit from this book will be students of classics who will study the issues raised by the book in more depth through the original material referenced by Sidebottom. Laymen approaching the book with a general interest in ancient warfare, are, I believe, more likely to be interested in the more gritty details of warfare – the tactics, weapons, battles and so on – and will be drawn instead to the wealth of other books already existing that cater to this market. It's this doubt as to a target audience that drops the book down to 4 stars.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. James

    This raises an interesting point. History has moved on (no puns please) from the days when it was just Kings and Queens and dates. That's a good thing, imho anyway, but in doing so popular historians seem to be forgetting that readers new to any particular subject want to start with a narrative of events. Take a random example. I know nothing of Persian history 500AD – 1000AD. If I wished to find out about it, I would like first to read a survey of the period. I certainly wouldn't want to start with some detailed study of the agriculture over a certain period, or some debate between historians on interpretations of something specific.

    10 Jun 2006, 13:25

  2. I wonder whether the intention of the editors of this series is to encourage the other approach? Maybe they think that by publishing books like this, readers won't feel the need for a narrative at the start, but can begin with a more thematic study. I can sort of see the idea, but it doesn't work for me, either. I have to begin with a straight list of what happened when…

    10 Jun 2006, 21:21

  3. James

    I think you're being too kind to them. I shouldn't really attack them personally as I've not read the book, but I think a lot of authors/editors/commissioning editors go for the thematic approach because it's trendy rather than anything else.

    I suspect that it all comes from that pernicious thing known as postmodernism, which holds that there aren't any truths. Hence the trendy academic can't write x happened then y happened without writhing over the contested 'interpretations' of whether x and y happened at all.

    Or maybe they just arrogantly think everyone has been so interested in their subject matter that they know the background facts already, which would just be silly.

    12 Jun 2006, 15:37

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