Soldiers and Ghosts
Soldiers and Ghosts : A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity
by J. E. Lendon
Lendon opens starkly, chronicling a battalion of U.S. Marines engaged in a desperate battle in Vietnam. As casualties mount, the unwritten code of not leaving any man behind, strains under the reality of the growing body count. It was a perfect device for framing his thesis of how a culture’s martial ethos effects the manner and means by which it fights.
The book is split into two major sections, Greek and Roman. For the Greeks, he argues that the development of the Greek military ethos from pre-Classical through Hellenistic times was shaped by the models depicted in the Homeric epics. The Homeric model helped to perpetuate the Greeks fierce competitiveness.
Early Greeks balked at the notion of training, as the epics stressed individual heroic fighting. So individualistic were fighters that they could be difficult to control. A major shift occurred under the weight of the practicalities of real battle, which made heroic combat impossible to discern, or perhaps worse, subject to the vagaries of fate—what is the place of the individual hero when they could be struck down by a random arrow? The phalanx provided a grid that made it easier to tell who fell out of line and who stood their ground.
The most effective phalanx and calvary formations though required real training. The Greeks made training more palatable by framing it as competition, which agreed better with a heroic nature. To restrict overt individualism, the Spartans turned obedience to authority itself into a contest.
For the Romans he shows that the vaunted, machine-like discipline of the Roman legions was, in fact, partially a myth that emerged around the 16th century. By reading the accounts of ancient historians such as Polybius and Josephus, who were themselves impressed by the relative discipline of the Roman troops when compared to their own, these later military scholars failed to recognize the balance the Romans struggled to maintain between discipline (disciplina) and individual courage (virtus).
The development of the Roman legions is traced from their early use of the Greek phalanx and how it evolved into a formation of maniples, then cohorts, and finally a return to the phalanx.
Throughout the book he brings the same vividness to his descriptions of ancient battles as he begins with in his prologue.