Davies on Blome, 'Greek Warfare beyond the Polis: Defense, Strategy, and the Making of Ancient Federal States'

David A. Blome. Greek Warfare beyond the Polis: Defense, Strategy, and the Making of Ancient Federal States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. xi + 154 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-4752-6.

Reviewed by Gwyn Davies (Florida International University)
Published on H-War (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58239

David Blome’s slim but ambitious book reappraises the conventional view of the upland ethnē of the Greek classical world as the organizational (and therefore, by implication, cultural) inferiors of their lowland neighbors. This prejudicial tendency, derived from the uncritical absorption of the biased perspectives of our ancient (lowland) sources, is slowly being eroded thanks to the work of scholars who pursue a “beyond-the-polis” approach embracing the idea that not all Greek achievement should be reducible to the simplistic equation of city-state = civilization. In such a vein, the particular focus of this study is to demonstrate the adaptive and flexible nature of the upland Greeks who developed their own versions of effective state forms suited to their particular geophysical circumstances and whose defense of their home territory implied a sophisticated and consistent capacity to thwart the designs of their enemies through community-wide cooperation. Blome claims that while classical sources are universally “dismissive or ignorant of the military capabilities of upland Greeks, the reverse was not the case” (p. 2). In seeking to establish this contention, he argues that in the face of aggression from their more powerful lowland counterparts, the mountain dwellers engaged in complex and deliberate strategic decision-making that demonstrated both their awareness of the nature of the threat they faced and their capacity to act with unified purpose. This latter point is then emphasized to suggest that state-formation processes were already well underway in the mountains (albeit in ways that may not have been comprehensible to jaundiced observers in the prominent poleis) and that by exploring the mechanisms whereby the upland Greeks defended themselves, we may detect the manifestation of such a trajectory. As a former marine, Blome provides a practical dimension to his analysis and this welcome professionalism complements the rigorous scholarship that underpins this work.

In order to pursue his arguments, the author presents four exemplary case studies, each involving an invasion of an upland ethnos by lowland armies, wherein he sees the defenders as having operated as a sodality predicated on mutual interest by adopting a cohesive response in accordance with a preformulated strategy. These examples are, in the chronological order: the Phocian “Chalk Raid” against the Thessalians circa 490 (all dates BCE); the Aetolian rout of the Athenians in 426; the Acarnanian defense against the Spartans in 389; and the Arcadian response to the Spartan invasion of 370. In each case, the author proceeds consistently by outlining the general strategic background, discussing the nature of our available source narratives (and subsequent modern assumptions based thereon), describing the actual events in question and their aftermath, and, finally, assessing the evidence to establish that the ethnē in question were either on the cusp, or in the throes of, the state-formation process without the intervention of any precursor polis-level organizational stimulus.

These discussions are all thought-provoking and interesting and certainly form a welcome step away from the conventional presentation of these events (where they are considered at all!) solely from the perspective of the lowland invaders. This attempt to reconstruct the narrative from the viewpoint of the defenders still relies heavily on the accounts of our lowland sources, which contain little to no appreciation of the motivations and tactics of the upland folk, but Blome does do his best to apply the results of modern archaeological surveys as well. These enable him to make observations concerning settlement and economic patterning in the peripheral mountain zone and, most importantly, to better inform our understanding of the topographical realities on the ground, including the degree to which factors of oversight and intervisibility may have facilitated the decision-making of the defenders alongside their available informational space.

Of course, in anything that is as innovative as this work, the reader may take issue with particular details and claims. For example, although Herodotus may tell us that the Phocian commanders picked their bravest men for the raid on the Thessalian camp, there is no need to make the assumption (pp. 19-20) that these were drawn exclusively from the hoplite component of their forces, which then casts doubt on the conclusion that this episode “clearly shows that the Phocian ethnos did not depend on light-armed peltasts for matters of defense” (p. 26). In a similar vein, one might take issue with Blome’s contention that the aim of the Arcadians was not “to annihilate the invading army” (p. 96), when his preceding argument describes how they had adroitly maneuvered the Spartans into a narrow valley where the invaders could have been overwhelmed by a concerted attack had Agesilaus not withdrawn in good time! These sorts of quibbles are more than made up for by a plethora of sensible authorial observations throughout. For example, Blome makes a convincing case for how the Acarnanians used their livestock as bait to lure the Spartans onto a battlefield of their choosing (pp. 69-70) and develops Donald Kagan’s previous suggestion as to how the Aetolians may have used their familiar animal husbandry techniques to break up the Athenian invasion army into more manageable components (p. 42). However, in the mind of this reviewer, where the author is on the strongest ground is in his treatment of the defense of Acarnania, although this should elicit little surprise as Xenophon’s account provides us with the most detailed narrative of all these various events.

In his conclusion, Blome could have been a little more assiduous in making explicit how these case studies tie together the main strands of argument advanced in the introduction for the role of collective security in forging intra-ethnos political cohesion. Although it is evident that he has demonstrated that upland people were not only capable of, but skilled in, the art of territorial defense (with the idea of “defense-in-depth” seemingly universally practiced), it remains less clear that these episodes can be unequivocally linked to state-building initiatives. His contention that they are indeed evidence for a developing sentiment toward federalization to be further crystallized into more formal entities and structures in the future may well be correct, but the smoking gun in this regard sadly remains elusive.

Citation: Gwyn Davies. Review of Blome, David A., Greek Warfare beyond the Polis: Defense, Strategy, and the Making of Ancient Federal States. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58239

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.