The armies of ancient Greece and Rome have gained legendary status. Both militaries successfully conquered much of the known world in their respective eras.
But what made them so formidable? Technological innovation? Novel strategies? Plain old grit?
My guest today on the podcast argues that it was the Greek and Roman armies’ reverence for their mythic pasts that made them great. His name is J. E. Lendon (he goes by Ted). He’s a classical scholar and the author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.
Today on the show, Ted and I discuss how the ghosts of the Iliad and the Odyssey haunted Greek soldiers, the ways in which both the Greeks and Romans ritualized warfare, and why the Ancient Greeks made a competition out of everything. We also discuss the competing virtues of courage and discipline within the Roman army. This is a riveting conversation with fascinating insights into ancient notions of masculinity.
- How American soldiers’ approach to fallen comrades is similar to that of the ancient Greeks
- The ritualization of warfare by the Ancient Greeks and why they did it
- Why the Greeks and Romans made everything a competition, from battle to bird watching
- How Greek competition made them cooperative
- How the Homeric epics inspired Greek innovations in warfare
- Why archers disappeared from Greek armies (and what it has do with manliness)
- How the Greek phalanx was developed to pay homage to the single combat depicted in The Iliad
- How the Greek phalanx turned courage from an active to passive virtue
- Why the Greek phalanx turned warfare into a game like football
- The source of tradition that guided the ancient Romans in warfare
- How the Romans fought in the early days of the Republic and how it changed as they became an empire
- The competing virtues of virtus and disciplina in the Roman military
- Why Roman general Manlius Torquatus executed his own son for being too brave
- How our modern American military reward system is very similar to the ancient Romans’
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Iliad
- Eugene B. Sledge Puts Your First World Problems Into Perspective
- With the Old Breed
- The Battle of Okinawa
- Competition: The Fuel for Greatness
- Single combat
- Battle hymn to Apollo: Paean
- Battle cries from history (including the Greek “alala!”)
- My podcast with Carlin Barton about Roman Honor
- Manlius Torquatas
Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity is an extremely interesting and readable account of ancient warfare. You not only will learn a lot about Greek and Roman history, but also about notions of manliness within these two cultures.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art Of Manliness Podcast. The armies of ancient Greece and Rome have gained legendary status. Both militaries successfully conquered much of the known world in their respective eras. What made them so formidable? Was it technological innovation, novel strategies or just plain old grit? My guest today on the show argues that it was the Greek and Roman armies reverence for their mythic past that made them great. His name is J. Lendon. He goes by Ted. He is a classic scholar and the author of the book, “Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classic Antiquity.”
Today on the show, Ted and I discuss how the ghost of the Iliad and the Odyssey haunted Greek soldiers, the ways in which both the Greeks and the Romans ritualized warfare and why the ancient Greeks made a competition out of pretty much everything in life. We also discuss the competing virtues of courage and discipline within the Roman army. This is a riveting conversation with some fascinating insights into ancient notions of masculinity. After the show, check out the show notes at AOM.is/Lendon where you can get links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Okay, Professor Lendon, welcome to the show.
Ted Lendon: Mr. McKay, thank you very much for having me.
Brett McKay: Your book is called Soldiers and Ghosts. It’s about battle and classic antiquities of ancient Greeks, ancient Romes. I love this book because I’m a classics guy. I thought it was interesting, you begin your book about ancient Greeks and ancient Romans talking about how American soldiers won’t leave a fallen comrade behind, even if they’re dead. You say that this puts them in the company of these great warrior civilizations like ancient Greece and Rome. How so?
Ted Lendon: I would limit that to a certain degree to Greece, because the Romans seem to have been much less fastidious about picking up their dead, but, the Greeks were very finicky about this. What would happen would be that they’d have a battle, and then one side would turn to flight, and the side that was victorious would basically move forward and stand on all the bodies. Not physically stand on them, but stand over them. Then, the losing side would have to send a herald, who is protected by the gods to ask the winning side for the bodies back, that is to say the bodies of their dead. When that happened, that was an admission of defeat.
They had this very formal way of indicating victory and defeat and then the winning side says, “yes,” and then people from the losing side come and pick up the bodies of their people, which must have been, if you think about it, kind of weird. You’ve just been fighting and now you’re all sort of dragging bodies around together. Very odd, but, in any event, they will then carry them home, the bodies to be buried, and the winning side will build a trophy at the point where the decisive effort in the battle happened, at the turning point, which is what trophy means in Greek, the turning. That’s the end of things, but as you can see, it’s all very formalized.
The Greeks believed that if you didn’t bury someone or cremate them correctly, they would never be able to get properly into Hades and would wander around as ghosts, and that was, of course, a very bad thing to have ghosts wandering around the place. Everybody knows the Greek custom of putting a coin under the tongue of a person who is being buried so that they can pay the ferryman to take them over into Hades. Burying them properly in every other respect is also very important, and the Greeks were terrified and horrified by the prospect of bodies lost at sea because they can never be properly recovered and sent down to Hades.
What interested me was to discover that a parallel process has evolved in the American armed forces and that the American armed forces will happily fight and endanger living soldiers to recover the bodies of dead soldiers. What’s interesting to me about this is that, and of course, we can see the ritualized quality of it with the ceremony at the airplane when the body is taken back to the states, the ceremony at the airplane when the body arrives in the states, the military funeral, all that type of thing. It’s not identical, but, obviously parallel to what the Greeks are up to. What really interested me about it is we can see it happen, and that is to say unlike the Greek custom which doesn’t seem to exist in the Iliad, but exists in historical time, but we don’t see it evolved. We can really see it evolve in the American case. If you read books about the Great War, I’m thinking here particularly of Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed.”
Brett McKay: It’s a great book.
Ted Lendon: Yeah, a great book, particularly about the battle of Okinawa. He and his comrades are very indifferent to the presence of American dead bodies. They do not feel any particular need to evacuate those bodies. In fact, there are unpleasant scenes in which they use those bodies. They pile them up to be fortifications. In that generation, generation of the 40s, they really don’t seem to have had this code. It’s very clearly very much there, particularly in the Marine Corp, but also in the other services via the Vietnam War. My suspicion is that it derives from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir or the retreat from Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War where the Marines left a large number of comrade’s bodies behind. I think they sort of made a corporate decision that they were never going to do that again. Acting on that then elaborated itself through the rest of the American services, so that this has become an important part of the American way of war. I’m interested in it because we can sort of see it evolve.
Brett McKay: That’s really fascinating. What we’re seeing is a ritualization of warfare.
Ted Lendon: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back to the ancient Greeks. They had this very elaborate ritual for what to do with the dead bodies after a battle. Were the Greeks–we’ll talk about some of the other ways that the Greeks ritualized warfare. Were the Greeks always this ritual when it came to battle, and if not, when did this ritualization begin?
Ted Lendon: To a certain degree, it appears in a place we don’t know much about. That is, we have the Iliad doesn’t seem to involve anywhere near this degree of ritualization. Of course, it’s fictional, it’s an epic poem, it’s based on material from 1200 to 700 B.C. all muddled together. It doesn’t necessarily describe a real world. In any event, it’s useful in the sense that we can say at least at some point it doesn’t look like the Greeks did this. When the Greeks do pop into our vision, around 500 B.C., they do have it seems this whole system of dealing with the dead already well developed and we can’t really speculate about exactly when it comes about.
I personally can speculate about why it comes about, because I think it has to do with the evolution of Greek warfare to make it into a more perfect composition. One of the things that this system does is it very clearly indicates winners and losers of battles, which of course, no other society has been quite as efficient as coming up with a way in which right after the battle, the loser admits they lose so that there’s no question about who won. It’s really, it’s in many ways, an astonishing human achievement if it’s very important for you to have a clear indication of who won and lost and it is important to the Greeks, because not only do they compete individually between each other as people, but their city-states are fully anthropomorphized and compete with each other as if they people and when two Greek cities fight, it’s two city-states fighting. Just as you want to know very clearly who is the most brave soldier, so clearly you want to know very clearly which is the most brave city-state, and therefore you evolve methods of creating a clear victor and a clear defeated.
Brett McKay: You talk throughout the book about this competitive drive the Greeks had. They wanted to be the best, like, arete, excellence. Where did this drive come from, and did other ancient cultures have this same desire for competition the ancient Greeks had?
Ted Lendon: We cannot tell exactly where it comes from. It seems to exist very clearly in the Homeric poems, which is the earliest Greek evidence we have and more or less contemporaneously, Hesiod points out the problems with it, because it creates strife and civil war and various other things. The Greeks already knew that it wasn’t great. What I would say to that is that what sets the Greeks aside is their eagerness to compete in every possible realm. The people I know about most, of course, are the Romans. They compete in war and in being heroic in war and politics and in certain other limited realms, which we’ll be talking about.
It would never strike the Romans to consider for example, bird interpretation as a competitive enterprise or abusing people as a competitive enterprise, as it appears in the Iliad or steering a ship as a competitive enterprise. The thing about the Greeks is that they elaborate so that nothing is left cooperative. Everything is made competitive. If you wish to get five ancient Greeks to cooperate with each other, the best way to do so is simply to announce the fact that you’re going to have a competition in being cooperative. Otherwise, it really won’t work.
They do not develop … Some people think they develop later, I don’t frankly, but they really do not develop cooperative virtues, and they organize this society which is carefully based on exploiting competitive virtues. For example, in classical Athens, they don’t have taxes. What they do is they ask the richest people in the society to contribute to the great expenses of the society, creating war ships and organizing plays and things like that, but it’s intensely competitive. The best war ship of the year gets a prize, the best play of the year gets a prize. We know that about all of the tragedies, right, that some of them win and some of them don’t, but that’s how they fund their entire state, essentially by creating a series of competitions amongst the richest people, and letting the poor people who are perceived to be, perhaps, either less competitive or less useful in this sort of respect, mostly have a free ride.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. Let’s go back to the title of your book. It’s Soldiers and Ghosts, and you argue throughout the book that both the Greeks and the Romans, particularly the Greeks, they were haunted by the ghosts of their past, and that the innovations they made in warfare was directed by this tradition. For the Greeks, it came from the Iliad, the Homeric epics. Let’s talk about the rules that the Greeks got from the Homeric epics on what made a good battle a good battle. For example, the Greeks were particularly concerned about glory and honor in battle. You see this in the Homeric epics. You talk about some of the weird customs or rules about the governance of who got glory and honor and who didn’t and how this was inspired by the Iliad.
Ted Lendon: Yes, the Greeks do look back continuously, and one of the things that I particularly got interested in is the way in which, although in around 500, in the Persian wars and 480, 479, there seemed to be quite a lot of archers in Greece. That is to say archers are a normal part of Greek armies, or, at least the Athenian army. By the 4th century, B.C., archers seemed to have disappeared. That’s very odd, you’d think, because this is an effective technology. There’s nothing wrong with the bows that they used. There’s no technological reason for this.
What’s even more surprising is that they seemed to be replaced by a type of light infantry who throw javelins, and when they run out of javelins, throw rocks, and you think, wow, that’s peculiar. Greece has a lot of rocks, but there aren’t a lot of other armies of which I know which have institutionalized the throwing of rocks as it were or have preferred systematically have made the choice to prefer javelins, which of course have a very short range to arrows which have a much longer range. This seems to be a case of actually technological devolution.
My thinking on it is that javelins or the throwing of spears, specifically, is questionably heroic in the Iliad. There’s no question that every hero, that’s one of the ways you fight. You stab with your spear, but you also throw your spear. There’s never any criticism of that. That’s regarded as firmly heroic. The same is true of throwing rocks, but, archery is regarded in the poem as dubiously heroic. There were at least two different ways of looking at it, the actual archers, people like Pandarus, for example, think what they do is heroic, but a lot of other people basically say, “No, archery is not heroic. If you want to be a true hero, you must stand face to face to the, with the enemy and fight him close in.” Probably more people say that in the Iliad than praise archery.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting. There’s this idea where archery was kind of wussy.
Ted Lendon: Yeah, archery was kind of wussy, and my argument, my way of thinking is that it is this influence that spear throwing is clearly heroic while archery is dubiously heroic, which operating over time in the minds of the Greeks, finally drives archery out of their way of fighting and replaces it with spear throwing.
Brett McKay: The other aspect that the Greeks looked to the Iliad, the Homeric epics was this idea of one-on-one battle, single combat, right. You see in the Iliad, instances where there’s sort of this battle going on, but then Homer calls out two fighters, Hector and Achilles, and they fight one on one.
Ted Lendon: Right.
Brett McKay: What did the Greeks do to in a way replicate or give homage to that idea of the single combat while still fighting as a unit?
Ted Lendon: For a very long time, they simply still do single combat. We have long lists of people, this is mostly before 500. We have long lists of single combat victors, that they still had the custom of actual challenge before battle, and some guy would come out and say, “I am such and such, I challenge anyone from your army to come out and fight you.” Indeed, there’s an Athenian we know by the name of Sophanes, who we’re told defeated numerous opponents in this way and he’s still alive at the battle of Plataea. This is something they’re still doing just before the lights come up on Greek history.
My view is that the problem with single combat in reality is it produces very confused battlefields. If you have groups at the one hand fighting and single people fighting, it’s very difficult to tell. It’s very difficult to tell who has been heroic and who has not. In my view, what the Greeks did was in order to keep the heroic quality of combat, in order to keep it competitive, they removed themselves, withdrew from the mixed combat of the Iliad, and instead said, OK, we’re going to compete in one thing that is very easily judged.
That one thing is standing your ground, because if you’re sort of placed in a matrix, it’s fairly clear to everyone around you whether you stand your ground or don’t, and that is, what I think the phalanx is, ultimately, the … of the classical Greeks in which the heavy armed hand-to-hand fights, it’s a way of testing individual soldiers to see who is the bravest by who can stand his ground the longest. Since the phalanx also represents the city, it’s a way of testing the city state to see which city state has the same sort of courage.
One the things that makes it so useful to the Greeks is the perfect analogy in that you test the same thing at both levels and that’s what they want to do. They want the bravest man to whom they can give an award, which they do after the battle, sometimes second and third place, too, but they also want to know which city is bravest, so they come up with this somewhat un-Homeric, or at least debated in Homer, form of heroism, which is standing your ground. They make that the primary form, and they organize this system of fighting around it so that they can tell who, in the real world, who is the bravest. Whilst, if you try to replicate Homeric fighting in the real world, it’s incredibly confusing and chaotic and you’re not going to be able to tell who the bravest is.
Brett McKay: This is interesting. I thought what was interesting too is you argue that the phalanx, it’s not a really effective way of warfare. A more effective way would be sort of guerrilla tactics, right. Like you said, this allows the city states and individual Greeks to know who is the best, so it really is phalanx battle is like a football game in a lot of ways.
Ted Lendon: Yeah, it’s highly rules bound in ways, not only in respect. We’ve already talked about what happens after battle, but before battle, there’s also a series of things that has to happen. Everybody lines up. You don’t actually agree on a time to fight, but in practice, you tend to wait for the other guys to be lined up. You advance. You sing a hymn to the god Apollo, called the peon. There are sacrifices to make sure that the gods are on your side. You sing. There’s a special magic shout to Ares.
This is all, again, very, of course, it’s religious, and therefore, has a certain degree and independence from pure military considerations, but, the fact that everyone employs exactly the same religious ritual or very similar religious ritual before a battle and up to the point of contact suggests, again, a very high degree of ritualization, and precisely as you say, we’re talking here about something which they conceive to be what we would call a sport, they of course have sports, too. The Greeks have a particular genius for generating competitive rules, which is why they have the Olympics, and they have organized athletics in a world where that is not particularly common, or at least much less prominent. The Greeks organized athletics, one of the major things that interested them, and what this tells us is that they have this genius for coming up with rules to make things fair so that you can tell who is the best.
Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of standing your ground. This is interesting. This was a way the Greeks were inspired by the Homeric epics of displaying courage, but, because they couldn’t do it in single combat, they evolved it. They changed a bit where they changed courage to mean stand your ground. Are there particular battles or instances where this idea of courage, meaning stand your ground really comes into play?
Ted Lendon: Yes, absolutely. Let me begin simply by saying that stand your ground is kind of like archery. It is an equivocal virtue in the Iliad. You’ve got some people saying, “We’re big heroes, we have to stand our ground,” and you’ve got other people saying, “we don’t actually have to do this if it’s going to get us killed,” and then you’ve got other people who clearly simply don’t stand their ground, whatever they think about it. Homeric warfare is much more fluid with people going back and forth and famously people notice the way in which you’re allowed to leave the battlefield if you want a drink or a meal. You can hang around in the tents for as long as you want, have long discussions which are reproduced by Homer with your friends, and then go back to the battle. It’s all very relaxed compared to later Greek warfare.
When you get into the later period, they have made a clear decision that the Homeric poems did not, that standing your ground is heroic, and specifically it is the most heroic thing that you can do, that they’re going to define heroism quite narrowly in terms of standing your ground. Then, if you want to get a sense of its importance, you’ll remember the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae when the Persians attack, this is in 480 B.C., and they basically fight and they fight and they fight until they are all killed heroically standing their ground. The poet Simonodes writes the famous epitaph which we all know a “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here according to their laws,” and the law is the law to stand your ground. Since that is the Spartan law, they all die there, and of course, the stranger is needed to go tell the Spartans because they’re all dead and none of them can do it themselves.
Brett McKay: Let’s shift gears here. We were talking about the ancient Greeks. Let’s talk about the ancient Romans. The Greeks had the Iliad to guide them in their approach to war. That’s the tradition they looked to. What guided the Romans in their development of their warlike ethos?
Ted Lendon: That’s an interesting question because the Romans only start writing, at least so far as we know, things that are survived to us, around 200 B.C., and their city is founded according to legend in 753 B.C., so they’ve had a very, very long period, which is essentially unhistorical to us. They clearly have legends and much of the early material we have is about their legends, and it’s always been said that history, even their mythical history, their own mythical history is the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Romans. They basically preserve a series of stories about their early leaders and about how things were int he old days, and they model themselves on those particular individual people, but without it being shall we say canonized in epic poetry. These are stories that are handed down in families and told mother to child, and things like that in oral tradition, which, of course is exactly like the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are oral poems from a very long time. They’re the property of professional bards who memorized them and recite them. That doesn’t seem to be the case of the old Roman legends about their doings and early time.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how the Romans fought. The Greeks had the phalanx, and the Romans eventually adopted the Phalanx, but how did the Romans fight in the early days of Rome or the Republic?
Ted Lendon: Before the Romans adopt the phalanx, we really don’t know, because we don’t have any useful records or useful archaeological information. There’s a very early temple to Castor and Pollux who are of course born from Greeks, the two Greek brother gods, but they are closely associated both in the Greek and Latin tradition with cavalry. There might have been some fighting on horseback. The truth is, we simply cannot in honesty tell how they fought before they adopted the Greek phalanx.
What we can tell is that the Greek phalanx did not agree with them, because by the time we see them clearly, they’ve abandoned the Greek phalanx, or not exactly abandoned it, but collapsed it in such a fashion that individual Roman soldiers can fight as heroic individuals much like people fight in the Iliad. Rather than the Greeks deciding the Iliad method of single combat doesn’t really work, so we’re going to do the phalanx.
The Romans take the phalanx and they adapt it to allow for individual fighting, particularly before battle, in which the young men in the first rank, in the velites, are competing with one another to challenge the enemy. This is also true of the cavalry, which is made up of the most noble of the young men, the richest. They’re challenging each other to single combats, and the whole system, rather than being a block, is much more messy because it’s intended to allow for single combats to develop. That says to my mind how you get from the phalanx, which we know they used to the classic Republican form of Roman fighting, which is in the so-called manipular legion in which the army is divided up into small clumps of men, rather than simply in an enormous block like the phalanx of old.
Brett McKay: Were the Romans like the Greeks, leery of technological advances because it would somehow rob them of honor and glory in battle?
Ted Lendon: Yeah, you don’t … You will notice that the Romans, much like the Greeks never make archery a significant part of their military thing, and this is true even under the Roman Empire. They dislike, both the Romans and the Greeks disliked the random factor, and I think they particularly associated archery, and the fact that you’ve got a bunch of people in a swarm who shoot off a bunch of arrows. You cannot tell whose arrow has hit anybody, so you cannot tell who the heroic person was who shot the arrow, and the arrows strike randomly, and they will strike equally brave and cowardly, and that won’t do. The point is, however you organize the fighting, it has to distinguish between the brave and the cowardly so the brave will prevail, or at least die heroically, not being shot by an arrow, so that the cowards will be shown to be cowards, and archery just doesn’t do that very well.
Brett McKay: Also within the Romans, you talk about these two competing ethoses, these ideas of virtus and disciplina.
Ted Lendon: You can tell you’ve had a classical education. You pronounced it “wirtus,” which is how a classicist would pronounce it. Of course, it begins with a v, and a boring old historian like me tends to pronounce it virtus. All it means of course is manliness. It becomes the word for courage or starts with the word for courage. I should point out that this true both in Greek and Latin, that they don’t make a linguistic distinction between manliness and courage. In Latin, you have virtus, manliness. In Greek, you have andrea, which also means manliness and courage at the same time. They don’t need or feel they need a linguistic distinction between the two qualities, something which your magazine should contemplate and be delighted by.
Brett McKay: Of course.
Ted Lendon: What, to my mind happens is that you have a very old culture of single combat at Rome. If the records mean anything that is suggested, but, that makes fighting in formation of any sort very difficult, and so my argument is that the Romans also developed this countervailing ethos, disciplina, which of course, translates into discipline in English, but also means things like hard work. If you’re asked to dig a ditch, that’s a question of disciplina, and that, whilst the individual soldiers compete in the one, in virtus, the officers, the leaders compete in disciplina to try to keep order among all these young men who wish to fight in individual combat. The results of this conflict is ultimately the manipular legion, but it’s a happy conflict in that it manages to keep the Romans sufficiently organized so that they can win battles on the big scale, that’s disciplina, but, also allow them to fight individually in a heroic fashion on the small scale. That’s virtus, which makes them incredibly ferocious individually.
Brett McKay: You talk about how far the Romans took this disciplina, how serious they took it. I think you mentioned an instance where a general killed his own son, executed his own son for cowardice, because he didn’t show disciplina.
Ted Lendon: It’s not for cowardice, he’s too brave. It’s a war in which, this is Manlius Torquatas, and who himself, early in life, Manlius Torquatas is challenged to a single combat by an enormous Gal, and gets permission and goes out and fights it, kills the Gal, and takes his necklace, his torque, which is why he is thereafter called Manlius Torquatas, Manlius the Torque Guy. He gets older, and there is another war, but, this is a war not against Gals, but against Latins, people who are linguistically and culturally the same as the Romans. That produces the possibility of severe confusion if there is single combat.
The general, Manlius Torquatas on this one occasion forbids single combat, but, his son, who wishes to be proven as brave as his father goes out and ignores the rule and participates in single combat and brings the spoils, the armor back, and lays them before his father and says, “Look, father, I’m just as glorious as you were,” and then his father has him executed for the violation of disciplina. Yes, that’s a sort of test case for the two things in conflict. It is of interest that this becomes a sort of gross tradition in the house of the Manlii Torquati. This is not the only one of their own sons that they execute. They develop a custom of doing this, and either execute a number of their sons in subsequent years, or those sons knowing that they are going to be executed, commit honorable suicide.
Brett McKay: Wow, yes, they take it really serious. How did these two conflicting ethoses develop or evolve as Rome transitioned from a republic to an empire? Was there a degradation of the two or did one take precedent over the other?
Ted Lendon: The Romans clearly think that both have to be kept going really, very strongly, and that is what they want to do. The peril is when you have a professional army, they’re going to become better at disciplina, because, of course, under the Empire, the Romans do have sort of the world’s first long service professional army with soldiers serving for 25 years and things like that, paid salaries. There’s always a peril that things are going to flop over to the disciplina side, and that although they will be well trained and well disciplined, they will not be as brave. The Romans actually work very hard at keeping the virtus side going, partially, it’s their system of military decorations. They have the first system of which we know of military decoration.
The Greeks give prizes for being the best, but the Romans just give prizes for doing various heroic things like saving the life of another soldier. Much more like our system. Their particular technique is simply … The Romans ultimately, the Greeks think you can teach courage, and this is of course debated in Plato at considerable length, but that basically seems to be their view. The Romans don’t really think you can teach courage. If they think they’re getting people without the right courage to be soldiers, they will simply search until they find people who have, who are brought up right, or who have the right courage in their blood. What you tend to get is the fact that they start recruiting people from wilder and wilder areas of the empire. As the empire becomes more civilized, the Italians cease to want to fight, but then you’ve got all these Gals who maintain a military tradition and who have lots of virtus. You can give them disciplina. You cannot give them virtus.
The recruiters first go out into the Gallic provinces and then in later years into Spain and then after that, particularly, onto the German frontier, and onto the Balkan frontier, and although they would not probably publicly say it, a lot of these people who are actually joining the Roman army are probably really barbarians from over the border who are taken in because they are really, really brave. The Romans know that they can discipline them, but the cannot generate bravery.
Over time, it seems to me, you can argue that a practical distinction develops between the Roman soldier troops, rather, the Roman citizen troops, the legions, who seem to be prized particularly for things like engineering, and the non-Roman citizen troops, who tend to be from wilder areas, these are the so-called auxiliaries, and they seem to be prized more for actual fighting, because they have more virtus than the legions. We can see this reflected in Tacitus, but we can also see it particularly in Trajan’s column, where if you count up the fights all the way up the column, you realize that most of the fighting is being done by the auxiliaries and surprisingly little of the fighting is being done by the Roman citizen legionaries, who are instead depicted building, making roads, cutting down forests. They appear a lot, but they appear mostly in engineering or parading capacities.
Brett McKay: That’s very interesting. Ted, you argue in the book that like the Greeks, the Romans reverence the past, but, you argue that while the Greek reverence for their past made Greek armies better, Rome’s reverence for their military past made their armies worse. How so?
Ted Lendon: My argument is that the Greek military history is a series of experiments to try to recreate the Homeric epics. The phalanx, we already talked about is one of those things, but, actually, they get better at this as things go on. Philip II, the King of Macedonia, the father of Alexander produces another set of experiments, based, at least we’re told, on various passages in the Iliad, which make a far more effective army than the Greeks had previously. He then of course defeats the Greeks, and is murdered, and then his son briefly defeats the Greeks again, and then goes off and creates this incredible world empire. Alexander is phenomenally successful, and he is successful with an army his father created on the basis of looking back at the Iliad. Also, because his own solders coming from Macedonia have not been civilianized in the way that a lot of the rest of the Greeks have been, in fact, sort of much more Homeric in their outlook. If they’re Homeric in their outlook, and they’re fighting in a Homeric way, or think they are, this makes for a very effective thing.
Brett McKay: Very interesting.
Ted Lendon: My argument about the Romans is that they lose confidence, because, particularly in the late second and third century, they start having military setbacks, and the third century is of course, terrible, not only with multiple invasions by barbarians, but also by a lot of civil war, and economic collapse and general misery. They lose confidence in their own military tradition in the ways they have been fighting over a very, very long time, because it doesn’t seem to be effective anymore, but, they are, of course, because they’re an ancient people, they’re still very past minded. What they do is decide, “OK, well, our own traditions aren’t helping us here. Let’s use the Greek traditions.” What you see int he 4th century A.D. is the revival of what is essentially a phalanx army.
That is to say that the Romans go back to an army which is recognized, particularly among the infantry, recognizably the same in equipment and in tactics as the Greeks int he 5th century would have been, even before Philip II. There’s a certain weird logic to this, because as one author says, “well, the only folk among us, of the westerners, who have ever defeated the Persians were the Greeks, and if we’re now losing to the Persians, we should naturally fight like the Greeks did.”
We think that’s very odd logic, but if you revere the past as much as the Romans and the Greeks did, that makes sense. What you end up with is a Roman army which is a throwback not to Roman military tradition, but to Greek military tradition, which is as a result somewhat inflexible and brittle in a way that the Roman army had not been before. That is to say in the earlier centuries and the republic and in the earlier empire, and it seems to me that you could make a case that although it is a historical recreation, it’s not a good historical recreation. I’m still up to seconds who made a better army with a historical recreation, the Romans make a worse army because the phalanx is simply not as effective as the way the Romans themselves used to fight. Something, had the Romans thought about it, they should have been able to tell, because, of course, they had defeated themselves, the people with their own methods of warfare that fought in these ways, but they were in a desperate situation. They knew they needed to make some change. They had no confidence in their own tradition, and so they adopt this ancient Greek way of fighting, which proves to be less effective.
Brett McKay: Very interesting. Ted, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your work and your book, Soldiers and Ghosts?
Ted Lendon: The easiest way is to go to the library and read it. In fact, that’s the best way to proceed. There are of course, various book reviews, and things like that, but the book is now quite old, and so it’s still universally available, but, putting your hands on an old review would be quite tricky. Again, I just say, ultimately, people should probably read the thing. It’s written for people who are not academics. That is to say it is written to be interesting to people other than college professors. I tried to write in a lively style. A reader will not be overwhelmed with boredom and horror as the normal reader is when faced with an academic book.
Brett McKay: I can concur. I can vouch that this is true. It’s a highly engaging, very readable book. Ted, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Ted Lendon: Thank you, Brett for having me on the show. I’m extremely grateful.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ted Lendon or J.E. Lendon. He’s the author of the book Soldiers and Ghosts, available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also check out the show notes for more information about what we talked about today at AOM.is/Lendon.
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