For modern militaries and military thinkers, their history is thus replete with valuable case studies on conducting the art and science of war.
Moreover, many strategic practitioners, such as Thucydides and Xenophon, chronicled their military experiences and thoughts on war. These accounts are full of important insights that military practitioners highly value today.
Thucydides and military thinking
Between 431 and 404 BC, the city states of Athens and Sparta went to war for control over the ancient Greek world. Beyond the obvious interest it holds for historians, the conflict is studied by officers in training at military academies across the world.
The Athenian general and historian Thucydides, who himself fought in the war, is the most famous source of information on the conflict. His seminal work on the Peloponnesian War has massively influenced how contemporary military practitioners and academics think about the nature of war.
The late Colin S. Gray, a prominent International Relations Scholar and advisor to both the British and American governments, listed Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as one of the ten canonical books on general strategic theory. In Gray’s view, Thucydides is essential reading for a complete understanding of war.
Dr. Martin Robson, a Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute agrees that: “As the father of International Relations theory Thucydides’ analysis of the causes and the course of the Peloponnesian War outlines fundamental enduring aspects of the use and abuse of power and the paradoxical nature of the search for security—what today we would call the security dilemma in which while trying to make oneself more secure the effect is to make others feel less secure.”
There are parallels between Thucydides’ conception of the Peloponnesian War and the conflict in Ukraine today. Robson adds that “the Eastward expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War was, with good reason, seen amongst the Western Allies and those countries formerly under Soviet rule such as Poland and the Baltics as a logical way to make the West ‘safer,’ but what was overlooked was the growing sense of fear in Moscow that NATO expansion was a real and direct threat to Russian security interests.”
Now, strategic theorists are turning to Thucydides for insights into the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China.
Concerning the power struggle of his own times, Thucydides wrote: “The growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable.” This supposed inevitability of war between a ruling great hegemon and rising power has become known as the “Thucydides Trap.”
Many military and political science theorists are now asking whether the United States and China will fall victim to the Thucydides Trap. Will the rise of China prompt the same anxieties in the United States as did the rise of Athens for Sparta?
Xenophon and the Ten Thousand
Like Thucydides, Xenophon was a military practitioner and writer. In 401 BC, Xenophon accompanied ten thousand Greek mercenaries on an expedition to Asia Minor. Their objective was to help Cyrus the Younger overthrow his brother, Artaxerxes, and seize the Persian throne.
The Greek mercenaries were victorious at Cunaxa, but their employer, Cyrus, was killed. The “Ten Thousand,” as they became known, became stranded deep in enemy territory. Xenophon recorded their perilous journey home in his Anabasis.
Robert C. Lewis, an academic and Vietnam war veteran, has noted the contemporary relevance of Xenophon’s work. According to Lewis, Xenophon provides “straightforward lessons with timeless Hellenic roots.”
When the commanding Greek officer corps were killed, Xenophon took charge of the situation. He presented a plan for the Ten Thousand to escape overland back to Greece. He then suggested that the Spartans take overall command and volunteer for the most dangerous assignment in the rear guard.
By putting his men and the mission before himself, Xenophon demonstrated exemplary qualities as a commander. His plan was also simple and effective. By acting decisively at a crucial moment, Xenophon was able to ensure the survival of his men. As Lewis argues, the example he set remains relevant to military officers today.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great is perhaps history’s most famous military figure. Before his death at the age of thirty-two, Alexander had conquered a vast territory across Europe and Asia.
A wealth of lessons can be extracted from over a decade of Alexander’s military campaigning. As Major Robert B. Pederson has noted, Alexander successfully conducted tactical river crossings, anti-guerilla warfare, and pitched battles. He had the flexibility to operate in mountains, deserts, and urban environments.
Most notably, he pioneered combined arms warfare. This is when different types of military units work together to combine their advantages. Against the Persians, Alexander interspersed his skirmishers with the heavy cavalry. Other units also worked together. For example, the unwieldy but relentless phalanx was supported by more lightly equipped skirmishers and hypaspists who could maneuver more easily.
Although military technology has evolved significantly since Alexander’s time, the concept of combined arms warfare remains largely the same. For example, tanks may be supported by infantry, or aircraft may work together with naval vessels for combined effect.
Learning from history
Battles across centuries of Ancient Greek warfare provide modern scholars and practitioners with a multitude of case studies that offer insights into military strategy and international relations which are still relevant today.
In doing so, what they have realized is that Greeks took time to reflect on their experiences of war, leaving future generations a wealth of written materials.
The likes of Thucydides and Xenophon join only a handful of writers from antiquity, such as Sun Tzu of China and Kautilya of India, in producing timeless tomes on strategy and the experience of war.