Reviewer: Vera Weterings
Fields of Battle. Retracing Ancient Battlefields, Richard Evans
Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley 2015
ISBN: 978 1 84884 796 5
Hardcover, with maps, plates, notes, bibliography and index
Retracing Ancient Battlefields
In the study of ancient battles scholars often focus solely on the battlefield and the combatants, but to provide the fullest understanding it’s also necessary to retrace the events that led to armies facing one another. Moreover, archaeological excavation work remains uncommon in studying ancient battles, although the evidence from these archaeological sites can sometimes fill gaps in our understanding. Dr. Richard Evans uses a different approach for his Fields of Battle. Whereas in the volume Fields of Death (2013) he focussed on the sieges of the cities under study, in his new research he concentrates on how logistics, geography and weather all affected the military campaign of the Ionian War (499-493 BC), the battles at Marathon (490 BC) and Thermopylae (480 BC), the battle of Ilerda (49 BC) and the two battles of Bedriacum (AD 69). For this research he combines his specialist knowledge in classical archaeology and topography with a close reappraisal of the ancient written sources, the latest archaeological finds and his own research. Evans visited all the sites personally.
Dr Richard Evans is Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University. His research interests range from Roman republican politics; ancient urban topography and the history of city-states; Greek and Roman military history; Greek and Roman historians to Greek and Roman numismatics. His previous publications include Syracuse in Antiquity: Topography and History (2007), Questioning Reputations: Essays on Nine Roman Republican Politicians (2003) and Gaius Marius: A Political Biography (1994).
In Fields of Battle Evans clarifies that no battlefield is a static place because of the constant movement of the opposing sides, but it is not just the personnel on the ground who have a role to play. Although Evans points out a successful commander such as Alexander the Great or Gaius Marius would have taken a great deal of care to choose the best possible site on which to fight, logistics, climate and weather all have a significant role in the outcome of the fight. For example the logistics of moving an army or fleet or both, as is often a feature of this discussion, to the battlefield plays a fundamental role in the outcome. Evans states that the problem of supplying an army is continually apparent in Caesar’s account of the campaign around Ilerda and it was also due to poor logistics that cost Darius a triumph north of the Danube or Xerxes his victory in Greece. However, it is not simply logistical problems that can affect the result of military campaigns; there are also the geographical factors such as mountains, valleys, rivers and coastal waters, all of which affected the strategies employed by the commanders in the field. Finally there is also the weather that can play an important role. For instance, storms in the Aegean caused severe damage to the Persian fleets in both 492 and 480 BC. Moreover unusually early snow became a problem for the supporters of Vespasian after the second battle of Bedroacum in November 69, which slowed down their advance from the Po Valley because the Apennine passes were almost impassable.
Evans’ style is tough with page long paragraphs accompanied with pictures, maps, plates and a comprehensive bibliography. Nevertheless the information provided by the author offers new perspectives on ancient battles. In particular, he underlines the importance of examining the terrain and geography for our own understanding of what happened. This new approach in which Evans combines a close reappraisal of the ancient written sources with the latest archaeological finds and his own research is paying off and will make it all the more interesting for historians who want to have a better understanding in the battles and campaigns discussed in this book.