Thursday, 3 March 2011

Ancient authors: Theodore Ayrault Dodge

Classical history is something I love to read, and there are two writers who really got me into it. The first is Machiavelli, who makes numerous concise references to classical history in The Prince. The second is a more recent fellow, an American who fought in the Civil War, named Theodore Ayrault Dodge.

Dodge wrote books which could be described either as biographies or military histories. His attention was focused upon a select number of men who had shown the spark of genius and made a lasting impression upon history.

The old soldier visited a number of the locations in which the wars he wrote of transpired, and combined this real world knowledge with a thorough understanding of ancient authors and what they had to offer.

Three generals of antiquity were written about by Dodge: Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar.

Each book is pretty hefty, and bursting with detail. Little sketches of soldiers, weapons, fortifications, siege engines and tactical/strategic maps abound throughout these books (in Caesar’s I think it’s suggested his wife did the drawing, and it’s nice to think of the two touring Europe together). The maps are particularly helpful as they put marches and actions into context and help illustrate the importance of thinking on a strategic scale.

Dodge also excels at explaining the battles that took place, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of different units and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of battlefield tactics. Where there is dispute over a tactical manoeuvre (such as Cannae) he resolves the problem by simply including all the main possibilities.

The enthusiasm he felt for the brilliant men about which he wrote shines through, and does at times border on hero worship (I think at one point he calls Hannibal a Mars amongst men). However, it is worth remembering that the three ancient generals did achieve phenomenal feats, and if the price of detailed, exciting history is a small amount of indulgence on the author’s part I consider it a bargain.

It is important to recall that the books, although riveting and pretty easy to read, are quite old (over a century) and are thus denied the benefit of more recent discoveries about the subject matter.

One potential downside is that the huge amount of detail can mean that certain chapters can become a little too long. The discussion about Hannibal’s precise route over the Alps was something I skimmed over, unlike his conflicts with the barbarians who lived there.

At the back of each book are a number of appendices, with details regarding army numbers, historical marches and the like.

I did begin his first book on Napoleon. The political machinations of the French revolution were interesting, but the battles and strategy did not interest me nearly so much as the ancient history of war elephants and Numidian cavalry.

After reading the book on Hannibal, I checked to see who Dodge’s main sources were, and duly bought the relevant bits of Livy and Polybius. From there, I’ve just bought more classical history (some ancient, some modern) and branched out from the Second Punic War.


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