Friday, 17 June 2011

Review: The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds 1600BC to 1600AD (edited by Andrew Roberts)

This book takes a gallop through the ranks of excellent military commanders from the year dot to a few centuries ago. Sensibly, the approximate cut-off point coincides with the increasing development of gunpowder, which obviously had a massive impact upon warfare.

Roberts has put together a wide range of historians who each write about the commander(s) they’re most knowledgeable of, over about eight pages, on average. Artwork and tactical maps are common, and although each chapter is a quick summary they include one particularly important battle, with a handy battlefield map.

The commanders looked at are a motley bunch, ranging from the bleeding obvious (Hannibal, Alexander etc) to lesser known fellows, like Nobunaga Oda (who I only knew of due to Kessen III), Belisarius (more of him later) and so on. There’s also a reasonably wide geographical mix, from Africa with the pharaohs to Europe and Asia.

It was very interesting to read about the fellows I’d never heard of, such as the viciously effective Tamerlane (not necessarily the foremost advert for equal opportunities, given he was lame in one leg and one arm and prone to murdering huge numbers of people).

The chapters are long enough to whet the appetite for more information, and this was certainly the case with Belisarius. I won’t spoil the book, but suffice to say that the piece John Julius Norwich wrote about him prompted me to search for more on Belisarius himself and Byzantium more generally, happily leading me to the quite fantastic trilogy Norwich has written.

That is not to say, however, that I agree with everything that is written. I’m not a historian, but I am stubborn enough to need convincing if an opinion is offered with which I do not agree. The section on Hannibal lambasted him for the march through the Alps, attributing his ultimate strategic defeat to the high cost in men and equipment the epic march demanded. I would rather put the blame, if blame is needed, to misfortune (the unlucky failure to take the Tarentine harbour even when Tarentum itself fell, the immediate death of Hasdrubal when he entered Italy, the rise of the Hanno party who sent reinforcements to Iberia rather than Italy etc).

In addition to its undoubted excellent value in itself, the book offers a substantial reading list, which is very helpful if certain chapters/commanders have provoked the reader’s curiosity.

There is also a second book, I have yet to acquire, which deals with modern recent warfare. Not sure if I’ll get it, as I tend to prefer ancient history.


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