The study of war in the Classical world has never been more alive, and it is difficult to keep up with the pace of publication sustained over the last decade. Even so, among the slew of recent edited volumes on ancient warfare, the present work stands out for its intended tightness of focus. It is the product of an international scholarly debate, held in 2013 in Barcelona, on the merits and demerits of a single methodological concept. Does the modern notion of the warlord and of warlordism help us to categorise and understand interstate relations in the Mediterranean world in the last four centuries BCE?
The debate has resulted in a hefty volume, with an introduction and 20 chapters, touching on the history of Achaemenid Persia, the Greek and Hellenistic world, Carthage, the Roman Republic and the Late Empire. Yet, despite the best efforts of an impressive slate of contributors, the volume’s fundamental question remains unanswered. No consensus seems to have been reached at the conference in Barcelona, and the intensely cautious positioning of scholars in this volume reflects a general confusion. As author after author tackles the same body of modern literature to define the term „warlord“, many end up declaring themselves agnostic on its meaning and its applicability. Some choose very broad definitions while others exclude nearly every candidate. Some do not choose at all; A. Coşkun’s preliminary study of Late Hellenistic warlords in Anatolia proves a dud “since I have been unable to commit myself to any precise definition” (p. 219). If the purpose of the volume is to explore the potential of applying this conceptual framework to Antiquity, its conclusion seems to be negative: we find ourselves arguing endlessly over shades of meaning to filter possible examples of a concept the ancients themselves did not recognize, and must concede that we are at a dead end. The defining quote of the volume is S. Zoumbaki’s summation of her chapter on Sulla: “the analysis undertaken above has enabled us neither to apply the label of ‘warlord’ to Sulla nor to remove it” (p. 373).
At least some of this apparent lack of direction is due to editorial decisions. The two chapters included in the final part of the book, „A Necessary Epilogue“ – by J.W.P. Wijnendaele on warlords in the Late Roman West, and R. Grasa on warlords in the post-Cold War international system – are indeed necessary; they give a much clearer sense of the use of warlordism as an explanatory framework in their respective periods than the other authors establish for the periods under intensive study in this volume. These chapters might therefore have been better placed at the beginning, setting out what warlordism looks like where it is unambiguously present, and providing a touchstone for the rest of the chapters. They suggest that it might have been more fruitful to seek contributions specifically on subsections of the volume’s chronological range that saw intense „warlordish“ activity, such as the era of the Diadochoi – but there is not a single chapter on the successors of Alexander. Instead, there are several chapters that, for all their scholarly merit, have no clear relation to the theme of the volume (such as N. Sekunda’s prosopographical study of mid-ranking mercenary officers in Late Classical Greece, M. Álvarez Martí-Aguilar’s exhaustive discussion of Phoenician daughter cities’ ties to Tyre, or E. Sánchez Moreno’s survey of the activities of the Lusitanians during the Punic Wars). These might have been excised for a leaner, more focused discussion. Similarly, given the fundamental importance of A.M. Eckstein’s earlier work on ancient interstate relations to the questions asked in this volume (pp. 1–5), it is very disappointing that his own contribution (on the distinction between unipolarity and empire in the rise of Republican Rome) does not address the matter of warlords and warlordism at all. The volume may have benefited from a stronger editorial drive to refocus such efforts. In the event, the editors’ choices appear to have only diluted or obscured the volume’s clear initial focus.
Constraints of space make it impossible to analyse each chapter in detail; I can only offer a brief outline of the ones not yet mentioned, and give a sense of the wide range of periods and regions covered in the volume. In the first part, titled „Achaemenid Persia, Fourth Century Greece, and Carthage“, C. Tuplin offers a characteristically thorough-but-tentative analysis of mercenaries and rogue commanders in the Persian empire, emphasizing the durability of royal power despite frequent insurgencies. P. Low’s short chapter offers useful insight on the role of Athenian commanders frequently, but wrongly, characterized as condottieri or as warlords. D. Gómez-Castro’s study of Lysander’s and Agesilaos’ imperialism as an escape valve for disenfranchised classes in Spartan society is interesting, but its bibliography on the socio-economic problems of Classical Sparta is critically weak. J. Pascual González offers a very useful study of the networks and instruments of power of Central Greek commanders of the fourth century. L. Rawlings highlights the importance of personal connections in maintaining Carthaginian power; his chapter takes the definition of „warlord“ for granted, and includes tyrants, chieftains and mercenary leaders as subsets of the term.
In the second part, „The Hellenistic World and Rome“, F. López Sánchez offers his own contribution, contextualising the Galatian invasion of the Greek world and giving one of the most helpful definitions of warlordism as a peripheral element of a politico-military system acting upon its core (in this case, Macedon). C.B. Champion stresses the importance of perspective in assessing who is and is not a warlord; however, his own examples of Roman commanders seen through Greek eyes remain underdeveloped. J.W. Rich and N. Rosenstein separately assert the absence of warlords in Republican Roman history due to the shared ambition of the powerful to be powerful in Rome. Rich suggests that only someone like Sertorius would really qualify as a warlord, which is picked up and developed in the chapter by T. Ñaco del Hoyo and J. Principal. M.P. Fronda and F. Gauthier examine the political system in Italy during the Second Punic War, noting that Hannibal’s victories shattered the Roman unipolar order, returning the region to a state of multipolar anarchy in which warlords from smaller states could thrive. Finally, B. Rankov discusses elements of Roman Imperial army organization that had their origins in the „warlord“ armies of the civil war period; however, many of these could also be seen as simple continuity of Republican practices, and such continuity is surely not remarkable.
The sum of all this is a volume that is far less coherent or insightful than one would hope, given its carefully delineated theme. Its chapters vary greatly in their relevance to, and assessment of, the questions it raises; it will likely disappoint those looking for methodological instruction on the use of the warlord as an analytical tool. It may be useful only to those studying the particular eras and figures studied in its chapters, and those with a specific interest in the methodological debate on warlordism in Antiquity. Yet, this volume does not seem to have done all that might be done to advance that debate.