War Classics: Greece and Rome at War – New Edition

Nick Spenceley recalls one of the great works of military history.

First published in 1981, Greece and Rome at War is a coffee-table book with a difference: its meticulously researched illustrations took the study of ancient warfare from the realm of university classics departments into school classrooms, re-enactment groups, war-games clubs, and the popular imagination.

In an obituary of its author, Peter Connolly, historian Ed Fordham said that ‘whilst Russell Crowe made Roman history fashionable through Gladiator, Peter achieved it through good old-fashioned research, study, and accurate illustrations’.

Ancient warfare has been closely studied ever since Julius Caesar wrote his self-serving account of his Gallic Wars. The focus has usually been on the great leaders like Caesar and Alexander the Great, and the great ‘decisive battles’ popularised by Victorian historian Sir Edward Creasy (seven of his 15 battles date before Hastings).

Through all this, it has been difficult for ordinary people to visualise ancient warriors and the formations they fought in. Arguably, it was ‘sword and sandal’ movies like Ben-Hur that gave people their image of ancient cultures.

Connolly came like a breath of fresh air in the mid-1970s with a trio of books for the publishing house Macdonald Educational: The Roman Army, The Greek Armies, and Hannibal and the Enemies of Rome. The quality of the many illustrations and the authority of his carefully researched text had an immediate impact, and in 1981 the three books (plus some additional material) became Greece and Rome at War, an enduring classic that remains in print to this day.

The resulting volume deals first with Greece in its Classical and then Hellenistic phases, then the Roman Republic and its origins, and finally the Roman Empire. Appendices cover sea warfare, sieges, and Roman military costume, while the section on the origins of Rome contains richly illustrated explorations of the Etruscans, Samnites, Aequi, Volsci, Campanians, and Sabines.

Just what was it that made the book so appealing? The text combined scholarly research with an accessible style. But it was the illustrations above all that gave the book its impact.

Connolly’s own colour artwork of equipment accounts for the majority of these. Even today, archaeological illustration is often considered superior to photography in capturing the essence of ancient artefacts, and particularly for conveying their 3D qualities.

The author uses his considerable skills most compellingly when he collates sequences of similar-sized images to illustrate the evolution of ancient equipment: for instance, the Greek helmet. Scholars had been compiling typologies of helmets since at least the 19th century, but it was Connolly who made this graphically accessible to the general public.

Groundbreaking research

Connolly treated ancient objects not just as illustration material but also as sources for practical reconstruction and experiment. He was never satisfied until he fully understood the function of an object, and if that meant dressing up in a tunic and vaulting on and off a reconstructed Roman saddle, that’s just what he would do.

In fact, his research into saddles was particularly groundbreaking. It was once believed that ancient cavalry sat on a saddle blanket, with the ‘horns’ visible in ancient illustrations being just decoration. This inevitably led to the role of cavalry being downplayed.

It was Connolly who developed the theory that the saddle banket and horns were actually part of a wooden frame that gave stability to the rider. He built his own replica, first mounted on the ground, and then developed to a point where his riding instructor could use it on a horse – and athletically illustrate the range of activities that could safely be undertaken without stirrups.

Connolly’s work reconstructing ancient equipment always embodied the practical purpose of the objects. Could a Theban hoplite have grasped a spear in both hands while carrying a shield? He reproduced both and experimented extensively with them, eventually realising the need for cutting a notch out of the rim of the shield in order to grip the pike with the left hand. As it happened, this was exactly what was shown in historical paintings of the shields.

Connolly’s work is very visible today in the gear worn by re-enactment groups, such as the Ermine Street Guard, which had a long and fruitful association with him (he was their official patron). His findings are sometimes disputed, but interestingly the cavalry re-enactment group Comitatus points out that a conjectural saddle part which Connolly produced in the absence of pictorial evidence was subsequently found to be correct when a virtually identical piece was later dug up in Carlisle.

Peter Connolly was not just an historian and illustrator, but also an enthusiastic experimental archaeologist: these images shown him demonstrating Roman weaponry in his own garden and home, both on and off a reconstructed saddle. Images: Peter Connolly family archive

Considerable legacy

Connolly’s practical approach similarly underpinned his discussions of military formations. Most famous of these is his illustration of a Roman legion drawn up in its cohorts, with its officers and cavalry detachment. Nearly 5,500 individual figures are shown in stylised form, and it helps us to visualise the sheer scale of the unit.

Other illustrations cleverly help us to understand how Macedonian phalangites deployed their formidable pikes, through both a cross-section picture and dramatic views of a phalanx in battle.

Connolly’s research extended to travelling the routes ancient armies took, and visiting the battlefields. The pinnacle of this research is perhaps his account of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. He painstakingly dissects the ancient sources, and explores the climate and topography of the area to critique the different theories developed over many centuries.

His own interpretation is, of course, prolifically illustrated with maps and photographs, and, while it too may be subject to challenge, no one can doubt the thoroughness of his research.

Another example of Connolly’s scholarship and illustrative skills is his ability to reconstruct ancient buildings imaginatively. They are not so prominent in the main body of this book, but Appendix 2, on ‘Fortifications and Siege Warfare’, has some fabulous examples. The sieges of Syracuse, Alesia, and Jerusalem are all brilliantly illustrated, along with the associated equipment. In other books, Connolly produced exploded diagrams to illustrate Roman garrison life, and English Heritage still use these to interpret some of their Roman sites today.

Peter Connolly’s legacy is considerable, not least because a generation of young people grew up with his educational texts, and those who read this book had a volume on their bedside table that discussed Livy and Polybius, phalanxes and maniples, sarissas and pila.

Scholarship moves on and fashions (for example, in military illustration) change. But Connolly’s book remains a commonly recommended text for laypeople to get a good grounding in classical warfare.

Fittingly (and probably uniquely), his funeral in 2012 featured legionaries from the Ermine Street Guard as pall-bearers, with the Centurion delivering the eulogy.

The Peter Connolly archives are held in the Institute of Classical Studies library, London. 

Peter Connolly

Born: 8 May 1935 – Died: 2 May 2012

Nationality: British

Peter Connolly was an illustrator, scholar of the ancient world, experimental archaeologist, and an expert on Greek and Roman military equipment. Although given academic honours late in life at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology and at the Society of Antiquaries, his initial training was at Brighton College of Arts and Crafts. He wrote his first book, The Roman Army, in 1975 for Macdonald Educational. His expertise with ancient costumes, tactics, and weaponry was based on meticulous research and pioneering experimental reconstructions, and in addition to his books and scholarly articles he appeared regularly on television to talk about ancient armies and their equipment.