The armies of ancient Greece and Rome have gained legendary status. Both militaries successfully conquered much of the known world in their respective eras.

But what made them so formidable? Technological innovation? Novel strategies? Plain old grit?

My guest today on the podcast argues that it was the Greek and Roman armies’ reverence for their mythic pasts that made them great. His name is J. E. Lendon (he goes by Ted). He’s a classical scholar and the author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity

Today on the show, Ted and I discuss how the ghosts of the Iliad and the Odyssey haunted Greek soldiers, the ways in which both the Greeks and Romans ritualized warfare, and why the Ancient Greeks made a competition out of everything. We also discuss the competing virtues of courage and discipline within the Roman army. This is a riveting conversation with fascinating insights into ancient notions of masculinity.

Show Highlights

  • How American soldiers’ approach to fallen comrades is similar to that of the ancient Greeks
  • The ritualization of warfare by the Ancient Greeks and why they did it
  • Why the Greeks and Romans made everything a competition, from battle to bird watching
  • How Greek competition made them cooperative
  • How the Homeric epics inspired Greek innovations in warfare
  • Why archers disappeared from Greek armies (and what it has do with manliness)
  • How the Greek phalanx was developed to pay homage to the single combat depicted in The Iliad
  • How the Greek phalanx turned courage from an active to passive virtue
  • Why the Greek phalanx turned warfare into a game like football
  • The source of tradition that guided the ancient Romans in warfare
  • How the Romans fought in the early days of the Republic and how it changed as they became an empire
  • The competing virtues of virtus and disciplina in the Roman military
  • Why Roman general Manlius Torquatus executed his own son for being too brave
  • How our modern American military reward system is very similar to the ancient Romans’
  • And much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

soldiers and ghosts book cover j e lendon

Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity is an extremely interesting and readable account of ancient warfare. You not only will learn a lot about Greek and Roman history, but also about notions of manliness within these two cultures.

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