The best books on premodern western warfare

Why am I passionate about this?

From my earliest memories I’ve always been interested in military history, and as a young man I served in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear submarine. As an ardent bibliophile, my home and office overflows with books. As a professor, for the past 25 years I’ve been fortunate enough to teach a broad survey on western military history, which gives me the opportunity to experiment with many books for my own and the students’ enjoyment. The books on this list are perennial favorites of the traditional-age undergraduates (18-22) I teach, but will appeal to any reader interested in premodern military history. 


I wrote...

Book cover of The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1209–1218

What is my book about?

The Albigensian Crusade has always stood out as a particularly “weird” crusade, because it was inflicted on Europeans in Europe, in a region that was long Christian. It was fought to get rid of a heresy, not take back the Holy Land. While most historians are more interested in the heresy, I remain fascinated by the military campaign that began in 1209 to exterminate the heresy (and heretics), something no other scholar had spent much time on. What a lucky find! The crusade was chock full of sieges, massacres, and even some battles, but no one had ever covered this exciting, sad, and bloody story for its own sake.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army

Laurence W. Marvin Why did I love this book?

There’s an old saying that states, “Amateurs discuss battles; Professionals discuss logistics.” 

Engel’s book proves the point, arguing that the Macedonian king’s real genius was not tricky moves on the battlefield, but by making sure his men had enough food and water to sustain themselves for twelve years.  One of the great things about this book is that Engels covers things that work for any premodern era: how much a human or animal can carry; how much food and water they consume on a daily basis, and what it requires to keep tens of thousands of humans on the march adequately supplied. 

You’ll never think the same way about premodern warfare again after reading it.

By Donald W. Engels,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most important work on Alexander the Great to appear in a long time. Neither scholarship nor semi-fictional biography will ever be the same again...Engels at last uses all the archaeological work done in Asia in the past generation and makes it accessible...Careful analyses of terrain, climate, and supply requirements are throughout combined in a masterly fashion to help account for Alexander's strategic decision in the light of the options open to him...The chief merit of this splendid book is perhaps the way in which it brings an ancient army to life, as it really was and moved: the hours…


Book cover of Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate

Laurence W. Marvin Why did I love this book?

Mattern’s book is as much about Roman attitudes and mindset as it is about warfare. 

Even though planning and implementing “strategy” is sometimes seen as a modern thing, clearly the Romans had one, though, as Mattern phrases it, was more akin to our stereotypes of the mafia: Rome wanted respect more than anything, and went to great lengths to ensure it received it. The Romans and their empire had an incredibly long memory, and they didn’t forget slights.

When a people or country dissed the Romans in some way, Rome came after them, even if doing so took decades.  

By Susan P. Mattern,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rome and the Enemy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How did the Romans build and maintain one of the most powerful and stable empires in the history of the world? This book draws on the literature, especially the historiography, composed by the members of the elite who conducted Roman foreign affairs. From this evidence, Susan P. Mattern reevaluates the roots, motivations, and goals of Roman imperial foreign policy especially as that policy related to warfare. In a major reinterpretation of the sources, Rome and the Enemy shows that concepts of national honor, fierce competition for status, and revenge drove Roman foreign policy, and though different from the highly rationalizing…


Book cover of Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany

Laurence W. Marvin Why did I love this book?

In English at least, there aren’t many historians who cover this neglected period. 

Bachrach not only provides a nice military survey of an unfamiliar era, but he includes innovative and imaginative analytical chapters on military education, leadership, and training, suggesting that Medieval armies were far better organized, trained, led, and equipped than we give them credit for.

Bachrach gamely tries to provide answers for things we take for granted but nobody ever considers, like, “how hard is it to climb a ladder with heavy objects?” That was an important consideration at a siege.  Well, 21st-century handbooks on firefighting answer that question, and the same answer worked for human beings in the tenth century too. 

This book is full of this kind of insight.

By David S. Bachrach,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A complete survey of the military campaigns of the early Saxons, tactics, strategy, and logistics, demonstrating in particular the sophistication of the administration involved.

Over the course of half a century, the first two kings of the Saxon dynasty, Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973), waged war across the length and breadth of Europe. Ottonian armies campaigned from the banks of the Oder in the east to the Seine in the west, and from the shores of the Baltic Sea in the north, to the Adriatic and Mediterranean in the south. In the course of scores of military operations,…


Book cover of Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe

Laurence W. Marvin Why did I love this book?

Lynn was one of my graduate advisors decades ago, but he wrote this long after I finished.

A highly respected military historian, Lynn did a remarkably sympathetic and nuanced job of explaining the vital role women played in early modern warfare. No, he doesn’t concentrate on the few who took on male garb and actually fought, but rather the tens of thousands of mostly nameless “camp followers” who provided essential services: food and fodder, as sutlers, and yes, as prostitutes. Quite simply, an early modern army couldn’t function without its extensive “tail.” 

One of the salient characteristics separating premodern and modern armies is how governments eventually, over a long period of time, froze out women from participating in any aspects of warfare by bringing under their aegis all the services (save prostitution) that women had heretofore provided.

By John A. Lynn II,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe examines the important roles of women who campaigned with armies from 1500 to 1815. This included those notable female individuals who assumed male identities to serve in the ranks, but far more numerous and essential were the formidable women who, as women, marched in the train of armies. While some worked as full-time or part-time prostitutes, they more generally performed a variety of necessary gendered tasks, including laundering, sewing, cooking, and nursing. Early modern armies were always accompanied by women and regarded them as essential to the well-being of the troops. Lynn…


Book cover of The Thirty Years War

Laurence W. Marvin Why did I love this book?

Wedgewood published this in 1938, on the cusp of World War II.

In many ways the disaster that was the Thirty Years war provided an allegory of what was to come. Many authors have tackled this subject since Wedgewood wrote, some far more massive than her 500 pages, but there’s a reason this one remains in print. Wedgewood wrote an eminently readable narrative that is as delightful to read as its subject is dreadful. She excelled at what narrative should provide: a sense of development, how a huge event happens from beginning to end, all while keeping the reader’s attention. 

Wedgewood conveyed the nastiness, carnage, and utter craziness of the conflict in a dispassionate, easily understandable way.

By C.V. Wedgwood,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Thirty Years War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Europe in 1618 was riven between Protestants and Catholics, Bourbon and Hapsburg--as well as empires, kingdoms, and countless principalities. After angry Protestants tossed three representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out the window of the royal castle in Prague, world war spread from Bohemia with relentless abandon, drawing powers from Spain to Sweden into a nightmarish world of famine, disease, and seemingly unstoppable destruction.


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Captain James Heron First Into the Fray: Prequel to Harry Heron Into the Unknown of the Harry Heron Series

By Patrick G. Cox, Janet Angelo (editor),

Book cover of Captain James Heron First Into the Fray: Prequel to Harry Heron Into the Unknown of the Harry Heron Series

Patrick G. Cox Author Of Ned Farrier Master Mariner: Call of the Cape

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

On the expertise I claim only a deep interest in history, leadership, and social history. After some thirty-six years in the fire and emergency services I can, I think, claim to have seen the best and the worst of human behaviour and condition. History, particularly naval history, has always been one of my interests and the Battle of Jutland is a truly fascinating study in the importance of communication between the leader and every level between him/her and the people performing whatever task is required.  In my own career, on a very much smaller scale, this is a lesson every officer learns very quickly.

Patrick's book list on the Battle of Jutland

What is my book about?

Captain Heron finds himself embroiled in a conflict that threatens to bring down the world order he is sworn to defend when a secretive Consortium seeks to undermine the World Treaty Organisation and the democracies it represents as he oversees the building and commissioning of a new starship.

When the Consortium employs an assassin from the Pantheon, it becomes personal.

Captain James Heron First Into the Fray: Prequel to Harry Heron Into the Unknown of the Harry Heron Series

By Patrick G. Cox, Janet Angelo (editor),

What is this book about?

The year is 2202, and the recently widowed Captain James Heron is appointed to stand by his next command, the starship NECS Vanguard, while she is being built. He and his team soon discover that they are battling the Consortium, a shadowy corporate group that seeks to steal the specs for the ship’s new super weapon. The Consortium hires the Pantheon, a mysterious espionage agency, to do their dirty work as they lay plans to take down the Fleet and gain supreme power on an intergalactic scale. When Pantheon Agent Bast and her team kidnap Felicity Rowanberg, a Fleet agent…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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