Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.20

Sonya Nevin, Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare: Temples, Sanctuaries and Conflict in Antiquity.   London:  I. B. Tauris, 2016.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9781784532857.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Constanze Graml, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (


The book under review presents the revised results of Sonya Nevin´s doctoral thesis, submitted in 2009 at University College Dublin. Nevin focuses on the dynamics of warfare, more specifically the behavior of military commanders and their troops towards sacred sites in the Classical period, and approaches the issue mainly by considering written sources. The core investigation focuses on the use of sanctuaries during military actions such as bivouacking prior to battle or occupying sacred sites in order to install garrisons. The author aims to identify and analyze the unwritten behavioral codes of acting “right” or “wrong” towards the sacred sphere, which represent the common values of a society and were embedded in Greek culture. The acting individual or group is aware of these values and free to act with respect (piety) or disrespect (impiety). Moreover, the ancient authors transmit these human actions subjectively and with bias when they embed them into their narrative strategies.

Nevin distinguishes her work from the previous either historical or historiographical studies by applying both approaches. By locating her work in the field of behavioral studies in Classical antiquity she intends to gain insight into the reasons for the actions of military leaders. Their conduct and the description of it are a product of the cultural values which Nevin means to explore. She seldom deviates from her chronological focus (the late archaic to the classical period), only, for instance, when she embeds the episodes collected into a broader historical context by referring to the preliminary events leading up to the conflict (for examples referring to actions of Solon and Peisistratus, see Index). In the introductory section the author defines her topic as military behavior (individual or group, depending on the written record) towards sacred sites in enemy territory or during defensive conflicts in home territory, and its evaluation in written sources (pp. 1- 4). She clearly excludes military behavior during times of peace in home territory. As sources of information, Nevin uses the works of Thucydides, Herodotos, and Xenophon as well as the much later works of Diodoros Siculus and Plutarch. Archaeological, epigraphical and iconographical sources are filled in at certain points.

Nevin approaches the topic in three main parts. In Part I, entitled “Boundaries of Culture and Space”, Nevin gives a brief definition of the term “sacred space” ( “What is Sacred Space? The Sacred Landscape”). She focuses on static and clearly-defined sacred sites, which are separated from non-sacred space with various kinds of boundaries, as well as on the interior equipment of these sites ( “The Content of Sanctuaries”). She also sketches out situational modes of behavior, be it inside a sacred site ( “How to Behave in a Sanctuary”) or within the military ( “How to Behave in an Army”) and concludes with several examples taken from the Trojan Cycle ( “Examples from Troy”).

In the following two sections (Part II and III), Nevin assembles a vast number of written examples as case studies. Part II, which focuses on sanctuaries, consists of four chapters: Chapter 1, “The Temple as Fortress”; Chapter 2, “Talismans”; Chapter 3, “On the Battlefield”; and Chapter 4, “Taking Asylum”. Nevin focuses on events shortly before or during battle that have a relationship to sacred precincts and lists cases of military action inside sanctuaries. On the one hand, cult sites are classified according to their position within a polis´ territory, such as central acropoleis and peripheral border sanctuaries, and therefore the static components of a sacred landscape governed by members of the political entity. The impact of military action on sacred sites seems to be dependent on the site’s “ownership”, whether lying within the polis territory or belonging to an ally. While the use of a sanctuary by foreign troops during battle seems to have caused miasma and the unlawful movement of artefacts violated the place´s sanctity, the use of sacred space by the polis in charge of it did not breach the sanctuary´s sacredness. The explicit violation of a cult place by illicitly manipulating its contents, whether the mortal remains of a hero or cult statues or dedications, could also serve as a military strategy.

On the other hand, battlefields—lying within the territory and its sacred landscape—are often referred to in written sources by the sanctuaries that are nearby. The locations of sanctuaries in themselves don´t seem to influence the location of battlefields, but very often act as moral support for those fighting on their own territory. But their practical use after battle as a nearby asylum allows for insights into the moral constitution of successful military leaders, whose attitudes towards enemy troops taking refuge can be analyzed. The written accounts regarding suppliants seem to be a benchmark for the characterization of military leaders, e.g., showing their lack of ethics when they threaten or violate the protection of the suppliants within the sacred space.

Part III is comprised by Chapters 5 (“Reputation and Diplomacy”) and 6 (“Fighting for Sacred Space: Sacred Wars, Prestige, and Plunder”) and is by far the most extensive section. It broaches the issue of “relationships” between different political camps regarding the use of or interest in sacred sites. Nevin focuses on the modes of behavior (acting “right” or “wrong”) and their intended outcome, i.e., the desired perception or reputation of several military leaders. Again, the attitude towards the sacred sphere is a crucial element in the way ancient authors convey the morality of those leaders. A special focus lies on sacred sites of supra-regional importance, whose control was highly desirable and therefore led to military conflicts.

The author´s “Conclusions“concentrate on the fact of ownership, i.e., how sacred sites belong to a political entity (including allies). Depending upon who holds a sacred site, the modes of behavior and their interpretation are viewed as legitimate or not. A member of the political entity governing the sacred site has different authority than foreigners, both in strictly religious affairs and in military affairs concerning the sanctuary. The use by the governing party as fortification, garrison or even battlefield is not illegitimate, and short-term use is even normal. The same actions undertaken by a foreign party could work as a measure to demoralize the opponent, but could also result in a highly negative perception. Collaborators were seen as jointly legitimizing initially illegitimate actions. The perception of plundering, which was initially seen as wrong-doing, might have changed over time as dedications were more and more seen as stored valuables. Therefore, it became “customary”, not legitimate. Inappropriate behavior towards the sacred sphere could be understood as an indicator of the ineptness of a single person and the actions carried out. Therefore, the morality of a person or party is used in written sources as a measure of inter-state politics. Wrong-doing, seen as impiety, shaped the perception of a military campaign and its leader. Developing different narratives was used as a justification strategy, and historians composed their accounts by embedding them into a greater context or by stressing details in order to make the action and its outcome comprehensible for the reader. This final section is followed by endnotes, the bibliography, and a general index.

Sonya Nevin´s book is a carefully edited, high-quality study. The style is reader friendly, but the theoretical approach may make it more suited to advanced students of history. The study combines two fundamental and highly complex aspects of life in antiquity, religion and war. All ancient sources are referred to in English translation taken from the Loeb Classical Library; sometimes keywords are additionally cited in the Greek original. An index of all written sources would have been helpful. The all-encompassing relevance of the sacred sphere in Greek antiquity and its influence on military practice is highlighted by an approach that focuses on behavior and the perception of behavior. A minor objection could be levelled at the introduction, since the definitions given there are very narrow. The system of sacred space is more or less defined as cult topography, and as such, only sites with built installations are taken into account. The use of the expression ‘sacred space’ and the brief look at sacred landscape are misleading, as the book clearly refers to enclosed or distinctly defined places. Such a definition of sacred space/sacred landscape misses important parts of this concept, such as the temporary aspect of sacred space as it is brought out by processions, for example. Regarding space, cartographical material on the case studies might have been helpful for the reader to visualize the described actions.

Furthermore, only the two titular spheres, “army” and “sanctuary”, are considered as provoking behavioral attitudes, and only these are defined. But the attitude towards the religious sphere, exemplified in the modern research concepts of personal religion or polis religion, might have affected the behavior of military leaders. They were most certainly products of their cultural/religious imprint, shaped by the religious practices of their oikos, their place of origin and the self-concept of their polis, or even by further cultural contacts made while campaigning abroad. For the two poleis Athens and Sparta, the religious practices differed as they highlighted diverse deities and also had slightly varying conceptions of the specific pantheon of the polis. Actual behavior and its intended perception are therefore rooted in both the individual and in organizations. The perception of behavior conveyed in written sources further results not only from the actual historical behavior and the perception of its actors, but is also shaped by the author´s cultural/religious imprint or expectations of behavior (e.g., Plutarch´s “Romanized” view on actions undertaken several centuries earlier cannot possibly be directly connected to those events, even if Plutarch shows an “intense focus on moral character and… [is] stepped in classical writers and history” [pp. 3-4]). Despite these flaws, which could have been stated more clearly in the introductory section, and stem from the fragmentary state of source material, Sonya Nevin´s approach adds to the already existing historical and historiographical studies by providing a complementary, innovative, and interesting perspective on the correlation of war and religion.

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