BMCR 2001.12.16

War and Violence in Ancient Greece

, , War and violence in ancient Greece. London: Duckworth, 2000. x, 389 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715630466. $55.00.

This selection of papers was drawn from a seminar series War and Violence in Greek Society, delivered at the Institute for Classical Studies, London, in spring of 1998. The volume has three stated aims: first, to connect war to wider issues of conflict on psychological and sociological terms; second, to address current controversies in studies of archaic and classical warfare; and, third, to challenge the idea that there was a radical break in warfare after the rise of Macedonia and the Hellenistic kingdoms. Individual papers are generally focused tightly on these topics, and their organization is clear in the Introduction and the Table of Contents. This volume is required reading for everyone interested in Greek battle, warfare, and violence, and indeed in the experience of battle across human history.

The two essays of Part I “Causes of War” focus on psychological aspects of war and violence. Lendon uses Homeric vengeance to interpret classical warfare, placing revenge, manifested predominantly as anger and resulting acts of violence, at the heart of Greek war. Although practices of blood revenge had declined since ca. 650 BC, the ethos of vengeance continued, and it is possible to distinguish violence based on revenge from that based on other, less personal, motives. As Homeric vengeance killings are characterized by mutilation of the enemy, so the utter destruction of an enemy polis in the classical period is an act of vengeance. It is a root premise of this article that there are psychological elements common to the Homeric and classical experiences, but the author does not explicitly justify this abstraction of a psychological cause from these very different contexts. This is a problem within Greek history itself, since the question remains as to why the classical Greeks were able to subordinate, or at least transfer, their desire for revenge within the city to a deliberative forum, while interstate relations remained so often a matter of physical confrontation. A deeper justification is needed for using Homer, the epic story of a war against non-Greeks, to interpret historical evidence for violence between Greek poleis.

In an essay that links our present to the Homeric past, Shay returns to the themes of his book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character in his essay “Killing rage: Physis or nomos — or both?” He begins with the questions “Are war and violence ‘human nature’, biologically constructed like breathing? Or are they human social practices, historically and culturally constructed protocols” without biological inevitability? Shay’s answer is that thumos, like language, is a human universal that is no less biological than breathing, but that the content of thumos, like vocabulary and syntax, is “culturally constructed through historical social practice.” “Attachments, ambitions and ideals” are the “features of the normal adult world which control thumotic emotions and moods.” Thumos itself, according to Shay a synonym for character, exists largely in relation to social power and the society’s moral order. It is “evolved out of violence and war in our ancestral evolutionary past and still explosive when hit.” Social construction “determines what constitutes a hit.” “High stakes threats of destruction to thumos — to attachments, ideals, ambitions — trigger killing rage against the human source of this threat. It is our species, nature.”

It is the nature / nurture alternative that makes this approach unsatisfying, and undercuts Shay’s strong conclusion that “we can end” war. If each of us is determined by natural and cultural factors, both experienced now and inherited from the past, then how are we to change the content of our thumos ? Within this structure of determinism it follows logically that the solution to the problem of war can only be found in social engineering, the conscious creation of new cultural conditions by which our children are not influenced by inappropriate social forces. But social engineering, in practice, means the application of government power to enforce certain ideals. How can we use such power, given our vulnerability to cultural and historical conditions? If our own characters are molded by evolutionary and social forces, how are we to step out of character and teach our children? In these terms the answer appears as elusive for us as it did for Plato.

Shay’s essay suggests a better answer, albeit implicitly. He observes that the human brain evolved in a very short period of time, approx. 250,000 to 50,000 years ago, as shown by the presence of flaked flint, bone and antler tools. These tools accompanied the first art and are therefore evidence for culture. Shay pursues the social implications of this (“it is our animal nature to be social”) but lets drop his observation that “these tool kits varied dramatically from place to place, often within only 50 miles, and they became unfrozen in time.” The reason for this, I maintain, is that individual people producing the tools thought, and exercised free will, in producing their innovations. They were not culturally determined in any primary sense; they created culture, and broke with the past in doing so. We should consider that the answer to war and violence is to be found in rational thought, and that thinking, not nature or nurture, is the answer to war. It may be that only with this perspective can we understand the full meaning of Shay’s important and moving observation that the traumatized soldiers in Vietnam are not the obstacles to the elimination of war. It was not the hits on their honor that caused the conflict but the decisions of men in offices thousands of miles away.

Part II, “Forms of Violence within the Polis,” turns to the sociological aspects of this volume’s first aim. Hornblower explores “Sticks, stones, and Spartans: the sociology of Spartan violence.” Thucydides 8.84 tells us that Syracusan and Thurian sailors rushed the Spartan commander Astyochus with the intent of stoning him when he threatened one of their number with his bacterie. Why? This fascinating paper begins with a detailed examination of what a bacterie and a skeptron are, widening to consider the master / slave relationship, and then the relationship between the Spartans and the other Greek forces.

The skeptron and the bacterie have fundamental connections to issues of force, power and violence. The commander who wields a stick is holding an instrument that is relatively powerless in and of itself, but that conveys commanding power to the one holding it. Analogously, in the game of chess the king is the least powerful piece on the board, but his fate determines the outcome of the game. Similarly slave-owners and those who treat others as slaves rely on the symbols of power rather than the actual application of violence. The passage that brings this to life is Hdt 4.3, when the Scythians regain the upper hand against their slaves only after they put down their spears and bows and show the slaves their whips. This leads the insurgents to lose heart, and to remember their place as slaves. In the Thucydides passage the Greek sailors rose against the Spartan commander because the Spartan had a habit of treating free men as if they were helots. This is a powerful explanation for the course of events that followed the Spartan defeat of Athens.

Hybris and revenge for the slighting of honor are the subjects of Fisher’s contribution. Highly organized, violent conflicts, and the collective hatreds they reflect, may be based on personal hatreds engendered by personal slights, quarrels and feuds. It is an error to fail to consider these personal factors when considering institutionalized warfare. Placing political thought and action within ideas of honor and revenge, Fisher turns to Solon’s poetry, the Theognidea, drama and the historians, and finds “specific outrages as individual sparking points for violent retaliation” to be a constant through the sources. If Fisher is right, then the Greeks dampened violence inside the polis by transferring the contest over honor to the arenas of discourse and law. Although there is little that is ground-breaking in this essay, it is a worthwhile reminder of the importance of honor and revenge in matters of institutionalized conflict in the Greek past, and it rounds out this volume’s examination of the psychological factors that contribute to the outbreak of violence.

Part III, “Beyond the Classical Phalanx,” is comprised of five papers dealing directly with the nuts and bolts of war. These papers, more than the others, show the depths of disagreements that remain over the basic nature of Greek warfare and battle. First, van Wees uses iconography to question the conclusion that the hoplite phalanx was adopted in the early archaic period; in his view, it emerged over two centuries, and its development may not have been complete before the Persian Wars. Archaic iconography suggests the use of two spears by hoplites; archaic poetry speaks of archers and missile attack; lead figure dedications in the late seventh century are of squatting archers; and the Greek armies at Marathon and Thermopylae were far more maneuverable than the forces in the Peloponnesian War. To Van Wees the evidence does not support an outright claim that the phalanx was not in use before the Persian Wars, but the possibility must not be dismissed out of hand. This essay should trigger a re-examination of the premises underlying our modern conclusions about the historical development of the phalanx.

Krentz questions a different truth by focusing on deception in Greek warfare. Numerous examples indicate a willingness to outsmart an enemy through ruse and misinformation. Rather than adhering to an ideal by slugging it out on a level battlefield, the use of deception also connects the classical Greeks with Homeric warriors; for each, shrewd thinking and outwitting the enemy are important values. Although an ideal of “fair fighting” may have arisen with the archaic phalanx, this ethos may not have taken strong root in actual practice. The Peloponnesian War may have been a turning point, a conflict so deadly that any means to defeat the enemy was fair. Krentz provides a valuable appendix with over 140 examples of deception, including surprise attacks as well as outright deception. Clearly scholars who consider the ideal of hoplite battle to be the dominant practice must account for the deceit found in the evidence. But further work should be done to distinguish passive deceptions (based on a lack of information by the enemy, and including sneak attacks) from active deception (in which wrong information is intentionally conveyed).

Among these essays Hanson’s piece embraces most closely the generally accepted view, that the phalanx was the most common, and preferred, method of fighting. He offers what may be the most important statement in this section: “The term hoplite warfare is in some sense an abstraction.” Openly admitting that the flux of military events spanning four centuries includes many instances of non-hoplite warfare, Hanson abstracts the ideal from these events, maintaining that hoplite fighting was closest to the methods needed to quickly resolve disputes over land, and that it remained the ideal method of fighting in general. Hanson clearly considers traditional hoplite fighting to be more important than the deceptions listed by Krentz and the extraneous activities listed by Rawlings in the following article. Although he may be right to consider hoplite battle to be the most common form of institutionalized violence and a recognized ideal, it is clear that not every general thought so in every case. This is not surprising, given an attempt to minimize the slaughter that was central to it. The ideal can be approached in many ways, and the Greek could break with it if lives were at stake.

Krentz’s list of deceptions has affinities with Rawlings’ ‘Alternative Agonies: Hoplite martial and combat experiences beyond the phalanx.’ Although the hoplite is best known for forming a line and bearing the shock of armored attack, “many hoplites were military all-rounders, able to perform in a variety of combat contexts. Their training and equipment allowed them a military flexibility greater than modern theorists often allow.” A significant factor in the longevity of the hoplite was precisely his ability to row, build walls, conduct fast raids and reprisals, and man garrisons and warning posts. Rawlings takes this examination into the Athenian ephebeia, arguing (contra Vidal-Naquet) that this was not a ritualistic antithesis of hoplite activities, but rather the essential training requiring for hoplite duties.1 Rawlings counters the objection that the hoplite was only truly effective in a phalanx with evidence for running in full panoply (including modern tests), and with the use of dance as training for soldiers. The same conclusion follows for this article as for the others in this section: the actual time of the hoplite clash was brief, and we must not assume that the clash was the only thing of importance. Much else is required to prepare for the intensity of battle: to solidify a strategic position, to row, and to remain in top physical condition.

Strauss intends less to solve the question of the lack of commemoration of classical-period seamen than to elucidate issues underlying the problem. Why is there such a lack of memorials to Athenian sailors, both literary and monumental, in classical Athens? Despite considerable pressures on commanders to find lost seamen, natural conditions may account to some extent for their inability to bring the bodies home. It is unlikely that a body would be recovered if not found within a few hours, as Strauss’ detailed explanation of what happens to a body at sea makes clear. But there are also ideological reasons. Although he was an expert on sea power, “Thucydides seems to have been tone deaf to the sound of oars,” his silence betraying his contempt for rowers. Similar views would have prevented the recording of sailors’ names on private funerary monuments. Yet there remains no obstacle to the recording of seamen’s names on the annual lists of war dead displayed in the Ceramicus, and Strauss concludes that democratic control of political decisions makes it likely that the rowers had their place in those records. However, without new evidence it remains unlikely that Strauss’ suggestion can be validated.

Part IV, “War and Religion,” follows as its title promises. Deacy takes issue with the dichotomy between Ares and Athena, arguing that to see the figures as respectively brutal strength versus clarity and rationality fails to capture the nuances of their complex natures. Rather than accepting such a dichotomy, Deacy sees the figures as embodying the contradictions found in civilized societies that go to war. Structuralism reveals many similarities between the figures; for example, the war cry, a terrifying gaze, and a delight in battle. The main point of difference is in Athena’s ability to “dissociate herself from her warlike power in ways that Ares cannot.” Her removable armour, a contrast with the blood that covers Ares, shows the “fundamentally detachable” nature of her warrior power. In structuralist terms, this may be read as an opposition between armour and natural forces. But this reader is uneasy; it may be that, to the Greeks, the essence of clarity / rationality was not the consistent rejection of war, but rather the ability to fight when it was appropriate and to take off the armor when it was not.

The ritualistic sacrifice that takes place before every battle, and indeed at various stages of military operations, is Parker’s subject in “Sacrifice and Battle.” In delimiting a period in which Greek fighters used sacrifice of the Xenophonic type, Parker sees indications that it is post-Homeric, rising in the archaic period and phasing out at the start of the Hellenistic period. The post-classical decline of these rituals relates to the nature of political organization and to military command. In the classical period sacrifice may have served to offer reassurance to otherwise peaceful men, and to provide a means of control on the “civic general.” Both of these functions were inescapable, but they decline in importance during the Hellenistic monarchies. Consequently the commonly accepted view that, after Gaugamela, Alexander’s person substituted for omens as a guarantee of military success, may be correct. Nevertheless, generals needed seers, and often used them with flexibility to support their tactics. The seer becomes simply a tool of control over the army. The repetition of rituals so that the seer can bring in the prognosis that the general needs underscores the pragmatic use that generals made of seers. No self-confident general would be willing to elevate the ideal represented by the seer over his own immediate judgment. This highlights problems that the essay does not address: what is the nature of the “reassurance” that the seer offers, how does the authority of the seer change as ideologies change after Alexander, and how does this relate to the form of legitimacy conferred on military commanders?

Part V of this book is concerned with showing that there was no radical break in the practices of warfare corresponding with the rise of the Macedonian phalanx and the Hellenistic kingdoms. Beston’s focus on Hellenistic military leadership points to moral qualities as central to the explanations offered by ancient historians for military successes and failures; apart from our views today, to the ancient historians these were the real explanations. The generals developed virtue through total mental and physical immersion in their task, a form of self-denial. There is a tension between the general’s need to excel through personal prowess on the battlefield while avoiding actions that put him needlessly at risk. However, other than noting the failure of Hellenistic accounts to resolve questions about the commander’s role while providing increased details of the general’s personal prowess, this essay does not always live up to the “continuities” theme promised in the section title.

In particular, although the essay stresses the similarities between classical and post-classical practices by using a classical source to establish the problem, the differences between these periods are often not clearly stated. The essay also tends to bounce between classical and post-classical sources without making clear the implications of the chronology. For instance, a sub-section “masculinity” is based primarily on Plutarch and Polybius, citing Xenophon as a precedent. The next sub-section “Training” focuses on Xenophon, with scant mention of later sources and no explanation for why the fourth century writer should be used this way. This method leaves various problems unresolved, not the least of which is the matter of reciprocity and its continuity into the post-classical world. Reciprocity is, according to the author’s statement in his last paragraph, the system within which “the representation of duty as benefaction” is situated. But what is the nature of that “duty” in the classical and post-classical contexts, and how do enhanced accounts in the Hellenistic historians of the personal prowess of generals relate to the continued relevance of reciprocity in that period?

The Hellenistic king’s legitimacy as well as his treasury were dependent on warfare that raged on a wider scale than the inter-polis fighting of the classical period. Yet, Ma reminds us, wars between poleis continued into the Hellenistic period, and polis ideals, customs and institutions could be important factors in wars between empires. After presenting the contemporary conclusion that he wishes to contest, namely that the Hellenistic poleis were “powerless and militarily defenseless,” Ma turns almost exclusively to post-classical sources in order to show how the polis factored into Hellenistic military affairs. In addition to matters such as physical fortifications, the conscripting of personnel, and institutional deliberations and decisions, the polis also figured centrally in matters causal to war, such as territorial disputes, self-defense and the desire for increased territory. Even issues in which there is a clear break with the fourth century, such as military institutions and the tactics of fighting, show signs of continuity. Ultimately the nature of the polis as an autarkic, self-governing body underwent a process of slow transformation, and its capacity for violence and aggression against other poleis could break out whenever the specter of a threatening empire was removed. To get to the bottom of this claim will require more precise identification of the relationships between factors within the polis and events external to it, including research into particular poleis rather than a sample across the board. But the essay supports its central point clearly.

This is an important volume. Art historians, sociologists, psychologists, military theorists and students of ancient religion will all find food for thought. The volume’s organization makes selective identification of narrow topics easy. Krentz’s list of deceptions is in particular a valuable resource. The differences of opinion held by the contributors, and the numerous challenges they offer to the accepted conclusions of today, should help put to bed the idea that there was any single way in which a Greek could wage war, or that the loss of Greek political independence resulted in the immediate overthrow of traditional forms of institutionalized violence—or that we can understand such violence apart from the moral and psychological factors emphasized by the sources.


1. Vidal-Naquet, P., The Black Hunter: Forms of thought and forms of society in the Greek world, Baltimore, 1986. p. 120.