BMCR 2020.10.20

Die Polis als Sieger

, Die Polis als Sieger: Kriegsdenkmäler im archaisch-klassischen Griechenland. Klio. Beihefte, Neue Folge, Band 32. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. x, 342 p. ISBN9783110626049 €99,95.


In this revised PhD thesis, Janett Schröder collects the scattered archaeological evidence and literary sources about Greek war memorials (“Kriegsdenkmäler”) for the archaic and classical periods and analyses them against the background of the development of the polis. Schröder defines “Kriegsdenkmäler” in a broad sense as rituals, objects, and buildings designed to preserve the memory of a military conflict. In doing so, they communicated messages about the self-image and ideals of the respective communities of remembrance (“Der Begriff ‘Kriegsdenkmal’ bezeichnet Gegenstände, Bauten und Rituale, welche die Erinnerung an einen militärisch ausgetragenen Konflikt bewahren sollen und damit eine Botschaft verbinden, welche das Selbstverständnis und die Ideale der jeweiligen Erinnerungsgeschaft reflektiert,” p. 11). Schröder’s work joins a growing body of research based on the theories of cultural and communicative memory developed by Jan and Aleida Assmann in the 1990s.[1]

Schröder recaps these theories, offers a detailed literature review, and names the main sources for her study in her introduction. She outlines her research subjects, categorising the evidence into four groups: dedications, cults and festivals, grave monuments, and tropaia. The study is arranged chronologically. Each chapter discusses a particular period and focuses on a specific category of memorial, drawing from evidence on the varied forms of war remembrance in the Greek polis.

For the archaic period (chap. 2: “Die Politisierung der Erinnerung” [The politicization of memory]), she focusses on the dedication of weapons as the oldest known form of commemorating victories in ancient Greece. She argues convincingly that the tradition of weapon dedications was an autochthonous development that originated in the formation and institutionalisation of the polis. Dedicating weapons and statues in supra-regional sanctuaries was an expression of the independent polis; therefore, it did not occur in cities dominated by tyrants or foreign powers. The treasuries that flourished briefly in Delphi, and elsewhere, in the late archaic period were not all built from, or for, loot. They were chiefly monuments of political collectives competing for prestige. As for battlefield tropaia, she concurs with Rabe and others who consider them an element of the fifth century, when an increasing number of poleis buried their fallen warriors on the battlefield and celebrated the dead within the polis.[2] In this view, tropaia substituted for individual and mass graves on the battlefield as signs of victory.

In chapter three, which covers the early classical period (chap. 3: “Die Selbstvergewisserung der Bürgerschaft” [The self-assertion of the citizens]) Schröder concentrates on cults and festivals arising from military victories. The battles of the Persian Wars offered many occasions for introducing festivals and were a major incentive for developing new cultic elements. The poleis erected numerous buildings, statues and markers in Panhellenic sanctuaries. Along with the omnipresent remembrances of the Persian Wars was a second—and perhaps more important—development which was tangible by the end of the sixth century as commemorating wars became important within communities. Athens pioneered the use of war memorials and festivals to strengthen solidarity among its citizens and created new forms like the Demosion Sema. Other cities followed suit and—as a consequence—weapon dedications begin to disappear.

Trends of the fifth century intensified in the late classical period. Here, Schröder pays special attention to the burial of war dead in the polis. Concurrently, statues and buildings erected in cities and sanctuaries became costlier and more elaborate. They were used by dominant city-states to highlight their superiority. The monumentalisation of victory (chap 4: “Die Monumentalisierung des Sieges,”) was a manifestation of claims in the struggle for hegemony.

In closing, Schröder summarises the chronological developments and draws some general conclusions. She emphasises the close relationship between war monuments, the socio-political structure of city-states, and their foreign policies. Memorials and commemoration rituals fostered the self-image of the citizens and were a means of communication within, and with other, political communities. Schröder closes her study with an excursus on the use of Pausanias as a source on archaic and classical war memorials, a long bibliography, and an index of subjects, locations, and persons.

The study is well-written and includes several tables and greyscale images. Her appraisal of the development of the Greek polis is sometimes superficial and one-sided (e.g., regarding the emergence of the hoplite phalanx, the formation of the polis, and Athenian Democracy) and she offers few new insights on individual categories of monuments and practices. Schröder’s strength lies in combining archaeological and literary sources to unite an array of monuments that are normally studied separately. Connections and interdependencies become apparent, allowing Schröder to explain the form, flowering and vanishing of particular practices. Future research in this field cannot ignore this study.


[1] See especially Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992 (trans. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination, Cambridge 2011).

[2] Britta Rabe, Tropaia. τροπή und σκυ̃λα – Entstehung, Funktion und Bedeutung des griechischen Tropaions, Rahden 2008.