BMCR 2021.03.07

The cultural parameters of the Graeco-Roman war discourse

, The cultural parameters of the Graeco-Roman war discourse. Antiquité et sciences humaines, 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. 724. ISBN 9782503586472 €115,00.


Since the middle of the last century, there have been several attempts to contextualize research on war and warfare in the ancient Mediterranean world in terms of broader issues beyond military history. One particularly fruitful means of doing this has come by examining the impact of culture on war and warfare, with Ted Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts one of the forerunners. Theo Vijgen’s book, under review here, is the most recent such work. Like Lendon he has cast his net widely, covering war and culture from Homer to the end of the fifth century CE. Where most previous work, like Lendon’s, has concentrated on combat, Vijgen instead concentrates on war in general, specifically the discourse of war. The book is based on Vijgen’s PhD thesis completed at the Free University in Brussels in 2018. Therein, Vijgen identifies some dominant strands in the war discourses of the Greek and Roman worlds and investigates how they changed over time and place. Although some of Vijgen’s conclusions will be familiar, this lengthy book serves as a valuable synthesis of many of the varied sources essential to understanding war and culture in the ancient Mediterranean.

This book includes a detailed discussion of the scholarship on war and culture in the first chapter, the introduction. Vijgen highlights the work of Geertz, Barthes, and others along with the attendant issues of cultural memory, cultural tradition, and cultural encounters. He then turns to some of the key works on war and cultural history. There follow two chapters on the Greek world, one principally on the Classical era, the other on the Hellenistic, and seven on the Roman world from early Rome to the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Each of these chapters contains a detailed introduction of its own, both of the nature of warfare in the respective periods and of the sources for the war discourse.

As noted, the first two chapters focus on Greek affairs. Chapter two focuses on war in the archaic and classical Greek world, but Vijgen concentrates primarily on the latter. After covering how Greek warfare changed between the rise of the polis and Alexander the Great, Vijgen homes in on agonal warfare, particularly that exemplified by Greek city-states which used the hoplite phalanx. He recognizes that the much-discussed rule-based form of combat made famous by Hanson and connected to a hoplite revolution was more rhetoric than reality. Vijgen includes poetry and drama in his analysis, and draws attention to four themes, the dichotomy between bravery and courage, the competitiveness of agonal war, Greek superiority and liberty, and the duality of war (its beauty and its horrors). In chapter three on the Hellenistic world, the war discourse is increasingly centred on monarchs. Many of the themes Vijgen identifies are continuations of those from the Greek era, only modified for the Hellenistic context, like agonal warfare, liberty and Greek superiority, and competition and commemoration. A big part of the change in the Greek war discourse involved a shift from communal to individual contributions to war making, combat especially. New themes for the Hellenistic era include what Vijgen calls military excellence, and victory and the iconography of power. Much of this has to do with the impact of Alexander the Great and the dominant role of the various kingdoms’ rulers. Additionally, in terms of the visual material, there were no inhibitions in showing violence in a variety of media, and images of victory often emphasized defeated enemies, like the dying Galatians from Pergamum.

The next three chapters, four, five, and six, shift to Rome. Chapter four covers early Rome from 750 to 290 BCE, chapter five the mid Republic from 290 to 120 BCE, and chapter six the late republic from 120 to 27 BCE. In part because of the problematic evidence, particularly the absence of a written history before 200 BCE, Vijgen’s discussion in chapter four is brief (just over ten pages). Instead, he focuses primarily on Roman myths connected to war and Rome’s foundations. Chapter five, on the mid Republic, is much more extensive. The legend of Camillus and the place of Tyche feature prominently, and we see the emergence of three important Roman discourses on war: patria, virtus, and disciplina. Following Lendon, Vijgen sees virtus and disciplina as two sides of the same coin, and he looks at how they feature in the works of Polybius, Plautus, and many more besides. When he turns to the superiority discourse, Polybius features prominently (again). On the other hand, the victory discourse, which appears in visual media, is generally absent from texts. In chapter six, where Vijgen turns to the late republic, we get the emergence of the legitimacy discourse, particularly as manifested in the well-known notion of a “just war”, particularly as expressed by Cicero. Commanders play a big role too, with these men becoming the locus of military loyalty throughout the period. Perhaps the biggest underlying theme in all this is the personalization of the war discourse.

With chapter seven, Vijgen shifts to the imperial era, with a standalone chapter devoted to Augustus. The great Roman virtues of virtus and pietas, which play a big role in Vergil’s Aeneid, are discussed along with destiny. Here too Vijgen comments on Livy’s role as a myth maker. He also touches on Romanization, conquest, and empire, and the underlying discourse of victory, which is usually coupled with peace. On Augustan victory monuments like the Ara Pacis, Vijgen notes the absence of battle scenes, which is in contrast to the monuments of previous eras discussed in the book. The subsequent chapter, eight, takes a much broader sweep going from Tiberius to Commodus. Here, Vijgen draws attention to three different perspectives that are, in his view, endemic to the period’s war discourse: the conformist perspective, which is in-line with the views put forward by the Roman state; the critical perspective which echoes some of the minor dissent that existed under Augustus; and the dissociative perspective, which is divorced from contemporary concerns and looks back to the glories of the republic. In fact, most of the critical views found in the texts of this period are directed towards the empire’s soldiers. The themes of legitimacy, loyalty, and supremacy are integrated into the wider war discourse throughout this nearly two-hundred-year period, and there are obvious differences with previous eras, like disciplina now being defined in terms of service to the military rather than the state. Virtus, on the other hand, tends to be removed from the field of battle in a departure from past practices.

The last two chapters shift to late antiquity, with chapter nine covering the years from Septimius Severus to just before the death of Constantius II. In this chapter, the focus turns to the increasing impact of Christianity on the Roman war discourse and the changes brought about by Constantine in particular. Among other things, Vijgen notes the impact of Christianity on the understanding of the past, which has an obvious bearing on the sources available. At the same time, new types of evidence emerge, like the acts of the military martyrs. With Christianity now the dominant force at the start of this era, two broader discourses emerge, a traditional, secular discourse and a Christian one, with the former bearing many of the hallmarks of years past until the reigns of Constantine’s sons. Regarding the latter, for Vijgen, common traits of the Christian discourse of the age were antagonism and exclusion. The tenth and final chapter takes things to 500 CE. Vijgen sees Romanization and barbarization happening side-by-side, but where many scholars see Roman and barbarian relations as inclusive, he argues that this is not what the sources say. Most of the literary evidence is now Christian, like the ecclesiastical histories of Orosius, Socrates, and Theodoret, and when they do cover military affairs, its inclusion often comes down to the religious affiliation of the participants. Vijgen argues that the Romans continued to believe in their own superiority, despite all the changes (and setbacks), though the superiority discourse shifts in the fifth century from superiority over barbarians to superiority over infidels. Virtus and disciplina remain important themes, and the Romans continue to celebrate victory, only using different language.

In the end, Vijgen comes to the following conclusions. There were three main strands to the development of the war discourse from the Greek to the Roman world: bravery and/or courage, liberty/patria/loyalty, and superiority and victory. Over time, there were three principal shifts in these components: first from an emphasis on the collective whole to the individual in all three strands; second, the emergence of victory as the leading focus of the discourse on war; and third, a shift from exclusion to inclusion and back to exclusion of various groups.

Space precludes a detailed consideration of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. One feature worth highlighting is the quality of the abundant introductory material, which covers everything from the practice of war and the changing modern historiography to the varied sources available. He includes a significant number of texts which do not often feature in works on war. So, Vijgen touches on the characterization of soldiers, particularly mercenaries, in Plautus’ mid-republican plays at one end (chronologically), and the soldiers-turned-martyrs of hagiography at the other end. There is lots of valuable insight scattered throughout the book. For instance, Vijgen discusses the pleasures of battle in the context of the two faces of war in the Greek world. On the other hand, though it was not his primary focus, he makes some interesting observations concerning the absence of battle in some Augustan era art, and on the value of later Christian historians in informing our understanding of Rome’s war discourse.

Inevitably, in covering such a vast chronological and evidentiary range, there are going to be gaps. The discussion of the changing Roman war discourse is much more expansive than the Greek one. While there is some logic to this given the greater chronological range and the available sources, Hellenists are likely to look at the imbalance askance. Along the same lines, there is a much greater focus on affairs in the western half of the Mediterranean at the expense of the east, to some degree exemplified by the cut-off in 500 CE and the greater emphasis on the western half of the Roman Empire in late antiquity. Regarding evidence, Vijgen does raise the problem of audience – who is the discourse by and for. In the case of Greece, where a significant proportion of the texts he discusses hail from Athens, this necessarily makes the conclusions harder to generalize for the wider world. In the case of Rome, to my mind a central issue is determining what constitutes a Roman source with a Roman perspective. For instance, Polybius and Plutarch both feature regularly, while Josephus appears only in part. Yet, all three wrote in Greek, and I think it is hard to argue Polybius was any more Roman than Josephus. Indeed, you could argue that Polybius and Josephus have more in common than Polybius and Plutarch. So, what makes Plutarch more representative or valuable as a Roman source than Josephus, at least if we accept that Polybius serves as such an important source for the Roman discourse? To my mind, then, one important aspect that could use clarification is what constitutes a Roman source and what does not.

Despite the broad and wide-ranging coverage, one category of text that regularly gets left out is the military manual, save for Vegetius in the last chapter and Polyaenus a few chapters earlier. To be fair, this genre is often given short shrift outside of specialized studies. Yet, these texts provide substantial insight into contemporary thinking on war and war-making. That some are more accurate depictions of contemporary or historical war-making practices than others is less relevant than their value as intellectual artefacts. Even if a significant portion of their subject matter is combat, not the central focus of the book, combat is part of war. Plus, to highlight their connection to but one war discourse, many manuals open with invocations to patrons and/or the current rulers and stress their works’ value in achieving victory in war, one of Vijgen’s central discourses, in Apollodorus’ Poliorketika case, for example, by means of technology, and in Onasander’s Strategikos by means of leadership. More consideration of military manuals would not have gone amiss.

Nevertheless, by incorporating such a vast array of material this book should serve as a valuable synthesis of much work on war and culture in the ancient Mediterranean. Though it will not be the last word on the subject, I suspect, and hope, that it will help spur new research on a still understudied subject (war and culture).