Teaching ancient warfare

Yesterday, I taught the first class in a course on warfare in the ancient world. I did so for the HOVO, an institute here in the Netherlands aimed at providing education to people over the age of fifty. The HOVO in Amsterdam is housed in the main building of the VU University and most (all?) of the teachers there are academically trained, with some of them also being employed at universities. Having studied and worked at the VU University, it was a little bit like coming home after a nearly four year absence.

The course consists of six classes of two-and-a-half hours each. I have chosen to structure the course chronologically, but have each class also focus on two particular themes. The first half of the first class was a general introduction to warfare, delving into the study of ancient warfare and discussing anthropological, biological, and psychological perspectives on warfare. I also talked about warfare during the Stone Age and some of the earliest evidence that we have for violence inflicted by humans on others of their own species.

After the break, I gave an overview of developments in warfare in the ancient Near East, starting – of course – with ancient Sumer, before moving to a discussion of the Akkadian Empire, the Third Dynasty of Ur and the Babylonian Empire. For the Late Bronze Age, I gave only a rough sketch, as much of this period will be discussed in next week’s class, which is on warfare in ancient Egypt, with a particular focus on the New Kingdom. In the final twenty minutes or so of this first class, I talked at length about the military developments in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

For the Sumerians, I discussed two objects in great detail, namely the so-called Vulture Stele and the so-called “Standard of Ur”. On the former object, there is a clear representation of shock infantry with spears and large shields marching perfectly in what can only be described as a phalanx formation. It predates the Classical Greek phalanx by about two millennia! Anyone who seriously maintains that the Greeks invented fighting in close-order formation is completely ignorant of military developments in other times and places in the ancient world.

It is also interesting to compare the Neo-Assyrian war machine with the military developments in Greece during the Early Iron Age and Archaic period, ca. 1000–500 BC. Whereas the Assyrians reached a high level in siege warfare, building various machines and using a variety of tactics (including the use of “commandos”), it took the Greeks apparently until the fifth century to even introduce something as basic as a battering ram. (You may want to have a look at my blog posts on Greek fortifications herehere, and here.)

Most of the people that attend courses at the HOVO tend to be highly educated and well-read themselves. I always encourage participants to ask any questions that they might have and to not blindly accept anything that I say. After all, I don’t believe I am infallible, and some of the best ideas usually arise from having a thoughtful conversation with another reasonable human being. If you only wish to sit back and listen to me blather on without posing any questions or raise any issues, I might as well have just written everything down and handed it to you on paper! To my great elation, everyone was very invested in what I had to say and engaged with both myself and others actively in the discussions, which is always a good thing and much appreciated.

As said earlier, next week’s class will be on warfare in ancient Egypt (see also Ancient Warfare issue VII.1). The third class is on warfare in Early Greece. If you’ve read Henchmen of Ares, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect! The fourth class is on the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and you can bet that Alexander the Great will figure heavily. The fifth and sixth classes are on the Roman Republic and Empire, respectively.

In the coming weeks, this course on warfare in the ancient world will no doubt provide plenty of inspiration for me to blog about, so expect a mix of posts on various topics, ranging from the earliest wars of the ancient Near East all the way to the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Until next week!

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