A day in London on ancient Greek warfare

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I was in London on 25 April to attend – and give a lecture at – a one-day colloquium on ancient Greek warfare. The title of the conference was The Phalanx and Beyond: Ways Forward in the Study of Greek Warfare, which gives an idea of its overarching theme. The organizers were Roel Konijnendijk and Cezary Kucewicz, the latter of whom has written an article for issue VIII.2 on the Ionian Greeks (which has just gone to print). I am very grateful that I was invited by them to come and chat on a topic near to my heart. It was also a good opportunity to meet a number of people, such as Louis Rawlings.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, the publication last year of the book Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece, edited by Donald Kagan and Gregory Viggiano, was the direct cause for organizing this colloquium, as the book gave the impression that the debate on the hoplite phalanx had reached a kind of impasse from which it didn’t seem likely to escape.

The day was carved up into four different panels with three speakers each. The panels were arranged chronologically for the most part. In this blog post, I will try to summarize the various lectures and hope to give some of my own impressions and thoughts on the day along the way. Overall, I think the papers were of high quality and certainly give a good idea of the quality, variety, and scope of current research into ancient Greek warfare in general and the hoplite phalanx in particular.

Men of iron: warfare in pre-Archaic Greece (panel 1)

The first lecture was by Dr Stephen O’Brien (Chester) on “States, non-states, and military organisation in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Ages of the Aegean”. The lecture built on his earlier PhD dissertation. O’Brien raised important points regarding the relationship between social complexity and military organization, and argued more specifically that the Mycenaean palaces were not as centrally organized as is sometimes claimed.

Dr Kate Harrell (Louvain) presented a paper entitled “Mainland Greek burials with weapons, Late Helladic IIIC through the eighth century: exploring alternative paradigms for their interpretation”. She wished to raise awareness that our interpretations concerning burials with arms are typically rather simplistic and often based on circular reasoning. For example, whenever a grave is unearthed that contains weapons, the assumption is that it must have belonged to a man, and often a “warrior” (whatever that might be). If later the skeletal remains are shown to be female, the weapons are explained away: they did not belong to the body buried in the grave, were actually not weapons at all (a sword being downgraded to a knife), and so forth.

Dr Matthew Lloyd (Oxford)’s lecture, “An eighth-century revolution? Pre-archaic warfare in context”, aimed to re-evaluate the view that the eighth century BC in Greece was a period of revolution. He strove to put these developments into perspective and pointed out that the eighth century “renaissance” built upon processes that started centuries earlier and which had to be seen in their proper context, specifically the Mediterraneanization of the Greek world.

Archaic phalanges: beyond orthodoxy (panel 2)

I had the honour of presenting the first paper for this panel, entitled “Forging the hoplite phalanx: the eastern roots of Archaic Greek warfare”. The paper built on some of the stuff that I wrote about in Henchmen of Ares, specifically to emphasize the close cultural connection between the Greeks and peoples of Anatolia, especially the Phrygians, Carians, and Lydians (with added influences from Central Europe and Assyria). There is nothing specifically “Greek” about the hoplite. In addition, I emphasized that development of phalanx tactics ought to be regarded as distinct from the “rise” of the hoplite and placed in a wider cultural context, and associated with changes in scale and sophistication of organization in Greek polities of the Archaic and Classical period.

Dr Fernando Echeverria (Madrid) argued for a more methodologically sound treatment of the iconographic evidence in his paper, “Greek warfare on Archaic vases: recent trends and future directions”. He discussed the main problems of current approaches to the iconographic material, which tended to focus on a variety of different aspects (aesthetics, description, identification, and narrative), and gave a few suggestions on how to move this kind of research forwards. He intends to explore the subject further in years to come and the discussion for this paper was particularly lively as I recall, as most of us who have dealt with Greek warfare wrestle with how best to interpret vase-paintings, sculptures, and so on.

Cezary Kucewicz (UCL) presented a paper closely related to his own thesis, entitled “The treatment of the war dead and the composition of Archaic Greek armies”. Classical sources such as Plutarch suggest that requesting permission to retrieve the slain from the battlefield was an acknowledgement of defeat. The general assumption is that this was an ancient custom, especially as something similar happens at one point in the Iliad. However, Kucewicz emphasized that the occurrence of this “custom” in the Iliad is exceptional. For the Archaic period, there are no known instances of what is calledaneiresis and it seems to have been an invention of the early fifth century BC.

Out of the shadows: redefining Classical warfare (panel 3)

Dr Sonya Nevin (Roehampton)’s lecture, “Animating ancient warfare”, was unusual, as it focused on the difficulties of rendering Greek warfare in 2D animations. The animated sequences are made in a style similar to what you find on ancient Greek pottery. Examples can be seen on the websitepanoply.org.uk. She showed us some examples of an animated work-in-progress that will be finished this October, so be sure to note down the date and have a look at the website again this autumn.

Alexander Millington (UCL) presented a paper based on his doctoral research entitled “Worshipping violence”. It is commonly assumed that the god of war, Ares, was generally ignored by the ancient Greeks on account of his bloodthirsty nature, they instead preferring to honour the wise goddess of strategy, Athena. While Ares indeed did not possess many temples in Greece, Millington argues that Ares was very commonly venerated at smaller shrines and played an important part in Greek society and thought. Modern attempts to associated Ares more strongly with non-Greeks, such as Thracians, are misguided. He concluded that the “strikingly realistic understanding of the nature of war […] played an accepted and integral role within Greek socio-religious structures,” and Ares was very much a part of that.

Roel Konijnendijk (UCL)’s paper, “‘Worthless hoplites’: the true nature of Classical warfare”, offered a unique and stimulating look at Greek warfare of the Classical period. Konijnendijk argued that not hoplites, but cavalry determined the flow of battle in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. After all, slow heavy infantry had little hope of catching swift-moving horsemen. In his own words: “throughout the Classical period, all Greeks were aware that cavalry consistently turned hoplites into second-class fighting men.”

Greek warfare in its Mediterranean context (panel 4)

Dr Benedict Lowe (Aarhus) took us to the western end of the Mediterranean in his paper, “The devotio Iberica and the role of warfare in ancient Iberia”. The common idea is that Greek arms and armour in Spain were brought there by colonists or mercenaries and these subsequently exerted a strong influence on local warriors. But Lowe showed that finds of Greek equipment are rare and that, in any case, Iberian warriors stuck to their own equipment and military traditions.

Joshua Hall (Cardiff)’s paper focused on Greek warfare in Italy. In his paper, “Alternatives to the hoplite: the non-hoplite nature of western Greek poleis’ warfare”, he brought into the question the idea that the Western Greeks fought in hoplite phalanxes. Instead, he argued that warfare in the colonies focused largely on three aspects, namely: (1) naval warfare; (2) cavalry, and; (3) sieges. Hall also pointed out that the presence of tyrants in Sicily in particular created a different socio-military climate altogether when compared to the Greek cities of the Aegean.

Prof Hans van Wees (UCL) offered a stimulating paper entitled “The other hoplites, or: what’s so special about Greek heavy infantry?” Van Wees’s paper pointed out that there was nothing particularly “Greek” about heavy infantry in the Eastern Mediterranean and pointed specifically to the Egyptianmachimoi, who were perhaps “arrayed in closer formation than Greek hoplites”. Van Wees’s conclusions were threefold, namely: (1) hoplite warfare was not distinctly Greek, “but a way of war practised across the Near East”; (2) Greeks were employed as mercenaries simply “because they supplied additional manpower”, and finally; (3) the hoplite and the phalanx arose “from historical conditions” that were not “peculiar to archaic or classical Greece alone”.

Closing remarks

As I stated before, the papers were all engaging and stimulating, and the overall day was one of energetic discussion and a free flow of ideas. The plan is for the papers to be collected and published in book form, and I expect that this edited volume will make a bit of splash in academic circles and serve as an optimistic counterpoint to the somewhat sombre overall tone of Kagan and Viggiano’s Men of Bronze.

It was clear to everyone who attended the colloquium that it probably should be repeated next year. Let’s hope that this will become a reality. Even if I might not have a paper to present, I would certainly wish to attend.

For those wanting to engage in further academic discussion on ancient warfare, there is the larger International Ancient Warfare conference this July, organized by Geoff Lee at Aberystwyth University in Wales; see their website for further information and registration. I will be attending this conference and will also present a paper on the problems and possibilities of research into ancient Greek warfare.

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