Battlefield Déjà vu

Two years ago I travelled to a mining town in outback New south Wales Australia, a place called Cobar. That was as part of one of my (many) other lives – in opera education with school students. Yet, even though my mind was rightfully focused on opera, I was inspired on two occasions during that trip regarding ancient warfare. I blogged about both (which can be found here and here). 

I have just come back from a return visit to Cobar; they enjoyed the opera project so much they invited us back, and have done so again at the conclusion of this latest project. Yet again, however, I was inspired in regards to ancient warfare while I was encouraging young people to embrace creativity and the unfamiliar world of opera.

​With my fabulous Music Director Peter Aoun (right), about to ‘go into battle’ again and compose an opera with the students of Cobar.​

Several battles in the ancient world have an added layer of confusion since it can sometimes be unclear which battle we are talking about. On multiple occasions battles were fought in the same vicinity, even on the same battlefield. This has led to multiple battles of the same name cropping up in our sources (e.g. Mantinea – 418 and 362 BC, Chaeronea in 338 and 86 BC, Bagradas River 255, 240, 203, and 49 BC and 536 AD, the list goes on).

Others were fought close to one another – Epaminondas observed that Boeotia was known as the ‘dancing floor of war’ (Plutarch Sayings of Kings and Commanders 18/Moralia 193E). Indeed, many of the famous battles of Greek history were fought in Boeotia – Plataea, Delium, Tegyra, Leuctra, Coronea (two in 447 and 394 BC), Chaeronea, and lesser known ones like Tanagra, Oenophyta, Haliartus too. And Boeotia is not a big place.

We can understandably ask why, with all that land to choose from, were battles fought in the same place? Other famous battles, Marathon, Cannae, Gaugamela do not suffer for the problem of having rivals for their name. 

The simple answer, especially in regards to battles fought on the Greek mainland, is that there were few other suitable places. Battles would be re-fought on terrain which suited the heavy infantry shield wall warfare of the hoplite (why Greece developed a style of warfare for which there were so few suitable battlefields is another question entirely). Another reason for battles in the same place, or general area is that those battles were often fought over disputed land and so the battles occurred close to the disputed border. 

Of course, a pass like Thermopylae (and there are other examples) was fought over even more times – from the Persian invasion of 480 BC all the way through to the Second World War; control of it dominated access to the rest of Greece in the ancient world just as it did in the medieval and modern ones. Tapae in Romania, guarding a natural passage of the ‘Iron Gates’, the only convenient route into Dacia, was fought over in both Domitian’s and Trajan’s Dacian campaign in the late first century AD. Into our own century there have been multiple battles fought over the same ground – sometimes they are given different names to differentiate them from one another (or from the war in which they were fought) but at other times we get the particularly unimaginative First, Second and so on (sometimes this is used of ancient battles too – so you will find reference to First Mantinea and Second Mantinea). The battle of Caporetto in 1917 was also known as the Twelfth(!) battle of the Isonzo (the first coming in 1915 – twelve battles with the same name in only two years – although each, like Caporetto, is also given an alternative name). Some, like the First Battle of the Marne (in 1914) and the Second Battle of the Marne (in 1918) are, somewhat peculiarly, considered so different that they are given the same name. There are, however, other reasons for why battles share the same names.

​A view of the plain of Mantinea​

Even a battlefield like Megiddo (the name lives on in the word Armageddon as a reminder that it was the ‘perfect’ battlefield and one the author of Revelation could envisage as the scene of the battle at the end of the world) had battles fought over it in the fifteenth century BC, in 609 BC and during the First World War in 1918 (although in the latter case, the battle was far more wide-ranging). A place like the Catalaunian Plains, scene of the famous battle against Attila the Hun in AD 451, had been fought on before (in AD 274). These cases are also interesting since the exact location is debated and/or the location is vast. So two battles with the same name may not have been fought in precisely the same place, only vaguely in the same area. Catalaunian Plains has many alternative names – Catalaunian Fields, Campus Mauriacus, locus Mauriacus (locus meaning, rather unhelpfully, ‘location’), Maurica, Châlons, Troyes. You will find the AD 274 battle referred to as 'Châlons' to differentiate it from Attila’s battle even though that was once an alternate name for Attila’s battle. Confused yet? Of course, the actual site of the battle in AD 451 remains debated. Like many other famous battlefields, different scholars identify different places for various reasons.

Battles like the two fought at Mantinea and Chaeronea were fought on different places on the plain (although again there are debates as to where precisely – Chaeronea is especially tricky since we have the Theban Lion and the Macedonian tumulus, but these seem to be nowhere near where the battle was fought – something not helped by the state of our sources for the battle, which are sparse indeed). And these plains are not particularly large. The Bagradas River (the modern Medjera in Algeria and Tunisia) was fought over several times. Each was, however, in a different place along the river (much like the WWI examples) and the several battles fought in the third century BC are given alternative names (battle of Tunis, battle of Macar, battle of the Great Plains) but they were all fought over the same waterway. This, like battles fought to control a pass and battles fought over rivers throughout history, is understandable – the Bagradas (according to Procopius) was the only river in North Africa which never ran dry so warring armies in the vicinity would always have been close to it for water.

T​he Medjera river in Tunisia. The ancient Bagradas has several battles fought over it and across it​

And yet, several of the examples from the First World War notwithstanding and battles for the control of a pass like Thermopylae, each time a battle was fought in the same place, they were very different affairs. The two battles of Mantinea were entirely different, Chaeronea too. In fact, even some of the battles of Thermopylae took a different course. Both Attila and the Goths were turned back; they hadn’t read their history so did not know of the Anopaea Pass. This is another peculiarity of ancient warfare. Each civilisation had its own ‘way of war’ and when sides from the same military culture clashed we might expect battles to go the same way – the troops were the same, the styles of fighting, even the quality of the troops and commanders was (sometimes) a known quantity. And yet, in ancient warfare we can always be surprised by how a battle actually turned out – what each set of circumstances produced, even when they were fighting on the same or similar ground, offers us limitless material to ponder the intricacies and larger picture details of ancient warfare.

​The pass of Thermopylae – much wider than in the ancient world (the coast was located to the left of the road throughout the ancient world).​

And so it was in Cobar – in 2021 the students wrote an original opera about rival New York taxi gangs (and where two people found love amidst the inter-gang warfare). In 2023, we returned to the same ‘battlefield” (it was far more harmonious that that!), the same school with even some of the same students, now ‘veterans’ of opera who knew what to expect. Was the opera the produced the same – no. This time the students created a stupendous cancel culture comedy set on the catwalks of Milan and Paris. Same place, same circumstances, even some of the same ‘combatants’ but an entirely different result, although both were comedies.

Even when the ‘combatants’ are the same, in the same circumstances, on the same field, the results, like those of ancient warfare, can still surprise you!

Leave a comment

Related Posts