||War and the Culture of War at the Dawn of History:
Ancient Greece and Rome
|5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state|
The History of the Culture of War
The culture of war in ancient Greece was similar in most respects to what we have seen in other parts of the world at that time, as we know from their epic poem, the Iliad and from the earliest history books, such as the Peloponnesian Wars written by Thucydides. As is stated repeatedly in the Iliad, although the ostensible reason for the war was to recover the beautiful Helen, the taking of plunder and slaves was always assumed.
" . . Before the Trojan war there is no indication of any common action in Hellas . . [Leading up to the war] the coast populations now began to apply themselves more closely to the acquisition of wealth, and their life became more settled; some even began to build themselves walls on the strength of their newly-acquired riches. For the love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger, and the possession of capital enabled the more powerful to reduce the smaller towns to subjection. And it was at a somewhat later stage of this development that they went on the expedition against Troy . . "
The ancient Greek economy was based on slavery. Whether other social classes were exploited as well is a matter of debate. In one recent scholarly paper, Class, Embeddedness and the Modernity of Ancient Athens, Mohammad Nafissi (2004) cites Aristotle as witness to class conflict between the rich and poor freemen at that time:
"What really differentiates oligarchy and democracy is wealth or the lack of it. It inevitably follows that where men rule because of the possession of wealth, whether their number be large or small, that is oligarchy and when the poor rule, that is democracy. . . But the same people cannot be both rich and poor, and this is why the prime division of a state into parts seems to be into poor and the well-to-do. Further owing to the fact that the one group is for the most part numerically small, the other large, these two parts appear as opposites among the parts of the state. So the constitutions are accordingly constructed to reflect the predominance of one or the other."
The culture of war of the first empires exploited not only people but also the environment. This is an aspect of the culture of war that has received more attention in modern times but which already existed at the time of the ancients. For example, if one goes to Sicily one will find Roman mosaics portraying a land of deep primeval forests filled with big game including lions. But the forests were destroyed by the Romans in their insatiable need for timber for ship-building and wooden houses, and what the Romans did not destroy, the Arabs did later in exploiting the timber for their own ships. There is a great contrast between the scenery in the Roman artwork and today's Sicily which has never recovered its forests.
The subservient status of women in ancient Greece and Rome is especially important because it set the stage for the continued inequality between men and women in Western society down until the present time. This is described in Volume III of the UNESCO history:
"It is sometimes said that the Greek city was 'a men's club, made by men for men . . '"
"The essence of the woman's position in Roman law was that she could never technically become a free agent . . males remained in patria potestate until the death of their fathers, when they became sui iuris, able to own and dispose of property in their own right. Daughters, too, became sui iurzj in these circumstances, but they acquired a tutor whose permission (auctoritas) was required for major pledges or transfers of property, such as the promise of dowry or making a will. Male children were subject to such a restriction until the age of fourteen, but women sui iuris required a tutor (or tutores) for life. . . The Roman notion of family-based property ownership underpins this system. The paterfamilias was the only person in his immediate family with full legal rights to own and dispose of property."
The extensive military writings of the Greeks and their successors, the Romans, are especially well-known and they give us many detailed insights into the culture of war. For example, they provide information in detail on military education and on the control of information; secrecy and propaganda in early civilizations.
". . most of the cities took considerable care to prepare young people for their responsibilities as citizens. In Sparta this preparation, known as agoge, took the form of education, by the state, of youths from early childhood until manhood. Characterized by strict discipline, collective events and activities, and initiation rites throughout the various stages of their education, this system was intended to train soldier-citizens accustomed to living together and imbued with loyalty to the community. The men educated in this way became citizens who were remarkably effective in defending the city and maintaining the established social order. Among the Athenianns, the education of children remained a family affair, but youths of 18 to 20 - the ephebes - were given special attention by the city authorities. The education of the ephebes, who were registered as citizens at the age of 18, included military training during which they learnt to handle weapons and carry out garrison duty in the small fortresses strung across the territory."
The best known example of the training of warriors in ancient Greece is the Olympic Games. In his Memorabilia, the Greek soldier and writer, Xenophon, recalls the remarks of the great philosopher Socrates (who himself had competed in the games as a young man) to one of his young students, Epigenes, on the importance of the Games for physical training and preparation to be a warrior:
'"You need physical training just as much as those intending to compete at Olympia; or does the life and death struggle with their enemies which the Athenians will undertake someday seem of small importance to you? Indeed, many men die amid the dangers of war or are saved in some disreputable fashion because of their bad physical condition. Many are captured alive for this very reason, and if this happens to them spend the rest of their lives in the harshest slavery . . "
Warriors need constant training and practice in the arts of war, as well as basic physical training. There is a remarkable reference to this for the Roman army as described by the Greek writer Arrian in his book Tactica. After describing in some detail the training of cavalry, he concludes that they need to practice the techniques of the best armies in history:
"All these exercises have been understood by the Roman cavalry and have long been practiced. The emperor indeed seeks out foreign practices with which to train them, for example the manoeuvres of the horse-archers of the Parthians and Armenians, the wheeling and revolutions practiced by the lance-bearing cavalry of the Sarmatians and the Celts . . To sum up, of the ancient exercises there is none that the Roman have omitted and not practiced from the beginning. Of the other exercises that the emperor has discovered, some contribute beauty, some speed, some inspire terror, and some provide whatever is needed for the job in hand."
As for control of information and secrecy, Thucydides mentions surprise attacks no less than 16 times in his history of the Peloponnesian War. In fact, the element of surprise (and the need for secrecy) has been critical to successful warfare from the beginning of war in prehistoric times, as we have seen in the ancient Chinese text, Sun Tzu's Art of War, and it is no less important today.
A corollary to the importance of military secrecy is the phenomenon of "treason" - the betrayal of secrets. Thucydides, for example, describes one such case of treason and the success of surprise attack:
"The weather was stormy and it was snowing a little, which encouraged him [Brasidas] to hurry on, in order, if possible, to take every one at Amphipolis by surprise, except the party who were to betray it. The plot was carried on by some natives of Argilus, an Andrian colony, residing in Amphipolis, where they had also other accomplices gained over by Perdiccas or the Chalcidians. But the most active in the matter were the inhabitants of Argilus itself, which is close by, who had always been suspected by the Athenians, and had had designs on the place. These men now saw their opportunity arrive with Brasidas, and having for some time been in correspondence with their countrymen in Amphipolis for the betrayal of the town, at once received him into Argilus, and revolted from the Athenians, and that same night took him on to the bridge over the river; where he found only a small guard to oppose him, the town being at some distance from the passage, and the walls not reaching down to it as at present. This guard he easily drove in, partly through there being treason in their ranks, partly from the stormy state of the weather and the suddenness of his attack, and so got across the bridge, and immediately became master of all the property outside; the Amphipolitans having houses all over the quarter."
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