For my PhD in Mediterranean archaeology, I chose to study ancient Greek warfare. I often get asked why I picked that particular topic to explore in depth. It’s something that requires a careful answer, and I thought it would be useful to share it here with a broader audience.
First of all, it’s an interesting exercise of the mind to ponder the mechanics of combat, or to analyse ancient strategy and tactics, and to read stories and anecdotes of famous battles and generals, heroes and rebels. But while these are certainly valid reasons for studying ancient warfare, they really only scratch the surface.
More importantly, I think, warfare in the ancient world was more than fighting itself. Warfare was an integral component of everyday life in the ancient world in a way that seems wholly alien to our own conception of war. Ancient peoples generally had no words to denote economics or religion, but they did make a distinction between war and peace.
However, it is important to note that war and peace were considered complementary to each other; two sides of the same coin, as it were. Contrary to our modern world, where the military is regarded as distinct from other spheres of life, the military in many ways was a fundamental aspect of everyday life in the ancient world.
Warfare and politics
Consider the close ties between warfare and politics. Political leaders in the ancient world were also military leaders. Carl von Clausewitz, in his famous Von Kriege, stated that warfare was simply a continuation of politics by other means.
This was as true for the ancient world as it was for his contemporary Prussia, even more so as ancient political leaders often took to the field themselves as commanders. Take, for example, the Athenian statesman and admiral Themistocles, the Egyptian warrior-king Ramesses the Great or the king and conqueror Sargon the Great of Akkad.
Most ancient societies were monarchies or oligarchies, and it was important for the ruling classes to justify their social position. Birth and wealth alone were typically not sufficient. Instead, the general concensus seems to have been that those who ruled society were also under an obligation to protect it.
Hence, in important campaigns, Near-Eastern and Egyptian kings usually led their armies personally. In Archaic and Classical Greece, leaders typically fought in the front ranks and were sometimes slain in combat, such as the Theban general Epaminondas.
Warfare and religion
But warfare also had a close connection to the supernatural, to what we would refer to as the religious sphere. This is again very acute in the case of ancient Egypt, where the king was not only the ruler of the country and a great warrior, but also an actual god made flesh.
Kings of ancient Near-Eastern realms were not gods themselves, but were instead the appointed agents of gods on Earth, ruling by divine mandate, with their fortunes in battle determined by heavenly forces. In order to gain the favour of the gods, the Classical Greeks developed the sphagia, the sacrifice before battle, and both Greeks and Romans consulted seers to know if conditions were favourable to victory.
Strife is an integral component in the mythologies of ancient cultures. Take, for example, the ancient Greek pantheon, with its dedicated god of war, Ares, as well as the equally warlike Athena. Many of the other Greek gods have a ferocious aspect, from the thunderbolt-hurling, monster-killing Zeus to bow-wielding Apollo and Artemis. The pantheons of other cultures were no less bellicose, and there are many myths in which combat or even outright war, play an important part.
Warfare and economics
The word “economics” is derived from the Greek word oikonomia, which literally meant something like “household order”. In other words, it was about how to maintain a good household, which we in modern times have extended in meaning to make it more broadly applicable to encompass modes of production and exchange.
All ancient civilizations were agrarian societies. Most wars were fought for territory, especially for the produrement of arabale land, but also for land that was otherwise deemed of some strategic value. Examples range from the earliest conflicts between Sumerian city-states and the unification of ancient Egypt to the conquests of the Roman Empire. Colonization efforts on the part of Greeks, Phoenicians and other peoples often saw native populations slaughtered or driven from their homelands.
But even in those cases where wars were not fought for territorial gain, such as probably was the case with Greeks in the Early Iron Age, economic reasons weighed as heavily as a motive for war as did matters of honour and prestige. The rustling of cattle and the stealing of women emerges as powerful motives for war in the Homeric epics, for example, and are typically considered characteristic of relative small-scale yet fairly complex societies. The weapons and armour that could be stripped from the lifeless corpses of the fallen enemy must have made a worthwhile contribution to stockpiles of metals.
Exchange between different cultures takes many forms, trade and gift-exchange among them. Along these paths, innovations in military equipment, tactics and strategy could be swapped between different peoples. We see this clearly in how the militaries of smaller-scale societies developed in the ancient Near East – the Aegean included! – that existed on the peripheries of the larger kingdoms.
But the big kingdoms also competed with each other: at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, the Egyptian and Hittite armies were comparable in equipment and tactics, even if there were differences in details. In both empires, the chariot was an important arm that was not a native development. Studying the development of military equipment, strategy and tactics can thus give us insights into contacts between different cultures, and highlight what makes each of them unique.
Warfare and society
In fact, warfare can be said to have been the glue that bound ancient societies together, forging a union that encompassed the political, religious and economic spheres. It was embedded in ancient society.
Often, social distinctions between groups are made even more clear when one tries to determine what roles social groups played on the battlefield. Women were largely excluded in most cases, except perhaps in support roles in the baggage trains of large armies. Slaves were typically as subservient on the battlefield as at home, with the armed helots of the Lacedaemonian army being a notable exception. The common people could be conscripted for service as rank-and-file soldiers or functioned as a militia, while the most prestigious fighters and commanders were culled from the upper echelons of society, with the foremost of their number serving as generals or even commander-in-chiefs.
War had an important ideological function, not least to maintain societal order. Rituals before and after a campaign would reinforce the sense of community within a society. The men set out for battle, cheered on by the community, who would anticipate their success.
If the army were indeed victorious, feasts would be organized and the whole community was likely to take part in the celebration or at least witness them, similar to how a modern community might celebrate a victory after an important soccer match. If the army had been defeated, of course, there were no celebrations; the community would mourn the dead and organize the necessary funerary or commemorative rituals. Both outcomes actually led to the same result, namely to reinforce the shared experience and identity of the community in question.
The social and ideological importance of warfare is further reflected in the cognitive expressions of ancient societies, most notably in art, myth and literature. This is often not merely limited to scenes of actual combat, but also to depictions of other dangerous or violent activities, such as hunting scenes. Conflict, or perhaps rather violence, in its many forms can be considered a constituent element of human societies, a way in which social groups, communities and states defined themselves by comparing and contrasting with others.
To study ancient warfare, then, is to study a fundamental aspect of the ancient world that encompasses politics, religion, economics and society; in other words, ancient culture in general. To really grasp the intricacies of ancient warfare requires the student to have a well-rounded knowledge not just of weapons and tactics, but of political structures, social hierarchies, myth and ritual, farming and exchange, art and ideology.
The vast scope of warfare in the ancient world is demonstrated by the amount of attention the field has received both in popular and academic arenas. Wargames seem to be more popular than ever, both as videogames as well as traditional tabletop editions. New articles, edited volumes and monographs on ancient warfare appear regularly, which demonstrate almost as many approaches to the subject matter as there are writers and scholars.
We study ancient warfare in order to understand why wars happened and how violence played – and continues to play – a systemic role in society. Understanding ancient warfare may help foster an understanding of present conflict, which in turn may inspire us to seek alternatives to violence.