Religion and Classical Warfare: Archaic and Classical Greece

Religion and Classical Warfare: Archaic and Classical Greece

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Ed. by Matthew Dillon, Christopher Matthew and Michael Schmitz
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Review by Metellus Cimber II

This book is a symposium; ten academic authors from different countries have contributed chapters on the role of religion in war in ancient Greece and there are three editors. Archaic and Classical Greece covers such varied topics as omens, oracles and portents; magic and religion in military medicine, oaths and vows. The publishers, Pen & Sword Books, plan to issue two further volumes, to cover the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.

To my surprise I enjoyed reading this volume. Normally I avoid symposia, which tend to be disjointed and indigestible by the normal reader, but this one is better than most; possibly as a result of good editing. The Index and Bibliography are excellent. The content, which draws heavily on primary sources; notably the Greek historians Thucydides, Herodotus and Xenophon, is often fascinating. Nevertheless, it is not light reading. Military historians and classicists will welcome it as a work of reference; it will find a place in numerous libraries, but unless you have a serious and absorbing interest in ancient Greece, you may find the mass of detail off-putting. You can of course opt to go straight to the originals: readable translations of Thucydides, Herodotus and Xenophon, to name but three sources, are available.

Archaic and Classical Greece usefully knocks a number of pieces of 'received wisdom' on the head. For example, that Thucydides did not believe in the Gods. His History of the Peloponnesian War is still read with respect, although he never finished it. He does not, unlike Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, impute the outcome of the war to the direct intervention of the Gods. However he was certainly interested in religion and recognised its central role in almost every aspect of ancient Greek life, including warfare. At the very least, he suggests, respect for the Gods and their rituals helped to reinforce the stability and prosperity of the community; not just by keeping the Gods propitiated. What Thucydides implies is spelt out by Herodotus:

“Indeed it was not we who performed this exploit; it was the gods and the heroes who were jealous that one man [King Xerxes of Persia] should be king of Asia and Europe too... who burns and destroys statues of the gods”.

There is a fascinating chapter on divine guidance in warfare; notably the consultation of oracles, of which the most famous was at Delphi, and whose prophecies were notoriously enigmatic. This could be, and was, used by kings and generals to justify a change of policy without loss of face: “Having consulted the god, I realised that I was wrong; what I now propose to do is this...”

On a final, frivolous note, this volume would also be tremendously useful for quiz-games from University Challenge to pub quizzes.

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