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warfare, attitudes to (Greek and Hellenistic)


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Homer's Iliad, a poem about war, does not glorify war: it celebrates valour but also portrays the sufferings caused by war, and Ares, god of war, is rebuked by Zeus as the most hateful of all the gods, to whom strife, wars, and slaughter are forever dear. The same ambivalence pervades Greek attitudes to warfare. War in Greece was a recurrent phenomenon, and conflicts grew in number and scale as larger power blocks emerged. Major wars provide the subject‐matter of much of Greek historical writing. There were also countless local wars, less prominent in the record. ‘War is the father of all things’ (Heraclitus). It shaped Greek society and institutions. Military function and social and political status were closely related; hence the predominance in the Classical period of the male citizen‐warrior, the exclusion of women from the political sphere, and literature's constant celebration of valour. Success in war was ascribed to divine favour and ostentatiously commemorated in sanctuaries through dedications from enemy spoils, including captured weapons. In Classical Athens the war‐dead received burial every year in a public ceremony, and the funeral speech (see epitaphios) linked the fallen warriors with the collective achievements of the polis. On the other hand, literature constantly emphasized the destructive aspects of war. In the words of Herodotus: ‘No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace sons bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their sons.’’ Tragedy and comedy exploited the theme in many ways. For Thucydides (2), war was ‘a teacher of violence’. Later historians often used the sacking of cities and the fate of the defeated for pathos and sensational effect. But attempts to limit war were few and ineffective, and it is doubtful whether there was any successful move towards humanizing warfare, even between Greeks. With the Persian Wars and the emergence of the antithesis between Greek and barbarian, the view gained ground that Greeks should not fight wars against other Greeks or enslave Greek prisoners of war. After the failure of Athens in 355 in the Social War (see second athenian confederacy) voices were raised in condemnation of Athenian imperialism and in favour of peace (Xenophon, Isocrates). But the legitimacy of war itself was not challenged: the same writers preached a profitable war of aggression against the Persian empire as an alternative to wars among Greeks. In short, throughout Greek history war was as much a part of life as earthquakes, droughts, destructive storms, and slavery. See also booty; homonoia; imperialism, Greek and Hellenistic; panhellenism; persian‐wars tradition; trophies; war, art of, greek; war, rules of.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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