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Ancient Greek Perception of War and Warriors

05/06/2013

Mycaenean warrior

Mycaenean promachos by Nicos Panos.

War and fighting was an unavoidable reality in the Ancient World. Life in those times bare no relation to the illusional piece we are experiencing in the Western societies today.  Ancient Greeks had a proverb “Harvesting, Wine-making, War” indicating thus that campaign period was between Spring and Autumn. Even the Delphic Oracle tried hard to remain ambiguous in this matter.

Ancient Greeks never lusted after war. The great epic poet Homer writes: “an outlaw, homeless wanderer is he who lusts for war” (Iliad 9, 63-64). Naturally whenever the Fatherland was under attack the Greeks entered into the conflict decisively for: “the Fatherland is holier than mother and father and all the ancestors” (Plato “Criton” 12) and they also had a proverb that “Honorable war (defensive) was preferable to dishonorable peace (servitude)”. But war was only the last resort.

Homeric heroes never take lightly their involvement in combat and a boast that a person is “great warrior” might shame him in front of his peers. (1) The only one who is called a warrior is Ares (Mars), the war god, when the mortals refer to him. (2). From the mortals, only the old king Nestor, whose youthful exploits are well known declares martial status. (“ILIAD” 9, 549)

And while the Homeric Ideal was prominent in the Archaic and Classical era, this does not mean that all those liable for military service were eager to join the army or they did not try to evade their duty. Deserters existed even in Sparta, (3) but they could be forgiven if they volunteered for dangerous missions and assisted by their good family reputation. (4). We know that Spartans had banned the poems of Archilochos who had boasted in his poems that he had cast his shield in battle to ease his escape.

Unscrupulous politicians who goaded their followers to war had many a time the cautious generals of their city-state in opposition. (5) Capable generals did not try to earn the approval of the mob, so as to use it as “weapons fodder” and advance their career (6) and erred towards the side of diplomacy. (7) On the contrary the “war cheerleaders” and the “armchair heroes” were the first to dessert or evade their duty. (8)

In the times of Homer the warrior is recognized as such from his peers (9) and military leaders use the word as applause or encouragement. (10). Ancient Greeks acknowledged the reality of war and violence but disliked (morally at least) the warmongers. They also persecuted the deserters from the very start of their history. (11)

Eretrian hoplite

Craig Sitch as an Eretrian hoplite. Courtesy Melbourne Hopliticon

How different from our times where any “couch warrior” keeps company to deserters and draft dodgers-probably because he secretly is one of them-like the Homeric hero Paris who despite his boast run away from Menelaus because “he didn’t have the guts” as people say….

References:

  1. Homer «ILIAD» 7, 92 -102
  2. Homer «ILIAD» 5, 288 20, 78  21, 267
  3. Xenophon “Spartan Constitution“, 9, 3-6
  4. Herodotus «Histories» 7, 231,
  5. Thucidides, 5, 34, 2
  6. Plutarch «Phocion» 5
  7. Plutarch «Phocion» 8
  8. Plutarch «Phocion» 9, «Phocion» 10
  9. Homer «The Iliad» 5-602, 22-589
  10. Homer «The Iliad» 15-492,493, 22-269
  11. Euripides “Herakleidae”, vers 843­863
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