1. Important places in the Trojan and Persian Wars
2. The major powers, c. 270 bc
3. The Roman Empire, ad c. 117
4. Great plans of conquest, fulfilled and unfulfilled
5. Arab conquests, ad c. 640
The film Gladiator opens with an epic battle in the forests of Germany. On one side are the Romans, in disciplined units with uniform equipment. They wait in full view, in silence, and prepare their relatively high-technology weapons. Their watchwords are ‘strength and honour’. As orders are issued from a set hierarchy of command, they shoot as one, and advance in line. In combat they help each other, and display courage. On the other side are the barbarians. They have no units, and, clad in furs, no uniformity. Some carry stolen Roman shields, but they lack the catapults that represent the top level of military technology. Initially they conceal their force in the woods. Surging backwards and forwards, each man clashes his weapons on his shield, and utters wild shouts. Their yells are just gibberish. The only indications of hierarchy are close-ups of a particularly large and hairy warrior. They rush into combat as a mob, and fight as ferocious individuals.
On one side is civilization, on the other savagery. The Romans are portrayed as practising what is often described as the “Western Way of War', where the aim is an open, decisive battle, which will be won by courage instilled in part by discipline. The Germans practise a ‘skulking’ kind of war. They aim to ambush. They fight without discipline, but with an irrational ferocity. Viewing the battle, it seems ‘true’ to us, because it seems ‘natural’. Yet it is not ‘natural’.
The Western Way of War’ and its opposite are cultural constructions. It is important to ask where this concept of a Western Way of War’ originated, why it was constructed, and why maintained.
Greeks and Trojans
We can begin by thinking about Homer’s Iliad, the first work of Western literature. This Greek epic poem is set in the mythical time of the Trojan War, c. 1200 bc, when a coalition of Greeks, led by the king of Mycenae, besieged and sacked the city of Troy in Asia Minor. The poem began its life then, but told and retold by generations of poets, and altered in the retelling, it reached its final form in the 8th or 7th centuries bc, finally being written down in the 6th century bc.
Some elements of the poem might suggest that the idea of a Western Way of War’ is present already: that the Greeks practise it, and the Trojans do not. More Trojans die than Greeks, and they suffer more horrific wounds. Certain verbs of pain are only applied to Trojans. The Trojans in the poem speak in less assertive and warlike tones than the Greeks. Only Trojans beg for their lives at the point of a spear. Twice we are told explicitly that the Greeks help each other in battle. Again twice, we read that the Greeks advance into battle in silence, unlike the Trojans who bleat like sheep, or sound like wildfowl.
In all probability, however, a Western Way of War’ in the Mad should not be constructed out of all this. The Trojans’ less martial language can be explained because they are at home, defending, and often speaking to, their parents, wives, and children. The Greeks are in an armed camp, comprised only of warriors, and their spear won female captives. More Trojans die because ultimately they will lose. The Trojans begging for their lives, suffering more horrific wounds, and having verbs of pain applied to them all serve to increase the pathos of the fate which every reader knows is coming to Troy. Just three passages (3.2-9; 4.428-38; 17.364-5) in a very long poem account for the two explicit statements of Greeks aiding each other in battle, and advancing in silence. In contrast, one passage tells of the Trojans advancing in silence (13.41). In the course of the narrative Trojans, as well as Greeks, come to the aid of their comrades.
In general this Greek epic, telling part of the story of a mythical Greek triumph over non-Greeks, is remarkably free of xenophobia. The Greeks are not privileged over the non-Greeks. The Trojans, and their allies, and the Greeks share social and political structures. Both sides live in cities, ruled over by kings, with councils of elders, and general assemblies. They have the same equipment for war: chariots, helmets, bronze armour, shields, spears, and swords. Some on both sides use bow and arrows. They employ this equipment in the same ways: fighting sometimes at a distance, sometimes hand to hand; sometimes individually, and sometimes as a group. Above all, they share the same motivation. The poem puts its finest speech detailing the heroic code which motivates men in ‘hot battle’ into the mouth of Sarpedon, a Trojan ally from Lykia in Asia Minor.
- it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians to take our stand, and hear our part of the blazing battle, so that a man of the close-armoured Lykians may say of us: ‘Indeed, these are no ignoble men who are the lords of Lykia, these kings of ours, who feed upon the fat sheep appointed and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since there is indeed strength of valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians.
- now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them let us go and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.’
(12.315-28, tr. R. Lattimore)
Compare Sarpedon’s speech with that of a Greek hero.
Now Odysseus the spear-famed was left alone, nor did any of the Argives [Greeks] stay beside him, since fear had taken all of them.
And troubled, he spoke then to his own great-hearted spirit:
‘Ah me, what will become of me? It will be a great evil if I run, fearing their multitude, yet deadlier if I am caught alone -
Yet still, why does my heart within me debate on these things?
Since I know it is cowards who walk out of the fighting,
But if one is to win honour in battle, he must by all means Stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another.’
(11.401-410, tr. R. Lattimore)
In the Mad there is no “Western Way of War’ that marks the Greeks out from their enemies.
Greeks and Persians
Although Greek poets of the Archaic period (776-479 bc) did make the occasional disparaging remark about foreigners, the way of thinking about the world that divided it into superior Greeks and inferior barbarians came about with the Persian Wars (490-479 bc) and their aftermath. It was with the creation of this dichotomy that the concept of a “Western Way of War’ was born.
By the time of the Persian Wars most of the Greeks lived in a large number of autonomous ‘city states’ (polees, singular polls). After a great wave of colonization (c. 750-550 bc) these had spread beyond the Greek homelands of mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and the western coast of modem Turkey to the west (Sicily, southern Italy, and the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain), and the shores of the Black Sea, as well as a few settlements in North Africa. Each polis lived under its own laws, and a greater or lesser number of its adult male citizens controlled its political life. The core of the military forces of a polis was a citizen militia, mainly comprised of farmers. These fought as hoplites: heavy armoured infantry, organized in a close-packed phalanx, equipped only to fight at close quarters with a thrusting spear and sword.
Twice, in 490 and 480/79 bc, forces of the Persian empire, which had already won control of the Greek polees of Asia Minor, and some of those of the Aegean islands, invaded mainland Greece. Persia was a young and expansionist empire. Its armies consisted of more or less useful levees from its subjects, and a core of Iranians. The latter included both horse and foot. They had the capacity to fight both at a distance (with bows and javelins) and hand to hand (with spears and swords). The first expedition, a relatively small-scale affair by Persian standards, was defeated by the hoplites of Athens, with a small contingent from Plataea, at the battle of Marathon. The second invasion, led by the Persian king in person, was on an altogether grander scale. Not all the Greeks of the mainland joined a league to oppose it. In 480 bc a small Greek force, led by 300 Spartans, was overwhelmed at Thermopylae, despite heroic resistance. At the same time a naval battle off Artemisium ended in a draw. Later that year the Greeks won a naval victory at Salamis. The following year the Greeks decisively defeated the Persian army at the battle of Plataea.
The Greek victories must be considered surprising. They were outnumbered. Their hoplite phalanxes were a simple instrument compared with the flexible Persian forces. The Persians had defeated other Greek forces on previous occasions.
Apart from specific tactics and circumstances, Herodotus, the great Greek historian of the Persian Wars, accounts for the result at Plataea thus: ‘in courage and strength they (the Persians) were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armour, untrained, and greatly inferior in skill’. In his narrative the Persians fight bravely hand to hand until they are demoralized by the death of their commander. Herodotus was a moral relativist. The stated aim of his history was to preserve the deeds of both Greeks and barbarians. For him, barbarians usually form a contrast to Greeks in their habits. But that did not make the barbarians worse than the Greeks. Except in one way. Greeks lived in political freedom, while barbarians, under their kings, lived in political servitude. Herodotus’ attitude was not to be the prevailing one in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, when the Greeks, led by the Athenians, went on the strategic offensive.
A more typical Greek attitude can be found as early as 472 bc, when Aeschylus’ play The Persians was performed at Athens. The scene is the Persian court, as it waits for, and then gets, news of the defeat of Salamis. Asia is depicted as rich, fertile, luxurious, and essentially female. Greece, by contrast, is rocky, rugged, and masculine. The Persians fight for their king, who is cruel, sacrilegious, and cowardly. They are servile: prostrating themselves, and afraid to speak before even the ghost of one of their rulers. They are emotional: giving way to immoderate grief. The Greeks fight for freedom. In Persia the king is the state; in Greece it is the men who form the polls. Many Persians are named, but no Greeks. This gives the impression that the Greeks are communal in a way that the Persians are not. Again and again the Persians are labelled as horsemen and bowmen. The Greeks, in contrast, are spearmen, as shown in the following extract of dialogue between the Persian Queen Mother (significantly, a woman) and the Chorus of (significantly) old men.
Queen: Have they [the Athenians] such rich supply of fighting men?
Chorus: They have: soldiers who once struck Persian arms a fearful blow [i.e. at Marathon].
Queen: Are they skilled in archery?
Chorus: No, not at all: they carry stout shields, and fight hand to hand with spears.
Queen: Who shepherds them? What master do their ranks obey? Chorus: Master? They are not called servants to any man.
Queen: And can they, masterless, resist invasion?
Chorus: Yes! Darius’ vast and noble army they destroyed [i.e. Marathon again].
(pp. 235-44, tr. P. Vellacott, slightly altered)
The downgrading of Asiatics is yet clearer in a work by an unknown Greek of the 5th century bc preserved in the writings of the medical author Hippocrates.
The small variations of climate to which the Asiatics are subject, extremes both of heat and cold being avoided, account for their mental flabbiness and cowardice -
- such things appear to me to he the cause of the feebleness of the Asiatic race, but a contributory cause lies in their customs; for the greater part is under monarchical rule.
(Airs, Waters, Places, p. 16, tr. P. Cartledge)
The Persian Wars fixed the ideology of a Western Way of War’ firmly in place. The Greeks fight for freedom. They seek open battle, which they will fight hand to hand, and win because of their training and courage. The servile Persians fight at the command of an autocrat. They are effeminate cowards, because as bowmen they seek to avoid close combat, and as horsemen they are quick to run away.
This, of course, is not an unbiased analysis, but a strong ideological construct. In the wars the Persians had sought open battle, which, as Herodotus tells us, they had fought hand to hand with courage. Herodotus reminds us that not all Greeks at all times subscribed to the dominant ideology. Some Persians were seen by Greeks as brave men. Persians as a whole could be seen as representatives of an ancient, wise culture. After the wars the Greeks adopted various Persian material goods. Part of the definition of a culture is that it allows its members to hold views which are logically incompatible.
Romans and Carthaginians
The concept of the “Western Way of War’ was to prove remarkably durable, adaptable, and exportable, especially to Rome. From the start, Rome was exposed to a certain level of Greek influence. By 270 bc Rome ruled the Greek cities of southern Italy. The First Punic War (the conventional name for Rome’s wars with Carthage, from ‘Poeni’, the Roman name for Carthaginians), 264-241 bc, ended with Roman control over many Greek cities in Sicily. The Second Punic War, 218-201 bc, brought Roman dominance over the western Mediterranean. The Third Punic War, 149-146 bc, resulted in the destruction of Carthage.
Roman society and organization under the Republic was structurally extremely aggressive. Elite desires for glory and gain, desires agreed to by the non-elite, fuelled expansion. So did Rome’s control of its Italian allies. These were not taxed, except for providing troops for Rome’s armies. The main weapons of the city state of Rome were the legions, a citizen militia of heavy infantry, mainly composed of propertied farmers. At one time these had been armed as hoplites, but by the Punic Wars were equipped with pila (heavy throwing javelins) and sword.
Carthage was a city state in North Africa, founded in the 8th century bc by Phoenicians from the Near East, who, by the First Punic War, had built an overseas empire comprising parts of Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic islands, and areas of Spain. Having lost its Sicilian and Sardinian territories in the aftermath of the first war with Rome, Carthage expanded the areas of Spain under its control before the second war. By the time of the Punic Wars, Carthaginian forces, although commanded by Carthaginians, were not composed of citizens of Carthage. Instead, Carthage used subjects, allies, and mercenaries, all of whom were allowed to fight in their native styles. The Carthaginian style of war-making facilitated the Roman portrayal of them as being ‘eastern’, and not fighting in the “Western Way of War’.
In representing the Carthaginians as ‘eastern’, cowardly barbarians, the Romans seem to have made relatively little use of Carthage’s genuine eastern origins. Possibly the Romans’ own mythical origins as Trojans from the east precluded pushing this line too hard. Instead, geography and climate served. Living in a trading seaport made the Carthaginians greedy and mendacious. For Romans, treachery was one of the marks of a Carthaginian. Punic ‘good faith’, Punica Fides, meant the opposite. Also, they were cruel and superstitious. These traits came together in their human sacrifices, above all of their own children. Carthage was feminized. Carthaginian women were dangerous seducers, like the mythical Queen Dido. Carthaginian men were effeminate, wearing loose, unbelted clothes, and lacked control of their sexual appetites. Getting others to do their fighting for them showed their cowardice. In Roman eyes, this could be explained by their living in Africa.
It was considered that the hot sun meant that Africans had little blood in their bodies, and so, fearing to lose what little they did have, they were scared of wounds, and thus were cowards. A final ‘proof of their barbarity, their otherness, was that they were believed to eat dogs.
The negative ethnographic image of the Carthaginians was constructed partly out of reality (they did sacrifice some of their children), and partly out of fantasy (they almost certainly did not eat dogs). It was maintained in the face of contrary evidence. Carthaginian armies sought open, decisive battles against Roman armies, and, led by Hannibal, often won them. This could be explained away. The Carthaginians had relied on the courage of others to fight their battles, and it was the supreme cunning of Hannibal that had won them.
As we have seen, the Greeks can be said to have had a love-hate relationship with Persian culture, perhaps with the stress on the latter. The same is far less true of the Romans and Carthaginian culture. When they destroyed Carthage, the Romans gave away its libraries to ‘African princes’, with the exception of a practical work on farming which was translated into Latin. Probably via the army, the odd word of Punic (such as mapalia, huts) found its way into Latin, maybe with the adoption of the item described. Punic culture and language were not suppressed. By the time Carthage existed only as a re-founded city of Roman citizens, a writer of geography in Latin could point with pride to his Punic world view, and as the historian Tacitus pointed out in the early 2nd century ad, now it did not matter if you praised Rome or Carthage. Yet the ethnographic stereotype remained. It comes as no surprise that the first Roman emperor to have Punic ancestry, Septimius Severus, was widely seen as cruel, superstitious, and cunning.
Romans and Greeks
The final shift of the boundaries of who was considered to fight in the “Western Way of War’, and who was considered ‘eastern’, and thus did not, that we will consider in this chapter involves heavy irony as we turn to the Roman conquest of the Greek world.
On his death (323 bc), Alexander the Great of Macedon ruled both Greece and the old Persian empire. His successors fought to carve up his empire. Out of a maelstrom of intrigue and war, three long-lived and stable ‘superpowers’ emerged by the 270s bc. These were the Macedonian-ruled ‘Hellenistic’ kingdoms of the Antigonids (centred on Macedonia, and dominating Greece); the Selucids (based in the Near East, and controlling parts of Asia Minor); and the Ptolemies (whose main power base was Egypt). During the 2nd century bc Rome defeated both the Antigonids and the Selucids. After three wars and a revolt, Macedonia was made a Roman province in 147 bc. The following year Greece was incorporated into the province of Macedonia. After a war against Antiochus III (192-189 bc), the Selucids were expelled from Asia Minor, and became clients of Rome. A Roman province of Asia was created in 133 bc, when the last ruler of the kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor left his domain to Rome in his will. In a series of battles the Roman legions had comprehensively beaten the Macedonian-style armies of the Hellenistic monarchs, which were based around a pike-armed phalanx.
In the 2nd century bc, at the very time that they were conquering the Greek east, the Romans began to take on a very large amount of Greek culture; the process we know as Hellenization. These two factors are connected. As we have seen, Rome was exposed to Greek influences from the beginning, and had ruled Greek cities from the start of the 3rd century bc. But it was in the 2nd century that Rome penetrated mainland Greece, the home of the Athenians and Spartans, who had greater cultural prestige for the Romans than did the Greeks of Italy and Sicily. Also, it was in the 2nd century that Romans, above all elite Romans, began to win vast sums of wealth from their conquests, and wealth was very necessary for the Hellenization of Rome. The Roman elite was deeply internally competitive. Hellenization offered a new way for members of the elite to compete with each other; as, for example, they rivalled each other in owning more Greek art. Hellenization served other uses for the Roman elite. It marked them off from the Roman non-elite, who could not afford to buy into the game, and it linked them to allied Italian elites, who did have the wherewithal. Art and architecture were given new trajectories, and literature and philosophy kick-started from cold. By the next century, no area of Roman elite life was unaffected. The Roman elite educated their sons in Greek. They had Greek architects design their buildings, and Greek artists decorate them. At home they often dressed in Greek costume, and spoke Greek. The Greek symposium (dinner/ drinking party) became their social gathering of choice. It seems that no high-status Roman home was complete without a tame Greek intellectual.
Becoming Hellenized did not mean that Romans necessarily approved of, or liked, the Greeks they conquered, and then ruled. An ancient Greek referred to himself as a Hellene. The Romans did not extend that courtesy. Instead, a Roman would call a Greek a Graecus. This was known to be offensive. Far more offensive was Graeculm, ‘little Greek’ (a Carthaginian likewise could be called a Poenulus). This may have had similar connotations to a white man in the southern states of America calling a black man ‘boy‘. Romans could consider that the Greeks of the distant, classical past, well before the Romans fought them, had been good men. Possibly they had even been much like Romans. But their descendants were degenerate. They were avaricious and corrupt. Lying was in their nature. Some Greeks were worse than others. Those from Asia were naturally servile. The Latin satirist Juvenal wrote angrily of Greeks coming to Rome (3.58-125). Especially he detested Greeks from Syria: ‘the shit from the River Orontes was flowing into the Tiber’ (3.62-6). Yet all Greeks could be thought luxurious, licentious, and effeminate. The very cultural products that elite Romans were taking to in such a thoroughgoing way were objects of suspicion. They might be considered to undermine the very ‘manliness’ of a Roman. Philosophy could be thought to make a man unfit for a life of action. The naked athletics of the Greek gymnasium was held to encourage immorality; in fact, homosexual sex was claimed to be a Greek import via the gymnasium. Pliny the Younger complained that in his day physical instruction was no longer the province of old soldiers with military decorations, but Graeculi (Panegyric 13.5). Greek athletics was not a good training for war, and war was crucial to the Roman construction of a negative stereotype of Greeks.
In Roman eyes, the Greeks were no good at war. As Tacitus showed, you could give them Roman military organization, arms and equipment, as well as Roman citizenship, but they remained Greeks: lazy and undisciplined (Histories 3.47). Above all, they were cowards. If you found a brave one, as did the author of The Alexandrian War (15.1), you had to compare him with Romans, not other Greeks. The Latin poet Lucan put a savage denunciation of
the Greeks into the mouth of Julius Caesar. They were overeducated, luxurious, soft, lazy, and scared of their own shouting (Pharsalia 7.400-410). An anecdote the Romans told about Hannibal implies a lot about their attitudes to Greeks and war. When in exile in the Greek city of Ephesus, the great Carthaginian general listened to a philosopher lecture on generalship and military affairs in general. After the performance, which went on for some hours, the Greek audience was enthusiastic in its response. When Hannibal was asked what he thought of it, he said he had listened to many old fools in his time, but never as big a one as this (Cicero, On Oratory 2.75-6).
Various factors facilitated the Roman conception of the Greeks as cowardly and ‘eastern’ at war. The first Greeks the Romans ruled were those in Italy and Sicily, and they had long been held by other Greeks to be soft and luxurious. ‘Sybaritic’ behaviour came from Sybaris, a Greek city in Italy. The conquests of Alexander the Great had spread Greeks throughout the Near East. These settlers had been joined by locals who adopted Greek culture. It was just a short step to apply the pre-existing stereotypes about the natives of the Near East to the Greeks and ‘culture Greeks’ who lived there, and then to Greeks as a whole. The Hellenistic pike phalanxes did fight at close quarters, at a distance of some feet as their long pikes projected from their line. But this was not as close as the Romans aimed to fight, at the point of a sword. Rome as a Republic conquered the Greeks. The majority of Greek-style armies that the Romans overcame were in the employ of kings. No ancient commentator saw the Roman Republic as a democracy (although some modern scholars see it as something rather like one). Romans could find the root of Greek decline in the democracies of the classical past. In them the poor had controlled politics, and dragged the Greeks down. To elite eyes, the poor, ‘scum’ as the Romans called them, were as irrational and lacking in fortitude as any barbarian.
All the above helped, but the Romans mapping onto the Greeks the stereotypes of cowardly easterners, who did not fight in a ‘Western Way of War', stereotypes that the Greeks themselves had invented, was ultimately caused by the brute fact that the Romans won, and the Greeks lost.
Art and the ‘Western Way of War’
Art reflects thinking, but also shapes it. Many of the ideas around the Western Way of War’ and its opposites come into focus if we look at a visual image of conflict (Figure 1).
1. A detail from the decoration on a Greek crater, a jug to mix wine and water, from southern Italy, dated about 440 bc
On our left is a Greek hoplite, the Western Way of War' personified; on our right, an easterner. In battle scenes in Greek and Roman art the victors usually move from the viewer's left (possibly influenced by the European practice of reading script from left to right). The westerner is naked. This is an artistic convention, usually referred to as ‘heroic nudity'. It allows the artist to show the Greek's hard, muscled body: the result of tough agricultural work and/or athletic training. The easterner is clothed, so we cannot see if the body is soft or hard, trained or untrained. The westerner is hairy, and explicitly masculine. The easterner has no facial hair. This lack of male secondary sexual characteristics juxtaposed with the carefully illustrated male genitals of both opponent and horse creates an impression of femininity. This can lead to the figure being interpreted as an Amazon, a mythical female warrior from the east. The westerner is on foot, and stands on the base line of the scene. His right foot is even “planted’ into the base line. The easterner is on horseback, and the horse is depicted in mid-air, as its rider appears to rein it in (seemingly indicated by the taut line of the reins between bit and left hand, the open mouth of the horse, and the heavy lines of compression on its neck). The evocation is of one steadfastly standing his ground, while the other is ‘flighty’, and ready to run. This is reinforced by the body angles of the two: the westerner leans his upper body forward towards the diagonal made by the two weapons; the easterner leans back. There is a contrast in the ways they hold their weapons. The westerner grips his firmly, with all four fingers curled round its shaft. The easterner’s grasp is looser, with only the two central fingers gripping it. They want to use their weapons in different ways: one to thrust, the other to throw.
However, there are ambiguities in the picture. The easterner is not straightforwardly dehumanized or demonized. He/she has wonderful possessions: fine clothes and a magnificent stallion. The easterner’s face betrays no fear. It is beautiful and calm. Significantly, there is collusion and reciprocity between the two combatants, as they look straight into each other’s eyes. Midway along the locked gaze of the fighters, the horse looks out of the picture at the viewer, drawing him or her into the scene, and into an evaluation of the “Western Way of War’.