Chapter 2

Thinking with war

War was good to think with in the ancient world. In other words, Greeks and Romans frequently used ideas connected to war to understand the world and their place in it. War was used to structure their thoughts on other topics, such as culture, gender, and the individual. War was pervasive in classical thought.


When Greeks and Romans thought about ‘eastern’ cultures, and by reflection their own culture, they often did so in terms of warfare. This pattern of thinking was not confined to delineating the oriental. It was a universal practice, although the range of other cultures imagined was limited. For example, when inhabitants of the Roman empire looked to the east, unsurprisingly they saw ‘eastern’ cultures (depending on their viewpoint Greek, or Persian, and so on). When they turned to the south, again they saw mainly ‘eastern’ cultures (Carthaginian and Egyptian). To the west was nothing except the ocean, and in it some more or less mythical islands (such as the Islands of the Blest, where a privileged few of the dead lived). It was different up north. The ‘northern’ was another important imagined ‘other’ for the classical world. Indeed, before their Romanization, and sometimes in humour afterwards, the inhabitants of the far west, Spaniards, were considered ‘northern’ in character.

Let us now think about the far north, modern Scotland, and how the Romans conceptualized, and implicitly judged, Caledonian culture largely by its style of war-making. We can approach this by examining three very different pieces of evidence: a sculptured and inscribed sandstone slab, a wooden tablet with a fragment of writing on it, and a literary text. These reveal not only the diversity of sources available to the ancient historian, but also the variety of interpretations that every piece of evidence can provoke.

In the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (ad 138-61) the Roman frontier in Britain temporarily moved north from Hadrian’s Wall to the line of the Clyde-Forth. Here the Antonine Wall of timber and earth was built. The military units involved erected decorated stones commemorating their part in the work. Twenty of these stones, now known as legionary distance slabs’, have been found. One of these, found at Bridgeness, and probably to be dated to ad 142/3, marked the eastern end of the fortification (Figure 2).

The inscription records the completion of 4,652 paces of the wall by the Second Legion. It is flanked by two sculptured scenes. To the viewer’s left, a Roman defeats local barbarians. To the right, members of the legion prepare to offer sacrifice to the gods. The hierarchy within the legion is shown, as the main figure wears a toga, while the rest wear a tunic and military cloak. The slab poses challenges of interpretation for the viewer, as he or she tries to link the different elements of the decoration. The scene of successful battle can be understood as preceding and underpinning the scene of peaceful activity: victory in war as necessary precursor to civilized life. Alternatively, the sacrifice can be seen as securing the gods’ favourable attitude towards the Romans, and thus underpinning the military triumph. Again, the sacrifice can be seen as a ritual purification for tasks ahead, and thus can be linked with the inscription. Just as there is no one way to read the relations between the different elements, so the scene of fighting can be interpreted in various ways. Rather than see it as one Roman

2. The Bridgeness Slab

beating four Britons, it has been suggested that it shows one Briton in four chronological stages of defeat (reading the figures clockwise from the top left: knocked down, wounded, captured, and beheaded). It is possible that such readings are too specific. As the slab was set up by the whole legion, and the cavalry were only a small part of the legion, the one stands for the whole, and the Roman represents communal effort. Also he stands for civilization. He has carefully detailed ‘high-technology” equipment, and his pose can be traced back to a famous funeral monument from Athens of the 4th century bc. The Britons form a strong contrast. They are naked savages. The only cultural artefacts they have are weapons of war. No social hierarchy is indicated. Although there are four of them, their very different poses suggest that they fight as individuals. They are circumscribed by Roman civilization, surrounded by a pillar of an arch to the left, the cavalryman above, and a column to the right. They have only such future as Rome allows them. For the two in the middle register it is death in battle. For the lower two it is capture, and then for one execution. The (for the moment) living captive has been interpreted variously as being stunned, resigned, contemplative, or shamed. Caledonian culture is thought about here only in terms of war, and specifically failure in war. It is interesting that these potent symbols of Roman power appear from the circumstances of their discovery to have been carefully buried when the Antonine Wall was abandoned.

The Roman fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall, has, since 1973, yielded several hundred writing tablets. Among the Vindolanda Tablets, which were thrown away and buried as rubbish, is one dated ad c. 97-102/3. It talks about the local Britons. The six surviving lines can be translated as follows.

the Britons [Brittones] are unprotected by armour [or ‘naked’].

There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched [or ‘little’] Britons [Britunculi] mount [or ‘take up fixed positions’] in order to throw javelins.

(Number 164)

It has been interpreted as an intelligence report, or a memorandum for a new commander referring to enemy tribesmen. Alternatively, it has been seen as a report on new local recruits to the Roman army. It is just possible that it is part of a literary composition. Whichever is the case, British culture again is judged solely in terms of war-making, and is found wanting. Here many fight as cavalry, but not in the way Romans do. The Britons fail to mount (or take fixed positions) to fight. They do not fight hand to hand. They have a low cultural attainment. They are unarmoured (or naked), and they do not have swords. They are referred to by the patronizing and dismissive Brittunculi, ‘wretched’/‘little’ Britons.

While it may be thought unsurprising that British culture is analysed only in terms of war in evidence coming from the very frontier of the empire, and produced in specifically military contexts, the same cannot be held of our third piece of evidence, Tacitus’ Agricola. This hagiographic life of Tacitus’ father-in-law is notoriously hard to fit into any ancient genre of literature. Probably written in ad 98 in Rome, it has in it elements of biography, history, geography, ethnography, and political treatise. As Agricola was governor of Britain ad 77-84, the ethnography given is of the Britons (Sections 11-12). This opens with a discussion of what the physical characteristics of the various British tribes shows about their geographic and racial origins. The Caledonians’ red hair and large physique points to their German origins. Like the Gauls, the Britons are quick to face danger, but then quick to run away from it. Those Britons who were conquered early by the Romans have less spirit than the rest. Then their tactical methods are outlined. Their strength is infantry, but some also employ chariots. The noblemen drive the chariots, their dependants fight in their defence. Nothing has aided the Romans as much as the British tribes’ inability to unite. Again, when a Roman wants to discuss British culture, it is done mainly through ideas of war. War was always one of the most important ways of comprehending the differences between cultures.

When the Greeks and Romans constructed an ethnographic stereotype of the ‘northerner’, they did so to form a contrast not only from themselves, but also from their image of the ‘easterner’. While easterners were small, decadent, clever, and cowardly, northerners were big, primitive, stupid, and (at least initially) ferocious. Both, of course, lacked the rationality, self-control, and discipline of the classical viewer. Yet as with the easterner, the image of the northerner could be turned around. As we have seen, easterners could be regarded as having an older civilization than the classical. For the northerners, their very primitiveness could be used to depict them as uncorrupted by a civilization that had slid over into decadence. Tacitus’ work of ethnography, the Germania, in large part can be read as a condemnation of contemporary Rome by comparison with noble Germans.

Northerner and easterner did not exhaust the classical ethnographic imagination. The other great stereotype constructed was the nomad. Nomads could be found in the north (Scythians and Huns, among others), the east (Arabs and Saracens), and the south (Libyans and Moors). Lacking agriculture and houses, let alone cities (the key signifier of classical civilization), nomads were considered the polar opposite of Greek and Roman culture. As such, although there were exceptions (for example, Quintus Curtius 7.8.12-30) and they could be thought of as having produced the odd wise man, such as the Scythian Anacharsis, they were seldom held up in classical literature as embodying a good alternative lifestyle.

These stereotypes proved remarkably durable. That the Greeks and Romans liked to think that their enemies remained the same, while in reality they changed, can be illustrated by thinking about the German tribes that Rome faced in the 1st century ad and those of three centuries later. By the 4th century ad the Germans were organized in fewer and larger tribes than they had been earlier. An intensification of agriculture had fuelled both population boom and economic growth. German society had seen increases in political centralization and social stratification, with the emergence of relatively stable dynasties of monarchs, and the appearance of a warrior elite, which can be seen as a ‘nobility in the making’. These might be thought likely to have increased the coercive powers available to the tribes, and thus also to have improved the command and control that could be exercised in battle. Germanic armies may have been larger, and better equipped, with more cavalry and bowmen. Yet our Roman literary sources make these speculations hard to verify. For them, a German remained ever a German.

This comes out clearly if one compares Ammianus Marcellinus’ late 4th-century account (16.12) of the battle of Strasbourg in ad 357 with Tacitus’ early 2nd-century description (see especially 2.14) of campaigns in Germany in ad 14-16 in the Annals. The two historians concur on many things. The Germans have large bodies that tire easily. They fight with undisciplined ferocity, which then gives way to complete panic. Ammianus’ picture of close combat is a timeless expression of Roman ideology.

[The Germans] had the advantage of strength and height, the Romans of training and discipline. One side was wild and turbulent, the other deliberate and cautious. Our men relied on their courage, the enemy on their prodigious physique.

(16.12.47, tr. W. Hamilton)

Here changes in either Roman armies or their opponents are for the most part written out of history.

For Greeks and Romans, not only did barbarian peoples tend to remain the same, but newly encountered tribes promptly were equated with those previously known. When the Huns burst into the Roman world in the late 4th century ad, Ammianus admitted that he could find out little about their origins, and called them by their contemporary name. Yet even he drew upon earlier literature about other peoples to write his description of them. Other writers, especially Greeks, went much further, identifying the Huns with a range of barbarians that had been known in the distant past of the 5th century bc or even earlier. They were Scythians, Massagetae,

Cimmerians, and so on. In making these equations, the authors were attempting to show their knowledge of classical literature, above all of Herodotus, and thus exhibiting their elite social status. Underlying justifications for the practice was a feeling that the great writers of the past must have known about the seemingly ‘new’ barbarians, and that, as the recently encountered came from much the same part of the world as tribes already known, the former must have incorporated the latter. Above all, such a way of viewing the world acted as a ‘defence mechanism’, or an ideological ‘comfort blanket’. New and threatening tribes became less unknown, and more manageable. They had been defeated or contained before, and they would be again.

Such ethnographic thinking was so ingrained that remarkably it survived the fall of the western Roman empire. In the 5th century ad some Roman subjects of the new barbarian kingdoms in the west used it to rewrite reality and feel better about their present political circumstances. Their new barbarian rulers were depicted as being just like Romans, if not actually Roman in origin all along. Flattered by the fiction, and possibly appreciating that it could encourage the loyalty of their new subjects, some of the barbarian rulers were also happy to buy into this strategy of thinking.

That the classical world had a restricted range of ethnographic stereotypes of alien cultures; that these were assembled out of a limited number of building blocks (big/small, cowardly/ferocious, decadent/primitive, and so on); that they were durable, transferable, and adaptable; and that they were used to define the centre (Greeks and Romans) by contrast from the periphery (barbarians) does not mean that they tell us nothing about the non-classical world. The classical world did not exist in a vacuum. There were other cultures out there. To seek to understand another culture on your own terms does not mean that you are indulging in free fiction. If classical culture had just wanted a mirror to see itself in, there would have been no need to construct more than one ‘Other’.

The, to our eyes, artificial nature of classical ethnography should not lead us to assume that it was only an intellectual parlour game, which Greeks and Romans could indulge in, for example, when reading Tacitus’ Agricola, but would have jettisoned when confronted with the reality of barbarians on a battlefield. The Romans fighting at the battle of Strasbourg, described by Ammianus (above), would have seen the reality of 4th-century ad German armies, but they would have interpreted this through centuries-old ethnographic stereotypes. To use a modern comparison, the reality of fighting other peoples on the Eastern Front in the Second World War did not shake the Nazi ideologies indoctrinated in German soldiers, rather it reinforced them.


Gender and the related area of sexuality are much studied currently by ancient historians (see Chapter 3 for speculation on reasons for changes in scholars’ interests and views). Little of this work covers warfare. Yet war was strongly gendered in classical antiquity.

War was emphatically the work of men and not women. It was thought that goddesses might appear on the battlefield. In Homer’s Iliad Athena, Artemis, Hera, and Aphrodite fight, the latter even being wounded by a man. Yet what was acceptable for divinities was not the case for mortal Greek and Roman women. This is clear in the Iliad in Hector’s words to his wife.

Go therefore back to our house, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens ply their work also; let war be the care of men

(6.490-2, tr. R. Lattimore, slightly altered)

Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, first performed in Athens in 411 bc, turns Greek norms upside down for comic effect. To end the Peloponnesian War the women of Athens go on a sex strike, and seize the city1 s war funds. It is part of this comedy of inversion that the heroine tells us that when her husband quoted Hector’s line to her she ignored it, and then she goes on to state ‘let war be the care of women’ (lines 520-38).

It was a mark of their difference that among various barbarian peoples women played an active role in warfare. In Tacitus’ Agricola it is part of their exotic nature that the ‘Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders’ (16; cf. 31). In classical literature there is a succession of frightening, but perversely attractive, foreign warrior queens: Artemisia of Caria in Asia Minor, Olympias of Macedon, Cleopatra of Egypt, Boudicca and Cartimandua of Britain, and Zenobia of Palmyra in Syria. The ultimate example of warrior women were the mythical Amazons. They were held either to live without men, except for an annual mating with a local tribe, or, by crippling their male children, to have reduced their men to the roles normal for women in classical society. Amazons existed in myth to be fought and defeated by men. Amazonomachies (‘battles against Amazons’) were extremely popular in art, featuring in the sculptural programme of many Greek temples, including the Parthenon in Athens. These transgressors of the gender boundaries of war ultimately reasserted those very boundaries in their defeat. Usually they were located in the remote east of Asia Minor. The myths of the Amazons thus connected with classical ideas about the effeminate nature of eastern men.

We can advance our thinking about gender and war by looking at a visual image (Figure 3). This is part of the sculpted relief decoration of a tomb in Lycia in Asia Minor, dated to 390-380 bc, which is known as the Nereid Monument. It shows a fortified city under attack. Nine warriors man the battlements. They are equipped with the helmets and round shields of Greek hoplites. They hold stones to throw at the enemy. In the middle of the city is a woman. She alone looks out of the sculpture straight at the viewer, drawing us into the scene. Her right arm is folded over her head, while she reaches upwards with her left arm. What is she doing? A modern viewer might speculate that she is praying. This, however, is unlikely to have been an ancient response. Although women were important in Greek and Roman religion, they had little involvement in the rites of war.

3. The Nereid Monument, showing the siege of a city

The scene is an assault on a city. When war, as it were, came to the home, women, if they had not been sent away for their own safety, did have several roles to play. In The Bravery of Women by the Greek biographer Plutarch, the theatre for the display of female virtues is often a siege. Women could prepare food for their defenders, as 110 who had not been removed to Athens did in Plataea in 429 bc. After the invention of torsion artillery, they might donate their hair to make the ropes necessary for its working, as at Byzantium when it was invested by the forces of Septimius Severus in the late 2nd century ad. They might bring missiles to the walls, and encourage the men, as did the women of Chios in the late 3rd century bc. The author of a mid-4th century bc guidebook on how to defend a city under siege recommends that you can dress women as men, and station them on the battlements, to make the number of defenders appear greater. Yet on no account must you let them throw anything: ‘for even a long way off a woman betrays her sex when she tries to throw” (Aeneas Tacticus, 40). A unusual myth credits the women of Argos with physically fighting off a Spartan attack on the walls of their city in the early 5th century bc. If the enemy broke into the town, women might throw tiles down on them from the roofs. It was such a missile, thrown by a poor, old woman of Argos, that felled King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 272 bc. Women needed watching in a siege. More avaricious than men, as well as less rational and brave, they might betray the town to the enemy, as the mythical Tarpeia tried to at Rome.

The woman on the Nereid Monument most likely should not be read in any of the above ways. Instead, she is tearing her hair and lamenting her potential fate. Should the city fall, her future holds rape, enslavement, violent death, or life as a refugee.

War was a crucial element in constructing masculinity in Greece and Rome. Homeric heroes encourage each other in battle with ‘be men, my friends’. The Athenian orator Aeschines, defending himself in court, dwells on the war record of his male relatives and himself. Conversely he rounds on his prosecutor, Demosthenes:

‘you claim to be a man, but I would not call you one, as you were prosecuted for desertion’. Rather Demosthenes is a kinaidos, a womanish, insatiable passive homosexual (2.148-51; 167-9). It was the lack of self-control and passivity, rather than just desire for male-male sex, that unmanned the kinaidos. Imagining legislation for an ideal city, Plato wishes that a man who has shown himself a coward could be changed into a woman. As that is impossible, ‘we can reward him by giving him the closest possible approximation to that penalty’. He must spend the rest of his life in safety, and live with the resulting shame (Laws, 944A). Pliny praises the Roman emperor Trajan for putting on gladiatorial games, ‘nothing lax or dissolute to weaken and destroy the manly spirit of his subjects’

(Panegyric, 33.1). The link between war and masculinity was embedded in language. In Greek andreia meant manliness or courage. In Latin virtus signified manly virtue or valour.

The individual

War was not only good to think with for big issues, such as culture or gender, but it also was useful for the small-scale, and intimate, such as individual character. Here we will look at how members of three groups, which were in reality very unwarlike, nevertheless constructed their personalities in large part in terms of war.

Love and war had long been linked, but it was in the time of the first Roman emperor Augustus (31 bc-ad 14) that Latin poets, above all Propertius and Ovid, most fully elaborated the connection. The poet could portray himself fighting against love. Conversely he might be a soldier in the army of either his mistress, or love itself. He could campaign against rivals, or the woman’s husband, or her virtue. A soldier of love, like a real soldier, had to be tough. Soldiering of either type demanded the same virtues, and ran the same risks: uncertainty, hardship, even death. The role of soldier of love could be desired by the poet, and a delight, or it could be a dire necessity forced upon him. Whichever, it involved renouncing the role of real soldier. This brings us to the first of two vital interpretative issues with this literature. Is it pro or anti the establishment?

Augustus, who had come to power via civil war, set out to create not only a new political order, although it was dressed up as a restoration, but also a new morality, which again was depicted as a return to the past. The Augustan regime put heavy emphasis on doing one’s duty to the state, including in marriage, procreation, and war. The poets’ rejection of real soldiering in favour of fighting for illicit, unmarried love thus flew in the face of the regime’s wishes. Yet we should not simply see these poets as political dissidents. Self-deprecation and hyperbole always undercut the poets’ self-presentation.

The other great question about this poetry is ‘did they mean it?’. Again, there is no simple answer. You probably could have walked the streets of Rome without having to step over the prostrate, love-struck bodies of major poets. Yet even if they had claimed that the lover in their poems was just a fictional, poetic persona, their construction of their own personalities would have been formed in reaction to it (‘the protagonist in my poems is a soldier of love, but I am not’).

The principate (30 bc-ad 235) founded by Augustus largely banished war to the social and geographic periphery. Wars were now fought by professional soldiers, and, except for civil wars, they usually happened on distant frontiers. That Greek philosophers of the time never, or hardly ever, experienced war did not stop them pontificating on the subject. The philosophers, however, did come across soldiers. Their attitudes to the members of the army who protected them were marked by alienation, contempt, and fear. They considered that the life of a soldier was one of discipline, toil, and risk. As Epictetus (ad c. 55-c. 135) put it, if soldiers did not heed discipline ‘nobody will dig a trench, or raise a palisade, or keep watch at night, or expose himself to danger’ (3.24.32). Yet these were just the features which a philosopher claimed distinguished his own life. For example, Dio Chrysostom (ad c. 40-c. 112) repeatedly stressed the philosopher’s need for discipline, and boasted of his own courage and the tribulations he had suffered in exile. Such things did not bring the soldier any benefits, but they did the philosopher, who had entered into them willingly, after philosophical deliberation. Philosophers depicted themselves as soldiers fighting for self-control, truth, and virtue. Dio Chrysostom claimed that the fight for virtue and against the pleasure which would undermine it was a greater fight than those in the Iliad (8.20-22; see Chapter 4 for more on these philosophers’ views on war).

If the members of any group in the Roman empire had good reason to hate soldiers it was the Christians. Although (with the exception of Nero in ad 64) the initiative for the persecution of Christians came not from the government, but from the pagan populace, until the reign of Decius (ad 249-51), when the authorities became involved, as they had to for the sake of public order, it was the soldiery who oversaw the rounding up of suspects, their trials and executions. The strong element of paganism, and especially the cult of the emperors, in military life made it difficult for Christians to become soldiers, and for Christians to accept soldiers into their communities. It is thus unsurprising that the most common image of the persecuted in the Christian stories of martyrdom that survive (now usually known collectively as The Acts of the Christian Martyrs) is not of a soldier, but of an athlete. In a rare instance where we find a martyr described as a warrior of God fighting for faith, it is because he actually was a soldier (Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.41.16). Yet in other contexts, away from martyr texts, even Christians could see themselves as soldiers. The Christian writers Tertullian (ad c. 160-c. 240) and Origen (ad 184/5-254/5) were committed pacifists, who held that Christians should not serve in the Roman army (see Chapter 4 for Christians’ attitudes to war). For them, the battles of the Old Testament were to be read as allegories. Drawing on this, the few positive military images in the New Testament, and their knowledge of pagan Greek philosophy, they saw Christians as a new type of spiritual soldier. As Tertullian put it: ‘for are not we too soldiers? Soldiers, indeed, subject to all the stricter discipline, that we are subject to so great a general [Christ]’ (On Exhortation to Chastity, 12). Origen wrote: ‘we do not fight under him [the emperor], although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army - an army of piety - by offering our prayers to god’ (Against Celsus, 8.73).

The use of war to construct individual personality, unsurprisingly, was not confined to unwarlike intellectuals. It was pervasive in the classical world. Its very pervasiveness sometimes seems to have been missed by modern scholars, and this has led to an over-literal reading of some evidence.

The general change from cremation to inhumation under the Roman empire in the 2nd century ad caused a boom in the production of stone sarcophagi (literally ‘flesh-eaters’). Among the types of relief sculptures that decorated these were the ‘battle scene’, in which Romans (or Greeks) fought barbarians, and the ‘dementia scene’, in which a Roman general accepted the surrender of barbarians (and thus was exercising his clemency). Both scenes appear on the Portonaccio Sarcophagus (named after the place where it was found), which is probably to be dated to ad c. 180-190 (Figure 4).

The main scene on the body of the sarcophagus, on the longest of the three sculpted sides, shows an energetic battle. A commander, the focal point of the composition, leads a wedge of Roman cavalry into combat. Below this unit other Roman infantry and cavalry defeat barbarians. The base is carpeted with barbarian bodies. The impetus of the troopers’ charge has penetrated the mass of the enemy, leaving some hostiles behind them. Yet victory is assured by the fact of the captured barbarians and trophies of arms which flank the scene. On the lid are three scenes: from left to right, a child is bathed, a wedding takes place, and a Roman general receives submissive barbarians.

4. Battle sarcophagus from Portonaccio

Among modem art historians there seems an overwhelming desire to interpret this sarcophagus, and others like it, as more or less biographical; to assume that the deceased placed in it actually was a general. Here, as elsewhere, speculation has even named the individual. These biographical temptations are best avoided. We seldom know the immediate archaeological context of sarcophagi, or have the epitaph that once identified the deceased. ‘Battle’ and ‘dementia’ scenes were just two choices among many for the decoration of sarcophagi. Some of the other options clearly were biographical, such as a sarcophagus showing the dead man as a shoemaker. But the vast majority were not. Most depicted Greek myths, such as the labours of Hercules, or the Greek hero Meleager hunting. The ways in which sarcophagi were used points away from an automatically biographical reading. One sarcophagus was found to contain the remains of no fewer than seven adults and two children. A 4th-century ad sarcophagus with a battle scene contained a female of the imperial family, probably Helena, the mother of Constantine. Whether it was originally intended for her or not, a battle scene sarcophagus in this case was used for someone who could not have been a general.

If we look closely at the main figures on the Portonaccio Sarcophagus, the cavalry commander in the main scene, the general, the couple getting married, and the woman overseeing the bathing of the child on the lid, we can see that their faces are not finished. This suggests that the purchasers of sarcophagi did not commission them from scratch. Instead, workshops produced sarcophagi with a fairly standard range of decorations, which could then be ‘personalized’ for the purchaser by finishing off the main figures with portraits. We should not assume that the majority of sarcophagi with ‘battle’ or ‘dementia’ scenes happened to be bought by retired generals. These sarcophagi should be interpreted symbolically. The very high cost of a sarcophagus made a claim of elite status. If a sarcophagus featuring Hercules was chosen, it showed that the deceased wished to be seen, or his family wished him to be seen, as associated with the virtues of the civilizing mission of the hero who laboured to rid the world of monsters, and after death became a god. Similarly, if the purchaser selected one, like the Portonaccio Sarcophagus, with a “battle’ or ‘dementia’ scene, it showed that the deceased was to be remembered as possessing the much admired military virtues of valour (virtus) and clemency (dementia), even if in reality he had nothing to do with warfare. Some contemporaries might have gone further and seen the “battle’ as a triumph over death itself. In the commemoration of a dead individual, yet again war was good to think with.

In the late Roman empire, from the second half of the 3rd century ad onwards, more and more people conspicuously thought of themselves as soldiers. From top to bottom, members of the civil service were allowed to refer to themselves as soldiers, were in a hierarchy of ranks, wore military-style uniforms, above all the military belt (cingulum), and on retirement became ‘veterans’.

Laws were thought necessary to stop, or at least limit, the unentitled from wearing military kit (Theodosian Code, 14.10.1 [382]). It was always good to think with war in the classical world.

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