Monday 12 May 2014

Scenes of Ancient Warfare: An Interview with Dr. Fernando Echeverría

Dr Echeverría is an expert on images of ancient Greek warfare. He is based at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain. His publications include the well-received article ‘Hoplite and Phalanx in Archaic and Classical Greece: A Reassessment', which was published in Classical Philology volume 107.4 in 2012.
Dr Echeverría has generously agreed to talk to Panoply about ancient warfare, Greek vases, and scenes of a violent nature....

1. When do scenes of warriors start appearing on ancient Greek vases?
Painted scenes on vases are a rather old feature in Greek culture; they are already present at the very beginning of what we regard as the “historical” period of ancient Greece (ca. 750-150 BC). By the mid-eighth century BC, Greek painters started to add human figures and animals to their beautiful geometric decorations. The figures are a bit sketchy and stylized at first, but they become more and more sophisticated and detailed in the course of the following decades.

Warriors fighting on a late-geometric vase

Those first scenes represented different aspects of the life of early Greek communities, and since warriors were relevant figures in those communities we find men armed with shields, spears and swords taking part as witnesses in what seems like daily life activities, such as religious festivals or funerals. Naturally, they are also shown fighting at times, engaged in a sort of confusing melée in which it is even difficult to distinguish sides.

2. What sorts of warrior scenes seem to be popular on vases?
Greek painters practiced a wide range of topics taken from the military experience of their time. They did not represent all possible military activities though, but intentionally chose some specific episodes and apparently ignored some others, such as life in the camp or cavalry engagements. They seem to intend to depict warriors in a favourable light and thus preferred scenes that present more fashionable activities.

Fairly common warrior scenes are, for example, arming scenes, in which a group of men is shown putting on their arms and armour, or departure scenes, which represent the farewell of the warrior setting out for campaign and leaving his wife, parents and children. Warriors are also shown at times marching to combat together in a sort of column, their shields ready and their spears levelled, or carrying the bodies of their dead comrades after the fight. Combat scenes are, however, the most frequent and popular warrior scenes, commonly displaying small groups of fighters engaged in an exchange of deadly blows.

3. How do vase images of warriors help you in your research?
Painted scenes are an invaluable source of information to reconstruct ancient Greek warfare. Literary works written by Greek historians and playwrights naturally offer multiple details and fairly comprehensive accounts of certain military events, but they are mostly concentrated in the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek culture, from the fifth to the second centuries BC. Conversely, vase painting became particularly fashionable during the previous period, the so-called Archaic age (eighth to sixth centuries BC), and several thousand vases displaying warrior scenes have been found so far, containing a wealth of information that we cannot find in the meagre literary sources of the time. This means that for this long and very important period, the Archaic age, we do not have any literary descriptions of combat, and painted scenes are basically our main (and at times only) source.

The scenes, however, are not really like photographs from ancient Greece, so we cannot just take everything displayed in them at face value. They are more like comic-book vignettes, compositions of figures that represent the way the painter conceived his world and chose to depict it. That is why we first need to understand how those painters thought and worked in order to understand the scenes themselves. Once we get an idea of their style, their values, and their interests, we can then try to figure out what is going on in the scenes and start to collect information from them. The scenes will then inform us to some extent about historical Greek military practices, but also about what ancient Greeks themselves considered important and worthy of commemoration through pictures.

4. Is there any attempt on black figure vases to distinguish between different types of fighters?
Archaic Greek painters were really skilled artists, capable of extremely detailed depictions of objects and particularly keen on the anatomy of the human body. Through a set of conventional devices, such as specific pieces of equipment or dress, Greek painters managed to represent different types of fighters, and even to emphasize differences between them. The most common and frequent type of warrior is a sort of heavy-armed infantryman, equipped with a helmet, a cuirass (a breast-plate and back-plate), a round shield called “Argive” and sometimes greaves (leg protections). This infantryman carries a long spear, which is his main offensive weapon, and a sword in its scabbard.

Heavy infantrymen engaging on an archaic vase

There are also light-armed infantrymen, throwing javelins or stones, and wearing little or no protection at all, and archers, firing a small bow and carrying a quiver full of arrows. Archers are usually represented in “Persian” costume, wearing trousers and animal hides, because ancient Greeks identified the Persians as archers and light-armed warriors. Painted scenes also show different types of horsemen, sometimes wearing full armour and other times even naked and with no weapons. Finally there are chariots, small wheeled boxes pulled by two horses and driven by charioteers wearing a tunic and a special type of shield (the so-called “Boeotian” shield) hanging at their backs.

Each kind of fighter seems to perform specific activities: heavy-armed infantrymen usually carry the weight of the fighting, always in a central position and engaging in individual combats with their peers; light-armed and archers accompany the infantrymen firing their shots from safe distance and seeking protection behind their comrades’ shields; horsemen and chariots run here and there, trying to trample the infantrymen and firing projectiles at the same time. Black-figure battlefields are really busy and crowded places.

5. Can scenes of mythical figures such as Achilles or Diomedes teach us anything about historical warfare and real people?
There is a long and heated debate among scholars on this respect, but I think that they definitely can. The main problem for historians is certainly narrative; apart from highly distinctive episodes from myth, we cannot reconstruct the internal story of most painted scenes or identify it with absolute certainty with legends known to us. We are unable to know for sure what story is being told, and as a result we are missing part of the message. In the case of the few scenes indisputably representing an episode from myth, fictitious events are displayed using fictitious figures, so the story is not likely to refer to any historical event known to us.

However, there is a brighter side. First, Greek painters consistently depicted legendary episodes in a physical setting inspired by their historical reality. It is a fairly established norm in universal art that episodes are depicted in contemporary wrappings, and Greek art is no exception. Unless proved otherwise, we can assume that objects, weapons, costumes, postures and actions were to a great extent historical, in the sense of being reminiscent of the painters’ and the audience’s own reality. Second, even legendary episodes can be based on “real” experiences, events or anecdotes, in the sense of being historically plausible, so even legendary narratives can potentially contain historical information. In this case, “fiction” cannot be taken to mean “unreal”, but would be better understood as an intentional distortion or exaggeration of reality. The deeds of the heroes can be assumed to represent overblown versions of the deeds of average people.

And third, the scenes were painted by artists living in a historical setting for an audience sharing the same culture and ideals, and as a result they represent a historical way of seeing the world. They may depict legendary episodes, but they do so according to a specific set of values, concerns, preconceptions and interests. The stories of Achilles and Diomedes eventually inform us about what the ancient Greeks thought appropriate for extremely strong, brave and skilled people. As you can see, there is so much we can learn from the painted scenes, we just need to know better where to look.

6. What ancient literature would you recommend for people interested in ancient Greek warfare?
The ancient Greeks were to a great extent a militaristic society, that is, they had norms and values taken from the military field, and for them warfare was a crucial activity. For this reason, Greek intellectuals (poets, historians, playwrights, philosophers) cared a lot about war and talked about it constantly. As a result, almost every piece of literature that they produced is somehow connected to warfare and contains interesting information. There are, however, two especially important works in Greek literature, that represent also the culmination of their respective genres.

One of them is Homer’s Iliad, an old and rather long epic poem that describes the events in the Greek camp during the mythical siege of Troy. The central topic is Achilles’ wrath over an insult to his status, which leads him to withdraw from battle in anger for a few days. Since he is the best warrior in the Greek army, his comrades suffer at the hands of the Trojans, until the death in combat of his beloved friend Patroclus brings him back to the fray. The Iliad is full of military actions described in a beautiful and poetic way, and all the diverse experiences of combat, from the glory of victory to the misery of hunger and treason, can be found in it. It is thought to illustrate Greek military concerns and practices from the early archaic period, around ca. 700 BC.

The other is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, written by the end of the fifth century BC by this Athenian intellectual and general. It narrates the complex events of this long war fought between Sparta and Athens, at the head of their respective allies, for almost thirty years (431-404 BC), although the work is unfinished and it only covers the period to the year 411. Thucydides was a contemporary and witness of the war, and his style is rigorous and trustworthy, written in a fluent and objective prose that catches the reader’s attention. He obviously devotes great effort to describing the military events themselves, and his work offers several of the finest and most detailed accounts of battles and campaigns in the history of classical literature. Thucydides also takes great pains to inform us about the human side of the war: injustice, violence and cruelty, the sufferings of the population, and the complex emotional sphere (fear, anger, pride) in which all military actions take place.

7. Who’s your favourite ancient Greek warrior?
Well, the list is rather long, there are many legendary and historical figures that seem interesting for different reasons. Among the almost endless catalogue of warriors starring in Homer’s Iliad, I would single out the astonishing Pylaemenes, killed in combat in book 5 of the poem and alive again much later in book 13 (no doubt because of a narrative confusion), and also the remarkable Asteropaios , who was ambidextrous, the only case in the whole history of Greek literature as far as I know. There is also Stentor, whose voice was, according to Homer, “as powerful as fifty voices of other men” ( 5.785-86). They are all peculiar in different ways, and help make the story more attractive to the audience. Their military skills, however, were far from outstanding.

Among the historical figures, the soldier-poet Archilochus, living in the second half of the seventh century BC, is particularly interesting, since he left dozens of fragments of poetry in which he described his thoughts and activities, and represented himself as a freethinker and a sort of devoted warrior who built his reputation and fortune on his spear.

This monument is thought to have been erected to Archilochus in the late 6th century.
Note the shield and cuirass hanging behind him

The philosopher Socrates also had also military experience during the Peloponnesian War. Socrates was fighting when he was in his forties, and according to some literary reports of his performance (such as Plato’s) he was a very brave fighter, capable of keeping a cool head in dangerous situations. I particularly like the bold and sophisticated command of the Athenian Demosthenes (nothing to do with the fourth-century orator of the same name). He was a general during the first half of the Peloponnesian War, an innovator and a remarkable and rather successful army leader who brought some of the few Athenian victories during the war. His dramatic death at the end of the disastrous Athenian expedition against Syracuse adds even more historical appeal to his outstanding military career and his thrilling life.

Many thanks to Dr Echeverría for a fascinating look into warrior iconography.
If you’d like to find out more about ancient warfare, visit the Combat page and the Every Soldier has a Story page

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