Thursday, 15 May 2014

Culture and war: JE Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts



‘The army of Alexander the Great was the most successful army the Greek world ever knew. Its soldiers were brave because their parents raised them brave, because out-of-the-way Macedon had preserved the warrior values of an older Greece – the Greece that Thucydides remembered with a shudder – when men still wore swords. Macedon was a society of noble companions and riotous banqueting, a society of untamed emotion, of boasting, of drunken murder, a society that recalled that of epic. Philip and Alexander harnessed this traditional ethos by bringing the world of Homer back to life and so turned the ramshackle levy of old Macedonia into an army of world conquest.’ (JE Lendon: Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity).

Above is an interview with JE Lendon regarding his Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. The interview was conducted in 2005 by Bill Buschel for Hellenic Public Radio in New York. Lendon’s book argues for the role of culture and ideology in shaping the way Greeks and Romans carried out their wars. In particular, Lendon says, Greek warriors drew inspiration and sought to emulate the ethics and even the tactics they believe they inherited from the epic past as depicted in Homer; while the Romans too looked to history and myth for information as to how to fight their wars. In fact, Lendon goes on, when Greek culture in all its facets began to pervade Rome, Roman military leaders increasingly turned to the codes and feats of the Greek warrior, particularly Alexander the Great, to guide their behaviour in combat. In late Roman/early Byzantine military history, this translated, for example, in the Emperor Julian (the Apostate) choosing to fight a (disastrous) war with the Persians not out of military necessity but, according to Lendon, because Julian aspired to imitate the heroics of Alexander the Great.

* For Buschel’s interview with Lendon on Lendon’s book Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian War Begins, go here.

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