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Morality in Greek Warfare

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Ruins of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea Ruins of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea

This book is billed as the "first in-depth study of the attitude of Greek military commanders towards holy ground." Author Dr. Sonya Nevin at the University of Roehampton (London) has identified an important and intiguing element of ancient warfare that certainly deserves such a book-length treatment.

Nevin packs a lot of detail in 200 pages (the remaining 100 pages consists of notes, bibliography and index).  Early on she looks at the Persian destruction of Athens in 480 BCE. "As a show of power in their most sacred space, the focal point of their territory, the destruction challenged the Athenian communal identity." The bulk of her attention, however, focuses on how Greeks dealt with temples of other Greeks in their nearly constant warfare against one another. Here I will explore just two of the case studies she considers.

"The most significant encounter with sacred space concerned the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus outside Syracuse," a city I visited in July 2017. The Athenian general Nicias, victorious over the forces of Syracuse, chose not to plunder the sanctuary. Nevin writes that the Greek historian Thucydides "is characteristically enigmatic" about this. Nevin suggests "Thucydides is perhaps asking his readers to consider a difficult question: if a state (or a person) has undertaken to do something unjust (ie the invasion of Sicily), to what extent should they continue to commit injustices in order to see that goal through? ...Strategically, Nicias made a mistake; morally he made the right decision. Thucydides confronts us with the hard choice of what to make of that."

When the Olympic Games were held in 420 BCE, the atmosphere between competing Greek states "had got so bad that the Eleans had more than 2,000 troops ready to defend the sanctuary. The awkwardness this time was not Athens' treatment of its allies, but Sparta's fall-out with Elis," which controlled the area in which the Games were held. Sparta was banned from the Olympics, but Sparta chose not to march their army there, thus averting a crisis. It was, declares Nevin, "a sacrilege too far for a pious people with a reputation to think about."

Likely just a year later, in 419, the sanctuary of Zeus associated with the Nemean Games (held in years the Olympics did not take place) was destroyed. Nevin tells us this only became know to modern scholars through archeaological evidence, as "no Greek tells us what happened...This is a reminder of how selective Thucydides and other ancient historians were about what events they covered. Nonetheless, this seems an extreme example given the intensity of the destruction of a site of Panhellic renown." Why such "blatant sacrilege" was passed over in silence is, Nevin laments, "fundamentally unclear."

Overall, an excellent study of an all-too-often neglected aspect of ancient hostilities. It is unfortunate the book lacks illustrations and maps to help those who are not Greek historians understand the events more fully. Written in an easy manner without the usual heavy adornments of scholarly prose, Nevin has filled an important niche in our understanding of ancient Greek thought and culture.


Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare (307 pages) is $99 from I.B.Tauris.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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