01. December 2021

War and Violence in the Ancient World War and Violence in the Ancient World: Dr. Lennart Gilhaus takes a look at social norms

Dr. Lennart Gilhaus takes a look at social norms

Waging war was a perfectly normal activity in ancient times. In certain war situations, however, some particular dynamics of violence were occasionally unleashed: massacres, rapes, enslavement. Dr. Lennart Gilhaus from the Department of History firmly believes that, from a modern perspective, the relationship between war and violence in particular is giving us new insights into ancient societies and enhancing our awareness of the social norms of the time. The researcher is a member of the “Present Pasts” Transdisciplinary Research Area at the University of Bonn.


War and Violence in the Ancient World:
War and Violence in the Ancient World: - The sculpture comes from a plaster cast in the Academic Art Museum of the Pergamon Altar and shows the giant Alkyoneus. The original is in Berlin in the Pergamon Museum. © Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard
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Do you see violence and war as being among the fundamental phenomena of human history?

Although there are likely to have been isolated armed scuffles between groups of hunter-gatherers of old, it wasn’t until human beings became sedentary and founded settlements and cities that we see an increase in the archaeological evidence for organized conflicts, some of which even resulted in the complete obliteration of enemy groups. In other words, war is a cultural phenomenon that occurs with the emergence of more complex societies in particular.

Why do you concentrate on wartime violence in Ancient Greece?

Although extensive research has now been done on violence in the ancient world, the focus has mainly been on how that violence was depicted and viewed within societies. Paradoxically, it is precisely in the area of warfare that the issue of violence is ignored – maybe because war and violence are seen as self-evident and belonging together. I want to consider the cultural conditions and consequences of violence in a war context and understand what the societies of the time thought of their own wartime violence.

You take violence in war and use it to extrapolate social norms. Could you provide an example to explain that?

Between 800 and 300 BC, the Greek city-states waged war ferociously among themselves. Greeks fought against Greeks. The confrontations were small in scale and evolved unbelievably fast: which city-states were allies and which were enemies could change in the blink of an eye. Besides this external aspect, there is also a particular internal facet of the city-states to consider: Ancient Greece, and Athens in particular, were the first places in the world that regarded all male citizens as being equal. Human relationships were put on a legal foundation. Trials were held to enforce the law. The idea of revenge, which is typical of Greek culture, was also harnessed and channeled by the state, for example: relations between citizens were to be kept largely free of violence. In turn, the norms thus established had an impact on people’s behavior in war. Although executions in Athens could be extremely cruel and degrading, they didn’t involve any bloodshed. One such method was the bloodless crucifixion, where offenders were tied to a board and left to wait out their demise – a punishment that was also meted out in war.

What’s the major difference between pre-modern and modern violence in a war context?

The main difference is that, in Ancient Greece, wartime violence was literally manual labor practiced by the individual soldiers. War and violence were part and parcel of everyday life back then. There was a consistently strong sense of mobilization: men were readied for it from childhood with the aid of rituals and symbolism. Everyone had to expect sooner or later to go to war, kill their enemies and be killed themselves. This all changed with the invention and continuous improvement of automatic weapons in the modern age. You could say that the First World War changed people’s attitude to warfare in the Western world.

Violence has shifted again since the First World War. Nowadays, drones fire rockets by having someone sat miles away press a button and watch events unfold on a screen. What social norms are behind this?

The onward march of technology is making “killing” a more and more distant concept in people’s minds. Drone warfare is transforming the ethos of what it means to be a soldier and rendering traditional notions of courage and bravery obsolete. Automation is also throwing up new, as-yet unanswered questions about the legitimacy of killing in wartime.

Your funding from the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s scholarship program is enabling you to expand your research to cover other eras and cultures.

We’re staying in the pre-modern period but are looking at more societies: the Roman Republic, Feudal Japan, Central Asia in the Late Middle Ages, the Inca Empire and medieval Central Europe. The aim is to understand the interactions between wartime violence and society in these cultures too and then compare our findings: How did people view lawful and unlawful violence? What violence was permitted in war, what was allowed within society? We want to delve more deeply into these questions at an international conference, which we’re planning for September 2022.

In other words, violence and culture go hand in hand in human society?

Definitely. That’s why it’s important to explore the emotional and psychological mechanisms of escalating violence and violent excesses and to understand the phenomena in their respective cultural context. Today’s Western societies see themselves as being free of violence, leading them to turn their attention chiefly toward violence in interpersonal relationships and institutions, such as physical domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we’re also seeing images from the civil wars in Syria, Libya and other countries. Unlike in antiquity, however, the focus in modern Europe is not on the political victors but primarily on the victims of violence in war. Yet we see wartime violence as something “foreign” that doesn’t have any bearing on our lives. At the same time, the fact that the media are always full of pictures of suffering people from far-off countries causes a certain desensitization in us.          FORSCH

Dr. Lennart Gilhaus :
Dr. Lennart Gilhaus : - Dr. Lennart Gilhaus zwischen Büchern im Seminar für Alte Geschichte © Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard
War and Violence in the Ancient World:
War and Violence in the Ancient World: - A vessel, known as Nestoris, depicting the murder of an ancient king, 380–370 BC, currently in Bonn. © Daimler und Benz Stiftung/Oestergaard

Dr. Lennart Gilhaus is a non-tenured lecturer in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Bonn and is working on his postdoctoral qualification (Habilitation) entitled “Die Brutalität des Krieges und die Grenzen der Gewalt im archaischen und klassischen Griechenland” (“The Brutality of War and the Boundaries of Violence in Ancient and Classical Greece”). He became a member of the Junges Kolleg at the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts in 2018. He has been funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation’s scholarship program for postdoctoral researchers and assistant professors since the beginning of the year.

This project sets out to explore these dynamics of violence and compare them across various pre-modern cultures. Dr. Lennart Gilhaus’s research project is receiving €40,000 in funding over two years. 

More information: https://www.daimler-benz-stiftung.de/cms/en/

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