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10 Greek and Roman War Atrocities
Most Romans were not legionaries, Greeks not philosophers and the ancient world not gloriously heroic as many movies, books and pages would have us believe. Rather, it was often a cruel world where legionaries, hoplites and other soldiers raped, murdered and killed everything in their path. Today we look at 10 war atrocities in the Greco-Roman world.
- Exterminating a city because the strong had the right to do so
"The Athenians also made an expedition against the isle of Melos [which] remained neutral and took no part in the struggle. [The Athenians claimed that] 'the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ [and thus decided to] put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves."
Thucydides 5.84, 89 & 116.
The section above relates (very briefly) the story of how Athens in 416/415 besieged and exterminated the populations of Melos. The image shows the funerary stele of Chairedemos and Lykeas, two Athenian soldiers, c. 420 BC.
- Killing a whole people, men women and children
"because the Germans had brought everything they had with them [...] there was also a great crowd of women and children and these now began to flee in all directions. I [Caesar] sent the cavalry to hunt them down. When the Germans heard cries behind them and saw that their own people were being killed, they threw away their weapons, abandoned their standards, and rushed out of the camp. [then] A large number of them were killed and the rest flung themselves into the river, where they perished"
Caesar - The Gallic Wars 4.14.5-4.15.2
Caesar is often revered like a hero, but he had no problems killing men, women and children for personal gain and glory. The image shows the so called Tusculum portrait, perhaps based on a contemporary portrait of Caesar.
- Killing prisoners of war even if the the demands were met
"But the Plataeans [said that] they would kill all those men of theirs [the Thebans'] that they had alive, [unless the Thebans] would withdraw their forces out of their territory [...] Upon this the Thebans went out of their territory; and the Plataeans, when they had speedily taken in whatsoever they had in the country, immediately slew their prisoners"
The image shows the idealized departure of a warrior on an Athenian vessel (lekythos), ca 450 BC, the calmness of the scene a stark contrast to the literary evidence given above.
- Rape to murder and murder to rape
"Without any respect for age or authority they added rape to murder and murder to rape. Aged men and decrepit old women, who were worthless as booty, were hustled off to make sport for them. If some grown girl or a handsome youth fell into their clutches, they would be torn to pieces in the struggle for possession, while the plunderers were left to cut each other's throats(...) Some, disdaining easy finds, hunted for hidden hoards, and dug out buried treasure, flogging and torturing the householders. they held torches in their hands, and having once secured their prize, would fling them wantonly into an empty house or abandoned temple. Composed as the army was of citizens, allies, and foreign troops differing widely in language and customs, the objects of the soldiers greed differed also. But while their views of what was right may vary, they all agreed in thinking nothing wrong. Cremona lasted them four days."
- Tacitus, Histories, 3.33
The quote above describes the horrible events after the battle of Cremona, AD 69. We, naturally, don't have many images showing Roman soldiers raping, looting and murdering, but we have quite a few depicting sieges, like the one seen in this post (from the column of Trajan). Here you see soldiers approaching a wall in testudo (turtle) formation.
- Killing 257.000 in revenge for 192.
"When the Athenians came up, however, the fight for the wall became intense and lasted for a long time. In the end the Athenians, by valor and constant effort, scaled the wall and breached it. [...] Such a slaughter were the Greeks able to make, that of two hundred and sixty thousand [...], scarcely three thousand were left alive."
The normal image of ancient Greeks is one of civilization and democracy, but one should be equally aware that the Greeks had no problem what so ever exterminating large groups of people (257.000 people above), especially if they were "inferior" non-Greeks. The image shows a scene with rides from the Parthenon Frieze, perhaps depicting the 192 so-called marathonomachoi, the Athenians fallen at Marathon, in essence those being revenged in the quote above.
- Uncontrolled bloodlust
"Nothing was anywhere to be seen but flight and bloodshed, as though the city had been captured, for the rage of the soldiery was no less excited in putting to the sword an unarmed rabble, than it would have been had the heat of battle and an equality of danger stimulated it."
- Livy, History of Rome, 24.39
This is how the Roman Livy described the atrocities committed by Roman troops when they attacked the Sicilian town of Henna. Near genocide was unfortunately not uncommon in ancient warfare. In the image you see Roman troops presenting the heads of their enemies to Trajan (from the column of Trajan).
- You must die
"After the capture of Perusia he [Augustus] took vengeance on many, meeting all attempts to beg for pardon or to make excuses with the one reply, "You must die." Some write that three hundred men of both orders [Plebeians and Patricians] were selected from the prisoners of war and sacrificed on the Ides of March like so many victims at the altar raised to the Deified Julius."
Suetonius, Augustus 15
The image shows the so-called Arch of Augustus in Perusia. The Gate was inscribed with the emperors name after the battle mentioned in the quote above and it is very likely that many, if not all, of the sacrificed prisoners had seen this arch.
- Kill everything
"(The Legionaries) exterminate every form of life they encountered sparing none (...) so when cities are taken by the Romans you may often see not only corpses of human beings but dogs cut in half and the dismembered limbs of other animals."
Polybius, Histories, 5.15
This is how Polybius relates the Roman sack of New Carthage. It is illustrative as we tend to forget how brutal warfare was in antiquity - it was often absolutely horrifying. The image shows the remains of the very walls the Romans had to overtake to massacre the inhabitants. The image show defensive works from New Carthage.
- Stone your enemies, even when they are already captured and defenseless
"But [the Phocaeans Greeks] harassed and plundered all their neighbors, as a result of which the Tyrrhenians [Etruscans] and Carthaginians made common cause against them, and sailed to attack them with sixty ships each. The Phocaeans also manned their ships, sixty in number, and met the enemy in the sea called Sardonian. [After the battle] the Carthaginians and Tyrrhenians drew lots for [the catpured Greeks], and of the Tyrrhenians the Agyllaioi [from Caere] were allotted by far the majority and these they led out and stoned to death."
Herodotus, The Histories 1.166-167
The image shows a merchant vessel on the left side and a pirate chasing it on the right. c. 520 BC-500 BC.
- Civilians, more or less burned...
"So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst. Others were seen still living, especially the old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries. Still others, thrust out and falling from such a height with stones, timbers and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled."
- Appian, History of Rome, 129
The end of Carthage was brutal and the Romans spared no mercy. The image shows a lone remaining stele [gravestone] in Carthage, with the sign of Tanit-
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I've lost interest in land based recreation/exercise, but my modular kayak can't fill all my needs. So for a month I have been reviewing the fantastic array of inflatable SUPaddleboards on Amazon, with free shipping no less. Twice I even ordered one, then had regrets and suprisingly was able to cancel each order about 12 hours later.
Amazon is rumored to have a pricing robot that adjusts based on individual habits, and it may have gotten more eager to close SOME deal with me. I put a new one in my cart at 40% off, then removed it later. At long last I put it back in my cart and it flickered to 45% off, so I ordered it. Bang, before any cancellation could be considered it was shot to me as if by cannon. A staggering weight went two day airmail at no charge.
I awaited delivery with some dread because all local streets were blocked off for a TV production. So I had little better to do than observe the filming of a famous action/drama TV series that I never bother to watch on the screen. First observation was it looked like a delivery truck could get thru. My street and another parallel to it seemed to be reserved for VIP parking but was overwhelmingly empty because they had arrogantly demanded more space than was needed. All their equipment trucks were clogging up a more distant street.
Next observation was that the only action seemed to be on a nearby roof where I had a perfect view of the tiny break area where the whole crew spent most of their time. To distract my mind from the delivery truck drama, I aimed a telescope on them. I saw a signature hairdo of the top star, who was intently scrolling thru his phone... memorizing script! Nobody including the crew appeared to talk or text on any phone, but this and another hairdo, er I mean actor, would grip the device as if strangling a ferret and then finally give sort of a victory gesture and stroll over to the cameras or foodcart. I admired how memorizing could be a focused rational activity with an endpoint, as opposed to how I desperately but half heartedly would go over things forever.
Another observaton was how slim the actors and crew were. They may have left the usual array of chunky thugs (security, movers) at ground level because they had no elevator. I saw the face of a fat caterer after he lugged his platter up 4 flights and was too drained to serve but just stood as a human buffet table. They had healthy food... all whole grain sandwiches which mostly appeared to have pickles and banana peppers inside. One actor attacked ONLY the raw broccoli, lots with dipping sauce. Does he not know of the rat lungworm parasite outbreak here on uncooked veggies? I think it was the other actor that ate SOLELY mountains of cucumber with loads of dip!
The stars and the crew rarely mixed socially, although all jammed together. There was one semiprivate corner where the stars moved to and started scanning the streets with huge binoculars. I was amused until I realized I was similarly a voyeur, with a huge light-gathering lense (more effective than hi mag). Maybe scouting out a car chase route at first, they clearly also incuded smirkey girl-watching and eventually waving to fans. I panned over to see the fans, but forgot how a telescope reverses direction. By the time I recovered I only saw some aging careworn pear shaped folks looking up without waving, but maybe THEY are that show's demographic.
Anyway, I see they got their fitness by dieting and stair climbing. My package arrived with the usual mild disappointments. Maybe it was a prototype, because the manual describes a more user friendly design and the remaining ones on Amazon go for full price. To make it my recreational/fitness dream, I decided to reconfigure it as a wave-ski but the required parts aren't sold on Amazon. They are small and nearly weightless, but even checking a dozen places they charge $50 just for shipping! Arghh, the pursuit of happiness and fitness limps ever onward...
Life these past few months has been interesting. It has had it share of ups and downs, but mostly things are good. I have some amazing friends, I have had some good times and awesome experiences.
While I was dusting my bedroom the other week, I cleaned out my bookshelves. I have about 75% of my books on ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt in boxes, ready to drop off the local library. I kept a few choice ones for reference. But the rest can go. I have probably forgotten more about the ancient Mediterranean than the average American will ever learn (which is not saying much since the average American is a reality-tv-watching cretin). But honestly I have a good memory and retain quite a bit. It's just not my focus or passion.
I am in something of a 3 year peer-reviewed study course for Germanic mythology and history. This is my area of focus now. It consumes much of my spare time. I hang around friends who have similar passions. Several times a year I attend festivals and camping expeditions with similar people. And I am quite happy.
Second day of the whirlwind tour of the land, second day with a late start... Well, not really a late start, as my driver and I woke on time and were at the car at the planned hour, but the car did not want to let us go : flat battery, and even once the nice Arabs managing the parking lot gave us energy the Kia proved contrary : we had no choice but to call a repairman from the renting company. Of course I did not want to let such time get lost, so I decided to visit some buildings that were not on my initial planning but might be of interest.
I began with a nearby mosque, the Jezzar Pasha mosque. Built in the Ottoman era around 1781, it is both a place of worship and a mausoleum for its builder and his successor. It has a classic plan such as you might see in Istanbul, with a very nicely decorated main facade and a colorful interior using various tints of marbles to play with the light coming through its numerous windows. Around the main building, the porticoed courtyard is enlivened by beautiful flowers carefuly tended by the local gardener, for the great pleasure of cats that also benefit from the water of the fountain used for ritual cleansing.
Leaving the mosque, I went to the old fortress, visiting it to see, among other things, the famous Knight's hall. Unfortunately was undergoing major repair and reorganization work that made the visit less than interesting. Coming out of the tour in the middle of the local bazar, I then entered a museum dedicated to a local artist, Avshalom Okashi. I must confess I was not really impressed by what I saw, and I soon left to see what the status of the car might be, because it had already been a good hour and I was rather anxious to see what Galilee might have to offer.
Fortunately it had been repaired and we were able to begin with the day's visits, in this case the ancient city of Sepphoris, also known as Tzippori and Diocesarea. Built in the saddle between two hills, she was founded during the Israelite era although she's not mentioned in the Old Testament. It is thus during the Hellenistic era that she appeared in the ancient sources, but she became really important during the roman era and especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt when the cultural elites of Judaism exiled themselves there.
The site is dominated by a crusader fortress of top of the further hill from the entrance, and to reach it you have to first walk through the lower city, along its main columned street : you can see how much remains to be excavated, but you also note how the buildings that have been brought to the light of the day were huge relative to the size of the place. This area does hold some buildings with very fine mosaics, but the most beautiful ones are kept in situ under a modern building : they are of course the Dionysos mosaics that decorated a 3rd century roman villa. Also worth mentioning, the fifth century mosaic of the Nile house, interpreted as a public building built at the foot of the main hill, close to the crossroad between the mains streets of the city.
Finally let's mention the heavily rebuilt roman theater on the side of the main hill, and the nice view from the top of the Crusaders' fortress, which provides a view on all the region including Nazareth.
We went back to our car, going to the next step on our schedule, the tell of Tel Hazor. Situated to the north of the Sea of Galilee, it's one of the most important tell from the whole country. Part of a UNESCO world heritage site with Tell Megiddo (which I'd seen the day before) and Tell Beer Sheba (which I'd see two days later), the place was described in the book of Joshua (11:10) as "the head of all those kingdoms", an assertion that the archaeological remains tend to comfort as the tell is the biggest of the country and one of the largest of all the Fertile Crescent with a superficy of around 80Ha (200 acres).
Isolated on its hill in the middle of a large valley, it was fortified and had complex systems to bring water inside the walls so as to better resist a siege. It culminated with was can only be termed an acropolis, with large temples and heavy fortifications as well as palaces and various rich houses. At the northern extremity of the site, facing Syria, the remains of a tower were the main remains of the Israelite period, proof of the inhabitants' attempt to defend themselves from the incoming Assyrian army that would destroy the city and deport the population to Babylon in 732 BCE.
Here I'd like to mention the blatant use of archaeological sites for propaganda purpose by the modern state. The local archaeological administration was founded by a former military official and had from its beginning a strong nationalistic role in the foundation of the new nation : archaeology was a way to prove the newcomers' right to invade the place and settle them after deporting (or, sometimes, simply killing) the previous inhabitants. Nowadays this administration must diffuse this message to the tourists coming into the country, by all possible ways. It can be in the introductory videos shown to the visitor at the entrance of most important sites, such as in Sepphoris : there one will see some information on the site's layout and history, with some reconstruction of the way of life in those distant times, then the video will switch to the beauty of the land (archaeology and nature being managed by the same administration) and finish with an "innocent" message such as "and this beauty of nature is due to the efforts of the local kibbutz and the state's interventions". What's not said being the fact that the forcefully evacuated Arab village that stood next to Sepphoris until 1948 has been declared a nature reserve to prevent any effort at resettling it...
In Tel Hazor the propaganda is a bit more discreet, if only slightly : the tower I mentioned earlier, last attempt to defend the city and the Israeli kingdom from invasion, is the main remain of this period displayed on the site, it is also the highest point and the only one where a modern statue has been installed, in this case the profile of a ancient warrior holding shield and spear, looking toward the ancient invasion road, holding a perpetual guard against enemies past and present... This is similar to the role that a place such as Masada plays for the local military.
One must thus always be much aware of the constant propaganda messages he'll face when in the country, a practice which is of course not exceptional (I remember the frescoes in Cairo's military museum showing the Egyptian forces destroying their foes during one of the later 20th century conflict despite the fact that they actually lost rather badly to their northern neighbor...) but more subtile and insidious than what one may see in other places.
We left Tel Hazor around 14h30 and took the direction of the Golan area, where I'd hoped to do one last visit before going to Tiberias, where we'd be spending the night. Unfortunately the Gamla park was closed and we had to turn toward the Sea of Galilee. The view on the way was splendid, with the huge drop in altitude between the Golan and the sea whose wonderfully blue waters shone under the sun.
We finally arrived in Tiberias around 16h30 and looked for our hotel, which proved a bit difficult... Yet we finally reached it and discovered it was actually a guesthouse managed by radical american Christians for Jews "coming back to their land", offering free stay for those thanks to the money paid by the more classic tourists such as me. But as the room was confortable, clean and large I had nothing to complain about. Later on my driver and I went out to eat, although finding an honest place open on a friday evening was a bit of a challenge. While the food was barely ok, the price was rather steep... But I had the opportunity to see a Jesus-like man "walk on the sea of Galilee" during my meal (actually paddling on a board) and a curious local invention made of a cruise ship lighted like a Christmas tree putting on electronic music at very high level for an hour long tour on the sea so that its guests might drink and dance... so I guess the spectacle made the price of the food worth it (or not...)
Like always, pictures of the day are on my Picasa gallery