Sunday, July 10, 2016


Anastasia Bakogianni, Valerie M. Hope (ed.), War as Spectacle: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Display of Armed Conflict. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Pp. xiv, 454. ISBN 9781472522290. $154.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Matthew, Australian Catholic University (

Version at BMCR home site


War, in any guise, is a difficult beast to try and understand. Even for those involved directly in it, war is a confusing place full of vagaries and randomness, death, stress and terror. From the reports filed by modern soldiers after an encounter—the so-called 'after action reports'—it becomes clear that one person's view of an event can vary greatly from that of another, even if the two were only separated by several metres during the fighting. This kind of mixed reporting will be something all too familiar to the academic or lay person interested in the warfare of any age who tries to sift through sometimes conflicting narratives, poems, epigrams and other literary and artistic sources in an attempt to understand certain aspects of a battle, campaign or conflict. Consequently, any work that helps shed light on some of the finer points of these sources, what they were inspired by and what they are trying to convey with the information they provide, is a great contribution to the ever growing corpus of works that focus on this area of human civilization. In this regard War as Spectacle is beyond measure.

Some may expect, in a work with such a title, to find an examination of the concept of 'posturing' in ancient and modern combat—the use of a soldier's weapons, equipment and positioning of the body to intimidate an opponent. One need only think of the Greek hoplite's large horse-hair crests, the stylised musculature on their bronze breastplates and the devices painted on their shields to see examples of this kind of posturing. Similarly military drill, which is in itself a form of posturing, can also be used to intimidate— Alexander the Great's display of well disciplined troops in 335BC, which caused the opposing Triballians to flee, is a fine example of this. But a discussion of posturing, or any similar physical display in combat, is not what is found within this work.

Rather, within these fascinating pages, the reader is presented with eighteen chapters that analyse how the concept of war was seen as a mass spectacle on a grand scale and how this sense of the spectacular has permeated the written records, architectural styles and modern interpretations of conflict that have come down to us. As such, the chapters contained in this volume cover a broad spectrum of disciplines—from literary analysis to art history to reception studies. Through this multi-faceted examination and understanding, the reader is left with a sense that there is far more to the surviving narratives, poems, plays and monuments dedicated to war than they may, at first, have thought. By taking on board the arguments and conclusions presented in War as Spectacle the reader is enriched in the way that they can view subsequent readings of these texts and other sources and so, in their own way, help to better understand the enigmatic nature of combat and its influence on modern society.

The book opens with a strong introduction by Anastasia Bakogianni in which she outlines how the purpose of the volume, derived from a colloquium held at The Open University, is to investigate war as a spectacle from an interdisciplinary perspective and views war as a type of performance. A further stated purpose of the book is to examine how the reception of war in both literature and art was rich and complex, not only in ancient times, but in the modern world as well. Both of these stated objectives are fully covered in great detail throughout the following chapters of the work. The introduction concludes with brief overviews of the chapters to come, which have been arranged into clusters around a central theme, tantalizing the reader to continue with these small hors d'oeuvres.

The first cluster of chapters opens with Tobias Meyer's examination of how the rich tapestry of combat descriptions in the Iliad allows the audience to vicariously live within the violence of massed and individual combat. The analysis discusses—using various scenes as examples—how sweeping changes in the perception of the reader/listener take them from an almost gods'-eye view of a scene in one moment, only to be drawn down amongst the carnage in the next, in order to engage the audience in a particular way. Other chapters in this cluster similarly examine aspects of grand combative narrative across ancient texts. Naoko Yamagata's chapter, for example, discusses similarities between the Iliad and the Tale of Heike from medieval Japan, and how both texts, while containing vivid descriptions of combat, also contain passages dealing with the impact of war on combatants, bystanders and family members alike. Neil Bernstein's following chapter examines the use of perspective in another ancient epic—the Punica of Silius Italicus—and how, similar to the conclusions forwarded in Meyer's chapter, the use of perspective can draw the reader into certain aspects of the tale, place emphasis on events, or provide an overall picture of a confrontation. Roman literature is also the focus of Helen Lovatt's chapter, the last in this cluster, on the 'poetics of space'. In this chapter the works of Statius are examined, in order to discuss how the location of a character, within the broader context of a scene, can influence how the reader/listener can react or relate to that character. The conclusions presented in this cluster of chapters will make everyone want to reread these classic texts with a new eye.

The next cluster of five chapters looks at 'Poetical, Historiographical and Philosophical Spectacles'. Laura Swift's opening chapter examines the 'Lyric Visions of Epic Combat' and how lyric poetry uses Homeric-style tropes to glorify war as well as the way in which some poetry contains clear 'anti-epic' language to convey specific messages that are quite un-heroic in nature. Emma Bridges continues the literary analysis in the next chapter with a look at a modern, poetic, reworking of Herodotus' 'Catalogue of Troops', and how this poem was used as a social commentary on the light of the 9/11 attacks and the rise of real-time reporting in news media as a form of entertainment. Andrea Capra's third chapter in this cluster examines four of Plato's dialogues and discusses how visions of war and combat permeate the imagery presented in these texts and what this then may say about the writer's views on this common part of the ancient Greek world. Martial imagery is also the topic of Rhiannon Ash's chapter on Romano-Parthian relations and the way the use of this imagery can be seen in the narratives of how Crassus' standards (lost at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC) were reclaimed diplomatically, but presented as a military victory, and the use of similar imagery was an essential part of the portrayal of Nero's Parthian 'campaign' of 62-63BC. The cluster closes with Valerie Hope's discussion of how the dead and dying are an essential element of any battle narrative—either historical or epic. With particular focus on Roman times, the examination concentrates on the way the status of the individual could influence how they were treated on the field of battle, in both literature and reality, and how references to the dead in ancient texts were used as a way to chart military successes and failures. Like the opening cluster of chapters, the conclusions presented in the second group of contributions will make everyone look at these texts anew.

The third cluster of three chapters deals with the spectacle of war in material culture and the 'impact of ancient war monuments on post-classical commemorative art'. Jared Simard's chapter 'The Monument and Altar to Liberty', for example, discusses American reception of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC and its influence on the Altar of Liberty in New York that was dedicated to commemorate the Battle of Long Island (1776)—an action seen as a heroic last stand at the outset of the American War of Independence. Similarly, Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis' chapter also examines a classical influence on a more modern monument—in this case how Roman triumphal arches and parades inspired public monuments to George Washington in New York City and their use as the focal point for various celebrations within the city. Andrew Fear continues the examination of monumental motifs in his chapter, which examines how the iconography of Trajan's Column set the standard for how conflict could be portrayed on other monuments down to the present day regardless of whether political agendas, social customs and traditions have changed with the passing of the centuries. The results of these analyses clearly highlight that there is much more to how war is remembered, and just how strong and influential the memory of it could be.

The final cluster of five chapters examines the spectacle of war on both the stage and in modern media. Justine McConnell's opening chapter examines non-elite responses to war and conflict on the French and English stage in the nineteenth century—during which time critiques and commentaries on contemporary conflicts were disguised behind the metaphor of a tale set in classical antiquity and performed as opera or burlesque. The next two chapters examine the use of martial imagery in Greek cinema in the 1960s and 70s. Gonda Van Steen begins with a discussion of the use of spectacles by the Greek military dictatorship of that time period and how they tied current events back to antiquity in an attempt to legitimize their rule, denigrate their opponents and gloss over (or even omit) references to any defeat or setback in something of a revisionist portrayal of Greek history. In something of a counterpoint to this chapter, Anastasia Bakogianni continues this theme with an analysis of how many other films from the same time, particularly Cacoyannis' Euripidean Trilogy, contain clear anti-war messages and the influence this had on the evolving pacifist interpretation of these works. Jon Hesk also examines war in cinema through a discussion of similarities of scene and perspective between Homeric Epic and 1998's film about war in the Pacific, The Thin Red Line. The chapters conclude with Sonya Nevin's look at a multi-media animation project that brought imagery from Greek vase painting—from a hoplite's training to the erection of the post-battle trophy—to life. Such questions as 'are these animations a teaching tool or a form of entertainment?' 'can they be both?' are raised and explored. These chapters will make the reader see the parallels between many ancient and modern depictions of war.

Being an examination that covers a multitude of disciplines, there will be something within War as Spectacle for almost everyone. The collection as a whole is excellent. Individually, the chapters are expertly written and well presented. Some may not agree with some of the conclusions and ideas forwarded in the pages of the work. Others will have their opinions changed, their viewpoints and perspectives altered, and their ways of seeing these ancient and modern references to conflict expanded. However, regardless of whether a reader agrees with the material and the conclusions or not, and regardless of whether the subject matter of every chapter seems of relevance to a particular person's area of research or interest or not, the great value of this collective work is that it will make the reader think—think about war, think about how it is remembered, commemorated and depicted, and, perhaps most poignantly of all, think about how the spectacle of war has influenced our understanding and view of war from the very beginning.

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