The sorrow and pity of war

  • Themes: Classics, War

Greek historians, such as Thucydides, sought to be objective in their accounts of brutal conflict, but occasionally the mask would slip, so appalled were they by the events they recorded. Events in Israel are a reminder why.

19th century wood engraving of the destruction of the Athenian Army in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, 413 B.C

War is a horrible, brutal business. Fighting and killing seen at close quarters remind us that to speak of victory or defeat masks the terrible suffering and heartache of the individuals and families caught up in fighting. The world is currently witnessing wars across several theatres, with the incursion into Israel by Hamas now at the front of the news. The stark footage of the atrocities that have been committed brings home the horror of man’s inhumanity to man, and particularly towards innocent civilians, with viscerally shocking immediacy. Long-distance deterrence, hi-tech warfare, and press-of-a-button destruction, whether in real life or in screen fiction, have had the effect of distancing viewers from the hideous pain and anguish suffered by victims of terror and murder. But those undergoing the nightmare of war and captivity today, whether in Ukraine, Sudan, and now Israel, know with grim certainty how hideous the experience can be. Those looking on helplessly from the sidelines, and asking desperate questions about the course of events, can do little but pray that their suffering is not too deep or prolonged.

In such circumstances, it can be of little comfort to look to history for helpful answers. What comes more ready to hand are, on the whole, sad and distressing parallels. There is no shortage of narratives of murder and brutality in the annals of ancient warfare, and indeed in warfare throughout the ages. Julius Caesar reports unemotionally the killing of more than a million Gauls in the course of his campaigns; and even if the number is exaggerated, many tens of thousands will have been killed, mutilated, or enslaved. The fact that until modern times fighting largely involved hand-to-hand killing, and courage on the battlefield was regularly commemorated by victors, has given soldiery and the conduct of war an illusion of nobility. To be sure, that illusion has from time to time been punctured by both participants and onlookers. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, ‘It is a sweet and glorious thing to die for one’s country’. He meant it sincerely enough, but first-hand experience of the death of comrades in the trenches in the First World War made the poet Wilfred Owen quote his words with undisguised bitterness:

‘If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The greatest chronicler of war in ancient Greece was the historian Thucydides, who set out to record the details of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) with the aim of accuracy and objectivity unprecedented for his era. He wrote:

‘I will be content if the future student of these events, or of other similar events which, given human nature, are likely to occur in future, finds my narrative useful. I have written it not for the sake of immediate acclamation, but as a possession for all time.’

Thucydides himself served as a general in the early part of the war. He was exiled in 423 BC after failing to save a northern Greek city from falling into enemy hands, but he remained an eyewitness to many of the events of the war and had reliable informants about others. In his report of one of the most poignant episodes of Athenian savagery, the siege and destruction of the island of Melos in 416 BC, he presents speeches given by the besieged Melians to try and avert their fate. They were to no avail: the Athenians insisted that the Melians either surrender or die. Although the Melians had intermittent success in the ensuing fight, at one stage capturing an Athenian line, in the end they succumbed to starvation and to the far greater forces of the besiegers. All the Melian men imprisoned by the Athenians were massacred, and the women and children of Melos were sold into slavery.

The Athenian actions at Melos were widely condemned by Greeks, and were to influence the theme of a tragedy by Euripides, Trojan Women, of 415 BC, which describes the barbaric conduct of Greeks after the siege of Troy. Thucydides reports episodes of tragic violence in unemotional detail, but on one or two occasions in the course of his history the mask of objectivity slips, and a rare authorial comment is inserted into the narrative. This is the case in his report of the action by Thracian soldiers allied to Athens in 413 BC. The Athenians had embarked on a major expedition to reinforce their forces in Sicily, and around 1,300 Thracian mercenaries who were originally meant to join them arrived in Athens too late to join the fleet. The Athenians sent them back to Thrace, ordering them to harrass enemy-aligned regions on their way. Marching through Boeotia, the Thracians came to the small, undefended town of Mycalessus, and unleashed a devastating assault:

‘Bursting into Mycalessus, the Thracians sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither children or old people but killing all they encountered, one after the other – children, women, and even beasts of burden and other animals (the Thracians are the most bloodthirsty of people, particularly when they have nothing to fear).

They wreaked widespread mayhem and death. Among other things they attacked the largest school in the town, into which the children had just entered, and slaughtered them all. The calamity that befell the town was unsurpassed, and more sudden and horrifying than any other… Mycalessus experienced a tragedy, in view of its size, as heartbreaking as any that took place during the war.’


Armand D'Angour