WAR AS SPECTACLE: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Display of Armed Conflict

Ed. by Anastasia Bakogianni and Valerie M. Hope

Bloomsbury (2015) h/b 454pp £90.00 (ISBN 9781472522290)

Gone are the days when military history was merely the examination of battle tactics, regimental formations and cavalry charges. With the growth of socio-military history has come a greater understanding of the interrelated destinies of those waging war, and warfare itself. As this direction of enquiry has been sought, some very hard truths are being realised. Nowhere is this clearer than in B./H.’s well-presented edited volume, which explores the dark reality of war being a spectacle, and in essence, a form of entertainment for both ancient and modern audiences.

This book’s greatest strength, apart from the fascinating breadth of topics under discussion, comes from its editorial organisation, which brings a logical structure with which to explore the notion of war as spectacle. Part 1 focuses on literary spectacles of war and is itself split into two smaller areas: 1A explores Greek and Roman Epic, whereas 1B focuses on the spectacle of war in poetry, historiography and philosophy. Of particular note is Yamagata’s fascinating comparison between the Iliad and the much later Japanese epic poem, the Tale of the Heike. Yamagata’s analysis reveals how both epic poems manipulate the emotions of the reader to ‘make us re-examine the idea of glory and fame to be found in war’ (p.55).

Part 2 homes in on the spectacle of war in material culture. This short section focuses more keenly on the reception of ancient warfare, and indeed on the ancient spectacle, that has permeated into later cultures. These three provocative papers reveal the true extent to which modern cultures have kept alive the ancient notions of the spectacle, and in many cases it has been done with deliberate intent.

Part 3 is a natural progression from 2, as it concentrates on the depiction of the spectacle on the stage and in modern media. It is in this final section that we can see just how free the ancient notion of war as spectacle is to manipulation and adaptation. Nevin’s paper on the ‘Panoply’ project (a must read for any teachers of ancient history) ends the book as a whole, leaving us with the most modern incarnation of ancient warfare as a spectacle in the form of vase animation.

This edited volume is gifted with a thorough and well-rounded introduction, but the lack of conclusion or discussion at the end does leave the reader with the feeling they have simply read a selection of papers, rather than a unified book. Similarly, the academic nature of some of the topics and writing styles could make this a daunting prospect for non-specialists.

It is unfortunate that there was no opportunity to look at other classical cultures such as the Egyptians or Persians, but the exploration of the vast topic and its reception does perhaps validate this narrowing of the editorial review. That being said, the papers it holds offer fascinating insights into Greek and Roman notions of the spectacle of war, and bring into question our own fascination with warfare as a form of entertainment.

Owen Rees

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