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Theo Vijgen: The Cultural Parameters of the Graeco-Roman War Discourse (= Antiquité et sciences humaines. La traversée des frontières; 6), Turnhout: Brepols 2020, 724 S., ISBN 978-2-503-58647-2, EUR 115,00
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Rezension von:
J. E. Lendon
Charlottesville, VA
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Matthias Haake
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J. E. Lendon: Rezension von: Theo Vijgen: The Cultural Parameters of the Graeco-Roman War Discourse, Turnhout: Brepols 2020, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10 [15.10.2022], URL:

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Theo Vijgen: The Cultural Parameters of the Graeco-Roman War Discourse

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The particular merits of this book are its treatments of attitudes towards warfare and conquest under the Roman Empire (444-497) and its exposition of the evolution of Christian attitudes towards war (530-557, 589-617), which are original, clear, and full of insight. That said, the book under review here treats the entirety of classical antiquity, and that was perhaps a mistake.

Vijgen's special interest is in the discourses, not the methods, of Graeco-Roman warfare. To trace these discourses, he traces themes in the writings (and to a lesser extent on coins and monuments, when available) of the time. The themes identified for Archaic and Classical Greek warfare are: (1) the duality of bravery and courage; (2) competitiveness and agonal warfare (the most important theme); (3) Greek superiority as an extension of the principle of liberty; (4) the two faces of war (joys and horrors) (95, 197). For Hellenistic warfare: (1) military excellence; (2) agonal warfare (continuing from Classical Greece); (3) liberty and Greek superiority (ditto); (4) competition and commemoration (ditto); (5) victory and the iconography of power (212).

For Mid-Republican Roman warfare (290-120 BC) we find: (1) loyalty (to homeland, and the duality of virtus and disciplina, loyalty to army and companions); and (2) Roman supremacy, especially in discussions of conquest (261). For the Late Roman Republic (120-27 BC): (1) legitimacy (especially just-war theory); (2) loyalty (especially virtus and disciplina, just as in the Middle Republic, but now also to individual generals); (3) supremacy (as in the Middle Republic, but now to be seen in ethnography and celebrations of victory) (312). For the Augustan period (27 BC-AD 14): the same (373), but with the theme of legitimacy adjusted to focus on Rome's god-given destiny to rule, the loyalty theme changed because loyalty is now focused on Augustus, and the supremacy theme also adjusted to make its object the glory and conquests of Augustus, the sole ruler, and altered to include the idea of pax, the peace that follows upon conquest. The Early Empire (AD 14-193) offers the same themes again (443) except that the author's focus has shifted to the conflict between divergent pro-and-anti-conquest-and-war points of view in the ancient writers, as well as what he calls "the dissociative perspective" - the avoidance altogether of current events. Now Vijgen's "discourse analysis" pays dividends, because the author has interesting contrasting discourses, of which he has extensive evidence, to examine.

The Third Century and the Emerging Christian Discourse (AD 193-c. 360) chapter concentrates on the now venerable loyalty theme (especially that of army to emperor), which has swallowed up legitimacy and supremacy (512), and also Christianity's early pacifism and later coming to terms with emperors, war, and military service. Finally, there is the Late Empire: The Later 4th and 5th centuries (AD c. 360-500), where the three themes re-appear, and so we find legitimacy in the form of Christian just-war theory, loyalty to virtus, disciplina, emperor, and orthodox Christianity, and supremacy in Ammianus Marcellinus and late-antique victory imagery.

The book has no main argument that this reader can discern. And, perplexingly, the many themes are not always taken up in the book in the order listed: instead, the sections on Greek and Hellenistic times, and the last three chapters on the early Roman Empire, AD 190-c. 360, and the period up to AD 500, proceed as a survey of the various genres of writings in which the themes can be found. As such the themes appear, disappear, and reappear - they cross-cut, rather than guide, the structure of these sections. The Mid-, Late-Republic, and Augustan sections do advance from theme to theme (although they often advance from genre to genre within discussion of a theme, 280-292), so the structure of the chapters is inconsistent and confusing.

In all parts of the book, but especially where Vijgen organizes by theme rather than genre (see above), a need to deal with all the appointed themes creates a clouded and overly divided book, sometimes with tiny little sub-sections (e.g. "3.2.2. Loyalty and virtus and disciplina" is only five lines long, 394), sometimes without sub-section divisions where they are needed (e.g. 492), and sometimes with utterances that suggest that the author is being driven by his structure, rather than controlling it, and that this structure makes him include sub-sections where he really has little to say (as in chapter conclusions that begin "The Augustan Age is the age of Augustus" (432) and "If the Augustan period is the period of Augustus, the Early Empire is the period of the Emperors" (498)).

The assignment of sub-themes to themes, moreover, often seems arbitrary. In the Augustan chapter there is a certain confusion as to whether the concept of fealty to the emperor should go under "loyalty" or "supremacy" (373), and Vijgen chooses the latter (or perhaps both), but why? Many of Vijgen's themes are great, baggy fellows and do not encourage incisive analysis.

Indeed, the first nearly four hundred pages of the book (about the Greeks, Hellenistic times, and earlier Rome) do not tell things we do not already know in proportion to the length of the telling. Not only are most of Vijgen's good ideas concentrated in the Roman Imperial and Late-Imperial chapters (making the reader wonder why it has taken Vijgen so long to get to them), but each chapter has a pair of very basic introductions to the history of the period it covers and to the writings to be found therein, introductions that no real-life likely reader of this book will be apt to require. It is good and useful that Vijgen has found a very great number of ancient passages about Graeco-Roman warfare - many of them not the passages usually cited by scholars and probably unknown to them - and quoted them in extenso, making the book an admirable finding-aid for anyone writing on such warfare, or attitudes to it, in the future. But it would have been even more useful had the Greek or Latin been given in the notes.

As for the scholarship, it was impossible for Vijgen to do justice to the literature treating every one of the periods he discusses. Still, obvious and necessary references are missed (as, for example, to John Ma on page 204, where the warfare of Hellenistic cities is considered), and there are too many "second hand" references, so that (for example) for the concept of doxa in Pierre Bourdieu we get, not a reference to Bourdieu or writings about Bourdieu, but rather an article by Greg Woolf on "The Roman Peace" that happens to mention Bourdieu (419 n. 221). The English is also imperfect, including the title of the book (the second "the" is not idiomatic); there are problems with the layout (especially passages of poetry given in continuous text as if prose); and there are many errors of proofreading, including, alas, an uncaught error in the spelling of the name of this reviewer (340), which is correctly spelled:

J. E. Lendon