War and Peace

War and Peace are big themes, since these two stages change the Flow of History in the same way the Moon influences the tide. I hope that war and violence will disappear from this world. Modern societies are based mostly on the tertiary sector (education, health, services), promoting cooperation inside the nation and peace abroad, so this wish may be fulfilled. Except for the Middle East and Africa, our modern world appears to be an oasis of non-violence and safety.

Homer illustrates the Flow of History in a epic scene describing the Shield of Achilles. Although Homer as an ancient poet was limited in his technique and richness of vocabulary, this scene is so vivid that it comes alive like a painting made of words. The shield acts as a mirror of the world of gods and men within the ‘mighty Stream of  the Ocean’, having been forged by the god Hephaestus as a gift for Achilles, the son of a goddess, who was destined to die young. Starting with the center, the god lays out the Earth, Sun, Moon and the Stars, which are eternal. The World of Men circles the divine center and flows constantly between Peace-Love-Order and War-Hate-Disorder, with one city showing vineyards, people dancing and a court of law, while another city is torn by violence. All around the World of Men is engulfed by the Ocean.  Our weaver of epics wants us to know that in war no one gains. None of Homer's powerful heroes escaped a violent death, except perhaps for Odysseus who was augured a peaceful end. In my view the poet certainly implied that warriors, generals and kings fought wars in vain, spreading only misery and hate. Odysseus travels to the underworld meeting the ghosts of the glorious warriors, who tell him that a living slave is better-off than a dead king. The image shows a silver-gilted Shield of Achilles with 90 cm of diameter made for the coronation banquet of George IV of England.

The Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci is another artwork that depicts the futility of warfare. Behind the Virgin, Child and Magi we see a maelstrom of miserable people, young and old. These people flee a city in ruins, vanquished by soldiers. Perhaps this chaotic background represents the brutality of the Pagan world which would be replaced by Christian charity.

The prevalence of war in the ancient world was a catastrophic phenomenon that frightened people and that everyone could expect periodically like a long tide. Romans were invaded by Gauls and Macedonians, then Romans vanquished their invaders and all the Mediterranean nations, only to be themselves defeated by the Goths. This is one of the reasons why I think the "great men" view of history is incorrect. Unfortunately, it is far more accurate to portray the powerful men in history as tyrants rather than "great men", since we would not recognize in ancient figures the respect for humane rights that is expected in modern times. For example, none of the "five good Roman emperors" would actually fit the modern standards of a just ruler, since Trajan started brutal wars with foreign nations and even the "peaceful" Hadrian sentenced to death his major rivals for the imperial throne and participated in a devastating conflict in Israel. Many of the dictators of our time would compare favorably to these "good emperors". Alexander the Great could be courteous to the noblemen and ladies of the nations he defeated, but also enslaved most of the citizens of Thebes and Tyre and initiated a brutal conflict in India which in modern days could be understood as war crimes or perhaps even genocide. Ancient Romans also enslaved or killed large numbers of the population of the nations who resisted them.

However, it is also important to avoid the strict evaluation of ancient characters by modern standards, since the circumstances of ancient times did differ substantially from ours. I would notice at least three big differences in how ancient generals such as Trajan or Alexander differed from modern dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini or Pol Pot:

1) Personal Responsibility - Neither Trajan or Alexander started "slavery" or "war brutality" in the ancient world, but merely replicated the treatments each ancient people applied to their enemies. Alexander portrayed his actions partially as a revenge from previous Persian invasions. The Romans often quoted the adage "If you want peace, prepare for war", which reminded them that one day they could suffer the fate of their enemies. This does not excuse brutality in ancient warfare, but it is quite different from brutality in modern times. Hitler and the Nazis came into a world that had no slavery, no genocide, and with both German laws and international agreements against such crimes. This fact was so well understood by the Nazi leadership that none of them ever signed documents authorizing the ruthless slave-like treatments in their concentration camps and the Jewish genocide. These leaders were insane to commit the largest crimes in history and yet sane enough to understand it was an horrendous crime.

2) The degree of cruelty - Evidence shows that modern cruelty reached unimaginable heights. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi armies forced their Russian prisoners to walk to concentration camps under conditions of absolute starvation. Prisoners were so starved that they would eat those who would drop dead or unable to move anymore. So insane was their starvation that even rifle shots fired by their captors were unable to prevent the prisoners from a gruesome cannibalism to satisfy their hunger. Few of the ancient tyrants could compare with such horror.

3) The scale of the crime - Although the Romans often engaged in brutal wars, it is hard to think of such large genocides and extermination wars as the ones engaged in Eastern Europe during WW2, with the possible exception of the Mongol wars between the 13th to 15th centuries.

While these are not excuses for ancient crimes it does seem relevant to understand the particular circumstances of a world where all peoples could expect future wars to come and a merciless treatment from their adversaries. It was far different from a world where democracies promote peace and international organizations prevent the worst crimes of nations.

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