Gragg, “My Brother’s Keeper”

Last month, Hachette Book Group released My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust by Rod Gragg (Coastal Carolina University). The publisher’s description follows:

my-brothers-keeperThirty captivating profiles of Christians who risked everything to rescue their Jewish neighbors from Nazi terror during the Holocaust.

 MY BROTHER’S KEEPER unfolds powerful stories of Christians from across denominations who gave everything they had to save the Jewish people from the evils of the Holocaust. This unlikely group of believers, later honored by the nation of Israel as “The Righteous Among the Nations,” includes ordinary teenage girls, pastors, priests, a German army officer, a former Italian fascist, an international spy, and even a princess.
In one gripping profile after another, these extraordinary historical accounts offer stories of steadfast believers who together helped thousands of Jewish individuals and families to safety. Many of these everyday heroes perished alongside the very people they were trying to protect. There is no doubt that all of their stories showcase the best of humanity–even in the face of unthinkable evil.


Hassner, “Religion on the Battlefield”

In June, the Cornell University Press will release “Religion on the Battlefield,” by Ron E. Hassner (University of California, Berkeley).  The publisher’s description follows:

How does religion shape the modern battlefield? Ron E. Hassner proposes that religion acts as a force multiplier, both enabling and constraining military 80140100491950loperations. This is true not only for religiously radicalized fighters but also for professional soldiers. In the last century, religion has influenced modern militaries in the timing of attacks, the selection of targets for assault, the zeal with which units execute their mission, and the ability of individual soldiers to face the challenge of war. Religious ideas have not provided the reasons why conventional militaries fight, but religious practices have influenced their ability to do so effectively.

In Religion on the Battlefield, Hassner focuses on the everyday practice of religion in a military context: the prayers, rituals, fasts, and feasts of the religious practitioners who make up the bulk of the adversaries in, bystanders to, and observers of armed conflicts. To show that religious practices have influenced battlefield decision making, Hassner draws most of his examples from major wars involving Western militaries. They include British soldiers in the trenches of World War I, U.S. pilots in World War II, and U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hassner shows that even modern, rational, and bureaucratized military organizations have taken—and must take—religious practice into account in the conduct of war.

Juster, “Sacred Violence in Early America”

In May, the University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Sacred Violence in Early America,” by Susan Juster (University of Michigan).  The publisher’s description follows:

Sacred Violence in Early America offers a sweeping reinterpretation of the violence endemic to seventeenth-century English colonization by reexamining some of the key15507 moments of cultural and religious encounter in North America. Susan Juster explores different forms of sacred violence—blood sacrifice, holy war, malediction, and iconoclasm—to uncover how European traditions of ritual violence developed during the wars of the Reformation were introduced and ultimately transformed in the New World.

Juster’s central argument concerns the rethinking of the relationship between the material and the spiritual worlds that began with the Reformation and reached perhaps its fullest expression on the margins of empire. The Reformation transformed the Christian landscape from an environment rich in sounds, smells, images, and tactile encounters, both divine and human, to an austere space of scriptural contemplation and prayer. When English colonists encountered the gods and rituals of the New World, they were forced to confront the unresolved tensions between the material and spiritual within their own religious practice. Accounts of native cannibalism, for instance, prompted uneasy comparisons with the ongoing debate among Reformers about whether Christ was bodily present in the communion wafer.

Sacred Violence in Early America reveals the Old World antecedents of the burning of native bodies and texts during the seventeenth-century wars of extermination, the prosecution of heretics and blasphemers in colonial courts, and the destruction of chapels and mission towns up and down the North American seaboard. At the heart of the book is an analysis of “theologies of violence” that gave conceptual and emotional shape to English colonists’ efforts to construct a New World sanctuary in the face of enemies both familiar and strange: blood sacrifice, sacramentalism, legal and philosophical notions of just and holy war, malediction, the contest between “living” and “dead” images in Christian idology, and iconoclasm.

Ostovar, “Vanguard of the Imam”

Next month, the Oxford University Press will release “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” by Afshon Ostovar (Johns Hopkins University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are one of the most important forces in the Middle East today. As the appointed defender of Iran’s revolution, the Guards have evolved into a book coverpillar of the Islamic Republic and the spearhead of its influence. Their sway has spread across the Middle East, where the Guards have overseen loyalist support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and been a staunch backer in Iraq’s war against ISIS-bringing its own troops, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Shiite militias to the fight. Links to terrorism, human rights abuses, and the suppression of popular democracy have shrouded the Revolutionary Guards in controversy.

In spite of their prominence, the Guards remain poorly understood to outside observers. In Vanguard of the Imam, Afshon Ostovar has written the first comprehensive history of the organization. Situating the rise of the Guards in the larger contexts of Shiite Islam, modern Iranian history, and international affairs, Ostovar takes a multifaceted approach in demystifying the organization and detailing its evolution since 1979. Politics, power, and religion collide in this story, wherein the Revolutionary Guards transform from a rag-tag militia established in the midst of revolutionary upheaval into a military and covert force with a global reach.

The Guards have been fundamental to the success of the Islamic revolution. The symbiotic relationship between them and Iran’s clerical rulers underpins the regime’s nearly unshakeable system of power. The Guards have used their privileged position at home to export Iran’s revolution beyond its borders, establishing client armies in their image and extending Iran’s strategic footprint in the process. Ostovar tenaciously documents the Guards’ transformation into a power-player and explores why the group matters now more than ever to regional and global affairs. The book simultaneously serves as a history of modern Iran, and provides a crucial and engrossing entryway into the complex world of war, politics, and identity in the Middle East.

Dreisziger, “Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora”

In April, the University of Toronto Press will release “Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora,” by Nándor Dreisziger (Royal Military College of Canada).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora, Nándor Dreisziger tells the story of Christianity in Hungary and the Hungarian 9781442637405diaspora from its earliest years until the present. Beginning with the arrival of Christianity in the middle Danube basin, Dreisziger follows the fortunes of the Hungarians’ churches through the troubled times of the Middle Ages, the years of Ottoman and Habsburg domination, and the turmoil of the twentieth century: wars, revolutions, foreign occupations, and totalitarian rule.

Complementing this detailed history of religious life in Hungary, Dreisziger describes the fate of the churches of Hungarian minorities in countries that received territories from the old Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War. He also tells the story of the rise, halcyon days, and decline of organized religious life among Hungarian immigrants to Western Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere.

The definitive guide to the dramatic history of Hungary’s churches, Church and Society in Hungary and in the Hungarian Diaspora chronicles their proud past and speculates about their uncertain future.

“The European Wars of Religion” (eds. Palaver et al)

This month, Ashgate releases “The European Wars of Religion: An Interdisciplinary Reassessment of Sources, Interpretations, and Myths,” edited by Wolfgang Palaver (University of Innsbruck), Dieter Regensburger (University of Innsbruck), and Harriet Rudolph (University of Regensburg). The publisher’s description follows:

In recent years religion has resurfaced amongst academics, in many ways replacing class as the key to understanding Europe’s historical development. This51qfkcoelwl-_sx329_bo1204203200_
has resulted in an explosion of studies revisiting issues of religious change, confessional violence and holy war during the early modern period. But the interpretation of the European wars of religion still remains largely defined by national boundaries, tied to specific processes of state building as well as nation building. In order to more thoroughly interrogate these concepts and assumptions, this volume focusses on terms repeatedly used and misused in public debates such as ‘religious violence’ and ‘holy warfare’ within the context of military conflicts commonly labelled ‘religious wars’. The chapters not only focus on the role of religion, but also on the emerging state as a driver of the escalation of violence in the so-called age of religious war. By using different methodological and theoretical approaches historians, philosophers, and theologians engage in an interdisciplinary debate that contributes to a better understanding of the religio-political situation of early modern Europe and the interpretation of violent conflicts interpreted as religious conflicts today. By adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, new and innovative perspectives are opened up that question if in fact religion was a primary driving force behind these conflicts.

“After the Soviet Empire” (eds. Eliaeson et al)

In October, Brill released “After the Soviet Empire: Legacies and Pathways,” edited by Sven Eliaeson (Uppsala University), Lyudmila Harutyunyan (Yerevan State University), and Larissa Titarenko (Belarusian State University). The publisher’s description follows:

The break-up of the Soviet Union is a key event of the twentieth century. The 39th IIS congress in Yerevan 2009 focused on causes andbrill cover consequences of this event and on shifts in the world order that followed in its wake. This volume is an effort to chart these developments in empirical and conceptual terms. It has a focus on the lands of the former Soviet Union but also explores pathways and contexts in the Second World at large.

The Soviet Union was a full scale experiment in creating an alternative modernity. The implosion of this union gave rise to new states in search of national identity. At a time when some observers heralded the end of history, there was a rediscovery of historical legacies and a search for new paths of development across the former Second World.

In some parts of this world long-repressed legacies were rediscovered. They were sometimes, as in the case of countries in East Central Europe, built around memories of parliamentary democracy and its replacement by authoritarian rule during the interwar period. Some legacies referred to efforts at establishing statehood in the wake of the First World War, others to national upheavals in the nineteenth century and earlier.

In Central Asia and many parts of the Caucasus the cultural heritage of Islam in its different varieties gave rise to new markers of identity but also to violent contestations. In South Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have embarked upon distinctly different, but invariably contingent, paths of development. Analogously core components of the old union have gone through tumultuous, but until the last year and a half largely bloodless, transformations. The crystallization of divergent paths of development in the two largest republics of that union, i.e. Russia and Ukraine, has ushered in divergent national imaginations but also in series of bloody confrontations.

Democratic War

A violation of the Greek norm that enjoins dishonoring the bodies of an enemy’s

Thebans at war
Thebans at war

battle-dead is at the core of Euripides’ Suppliants. Correcting that violation is what appears to give Athens just cause to wage war against the violator, Thebes, which will not permit the burial of the soldiers from Argos who died in battle before Thebes’ gates. We have thus far tracked the development of this norm from Homer through Sophocles, with sidelong glances at other Greek authors. We have seen that the norm was upheld as early as Homer, although it permitted exceptions. We have also seen that the norm was sometimes characterized as unwritten, divine in origin and everlasting in duration, and sometimes as a custom binding in the Greek world only and a special mark of its superior civilization.

In what follows, we shall briefly review other sources of evidence for the norm: the early fifth century historian Herodotus, who was born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey but then in Greek Ionia, and the later fifth century Athenian historian Thucydides. Both writers strongly confirm the existence of the norm. We shall conclude this section with an analysis of the special place of this norm to fifth century, democratic Athens, and to the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ play.


By the time Herodotus wrote, it would seem that the burial norm in question had


become well entrenched. In Book IX of his Histories, an inquiry into the wars between the Greek city states and the neighboring Persian Empire, Herodotus recounts a conversation after the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea between one Lampron, a leading figure in the Greek city of Aegina, and Pausanias, a Spartan general. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Pausanias, Lampron proposed that Pausanias cut off the head of the fallen Persian Mardonius and impale it, just as Mardonius had earlier done to Leonidas, the uncle of Pausanias. This, Lampron said, would both avenge Leonidas and deter other barbarians from attacking Greece. But Pausanias was repelled by the suggestion. He said to Lampron:

Aeginetan, I thank you for your goodwill and forethought, but you have missed the mark of right judgment. First you exalt me and my fatherland and my deeds, yet next you cast me down to mere nothingness when you advise me to insult the dead, and say that I shall win more praise if I do so. That would be an act more proper for barbarians than for Greeks and one that we consider worthy of censure even in barbarians.

(Book IX, 79, 1) (emphasis added) (A.D. Godley trans.).

Herodotus further illustrates the norm in a story that concerns Onesilos, the younger brother of the King of Salamis in Cyprus, who was killed while besieging the city of Amathous. Herodotus tells us (Book V, cc. 114) that the Amathousians cut off his head and hung it up over their city’s gates. In time bees swarmed into the hollow skull and honeycombed it. The Amathousians consulted an oracle about it, who advised them to take down the head, bury it, and worship Onesilos as a hero every year. It would seem that the Amathousians had wronged Onesilos by displaying his severed head and had to make recompense by offering him worship.


A single episode from Thucydides’ History will suffice. This occurs after the


battle of Delium in November 424, in which the Athenians were defeated by the Thebans. See The Peloponnesian War, Book IV, cc. 97 et seq. As was customary for the side that had been defeated, the Athenians requested a truce after the battle so that they might reclaim and bury their dead. The victorious Thebans at first refused, arguing that because the Athenians had transgressed the law by occupying and fortifying the consecrated site of a temple, they would not permit them to gather in their dead until they evacuated the temple. The Athenian defense, which is not of direct concern to us here, is an extended and sophistic application of the doctrine of “necessity” in war (on which see Clifford Orwin, Piety, Justice, and the Necessities of War: Thucydides’ Delian Debate (1989). For our purposes, the critical facts are that the Athenians affirmed, and the Thebans did not deny, that but for the alleged Athenian sacrilege, the Thebans should have granted a truce and allowed the Athenians to recover their dead. Moreover, after driving away the Athenians, the Thebans did in fact permit the Athenians to retrieve the bodies, thus underscoring the legitimacy of the Athenians’ claims.

Several scholars have viewed this episode after the battle at Delium as the inspiration for Euripides’ Suppliants, thus dating the play close to 424 (perhaps 423). That may be so, although the evidence is inconclusive. Other scholars, observing that the play ends with an alliance between Athens and Argos, date the play to around 421, seeing it as a celebration of the treaty that Athens and Argos concluded that year. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953); for the treaty, see Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 44, 47.) This too cannot be proven. In her valuable Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997), Sophie Mills notes that “since an alliance was made between Argos and Athens in 421 (and renewed in 416), it is likely that the alliance of the play is also intended to link the myth with contemporary politics for the audience;” but she also points out that “although the language of Euripides’ treaty strongly resembles that of historical treaties, its actual terms differ significantly from those of the treaty of 421.”

What matters more for us is that by the time The Suppliants was produced, the Greeks considered it to be among the most fundamental norms of war to allow an adversary to collect and to bury its battle-dead. The justice of a war depends in large part (though not entirely) on the justice of the cause for which it is undertaken. If Euripides means us to think that Athens made war on Thebes to uphold this norm, then that war would seem to have had a just cause.

War and democratic Athens

Moreover, we are now also in a position to see the particularly compelling nature of the norm for Euripides’ audience in democratic Athens. To an extent that most Americans would find hard to understand (even though our country has been almost constantly at war since 1941), the Athenian imagination was saturated with the idea, and usually the fact, of war. W.R. Connor, in an article on Greek warfare cited earlier, remarks that for fifth century Greeks, “war was more than tactics, strategy and gore; it was linked to almost every aspect of their social organization and to their rich imaginative life.” And with its rulership over a large, tribute-paying overseas empire, democratic Athens was especially war-prone. David Pritchard writes of fifth century Athens:

War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate, with war and peace being a compulsory item on the agenda [of Athens’ assemblies]. Fifth-century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of every three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. . . By the 450s military service was also perceived as the duty of every citizen, which the Athenian demos appears to have taken very seriously.

When our Athenian authors wrote or spoke of war, they spoke with first-hand knowledge. Thucydides was a general, as was Sophocles; Socrates had fought at the battle of Delium. Over 70% of adult, male Athenian citizens were available for active service, and about 30% of militarily active citizens served in the hoplite infantry (Pritchard). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (in Thucydides’ account) stated that Athens was fielding 13,000 hoplites and deploying another 16,000 men to guard the city’s forts and walls. At the time, the adult male population of the city is estimated at about 60,000. And not only did many Athenian citizens experience combat; high numbers of those citizens were killed in action, and many more risked being killed.

For Athenian citizens and their families, therefore, war was woven into the fabric of ordinary life. They debated it; waged it; endured its hardships; and died in or from it. And for those reasons, the city’s practices regarding the burial of its citizen battle-dead were of the utmost importance to all of them. The city’s commemoration of those dead flooded and enriched its citizens’ imaginations. Its funerary practices lay at the center of the web of reciprocal claims and obligations that bound the citizens and the city to each other. Athens might ask you to give your life for it; but in return it promised you an afterlife of undying glory in its collective memory. Every Athenian soldier whom Pericles praised in his Funeral Oration had died, he argued, a beautiful death, worthy of a Homeric hero:

For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever. For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.

With this understanding of the Greek war convention in mind, let us consider the play itself more closely. In the following installments, I will review and analyze the action of the drama. The next posting will discuss the significance of the setting of the play at the shrine of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, and will describe the institution of “supplication.” Thereafter, postings will successively cover the opening scenes leading up to the entry of the Theban herald; Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald; the scenes culminating in the report of Theseus’ victory at Thebes and his return to Athens; and from then on up to the play’s conclusion, including the appearance of the goddess Athena.

The Burials of Greek Warriors

The ancient Greeks paid unusual homage to the bodies of soldiers – their own tomb-unknown-soldier-marble-sculpture-dying-ancient-greek-hoplite-warrior-holding-his-shield-spear-athens-greece-42949806city’s, or occasionally those of another – who had fallen in battle, and surrounded their funerals with solemn and impressive rituals. Thus, in the seventh book of Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector challenges the invading Greek army to select its finest warrior to fight with him man-to-man, and so decide the outcome of the Trojan War by single combat. Hector promises that if he prevails and kills the Greek challenger, he will give him an honorable funeral and burial, so that the fame both of the Greek hero and of Hector himself will endure. The Elizabethan poet George Chapman, in a translation celebrated in Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, renders Hector’s speech as follows:

. . . if I can slaughter him

         (Apollo honouring me so much), I’ll spoil his conquered limb,

         And bear his arms to Ilion, where in Apollo’s shrine

         I’ll hang them, as my trophies due; his body I’ll resign

         To be disposed by his friends in flamy funerals

         And honour’d with erected tomb, where Hellespontus falls

         Into Aegeum, and doth reach ev’n to your naval road,

         That when our beings in the earth shall hide their period,

         Survivors sailing the black sea may thus his name renew:

         “This is his monument, whose blood long since did fates imbrue,

         Whom passing far in fortitude, illustrious Hector slew.”

         Thus shall posterity report, and my fame never die.

Much of the latter part of The Iliad is in fact occupied with detailed descriptions of funeral practices, including the elaborate feasting, games, gift-giving, ceremonies and sacrifices that Achilles staged in honor of his fallen comrade Patroclus and the building of the monumental mound that he erected as Patroclus’ temporary burial site. Among other things, Achilles slaughtered “twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,” to the memory of Patroclus (Iliad Book XXIII, l. 19). And we should recall that the conclusion of The Iliad is a warrior’s burial: it marks the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 711).

But in the world Homer describes, such practices are reserved for heroes and lords like Patroclus. Ordinary soldiers killed in battle seem simply to have been cremated (see Iliad Book I, l. 52). Thus, Homer has the Greek king Agamemnon say that corpses should be given to the flames promptly after death, and the Greek army acts accordingly, gathering in both bodies and fuel (Iliad Book VII, ll. 417-32).   (The twelve young Trojans whom Achilles sacrificed were left unburied.)

The archaic tradition regarding burial is reflected in later Greek writing. In the seventh century, the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, much revered in his native city (the Spartan army sang his poems on the way to battle), wrote in one elegy:

he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country’s and children’s sake when fierce Ares brought him low.

Under Tyrtaeus’ influence, Spartan soldiers wrote their names on small sticks so that if they were killed, their bodies could be readily identified. See Diodorus Siculus, Book VIII, c. 27.

The funeral rites of Athens

Fifth century, democratic Athens, however, stands out for the remarkably full honors that it extended to ordinary citizen-soldiers.

The historian Herodotus relates the tale of the Athenian statesman Solon, who claimed that the happiest of all men was one Tellus, chiefly because of the manner of his death in battle and subsequent burial (Histories, Book I, 30):

Tellus was from a prosperous city, and his children were good and noble. He saw children born to them all, and all of these survived. His life was prosperous by our standards, and his death was most glorious: when the Athenians were fighting their neighbors in Eleusis, he came to help, routed the enemy, and died very finely. The Athenians buried him at public expense on the spot where he fell and gave him much honor.

Later Athenian authors tell us more about such funeral honors. Indeed, these honors occupied a central position in the city’s civic life.

In Plato’s curious dialogue Menexenus, perhaps intended as a playful comment on the Athenian practice of solemnizing the burial of dead with funeral orations, Socrates is made to say:

O Menexenus! Death in battle is certainly in many respects a noble thing. The dead man gets a fine and costly funeral, although he may have been poor, and an elaborate speech is made over him by a wise man who has long ago prepared what he has to say, although he who is praised may not have been good for much. The speakers praise him for what he has done and for what he has not done — that is the beauty of them — and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. And if, as often happens, there are any foreigners who accompany me to the speech, I become suddenly conscious of having a sort of triumph over them, and they seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city, which appears to them, when they are under the influence of the speaker, more wonderful than ever.

No doubt the most famous passages in Greek literature to describe the honor Periclesthat is due to a city’s fallen soldiers are found in Thucydides’ rendition of the Funeral Oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles over those who died at the outset of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), in which Athens and Sparta contended for supremacy in Greece. Less well known than Pericles’ speech, however, is Thucydides’ introduction to it, which describes the Athenians’ customary practices on such solemn occasions. Let us consider Thucydides’ remarks here. (Whether Thucydides’ description is wholly accurate is considered in Mark Toher’s 1999 paper, On “Thucydides’ Blunder”.

In Thomas Hobbes’ translation:

Having set up a tent, they put into it the bones of the dead three days before the funeral: and every one bringeth whatsoever he thinks good to his own. When the day comes of carrying them to their burial, certain cypress coffins are carried along in carts, for every tribe one, in which are the bones of the men of every tribe by themselves. There is likewise borne an empty hearse covered over, for such as appear not, nor were found amongst the rest when they were taken up. The funeral is accompanied by any that will, whether citizen or stranger; and the women of their kindred are also by at the burial, lamenting and mourning. Then they put them into a public monument, which standeth in the fairest suburbs of the city [the Ceramicus (RJD)]; in which place they have ever interred all that died in the wars, except those that were slain in the field of Marathon: who, because their virtue was thought extraordinary, were therefore buried there-right. And when the earth is thrown over them, some one thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity, chosen by the city, maketh an oration, wherein he giveth them such praises as are fit: which done, the company depart.

In his splendid book Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (1987), Ian Morris observes that Thucydides “presented death in battle as the apotheosis of citizenship, and, interestingly, the burial of the war dead is the only context we know of where funeral games took place in fifth-century Athens. Three inscribed bronze vases given as prizes in these games . . . are known.”

Athenian burial practices and its democracy

David Pritchard adds to our understanding of Athens’ funeral rites for its dead warriors in his essay The symbiosis between democracy and war: the case of ancient Athens (2010).  The tombs in which the dead warriors were placed “were adorned with statues of lions and friezes depicting groups of generic hoplites and cavalrymen vanquishing their enemies, both of which signified the aretê [virtue or, more specifically, courage (RJD)] of those being buried.” Further, “each tomb displayed a complete list of the year’s casualties, including citizen sailors, which was organised [into the ten Athenian] tribes. . . . [T]hese casualty lists gave the same space to the name of every citizen, regardless of what his military rank and social class had been.” Pritchard observes that this austere form of remembrance “reinforces the impression that the principle of democratic equality . . . strongly shaped [the Athenians’] honouring of the war dead.” He notes that a surviving fragment of Euripides’ lost play “Erechtheus” says that those who “die in war they share a common tomb with many others and an equal fame” (added emphasis) (J.O. Burtt trans.).

Further, Athens’ dead combatants were not only equal, in the city’s eyes, in nobility and courage; they were also beyond death, perpetuated in the renewed and everlasting life of the city. W.R. Connor, in his 1988 article Early Greek Land Warfare as Symbolic Expression, calls attention to this aspect of the tribal war memorials:

The final commemoration . . . is a memorial consisting of names, just names, name after named, arranged by tribe. . . . These, unlike the battlefield trophaion [the trophy or victory marker erected on the field after a battle (RJD)], are intended to be permanent. As the impermanence of the trophy marks the transitoriness of human relationships, the inscribed names of the dead mark the endurance that comes from comes from the merging of the individual into the community.

Some conclusions

Reflection on the ancient texts and practices will lead us to several conclusions about the significance of the burial of a city’s own battle-dead.

First, we see (at least in democratic Athens) the heroization of the common soldier-citizen. Ordinary men who die fighting for their city can now enter the honor-world that in Homer is reserved for lords and heroes. If, as Eva Brann has suggested, the Iliad itself can be seen as a “tremendous war memorial” because it records the names, descent and homelands of the many leading warriors who died in its battles, so the Athenian mortuary list of names raises those it commemorates to the same heroic level. (See Eva Brann, Homeric Moments (2002)). Even a poor man, Plato remarks, receives “a fine and costly funeral” and an “elaborate speech.” And Thucydides tells us that Athens also honors its unknown soldiers: the funeral procession includes “an empty hearse covered over” to commemorate them. Furthermore, the families of those who have fallen are ennobled along with them. Democratic America, with its simple and egalitarian national cemeteries, its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its unadorned memorial listing the names of those who died in the Vietnam War, should readily grasp these points.

Athens may have been a democracy but, as Pericles argued in the Funeral Oration, it was a democracy of a singularly aristocratic kind, in which poverty and obscurity were not insuperable barriers to the achievement of honor by those who would serve the city. The ordinary citizen, Pericles says, “is not put back through poverty for the obscurity of his person, as long as he can do good service to the commonwealth” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 37). And even if some of the dead were worthier of praise than others, Pericles insists that all must be honored equally: “even such of them as were worse than the rest, do nevertheless deserve, that for their valour shown in the war for defence of their country they should be preferred before the rest” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 42). All the deaths that are being commemorated were honorable: “choosing rather to fight and die, than to shrink and be saved, they fled from shame, but with their bodies stood out the battle; . . . [and so] left their lives not in fear, but in opinion of victory” (id.).

Second, we should note the extraordinary sense of identity and common purpose that exists between the democratic city and those who fight for it. Thucydides has the Athenian general Nicias tell his soldiers that of themselves they make the city: “wheresover you please to sit down, there presently of yourselves you are a city” (Peloponnesian War, Book VII, c. 77). The city’s fate and their fates are the same, and even after death, they will live in the continuing and indestructible life of the city. The burial rites encapsulate the city’s promise, not only that it will remember its battle-dead, but also that it will recover their remains and inter them before the eyes of those they died defending. Everyone who has “given his body to the commonwealth,” Pericles affirms, will “receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre” (id. at Book II, c. 43).

Indeed, we might go even further. Robert Hertz, a pupil of the great nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim, argued in the spirit of his teacher that we should conceive of the emotions aroused by a death and the rites by which death is marked, not simply as individual or private matters, but as social facts. (For an excellent summary of Hertz’s ideas, see Douglas J. Davies, The social triumph over death (2000). Hertz pointed out that the person who had died was not merely a biological individual but also “a social being grafted upon” that body. Hence the death of that individual represented a threat to the social order, and its destruction “is tantamount to a sacrilege” against that society. Society had to meet this threat somehow. It did so, Hertz argued, in a two-phased sequence of mortuary rituals: first, a phase of “disaggregation,” represented by the temporary disposal of the corpse; then by a phase of “reinstallation” or “secondary burial,” from which the society reconstituted itself and emerged triumphantly over death. In that final, reconstitutive ceremony, mourning came to an end and the departed soul was taken to have been incorporated into a social order of the dead that was continuous with the order of the living. The burial rites, in short, affirmed order as against the threat of disorder, and the unending life of the society as against the death of its individual members. As Morris summarizes this approach, “the funerary process re-presented society as pure and unblemished, in a perpetual youthful bloom through the preservation of the beautiful corpse, and its subsequent reduction to a permanent state via cremation.”

Finally, the burial rites renew and magnify the city, not only in the eyes of its own citizens, but also in those of the foreigners who watch the spectacle. Plato’s Socrates says that if there are foreigners present at a funeral speech, he experiences “a sort of triumph over them,” while they “seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city.” Pericles too notes in his oration that it will be “profitable to the whole company [of his audience], both of citizens and strangers,” to hear the battle-dead praised and, more especially, to hear the democratic constitution of Athens described (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 3).

(Note: For those who may be interested in exploring these topics further, volume IV of Kendrick Pritchett’s monumental The Greek State at War (1985) provides a wealth of information).

Kornberg, “The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War”

In May, the University of Toronto Press released “The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War” by Jacques Kornberg (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

Pope Pius XII presided over the Catholic Church during one of the most challenging moments in its history. Elected in early 1939, Pius XII spoke out against war and destruction, but his refusal to condemn Nazi Germany and its allies for mass atrocities and genocide remains controversial almost seventy years after the end of the Second World War.

Scholars have blamed Pius’s inaction on anti-communism, antisemitism, a special emotional bond with Germany, or a preference for fascist authoritarianism. Delving deep into Catholic theology and ecclesiology, Jacques Kornberg argues instead that what drove Pius XII was the belief that his highest priority must be to preserve the authority of the Church and the access to salvation that it provided.

In The Pope’s Dilemma, Kornberg uses the examples of Pius XII’s immediate predecessors Benedict XV and the Armenian genocide and Pius XI and Fascist Italy, as well as case studies of Pius XII’s wartime policies towards five Catholic countries (Croatia, France, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), to demonstrate the consistency with which Pius XII and the Vatican avoided confronting the perpetrators of atrocities and strove to keep Catholics within the Church. By this measure, Pius XII did not betray, but fulfilled his papal role.

A meticulous and careful analysis of the career of the twentieth century’s most controversial pope, The Pope’s Dilemma is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the Catholic Church’s wartime legacy.