How is ancient warfare taught in schools? Part 2: England, by Anna Coopey

Anna Coopey is a third-year student in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. She recently worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant on the Visualising War project (alongside Jana Mauri Marlborough), to support a new strand of research looking at how ancient warfare is taught and assessed in schools. This research is still in its very early stages, but in the following blog Anna outlines some of her initial findings, based on her analysis of school curricula, some interviews with school teachers, and a survey which you can find (and fill in!) here

Key findings:

  • While some curricula include a ‘human costs’ aspect in the study of ancient warfare and encourage pupils to look at it from civilian and not just military perspectives, assessments tend to focus on armies/tactics/military prowess.
  • More crossover between how fictional and historical wars are taught/assessed would be valuable.
  • Teachers often try to make connections between ancient wars and modern conflicts, and one particular benefit of this is to humanise ancient victims of war. 

‘This month, I’ve been working with The Visualising War Project to investigate the ways in which modern and ancient wars are taught in schools. It was quite a daunting project to undertake, full of interviews with loaded questions and plenty of debate on the nature of war and its importance in our society – but, after hours of poring over curricula and specifications, sending out survey links and having some lovely chats with some very insightful people over Zoom, I feel myself somewhat qualified to talk a little bit about what I’ve found.

My side of the project was focused on the English curriculum and specifications from the ages of 11 to 18, particularly in the subject areas of Classical Civilisation, Ancient History, and Modern History GCSE and A-Level, as well as KS3 study. As many Classicists will be aware, the dwindling nature of our subject in secondary schools has meant that only one exam board – OCR – offers the first two of these subjects, so I spent a lot of time on their website and found some rather interesting things!

Perhaps the most notable thing I discovered was in the GCSE specification, in which there is an optional module called War & Warfare. On page 26 of their specification, OCR writes the following:

‘War is one of the most significant aspects of human behaviour, and war and warfare in the classical world holds an endless and compelling fascination. This component highlights different aspects of warfare in the ancient world, including the purposes, conduct and effects of war, as well as how the military interacted with, and impacted upon, wider society.’

Of course, when I read this, I was ecstatic – and the more I read of the specification, the better it seemed to get. The main exam board of Classical Civilisation in England was encouraging engagement with the negative effects of war, not only on soldiers, but also on other impacted groups, such as women, children, and civilians. 

Then, I got to the exam papers.

While OCR seems to encourage critical engagement with the effects of war from the outset, and to advocate a new approach to teaching ancient warfare that echoes the approach in Modern History (with a focus on what the wars did to people rather than which weapons were used), when it came to the assessments a different picture emerged. Because GCSE exams tend to focus on assessing knowledge rather than analysis and evaluation (which are more of a feature at A Level), this kind of question remain common in the War and Warfare Sample Question Paper: ‘Compare and contrast the Spartan army with either that of Athens or of Rome. Which do you think was better?’ Rather than encouraging empathy with the suffering that these wars would have put people through – these actual, historical wars – the exams seem to encourage us to evaluate their tactics and military success, which seems, to me, a little tone-deaf. (This chimed with what my colleague Jana Mauri Marlborough found during her analysis of equivalent Scottish curricula.)

Of course, there are exceptions, and there are some questions which invite empathy and sympathy from the students taking them. For example, in the War and Warfare paper from June 2019, this question was asked: ‘Give two ways that Virgil creates sympathy for the victims of war’. But there is one notable difference here: the wars depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid are fictional, whereas the wars that the Spartan, Athenian, and Roman armies fought in were not. There is an encouragement to sympathise with fictional warriors that is entirely missing from questions surrounding actual, historical war, and it is this absence of empathy with real-life people that troubles me. The approximately 4000 dead Greeks and 20,000 dead Persians after the Battle of Thermopylae are just as much humans and deserving of sympathy as the fictional Patroclus and Hector, and Andromache and Hecuba, too. 

I have spoken to many of my interviewees about this problem – about the disjunct in sympathy / empathy between our engagement with actual, historical ancient war and the fictional wars shown in Homer and Virgil – and many have suggested that this lack of empathy may be because of the lack of source material that gives sympathetic insights. Of course, this is true. As one interviewee remarked, ancient historians like Thucydides were not writing purely to entertain, so we should not expect pathos and sympathetic renderings to dominate ahead of facts. But perhaps the limitations of our sources simply call for more imagination in the ways that we teach war. Perhaps, in the absence of strong evidence, we should still make the effort to conjecture what could have been going on and how people might have experienced it. ‘Subjunctive history’, as Dakin calls it in Alan Bennett’s History Boys.

Another aspect of school-level war studies which caught my attention was the way in which teachers make lots of links to the modern day from their source material. One interviewee argued that if you are a Classics teacher and you don’t make references to the modern day in your teaching, something’s wrong. I would tend to agree! Teachers gave examples of how they tried to link up with contemporary events in their teaching, referencing for example the Troy exhibition at the British Museum in 2020, where performances were shown of Euripides’ Trojan Women by Syrian refugee women. Many mentioned what is currently going on in Afghanistan, and how they would link this to their teaching of the Iliad and Aeneid, and some linked Roman Republican politics to the political situation in the West from 2016 to January 2021. 

Perhaps this is the way in which we can encourage more empathy in our students when studying ancient warfare. Perhaps, by cross-referencing ancient and modern situations where we have a variety of viewpoints and evidence, we can encourage budding Classicists to view the dead of the ancient battlefields just as emotionally as the dead of recent years – as people, not numbers, and as human beings, not statistics. This has benefits for understanding modern warfare as well as for ancient studies.

There is still some way to go in the way we teach ancient war, but I think empathy absolutely crucial: students need to see Pericles and Leonidas as just as much people as Churchill and Stalin to understand their wartime leadership, and they need to understand the horror of war outside of the prism of literature. They need to understand that war is just was devastating to the ancient man too. I would like to see more empathy encouraged in the teaching of ancient warfare in schools.’ 

Together with Jana’s findings, Anna’s analysis of school curricula and interviews with school teachers will inform the Visualising War project’s wider research into how war/wars – and conflict resolution and peacebuilding – are taught in schools at all levels and in different parts of the world. This research is an important strand of our work looking at the habits of visualising war which children and young people are encouraged to form as they grow up. In time, we hope to speak to many more teachers, curriculum designers, qualifications authorities and pupils, and to co-produce some materials in consultation with them which will enhance the ways in which pupils are taught to visualise both war and peace. 

Our survey for school teachers remains open: if you have experience of teaching any kind of war or conflict in schools, please do fill it in. Thank you!