Setting new agenda for ancient peace studies

Students from the 2023 cohort of our undergraduate module ‘Visualising War and Peace in Antiquity’ have been putting their minds to some new research agenda for the study of ancient conceptions and discourses of peace. In the presentations below, three of them set out some reflections and suggestions for three different areas of study: Hellenistic inscriptions, women’s experiences of post-conflict recovery, and ancient peace rugs.

Martha Shillaker dives deep into women’s experiences of war and discusses the potential of ‘speculative history’ and ‘useful fiction’ for reconstructing the networks of care and mutual support that they may have developed as they tried to build both inner and interpersonal peace in the wake of conflict. She looks particularly at what we can learn from Greek tragedy about women’s experiences of the ‘return’ from war – underlining the concept of return as a fantasy (things do not ‘go back to normal’ or to some pre-war state), and what women particularly have to lose if (like Clytemnestra) they have acquired more power and freedom during their husband’s absence in a conflict. She offers sensible caveats about not mapping what we see in Greek tragedy onto Athenian reality, but she also rightly points out that these plays in all likelihood reflected issues of real relevance to their contemporary audiences. That opens the path to discussing more broadly what we can learn/study about ‘the home front’ in antiquity, women’s experiences of the aftermath of war, reconciliation, rehabilitation and more personal/local/everyday peace in the wake of ancient conflict. Her discussion underlines the extent to which that post-conflict period must be understood as a complex negotiation, even as a struggle; and this prompts us to wonder if we can find out more about what models of or approaches to reconciliation and rehabilitation prevailed in antiquity:

Elizabeth Walker discusses Hellenistic language and expressions of diplomacy in surviving inscriptions that record peace-making process. Underlining how formulaic this language tends to be, she draws attention to its emphasis on past relationships, future relationships, and present friendship – with euergetism, reciprocity and mutual benefit regularly stressed. She stresses the exclusively elite nature of this discourse, and the similar patterns when visualising relations between kinds and/or cities. Crucially, she looks critically at this language, discussing its world-building nature and its deceptive habits: such diplomatic language, she rightly argues, is a visualisation of future possibilities more than a reflection of reality. While not necessarily binding, it can bring into being certain modes of interaction; but just as often it papers over ongoing conflict and (especially) the needs/wishes of less privileged groups.

Elizabeth get us thinking hard about the political work that such diplomatic language does (serving certain agendas) and also how embedded and established such formulaic language can become – prompting us to wonder how coining new language might interrupt dominant narratives of diplomacy and peacemaking. The Romans, she argues, did not interrupt or innovate so much as appropriate and deploy diplomatic language which they felt would land well with Greek counterparts. This gets us thinking about the imposition of a perpetrator’s peace through diplomacy, and more broadly about the top-down nature of the inscriptions that survive. As well as discussing existing trends in scholarship, Elizabeth reflects on what the study of Hellenistic diplomatic inscriptions might offer to future peace studies, particularly highlighting the learning we can do about language as a political tool: 

David Calder draws on research into ancient and modern ‘war rugs’ to think about the kinds of weaving (now lost to history) that may have told narratives of both peace and conflict in antiquity; and he invites us to consider what we might visualise on an ancient peace rug if we were weaving one today. His creative approach helps us think through different, more grassroots methods of visualising peace across space and time. He offers some excellent analysis of ancient rug-making/weaving, underlining the scarcity of our sources but deploying speculative history to draw valuable inferences. He also introduces us to Afghan war rugs, and moves from analysis of them to sharing a world-building/peace-visualising project based around Afghan peace rugs. Blending this with what we know about aspects of ancient war and peace (both real and representational), he suggests a wonderful, creative and scholarly intervention based on the creation of an ancient peace rug: