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A Brief History of Attack on Titan

CONTENT AND SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the series Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and includes mention of conflict, war, sexual violence and some graphic violence. 

Hello, and welcome to the first in a series of blog posts about my research into how popular media aimed at children and young adults’ can influence their habits of visualising war and peace. The first text I will be focusing on will be Attack on Titan[i] and my blog posts showcasing my research will be structured as follows:

  1. A Brief History of Attack on Titan (this blog post) will aim to give enough information about the world and the story of Attack on Titan for those unfamiliar with the series. This blog has little in the way of actual analysis and is meant as a summary and cheat sheet for those who have not previously engaged with the text.
  2. Survival of the Fittest, Not the Nicest will introduce a theoretical framework that helps to understand how characters in Attack on Titan think about violence. I will focus on events in the beginning and middle of the manga demonstrating how characters act in the conflict they’re in.
  3. Ending on A Low Note will explore how one can interpret the ending of the main conflict in Attack on Titan. I will investigate how it portrays the actions taken by the main cast of characters, the ethical ambiguities surrounding them, and what key messages manga creator and artist Isayama may be keen to convey. 
  4. And They All Lived Happily Ever… will focus on peace building and the conclusion of the manga series after the ending of conflict. Peace-building post conflict is explored relatively little, but there is some consideration throughout the main conflict narratice as to how it will end. I will look at how Isayama conceives of peace in the relatively little space he gives to it in the manga. 

Introducing Attack on Titan

Fig 1.1 Typical example of a Titan (normal sized human in the foreground for reference)

The world of Attack on Titan operates much like our own with some key differences. People are born and die in similar ways. Physics (save for some creative liberties for the purposes of entertaining action sequences) act the same. From what the reader is shown, the world looks very much like an alternate version of our world. The key differences that I will focus on are as follows:

  • The existence of Titan superpowers
  • Geographical differences
  • Historical differences

In this blog post I will go through these differences to provide a useful, if imperfect, knowledge base to help readers understand my subsequent blog posts about the manga. After highlighting these differences, I will then provide a summary of the relevant characters and plot points. Please note: this manga is a very dense text with roughly 6000+ pages of comics told in a non-chronological manner, frequently switching perspectives between a big cast of different characters. Below, I have linked some resources that I have found or used in creating this blog, which readers might enjoy diving into to learn more about the manga.[ii]

The existence of Titan superpowers

By far the biggest difference that a newcomer to Attack on Titan must grapple with is the existence and nature of Titans. [iii]

Titans are giant humanoid creatures that range in height from roughly 3 to 60 metres tall. They are creatures that do not procreate like other beings (they even lack genitals) and they appear “to violate several known laws of science” with their physiology.[iv] Their bodies are incredibly light in terms of weight, they run at quite high temperatures, they do not need to breathe to survive, and they have incredible regenerative abilities, able to regrow virtually their entire bodies so long as their nervous system is intact.[v] Hence, the most effective way to kill a Titan is to sever their brain’s connection to the rest of their nervous system by attacking their nape behind their neck. While Titans are clearly very distinct from a typical human, each Titan has in fact evolved from a race of people known as ‘Eldians’, or ‘The Subjects of Ymir’, who have the ability to transform into Titans. 

The Titans originated from a young girl named Ymir who lived roughly 2000 years before the main events of Attack on Titan and who acquired these powers after falling into a mysterious tree. 

Fig 1.2 Ymir the first Titan. Isayama, Chapter 122, p.14.

Ymir was a slave who was under the control of King Fritz, the King of the Eldian empire, and after it was revealed that Ymir had this power King Fritz took Ymir as his wife and used her to expand and strengthen his empire. As a result of Ymir’s Titan powers, the Eldian empire was able to defeat Eldia’s main rival, the neighbouring nation of Marley. To ensure the continued strength of the empire, King Fritz had three daughters with Ymir. Then “thirteen years after acquiring the power of the Titans, Ymir died… King Fritz then forced his daughters to eat their mother’s corpse in an attempt to preserve the power of the Titans”.[vi] This initiated a cycle where the descendants of Ymir were forced to reproduce, and upon their deaths have their children consume their parent’s spinal fluid to pass down the power of the Titans.

After the death of Ymir, her Titan power was split into nine unique Titans. Over the next 2000 or so, from Ymir’s death to the main events narrated in the manga, the Nine Titans were used by Eldians to expand the Eldian Empire. Each time one of the inheritors of the Nine Titans died or were about to die, their spinal fluid would be consumed by another Eldian to transfer the power of the Nine Titans. This process also transferred the memories of the previous inheritors of the Nine Titans. If their spinal fluid wasn’t consumed, a new-born Eldian would then be born at the time of their death and inherit the powers instead. Since Ymir only lived for 13 years with her Titan powers, each inheritor of one of the Nine Titans can only live for 13 years after inheriting their powers. A brief description of each of The Nine Titans is below: [vii]

As well as the Nine Titans, Subjects of Ymir are also able to be transformed into a different type of Titan distinct from the Nine Titans. Isayama dubs these titans as “Pure Titans”, and they are Subjects of Ymir that have been transformed into a Titan via the abilities of other Titans (e.g. the Founding Titan’s ability to transform others into a Titan) or through intaking a concoction made from another Titan’s spinal fluid. Pure Titans are like those seen in Fig 1.1, and range in size from roughly 2 to 15 metres. They make up the majority of the Titans seen in Attack on Titan and are generally unintelligent, but there are some abnormal Pure Titans capable of coherent thought or even speech. 


The geography of the world of Attack on Titan is an alternate version of our own world. The main events of the manga take place on the island of Paradis and the neighbouring nation of Marley.

Paradis and Marley seem to be vaguely based on real-world Europe, with many of the characters having “Germanic names”.[viii] There also exists a nation paralleled to Japan, the nation of Hizuru. Whilst other nations are referenced that seem to parallel our own world’s political geography, these mentions are brief. The main places of relevance to the story are Paradis Island and the nation of Marley.


After the founding of the Eldian Empire by King Fritz roughly 2000 years before the main events of the manga, this colonial supremacy continued across the world. Roughly 100 years before the main events of the manga a descendant of the original King Fritz, named Karl Fritz, became the new monarch of the Eldian empire and inherited the powers of the Founding Titan. After inheriting the monarchy and the Founding Titan powers, he was ashamed of the colonial actions of the Eldian Empire committed against the wider world, and so he orchestrated a civil war (The Great Titan War) that dissolved the Eldian empire. 

The result of The Great Titan War left the Eldian empire dissolved and King Karl Fritz left with most of the Eldian population to the island of Paradis. He then transformed a large portion of the Eldian population into 60-metre-tall Titans like the Colossal Titan that use hardening together to form protective walls for the Eldians on Paradis. 

Fig ­3.1 Diagram of the protective Walls of Paradis: Isayama, Chapter 2, p.36.

Before leaving for Paradis, King Karl Fritz left a warning to the world that if the Eldians on Paradis were provoked “The tens of millions of Titans that sleep inside the walls will surely flatten the entire Earth”.[ix] This threat became known as the Rumbling. However, the Rumbling cannot be activated by a member of the Fritz royal family, because they all inherit King Karl Fritz’s memories, and these memories prevent them from using the Rumbling. Hence, a Founding Titan of non-royal blood must come into physical contact with another Titan of royal blood to initiate the Rumbling. 

Once on Paradis King Karl Fritz used his powers as the Founding Titan to alter the memories of all the Eldians on Paradis to make them believe that they are the last remnants of humanity trapped within the walls to protect them from Pure Titans that had destroyed the rest of humanity. This is what the Eldian characters on Paradis believe for the first half of the manga and they establish a militarily centred government. This society forms three branches of government: the Military Police, the Garrison, and the Survey Corps. The Military Police maintains order within the walls on Paradis, the Garrison protects the walls, and the Survey Corps are charged with exploring beyond the walls. Most of the cast of characters we follow from Paradis are part of the Survey Corps. 


The Great Titan War also left Marley in possession of several of the inheritors of the Nine Titans (the Jaw, Female, Colossal, Beast, Cart, Armoured and Warhammer Titans). Consequently, over the next hundred years Marley proceeds to replace the Eldian empire as the world’s preeminent colonial power. The leaders of Marley then contain the Eldians who had remained in Marley in internment camps and they use the Eldian population as soldiers for their colonial wars and as ‘Warriors’. ‘Warriors’ are Eldians who have been trained since childhood as soldiers to inherit the power of the Nine Titans and fight for Marley. Any Eldians who are seen as enemies of the nation of Marley and brought to Paradis and transformed to Pure Titans to terrorise the Eldians that originate from Paradis. 

These are the main enemies that the Eldians on Paradis face for the first half of the manga. Eventually, the rest of the world’s military technology develops to the point of rivalling the power of Titans. So, Warriors are sent to Paradis to attempt to reclaim the powers of the Founding Titan and other natural resources that are exclusive to Paradis. Ultimately, these efforts fail.  

Back to Paradis

The Eldians on Paradis attempt to reclaim their island from the Pure Titans which have been roaming the land outside of their walls and in doing so learn the truth of the world. That is that, due to the atrocities of the Eldian Empire, the rest of the world hates their race, and would have them imprisoned if not exterminated. 

Several years after learning the true nature of the World, Eren Yeager leads a mission to Marley and forces the rest of the military forces on Paradis to help. The main objective of the mission was to kill the military leadership of Marley at a gathering, to steal the Warhammer titan for Eren Yeager and to acquire Zeke Yeager, who is a titan of royal blood to enable the Rumbling. At this point Marley and Paradis are actively at war. As well as this, several international diplomats and journalists at this gathering were killed, also causing an alliance against Paradis.  

At this point, the thinking of the military leaders on Paradis is to leverage the threat of the Rumbling as a deterrent for a war against Paradis. With help from the foreign nation of Hizuru, over the next 50 years Paradis would try to update their military technologically and eventually negotiate peace with the nations of the world. However, for this plan to work, several things must fall into place: 

  • The monarch of Paradis, Queen Historia Fritz, must inherit Zeke’s Beast Titan and must procreate and feed her Titan to her children and her children’s children etc. until Paradis can negotiate peace
  • An Eldian of non-royal blood must inherit the Founding Titan from Eren Yeager until Paradis can negotiate peace 
  • A smaller version of the Rumbling must be used to demonstrate to the world that the Rumbling would be devastating 
  • Efforts must be made to negotiate peace with nations that hate the people of Paradis 

Eventually, against the wishes of the military leadership on Paradis, Zeke Yeager and Eren Yeager meet to unlock the full powers of the Founding Titan. Eren initiates a full-scale Rumbling genocide, against the wishes of Zeke. At the prospect of the full-scale Rumbling, former enemies from Marley and Paradis join forces to prevent it from happening. They succeed in killing Eren and in preventing the whole genocide, but around 80% of the human population are killed in the process. The manga ends with an exploration of peace negotiations between Paradis and the rest of humanity by the cast of characters that killed Eren.

This blog hopefully sets the scene for those of you who are new to Attack on Titan. In my next blog, I will focus on using this knowledge base to investigate how Attack on Titan conceptualises violence in the context of survival. 

Matin Moors

Undergraduate Student, Master of Arts in English and Philosophy, University of St Andrews

A special thanks to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Foundation for enabling my research, as well as to my supervisor Dr Alice König for helping guide me and facilitating my contributions to the Visualising War project.

The images included in this blog have been published online in good faith for educational purposes, making use of the exception for ‘Criticism and review’ in UK copyright legislation. If you are the rightsholder for any material used in this blog and have concerns about its use, please contact:


[i] I will be using the English name as opposed to Shingeki no Kyojin for ease of writing.

[ii] For additional resources to understand Attack on Titan, I recommend the Fandom Wiki page if you’d want to look up specific groups or concepts. This video essay on youtube from invaderzz I have found extremely useful in interpreting the ending section of the manga.

[iii] All quotations and images are taken from Shingeki no Kyojin. Isayama, 2009, Chapter 2, p. 20.

[iv] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Titan (Anime)”.

[v] Ibid. 

[vi] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Titan (Anime)”.

[vii] Please note that the abilities and features of each of the Nine Titans depends on who the inheritor is. Each person who inherits one of the Nine Titans has a unique appearance, but different inheritors of the same Titans have similar visual appearances.

[viii] Attack on Titan Wiki, “Marley”.

[ix] Isayama., Chapter 86, p. 41.

From beauty to horror: photographing war’s legacy in Bosnia

Lake Perucac, photographed by Dijana Muminovic. Due to an error at the nearby dam in 2010, during maintenance work on the Bajina Basta hydroelectric power station, the lake dried revealing the bones of hundreds of people killed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. The lake, 54 km long and 1,100 wide is now considered to be the largest mass grave in Europe. The Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina began a search with volunteers. The image on the right features Admir Sabanovic, searching for his father who was killed in 1992 during the attack of Visegrad. Sabanovic’s father was found two months later in a forest, an hour away from the lake.

Dijana Muminovic is a Bosnian-American documentary photographer. As she recounts in this podcast episode, she was 9 years old when the Bosnian War broke out in April 1992, and her childhood was dominated by the conflict. She vividly remembers the day it started: out picking flowers, she heard the first siren, followed by a sound that she would quickly learn was the noise of a bomb; and she ran to hide for the first time in the family’s basement. That routine became part of her childhood for the next four years: lots of time hiding in bomb shelters, and coping without electricity or water, with shortages of food, and with constant fear and anxiety, while dreaming of peace.

Dijana grew up in Zenica, an industrial town about 70km north of Sarajevo. Unlike the capital city, it was not a key target during the war; in fact, Zenica became a place to which people from other towns and villages fled. People whose homes had been bombed or burnt, and in particular many Bosnian Muslims who had become targets of ethnic cleansing. Dijana remembers her school becoming a shelter overnight, with the gym crammed full of people. As she puts it: 

‘That was my first introduction to what it meant to be a refugee. And for me, it meant that people came with nothing, having left everything they had. And they will probably never go back to their homes again…’

Dijana Muminovic, speaking on the Visualising War and Peace podcast

Dijana’s own father was Muslim, while her mother was Catholic. They eventually became refugees themselves, moving to the US in 1997. Some years later, shortly after graduating from university and starting out as a documentary photographer, Dijana was commissioned to develop a photographic project that would help explain the presence of so many Bosnians in her adopted part of America, near Kentucky. That project took her back to Bosnia and set her on a journey to document the ongoing process of exhuming and identifying victims of the Bosnian genocide. Her award-winning series of photographs entitled Aftermath focuses particularly on the exhumation of bodies from Lake Perucac, which borders Serbia and Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, where approximately 800 bodies were thrown during the Bosnian war. One of Dijana’s photos was chosen by the journalist and author Christina Lamb as the front cover of her book, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: what war does to women.

Rialda Zukic of Bowling Green, Ky., Minela Aljic of Bratunac, and Pemba Malagic, of Srebrenica (left to right) mourn relatives and friends at the funeral in Potocari where 775 bodies were buried on July 11, 2010 during the 15th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. Photograph by Dijana Muminovic.

In our podcast conversation, Dijana talks about the natural beauty of Lake Perucac, and how that beauty contrasts with the horror of what was recovered from it. She captures this paradox in several of her photographs, including the contrasting images of the tree on the lake’s shore shown above: in one, the ground is undisturbed and everything looks idyllic; in the other, the sombre task of digging has begun, shattering the illusion of peace. This paradox is evident also in the two images below. The stunning landscape on the left draws the viewer in, but closer inspection reveals four volunteers digging in the foreground – and their work disrupts the tranquility of the shot, just as they disturb the earth itself. Sunshine illuminates the far shore of the lake in the image on the right, but it also picks out colourful flags, which mark the presence of bones in the exposed lake bed at the front of the shot. Horror amid beauty; traces of war and genocide in an otherwise lovely landscape.

Volunteers help the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina to exhume bodies from Lake Perucac, which dried up due to an error at a hydropower station. Photography by Dijana Muminovic.

Dijana’s photographs also capture the physical and emotional labour of exhumation and identification for the volunteers involved. In one photo, we can see four people wearing raincoats digging in the drizzle. A dog is prancing around at the edge of the water, and its playfulness offsets the diggers’ sombre task. Three are bent over while the fourth takes a break and stands watchfully by, waiting to see what gets unearthed. This is just the beginning of a slow, laborious process of uncovering crimes against humanity.

In other photos we can see more of the work done by volunteers to bring closure to families who lost loved ones during the war. On the left, Dijana has captured the sombre interactions between three men who have just dug up a victim’s passport; and in another, a forensic pathologist is standing with her hands on her hips as she braces herself to start processing more jaw bones and broken skulls on her lab table. Together, these photographs capture just how much work is done by so many different people in processing the aftermath of conflict. Some of the volunteers are searching for their own family members.

Left: Goran Micic, left, shows an ID to Admir Sabanovic, right, that was found in a pit while searching for the remains of Sabanovic’s father who was killed in 1992. With the help of few friends, the MPI, and the ICMP, Sabanovic was able to find bones of his father. The ID belonged to the man found with Sabanovic’s father; the father of Adisa Karisik who also volunteered at Lake Perućac.

Right: Forensic Anthropologist, Dragana Vucetic, at the Tuzla Identification Coordination Division (ICD) July 9, 2010. The ICMP has helped exhuming bodies from Lake Perućac.

Some of Dijana’s photographs are quite ‘documentary’ in the sense that they capture a snapshot in time – a boy looking at the flower he is about to lay in a commemoration ceremony, or three women whose raw grief is etched on their faces in three very different ways. Others are more ‘artfully constructed’ – for instance, using reflections or unusual lighting to add meaning to an image. In all her photography, Dijana is conscious of two driving motivations: the importance of documenting what has happened, and the value of helping viewers to connect emotionally with the victims of conflict and killing. These motivations are at the heart of some other work she has been doing, capturing the stories of some of the 20,000-50,000 women survivors of war rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through her work, Dijana underlines the power of sensitive, human-centred photography in helping us visualise many different aspects of war’s aftermath.

You can read more about Dijana’s work on her website. We have also featured some of her photographic work that has been inspired by her own experiences as a refugee on our Visualising Forced Migration project website. You can listen to Dijana tell her own story in the podcast below.

A timeline of peace in the Medieval period

Throughout 2022, a team of undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews have been working on a ‘Vertically Integrated Project‘ called ‘Visualising Peace‘. Directed by Dr Alice König, this project seeks to extend the work of the Visualising War project by examining how war’s aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building are conceived. Our aim is to study different habits of imagining, understanding, representing and working towards peace, and we are particularly interested in analysing how different narratives and ideas of peace have evolved and gained influence over time. 

Students involved in the project have been drawing on their subject-specific expertise to explore and experiment with different ways of visualising peace, in different periods and places. History undergraduate Kara Devlin decided to dig deep into narratives of peace from Scottish and English perspectives during the Medieval period, and as part of this work she created a timeline which she introduces in the video below:

In what follows, Kara discusses her project in her own words.

Mission Statement

Welcome to a timeline on visualised peace!

This resource was created as part of the University of St Andrews’ Vertically Integrated Project Visualising Peace, which seeks to explore habits of narrating and representing peace, as well as how those habits might shape our mindsets and behaviours. This timeline shares this aim, but has a few of its own too: 

  • To give an overview on the temporal complexities of peace
    • To create an accessible resource which showcases first-hand narratives of peace around a central conflict

The conflict which I chose to centre these goals around was Anglo-Sottish relations throughout the medieval and early modern periods. I chose this issue as I believe it contains interesting sources, it has lasted through varied generations, and it is of modern interest with Scottish and English history being a large part of each nation’s national identity and politics. However, this was also a very complex conflict to choose. By keeping a focus on English and Scottish voices in the timeline entries, narratives that shaped the Anglo-Scottish relationship such as from French royalty or European reformation leaders were somewhat excluded. It is impossible to represent the true complexity of a conflict which has lasted for over 1000 years, with hundreds of sources feeding into the conflicting perspectives of the era. 

My hope is that as more items are added to the timeline, it becomes a more representative depiction of the relationships between England and Scotland. That is why feedback is important not just in keeping the project unbiased and free from inaccuracies, but also in adding more varied and encompassing sources. 

Notes on Data Used

The sources used in this resource were as varied and complex as the subject they represented. A few notes are necessary to work through the reasoning behind the selection of sources, as well as some issues that arise with sources from this era. 

Firstly, the accessibility of each source was kept in mind when adding it to the resource. I avoided non-English, Old English, or particularly difficult Scots language posts to make sure that the general English reader could understand what was being spoken about in each extract. I also referenced the full source within each post so that readers are encouraged to find each extract within its full context and to read more from the authors presented. I also picked out extracts which mention peace, or the resolution of conflict in an explicit way so that the reader does not have to jump to conclusions to figure out how medieval Scots and English visualised peace. 

There was some difficulty in finding sources, which explains a lack in women or non-elite voices. It was also trickier to find manuscripts which looked towards the future of each country, rather than looking back or discussing a present event. This non-representation will hopefully be resolved through feedback and further research. 

There were also some types of sources that were utilised repeatedly throughout this resource. A few further notes on each of these can explain their utility, as well as their drawbacks.

Chronicles: These sources make up a majority of the resource as they were a popular method of recording a country’s history within the medieval and early modern era. As they usually span centuries of events, these sources look back on the past with the aid of hindsight and any biases of the time from when they are written. It is always necessary to keep in mind the era which the chronicle was written within to analyse its content successfully.

Treaties: These are a unique source as they offer a look back at the past, a direct connection with the present situation, and a vision towards the future. They are also often (but not always!) drafted with the collaboration of both sides, meaning that they are not fully biased towards one or the other. These sources can be very useful in delving into the legal process of peace negotiation, as well as inferring what each side valued the most in their relationship with the other. However, these sources cannot be as accurate at showcasing relations as they might seem. In cases where kings are forced to sign treaties in order to live or keep their kingdoms, many false narratives crop up. It is therefore important to take the entire situational context when examining the source.

How to Use the Resource

How to use Tags: There are two types of tags utilised within this resource. The first groups together extracts from the same text (ex: Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon). This allows the user to explore one author’s narrative of what they have perceived peace to have looked like for their country over the centuries. 

The second type of tag categorises posts by whether they look back on the past, describe a current event in the present, or look towards the future. These tags allow the user to discover differences in visualising peace and events by how close the author was to them chronologically. These tags also make it easier to distinguish the effects of temporality in visualising peace, ex: narrating on the past might lead to a more negative outlook on peace than narrating on the future. 

How to Use Each Post: Each post includes an overall depiction of the event, an extracted narrative on the event, and an analysis on the connection between the event and the visualisation of peace. Each post is intended to be read in order, and each analysis is intended to invoke further thoughts and reading, rather than to explain each detail. 

Each post is also categorised by colour to make it clear what nationality the author is writing from. Blue posts are from Scottish writers, yellow are for English, black are for outsiders (usually travellers), and green is for treaties between the two sides. 

How to Use Groupings: Narratives about similar time periods are grouped together whether they are written before, during, or after the events.  Looking at multiple entries surrounding one event or time period allows users to compare the perspectives laid out within each narrative. 


In the future, this resource aims to grow by making the connections between sources clearer, sorting the data into further categories, and adding more sources to the resource. Feedback is very helpful in achieving each of these goals, as well as diminishing inaccuracies and biases in the data and analysis already presented. For these reasons, any form of feedback on the resource would be truly appreciated! If you have any thoughts to share, please email us at

Further Resources

I have compiled a list of further resources on Anglo-Scottish relations and the connection between temporality and peace. These are useful for the user who wants to delve in deeper into these topics beyond this resource. 

Primary Accounts

  • A History Book for Scots: Selections from Schotichronicon by Walter Bower, Edited by D. E. R. Watt
  • The Chronicle of Lanercost, 1272-1346: Translated, with notes by Sir Herbert Maxwell
  • John of Fordum’s Chronicle of the Scottish Nation, translated from the Latin text by J. H. Skene, edited by William F. Skene
  • Chronichle of the War Between the English and the Scots in 11734 and 1174 by Jordan Fantosme, translated and edited by Francisque Michel 
  • Anglo-Scottish relations, 1174-1328: some selected documents, edited and translated by E.L. G. Stones

Modern Historiography

  • Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland by Cynthia Neville
  • Scottish public opinion and the Anglo-Scottish Union, 1699-1707 by Karin Bowie
  • Anglo-Scottish relations from 1603 to 1900, edited by T.C. Smout
  • The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300 – 1600, edited by Katherine Terrell and Mark P. Bruce
  • England’s northern frontier: conflict and local society in the fifteenth-century Scottish marches by Jackson W. Armstrong
  • Scotland’s Second War of Independence, 1332 – 1357 by Iain A. MacInnes
  • England and Scotland at war, c. 1296 – c.1513, edited by Andy King and David Simpkin
  • England and Scotland in the fourteenth century: new perspectives, edited by Andy King and Micheal A. Penman
  • England and her neighbours, 1066-1453: essays in honour of Pierre haplais, edited by Micheal Jones and Malcom Vale
  • Religion, culture, and society in early modern Britain: essays in honour of Patrick Collinson, edited by Anthony Fletcher and Peter Roberts




Royal Beheadings and Christian Peace Committees

How the Visualisation of Peace in the Medieval and Early Modern Era differed throughout Europe

Throughout 2022, a team of undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews have been working on a ‘Vertically Integrated Project‘ called ‘Visualising Peace‘. Directed by Dr Alice König, this project seeks to extend the work of the Visualising War project by examining how war’s aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building are conceived. Our aim is to study different habits of imagining, understanding, representing and working towards peace, and we are particularly interested in analysing how different narratives and ideas of peace have evolved and gained influence over time. 

Part of our work has involved created The Visualising Peace Library, an online bibliographic resource that encourages knowledge exchange between people studying peace in different disciplines and sectors. In this blog, student Kara Devlin discusses some of the items she has added to The Visualising Peace Library. Focusing on Medieval History, she highlights some important facts about the ways in which people experienced, understood and worked towards peace in this era – and she also draws attention to some of our blindspots in studying Medieval peace-making.

Literature Review by Kara Devlin

The Visualising Peace Library aims to promote knowledge exchange between different disciplines. To facilitate this, it must contain resources from a wide range of periods, places and subject areas; so I have spent the last few weeks adding more articles on medieval and early modern history. In doing so, I have come across some fascinating perspectives on peace in Europe in the Middle Ages.

As I discuss below, the visualization of a peaceful world – understood in its simplest form as a period with no conflict — varied along different binaries: some thinkers and politicians saw peace as something that had to be systemically embedded; others saw it as a randomly occurring phenomenon, the product of chance; some prescribed violence in conflict’s aftermath to ensure greater stability; for others, it was first and foremost an intellectual endeavour. The articles I survey below highlight stark different between theory and practice, and they also draw attention to key links between identity-formation and peace-building. Between them, they reveal valuable insights into how peace was visualised in the Medieval world which have a lot to teach us about visualisations of peace in other eras. Studying Medieval peace and peace-making can refresh how we study it in other disciplines and sectors.

The first article I added to The Visualising Peace Library was ‘The Normality of Peace’ by Matthew Melko. This was the perfect initial article for my research, since it illustrated through qualitative data that peace generally exists more than war, at least in early modern and modern history. Even in periods such as the early 20th century in Europe, Melko found that there was more peace than not, simply by looking at each country and year and analyzing whether conflict existed or not. This re-evaluation of the idea that ‘Peace is normal, war is exceptional’ is an effective starting point in analyzing Medieval history – and also an important check on our tendency to visualise (and teach) peace and conflict across history more broadly. 

Our pre-conceptions about conflict in the Medieval period may be that it was an era of violent justice and constant conflict. It is not difficult to prove this statement. Iain A. MacInnes’ article ‘“A somewhat too cruel vengeance was taken for the blood of the slain”: Royal Punishment of Rebels, Traitors, and Political Enemies in Medieval Scotland, c. 1100–c. 1250’ in particular gives many gory examples of the seemingly random punishments enacted by the English and Scottish to maintain order within their kingdoms. One visual example is the practice of beheadings, which were used by both countries, but featured more predominantly in Scotland as a symbol of victory. The heads were utilized as a bragging right and as a warning to anyone who might want to rebel again. However, MacInnes points out that this almost ritualistic killing was done with the primary intention of asserting systemic power, rather than as a bloodthirsty, senseless act of random violence.  

This glimpse we get of a prioritization of systemic justice over random violence in Scotland is backed up by Jenny Wormald’s article ‘Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government in Early Modern Scotland’, which discusses the use of law to resolve feuds. She argues that the Scottish relied on their own cultural system of justice, which involves the family and friends of the victim creating a sentence for the perpetrator. This peace-making relied heavily on community and shared ideals of justice to work effectively. The same sense of justice was applied to everyone, whether it was Mary Queen of Scots, or a local farmer. That said, Wormald stresses the flawed nature of Aulde Laws in Scotland, and the long way that Scottish law had to go to reach a real, collective idea of justice, rather than an idealized cultural version.

This idealised fantasy of a collective cultural idea of peacebuilding was a reality during the medieval era, however; it just happened to exist in a different country.  Loren C Mackinney’s article ‘The People and Public Opinion in the Eleventh-Century Peace Movement’ is an extraordinary depiction of a peace movement which spread throughout all social and economic classes of medieval France. This peace existed tangibly through ‘The Truce of God’ and through local pacts made between towns. French national identity was also re-moulded in efforts to achieve this central goal of national peace. Again, the process towards that was systemic and developed throughout time, beginning with church committees and moving towards more secular public assemblies. 

This French collective identity was strengthened through the Enlightenment as well, although this happened almost half a millennium later. Patrick Riley’s article ‘The Abbe de St Pierre and Voltaire on Perpetual Peace in Europe’ brings together ideas that had been stewing for centuries into the Abbe’s comprehensive plan for Europe. This plan largely involved creating a union for the European countries, an idea that was never fully explored within a medieval context. However, Voltaire and other enlightenment scholars questioned the practical effectiveness of a union, arguing that the way forward for peace was through global enlightenment. This article is a fantastic example of the differences between peace theory and peace practice – helping us to look at how peaceful practices and idealistic visualisations of peace evolved alongside each other. It is important to question whether medieval perspectives of peace were idealized theories or whether they were ingrained in everyday reality to understand how peace functioned within the medieval era. For example, Scottish sources speak of a cultural system of justice by family members. Whether this worked effectively in everyday practice is up for debate. 

Of course, perspectives on peace differed throughout the centuries to keep up with everyday practice within conflicts – in England, as elsewhere. Throughout the medieval period, English ideas and approaches varied from the systemic violence we can see amongst the Scots to the intellectual, realized peace more visible in France. MacInnes and Wormald both speak of the English as having similar levels of violence to the Scots and utilizing it in parallel ways to maintain order. Throughout the centuries, though, the English also turned to less violent methods of policing in order to maintain order. A. J. Musson’s article, ‘Sub-Keepers and Constables: The Role of Local Officials in Keeping the Peace in Fourteenth-Century England’ displays a completely different systemic approach than that of the Scottish. Musson explores the intricate structure of peacekeepers in England, from the royal decrees of the King to the powers of the sheriff constable. One thing which this article underlines is that national peace cannot be established through one system. Instead, it involves layers of overlapping roles which come together to reach every single person, place, and conflict in society. 

The visualizations of peace portrayed and discussed in these articles speak to a medieval world that maintained peace through a range of systemic developments. The Scottish found their systemic conflict resolution largely through violence, which allowed them to assert their dominance over enemies even in times with no conflict. The French built intellectual plans and systems towards a peaceful reality, first in the eleventh century peace movement, and next in the Enlightenment. The English began with similar acts of violence to the Scottish, but then built their own individual machine of law and order, recruiting roles for all levels of public and private order, and expanding the powers of these roles to enact justice. The three European societies presented in these articles ultimately display complex and varied visualizations (and realisations) of medieval peace, painting a picture that tends to differ from our own pre-conceptions of the period. Crucially, they also draw attention to connections between peace-building and national identity-formation which have lessons for our study of peace today.

I hope that this overview of a range of articles on Medieval ideas of peace will encourage you to dive into more items in our Visualising Peace Library, especially historic ones. Peace Studies often sits within the framework of International Relations or Political Science, but other disciplines such as History study peace and peace-making too, and we all have a lot to learn from each other’s disciplinary materials and perspectives.

What do different media teach children about WWII?

The field of peace education addresses how we may build a future of global peace when our global history is filled with violence, war, and conflict. One proposal is to focus on the upbringing of the next generation. Educational psychologists note that socialisation by adults during childhood has lasting impacts on pro-social behaviour, and mechanisms for morally disengaged reasoning start to develop during childhood.[1] These findings indicate the importance of childhood as “the time when the seeds of peace and conflict are sown”. Children will grow up to become leaders and policy makers, and purposefully educating future generations during their formative years may well encourage them to prioritise peace and moral courage, and advocate for alternatives to violence.[2]

Sarah Gough, Laidlaw Research Essay 2022

In 2022 Undergraduate student Sarah Gough was selected for a prestigious Laidlaw Scholarship at the University of St Andrews. She spent six weeks on a research project connected to Visualising War, exploring peace education in different contexts. Her research led her to ask a series of important questions:

  • What different approaches/guidance to teaching war are promoted by different pedagogical theories?
  • What can different educational methods and media teach children about conflict?
  • What habits of visualising war do different teaching methods engender?

Sarah looked at school syllabi, educational resources produced by NGOs, war reporting aimed at children, documentaries, the museum space, and publications such as Horrible Histories. She focused her research particularly around the lessons that children might learn from these different media in relation to World War II.

This poster sums up her key findings:

You can find out more about Sarah’s research in the essay below, which has an extensive resource list for further reading:

[1] Hymel and Darwich, Building Peace Through Education, pp. 345-357.  

[2] Lombardo and Polonko, Peace Education and Childhood, pp. 182-203.  

Experiences of Migration in Classical Antiquity

As part of the Visualising War project’s research into the ripple effects of conflict, we are exploring how different art forms have visualised the rupture, loss and trauma of forced displacement. Undergraduate Research Assistant Holly Axford has been looking particularly at ancient narratives of displacement, and in this blog she writes about ancient attitudes to supplication and hospitality, and how class and gender impacted on ancient experiences of migration and forced displacement. You can read another blog by Holly on women, war and displacement here.

Individuals and groups in the ancient world left their native lands and sought shelter elsewhere, either temporarily or to establish a permanent home, for a number of reasons: changing economic circumstances, political exile, or (very frequently) conflict. But what kinds of reception did these displaced peoples receive when arriving in another community across the ancient Greek and Roman worlds? The well-known institution of xenia, or ‘guest-friendship’, as well as the divine protection traditionally extended to suppliants in ancient Greek religious thought, could lead us to believe that displaced peoples were guaranteed a hospitable welcome. In this blog post, I will explore the figure of the suppliant and this notion of hospitality in more depth, before going on to consider how other factors – namely, class and gender – are depicted in ancient narratives of displacement, and how they may have shaped the experiences of the displaced. 

Supplication in the Ancient World

Thetis supplicating Zeus
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 

Closely embedded in the social and cultural framework of ancient Greece were the rights of the suppliant and, related to this, the proper welcome to be offered to the stranger, or xenos. The physical act of supplication, which is described in a number of episodes from epic, involves the suppliant lowering themselves and grasping the knees of another in a manner which served as a symbol of their vulnerability. It is noticeable, however, that this ritual of action and entreaty is not always performed in its entirety. Odysseus, in his meeting with the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in book six of The Odyssey, decides that, given his present state of undress, it would be inappropriate to approach her, and instead supplicates her verbally from a respectful distance. John Gould, on the other hand, stresses the importance of the physical act of supplication, arguing that when a suppliant does not do it in full, their request tends to be rejected.[i] In battle scenes in The Iliadfor example, when the suppliant either breaks contact or is unable to complete the ritual fully, he is often killed by his opponent.[ii]

As these Iliadic examples demonstrate, there are times when the rights of a suppliant were not respected. However, the suppliant was thought to be placed under the protection of Zeus. In Aeschylus’ play, Suppliants, Pelasgus of Argos is encouraged to look favourably on the Danaids’ entreaty by his recollection that ‘the wrath of Zeus who protects suppliants is heavy indeed’ (347).[iii] Repeated references such as this one to the role of Zeus in ensuring the safety of suppliants, in addition to the ultimate success of the Danaids’ appeal, seem to point towards the acceptance of displaced outsiders as part of a wider value system to which individuals and communities were expected to conform.[iv]

In accordance with the vulnerability embodied by the physical ritual of supplication, the speech of the Danaids in the play appears to depict them as passive victims. As their father Danaus warns them: ‘Remember also to defer: you are in need, a stranger, a fugitive. Bold words do not suit weaker persons’ (201-202). Reflecting on this aspect of the play, Elena Isayev has highlighted similar issues with modern media representations of refugees. To win the sympathy of readers and viewers, modern media often chooses to emphasise the helplessness and passivity of refugees and, in doing so, effectively denies them any personal agency.[v] The characterisation of the Danaids, however, is not so straightforward as it first appears. It is possible, following Isayev’s interpretation, to recognise in their story the agency – and not just the vulnerability – of suppliants.[vi] The chorus invites Pelasgus to do as follows:

‘And see me, your suppliant here, and in flight,

Running about like a heifer pursued by wolves,

High up amid steeping crags, where trustful of his aid

She lows to tell the herdsman of her plight’ (350-353)

While characterising themselves as prey, the chorus of Danaids positions Pelasgus alongside the paternal figure of the herdsman, implicitly reminding him of his responsibility towards them. Their speech here recalls wider ancient thought, in which the imagery of shepherding served as an important symbol of guidance and protection (its deployment in later Christian parables being a key example of this). In their appeal to Pelasgus, the Danaids proactively utilise their vulnerability to illustrate the distinction between their present social position and his own, highlighting his obligations within this moral and religious framework and working to shape his attitude and actions towards them. The (perceived and actual) vulnerability of the Danaids as suppliants and as migrants, then, in some ways enables the exercise of agency by granting them a position within an existing social system, whereby they have the right to appeal for certain protections. Yet at the same time, it constrains their agency by restricting them to a predefined identity as victims within this system. Rarely, in the ancient world or the modern, do we hear the voices of migrants themselves. It is therefore striking that here, the Danaids’ representation of themselves goes some way towards collapsing the categories of agent and victim – but with agency restricted to voicing their victimhood and reminding others of their social responsibilities to such victims. 

This same flexibility is often absent from modern representations of displaced peoples. One need only look to the image of ‘women and children’ in modern media, as a homogenous and largely voiceless group in need of the state’s protection.[vii] Women, included in this group on the basis of being children’s carers, come to share this supposed identity of passive vulnerability, characterised often as needing people to speak for them as well as support them in other ways. On the other hand, single men (as well as single women, who are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation) are often not depicted with the same degree of sympathy and cannot expect the same levels of advocacy from others.[viii] These different social identities, and the varying degrees of agency and expected independence which they entail, help to construct categories of ‘undeserving trespassers versus those who deserve rights and care from the state’.[ix] All too frequently, modern depictions perpetuate a binary set of identities in which vulnerability presupposes a lack of agency, and in which a degree of agency erases an obligation of support. Aeschylus’ Danaids point towards a different kind of representation, where these two categories are not so fixed. 

Odysseus and Nausicaa, Jacob Jordaens (1625-1630)

The ritual of supplication, and of guest-friendship, and a community or individual’s response to it was also central to the construction of identity. Odysseus, the ancient world’s most famous wanderer, arrives as a stranger in a number of foreign lands, and the welcome he receives in each place is used to reflect the geographical extremity of his journey. The Cyclops Polyphemus, when called upon by Odysseus to offer the expected forms of hospitality, declares ‘my people think nothing of that Zeus with his big sceptre, nor any god’ (9.274-276), and goes on to wholly invert the system of xenia set out elsewhere in the poem by eating his guests.[x] Arete and Alcinous, on the other hand, offer an exemplary response to Odysseus’ supplication, even going so far as to berate Nausicaa for not bringing him immediately to the palace (7.298-301). Their hospitality, in contrast to the barbarity of the cyclopes, acts as a mark of Odysseus’ return to civilisation and offers a bridge between the extraordinary events of his travels and the familiar world of Ithaca. 

Here, the acceptance of suppliants and strangers appears as the sign of a refined and prosperous community. This was not, it seems, restricted to the world of epic. In a speech of Isocrates, a group of Plataeans turn to Athens for aid after being driven from their home by the Thebans. They claim that an offer of support from the Athenians could ‘cause all the world to regard you as the most scrupulous and most just of all the Greeks’ (14.2).[xi] While indicating that being seen to offer shelter to the displaced could contribute positively to a community’s wider image and reputation, the Plataeans’ reference to this here also suggests that they believed this to be an effective and successful argument to win over the Athenians. We might assume, therefore, that the listeners of this speech would wish to see themselves as protectors of the displaced, and to be seen that way by others.[xii]

All of this points towards an optimistic view that the safety of the displaced and their right to be accepted was guaranteed by communities or individuals who either feared offending divine protectors, or who wished to be viewed by others as generous hosts (or, perhaps, a combination of the two). Yet it is true that, as with all literary depictions, such examples may be reflective of a cultural ideal rather than an everyday reality.[xiii] Other factors came into play when displaced peoples sought the assistance of others. 

The Impact of Social Status

Class and social status were vital, not only to the kind of reception a displaced person was likely to receive, but also in determining whose narratives were told and preserved. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, Jocasta, wife of Oedipus, questions her exiled son Polyneices about his experiences. She asks whether he received any assistance from his father’s friends, to which Polyneices replies that ‘poverty is a curse; breeding did not find me food’ (402-405).[xiv] The importance of wealth and resources to the security of an exiled or displaced person is made clear here. We can extrapolate that, without such wealth and elite social connections, the prospects for a displaced person in a foreign land would be slim.

Social status can also be identified in the ability of Odysseus to be well-received by strangers. One scholar has suggested that the hospitality shown to him by the Phaeacians, despite his ragged appearance, is ‘one among many signs that he has ventured into fairyland’.[xv] A view such as this seems to firmly support the idea that wealth and social status were vital to the prospects of a stranger or suppliant. It is held to be surprising that, without them, one would be offered shelter and aid. To some extent, however, this is undermined by the rest of the text. Alcinous claims that the Phaeacians always provide travellers with safe passage home (8.33-34) without any reference to their status or ability to reciprocate, suggesting that this behaviour was embedded in a wider moral framework like that discussed above. Yet, we as the audience are aware of Odysseus’ elite status and of the wealth which he possesses in Ithaca. He is, we know, more than equal to the Phaeacians’ hospitality. It may therefore be more fitting to see this episode as an important marker in Odysseus’ journey. The Phaeacians’ welcome functions as a recognition of his real status and facilitates his return to the ordered and familiar world of Ithaca. His status, when he arrives, is that of a displaced wanderer, but the hospitality which he is offered serves to restore him to an identity which he held prior to this displacement. This is an important reminder that The Odyssey, as a narrative of migration, is not necessarily about migrants or migration. Instead, Odysseus’ status as a migrant is just one part of a wider narrative arc. As is the case with the varying responses of his hosts raised in the previous section of this blog, discussions of migration are used to discuss the familiar world of the home, and to define its own identity against that of the ‘other’. 

Despair of Hecuba, Pierre Peyron (1784)

In a previous blog post, I examined how the displacement of female prisoners of war following the Trojan War was narrated by ancient texts. What stood out in these accounts is that much of their pathos stems from their subjects’ dramatic change in circumstances, from Trojan royalty to slaves of the Greek victors. Hecabe, for example, refers to herself with a moving contrast as ‘the woman who once strode so proudly through Troy but is now reduced to slavery’ (505-506).[xvi] Almost exclusively, these are the narratives of the elite and privileged. Andromache’s maid, in Euripides’ Andromache, recalls ‘the days we lived at Troy’ (58), in a brief acknowledgement of their shared displacement, but for the most part, the stories which were told were those concerning women from among the social elite. Not only, then, did social status grant displaced individuals a degree of protection. The ability to share experiences, and to have those experiences be acknowledged and reflected upon by others, was also influenced by issues of class. Those occupying a lower social position, like Andromache’s maidservant, lacked the ability to give a permanent and lasting account of their own.[xvii]

It is possible to recognise some unfortunate similarities with modern media representations of displacement. Terence Wright has noted that, for a number of reasons including a possible lack of security, or language barriers, refugees and displaced peoples today may be poorly positioned to challenge and correct media representations of themselves, or to offer a direct account of their own.[xviii] Recognising those who are absent from ancient narratives of displacement, therefore, is one way of helping to address our own issues of representation. 

Gender and the Experiences of Suppliants and Migrants

One’s social status was not the only factor which might have shaped experiences of displacement in the ancient world. Under a set of heavily patriarchal social norms, gender was also essential in governing how a displaced person could engage with a host community. One prominent example of this can be found in Euripides’ Medea. Abandoning her native land of Colchis, Medea settles in Corinth with Jason after his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. However, Jason then deserts her to wed the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea poignantly underlines her isolation: 

‘But what of me? Abandoned, homeless, I am a cruel husband’s plaything, the plunder he brought back from a foreign land, with no mother to turn to, no brother or kinsman to rescue me from this sea of troubles and give me shelter’ (255-259) [xix]

Medea, of course, is a uniquely driven and resourceful character, who does not allow herself to become a victim of the men around her. Nonetheless, this situation perfectly encapsulates the way in which gender norms could influence the experiences of a displaced person. It is clear from this quotation that Medea, without Jason, is left stranded in Corinth. Her departure from Colchis has led to her removal from familial networks of support, of which her husband is now the only source. Medea’s connection to the city of Corinth, moreover, rests firmly on her connection to Jason. She cannot actively seek membership of the community for herself and, now she is no longer Jason’s wife, is treated firmly as an outsider. 

Ariadne and Bacchus, Titian (1520-1523)

Medea’s story and those of other abandoned or mistreated women from the ancient world are recounted in Ovid’s epistolary work, The Heroides. This set of poems is fascinating, not only because it offers a female perspective (albeit one constructed by Ovid) on familiar stories, but because it shows a similar conflation of agency and disempowerment to that discussed above. Laurel Fulkerson recognises the authorial power of Ovid’s women in telling their own tales, arguing that, in turning their thwarted desires into poetry, the heroines become ‘successful in the same way as other elegiac Augustan poets’.[xx] Medea’s letter opens with a recollection of her former power as she reminds Jason of a time when ‘you came begging for help’ (1-2).[xxi] Ariadne, too, positions herself as an active player in Theseus’ victory over the Minotaur (79-80), and challenges Theseus’ cruel treatment of her, asking: ‘is this the tomb my kindness deserves?’ (150). However, any agency which Ariadne possesses here is coupled with a pervasive sense of her present helplessness and isolation. Now ‘an exile’ (74) from her father’s kingdom, but not able to continue her intended journey without the aid of Theseus, Ariadne remains stranded on an island where she expects ‘wolves to attack and tear my flesh apart’ (91-92). A woman alone, she remains suspended between Athens and Crete. 

Rape of the Sabine Women
Pietro da Cortona (1627-1629)

Further examples of this theme can be found in accounts of Rome’s mythological founding. One central episode of Rome’s early history is the abduction of the Sabine women. The historian Livy records how, snubbed by neighbouring communities as being unworthy after approaching them with offers of marriage, the male fugitives and refugees whom Rome at this time consisted of took a group of Sabine women as their wives by force. In response, the Sabines went to war with Rome, but the women brought an end to the conflict by interposing themselves on the battlefield between their fathers and their new husbands. An uncomfortable account when viewed through a modern lens, the role of the Sabine women here is difficult to interpret. Elizabeth Vandiver has made a convincing argument that the consent of the Sabine women was necessary to give the marriages moral validity, and she therefore attributes a degree of agency to the Sabine women, who become crucial co-founders of the city.[xxii]

For our present purposes, however, it is their initial forceable integration into the Roman community that is the most important part of this narrative.[xxiii] Unlike Rome’s male inhabitants, who come actively to the city of their own accord, women become a part of the community only through the actions of men. Mythological accounts like this can be used to gauge something about the prevailing attitudes of their contemporaries. Women in myth did not gain admittance to a community through independent action (although the Danaids of Aeschylus’ Suppliants may be held up as an exception to this), indicating a belief that this was not an acceptable way for women to join a community.[xxiv] Women who found themselves in the ancient world may have found themselves similarly constrained by patriarchal expectations.

Suggestions for Further Investigation

Despite a social obligation towards the displaced, it is clear that not all suppliants or migrant peoples would be received equally in the ancient world. One’s resources and social standing, or (particularly important to the experiences of women) gendered behavioural expectations which curtailed independent action, could influence how a migrant may be treated. But another factor, deserving of a post of its own, may have also shaped the migrant experience: ethnic or racial identity. Although modern conceptions of racial identity did not exist in the ancient world, evidence does suggest that ethnic origins could impact how migrants were perceived and received by communities.[xxv] Ovid’s Dido, herself a migrant who was (initially) successful in founding a new home, asks Aeneas if, upon reaching the land he seeks, ‘is there one man who would trust a foreigner in his fields?’ (23-24). Although undoubtedly part of a wider rhetoric intended to prevent Aeneas’ departure, Dido’s question appears to point towards a widespread prejudice in which Aeneas’ Trojan identity would limit the welcome he received. 

An even more scathing account can be found in Juvenal’s Satire III. As a satirical text, the views which it expresses cannot necessarily be accepted at face value, nor understood as Juvenal’s own beliefs.[xxvi] Nonetheless, the text can offer a very different perspective on migration and on any existing social obligations. The satire’s main speaker, Umbricius, cites as his reason for leaving the city that ‘I can’t stand a Rome full of Greeks’ (61-62), whom he presents as avaricious and false.[xxvii] In Umbricius’ account, the Greeks and their culture are presented as a threat to traditional, Roman ways of living (‘See, Romulus, those rustics of yours wearing Greek slippers, Greek ointments, Greek prize medallions around their necks’ (68-69). Moreover, with its complaint that ‘few of the dregs are Greek’ (61), Umbricius’ tirade also appears to reveal an implicit belief that, as a ‘born-and-bred’ Roman, he is entitled to a certain degree of privilege and success which incoming Greeks do not deserve. The parallels between this and twenty-first century fabrications of the ‘threatening other’ blighting the native culture and ‘stealing’ the jobs of the native inhabitants hardly require further illustration. In light of the centrality of racial discrimination to recent responses towards refugees, it is even more vital that this aspect of ancient literature becomes a topic for further study. 

[i] John Gould, ‘Hiketeia’ The Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1973), 80-81.

[ii] Victoria Pedrick, ‘Supplication in the Iliad and the Odyssey’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 112 (1982) 125-140, instead stresses context and narrative convenience reasons for differences in depictions of supplication across the poems.

[iii] Quotations from Aeschylus, Persians and Other Plays, trans. Christopher Collard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[iv] See F. S. Naiden, Ancient Supplication (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) and Christopher Auffarth, ‘Protection strangers: establishing a fundamental value in the religions of the ancient near east and ancient Greece’ Numen 39.2, (1992) 193-216.

[v] Elena Isayev, ‘Between hospitality and asylum: a historical perspective on displaced agency’, International Review of the Red Cross99.1 (2017), 78-9.

[vi] Ibid., 83.

[vii] See Mara Mattoscio and Megan C. MacDonald, ‘Introduction: gender, migration and the media’, Feminist Media Studies 18.6 (2018), 1117-1120 for an overview of the role of gender in media depictions of refugees.

[viii] Ibid., 1118.

[ix] Heide Castañeda and Seth M. Holmes, ‘Representing the “European refugee crisis” in Germany and beyond: deservingness and difference, life and death’, American Ethnologist 43.1 (2016), 13.

[x] Quotations from Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).

[xi] Trans. George Norlin, available at:

[xii] Robert Garland, Wandering Greeks: the ancient Greek diaspora from Homer to the death of Alexander the Great (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 126, observes that Athens, in Greek tragedy, is depicted as a place of sanctuary for the oppressed.

[xiii] Of course, it should also be noted that the Plataeans are here having to argue for their acceptance into the Athenian community.

[xiv] Trans. E. P. Coleridge, available at:

[xv] Garland, 2014, 18.

[xvi] Quotations from Euripides, Electra and Other Plays, trans. John Davie (London: Penguin Books, 2004). 

[xvii] Gaps such as this are now frequently being addressed by modern retellings. Readers may be interested in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls or Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den, which attempt to reconstruct the experiences of women of a lower social status in the ancient world. 

[xviii] Terence Wright, ‘The media and representations of refugees and other forced migrants’ in Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona (eds.), The Oxford handbook of refugee and forced migration studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014),464-465. 

[xix] Quotations from Euripides, Medea and Other Plays, trans. John Davie (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

[xx] Laurel Fulkerson, The Ovidian heroine as author: reading, writing and community in the Heroides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-2.

[xxi] Quotations from Ovid, Heroides, trans. Harold Isbell (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

[xxii] Elizabeth Vandiver, ‘The founding mothers of Livy’s Rome: The Sabine women and Lucretia’ in Frances B. Titchener and Richard F. Moorton (eds.), The eye expanded: life and the arts in Greco-Roman antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 209-214.

[xxiii] Ovid, Fasti 3.201-207 and Ars Amatoria 1.101-102 stress the force employed against the Sabine women.

[xxiv] Parshia Lee-Stecum, ‘Roman refugium: refugee narratives in Augustan versions of Roman prehistory’, Hermathena 184, 2008, 89.

[xxv] Debbie Challis, ‘The ablest race’ in Mark Bradley (ed.), Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 94-120, discusses the role of classics in the formation of modern racial categorisation.  

[xxvi] For a discussion of instances of xenophobia in the work of Juvenal, see

[xxvii] Trans. A. S. Kline, available at

How do anime and manga shape habits of visualising war and peace? An introduction…

CONTENT AND SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the series Avatar: The Last Airbender and Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and includes mention of conflict, war, and some graphic violence. 

“100% one of the best stories ever told”

Tinseltopia (Reddit user) [ii]

Hiya, I’m an undergraduate student and Laidlaw scholar investigating how popular anime/animated shows and manga/comics influence young people’s habits of visualising war and peace. This introductory blog post is the first in a series of research outputs from this project and is designed to introduce readers to my research topic and the media I will be engaging with in subsequent blog posts. 

Eren Jaeger, primary protagonist of Attack on Titan (Isayama, Chapter 3, p. 41)

I have focused my research on two concrete examples of anime and manga: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Attack on Titan.[iii] These are two extremely popular examples of their respective genres. Since starting as a manga series in 2009, Attack on Titan has become one of the most recognisable names in manga and anime.[iv] Around peak readership in 2013 it was the second most popular manga series in Japan, with roughly 16 million copies sold,[v] and it had six of its volumes in the New York Times Manga Best Seller List.[vi] It has now sold over 100 million copies worldwide[vii] and is regularly cited as one of the best manga and anime series of all time.[viii] Attack on Titan is an example of ‘Shonen’ anime and manga, referring to the demographic that the media is aimed at. ‘Shonen’ literally translates to “a few years”, so it refers to young adults (usually young boys).[ix] Reaching similar levels of popularity to Attach on TitanAvatar’s season 3 finale received 19 million viewers at the time of initial broadcasting, mostly comprising young children (ages 6-11) and tweens (ages 9-14).[x] It is also regularly referenced on lists of the best animated or children’s television shows[xi] and has won a prestigious Peabody Award for electronic media.[xii]

I chose examples of anime and manga because of their powerful potential to shape habits of visualising war and peace, both thanks to their renown and to the relatively young age of their audiences. Many people grow up engaging with them; and many also revisit them later, through discussions with fellow fans and the vast library of online analyses (to get an idea of the volume, just search up video essays on either of them on YouTube). People who loved them as children have a tendency to consider them ‘well-crafted masterpieces’ also as adults, and to draw a good deal from their thematic explorations of war and peace. I confess that this has been the case for me. There exists somewhere a picture of an eight-year-old me dressing up as Aang (the primary protagonist of Avatar) for Halloween after having recently shaved my head, because what else was I going to go trick-or-treating as? 

Aang primary protagonist of Avatar: the Last Airbender (DiMartino and Konietzko, “The Boy in the Iceberg”, 2005, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, 9:10)

My initial contact with them was emotional, nostalgic, and largely subconscious; but I rewatched the series and engaged with criticism of it going into early adulthood, and that got me thinking more critically about them and their impacts on audiences’ habits of thought. The research I am now doing aims to prompt further critical discussion of these fascinating and influential media. 

Narratively speaking, both series use war and conflict as a backdrop for the main events of the plot. Both also end with an explicit peace formed (as in Avatar), or with peace talks about to ensue (as in Attack on Titan). My research has focused particularly on the representation of peacebuilding in these media (which is much less discussed than their representations of war); but in order to appreciate how the ending of a typical linear story is being narrated, it is important understand what came before. So, in both cases, I have focused first on how they represent conflict and violence and how the main conflict ends, in order to appreciate how their creators chose to represent peacebuilding. From this general framework I will highlight clear thematic throughlines about war and peace that the creators quite clearly wished to impart to their audiences, as well as other more hidden representations that should be considered in critical engagement with media.

Typical example of a titan (figure in the foreground is an average human), Isayama, Chapter 2, p. 20

Attack on Titan’s world revolves around a major conflict between humans and titans (large humanoid man-eating monsters) and deals along with way with themes such as ‘hopelessness and loss’.[xiii]  

Attack on Titan initially was pitched to several editors in Japan by Isayama who appreciated the originality of the premise but were doubtful about his drawing ability.[xiv] His story pitch was to have humanity under existential threat from a species of beings more powerful than us. The inspiration for such an existential threat came from other media, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.[xv] One of the main recurring themes in the manga is the idea that ‘the world is cruel’ and in an interview with the BBC Isayama noted that this sentiment comes from his upbringing as a child on a rural farm: ‘All living creatures must get nutrition from other living creatures to survive. We might call it cruel, but it is actually the norm’.[xvi] It is interesting that this worldview comes from such a formative childhood experience of Isayama’s, something I will explore in a subsequent blog post. Additionally, there have been real life histories that have influenced the manga too: for example one of the important characters, Dot Pixis, is based on ‘real-life Japanese general Akiyama Yoshifuru’ – celebrated in Japan for reforming the Japanese cavalry, but who may also have been responsible for atrocities in the first Sino-Japanese war.[xvii] Akiyama Yoshifuru evidently figures as a hero for Isayama, as well as for many other Japanese people – somewhat controversially

Avatar is set in a world heavily inspired from several ‘non-western’ cultures, mainly East Asian and Inuit. These cultures heavily influenced the construction of the fictional world. For example, the world of Avatar has four nations, each inspired by the nations of these ‘non-western’ cultures, and each one’s history paralleling that of the actual nation’s history.[xviii]

Map of the four nations (DiMartino and Konietzko, “The Boy in the Iceberg”, 2005, in Avatar: The Last Airbender,0:20)

At the time of the show’s initial airing, it was one of the few animated shows on Nickelodeon and other children’s television networks that represented a compelling introspective story about war with non-white characters. It is this compelling story that the creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino very intentionally had in mind when producing Avatar. In a 2015 interview, Konietzko noted that ‘Kids are deeper than a lot of people, and especially corporations, give them credit for’, adding that they wanted to tell ‘the kinds of stories with the types of conflict that interested us [Konietzko and DiMartino]’.[xix] In other words, this show – which seriously explores the ramifications of war and conflict – is intentionally aimed at a younger audience, and consciously does not treat that audience as merely passive and unthinking children. I will explore the ramifications of this further as I work through my blog series. 

There are a few disclaimers I should mention at the outset of this project. Firstly, in the case of Attack on Titan, I am working with translations from the original Japanese to English. I do not speak Japanese, nor am I especially knowledgeable in Japanese culture. As a result, I may miss or misinterpret certain aspects of the text in my analysis. However, these are not likely to be significant in the wider scheme of my arguments regarding Attack on Titan, since my focus is on its more general representations of violence, conflict, and peace, not fine details. Moreover, there is a large international following of this manga, many of whom are in a similar position to me, and as a result I would argue that this skewed perspective is still relevant for exploring and understanding how the manga’s audience could learn to visualise war and peace from it. 

Secondly, with regards to Avatar, I will be discussing certain aspects of the series’ message in the context of its cultural and historical inspirations. For those unaware, in the world of Avatar each of the four nations which comprise its world are based on several real-life peoples and cultures including: the Inuit, Qing dynasty China, Imperial Japan and Tibetan monks. I am not from any of the cultures directly influencing the world of Avatar, and much of what I know I have learnt through secondary sources, and as such I may not give a sufficiently fleshed out representation of them in my discussion. That said, I have tried to research what I can in the time available, and I hope it will be sufficient for the purposes of my arguments. 

Finally, and specifically to those who are fans of the media I am looking at: my critical discussion is not designed to degrade or criticise specific works, nor to attack the big popular media franchises behind them. Nor am I implying that you should accept my readings of these texts as final. I am merely offering my (hopefully valid and well-informed) readings of these media to promote discussion of these and similar texts, which are so valuable and influential; to date, they have not yet received enough attention, especially in academia.

Thank you for reading this far into my opening piece. I hope to start bringing you some of my research findings soon.

Matin Moors, July 2022

Undergraduate Student, Master of Arts in English and Philosophy

University of St Andrews

A special thanks to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw Foundation for enabling my research, as well as to my supervisor Dr Alice König for helping guide me and facilitating my contributions to the Visualising War project. 

The images included in this blog have been published online in good faith for educational purposes, making use of the exception for ‘Criticism and review’ in UK copyright legislation. If you are the rightsholder for any material used in this blog and have concerns about its use, please contact


DiMartino and Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Animation. 2005.

Isayama, Hajime. Shingeki no Kyojin. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2009. Inkr. [Subscription needed] [date accessed 24/07/2022]

[ii] despacito11 and Tinseltopia. “Attack on Titan has now 7 episodes rated as 9.9 and above, more than any tv series. Breaking Bad has only 4.” Reddit, 26 Jan. 2021, [date accessed 09/07/2022].

[iii] I will be using the English name as opposed to the original Shingeki no Kyojin.

[iv]A note on terminology. For those unfamiliar, ‘anime’ is used when referring to animated visual media made in Japan and the associated style of animation. However, there is debate about whether something should be classed as ‘anime’ due its specific animation style, or simply because it has its origins in animation, or a mix of both. Likewise, ‘manga’ refers to Japanese comics and their associated style, and here too there is an ambiguity as to whether `manga’ refers to the particular style that a comic evokes or to its origins in the wider ‘manga’ tradition. For the purposes of my research, I shall be using these terms relatively loosely, to refer to works that can simply trace their origins back to anime or manga. This avoids ambiguity over media such as Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar), where there is some debate as to whether it is anime or not. Whilst it was not made in Japan, it does have several hallmarks of the style of anime. For more on this follow this link.

[v] Loo, Egan. “Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series: 2013.” Anime News Network, 1 Dec. 2013, [date accessed 28/06/2022].

[vi] Hodgkins, Crystalyn. “New York Times Manga Best Seller List, October 13-19.” Anime News Network, 29 Oct. 2013, [date accessed 28/06/2022].

[vii] Loo, Egan. “Attack on Titan Manga Celebrates 100 Million Copies With Giant Mural at NYC Madison Square Garden.” Anime News Network, 25 Dec. 2019, [date accessed 28/06/2022].

[viii] See e.g. TheTrueJapan. “The 30 Best Manga of All Time” The True Japan, 25 Dec. 2017, [date accessed 28/06/2022]; Poe, Arthur S. “100 Best Manga of All Time You Need to Read” Fiction Horizon, 21 May 2022, [date accessed 28/06/2022]; McMahon, Andrew. “Top 20 Most Popular Anime of All Time, Ranked” Twinfinite, 20 April 2022, [date accessed 28/06/2022] .

[ix] Freedman, Alisa, and Toslade. Introducing Japanese Popular Culture. London; New York, Ny: Routledge, An Imprint Of The Taylor & Francis Group (2018), p. 445.

[x] Luna, Kyle. “Nick’s ‘AVATAR’ Animation Series Finale Scores Big Ratings” Animation Insider, 23 July 2008, archived on 5 Jan. 2009, archived at [date accessed 29/06/2022].

[xi] See e.g. Scbyrnetda. “50 Best animated TV series of all time”, IMDb, 26 April 2011, [date accessed 29/06/2022]; and Saunders, Huw. “15 Best Animated Shows of All Time”, Cultured Vultures, 23 April 2021, [date accessed 29/06/2022].

[xii] “Award Search”, Peabody Awards [date accessed 29/06/2022].

[xiii] Chen and Oi. “Attack on Titan: a reclusive artist and his man-eating giants.” BBC, 19 October 2015, [date accessed 26/07/2022].

[xiv] Brinkhof, Tim. “NAZISM REPACKAGED? A CLOSER LOOK AT THE “FASCIST SUBTEXT” OF ‘ATTACK ON TITAN’.” pop matters, 18 March 2020, [date accessed 26/07/2022].

[xv] Singh, Tanveer. “Attack On Titan: 10 Sources That Influenced Creator Hajime Isayama”, Gamerant, 21 Feb. 2022, [date accessed 27/06/2022]. 

[xvi] Chen and Oi. “Attack on Titan: a reclusive artist and his man-eating giants.” BBC, 19 October 2015, [date accessed 26/07/2022].

[xvii] Speelman, Tom. “The fascist subtext of Attack on Titan can’t go overlooked”, Polygon, 18 Jun. 2019, [date accessed 26/07/2022].


[xix] Myers, Maddy. “Interview: Avatar: The Last Airbender Co-Creators on Writing Flawed Heroes and Smart Content for a Young Audience”, The Mary Sue, 7 Oct. 2015, [date accessed 26/07/2022].

War Stories: How women visualise Conflict, Displacement and Home in the Central African Republic

This guest post has been contributed by Pauline Zerla, a doctoral researcher in the department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research mostly focuses on peacebuilding, trauma and mental health in conflict, and veterans’ return from war. Prior to her doctoral studies, she spent a decade working on project design and management in fragile and conflict-affected states including the DRC, CAR, Nigeria, and Somalia.

‘Every day, we miss what we have lost.’

In Spring 2022, my colleague Miller Mokpidie and I travelled to Eastern Central African Republic (hereafter CAR) to learn how women see the impact of war on their lives and on their communities. We sat with three groups of women who had survived gender-based violence, were abducted by armed groups or had been recruited. Through body mapping and narrative interviews, we explored ways in which women visualise the impact of war on daily life in Central Africa. With our story-based methodology we hoped to engage with women’s experiences in a way that fostered respect and avoided re-traumatisation.

Body mapping offers a way to bring narratives of war to light. It describes a process of “creating life-size drawings that represent people’s identities within their social contexts (Skop, 2016). As a biographical tool,body maps can be used to show and tell a person’s life story and reflect on important relationships or memories (Coetzee, Roomaney, Willis, & Kagee, 2019). In research, they allow participants to actively “participate” in the process of narrative creation and they prevent the preconceptions and assumptions from directing discussions. As such, they work well as a participatory quali­tative research tool, so long as participants give their informed consent. The maps tell a story and simultaneously challenges those stories to be interpreted by participants and researchers through individual or group discussions.[i] This approach, anchored in narrative exploration, permits us richer understanding of human experiences and reminds us to see the world from other people’s point of view (Matthews, 2006). In this way, the project creates -through histories- a space for both scholarly and participative reflection on the collective and individual trauma brought on by war.

The discussions sparked by our body mapping exercises began the process for Miller and me to start understanding how these women have experienced and visualise war changing their everyday lives. In feminist research, the lived experiences of women have long been a focus of foundational research frameworks (Garko, 1999). Here, we hoped to enrich the still limited examination of women’s experiences in CAR through a focus on lived experiences and offering individual narratives as an essential source of knowledge for understanding war. We aimed to challenge more traditional and systemic conceptions of war, but we learned so much more. 

Narratives of place, of time, and of home

Individual stories are connected to the body and the place around it. Johanna Selimovic’s work has long established individual stories as sources of new knowledge. She considers place, body, and story as “conceptual vehicles used to understand how agency in the ordinary is played out and how ethical subjects emerge in shifting spaces and times” (Selimovic, 2019). 

Body mapping tends to bring to light findings that other research methods do not elicit. In the case of the women we talked to in CAR, it was the concept of home that came across most strongly: what home used to be, how it was experienced in the present, and how it could be rebuilt in future. Above all, we found war and home to be intertwined, in all sorts of shifting ways. For some women, war meant making a new life in a new place. For others, it meant reconciling what used to be with what was today and reconstructing ideas of home as a new space in the same place, as time passed and things changed. 

These ideas of spatial and temporal dislocation often underlie experiences of war, but are rarely brought to the surface in research. Another of the underlying themes that came through in our conversations around the body mapping was trauma, although it rarely was framed as such. When visualising and conceptualizing the traumas they had experienced, most women referred to loss and to the past. As the maps shared here suggest, the memories of what life used to be, where home used to be and how daily life was experienced since its loss remain salient and entwined with a sense of trauma. Above it is shown as the continual worry of providing for family and creating a home for them. Below, the map illustrates the shop one woman used to own as an aching reminder of the loss of, triggered every time she thought about her past life. Here, trauma is narrated through the memories of loss that their everyday lives now bring to the surface, loss of family, of safety, of rights such as education, and of belongings. 

Experiences of Return and Healing at all Costs

There was a distinct focus coming through conversations and drawings that invited us – the researchers – to discuss how to move forward and what these women’s hopes were for the future. Dealing with the past seemed to be a means of grappling with the uncertainties that the future might hold. 

On the one hand, war had often been experienced as displacement and, as such, a post-war future was understood or visualized by some women as a form of return, either to a prior time or space – or both. As this happened, the ‘blurry’ lines between war and peace and between safety and fear were constantly challenged. On the other hand, several participating women focused on the deep struggles they had gone through as refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and how in some ways refugee camps were worse than war at home. These two diverging but complementary narratives underpin they ways in which fighting every day to move forward and support their families made sense. 

For some it was about going back to what they had, and for some thinking through ways to move forward; but in every case, visualising war could not be separated from thinking in terms of time and space. It reminded us that there is no straight line between war and peace in Central Africa, that the two are intertwined in every place and at different times. 

These narratives represent just a sample of the ways in which war is still visualised in daily life, from the memories of people who have been lost, the homes that have been destroyed, the journeys victims have been forced to take, and the struggles their have encountered to make a life again. The stories that we heard reminded us that it is only through paying closer attention to how war is understood by those who live through it that we will fully grasp its implications. 


Coetzee, B., Roomaney, R., Willis, N., & Kagee, A. (2019). Body mapping in research.

Cronin-Furman, K., & Krystalli, R. (2021). The things they carry: Victims’ documentation of forced disappearance in Colombia and Sri Lanka. European Journal of International Relations27(1), 79-101.

Garko, M. G. (1999). Existential phenomenology and feminist research: The exploration and exposition of women’s lived experiences. Psychology of Women Quarterly23(1), 167-175.

Matthews, E. (2006). Merleau-Ponty: A guide for the perplexed. A&C Black.

Selimovic, J. M. (2019). Everyday agency and transformation: Place, body and story in the divided city. Cooperation and Conflict54(2), 131-148.

Skop, M. (2016). The art of body mapping: A methodological guide for social work researchers. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work28(4), 29-43.

[i] In CAR, we conducted group discussions after asking participants what they would prefer to take part in. In different contexts, body maps can be used as a public narrative illustration. In CAR, however, these were created as part of the research process and therefore remained anonymous and confidential.

Women, War and Displacement in Antiquity

As part of the Visualising War project’s research into the ripple effects of conflict, we are exploring how different art forms have visualised the rupture, loss and trauma of forced displacement. Undergraduate Research Assistant Holly Axford has been looking particularly at ancient narratives of displacement, and in this blog she writes about the representation of women displaced by war in Ancient Greek epic and tragedy. You can read another blog by Holly on ancient experiences of migration here.

‘By means of such genres as theatre, including puppetry and shadow theatre, dance drama, and professional story-telling, performances are presented which probe a community’s weaknesses, call its leaders to account, desacralize its most cherished values and beliefs, portray its characteristic conflicts and suggests remedies for them, and generally take stock of its current situation in the known ‘world.”[i]
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre

When we think of the consequences of war in the ancient Greek world, the first thing to come to mind may be the touching, yet to some, gilded, accounts of heroic death in battle of The Iliad; or perhaps the cruel fate of Astyanax, son of Hector, whom the Greeks would not allow to grow up and seek revenge for his father. Yet, for half of the population of plundered cities like Troy, the termination of conflict was only the mark of a new chapter in their suffering. Women who saw their communities defeated in war became the captives, the possessions, of the victors. Displaced from their homelands, isolated and vulnerable to exploitation, the experiences of these women were something that ancient writers were well aware of. 

The Iliad, otherwise a powerful epic of martial glory, displays a clear recognition of the consequences of war for its female characters, while Athenian tragedy went even further in bringing these same women centre stage. The emotive resonance of their stories across the ancient world is clear, but they have also continued to speak to us in the present, where Euripides’s Trojan Women, in particular, has frequently resurfaced in light of contemporary parallels.

The Displacement of Women in Ancient Texts

Immortalised in The Iliad are the glory-driven exploits of its male warriors, culminating in the death of Hector, defender of Troy and its inhabitants, at the hands of Achilles. The pathos of this scene alone, as the poem’s climactic moment, is substantial, but it is significant that the audience is unable to separate Hector’s desire for glory and remembrance from the fates of his dependents. 

‘Hector and Andromache’ by Giovanni Maria Benzoni (1871)

During the meeting of Hector and his wife, Andromache, at the Schaean gates, suspended between the two worlds of battle and domesticity, Andromache makes it clear to both Hector and the poem’s audience that he is her only source of protection. In her emotive and highly persuasive speech, Andromache makes use of what J. T. Kakridis has termed the ‘ascending scale of affections’.[ii] She reminds Hector that she has ‘no father, no honoured mother’ (6.413), and goes on to recount the events of her family’s deaths, before eventually claiming: ‘Hector, thus you are father to me, and my honoured mother, you are my brother, and it is you who are my young husband’ (6.429-30).[iii] In doing so, Andromache distances herself from her blood relatives and, consequently, stresses her complete reliance on Hector. 

It is made clear that, should Hector fall, Andromache will be taken as a slave to ‘work at the loom of another’ far away from Troy (6.456). An acknowledgement of this fate is therefore a necessity. Rebecca Muich, in her study of Andromache’s laments, has argued that Andromache ‘demands Hector view the situation from the perspective within the oikos, rather than without’.[iv] In this way, then, Andromache’s speech here, in addition to the poem’s concluding laments for Hector, provide an alternative vantage point from which to view the war. The poem’s main battle narrative plays out parallel to an awareness of the fates awaiting the women of Troy, confronting the consequences of war beyond the temporal scope of the narrative.

Athenian tragedy takes up these same threads and weaves them into focused and full accounts of women’s displacement.[v]  Euripides’ Trojan Women – which one scholar has termed ‘an unrelenting portrait of suffering’ – is a key example of this.[vi] What makes Trojan Women such a powerful text, in my opinion, is that, albeit within its own limited context, the play allows for individualised expressions of displacement and its consequences. 

Theatre Sewanee’s ‘Hecuba’, University of the South

‘Alas! Who shall have me, a miserable hag, for his slave? Where, where on earth shall I go, poor old decrepit Hecabe, resembling one dead, the shadowy image of a corpse? Oh, the thought of it! Shall I be set to keep watch at some doorway or given charge over children, I, who reigned as queen in Troy?’ (190-196)[vii]

Here, Hecabe’s reflection on her present circumstances is heavily coloured by her individual previous status and experiences. Stressing her own weakness, she wonders what her role will be as an elderly woman, and now a slave, in a foreign land. This highlights how a variety of personal factors, age being one example, could have influenced how women experienced displacement. Earlier, Hecabe asks ‘should I not lament when my homeland, my children, my husband are no more?’ (107-108). Her sorrow, here, comes not just from the toil and suffering of her new slave-status, but is equally the result of her separation from the world and the people whom she has always known. Displaced from the destroyed city of Troy, Hecabe seems to have lost the sense of identity which her homeland granted. With her children dead or, like her, prisoners of the Greeks, Hecabe can no longer fulfil her duty to the daughters who she ‘raised in purity to grace the arms of no common husbands’ (485). Taken from her expected role, Hecabe is displaced from the social fabric with which she is familiar. It is this sense of alienation as a consequence of warfare, just as much as the immediacy of death and the threat of sexual violence, which forms the heart of her lament. 

Alongside Hecabe’s experiences, the play also explores the consequences of war for young women, mainly through its presentation of the disruption or the absence of marriage. The Trojan princess Cassandra’s perverted celebration, after being claimed as the prize of the Greek king Agamemnon, as she instructs her mother and the chorus to ‘deck my head with garlands and rejoice in my royal marriage!’ (352-353), only serves to draw more attention to the absence of this ritual within their new status as slaves and concubines.[viii] Polyxena, the youngest daughter of Hecabe and Priam, is sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles and denied this rite of passage altogether (622-623). For these women and others like them, the impact of war is not only a physical displacement from their homeland, but also their displacement from normal social rituals and institutions. 

In the play, Andromache goes so far as to claim that Polyxena’s death is a ‘kinder fate’ than hers (631). As with Hecabe, it appears that Andromache considers her displacement to be a greater source of sorrow even than death – because it robs her of both identity and rights, of all that ‘home’ had made her and of control over her life. A striking feature of Andromache’s narrative is its depiction of the precarious nature of her new position following this displacement from home and family. She is removed from the protection of normal and familiar social networks, and consequently becomes wholly reliant for her safety on her captor and master, leading Hecabe to advise her to ‘honour your new lord and…offer him the enticement of your winning ways’ (698-700). Her lack of security becomes an even more prominent theme in another play of Euripides’, Andromache, which depicts her vulnerability as a slave and foreigner without connections to the spiteful attacks of Hermione.[ix]

Suspended between the destroyed city of Troy, which nonetheless continues to exercise a powerful hold over the play’s imagination, and their new, scattered homes, the Trojan women are shown to exist in a stasis which reflects their lack of personal agency. Yet, within the confines of the play, the experiences of these women are given a voice.

Why Trojan Women?

That Euripides’ Trojan Women offers a sympathetic and impactful account of women’s experiences of war and displacement is clear. But we might now wonder why this story – a story of ‘barbarian’ women – seems to have resonated so strongly with a fifth-century Athenian audience. 

This blog post began with a quote from Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre. Here, Turner suggests that dramatic performance can provide a framework for interrogating the issues which a community is presently facing, and at the same time allowing for a reflection on its own identity. This can be used to guide our understanding of Trojan Women

The play has often been viewed within the context of the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, in the same year that it was produced, the city of Melos was sacked by Athenian forces, its men killed and its women and children enslaved.[x] Given these apparent historical parallels, it might be possible to interpret the play’s narrative as a direct engagement with contemporary events. Some scholars have gone so far as to identify Euripides as a pacifist, and the play as an anti-war tract in light of Athenian military atrocities.[xi] Whether or not these parallels were the deliberate aim of its author, it seems reasonable to suppose that the play’s audiences would have called to mind the conflict in which they were presently playing a part.[xii] Trojan Women, then, may or may not have been tied to a specific historical moment in Athenian history, offering its own perspective on current political decision-making.

But even more strikingly than this, the play leads its audience to reflect on the universality of the experiences which it depicts. As a result of its emotive portrayal, an Athenian audience comes to sympathise with the suffering of defeated victims.[xiii] Might the play have encouraged Athenians to think upon the possibility of themselves facing the same fate in the future, to some extent at least? What Trojan Women speaks to is not simply the ability of an author but also the willingness of audiences to recognise the suffering and the humanity of those outside their own community. Casey Duéhas undertaken a comparison between the play and modern US media coverage of the Iraq War. She notes that, while much US media coverage spoke to real, human experiences, they were from an almost exclusively western perspective.[xiv] Trojan Women, on the other hand, offers a narrative of war from the perspective of the defeated female ‘other’, instead of the victor.[xv] The audience is confronted with the reality that the death of soldiers in battle is not the only consequence of warfare. The displacement which survivors of war experience is treated equally, if not more so, as a source of sorrow and reflection, and is shown to have a drastically destabilising effect on the identity and cohesion of a community. 

The Trojan Women of Today

The consequences of war and displacement for women, as expressed by the Trojan women of Euripides, are in no way relics of an ancient past. The extent to which this story still speaks to present-day experiences is evidenced by the numerous adaptations of Euripides’ play. Euripides’ Trojan Women reaches out to us across two millennia, prompting discussion and reflection on those features of displacement which are experienced most frequently by women.

One such adaptation is the Trojan Women Project. The work of filmmakers Charlotte Eager and William Stirling, alongside Syrian director Omar Abu Sada, it first brought together in a series of workshops a group of Syrian women displaced from their homeland and residing in Jordan. In what one reviewer of the opening UK performance termed ‘the most urgent work on the London stage’, the resulting production was a powerful and incredibly moving account of these women’s ordeals. Reworking the original play of Euripides to incorporate these experiences, the story of the Trojan women acts as a familiar and understandable framework from which to convey individual accounts of displacement to a wider audience.[xvi] The play is able to strike a balance between communal suffering and unique perspective; at one point in the performance, the mutual experience of the actors is stressed as they speak and step forward in unison. At other times, one individual is the clear focus, seated at the front of the stage as she tells her own story. In this way, dramatic performance becomes a tool for encouraging a sense of community, which the audience may also find themselves drawn into, without assuming one single refugee experience or painting ‘the refugee’ as a single, homogenous identity. 

Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu situates the story of Euripides’ Trojan Women in a real-life historical context. First performed in 2004 after being commissioned by the Chipping Norton Theatre, its narrative occurs following the sack of the city of Owu, in what is now Nigeria, by the two kingdoms of Ijebu and Ife after a seven-year siege. Its temporal continuities, however, go even further. A note on the play’s origins, given at the beginning of the published script, also refers to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US led ‘Allied Forces’ – the same term which is used in the play to refer to the besieging army.[xvii] Apparently seeking to liberate Owu from tyranny, the victors’ motivations are undermined by the female chorus, one of whom highlights the violent actuality of this supposed liberation as she states: ‘after your liberation, here we are, with our spirits broken and our faces swollen’.[xviii] Nor does Osofisan shy away from acknowledging the sexual violence which the women are now at risk of.[xix] In the opening scene, the audience is directly confronted with this reality as one woman remembers how ‘our women were seized and shared out among the blood-splattered troops to spend the night’.[xx] With this, and its sense of temporal continuity, the play makes clear that the consequences of war are, for those who are most vulnerable, comparable across time. 

Further Questions

The fate of the Trojan Women is a poignant tale of loss and displacement as a result of conflict. It gives voice to the experiences of women in the ancient world, so often ignored, and yet strikingly, when these women do speak it is the family, home and community identity they leave behind which forms the focus of their laments.[xxi] As Euripides and others interpreted the story of the Trojan Women against a backdrop of fifth century BCE warfare, it may now be used to reflect upon modern experiences of displacement and the ways in which we communicate those experiences. 

  1. Would you argue that Euripides is writing a ‘pacifist’ play?
  2. What are the possible differences between the fates of the Trojan Women and modern experiences of displacement?
  3. How and to what extent are individual experiences of displacement reflected in modern media?

[i] Victor Turner, From ritual to theatre: the human seriousness of play (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982), 11. 

[ii] Marilyn Arthur, ‘The Divided World of Iliad VI’, Women’s Studies 8 (1981), 29.

[iii] Quotations from Homer, The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[iv] Rebecca Muich, ‘Focalisation and Embedded Speech in Andromache’s Iliadic Laments’, Illinois Classical Studies 35 (2011), 10.

[v] Laura Slatkin, ‘Notes on Tragic Visualizing in the Iliad’ in Chris Kraus, Simon Goldhill, Helene P. Foley and Jas Elsner (eds), Visualizing the tragic: drama, myth, and ritual in Greek art and literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 29.

[vi] Casey Dué, The captive woman’s lament in Greek tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 136.

[vii] Quotations from Euripides, Electra and Other Plays, trans. John Davie (London: Penguin Books, 2004). 

[viii] Dué, 145.

[ix] Dué, 151.

[x] Dué, 148.

[xi] N. T. Croally, Euripidean polemic: The Trojan Women and the function of tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 232.

[xii] Croally, 234.

[xiii] Dué, 166.

[xiv] Dué, 166-167. 

[xv] It is not unique in this perspective as an ancient Greek play: Aeschylus’ play The Persians also looked at conflict and its impacts from the perspective of people whom the Greeks had been fighting.

[xvi] P. Eberwine, ‘Music for the wretched: Euripides’ Trojan Women as refugee theatre’, Classical Receptions Journal 11 (2019), 200.

[xvii] Femi Osofisan, Women of Owu (Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press PLC, 2006), vii.

[xviii] Osofisan12.

[xix] Olakunbi Olasope, ‘Lament as women’s speech in Femi Osofisan’s Adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women: Women of Owu’, Textus 30 (2017), 111.

[xx] Osofisan, 3.

[xxi] Readers might also be interested in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, which rework Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of displaced women.

Student team launches a virtual Museum of Peace

A lot of museum space has been dedicated to war. Libraries and bookshops contain countless volumes of military history. Most of us can think of multiple war films. There are well-established traditions of war reporting and conflict photography. Peace, on the other hand… 

We talk a lot less about peace. We aspire to peace, we idealise it – but we don’t spend as much time exploring and reflecting on it as we do with war. As a result, our habits of visualising peace are often limited to simple clichés and well-worn tropes. To images of doves or UN peace-keepers, to metaphors of friendship or seed-sowing. These images and metaphors have value and power. But they can also limit our understanding of peace, which is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that is experienced and conceived very differently from one context to another. And if our understanding of ‘peace’ is limited, so is our ability to build or sustain it. 

Over the past few months a team of students at St Andrews University – led by Dr Alice König – has been working on a Vertically Integrated Project called ‘Visualising Peace’.[i] Their goal has been to research and stretch habits of imagining, understanding, representing and working towards peace, to generate more conversation and deepen understanding. As committed ‘citizen scholars’, they wanted to move beyond the narrow sphere of academia and curate a resource that was accessible to everyone. So they came up with the idea of a virtual Museum of Peace.

Together, they collected examples of many different ways of visualising peace, in lots of different contexts, and from antiquity to the present day: inner peace, local peace, global peace, cyber peace. Each entry represents an individual visualisation of peace that transcends the symbols and assumptions we traditionally associate with it. Covering the whole spectrum from conflict-resolution to peace-building to peace-keeping and peace-beyond-conflict, they push us to rethink long-held views and to consider concepts that tend to be overlooked, such as what peace in outer space might look like or involve.  

Their aim is not to promote any one particular vision of peace. Rather, they want to encourage exploration of the diversity of ways in which it can be felt, understood, imagined, narrated, envisioned, embodied, created and sustained. Their emphasis on individual interpretations and actualisations of peace seeks to demonstrate that peace-building is not limited to governments, international forums, or large-scale non-governmental organizations. As many of the museum entries underline, even the smallest individual initiatives and actions can have profound impacts. 

Above all, the goal of the museum is not only to prompt critical reflection on existing habits of conceptualising peace, their gaps and shortfalls, and their real-world impacts. It is also to spark broader conversations with the wider public about what peace ‘looks like’ to each of us; where it can be found, how it can be promoted, how it gets represented, and what sustainable and inclusive peace-making and peace-keeping actually involve. Talking about different manifestations of peace is an important step in empowering everyone to play a part in fostering it, no matter who they are or where they come from. 

‘Peace’ is a seemingly simple concept.

But how would you define it?

The Visualising Peace team is keen to hear what you think. Once you have visited the museum, please consider filling in their feedback form. And if you have any suggestions for other visualisations of peace to include in the museum, do let them know!

[i] This project is an off-shoot of the Visualising War project. You can catch up with the project’s podcast, which has lots of episodes on peace and peace-building, here. You can read more about the Visualising Peace student team and their wider work here.