Images of War: Art and Violence in the Ancient World
War is both historically common in human experience and yet often alien and strange. Hence its frequent depiction. Among the oldest surviving images of war is the ancient Egyptian “Battlefield Palette” (3,330 BCE). Across its several fragments we see a procession of prisoners, bound and stripped off their clothing; a centrally placed lion (possibly representing the conquering Pharaoh) feasting on corpses, along with birds of prey; and on the reverse, an edenic garden—the eternal, organized, peace that balances brutal violence. Working usually at the behest of a kingly warrior class, ancient artisans crafted images of war to mark and celebrate military victory, illustrating martial prowess and signifying the right to rule. Yet, frankly gory, ancient images of war also register human terror, misery, and personality—engendering, and answering to, our sympathy and fascination. Did ancient artisans work from a conception of “realism”? What did they choose to represent, and what did they feel compelled to avoid? How did images of war work within the ideological contours of warrior class society, and how did they contribute to cohesion within the domestic polity and recognition beyond it? To borrow from Susan Sontag, how, if at all, did the ancients “regard the pain of others”?
In this course, we will traverse the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean ancient world to explore representations of battle, valor, conquest, and destruction (consulting, along the way, contemporary accounts of war and its aftermath), asking: How can we understand the ancient material culture of war? How did war, and its representation, figure politically, socially, and psychologically, in ancient civilization? What’s strange, and what’s recognizable, in ancient martial imagery? How do they correspond to modern military visualization, interpretation, and memorialization? The depictions we will see and voices we will hear will be those of the victors; one of our aims will be to see if and how we can construct the agency of the victims and the defeated. As Jacques Ranciére asks “Are Some Things Unrepresentable,” we will examine what the ancients might have deemed “unrepresentable” and how they navigated political, religious, and social taboos and censures. And we will explore the modern reception of ancient images of war, many of which were excavated, classified, and re-housed in the age of European colonial military adventurism. How have ancient war depictions contributed to Orientalist othering and our conceptions of barbarism and “Eastern” despotism? And how is ancient war imagery recycled and assimilated into modern military myth-making and visualization today? In addition to examining period imagery and primary sources, we will read from works by Irene Winter, Zainab Bahrani, James Young, Walter Benjamin, and James Elkins, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 31 — February 21, 2024