What a declaration of war can tell us about an ancient society | by Erik Brown | Jul 2022


An explanation of law, religion and culture in one act

Roosevelt “Infamy Day Speech” 1941 – By Harris & Ewing Via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

WhetherWhether you’ve spent time studying history, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is about war. In many ways, it must be. The event is usually a major inflection point in a society, marking the downfall of some and the expansion of others. But there is much more than that.

While most get bogged down in dates, place names, tactics, and results of the war, something important is missed. In particular, how a war begins. Each culture has its own specific way of “declaring war”.

It might not seem like a big deal at first, but the method of reporting tells you a lot about a civilization and what it values.

  • Their laws: what legal precedence has civilization promulgated before deciding to engage in combat?
  • Their religion: what ceremonies – if any – had to be performed before blood could be spilled
  • Their culture: communication tools can say a lot about the organization of civilization

For example, Franklin Roosevelt called September 7, 1941 “a day that would live in infamy.” But he also asked that the declaration of war before the Congress of his country be voted on. It was also filmed and broadcast on the radio. So what does this tell us?

  • In 1941, the United States showed the biggest picture of a republic – FDR didn’t just declare war himself.
  • Civilization had reached the age of mass media and the message could be broadcast through television and radio.
  • In his speech, the president specifically mentions “God.” Although religious justifications do not appear to be necessary for a dispute, they are handled by the highest government official. Therefore, religion is still an important part of society.

Obviously WWII was not that far away and we have plenty of media references to guide my assumptions about the society of the time. But everything is present in the statement. Just watching the video or reading the transcript can tell you a lot.

We can also apply this idea to much older cultures. But before we do, let’s look at how some notable civilizations have declared wars.

While the name Spartan evokes muscular warriors eager to fight, you see something a little different in their method of declaring war. Namely, it was neither quick nor easy.

Invicta’s documentary on Sparta shows a society with countless obstacles and choke points to declare war.

One imagines that a king would have the power to declare war in ancient times. However, it was not so in Sparta. They had two kings, but even these monarchs had to take steps to raise an army. The assemblies had to be conquered.

Sparta’s real power lay in a council of five ephors, who were magistrates elected annually and decided day-to-day affairs. This group would call in the army and supervise it. The war could not take place without their approval.

There was also a council of elders or Gerousia. Either the Ephors or the Gerousia presented a proposal to the Apella or the Citizens’ Assembly for a vote. Only then could war be declared, even if it was not the end.

The gods were also consulted, especially the Oracle of Delphi. Often lesser sacrifices were made to examine the will of the deities as well. Moreover, the war could not be fought during religious holidays (by the way, there were a lot of them.)

So any of the many councils could shoot down or delay the idea, plus even the gods themselves. No wonder they missed the Battle of Marathon.

Photo by Flash Dantz on Unsplash

The Romans had an elaborate ceremony for a declaration of war. This extended from when they had a monarchy and involved sending a herald to a foreign land. According to Livy:

“The [Roman] When he arrives at the border of the offending nation, he covers his head with a net of wool and says: Listen, O Jupiter, and listen to your lands _____ [i.e., of such and such a nation], let Justice hear! I am the public messenger of the Roman people. Justly and religiously I come, and do honor to my words! Then he makes his requests and continues with a solemn appeal to Jupiter. If I demand unjustly and impiously that these men and these goods [in question] give it to me, herald of the Roman people, then do not allow me to enjoy my country any longer!

The herald repeats it as he crosses the earth. Also, to the first person he meets. Once again when passing through the town or village gates, then once again when entering the market.

If the conditions were not met within thirty days, the herald called on the gods and founders of Rome to bear witness to the injustice. Subsequently, the failure was reported to the Senate, and each member asked specifically what the response should be.

If war was chosen, a Roman priest called a fetialis throws a javelin into enemy territory announcing a war.

Similarly, Alexander the Great held a ceremony before his war with Persia by driving a spear into the earth from foreign soil. By this action, Zeus sanctioned a land to be conquered. Additionally, he performs other actions to justify his invasion to the gods.

According to Norse mythology, the chief god Odin led his tribe of deities (Aesir) against another called Vanir. In battle, he threw his spear at the enemies and shouted: “Óðinn á yðr alla!” Which means Odin owns you all.

In tribute, the Germanic and Norse armies threw their spears at an enemy and announced that Odin possessed them. This served the dual purpose of sacrificing enemies to their god and justifying the death and torture inflicted.

“Where can you run to? What route will you take to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like lightning, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not hold us back, nor will weapons stop us. Your prayers to God will be useless against us. We are not moved by tears nor moved by lamentations. Only those who cry out for our protection will be safe.

— The Great Khan to Qutuz the Mamluk (1260)

Strangely, the Mongols were likely to write you a letter in preparation for war. They even had their own postal service called the Yām. Riders of this pre-medieval express pony could travel more than a hundred miles a day across the empire.

While many might consider Genghis Kahn an outback barbarian, he created a written language for his people. The Mongols took an Uyghur script and modified it. They turned the original text from horizontal to vertical and read it from left to right, making it their own.

Imperial seal of Güyük Khan in a letter to Pope Innocent IV, 1246 – Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Letters with this strange text traveled to the Caliph of Baghdad, the kings of Europe and even the pope. Most of them promise destruction without submission. In other words, a letter from a Kahn never brightened your day.

The wampum was perhaps the greatest tool of diplomacy for the native tribes of North America. It was a leather belt or strap filled with beads made from shells. They could be ornate, show different colors and create images.

According to Wilbur R. Jacobs in his journal article Wampum: the protocol of Indian diplomacyit served several purposes.

  • It worked like a form of currency
  • Belts or straps could demonstrate identifying information
  • The designs on the wampum could be read as a language; even indicating the roads the parties were free to travel or the territory to cross
  • They worked as treaty registers
  • Each diplomatic message sent between tribes required a wampum

Jacobs explains that beads or “grains” were so valuable and necessary that tribes traveled up to 1,000 kilometers to coastal areas to trade beads. The British also bought a lot of them. They even hired natives to make belts for them to communicate diplomatically with the local tribes.

Wampum also worked as a declaration of war by painting the beads red. If the belt presented was returned, it meant that a request was not granted and war was likely.

Sparta was ruled by a small minority which presided over a large population of helots or slaves. As it was, it may not be best to leave the house. You never know what a nation of angry helots might do when the army watching over them leaves. Additionally, high casualties leave fewer Spartans to repel revolts.

It is therefore not surprising that going to war and leaving their borders took effort.

As for the Romans, their method was highly ritualistic, rebuking the gods. But it also maintained the power of the republic and allowed an adversary to submit before there was bloodshed.

Alexander the Great, like the Romans, used a spear in a ceremony to clear his conquest of Persia by Zeus. So you can see the importance of religion in this culture. The conqueror used it not only as a weapon but as a unifier for his new multicultural empire.

Similarly, Norse and Germanic tribes used their deity as a weapon – in the form of a spear – to justify their treatment of enemies in times of war.

The Mongols’ use of letters demonstrates a conversion from tribal nomads to a literate world empire with its own method of advanced communication network via horseback messenger.

On the other hand, although North American tribes did not have a written language, they transmitted declarations of war through a method of communication through beads. It demonstrates a common culture and value system that spreads through people with a different spoken language.

Although the war plays an important role in the story, don’t just get bogged down in dates, tactics, and results. Look how war was declared. This can tell you a lot about how the society involved works, especially for losers. That may be all that’s left.


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