[Image: a Roman soldier in the Colosseum, ©2016]
What can the ancient world make us think about our own lives today?
As scholars are so fond of telling us, the greatest military machine in history is none other than the army of ancient Rome. This project provides a space in which to locate and explore parallels between ancient military service and the twenty-first century soldier, with a particular focus on attitudes to the soldierly body.
The title, The Roman Soldier in Afghanistan, is inspired by work such as Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, the BBC’s “Odysseus in Kabul”, and Stephan Chrissanthos’ “Aeneas in Iraq: comparing the Roman and modern battle experience.”
The focus of the project is not necessarily to discuss how the present-day Roman army functions in the Middle East, nor to discuss how the ancient Roman army might have done the same. See the Why Afghanistan? page for more detail. Rather, to unearth similarities and discrepancies evident in accounts of ancient military service, compared with modern discourse. In particular, I aim to expose and explore the use of ‘bio-technology’ (humans and weapons, humans as weapons) in warfare.
Despite new technological interventions, which emphasise post-human methods of destruction, the rhetoric of military activity in the twenty-first century is still emphatically ‘peopled’.
Help your heroes. Get boots on the ground. Friendly fire.
This strange facet of military discourse both highlights the human sacrifices involved in warfare and attempts to disguise it, evoking empathy and social support in the process. Perhaps these terms also provoke fear, as people relate their own physical and emotional existence to the armed forces. At the same time, however, certain linguistic codes remove or subvert the acknowledgement of ‘the human’ from strategic dialogue.
Fallout. Collateral damage. Neutralised.
The most harrowing are those terms which allude to the ‘machinic’ nature of military functioning; this ‘machinism’ manifests itself in the comportment, and eradication of certain citizen freedoms, required upon enlistment. Hence, the relevance of a comparison with Roman war-making. The discipline of the Roman army, and the scale of their citizen recruitment, facilitated the manufacturing of the largest and most ruthless army in the ancient world. Their skill made them virtually undefeatable.
In this project, I explore the depiction of the individual soldier and soldierly bodies in Roman military discourse in comparison with analogous sources today. This approach builds on similar projects (such as Visualising War at the University of St Andrews), with a view to producing academic and artistic outputs for public impact. All images are my own.