Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

20 Semiologies of Subjugation: The Ritualisation
of War-Prisoners in Later European Antiquity

Nine dogs had the prince, that fed beneath his table,
and of these Achilles cut the throats of twain, and
cast them upon the pyre and twelve valiant sons of
the great-souled Trojans slew he with the bronze –
and grim was the work he purposed in his heart –
and thereto he set the iron might of fire, to range at
large. Then he uttered a groan, and called on his dear
comrade by name: ‘Hail, I bid thee, O Patroclus,
even in the house of Hades, for now am I bringing
all to pass, which aforetime I promised thee. Twelve
valiant sons of the great-souled Trojans, lo all these
together with thee the flame devoureth.
(Homer Iliad XXIII: lines 175–84; trans. Murray 1963: 507–509)

MIRANDA ALDHOUSE-GREEN

Ancient Greek literature is rich in references to the treatment of high-ranking prisoners-of-war, treatment that on occasion took the form of sacrificial killing in the context of aversion or reprisal rituals. The quotation above relates to a composite act of honour and revenge by Achilles in the extremity of his grief at the death of Patroclus, his close comradein-arms. He was a warrior of high status whose death could only be avenged by the retaliatory killing of equally noble prisoners. Furthermore, honour could be satisfied and compensation deemed acceptable only if the reprisal killing involved several deaths in payment for the one. The passage illustrates well the essential ambiguity with which foreign prisoners-ofwar could be regarded in antiquity. Their high rank might be acknowledged in their selection as appropriate offerings in ritual acts of reciprocity and substitution. However, their lesser worth, as outsiders, foreigners and vanquished enemies, is reflected in the perceived necessity of sacrificing several lives as compensation for one.

Issues concerning attitudes to prisoners-of-war possess a strong pulse of contemporary resonance in the emotive images of Taliban prisoners captured during the war in Afghanistan, following the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and disseminated in media coverage throughout the world. These captives, suspected of Al Qaeda involvement in international terrorism, have been treated in a manner that combines the perceived need for high security with a heavily ritualised attitude, on the part of the US government and military. Such treatment is associated with what is presented as deliberate humiliation, de-humanisation and denial of identity. In addition to their transportation from Afghanistan on a twenty-six-hour flight to the military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, if we are to believe the reports available to us (for example in the BBC 10.00 news January 15, 2002; Purves 2002: 14), the detention of these prisoners involves shackling and solitary confinement in ‘cages’ with open-mesh walls, so that they can be seen by their captors at all times. Graphic pictures display kneeling captives, hooded or blindfolded, wearing red uniforms and ear-protectors. The description of the removal of their beards (this last a direct contravention of Afghani Islamic religious tradition), seems to reflect attitudes of extreme hostility, fear, contempt and denial of basic human rights that resonate alarmingly with past military approaches to foreign prisoners.

Similarly, records of experiences during the Second world War speak of the totality of the prisoner-ofwar experience: capture, the journey towards the prison-camp, interrogation, were all perceived as rites

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