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Oath, Vows and the Conduct of War

By Ian Plant

Oaths, Vows and the Conduct of War in Ancient Greece

Oaths were a vital part of the social conventions that underpinned the conduct of war in ancient Greece. The gods were an important party in such oaths. In making an oath, a person called upon gods and goddesses as witnesses to oversee the fulfilment of the promise that was being made. The oath included an explicit or implicit punishment enforced by a god if the promise were not kept. Fundamental to the making of such an oath was a ritual sacrifice that included acknowledgement of the gods in the act being undertaken as well as the gift of the sacrifice itself.

In a military context, vows were important too. A vow was, like the oath, also a type of promise made to a god or a number of gods. Vows in a military context were made by individuals, by armies, or by city-states. Like the oath, the vow was predicated on belief in the gods; the ubiquity of the vow demonstrates a widespread belief in the efficacy of such a prayer accompanied by a gift to be given to a god to gain his or her good will.

Homer provides an example of a vow: Hom. Il. 3.298-301.

Zeus, most glorious and great, and the other immortal gods: whoever are first to break their oaths, may their brains be poured onto the ground just as this wine is – theirs and their children’s, and may their wives become other men’s women.

Have you come across a good example of an oath or vow in a military context? Do you have any examples of gods taking action in retaliation for a broken oath? Or maybe supporting someone because of their vow?

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Ian Plant

Dr Ian Plant is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Ancient History, Division of Humanities. He studied Classics (including Ancient Greek and Latin) and Ancient History at the University of Canterbury, where he completed his doctoral studies under the supervision of Dr Katherine Adshead and Professor Kevin Lee. He taught at the University of Western Australia before taking up the post at Macquarie.