09.11.12 - 30.01.2013
Rue Verdaine 6, CH - 1204 Genève
Ancient Arms and Armor
Millennia before history ever recorded a military victory or defeat, arms and armor played a primary role in the success or failure of human groups, societies, and civilizations. It is Homer’s Iliad, dating to the 8th century B.C., which provides us with one of the earliest surviving accounts of ancient warfare, and the warriors that made it possible. Not a glorification of war, the epic poem celebrates the martial prowess and exploits of prominent Greek and Trojan heroes while portraying the human suffering caused by such encounters. Ares, the god of war, is rebuked by Zeus as the most hateful of the gods, to whom strife and wars are forever dear (Iliad 5.890). Thus, as Homer demonstrates throughout this literary work, and as his ancient Greek audience believed, the armed conflicts of humankind were viewed as ultimately determined by the gods. However, well-designed and cutting edge arms and armor, as well as military strategies, were primarily the realm of men and could tip the scales in favor of victory. In antiquity warfare shaped the institutions, society, and economy of their world, while a warrior’s military function was often closely related to his social and political status. Although war became part of the fabric of society, equal with disasters of nature such as earthquakes, storms, or droughts, the destruction it brought received constant emphasis in ancient literature.
The various cultures represented by the arms and armor in this exhibition – Greek, Italic, Scythian, Urartian, Assyrian, Roman, Sassanian – although diverse and separated by time and place, all share in the darker aspects of the human psyche and behavior that leads to warfare and its results. Uplifting for the human spirit, these fascinating objects associated with war and sacrifice are made and embellished in a manner that illustrates a theme of cross-cultural artistic as well as martial abilities. The zoomorphic decoration on many of the objects, consisting primarily of lions, bulls, and horses, but also including snakes, a boar, dolphins, and dogs, speaks for ancient beliefs in the power of these animals noted for their physical strength or apotropaic qualities, both of which were viewed as crucial for survival in conflict and victory over the opposition.
Since success in war was ultimately ascribed to divine favor, it was commemorated in sanctuaries through dedications and offerings of thanks which included enemy spoils and captured weapons. The many votive helmets, shields, and greaves found at Olympia – for a thousand years the site of the ancient Olympic games – testify to the victories of their donors and also emphasizes the correlation between military success and the physical fitness of athletes. The armaments dedicated at Olympia and at many other ancient sanctuary sites are almost certainly from actual battles – they attest to the intimate relationship between the realm of the gods and warfare in the world of humankind. The civilizations of antiquity were likely no more bellicose than those of our own time and they too were aware of its consequences, as Herodotus (Histories 1.87.4) points out, No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace children bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their children.