How Wars Begin: The View from Ancient Greece

Explaining why wars begin is an urgent question for a lot of people: if we knew how they started, maybe we’d figure out how to stop them. It is also an important question for a lot of writers. Many works of fantasy literature are set in times of war, and even if the main characters don’t know or understand how it all started, in order to build the world around the story effectively, the author should have some idea of how and why it began.

Greek vase showing hoplites fighting

In European literature, interest in the causes of wars goes back as far as the literary tradition itself. The first major work of literature written down in the West, the Iliad, is about characters caught in the midst of a war whose origins are so remote as to be beyond human knowledge. Much of the tragedy of the Trojan War myths comes from seeing how people suffer because of the capricious rivalries of the gods. Many other stories of Greek mythology have to do with the causes of war, such as the legends of the “Seven Against Thebes,” which follows the tragic fortunes of Oedipus’ family as they suffer the consequences of his rash and misguided actions as a young man. Works grounded in mythology tend to place the causes of wars in the hands of individuals, whether human, divine, or in between. The mischievous spite of Eris caused the Trojan War, and Oedipus’ hotheadedness embroiled generations of his family in conflicts around Thebes. Many Greeks were happy to apply this same kind of mythical thinking to their own history: the playwright Aeschylus’ account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480, The Persians, focuses on Xerxes’ personal arrogance and irresponsibility.

Early historians shifted their focus away from the personal to look at larger causes. Herodotus, attempting to explain the wars between the Persian Empire and some of the Greek cities, continued to make much of personal motivations, especially when it came to Xerxes. Herodotus expanded on Aeschylus’ portrait of the king, adding more nuance to the image of an overbearing, capricious monarch. At the same time, he was also interested in deeper forces. Herodotus was interested in the idea of balance and reciprocity, and ultimately saw the Persian invasion of Greece as balancing the cosmic scales for the legendary Greek invasion of Troy. He was also interested in how the choices of individuals interacted with and were shaped by the political structures in which they lived, pointing out that Xerxes’ arrogance had such devastating consequences because in a monarchy there was no one who could step in and prevent him from making rash decisions.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides witnessed his home city of Athens go to war with Sparta with terrible consequences for both. He dismissed anything that smacked of myth and instead sought explanations in the hard realities of power. Athens, he argued, was becoming more powerful while Sparta was becoming weaker. It was these forces—the results of human actions, but in themselves impersonal and abstract—that led to the conflict, he argued: the Athenians fought out of a desire for more power and wealth, the Spartans out of the fear of losing what they had.

Some centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing at a time when Greece was a newly-conquered province of the Roman Empire, examined the causes of wars with more nuance, using Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire as an example. Polybius distinguished three different elements: what he called the beginning, the cause, and the pretext. The beginning was the first event of a war; when Alexander crossed into Anatolia with his army, that was the beginning of the invasion. It is useful for historians to identify the beginning of a war, Polybius argued, but the actual cause must come first: what was it that led people to decide to take that first action? In Alexander’s case, it was a century of Greek experience on the fringe of the Persian Empire which showed that the Persian position in Anatolia was poorly organized and vulnerable to attack. The third element is the pretext, the statements that people put out in public to justify the actions they have already decided to take. In Alexander’s case, the pretext was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece generations earlier; Alexander’s own actions later showed that his anti-Persian stance was never more than a front to keep his mostly Greek army unified.

How you approach explaining the origins of the wars in your stories depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If yours is an epic tale about the desires and passions of larger than life heroes, then let mythology guide you: have a war that starts because someone didn’t get invited to a party, or because someone got road rage and picked a fight with the wrong person. If your story is more grounded, but you still want some epic flavor, Herodotus may be a good model: let your war start because of the personal, human decisions made by your characters in the context of grand forces beyond their control. For a gritty, hard-edged story of war, follow Thucydides: people start wars because they think they can get something out of it, or because they’re afraid of losing what they have. In any case, remember Polybius: how people start fighting, why they decided that fighting was worth it, and what they said to justify it are three different things.

Image: Vase painting of hoplites fighting, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; c. 560 BCE; painted pottery; by the Fallow Deer painter)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.