The concept of sacred war in Ancient Greece
By Frances Anne Skoczylas
Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1987
Abstract: This thesis will trace the origin and development of the term “Sacred War” in the corpus of extant Greek literature. This term has been commonly applied by modern scholars to four wars which took place in ancient Greece between the sixth and fourth centuries B. C. The modern use of “the attribute “Sacred War” to refer to these four wars in particular raises two questions. First, did the ancient historians give all four of these wars the title “Sacred War?” And second, what justified the use of this title only for certain conflicts?
In order to resolve the first of these questions, it is necessary to examine in what terms the ancient historians referred to these wars. As a result of this examination, it is clear that only two of the modern series of “Sacred Wars” (the so-called Second and Third Sacred Wars) were actually given this title in antiquity. The other two wars (the so-called Second and Third Sacred Wars), although they were evidently associated by the ancients with the “Sacred Wars,” were not given this attribution. Consequently, the habit of grouping all four wars together as “Sacred Wars” is modern. Nevertheless, the fact that the ancients did see some connection between these wars does justify this modern classification to some degree.
Once this conclusion had been reached, it became possible to proceed to the second of the problems presented in this thesis, namely the justification for the application of the title “Sacred War” to two specific conflicts. In order to achieve this aim, those conflicts labelled “Sacred Wars” by the ancient historians were compared to two categories of test cases: the other two conflicts classified as “Sacred Wars” by modern scholars and conflicts which share elements in common with “Sacred Wars” but which are not given this attribution by ancient or modern authorities.
In the course of this comparison, I discovered that little differentiated the so-called “Sacred Wars” from the non-”Sacred Wars” and that all of these latter conflicts appear equally worthy of the title as those which were in fact given this attribution. The deciding factor in the classification of a certain conflict as a “Sacred War,” as a result, lies not in the specific elements making up its constitution but rather in the political circumstances surrounding it. The two conflicts labelled by the ancients as “Sacred Wars” were given this title by contemporary powers in order to justify military interference in the political affairs of other states which might otherwise have been considered unnecessary. Thus, the term “Sacred War” arose originally as the result of an effective propaganda campaign.