Warfare and Violence in Antiquity

Module code: AR3054

Module co-ordinator: Professor Simon James

Warfare and other forms of conflict and violence are typical, if not universal, features of human societies. However, from being (arguably) over-emphasised in archaeology in the past, which at times could seem obsessed with warriors, during recent decades violence been widely downplayed and neglected in fields such as Iron Age European and Roman studies. At a time of renewed academic interest in these areas - and of armed conflict in many parts of the contemporary world - this module focuses primarily on martial violence, military institutions and related affairs in the wider context of ancient societies, within an up-to-date theoretical framework.

Our focus will be on the role of archaeology and ancient history in understanding the violent past, contextualised as part of a broader interdisciplinary exercise involving other relevant fields ranging from anthropology and sociology to modern military studies. We will consider the past development, present state, and future potential of archaeological studies of warfare, conflict and violence in late prehistoric and early historic societies, in the context of parallel and complementary research in other relevant disciplines. You will study the ways in which evidence relevant to violence, conflict and associated institutions and ideological structures may be identified, studied and interpreted. You will also learn how to critique the approaches deployed by archaeologists in the study of these grim but important aspects of human action.

Weapons and armour workshop

Part of this module involves handling a variety of accurate replica Iron Age, Greek and Roman swords, plus spears and a shield, and trying on items of armour, to get a sense of the physical nature of pre-gunpowder martial material culture. The weapons are sharp, so simulated combat is not possible! 

Topics covered

  • Developing and conflicting ideas about violence and ‘human nature’
  • Violence among early human societies
  • Pre-gunpowder weapons, physical and psychological trauma
  • Armed violence and war in Iron Age Europe
  • The rise of states and the development of armies
  • The Roman empire: imperial armies and ‘the community of the soldiers’
  • Violence and conflict within the Roman world
  • Colliding empires: Rome vs Arsacid Parthia and Sasanid Iran


  • 17 one-hour lectures
  • 2 one-hour seminars
  • one-hour weapons and armour workshop


  • 2,000-word essay (25%)
  • 4,000-word project essay (65%)
  • project presentation (10%)