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Early Warfare on Postcards:
With ever changing borders and mass migrations of peoples, the connection between modern nations to ancient empires is often very tenuous, thus lacking in cultural resonance. The farther events lies back in history the less potent they are for arousing contemporary emotions. This of course is all dependent on particular cultural references and how they have been passed down over generations through myth. It is often astounding how far back in history people can reach to dredge up events that still stir heightened emotions. What should not be overlooked is the strong presence that the ancient world, or at least perceptions of it, had within late 19th century society. By this time artists had borrowed from antiquity many of the themes they used as subject matter for centuries, thus creating a vocabulary to which the public was very familiar. Many of these same themes could then be exploited on postcards as publishers knew that the public could decipher these myths.
All sorts of postcards were produced that incorporated themes of antiquity. Many postcards depicting ancient battles or soldiers were produced to attract the collector of military subject matter. While some might only collect subjects that were specific to their own national heritage, shifting boundaries over the centuries did not always make this easy to define. These cards also had a broader appeal as their real subject was not necessarily military but antiquity. The people of ancient times were often viewed as being more pure and virtuous, and thus were more suitable subjects for allegory. In general it is the spirit of those times that were meant to be captured over specific events. Tradition and heritage are emphasized over history to satisfy contemporary agendas. Thus the spirit of an ancient hero can be depicted leading contemporary troops into battle to assure victory now just as he did back then. This is a formula that is repeated throughout all postcards that reference past wars.
The images from this early period that were placed on postcards are primarily drawn from two sources. One is ancient art itself, which reflects the growing interest in ancient cultures during the 19th century, heightened by an increase in archaeological efforts. This surrounded many ancient empires and periods with a growing air of romance that engaged the public at large. The second source was the vast amount of artwork available that served as an interpretation of antiquity, with more modern values already factored in. There were also contemporary artists who provided illustrations for postcards, but they usually relied upon the same mythology that feed the public’s understanding of antiquity for centuries.
Alongside the historical narratives that come down to us pitting one great kingdom or empire against another, are tales of mythical encounters between heroes and monsters. While it can be argued that myths have no place being included here among historical accounts of war and battle, they represent our human comprehension of such events and are therefore important to our pictorial representations. War mythologies are universal, and they nearly all contain the same basic elements. There is the endangered society in the center of the world protected by heroes in the archetype of the warrior, battling the enemy the form of the monstrous other. Such stories probably predate warfare, possibly dating back as far as language itself.
The growing interest in archaeology during the 19th century filled European museums with a myriad of artifacts from the ancient world. Among these are relief sculptures and wall painting fragments that offer limited narratives into that cultures history. While these remnants often lack the details needed to tie them to specific events, we can still gather from them that warfare has been a preoccupation of mankind from its earliest recorded history. While most of these images come to us on postcards by way of art reproductions, they also convey the message that war is an integral part of culture. We can find an unbroken line of representation on artworks dating from these ancient times to the present. The recognition of this long heritage is what allows us to look back at it and remold it to our purposes with little need for adjustment.
While we may find universal truths in the most ancient of artifacts, rarely do they provide us with a full story of events. By the 8th century BCE, military narratives were being created in forms that has been passed down to us intact. The most striking example is Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, which gives us a chronicle of the Trojan War. While it outwardly praises the great Greek victory and the ultimate brutish warrior in the character of Achilles, its sympathies seem to lie with the more cultured antagonist Hector, and the fall of Troy is a tragedy rather than a defeat. This war of men is mirrored in the poem by the parallel conflict between the gods, which may explain its seemingly contradictory messages. The narrative of the Iliad is that of the human condition in which mankind is constantly challenged to make decisions to which there are no acceptable answers. In the end it dose not really matter if the Trojan War was myth or fact; the Iliad still resonates with us today because the dilemmas it presents have continually confronted all those who wage war to this very day.
The characters of Achilles and Hector are not just enemies; they also represent opposing ideals within the human condition that continually fuel conflict. Achilles who is half god willingly gives up immortality in to follow his pursuit of glory. He is the man of action, a warrior who follows simple rules to overcome the more complex and thoughtful Hector. This duality is continually reflected in many wars to come, and can be seen as the dividing line in reality between barbarism and civilization. Both sides see themselves as upholding virtues as they demonize the enemy.
Teutoburg Forest 9 CE
As the Roman Empire expanded northwards, the Rhine became a natural barrier between its territories in Gaul and the yet unconquered lands of the Germanic tribes. Despite the vast territory they held, the Romans felt that had no safe room to maneuver should they be invaded from the north and so Emperor Augustus decided to push the frontier out further to the River Elbe. In response to this invasion, three German tribes united under the leader Arminus (now referred to as Hermann) and destroyed all three Roman legions sent against him at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 CE. Though the Romans launched a number of successful retaliatory raids into Germania, they were forced to give up on trying to seize territory east of the Rhine.
What we know of the conflicts between ancient Rome and the Germanic tribes to the north usually comes from the Roman perspective because they were the more literate society. This rivalry is usually portrayed today as one of civilization fighting off barbaric hordes. This however is not a universally held perspective especially among Germanic peoples. By the 19th century the story of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest that ended Roman aggression had become an important part of German mythology. It was heavily used to promote German nationalism, which extended through the early postcard era when a number of illustrated cards depicting German victories over the Romans were made. Interest in these cards were increased by popular literature, such as, So We Departed for the Hermann Battle by Hans Karl Strobl that was serialized on the eave of the Great War. The image of Hermann continued to be evoked during the First World War to promote the sense of national struggle, and he has become the personification of all Germans. As the Hermann monument near Detmold became a popular tourist destination, it began appearing on numerous view-cards.
For much of mainstream Western history the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are viewed as the cradle of civilization, set apart in contrast from the barbarians to the north. When the German Empire began to take shape in the mid-19th century and forge its own identity, many rejected the old model. Rome, its solders and its customs became to be viewed as a foreign threat to pure German values that were closely associated with the land. This was in part due to the weak cultural heritage of the Holy Roman Empire; for the German states within it lacked any centralized cohesion from which a common myth could build on. For many it was Germany’s pre-Roman culture that best represented its golden age. This idea was not just supported by growing nationalism but a rebellious mood within German society that began rejecting traditional constraints in their search for freedom.
The defense of the Germanic border lands thus represented not only a defense of territory but of a strong superior culture as well. During World War One many postcards were produced depicting iconic sentries guarding the Rhine. Although many of these cards depicted contemporary soldiers, some harkened back to ancient times for the myth they draw on remains the same.
As the Roman Empire came into more conflict with Germanic tribes to the north, they began building a defensive line known as Limes Germanicus in 83 CE to protect their borderlands. By 260 CE these simple defenses had grown into more elaborate stone forts and walls that reached from mouth of the Rhine on the North Sea all the way east to the Danube. One of these stone forts was located on the Taunus Ridge at Sallburg. Its ruins began being seriously examined by archaeologists in the mid-19th century just as the German Empire was taking shape. As the area’s Roman past became intertwined with German nationalistic myths, there was greater interest in these discoveries; and in 1897 Kaiser Wilhelm II requested the site be restored to its former glory. The Saalburg fort soon became a tourist attraction, and as such generated numerous postcards.
While most images of the restored Roman fort at Saalburg were produced as ordinary view-cards, there are also many artist drawn depictions of what life there might have once looked like. There is nothing unusual about historic events being placed on postcards but most art cards dealing with Germany’s Roman past seem to focus on this one location. This is most likely due to the Saalburg fort being the only large restoration; and since it drew a large number of tourists, this is where publishers concentrated their attention. Even though this makes economic sense it skews our focus of history. It is also interesting to note that for all the emphasis placed on the resistance to Roman aggression within the German national myth, that there is so much attention paid to this small portion of Germany’s heritage. The Roman Empire developed its own romantic mystique among all people regardless of political attitudes toward it; and publishers just followed demand.
Found less often but perhaps the most curious are those cards that depict the fort at Saalburg succumbing to an attack by Germanic tribesmen. What is interesting is that there are no records of such an incident; it is generally believed that the fort was abandoned in the 5th century after a long period of chaos in the region. These cards do not represent actual facts but a powerful myth of early Germans defeating would be Roman conquerors. This is a good example of how myths are often disguised as history to help form a unified national identity. Such narratives can then easily find their way onto postcards because even when publishers are not pushing an agenda, they need to care more about what people believe than the truth if they are to make sales. This scenario is played out in all nations.
Just as the figure of Hermann was used to inspire German nationalism, the figure of the Roman legionnaire was used in Italy to reference the greatness and glory of the Empire. Legionaries can be found on different types of military cards; charity and regimental cards being the most common. In all cases they attempt to connect the present with the past. We may be shown an ancient warrior, but we know he is only standing in for the modern soldier. Regimental cards generally made associations with past battles the unit fought in to enhance its social standing. While there is no direct lineage between the regiment and ancient Rome, there is a cultural tie that is strong enough to create the myth.
Sometimes modern soldiers and ancient warriors are compared side by side to say there is no distinction between them. In this way even unproved soldiers can carry the weight of victory with them. The ultimate fate of the Roman Empire is not consequential when making such comparisons for the legionnaire has come down to us through myth in the form of the professional warrior.
Ad Decimum 533 CE
In the 5th century a Germanic people known as the Vandals moved down from northern Europe, sacking Rome in 455 CE. They eventually came to settle the North African Coast between present day Morocco and Libya. In 530 CE, King Hilderic of the Vandals was overthrown by his cousin Gelimer. On the pretense of restoring the rightful king to the thrown, the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, sent his army into the Vandal kingdom three years later; though his real goal was to reclaim North Africa for the Empire. To prevent Hilderic from regaining power, Gelimer had him put to death, but he in turn was defeated by the Byzantine army outside of Carthage at the Battle of Ad Decimum, and eventually taken prisoner.
Though Gelimer is remembered as the last king of the Vandals, there is little to his reign that is considered notable. The entire history of the Vandals in North Africa is not very distinguished, with some historians referring to them as an unusually uncultured people. Despite this Gelimer finds himself honored on a charity postcard shown above, issued during World War One. While his appearance on a postcard would seem improbable, context must be examined to find a probable cause. Here the card was published for a fund collecting money for Germans living overseas; for them it did not matter that there was nothing historic to celebrate, only that this was a peace of Germanic history beyond the empire’s current borders.
Even for those living in what we now consider antiquity, they were not lacking in historical perspective of their own that provided them with symbolism. The most obvious example is that of ancient Rome who developed a rich public architecture based on reoccurring motifs. Some of these were borrowed from other cultures, such as the obelisk from Egypt, for the Romans had deep respect for civilizations older than themselves. Their attitude became ingrained in Western culture to the point that classical motifs saw constant reuse and popular revivals. Even symbols such as a palm leaf or laurel wreath continue to represent victory in war, despite their origins in sports. Many of these symbols have become so familiar that artists have been able to easily combine them with modern elements of warfare in their compositions. Since many of today’s nations have little direct connection to the glories of the ancient world, it is through the acceptance of this symbolism throughout Western culture that we perceive this period more universally.
The obelisk is one of the most enduring symbols from the ancient world, though the context in which it is used has undergone significant changes. They were originally placed in front of Egyptian temples dedicated to the sun god Ra. While some have claimed these phallic-like stone pillars with a pointed top have sexual meaning, most historians today believe they represented a ray of ephemeral light made corporal. Roman fascination with more ancient cultures caused many of these monuments to be shipped off to Rome and other locations within the empire, and they continued to be exported to other countries, including the United States in later years. Their connection to Ra was now superficial, but their symbolic meaning as a connection between heaven and earth remained so strong that it could be reassigned to new systems of religious belief. Grave markers in the shape of obelisks became very common in the Occident, which were then passed down to monuments for the dead. So while Egyptian obelisks had little to do with warfare, they had become by the19th century a common form for new monument built to represent the fallen on battlefields.
One of the most potent Roman symbols that come down to us in the form of public architecture is the triumphal arch. Dating from the 2nd century BCE, they were originally used to mark any number of important events across the Empire, but they largely survived to this day as a symbol of military victory. Not only were these structures widely erected between the late 19th to early 20th centuries, we can find further aggrandizement of existing structures in later photographs such as those showing German, and then American troops marching under the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris Though the triumphal arch was always built over a roadway and lavishly decorated with narrative elements, there was still much variation to them. More modern versions were often designed as temporary structures, and so they were constructed of wood rather than stone.
The ancient Romans also turned the equestrian statue of their emperors and generals into an iconic genre whose form has been copied all the way into the 20th century. This pose has become so familiar that any statue of a general, until most recent times, presented him on horseback for anything less might be considered demeaning. There is barely a major city in the world today that does not have one of these equestrian statues. The card above displays the statue of General Sherman in New York City, where he is being led by the ancient personification of Victory.
The personification of victory first appears in ancient Greece in the form of a winged woman riding a chariot. Very can very often be found holding a wreath or a palm leaf in her hand, symbols of victory to be bestowed on those who are successful. She seems to have first been associated with athletic competitions where she crowned the winners. Later the laurels she bequeath went to the victors in war. The Greeks referred to her as Nike, but after being appropriated by the Romans her name was changed to Victoria. While there are many depictions of her on ancient art, most postcards carry representations produced by contemporary artists peaking during World War One, especially in France. Then she often appeared with sword in hand, which is was traditionally reserved for personification of liberty as a symbol of freedom. This was probably nothing more than artistic license used to more closely associate her with victory in battle.
By the Medieval era, most symbolism found in Western society was Christian based, though this borrowed heavily from the cultures of the Mediterranean. An exception was the Valkyrie, a host of mythical female warrior who began to coalesce in Norse poetry of the 13th century. While she comes in various incarnations with different attributes, Valkyrie basically are servants of the god Odin, and they ride into battle on flying horses to determine who will live and who will die. Little was known of these stories outside of Scandinavia until they became broadly available in England and Germany in the 19th century. There they quickly became engrained in popular culture, often substituting for the loss of local mythology. Romantic tendencies of the times insured that Valkyrie would find a place in painting and opera, which secured their position in culture. Valkyrie that appear on postcards tend to represent romantic turn of the 20th century associations with them rather than the original myths.