Sacrifice before battle

An ancient Greek ritual

Shortly before the Persian Wars, the ancient Greeks developed a new ritual, known as the sphagia, in which a male sacrificial animal would be killed shortly before the start of a battle.

Josho Brouwers

There is a persistent idea that warfare in Archaic Greece was ritualized in some fashion. The “Battle of the Champions”, supposedly fought around 550 BC, is often cited as an example of a highly ritualized encounter between two opposing forces, who decided to settle their matters according to a set of rules that were laid out beforehand.

However, this battle, which pitted, according to Herodotus (1.82), an army of 300 Spartans versus 300 Argives, is noteworthy for the fact that it is one of the few instances in which a battle was fought according to specific rules of any kind. It also seems likely that this battle was a figment of the imagination. It can therefore hardly be considered an example of the “typical” kind of warfare that Greeks in the Archaic period routinely practiced.

This is not to say that ancient Greek battles were devoid of rituals. Indeed, few commanders appear to have engaged in battle if the omens, as read by seers (manteis), were unfavourable. The ancient Greeks were not superstitious (that is a modern interpretation), but instead sought to curry favour with the gods. If the signs were inauspicious, it was best not to taunt fate.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about manteis, you can check out this episode of the Working Over Time podcast, featuring Dr Owen Rees (who also read and commented on this article).

The pre-battle sacrifice

In the years before the Persian Wars, a new type of ritual was introduced: the pre-battle sacrifice or sphagia (Pritchett 1971, table 2 on p. 114, collects the evidence). The Greeks word derives from the verb σφάζειν, “to pierce the throat”: in ancient Greece, throats of sacrificial victims were not cut, but pierced. The main difference between regular animal sacrifices and the sphagia, in a battle context, is that in the latter case the animal was not cooked and eaten after having been killed.

A set of pottery fragments of the early fifth century BC, depicted at the top of this article, give an idea of what the sphagia may have looked like. A warrior would have taken out a sacrificial animal (in this case a ram), held it firm with his legs to keep it from struggling, pulled the head back with one hand and then stabbed the throat with the other. Since battles tended to be affairs of men, male animals were picked for the sphagia.

The sphagia is conducted on the battlefield itself, in front of the army and so in plain view of the enemy, who were likely conducting their own sacrifices. The way that the blood flowed from the wound would give an idea of how the battle would go.If the signs proved unfavourable, a commander would hesitate to attack. This happened, for example, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC (Hdt. 9.61).

The Spartans only received ill omens as a result of their sacrifice, and so they hesitated to attack the Persian army. The Persians, meanwhile, shot arrows at the Spartans, not only wounding many, but even killing some. In the end, the Spartan commander, Pausanias, turned to the temple of Hera at Plataea and prayed for help. The Tegeans advanced, and shortly after the sacrifices proved favourable to the Spartans, too, and so they attacked as well.

The moral of that particular episode seems to be that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.