Conference Review: “Second International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” (Thessaloniki, 16-18 September 2021)

The conference “Second International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” took place on September 16-18, 2021 in Thessaloniki. The event was co-organised by the Byzantine Thessaloniki organization (Βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη) and Ibn-Haldun University (Istanbul). The full programme will be uploaded soon by the organizers on Academia.edu. The event was a follow-up to the successful “First International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” held at Fatih University (Istanbul) on 25-28 June 2015. The connecting link was Dr. Georgios Theotokis who oversaw large part of the organization and structure of sessions of both conferences. The aim of both events as established by their respective call for papers was to bring together different networks of researchers in order to explore the vast military history of the Mediterranean over the centuries through the prism of various disciplines such as history, archaeology, history of art and philology.

Thessaloniki, has been one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean for commercial and tactical purposes for two-and-a-half millennia, and provided a perfect backdrop for the conference. The choice of the Military Museum of Thessaloniki for the event venue was an immersive space with great conference facilities. Attendance was unfortunately not open to the public due to strict Covid-19 regulations. Prior to the conference, a guided tour of the museum introduced all those present to a trove of unique objects in an old-fashioned but well-kept collection. Exhibits from the seventeenth century onwards were displayed to highlight the wars of Greece from the Greek War of Independence to the Balkan Wars and the World Wars. Furthermore, the museum features an amazing permanent exhibition on Sophia Vempo, an iconic singer and symbol of resistance for Greece during World War II, as well as room dedicated to the resistance against the Greek dictatorship (1967-74). The conference opened with formal greetings from members of the organizing committee and officials, and the first keynote lecture.

Fig. 1: The Military Museum of Thessaloniki.

Over three days attendees had the opportunity to listen to a wide array of papers and subjects from 42 speakers that ranged from postgraduate students and early career researchers to leading authorities in their respective fields. The conference featured some parallel sessions, which is a testament to its size, however, it can also be a drawback in such specialized events where those attending have a general interest in most presentations. The three keynote speakers Haralambos Papasotiriou (Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Panteion University), Matthe Bennett (Visiting Research Fellow, University of Winchester; formerly Senior Lecturer, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst) and Georgios Theotokis (Ibn-Haldun University and member of the conferences organizing committee) created a strong theoretical frame tackling key components of military history such as strategy, tactics and leadership.

Sessions were organized either thematically or chronologically in a manner that papers grouped together complemented each other and created opportunities for useful post-presentation discussions. Subjects discussed included military units and their relevant terminologies, army composition, borders and international relationships. Moreover, speakers discussed key subjects that seemingly exist in the peripheries of military history such as religion, divinity and power, sexual violence, masculinity, depictions of martial military and non-military themes, which are however, a necessary part of the greater mosaic we discuss nowadays as martial culture, and are by no means less important than more traditional and well-studied topics. Thematic panels on leadership, martial elites, fortifications and arms and armour painted a larger image that spanned from Late Antiquity to the seventeenth century, focusing at times on important personae or geographical regions, and demonstrated the myriad subjects available for research both in the context of the Mediterranean as well as in the field of military history. Most of the conference papers were Byzantine-themed but this is unsurprising considering that the event was hosted in Greece and particularly Thessaloniki, and yet even in that specific thematic of Mediterranean history, scholars demonstrated a variety of topics and the need for further research. Speakers employed a multitude of methodologies in order to explore the aforementioned themes and discussions focused on their intersections such as leadership, tactics and intercultural influences.

Fig. 2: Detail from the collection of the Military Museum of Thessaloniki exhibiting equipment from World War II.

After nearly two years of online conferences and events it was refreshing seeing once more the value of in-person events with discussions and collaborations brewing after presentations and during breaks. The level of discussion was impressive and even in the case of scholarly disagreement this was always conducted in a manner that demonstrated that learning and advancing was at the core of this event.  

Besides the great variety and high level of the presentations, as well as the great hosting and facilities this is not to say that the event is beyond criticism. The conference clearly favoured traditional historical approaches to military history over more modern interdisciplinary methodologies and this was largely reflected both in the subjects of the keynote lectures as well as in the content of most of the essays presented. Arguably, the only detail that seriously tarnished an overall great event was the presence and lecture of a politician and member of the Greek Parliament Mr. Konstantinos Gkioulekas, who instead of limiting himself to a formal greeting he gave an hour-long lecture, which ended up being a crescendo of obsolete nationalist and populist ideas. With audacity, he instructed all historians present not to “over-analyse primary sources because first-hand accounts are true and provide all information we need”, and amusingly brought as examples nineteenth century newspapers and propaganda pamphlets. This, combined with the moderator of the opening ceremony speaking Greek instead of English to an international audience showed that the priorities of some of the organizers focused on appealing to local political and religious officials rather than catering to the speakers invited.

Overall, the quality of the organization of the academic part of the event and the papers presented was excellent. Even in specialized conferences, it is hard to have so many engaging and interesting topics that generate a continuous stimulating discussion. It would take weeks to even attempt to cover briefly basic subjects drawn from every corner of the Mediterranean, even if the focus was an artificial chronological border such as the last millennium. However, the speakers and the organizers proved that the essays of the conference, acting as research vignettes, could highlight many of the aspects that are currently being studied or that need further research. The Mediterranean was presented as a place of communicating ideas and cultures that affected each other, which resonated to the present and the very essence of the event. Hopefully, a third installation of the conference, and perhaps many more, will keep advancing the field creating the platform for further discussion. As a series of conferences the “International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” is becoming an important event for those researching the Mediterranean and/or military history. A volume with the conference proceedings is planned for publication in the future.

Cite this article as: Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, "Conference Review: “Second International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” (Thessaloniki, 16-18 September 2021)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 25/09/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1417.