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.

Upcoming international conference: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1550)

Next November (11-13, 2021) we will host our closing international conference at the University of Bern. Learn about the program and check our call for posters (open until May 30, 2021).

Conference review “Stadt und Militär. Konfrontation und/oder Kooperation” (November 16-18, 2018)

The conference “Stadt und Militär. Konfrontation und/oder Kooperation” (City and Military. Confrontation and/or cooperation) took place on November 16-18, 2018, in Ingolstadt. The event was organized by the Südwestdeutscher Arbeitskreis für Stadtgeschichtsforschung (South-west study network for urban history research). The conference details can be found on the organization’s website. The flyer of the conference is available here.

The conference began with a guided tour of the city fortification (14th c.), lead by Dr. Tobias Schönauer. The city walls were quickly extended to enclose areas around the town. Because of the large amount of space available inside the city walls, the municipal authorities did not have to destroy the defences to allow urban extension until the mid-20th century. In fact, the town’s strategical location in south-east Germany played an important role in the maintaining and upkeep of its defences. The conference’s organization committee especially pointed out the various layers of modification of the defences in the course of history, either of the wall itself or of the military facilities, therefore allowing the attendance to understand the materiality of the remaining defensive structures, such as the castle, parts of the wall and the 19th c. military facilities (garrisons and arsenals). The tour host provided us also with interesting insights into the archaeological research which has been conducted inside the military buildings. The impact of the city’s military function on its citizens’ everyday life became thus evident.  

The introduction to the conference itself set the event’s key questions and perspectives. Its main aim was to discuss the relations between citizens and soldiers (for example the problem of sexuality or marriage), either in time of peace and at war. The main presentation, provided by Daniel Hohrath (Curator of the Bayerisches Armeemuseum, Ingolstadt), raised questions about the soldiers’ social status in the early modern period, as they can be seen not only as a population on their own, but also as being the objects of representations (soldiers as strangers in the city or as symbols of the state).

The next day started with the presentations of the panel « Development of the military cities ». Tobias Echt, from the celtic-roman museum of Manching, talked about the development of the Colonia Augusta Troadenisis in the West of Greece during the classical era. His analysis did not only emphasize the importance of a roman defensive colony in the Troas region (actual West Turkey), but also showed that the roman colonists shared their rights with the citizens living in Rome itself. One of the key element in Tobias Echt’s analysis, based on epigraphical and numismatical evidence, was the social mobility of roman veterans after the Augustean times, as they were given land in exchange for their military service; not only did the veterans gain a quick access to high political functions in the city, but they also formed a social elite.

The switch to the medieval and early modern periods was led by Dr. Christian Ottersbach (art historian and scientific collaborator in Esslingen) who presented a general view on city defences of actual Germany’s South-West from 1500 to 1620. He chose to show the development of city defences within the «Long Middle Ages » as some elements of the medieval defences are still used during the early modern period. The apparition of gunpowder did not induce the abandon of medieval military structures, especially city walls, but merely forced the municipal authorities to modify over time the already existing structures. Even if the historiography acknowledges the late apparition of the Trace italienne (star shaped citadels), some cities tried to develop their own architectural innovations, experimenting with the shape of the fortification. For example, even if their disposition remained in accordance to the medieval times, city walls received towers and reinforcements that were able to withstand heavy fire. The city walls’ development in South-West German cities can therefore be seen as a succession of layers, the medieval structures being used as foundations for modern improvements (so called bastonierung). However, military necessities were not the only parameters eventually determining the form of modern foritifications : city walls were also a symbol of power, either for the city or the state.

The third presentation, by Max Plassmann (Head of the old Köln state archives), aimed to establish the link between the martial skills of Köln’s citizens in the early modern period and their social mobility. Indeed, as Köln was surrounded by potentially rival states, it developed a strong city defence. Military skills became a foremost quality for citizens wanting to rise to high administrative and political functions. For example, it was not uncommon for the city Burgermeister to have a founded military experience. It raises the question of the specific military carrier of the urban elites in other imperial towns, and of the possible differences between each one of those.

In the following presentation, archaeologist Dr. Ruth Sandner (Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege) gave an overview of the archaeological research made during the last two decades in Ingolstadt. These archaeological projects concerned mainly defensive structures integrated in the city wall, from the Middle Ages to the 17th century bastions. During the research, the main problem was water infiltration (Ingolstadt is located near the Donau river), which, however, helped in the preservation of organic objects. The next presentation, a summary of Manfred Bauer’s current PhD work (University of Munich), was topically close to the former, as it focused on the materiality of the soldiers’ everyday life between the 17th and the 19th century. Manfred Bauer used both new and already studied archaeological material, divided in two categories: primary (weapons) and secondary (armour, uniform, tools, games, pipes,…). This distinction allowed him to observe two moments of the soldier’s life: combat and training situations on the one side, free time or waiting situations (such as guard duty), on the other side.

The second panel of the day gave an overview on different types of defences on the basis of several case studies. Dr. Brigitte Huber, from Munich’s state archives, showed the importance of Munich as a strategical location for the garrisons under the reign of Maximilian I. The population of soldiers, along with their families, was always significant in the city. This provided not only a good defence against the outside, but also to the inside as the soldiers’ presence helped to maintain order. Dr. Beatrix Schönewald (Bayerisches Armeemuseum) focused in her presentation on Daniel Speckle (1536-1589), a Master builder who was largely influenced by the theoretical debates and technical treatises on the best way to build a city fitted for defence. She presented the main technical books on the subject, such as the Codex Matopicus (1529), Architectur (1583) and Architectura von Vestungen (1589) ; all these treatises focusing on the construction of the most perfect (geometrical) defensive city, but also on structural strenghthening, explosives and ballistics. In another case study, Guido von Büren (Museum Zitadelle Jülich) presented the defensive city of Jülich, which was designed by the Italian military architect Pascualini as a citadel, the little town nearby being only necessary for housing the civilians. In fact, the citadel housed more soldiers than were civilians in the nearby town. The citadel was built to sustain long time sieges, being merely a stronghold aimed at stopping foreign armies to go further into the territory. As a city, Jülich therefore rests heavily on one end of the spectrum «Militär» and «Stadt». In a similar vein, Benedict Loew (Städtisches Museum Saarlouis) then talked about the Saarlouis citadel from the 18th to the 19th century, built ex nihilo for housing a garrison and integrating the mills, the market and the storehouses directly into the defensive infrastructure. In fact, the life of the civilians living inside the citadel was organized around the military activities, the troops having the priority over civilians in the access to food, creating an inequality of treatment. However, buildings such as mills were progressively taken out of the citadel. The last two presentations of the day focused on the 18th and 19th century. Klaus Roider showed the importance of nobility among Nürnberg’s military officers in the 18th century when the prestige of military service was reserved for an an elite. Dr. Thomas Tippach (University of Münster presented an overview of Koblenz’s military aspects in the 19th century.

Overall, the presentations gave a large chronological and topical picture. I also noticed, by discussing with other researchers, that social questions were at the core of actual military history research, especially when seeing the soldier or fighter as a member of a certain social group that comes sometimes in conflict with the town’s citizens. Even if it was not addressed directly, the topic “Konfrontation und/oder Kooperation” was indeed the underlying subject of reflexion during this event.

In view of our project on martial culture, attending this conference brought many new insights into the social repercussions of military matters. This addresses the importance of the global approach chosen in our project, as some aspects of the urban landscape and political life were not only driven by the necessity to build a sufficient military power, but also by the rulers political and military ambitions.

Cite this article as: Mathijs Roelofsen, "Conference review “Stadt und Militär. Konfrontation und/oder Kooperation” (November 16-18, 2018)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 25/03/2019, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/209.

[Conference] New conference about shooting societies.

Jean-Dominique Delle Luche and Thomas Fressin organise a one-day conference in South France (Crépy-en-Valois)

Journée d’étude – Samedi 27 avril 2019
Jeux de tir & milices bourgeoises sous l’Ancien Régime

More information on their website, stay tuned for a review of this conference on this blog in May.