How Ukraine is adapting the ancient practice of trophy displays for modern propaganda

As Ukraine prepared to celebrate its independence day even while its military forces battled a monthslong Russian invasion, government officials assembled a grandiose, yet gruesome, display on Khreshchatyk, the main street of Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv.

Wrecked and burned-out tanks, military trucks and other equipment lined the street as an intentional mockery of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failed plan of a victorious Russian army parade in Kyiv.

This display, in August 2022, wasn’t a first for Ukraine, and it echoes an ancient tradition of displaying the looted weapons of a military adversary.

On the sites of battles they won, the ancient Greeks typically erected what they called tropaions – triumphal monuments made from trees and decorated with captured armor, weapons and helmets – to commemorate the victory and pay homage to a god. The classic Greek epic the “Iliad” contains references to Odysseus stripping the dead enemy of his armor for a subsequent ritual offering to Athena, the goddess of war and his divine patroness.

Ancient Romans continued the practice, and also developed a tradition of military triumphs, parades through the imperial city of Rome to show off the spoils of war, including slaves, art, bullion and weapons. Rich benefactors then often bought the loot and donated it to the Roman public for stationary displays that symbolized Roman imperial power.