The war novel's origins are in the epic poetry of the classical and medieval periods, especially Homer's The Iliad, Virgil's The Aeneid, sagas like the Old English Beowulf, and Arthurian literature. All of these epics were concerned with preserving the history or mythology of conflicts between different societies, while providing an accessible narrative that could reinforce the collective memory of a people. Other important influences on the war novel included the tragedies of dramatists such as Euripides, Seneca the Younger, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Euripedes' The Trojan Women is a powerfully disturbing play on the theme of war's horrors, apparently critical of Athenian imperialism. Shakespeare's Henry V, which focuses on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years' War, provides a model for how the history, tactics, and ethics of war could be combined in an essentially fictional framework. Romances and satires in Early Modern Europe, like Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene and Miguel de Cervantes's novel Don Quixote, to name but two, also contain elements that influenced the later development of war novels. In terms of imagery and symbolism, many modern war novels (especially those espousing an anti-war viewpoint) are influenced by Dante's depiction of Hell in the Inferno, John Milton's account of the war in Heaven in Paradise Lost, and the Apocalypse as depicted in the biblical Book of Revelation. A Notable non-western example of war novel is Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
As the realistic form of the novel rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, the war novel began to develop its modern form, although most novels featuring war were picaresque satires rather than truly realistic portraits of war. An example of one such work is Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplicissimus, a semi-autobiographical account of the Thirty Years' War.