Aelian and Fire by Countermarch

A scene from the film "The Godfather" with a man in a sweater and necktie clenching his fists and saying "just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in"
Taking a break from academic blogging is not as simple as it seems (meme from The Godfather, Part III courtesy of memegenerator.net)

In November 2016 I expressed a desire to read Fernando González de León’s article “Spanish Military Power and the Military Revolution.” As I found the citation in a forum post from 2011, it occurred to me that I might as well order the book instead of spending another five years wishing and hoping. González challenges Maurice of Nassau’s claim that after reading Aelian’s tactical manual he invented a drill where soldiers fired one rank at a time and then countermarched to get out of the way while they reloaded their cumbersome weapons. (The original letter in which Maurice makes this claim survives, and photos of his sketch of the new tactic have been reprinted in, if I remember correctly, Parker’s Military Revolution). González thinks this was already practised in Hapsburg armies. I wrote this post back in 2017, and decided to post it after listening to the Ancient Warfare Podcast on Ancient Military Manuals in June 2018.

This drill was developed to meet the needs of a particular time and place. In the 16th and 17th centuries, soldiers loaded their matchlock muskets and arquebuses with loose powder and balls and defended themselves with swords and daggers. Manipulating all of this equipment and a lit match without setting oneself on fire or shooting a neighbour was a slow process, and there was a danger that infantry who fired all at once would be over-run by enemies before they could reload. Clubbed muskets or cheap swords were no match for pikes or lances, and when more than two or three ranks of soldiers tried to fire at once, they tended to shoot, deafen, or ignite each other. Ordering the front rank to fire and then countermarch (march to the rear between their file and its neighbour) was a convenient way to get them out of the way while they reloaded. Famously, soldiers in Europe and Japan took to this drill, while soldiers in India and most of the Moslem world rejected it. By the 18th century, infantry were armed with bayonets and issued with pre-made paper cartridges and muskets which made their own fire, and other drills were developed to suit new conditions. Having defined what we are looking for, let see how González’ argument holds up:

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Greek and Roman Military Manuals in Winnipeg

Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg.  Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.
Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

In October I got to attend the conference on technical military writing at the University of Winnipeg. Aside from giving me a chance to have some A&W and Timbits (somehow Wienerschnitzel and Quarkbällchen are not the same) and catch up on academic gossip, I got to hear a great set of papers.

The presentations focused on Greek texts from Aeneas Tacticus and Xenophon in the early 4th century BCE to emperor Leo VI around 900 CE, with one group of three papers on Vegetius. Three others focused on Xenophon, leaving six on miscellaneous topics and authors, and one on methodology. Only two of the thirteen focused on tactical writing in any language.

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Cross-Post: Conference on Greek and Roman Military Manuals, Winnipeg MB, October 2016

GREEK AND ROMAN MILITARY MANUALS: GENRE, THEORY, INFLUENCE WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, CANADA 21 & 22 OCTOBER 2016 While scholars acknowledge the ubiquity of military manuals in antiquity, systematic study of this genre has yet to be undertaken To be sure, military manuals are enigmatic and at the same time intrinsically fascinating texts. This workshop seeks to... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Conference on Greek and Roman Military Manuals, Winnipeg MB, October 2016

One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite

The orange cover with white lettering of a softcover book entitled "The Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard"

It occurred to me that recently I have been writing a lot about the last thousand years, but not so much about ancient Southwest Asia. I promised to write about the different ancient traditions of tactical writing. This is a topic known from Greek, Hebrew, Hittite, and Indian literature in the ancient world, and it may have been discussed in Latin texts as well. Of these, the Hittite is by far the oldest, being attested in the middle of the second millennium BCE.

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Three Ancient Traditions of Tactical Writing

A forthcoming conference has me thinking about writings on tactics in the ancient world. While the English word tactics indicate a clever way of fighting, the Greek adjective τάκτικη means “having been put into a formation for battle.” In other words, in the ancient world tactics were what we call organization and drill. Ancient and modern critics have complained that tactics in the Greek sense are insufficient education for a soldier, but experienced soldiers tended to recognize that they were necessary.
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