Book and Sword
pontifex minimus

Book and Sword

My First Book is Out

the cover of "Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire" (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021) with a background of coloured rectangles

Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects. Oriens et Occidens Band 32 (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart, 2021) 437 pp., 8 b/w ill., 4 b/w tables. ISBN 978-3-515-12775-2 EUR 74,– (softcover) (publisher’s website)

My first book is coming out from Franz Steiner Verlag this month. It is the first book on Achaemenid armies since 1992, and the first written by someone who can read any ancient Near Eastern language. I show that most of what we think we know about Achaemenid armies and warfare goes back to classical writers and to 19th and 20th century stereotypes about the east. So many books sound the same because they are repeating the ideas of early authorities in new language. By focusing on indigenous, contemporary sources and placing the Achaemenids in their Near Eastern context- the standard methods in Roman Army Studies and Achaemenid Studies since the 1980s- we can tell a different story.

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Some Thoughts on Medlej’s “Inks and Paints”

Joumala Medlej, Inks & Paints of the Middle East : A Handbook of Abbasid Art Technology. Revised edition (Majnoura: London, 2021) GBP 20 https://majnouna.com/shop/books/

Inks and Paints of the Middle East is a practical summary of six Arabic treatises on making ink and paint dating from roughly 900 to 1400 CE (300 to 800 AH). Rather than translations, it provides illustrated descriptions of the different processes from making brushes and reed pens to gathering and grinding pigments to mixing them with each other and with binders. Endnotes discuss the scholarly details such as the sources for specific recipes (and some practical questions whether lead white pigment is safe to use, p. 115 n. 129). Most of these texts have never been printed or translated into a European language, or the existing translations and editions are inaccurate (few scholars are skilled in both medieval Arabic paleography and in the kitchen chemistry of making paint and ink).

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Warning: Facebook Privacy Settings

Many nerdy people use Facebook. Until recently, Facebook let you set the visibility of posts to “Friends” by default so only people whose friend request you had accepted could see them. This was very important for people who face stalking or harassment but wanted to keep in touch with people they knew through social media. Sometime in the past few months, Facebook changed that setting to “Friends (+)” which allows friends of friends. This roughly squares the potential audience of a post, and means that a stalker, harrasser, doxer, or identity thief just has to become Facebook friends with one of your friends to start seeing your posts! Almost anyone knows someone who accepts random Friend or Follow requests on corporate social media. If they mean “friends of friends of the people tagged” then tagging someone still doubles the number of people who can see a post. Stalkers, tabloid journalists, and other nuisances often follow their target’s contacts on social media in hopes of picking up information.

I’m not an expert on corporate social media, but the only way to limit post visibility seems to be to create a list of Friends and share with them. The option “just people whose Friend request I have accepted” seems to be gone. I can’t find any offline documentation of this change. If you use Facebook and are concerned about privacy, you should probably check your settings and think whether you want to change what you post (and especially who you tag, because tagging someone definitely makes a “Friends +” post visible to their friends). My approach to corporate social media focuses on harm reduction rather than expecting everyone to be a privacy geek. Screenshots are below the fold.

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Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts

Over on Andrew Gelmans’s blog, there is a discussion about my post writing for the curious.

One thing I did not spell out is that people with training in history, archaeology, or similar rarely make the key decisions about historical documentaries. Old Media documentaries are businesses like any other film or TV show. They are run by business people and drama people who want return on investment and artistic fulfillment. Scholars may be interviewed and provide sound bites, but what they say is scripted or edited to fit a message chosen by those business people and drama people. Because TV and film are big money, they face big pressure. For example, Zahi Hawass features in almost any documentary about ancient Egypt, not because of his expertise, but because he is very well connected and documentaries which don’t give him airtime have problem after problem with the Egyptian government. Often, a documentary is based on one or two popular books or press releases, so its well downstream of original research. Business people and drama people don’t have the skills or inclination to dig too far into “how do we know that?” so they tend to compare experts and pick the one who sounds most convincing or most exciting. Everyone has to do this sometimes, but trained historians are much better equipped to deal with questions like this.

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Translating Sun Tzu, or, What is Technical Literature?

Over on birdsite John F. Sullivan noticed something which readers of ancient tactical manuals or surveyor’s manuals or medieval painters’ handbooks and fencing books have also noticed.

Whenever I pick up a new Sun Tzu translation, the very first thing I compare is two verses found in chapters 7 & 11 of the text. Why? It turns out they are exactly identical verses, should be rendered identically, but only rarely are. It gives us an indication of how careful and thorough a translator is. The verse itself is not one of Sun Tzu’s most memorable. It is basically composed of three thoughts—understand your neighboring rulers’ intentions, conduct a detailed assessment of the enemy’s terrain, and employ local guides to assist you in traversing enemy land. It does, though, reinforce two main themes of Sun Tzu’s military thinking—detailed assessments of the enemy situation (primarily terrain) and a preference for deep offensive invasions as the ideal military strategy.

John F. Sullivan @JohnF_Sullivan@twitter.com on15 June 2022 https://nitter.it/JohnF_Sullivan/status/1536928990879182848#m
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Books Read in 2022

a wooden bookcase stained dark brown about half full of softcover and hardcover fiction and nonfiction
We got some beautiful solid wood bookcases this year, unlike my old Ikea bookcases in Austria

I’ve never been sure how to do these since I switched from reading like a novel-lover (reading books in my native language from cover to cover then sending them back to the library) to reading like a scholar (dipping in and out of books, reading in languages I am not fluent in). Should magazines count? Individual short stories read online? Books and stories heard over the radio or on a mobile computer? And there is no sense making this into another piece of unpaid work keeping records of what I read! But I feel like doing one at the end of this year.

I err on the side of including things which don’t appear in my academic notes and reading list so might otherwise be unrecorded.

I am not including books which I read in manuscript.

This post might include some things from the last week of 2021. See previous discussion about unpaid work!

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The USSR and Allied Victory in WW II

After a war the winners start to argue about credit, whether the Athenians and the Spartans arguing about who saved Hellas from the Mede, or the Allies arguing about who did more to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And while these debates are nominally about the past, the different positions tend to correspond to different views about who should be honoured and respected in the present. Within Athens there was a debate about the contribution of leisured hoplites and working-class rowers at the same time that advocates of a narrow democracy and a wide democracy were fighting. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet contribution became better acknowledged in the North Atlantic world (although Soviet failures which had been covered up were also uncovered after the archives opened and the censors had to get real jobs). In the past ten years, a new view has emerged which argues that the US, UK, Germany, and Japan all put a majority of their manufacturing capacity into air forces and gave ground forces second or third priority. To them:

The Germans lost more infantry on the Eastern Front, but they lost far, far more of their equipment (and best trained forces) fighting the British and Americans. This is because the German Army as I have pointed out, received relatively little German production compared to the Air Force/Navy. Basically, because the Germans could afford to send so little equipment to the Eastern Front, they tried to get by using unsupported soldiers. Actually, the ‘vast bulk’ of German losses were caused fighting the western Allies, and its not close.

Phillips P. O’Brien https://phillipspobrien.substack.com/p/misunderstanding-soviet-power-in-761

Since my readers are human beings, I hope they can see the one fundamental problem with this argument!

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2022 Year-Ender

a cleared section of concrete or asphalt with deep snow on either side. Something with cloven hooves has walked along the path and left prints in the blown snow
This path through the snow from the Salish Sea Blizzard of 2022 is not just for two-footed creatures!

The year 2022 is being escorted away by 200 soldiers and 70 horsemen and 200 ambidextrous soldiers so that the locals don’t do it an injury.[1] What on earth can I say about it?

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The Stele of G. Damianus

overview stele of the funerary stele of a Roman soldier. The stele is carved of coarse grey stone, probably limestone or similar. He stands in an arched niche wearing a cloak and tunic with a large belt. A spear with a bundle around the shaft is to his right, and he holds a scroll in his left hand.
The funerary stele of G. Damianus in the Roman museum, Bologna

In the before times, when I could travel and had something to travel to, I visited Bologna. In their museum of antiquity I saw this funerary stele. Judging by the clothing and style I would date it around 150-250 CE. The soldier wears boots not sandals, his tunic has long sleeves, and his belt is narrow and not covered with brass or silver plaques. At first I was amused by the soldier’s very Celtic moustache in one of the cities where the Romans did their best to eliminate the native Celtic population. A little research showed an unexpected story!

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The Cuneiform Stylus

In an interview about her new book Weavers, Scribes, and Kings on the cuneiform world, Amanda Podany talks about how the ancient Near East is still not as widely known as the Greek world or the La Tène world.

I’ve been teaching this material for a very long time, and I see what my students find fascinating and what surprises them and what questions they have. And based on that, I had a sense of what I thought would be fascinating in the book. I think it’s not as hard as you would think to translate what scholars have written into language that is just more accessible, because they’ve done a wonderful job already. I mean, I’m not suggesting that I am somehow taking something that was very obscure and making it accessible. They’ve done that work. It’s just that it’s been published in academic journals that are hard to find if you’re a general reader. They’ve been published in books that may be very expensive, that are from academic publishers. It just felt as though this is a way of kind of opening the window to this field for people where they can then go and read the works if they’re interested by the scholars who have worked on it.

Interview, Amanda H. Podany https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2104/weavers-scribes-and-kings-a-new-history-of-the-anc/

In honour of that, this week I will post about one of those articles which could get a wider readership if people knew about it: Michele Cammarosano’s “The Cuneiform Stylus” (academia dot edu).

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Left-Handed Soldiers in Elizabethan England

a greytone painting of men with swords killing fallen knights in armour
A rare picture of a left-handed fighter with a longsword in a medieval MS (third from the left). BNF Français 167 Bible Moralisée (painted c. 1345-1355 at Paris, France) fol. 235v https://manuscriptminiatures.com/5187/16534http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8447300c/f15.planchecontact

Technical military literature before the 19th century is always worth reading, and one of the technical writers I often return to is Sir John Smythe who died at Little Badow in England in 1607. Smythe was a diletante and a crank who believed that the military art had been perfected on the day he turned 18, but he followed the wars and had thoughts on different ways of doing things. One of the things he talks about is militia recruits who are left-handed. The history of left-handedness is kind of like the history of queerness, in that some societies loved to talk and theorize about it, while left-handers (or queer people) got on with their lives, found solutions that worked for them, and did not leave many traces or worry too much about those talkers and theorists.

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