Things Found in Footnotes

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Categories: Medieval
A silver coin with Athena seated on a throne holding a round shield with a word in Greek and a B-shaped bow behind her
Although the bow was rarely the most prestigious weapon in the Aegean, it was still an important part of life and warfare. Museum label: “Tetradrachm. Obv. Head of Philetairos right. Rev. Athena enthroned left with shield and spear, legend: ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ, bow, ivy left, monogram. The Pergamene Kingdom. Attalos I Soter, 241-197 B.C. Silver, chasing. Provenance, 1952.” Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015, of an object in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

On New Years’ Day I was sorting through some old papers from my time in Calgary and found something which set me to cursing. I was looking for an article which I had ordered while I was writing my MA but never done much with. As it was delivered on paper, and I never typed up the citation, I did not have it in Innsbruck and could not find it again. A.D.H. Bivar’s “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier” mentions in passing that:

There is support for the general hypothesis that the so-called “Mongolian draw” was used by the Huns, and from them taken up by the Byzantines, in a passage from the anonymous sixth-century chapter on archery, περὶ τοξείας. (p. 284)

He cited a German translation and commentary with the Greek text attached. I was intrigued because the sources on archery in the Mediterranean which are most often used are written in Arabic and date between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. I now have it in arm’s reach, and it is indeed a treatise on archery, and it does date to the first millennium CE.

The manuscript divides the treatise into four sections, an introduction, a chapter on shooting accurately, a chapter on shooting powerfully, and a chapter on shooting quickly (that is, the ability to shoot as many arrows in a given period as possible). The whole treatise fills three or four pages in modern print.

The amazingly hellenic Philip Rance has written an article on the larger text in which this treatise is embedded and suggests that the date is closer to the ninth century than the sixth. On the other hand, he refuses to suggest how much earlier the archery treatise is, except that the apparent description of the ‘Mongolian draw’ might date it after the first Roman encounters with the Huns. Like most of the surviving Greek military texts from antiquity, it was preserved by being included in MS Laurentianus Graecus LV 4 which is now in Florence; two other medieval manuscripts and a large group of Renaissance copies also survive, but each manuscript is missing one of the four chapters. He mentions in passing that it sits next to a fragment on naval warfare which defines the diekplous and periplous and may contain material from one of the missing works of Aeneas Tacticus in the middle of the fourth century BCE (!) I still can’t spare enough time for either. But even on the well-trodden drillfield of Roman military history, there are many important sources which are little known to specialists, let alone the general public.

Further Reading: Philip Rance, “The Date of the Military Compendium of Syrianus Magister (formerly the Sixth-Century Anonymus Byzantinus),” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 100/2 (2007) p. 705 n. 12 (link), Otmar Schissel von Fleschenberg, “Spätantike Anleitung zum Bogenschießen,” Wiener Studien 59 (1941) pp. 110-124. I have not read the follow-up which he promised for volume 60 but Rance states that it was printed despite the war. Rance also suggests G. Amatuccio, Peri Toxeias. L’arco da guerra nel mondo bizantino e tardo antico. Bologna 1996, pp. 67 – 80 (a collection of sources translated into Italian available from the author’s page) which I have not read.

0 thoughts on “Things Found in Footnotes

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Sounds thrilling, I say that all the time, we should carefully examine medieval, renaissance manuscripts if we want to find out new and missing material for ancient manuals and history. Archimedes codex couldn’t be only one!

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, and sometimes things are already in print but have never been brought to the attention of the right people. It seems like the people who work on the Arabic archery manuals don’t know about this text (because it has the label “Roman”?), and neither do the people interested in the Roman army (because it is too late … except that we don’t know how early the sources it is reworking are?) So there are still new things to do if we are willing to do the work!

      They recently found a fragment of a Greek history of an invasion of Greece in the second century CE on a palimpsest in Vienna.

  2. A. MacKinnon says:

    The treatise in question has been translated into English by George T. Dennis *Three Byzantine Military Treatises* pgs. 129-135.

    The section allegedly referring to the “Mongolian Draw” is as follows (44.18-23):

    “Some archers draw the bowstring with the three middle fingers, others with only two. Of those who use two, some will press the thumb upon the index finger, and others just the opposite. The last draws the bowstring back further and fires the arrow with greater force. Each man should practice each one of these methods, so that when the fingers he has been using become tired from the continual tension, he may use the others.”

    Dennis then cites Maurice’s Strategikon (Once again, a Dennis translation) Book 1.1:

    “He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner.”

    Following the rabbit whole even further, the accompanying footnote states:

    “It seems that the Roman manner, taken from the steppe nomads, consisted of drawing the bowstring with thumb and forefinger, whereas the Persians did it with the lower three fingers.” Here he cites A. Bivar “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier.” i.e. the same document which started your blogpost!

    So, at this point my question is what evidence do we have that the Romans/Byzantines *did not* know of the thumb-draw before encountering the Huns? It would seem to me that this gap in knowledge would need to be firmly established first, before using it as a foundational piece of evidence when it comes to estimating a date of composition. “Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence” and all that … so out of genuine curiosity rather than being pedantic, what “Evidence of Absence” exists?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I am not an expert on archery in late antiquity, but I hope that this post inspires people to start looking at mosaics and handbooks and silver bowls! If I ever get a chance to launch my project on archery in the eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the first millennium BCE, I might have something to say on earlier periods, but probably not the early Roman empire which would be the crucial time for comparison. According to Vegetius, Cato the Elder already wrote something about archery, at least from the perspective of a general.

    2. Alexander Stover says:

      I covered this in a separate exchange with Sean last year, but Bivar’s entire idea that the Persians used the lower three fingers is arguably very, VERY flawed. He based his assertion entirely on a limited (and possibly cherry-picked) sampling of Sassanian silver plates, depicting royal archers hunting.

      This is just my opinion as someone who is both an archer (and amateur historian) but I strongly believe that the bowls are actually depicting a modified Mongolian release/thumb draw. One involving the middle finger wrapped over the thumb, instead of the index over the thumb.

      I go into some anatomical and technical reasons here:

      This interpretation of a Sassanid thumb draw is strikingly similar to a thumb release used around the same time in China, with which Sassanid Persia had friendly diplomatic relations. I’m not suggesting a direct connection by any means, but it’s rather interesting…

      The bigger nail in the coffin of Bivar’s false dichotomy is the text of the Ayin-Name, a Sassanid manual, which explicitly talks about the draw hand being held “in the twenty three, as if in the sixty three”, and about the bow hand grasping firmly with the lower three fingers. These are telltale signs of the Mongolian release. The firm lower three finger grasp is a key part of a followthrough movement associated with the thumb draw (“khatra” in Arabic) and the “63” is a very common description used for the Mongolian release in many other Middle eastern sources. It is based on the finger reckoning system:

      If anything, the Bivar-Dennis dichotomy should run in reverse: the “Roman” manner was probably the 3 finger draw, and the Persian one was the thumb draw. But the assignment of these ethnicities to a particular release tells us nothing of their ultimate origins.

      The whole idea of the Huns introducing the thumb draw to the Romans is complete bogus, IMHO. Both fingers and thumb draws were probably in simultaneous use in the Mediterranean for many centuries, including ancient and early medieval Greece and Rome. περὶ τοξείας is a great example of this. It recommends alternating back and forth between the two draws, so that the fingers or thumb don’t get too worn out.

      1. Sean Manning says:

        That connection to finger reckoning is interesting! I think we have a few Latin sources on it. There was another finger code which monks used to communicate when they were sworn to silence.

        In his translation of the “Strategikon”, Dennis also cites Bivar for showing that a “bowshot” is 133 feet long. I also had trouble following Bivar’s argument there, but he was working from the sources in the original without a translation as a crib!

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