Month: September 2017

Some Things That the HEMA Movement Gets Right

Several men and women in plate armour rest on the grass in the shade while others look on or chat
Some happy warriors after a historical fencing event in the Midwestern USA.

Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.

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Just Like the Persians in Pictures

Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.

At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:

But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)

Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?

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In Memoriam, Jerry Pournelle

Dr. Jerry E. Pournelle died a few days ago. As someone who only knew him through his work, its hard for me to express what a brilliant, multitalented, frustrating individual he was. The summary of his career on Wikipedia gives some idea: born poor in Louisiana, conscripted into the US Army and sent to Korea as an artillery officer, he made his way through university by keeping a pot constantly simmering in his one-room apartment and got a doctorate in Political Science. Having just gotten started, he moved to Southern California and filled his life with political advocacy, academic work on the strategy of technology and operations research, hobbyist and professional wargaming, science-fiction fandom and the early SCA, fiction writing, a technology column for the early home computer movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually a blog (not to mention marrying and having two children, one a multi-talented academic and another who prefers a quiet life). Like some other Catholic intellectuals in rich English-speaking countries, he was a contrarian by nature and loved a good rant. Throughout his life he was fearless in expressing his political opinions and attacking his political opponents, but since he had very different convictions than I do, particularly later in his life, I will say no more about that here. He did his best to save the world from communism and his country from its most threatening neighbours, and his writings were an important influence on my thought in my teens and early twenties.
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The Wellcome Trust and the Urban Graveyard Effect

In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).

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Sometimes Bittner Was Right

A painted relief of a warrior on horseback stabbing downwards with a spear. His body armour has two layers of short flaps at the waist, a front and back running straight up and down, wide blocky sleeves ending before the arm joint, and a tab behind the head just as tall as the head.
The horseman on the Çan Sarcophagus wears an akinakes strapped to his right thigh. Copyright Troy Excavation Project, photo found at

Specialists in the Achaemenid Empire don’t like to talk about Stefan Bittner. His Doktorarbeit is the only monograph on the Achaemenid army which has ever been published, but it takes exactly the approach which was inspiring another group of scholars to organize conferences and rethink the field: it relies almost completely on Greek literature and artwork, and treats these sources as a precious collection of facts to be worked into a coherent whole. In the decades which followed, those other scholars knocked so many holes in this approach that it is hard for them work with a book like his, so they tend to cite his thesis and say nothing more. I don’t think that this is really fair, since nobody can predict how academic fashion will shift or what new evidence will become available. People who try too hard to ride the crest sometimes find themselves flailing in midair as the wave below them crashes down. There is a sad joke that farming is a simple job where you just have to predict the weather, fuel costs, and food prices a year in advance; PhD students have to predict the job market 3 to 10 years in advance. And in the early 1980s, it was not so easy to hear about conferences and intellectual movements in other countries as it is today. So this week, I would like to mention one of his good ideas which seems to have been ignored.

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