Ancient

Ancient

Posts on events before the middle of the first millennium CE

Some Thoughts on Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Ambush” (2012)

a neoclassical painting of the Trojan Horse from the cover of Rose Mary Sheldon's book "Ambush"
Rose Mary Sheldon, Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books: London, 2012) ISBN-13 978-1-84832-592-0 BookfinderBiblio

There is in all of us a repugnance, is there not, for hit-and-run tactics, for skirmishing and ambush? Does there not hide a feeling, however illogical and poorly thought-out, that direct assault between men who, in Brasidas’ words, “stay their ground” is somehow more “fair” and certainly more “noble” an opportunity to show a man’s true character and test it before his peers?

VDH, The Western Way of War (1989) pp. 13, 14

I know what manner of men you are in valour; what need have you to tell the tale of it? For if now all the best of you were being chosen beside the ships for an ambush, in which the valour of men is best discerned– there the coward comes to light and the man of valour, for the colour of the coward changes ever to another hue, nor is the spirit in his breast checked so that he sits still, but he shifts from knee to knee and rests on either foot, and his heart beats loudly in his breast and he imagines death, and his teeth chatter; but the colour of the brave man changes not, nor does he fear excessively when once he takes his place in the ambush of warriors, but he prays to mix immediately in woeful war- not even then, I say, would any man make light of your courage or the strength of your hands. For if you were struck by an arrow in the toil of battle, or struck with a thrust, not from behind in neck or back would the missile fall; but your chest would hit it or your belly, as you were pressing on into the dalliance of the foremost fighters.

Iliad 13.275-286 (cited for a different purpose in WWoW p. 96 / ch. 8)

Ambushes are murder and murder is fun!

Anglo infantry training chant, 1960s-present

In my first book, I said that ancient historians had not really addressed the broader problems with Hanson’s The Western Way of War in print for the general public (pp. 38 and 351 for those of you following along at home). They often share concerns in private, but in public they were much more comfortable talking about the estoerica of infantry combat than about the Greek exceptionalism and breezy generalizations about the orient which motivated Hanson’s book. John Lynn is a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV not Iphicrates or Cao Cao! But one ancient historian has in fact done that work. Rose Mary Sheldon wrote a book on ambushes in ancient Greek warfare and wrapped it in a plea to soldiers and policymakers that wishful thinking about the past will lead to terrible things in the future.

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We the People

Old Iranian kāra- and spada-, Greek laos, Latin populus, German Heeresvolk, Babylonian uqu “the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the community” –

Manning, Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) p. 138

In my first book, I touched on something which is obvious to military historians but might not be as clear to other kinds of people. When people from the Iron Age to the 19th century spoke of <the people>, they meant the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the society. Political change had to be literally fought for- if not by revolution then by a new section of the population doing something so conspicuously useful in war that the people who ran things had to give them a voice. One reason why combined-arms tactics were harder in practice than theory was that they required integrating the poor with stones and darts, the middle sort with bows and spears, and the rich with horses and swords. Often, the thing which was tactically advantageous was politically disadvantageous for the people who were currently living easy on others’ work. The French lost the battle of Coutrai in 1302 because their crossbowmen and javelin-men were breaking up the Flemish pikemen on their own, and the French lords decided that they needed to charge so they could say they had really won by themselves. French aristocrats lost battle after battle which was unfortunate for individual aristocrats, but aristocrats as a class kept control of French society at the expense of the peasants and the burgers. There was a vicious political battle after 479 BCE about whether working-class rowers or leisured hoplites had saved Hellas from the Mede. People who seized power often disarmed their opponents and dissolved their militias. That might make society as a whole less able to defend itself, but it made the losers in the power struggle less able to defend themselves against the winners.

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New Book: A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire

About ten years after the initial proposal the Companion to the Achaemenid Empire has been published! This two-volume, 110-chapter companion covers all aspects of the Achaemenid empire. Whereas previous surveys have been written by a single author, this book is the product of 92 researchers including Elspeth Dusinberre, Bruno Jacobs, Amélie Kuhrt, Robert Rollinger, David Stronach, and Caroline Waerzeggers. Bringing such a project to completion during a period of rapid change in publishing, a pandemic, and a turbulent situation in several rich countries was no small task for the organizers. The price is very appropriate for a European vision of the Achaemenids: 365 Euros. In 2015, there were plans for a cheaper softcover edition printed in thousands of copies, but those plans may have changed.

My chapter is the first comprehensive history of research on the Achaemenids in western Europe. With my co-author, we covered research in English, French, German, and Italian by chronological development, by country, and by themes such as numismatics.

There is a complete list of chapters and authors on Wiley’s Online Library.

This project is bittersweet because the Lie is becoming strong in Gandara and Ionia is on fire. I completed my chapter in 2015 and last revised it in December 2019, and I am not sure what the printed version of the chapter will look like. In a few months, I have gone from having most of my research in press to having almost nothing in press. But getting any version of such a project out is a great deed for the editors and their assistants.

Jacobs, Bruno / Rollinger, Robert (eds.), A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Two volumes. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World No. 2 (John Wiley & Sons, 2021) ISBN-13 ISBN: 978-1-119-17428-8 Wiley (with publisher’s description) – Wiley VCHBookfinder

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The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

a keep and church on a foothill over a town in the valley on a foggy day, September 2020
A tower house of unusual size over the old silver-mining town of Schwaz, Tirol.

All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.

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Talk by Greek Hoplite Reenactors

If you like videos, some of the people who are organizing Plataia 2021 (which will probably occur in 2022) and classicist Natasha Bershadsky have given a talk at the Centre for Hellenic Studies in Massachusetts. If you are not familiar with Giannis Kadoglou’s kit, Paul Bardunias’ experiment at Marathon 2015, and the Hoplite Experiment at WMAW 2019, its a handy introduction (and if you are, there are a few video clips which I have not seen before).

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Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx”

Richard Taylor, The Macedonian Phalanx: Equipment, Organization & Tactics from Philip & Alexander to the Roman Conquest (Pen & Sword: Barnsley, 2020) xii + 482 pages ISBN 978-1-52674-815-7

Available from Pen & Sword, biblio.com, and amazon.com

The Macedonian Phalanx is a thoughtful, engaging account of the ancient pike phalanx. By drawing upon literature, inscriptions, archaeology, and comparative evidence it uses the best available methods in ancient history. I am both jealous and relieved that I no longer have to write such a book myself.

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How to Hold Bronze Swords

A Destreza Training Sword (with the proper wooden grip!) from Darkwood Armoury held parallel to the arm with a finger hooked over the crossguard in a ‘rapier grip’

All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.

People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.

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An Old Line of Argument

The commander (imperator) as head of state and father of the fatherland: a statue of Augustus from Prima Porta. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statue-Augustus.jpg

Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:

Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city?
The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt!
O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you!
Era the whole land outgrows us,
You must surely hear our words! (80)
Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness,
The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind.
Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land,
The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field].
Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85)
The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you.
We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go,
Cobwebs are spun over our field gear,
Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us,
The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90)
Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!

Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
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How Much did a Tunic Cost in the Roman Empire?

If this isn’t the famous robbery scene, from Arsenal MS. 5070 Boccaccio Decameron its as close as I can bother to get for a short blog post! The victim on the left is stripping off his clothes while the three robbers look on.

Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.

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