Book and Sword
felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Book and Sword

Reverse Chronological Order Considered Harmful?

Most blog templates are full of links, but most traffic is to either recent posts or search results. (And since web search does not work very well right now, and Google forgets the old web, relying on search engines is risky). Maggie Appleton has an essay on people who have thought how link structure shapes how we navigate websites.

Joel (Hooks) also added Amy Hoy’s How the Blog Broke the Web post to the pile of influential ideas that led to our current gardening infatuation. While not specifically about gardening, Amy’s piece gives us a lot of good historical context. In it, she explores the history of blogs over the last three decades, and pinpoints exactly when we all became fixated on publishing our thoughts in reverse chronological order (spoiler: around 2001 with the launch of Moveable Type).

Maggie Appleton, “A Brief History and Ethos of the Digital Garden” (2020) https://maggieappleton.com/garden-history
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The First Braveheart Brigandine

a fanciful colour painting of Cú Chulainn riding a galloping chariot loaded with weapons and brandishing a red spear and a round shield
Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race (New York, 1911). The painting is signed by J.C. Leyendecker https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cuinbattle.jpg

Film and TV costumers love to give extras vests with random pieces of metal or leather laced or riveted to them separated by gaps. Traditional armour was meant to stop spears and arrows, so all armour like this would do would be cause the points to slide into the gaps between the plates and go through. The late Tony Bryant says that some of the very cheapest Japanese tatami-do armours were made like this, but it was never common. On the Internet we often call these Braveheart brigandines after the infamous 1995 Mel Gibson film. But the trope is older!

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The Triumph and the Tragedy of Atrocitology

To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew White, http://necrometrics.com/warstats.htm#Recurring

Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.

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Two-Phase Empire Building

In December 2023 my article with an overview of Teispid and Achaemenid armies and warfare became free to download. Whereas my first book is an academic monograph with lots of history of ideas and arguments for and against different position, this article was concise and focused on facts (originally it was intended for a companion or handbook which was derailed by the COVID pandemic). The final published version has some more academic things at the beginning after the three or so rounds of peer review. This week, I want to share why I think its fundamentally wrong to measure the Achaemenids against the Roman empire or the British empire and look for ‘Persian customs’ or ‘ethnic Persians’ in the archaeology and the tablets.

Many imperial powers emerge in two stages: first a city or dynasty gains control of and homogenizes a core territory, and then it expands outwards. During the phase of homogenization, a common language and writing system are spread, laws and customs harmonized, weights and measures standardized, and a sense of common identity develops. During the phase of expansion, the city or dynasty begins to take control of peoples who are too far away, too different, or simply too numerous to assimilate in the same way. It often chooses to rely on troops from the core territory, and to create a few standard patterns of military unit which can be recruited from that core territory and sent wherever needed. These standardized units from the core territory bring their own military culture into distant parts of the empire. The reliance on soldiers and administrators from the core territory can be understood as a political measure to keep power flowing to those who benefit from the empire. However, it also reduces cultural tensions and language barriers within imperial armies and administration and supports the rulers’ claims to be powerful and necessary. This model fits some famous world empires such as the Roman and the British. But it is not a very good fit for the Teispids and Achaemenids, whose kingdom emerged in different circumstances.

“The Armies of the Teispids and Achaemenids: The Armies of an Ancient World Empire,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 27 Nr. 2 (2022) pp. 151-153 hosted here
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Books Read in 2023

a polished stone statue of Buddha seated cross-legged on the coils of a serpent whose hood expands to seven heads which cover his head
The naga serpent protects Buddha from the rain for seven days, from the exhibit Angkor: Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (National Museum of Cambodia at the Royal BC Museum, 2 June 2023 to 14 January 2024). They say this is limestone but it seems awfully fine grained. Photo by Sean Manning, 4 January 2024.

Creating one of these lists is difficult, because scholars don’t read a lot of similar books end to end like novel readers, but dip into a variety of books looking for data. I reserve the right to skip some things I read and decide when a partial read ‘counts.’

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Google Forgets the Old Web

A senior Google Search staffer recently claimed that Google does not downgrade older pages in search results. For the record, it was Tim Bray in 2018 who demonstrated that Google was not returning the only page with a string if that page was more than 5 to 10 years old. He could find that same page with DuckDuckGo. As he put it, Google is losing its memory. He documented the same problem again in February 2022. A Marco Fioretti also found that Google was refusing to return some old pages in 2018.

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2023 Year Ender

group photo in a room with classicizing interior decor and lots of casts of Greek and Roman sculptures
Group photo from the conference on Stadtbelagerung in Innsbruck, October 2023

A lot of things happened in 2023! Because I am tired I am going to list them briefly.

I applied and interviewed for some professional jobs and found one last group of academic possibilities which still seems worth trying.

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Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?

an embossed terracotta with a gorgon's head with some of the gorgon's hair and headcloth broken away leaving only pairs of sharp fangs, almond-shaped eyes, and curled hair
An antefix (cap for the end of the peak of a tiled roof) with a gorgon’s head from around 580/570 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The technology of mass-producing terracottas in moulds goes back to Old Babylonian Mesopotamia about 1200 years before this was made, and the headcloth shows that this Gorgon is influenced by Egyptian art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248331 (Accession Number 10.210.44)

Today I will put on my Quote Investigator hat to ask a simple question: where did the cliche that technology makes the world smaller comes from? Back in 2005 Thomas Friedman had to torture metaphors to declare that The World is Flat because ‘the world is small’ was too common a topos in the business press. As I was refreshing my memory of the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals defending Kaiser Wilhelm’s invasion of Belgium, I noticed a familiar phrase in the pacifist counter-manifesto. That sent me to Google Books to look for parallels.

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Whitening Shields and Panels

a colour photo of a painted terracotta model of a Greek shield with the head of a god crowned with rays of light
Model shield from the ‘Tomb of the Erotes’ on Eretria (c. 350-250 BCE, not from a documented excavation). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession number 97.322

Xenophon once uses the verb λευκόω “to whiten” to describe how anti-Spartan Athenians made shields to fight the pro-Spartan oligarchs:

The Thirty thereupon retired to Eleusis; and the Ten, with the aid of the cavalry commanders, took care of the men in the city, who were in a state of great disquiet and distrust of one another. In fact, even the cavalry did guard duty by night, being quartered in the Odeum and keeping with them both their horses and their shields; and such was the suspicion that prevailed, that they patrolled along the walls from evening onwards with their shields, and toward dawn with their horses, fearing continually that they might be attacked by parties of men from Piraeus. [25] The latter, who were now numerous and included all sorts of people, were engaged in making shields, some of wood, others of wicker-work, and in whitening them (ἐλευκοῦντο).

Xen. Hell. 2.4.24-25

As I was studying Aeneas Tacticus before the conference on Stadtbelagerungen zwischen Ost und West (Innsbruck, 12-13. October 2023) I found a passage which helps interpret this one!

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