Book and Sword
felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Book and Sword

One of the Quirks of Sumerian

A stepped terrace of sand with several clay artifacts on it including a pyramid and several statuettes
My collection of photos of Mesopotamian artifacts is small, so here is another set from Palazzo Te in Mantua

One of the quirks of Sumerian is that things are often referred to twice, once as substantives and once as affixes to the verb. The following example comes from Gudea Cylinder A (column ii, line 4) courtesy of the ETCSL.

The individual signs were pronounced something like this:

ma2-gur8-ra-na ĝiri3 nam-mi-gub

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Astyages’ Thanksgiving Banquet

Life-sized head of a bearded man carved of smooth stone
They told another version of this story about Zeus (Porphyry head of a bearded Olympian in the Burrell Collection, Scotland, photographed by Sean Manning)

If you wandered through the ports and festivals of the Aegean 2500 years ago, Herodotus would tell you a story about Astyages’ banquet. One day Astyages the king of the Medes went to his lieutenant Harpagos and ordered him to take the newborn son of Astyages’ daughter Mandane and kill him, because he had dreamed that this son would become king of the world, and because the boy’s father was no Mede but a Persian. Harpagos took the son but refused to kill him, instead giving him to one of Astyages’ slaves to kill, and when this slave went home he found that his wife had given birth to a stillborn child. His wife offered to raise this other child instead, and so Mandane’s son was spared. One day Astyages noticed that this boy had a lordly manner and a face which resembled his own, and he questioned Harpagos and uncovered what had happened. Astyages declared that it was good that the boy lived, because the fate of the boy had troubled him, and that he would feast with Harpagos and make a sacrifice to thank the gods who had preserved the boy.

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Cosmic Horror

Before speaking of something inauspicious, its always wise to invoke the protection of a lamassu. This one has accepted the change from guarding a palace to guarding a museum, so I’m sure he won’t mind guarding a blogger. (British Museum, ME 118872, photo used with permission) As a layman it often... Continue reading: Cosmic Horror

Treasure from Dilmun: Some Thoughts on Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago”

Photo of a faded hardcover book with torn paper dust cover
One thoroughly used copy of Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago” (Collins: St James’ Place, London, 1962)

I first encountered Geoffrey Bibby’s Four Thousand Years Ago in a “Best-of” volume of the Robert E. Howard fanzine Amra where the reviewer enthused that the second millennium BCE was a time when Conan could have lived again. For a younger self that was recommendation enough, and I tracked down a copy in the library. On a whim I decided to order a copy and have a look with more scholarly eyes. The volume which arrived in the mail has an old bookseller’s stamp from The Public Bookshop, PO Box 1, Bahrain which is very appropriate, for Bibby excavated there and believed it was the Dilmun of the Sumerians, the place through which all good things came.  Like the statuette of Lakshmi from Pompeii, who can say how it made its long way to its current home?

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Military Equipment for Ten Men

Stone relief with soldiers with spears and shields running up ladders placed against a city while a wheeled battering ram with a tower attacks its walls and archers shoot from behind pavises
Assyrians storm a city in the reign of Tiglath-Pilser III (745-727 BCE). British Museum Catalogue number ME 115634; ME 118903. This photo is copyright of the British Museum and is used with permission.

One of the collections of texts which I have been working with is a collection of texts associated with an Assyrian governor in the first half of the eighth century BCE (about sixty years before the relief above was carved). Aaron Dornauer has published a luxurious edition with sketches, a specialized sign list with the readings used in these documents, and detailed commentaries. Many more documents were written on clay in Neo-Assyrian times than under the Achaemenids, and because of the burning and abandonment of many Assyrian cities, a higher proportion have survived. It is therefore very important to study earlier periods to see what traditions the Achaemenids inherited and compare what is known in Achaemenid times. This weekend I will discuss one of these texts which deals with one of my interests, arms and armour.

This text is No. 48 in Dornauer’s edition and comes from two fragments whose total size is 4.1 x 6.5 cm. Like many Assyriological collections it was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century. I have written words which are written as logograms in the original with CAPITAL LETTERS.

Upper Edge: One CHARIOT
Verso: 4 HORSES
2 DONKEYS
10 BOWS
10 BLADES (patrū)
10 spears (kutahatē)
10 helmets (qurpissī)
10 quivers (azanatē)
10 shields (aritū)
10 shirts
10 leather belts
Bottom Edge: 10 tunics
Recto: 1 OX
10 SHEEP
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Quaestiones Forojulienses: Why is there so little advice on fighting with two weapons?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought.

This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Fiore’s teachings have a clear philosophy of combat and a clear structure, with longer sections which teach the core of the art and shorter sections which develop a single principle in detail, add some techniques which are useful for a particular weapon, or just demonstrate that his art can be used with whatever tools are to hand. He provides adequate instruction on unarmed combat, although enthusiasts sometimes complain that he does not address wrestling on the ground and that his stances are not very good for standing and exchanging kicks and punches. He provides very thorough instruction on fighting with a weapon in one hand and with short or long weapons in both hands.  But he has very little advice on fighting with two weapons such as sword and buckler or lance and shield.  Why not?

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Roman Archery

An archer on a galloping horse takes aim at a king with a broad-headed arrow
My library lacks photos of east Roman archers, but they and the Avars influenced peoples in western Europe, so how about this ninth-century picture from folio 32v of the Stuttgart Psalter in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek http://digital.wlb-stuttgart.de/purl/bsz307047059

In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).

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Late Babylonian Private Letters

Photo of a book from Ugarit-Verlag bound in bright blue cloth

Before Christmas a senior colleague recommended that I should read the new volume of Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe from Ugarit-Verlag. I am grateful that they did. The orientalists in Vienna are working on a project on Babylonia from the end of the seventh century BCE to the end of cuneiform writing on clay, and as part of this project they are editing the many letters which survive from this period. For some reason few school texts and libraries of literature have been found from this period, so private letters are our best view of the living language and everyday life. This volume contains 243 of which eighty have never been published and 58 never transcribed and commented upon. Every one is translated, and there is an introduction to the dialect of the letters and a dictionary with entries for every Babylonian word with references to use. Most of these letters are 100 to 200 words long and deal with instructions, property, and travel. A reasonable number, however, deal with military affairs and strong emotions.

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Reviving the “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

A typical page from the old JRMES: “after many costly and fruitless experiments” John Duckham wields his 10-cubit lance on horseback https://www.indiegogo.com/project/journal-of-roman-military-equipment-studies/embedded The Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies used to publish finds of Roman banded armour, reconstructions of Roman saddles, and experiments with sarissas on foot and on horseback. Like... Continue reading: Reviving the “Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies”

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