21st century

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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The Innsbrucker Labyrinth

The Innsbrucker Marktplatz in July 2017. Where do you turn, and turn again? How do delivery vans, bicyclists, and pedestrians share the space with the construction site, the underground garage [right next to a major river, natch], and the farmer’s market? Last summer I regaled my gentle readers with the story... Continue reading: The Innsbrucker Labyrinth


PSA: Terrorism 101

a nightmare attack … a country where 500 counterterrorism investigations are underway at any one time … the resilience that comes with living for years with a severe threat of attack … the attack on democracy was met with defiance … Parliament Buildings all over the democratic world are under threat from those who want to destroy democracy and freedom … “(residents of the city) will never be cowed by terrorism.”

– Some journalistic cliches by someone who should really really know better

As I watch the media cycle repeat itself after the latest assassination, bombing, or mass shooting, I feel compelled to imitate Gwynne Dyer. The modern kind of terrorism did not exist in the ancient world, and I don’t even own a leather jacket. But studying organized violence is my profession, and there are plenty of textbooks for terrorists and counter-terrorists around, as well as books which explain them for beginners. (General Sir Rupert Smith, a retired British general, has published one book for a general audience on the topic and recorded a podcast which summarizes how professionals think about terrorism and insurgency). And I am very concerned that fifteen almost sixteen (!) years after a local tragedy in New York and Pennsylvania, we are still responding in a way which makes further attacks more likely, and still talking about this problem in a way which is not much more sophisticated than it was then.

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The Information Density of Cuneiform Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of 1 mm graph-paper
Tablet HS 643 in Jena.

When I was visiting the tablet collection in Jena (as one does) my mind naturally turned to fact-checking GURPS books. Back in 2007, some of the thoughtful writers at Steve Jackson Games put together an article “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” on the density of information from medieval manuscripts to modern printed books in words per square metre, words per kg, and words per cartload. They included some guesses about Greek papyri and cuneiform tablets, but did not seem to have as much data for those. Their house style discourages mentioning sources, but I am pretty sure that their medieval data comes from a survey of all surviving medieval European manuscripts which a professor mentioned in my undergraduate days. Today, I would like to put together some evidence on the size and capacity of small cuneiform tablets to help them fill in the gaps.
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The Tiroler Scylla and Charybdis

A map showing a rectangular building in the bend of a street with another street running along its other two sides.
A map of the closed main route (red) and blue temporary route
around the Markthalle, Innsbruck. The official sign makes the changes look very orderly.

Odysseus overcame Scylla and Charybdis, Jason the clashing rocks. Cyclists heading towards the Innsbrucker Hauptuni while the streets are torn up to install storm drains face another fearsome challenge, the alley behind the Markthalle. I lost the words to tell stories some time ago, so below the fold I will reveal its horrors in pictures:

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A Bronze-Age Solution

I was recently in Prague on the way back from a visit to another city, and in their National Gallery I noticed this:

A cord-and-wax seal on a door in the National Gallery, Prague.  Photo by Sean Manning, August 2016.
A cord-and-wax seal on a door in the National Gallery, Prague. Photo by Sean Manning, August 2016.

Art galleries in big old buildings often need to keep people from going un-noticed into areas which are not on public display, without blocking the connection completely. I saw the same solution at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg:

A cord-and-wax seal in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.  Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.
A cord-and-wax seal in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

But I knew it of old, because when I was growing up I had a book on Tutankhamun’s tomb which showed the cord-and-wax seal to the door of the shrine around his sarcophagus. The mourners who sealed Tut’s tomb added a special knot in the cord which thieves might find difficult to forge, but he was Pharaoh after all.

Photo by Harry Burton (1922) courtesy of the National Geographic Society and rarehistoricalphotos.com

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