ancient

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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The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics

A few years ago I drafted a post about two different approaches to the study of the ancient world. I put it aside but then my mother, Stefano Costa, and Dimitri Nakassis started to talk about a recent New York Times piece on Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his argument that “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” I think it is time to pull those ideas out and give my perspective as an ancient historian and orientalist who is not American or British.

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The Poster Child for the Western Way of War

two smiling women with bolt-action rifles sitting in a wooded area
A rare moment of joy a terrible war from The Five Men of Velish (Velizh near Smolensk) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060022181 Why do WWoW theorists want you to know that partisans and insurgencies and hit and run are not western?

If you know the ancient writers, you must be puzzled why moderns often pronounce that ancient Greek armies were highly skilled and rigorously disciplined. Those writers make it clear that getting high-status Greek men to accept any kind of training and discipline was like getting them to pick a day to have a tooth pulled. Spartans accepted commands and corporal punishment and did a bit of drill, but no ancient writer describes them practising marching or fighting in peacetime. One reason why people say things which are contradicted by so many ancient texts is that they are using the ancient Greeks as an excuse to talk about their own culture, so they project things they love or fear about their own culture on the ancients.

Have a look at this quote from Professor Emeritus, Colonel (retired), Dr. Jonathan House who is talking about how the proud professionals of the German army got themselves spanked by the Red Army.

Germany, in fact, is the poster child for what we like to call the Western Way of War, the idea that a well-trained force can achieve rapid offensive decisive victory by superior discipline, manoeuvre, and equipment. Well, that works part of the time, but if you encounter somebody who is not willing to say he’s defeated, as the Soviets were not, and then you encounter somebody who in addition to that has all this vast terrain, then eventually your plan gets thwarted.

Dr. Jonathan House, “How the Red Army Defeated Germany: The Three Alibis,” 2 May 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zinPbUZUHDE 20:00
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New Magazine Articles

The past year has been what it has been, but I have managed to publish a number of magazine articles on ancient warfare and medieval armour. They have siege engines! Military colonists! Tomb-robbing consuls! Late Babylonia! The ones on battering rams and equipping the king’s men have come out since October. “The Achaemenid Empire’s Jewish... Continue reading: New Magazine Articles