ancient

West versus East, or Primitive versus Modern?

Like me, this European wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) lives here because its ancestors were brought here and have been living here ever since! According to Thompson Rivers University these are an invasive species on the Saanich Peninsula. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2021

The wars I mean are those fought between two widely separated races accustomed to a different physical environment. Then it may naturally happen that each race or nation has developed an armament and a style of fighting suitable to the nature of the country in which it dwells, and is practically unable to alter its national arms and tactics. …

The best examples which history offers of this are the great struggles in ancient or mediaeval times between East and West. Here as a rule the opposing armies differ entirely in character. The Western nation is apt to rely on solid masses of heavy-armed warriors, the Eastern on cavalry and archers skirmishing in open order. This contrast is nowhere better seen than in the Persian War, but something like the same difference meets us again in later history, in the wars of Rome with Parthia, or in the Crusades, though in them, while the Orientals still trust to light horse and archers, the men of the West rely no longer solely or mainly on infantry, but on heavy-armed horsemen, supported by infantry armed with missiles.

W.W. How, “Arms, Tactics and Strategy in the Persian War” (1923) pp. 117, 118 https://doi.org/10.2307/625800

News of the first strikes against Afghanistan indicate that a tested Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way. It is not a crusade. The crusades were an episode localised in time and place, in the religious contest between Christianity and Islam. This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals. –

Sir John Keegan, “In this war of civilisations, the West will prevail” (2001) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4266179/In-this-war-of-civilisations-the-West-will-prevail.html

In the latest issue of Desperta Ferro Antigua y Medieval (link if you read Spanish) I wrote about how many people telling the story of Xerxes’ Ionian War want one side to be a lavishly equipped professional army and the other to be a gang of ragged freedom-fighters, but they can’t decide which side should be the Greeks and which side should be the Persians. If the Persians are the mighty imperial army with the latest equipment and training, they are not the peoples overcome by European firepower and drill in recent times. If the ancient Greeks are the quarreling aristocrats and aggressive amateurs which they tell us they were, they are not Mr. Kipling’s army in skirts. People want to identify with the underdog, but they also want to believe that superhuman forces make their side’s victory inevitable. Its hard to reconcile those two wishes.

There is also a simile where Greeks battling Persians are like crusaders battling the Turks. The people who make this analogy know as little of one as the other, but it sounds impressive. And this kind of rhetoric also has some contradictions which you can see if you read the words of an obscure lieutenant of cavalry.

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The Cult of Youth

Soccer players in Victoria, BC. Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021

Reading Sir John Smythe and Harold Lamb and Martin van Creveld, I was struck by the fact that sometime in the 19th or 20th century, armies began to fetishize youth. A friend joined the Canadian Army Reserve at 17 and was carrying a rifle in Kandahar a year or two later, and when Martin van Creveld wants to show how Prussian supply officers were inadequate in 1848, he accuses them of being aged from 55 to 69 (Supplying War p. 78). My colleague Jolene McLeod has listed the modern authors who insist that Plutarch cannot be correct that Eumenes’ Silver Shields were all 60 years and older when they marched up to Antigonus’ phalanx and stabbed it to pieces in a few moments of blood and horror (Life of Eumenes 16.4). An American speaker calling for a reform of the relationship between their regular army and National Guard wanted the former to be “young” and focus on warfighting, while the older National Guard soldiers could focus on rebuilding and garrison duty. (It might have been this TED talk by Thomas Barnett but I don’t have energy to re-watch it).

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Ghost Soldiers

Since early in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, critics have warned about ghost soldiers. A significant part of the payroll of the old Iraqi and Afghan armies was soldiers who had never existed, or had died or deserted, or were just collecting pay but had never expected to do anything dangerous for it (or never been trained to fight). This was an easy way for the people in charge of an army or navy to get rich. I talked about this timeless swindle in my first book, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire:

The temple archives imply that some officials abused their positions to enrich themselves or hurt their enemies: the notorious Gimillu, a lowly širku of Ištar at Uruk, is a famous example. Matthew Stolper has collected a series of tablets where officials complain that they do not have a full allotment of supplies or workers, but are still expected to achieve the same amount of work, or that other officials have taken their workers and not replaced them. Even if Babylonians had distinguished between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ service, CT 22, 74 shows that officials also argued about who had jurisdiction over particular groups of soldiers. In Thucydides’ day, Greek observers worried that Tissaphernes might call a royal fleet into his satrapy in order to make money in exchange for release (ἐκχρηματίσαιτο ἀφείς 8.87.3). Xenophon’s Socrates also mentions bad garrison commanders who “neglect their commands or make money from them” and are punished by the king (Xen. Oec. 4.7 ἢ καταμελοῦντας τῶν φρουραρχιῶν ἢ κατακερδαίνοντας). Both writers’ Greek is vague and colloquial, but in other armies leaders have let soldiers return home in exchange for a fee or for keeping their salary, charged for exempting them from unpleasant duties, sold things and recorded them as lost in action, assigned soldiers to work which makes money for the commander, or embezzled money meant for pay and supplies. These scams are documented in the armies of the past 500 years, but also in Roman documents and literature, and it would be very unlikely that the Achaemenids managed to prevent all of their officials from abusing their position in these ways.

Manning, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) pp. 201, 202
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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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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”

Cover of "The Macedonian Phalanx" by Richard Taylor

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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