The cemetery at Yanghai in Uighur territory continues to give. This week, an article about hide scale armour in a grave there has been circulating on the Internet and corporate social media. The grave had other cool things, like a wooden bedstead and a wooden fire drill, but most of the attention has focused on the authors’ claims that the armour was made within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, that claim is the weakest part of a strong article.
When you point out some of the less appealing aspects of ancient societies, someone usually accuses you of anachronistic morality. For example, it is very hard to find a writer in the ancient world who objects to slavery as a malum in se. There were people who objected to the wrong kind of people being enslaved, or to cruelty to slaves, but there are very few surviving texts where anyone says that slavery is wrong in and of itself. Isn’t it unfair to accuse the ancients of not knowing that slavery was always wrong if none of them seems to have realized this? There are various counters to this, like pointing out that people who point out admirable aspects of ancient societies seldom face the same criticism. But the best counter is listing some ancient practices which other ancient people objected to. One of the central themes of Roman literature is complaining how terrible Romans in the author’s day are.
S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy is a Late Bronze Age alternate history which does not involve Akhenaten or the Exodus (it does involve the Trojan War). That makes it a novel for me. It even quotes some Stan Rogers lyrics! So in 2021 I re-read my copy of the second volume in Canada. After being cast back to the Late Bronze Age, the Nantucketers have been divided into a majority based on their island and a renegade faction lead by William Walker (not the filibuster). Both factions are rushing to industrialize and expand like unto a game of Civilization.
In late September, the world was excited by a Nature Science Reports article arguing that Tall el-Hamman, a city on the Jordan River, was destroyed by an interstellar body bursting overhead around 3650 years ago. This paper was published by a team of natural scientists based in the USA, particularly geologists, remote sensor scientists, and earth scientists. Because it is multidisciplinary, very few people are qualified to assess the argument as a whole. There seems to be some pushback from archaeologists on corporate social media. Those threads are far less useful than a footnoted essay would be, and some of the ones by highly educated posters make claims which anyone who reads the article can see are false. One of the better threads is by a Dr. Megan A. Perry, a bioarchaeologist at East Carolina University in the USA:
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.
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. –
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.
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).
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
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.
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: 978-1-119-17428-8Wiley (with publisher’s description) – Wiley VCH – Bookfinder
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.