methodology

methodology

Rationalizing Cunaxa

At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:

And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.

It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?

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The Largest Armies in World History

A reproduction of a battle between Persians and Macedonians painted on glazed tiles
This battle scene is crowded, but just how many men are supposed to be involved? A detail of the reproduction of the Darius Mosaic from Pompeii in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?

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Photographs Showing How a Helmet is Made

22 black and white photos of a helmet being worked from a simple plate of steel into a visored and polished and engraved and gilt form
Series of steps in the construction of a close helm in the Greenwich style of about 1580 by Daniel Tachaux. Photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1915, as reprinted in Robert Douglas Smith ed., Make All Sure: The Conservation and Restoration of Arms and Armour (Basiliscoe Press: Leeds, 2006) p. 108 publisher’s website

I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.

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The Size of Achaemenid Armies

In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.

I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.

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Some Thoughts on “Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics”

The cover of a book showing a map of Eurasia in the background and a tree of Indo-European languages in the foreground

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link

A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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Why Does Research Clump?

A wrought silver bowl showing Ajax, Athena, and Odysseus
Since my view of how research works involves a lot of arguing in front of an audience, how about the debate about who should inherit the armour of Achilles? Silver plate in the Hermitage with Ajax and Odysseus competing for the armour of Achilles (number ω-279.) Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Robin Hanson, the economist and futurist with a great deadpan, has been thinking about why academic research tends to clump around particular problems. Like many American thinkers today, he appeals to a theory of mind where most of what people do is really about status and social position and nobody is sincere. In his post Idea Talkers Clump, he puts it thus:

I keep encountering people who are mad at me, indignant even, for studying the wrong scenario. While my book assumes that brain emulations are the first kind of broad human-level AI, they expect more familiar AI, based on explicitly-coded algorithms, to be first.

… I’d estimate that there is now at least one hundred times as much attention given to the scenario of human level AI based on explicit coding (including machine learning code) than to brain emulations.

But I very much doubt that ordinary AI first is over one hundred times as probable as em-based AI first. …

In addition, due to diminishing returns, intellectual attention to future scenarios should probably be spread out more evenly than are probabilities. The first efforts to study each scenario can pick the low hanging fruit to make faster progress. In contrast, after many have worked on a scenario for a while there is less value to be gained from the next marginal effort on that scenario.

Yes, sometimes there can be scale economies to work on a topic; enough people need to do enough work to pass a critical threshold of productivity. But I see little evidence of that here, and much evidence to the contrary. Even within the scope of working on my book I saw sharply diminishing returns to continued efforts. So even if em-based AI had only 1% the chance of the other scenario, we’d want much more than 1% of thinkers to study it. At least we would if our goal were better understanding.

But of course that is not usually the main goal of individual thinkers. We are more eager to jump on bandwagons than to follow roads less travelled. All those fellow travellers validate us and our judgement. We prefer to join and defend a big tribe against outsiders, especially smaller weaker outsiders.

Now, I share his frustration when I see large amounts of attention being devoted to some problems, while others which seem just as interesting are ignored. If smart people have been arguing about something for 200 years, and no new sources or methods have appeared, I have trouble believing that my opinion will add anything to the conversation (this is Daniel Kahneman’s principle “thou shalt respect base rates, and not let thyself make excuses about why this time is different” and Edsger W. Dijkstra’s Third Golden Rule for Scientific Research [EWD 637]). On the other hand, as an ancient historian from Canada, I can think of some other reasons why research tends to clump.
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On Sketching Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of graph-paper and bubble-wrap
Tablet HS 643 in Jena. On the graph paper in the background each small square is 1 mm wide.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.

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Suppressio Veri and the Battle of Magnesia

Relief of jumbled infantry and horsemen in Greek clothing fighting each other
A detail of a battle on a marble Attic sarcophagus of the early third century CE. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inventory number A.521. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

A few weeks ago I was distracting myself by chatting about the Battle of Magnesia with Michael Park, a very thoughtful lover of ancient history. This battle was a shocking upset where the Seleukid king and and army raised from his whole kingdom were scattered by a small army from Rome and Pergamon which had not seemed very eager for the fight. The longest surviving accounts are by Livy (written about 150 years after the fact) and Appian of Alexandria (about 300 years later) both of whom had access to contemporary sources. This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers. However, they were limited by the fact that Antiochus and his Friends paid people to tell their story in fashionable Greek, so they could not claim that Antiochus had hundreds of thousands of soldiers or wore foreign clothing or was too cowardly to go into battle himself. If they went too far, people who had heard other versions after dinner or read them in a library would cry foul.

In this battle the fighting began on the wings, and each side won on its right: Antiochus and his Friends drove a legion back to its camp with the first charge, while panic broke out on his left wing and Eumenes of Pergamon found himself in control of the field there. The infantry on both sides had not yet engaged: perhaps Antiochus was nervous of the stories that while thyreophoroi were normally no danger to a Macedonian phalanx, the Roman ones had a way of getting into the small gaps which emerged if a phalanx tried to move too quickly or crossed rough ground. Livy gives us his version of what happened next:

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