methodology

Keegan’s Challenge

I hope that everyone reading a blog like this has read the late John Keegan’s Face of Battle. In 1976, Keegan interrupted the quiet field of military history with some rude questions: Why was it that so many “battle pieces,” however detailed and colourful they sounded, did not explain what happened and how? Just where did the idea of the decisive battle come from? How much did we really know about famous battles? Using a few carefully chosen examples, he demonstrated how conventionalized and unrealistic many stories about battles were, even those by “serious historians” writing “technical accounts.” And then he suggested that two things had to be done: historians needed to study the “battle piece” as a genre and consider the tropes and assumptions which shaped it, and they needed to ask what individuals and small groups actually did in battle. He then explained that he did not have the energy, skills, and ambition to write a history of the battle piece as genre. Thus the next three chapters of his book are studies of what happened on three different battlefields in northern France, beginning with a sketch of the strategic situation and the course of the battle then narrowing in to focus on how and why the men on both sides fought. He borrowed some exciting new ideas from psychology and sociology and literary criticism, and added a fifth chapter with an extended comparison between soldiering and mountaineering to make the point that for the last century or so combat had come to demand more and more of soldiers to the point that it was difficult to envision what a clash between two modern armies would look like, even before the first nuclear weapon went off.

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Some Thoughts on “A Greek Army on the March”

John W.I. Lee, A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007. DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511482830 Bookfinder link to the hardcover version.

John Lee’s book on the Greek-speaking half of the army of Cyrus the Younger does not seem to have found the audience which I think it deserves. That is a shame, because I found it very useful when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and I think that a wide variety of other people both inside and outside the university would find it helpful too.

Many books on life in the Ten Thousand have been written by retired soldiers or policemen, and implicitly or explicitly take the bureaucratic armies of the last hundred and fifty years as a model. Writers searched for a detailed chain of command with large units made up of small ones and a network of officers and non-commissioned officers, a relationship between the organization of the army in camp and the organization of the army in formation, and other things which modern armies have. It was possible to do this by ignoring or minimizing a large number of anomalies. John Lee had the courage to ask “what if we take Xenophon seriously? What if we accept that what he describes seems very different from a modern army, and ask him what he means?” And so he wrote a book about how the Ten Thousand functioned as a community of men and women living and marching and fighting together.
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The Man from Arados

A relief map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Rhodes off the southwest coast of Turkey (ancient Caria) and Arados off the coast of Syria opposite Cyprus
Modified from a map by the Ancient World Mapping Center http://awmc.unc.edu/wordpress/free-maps/mediterranean-physical/ Version 1 date 22 November 2004

In the time of Antigonos the One-Eyed, an ingenious character named Kallias of Arados came to Rhodes and impressed the city fathers with his knowledge of all the latest engines for defending a city, and some which were so new that nobody had yet turned his sketches and models into a full-sized prototype. Kallias did such a good job of impressing them that they gave him an office in place of a Rhodian and funds to turn his ideas into reality. When Demetrius the Sacker of Cities arrived outside of the walls, Kallias executed his office until the Rhodians found out that his favourite machine, a crane for lifting siege towers as they approached the wall, would never work in full-size as well as it did on a model.

There are a lot of things which could be taken from this story, and a lot of details which could be imagined in turning this fable about the square-cube law back into the story about human beings which lies behind it. The detail which I want to point out is that Arados is an island off the Phoenician coast, whereas Rhodes is an island off Caria.
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I Was Wrong about the HEMA Movement

Photo of a stunning church entrance with a multicoloured stone archway with double doors set inside it
I understand that its traditional in the German-speaking countries to nail these manifesti to a church door, but since this is the 21st century, and there do not seem to be any historical fencers in Innsbruck, a photo of San Anastasia in Verona will have to do.

There are those who say that because most people forget their false predictions and remember their true, it is healthy to make a note when one notices that one was wrong about something. There is a movement variously known as historical European martial arts, Western Martial Arts, or historical fencing. Its central activity is recreating dead martial arts from the manuals which they left behind, although many practitioners also try to recreate ‘prehistoric’ martial arts which died without leaving manuals, or revive obscure but still living European martial arts such as Irish stick-fighting. And my understanding of what it is about, and what sort of people it attracts, has drastically changed over the past few years.


When I got involved in historical fencing, I thought that it was a community of amateur scholars with a broad interest in history like the serious re-enactment groups I knew. The end of the community which I became involved with was led by former members of the Society for Creative Anachronism who had drifted away from the organization as their interests drew them in a more historical, less creatively anachronistic direction. While my academic déformation professionnelle means that I often have small differences with people whose focus is on recreating past skills and experiences, I can usually find enough common ground to have a conversation with them, and sometimes I have a source to contribute which is much more useful to them than to the academics who originally discovered it. It was obvious to me that turning 15th century manuscripts into working martial arts required a broad familiarity with academic research in medieval studies, and the historical fencers whom I knew seemed to agree.

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The Classical Style of Argument

There is a style of argument which people trained in the classics often use. In this approach, one goes through the evidence piece by piece, artfully arranging it and discussing how to interpret the difficult points, then sums up by drawing it into a grand conclusion. This evidence is mostly widely available, great pains having been taken to publish Greek and Roman literature, the more important inscriptions and vases, and other remains of the ancient world in cheap editions and translations. Anyone with access to a library and the willingness to search should be able to find the main sources which lie behind a book on ancient history, and a growing number are available on the Internet. This style of argument can be great fun to read, with impressive learning and elegant transition from author to tombstone to vase. But eventually the lover of the ancient world discovers that learned and literate scholars can use this approach to write completely contradictory studies of the same topic. By selecting which passages to cite, by glossing the complicated ones, and by leaving out the inconvenient ones or sticking them in a dim corner of one’s scholarly edifice, its possible to present a case for whatever one wishes to argue. And the custom of going through the evidence piece by piece can make a lot of weak, hard to interpret pieces of evidence look solid (or many weak pieces of evidence which all lean in the same direction seem feeble). Just organizing a long list of pieces of evidence and commenting on them does not necessarily lead to the truth.

The promotion of Ada Lovelace Day and the publication of Sydney Padua’s steampunk graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage has kindled the coals of the debate about whether Ada Lovelace was a capable mathematician or an enthusiast who needed her hand held. I do not care very much about 19th century mathematicians, but I do care about the truth, so I have been following this from a distance. And one thing which I notice is that people on both sides don’t really quote their sources at all.
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This is Not a Translation of the Gadal-iama Contract

Although respectable German and French translations of the Gadal-iama contract were available by 1952, they were published in journals for specialists. As a result, many English-speaking readers first encounter this text as quoted or paraphrased in books on other topics. One of the most widely read versions was published in a life of Alexander by Robin Lane Fox and quoted by Paul Rahe in his article “The Military Situation in Western Asia on the Eve of Cunaxa.” But as with some other things in Lane Fox’s life of Alexander, this version is not exactly what it leads readers to think it is:

In one remarkable document, the problems are set out in detail. In 422 King Artaxerxes had summoned his colonists to attack the city of Uruk, but the summons had caught the Jewish owner of a land grant off his guard. Probably because of financial embarassment, the Jew’s father had been forced to adopt a member of the Murasu bank as his son, so that the banker could inherit a share in the family allotment, and as the land grant could only be owned by members of the family, adoption was the one means of evading the king’s law and endowing an outsider. When the father died, the adopted banker held one part of the farm, the true male heirs the rest. … Fortunate in his banking ‘brother,’ the Jew had struck an advantageous bargain; the wild cat bankers would not fancy fighting and so their adopted agent would finance the armour, silver tax, horse and, very probably, the groom, while the Jew would ride out at the risk of his life.

In the joy of his heart, Gadal-Iama the Jew has spoken thus to the son of the Murasu: the planted and plowed fields, the horse land of my father, you now hold because my father once adopted your father. So give me a horse with a groom and harness, a caparison of iron, a helmet, a leather breastplate, a buckler, 120 arrows of two sorts, an iron attachment for my buckler, two iron spears and a mina of silver for provisions, and I will fulfill the service-duties which weigh on our lands.

As the horseman owned no bow, the arrows were presumably to be handed in to the cashier and then distributed to owners of bow and chariot land.

– Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, The Dial Press n.p. 1974 ch. 11 p. 159

Robin Lane Fox seems to have composed this version on the basis of the French and German translations which he cited. However, it is missing things in both of them, and contains things which neither does.
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The Reconstruction of an Iron Age Building

A path running through light woods with a building at the side with a lower story built from fieldstone and an upper story built from logs with their ends crisscrossed at the corners
A Rhaetian house reconstructed on the original foundations at the Ganglegg. Near Schluderns, Vinschgau, in Italy. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2015.

If you head up the valley of the stream which runs below Schloss Churburg, cross the river a short way past the wading pool which the Vinschgauers built for bathers who want enough water to get wet in in the summer drought or won’t dare the slippery stones of the streambed, and ascend the path which snakes up the right bank amidst jingling cowbells, you eventually reach an archaeological park on the mound called the Ganglegg. Aside from the uncovered foundations and picknick tables and aluminum signs, the designers of the park also decided to reconstruct a handful of buildings. But that decision was not without controversy amongst the archaeologists.

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The Thrust of an Argument

See caption
Impression of a seal on clay: a warrior in a Median hood and a cuirass with a tall projection behind the neck with a piercing axe thrust into it pulls an enemy’s shield down and stabs overhand into his chest as the enemy brandishes a club. From Erich F. Schmidt with contributions by Sydney P. Noe et al., Frederick R. Matson, Lawrence J. Howell, and Louisa Bellinger, Persepolis II: Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications 69. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957 plate 9 seal 30. http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oip/oip-69-persepolis-ii-contents-treasury-and-other-discoveries

Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.

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Some thoughts on John Lynn’s “Battle”

Title text over a sixteenth-century charcoal drawing of a man with a fleshy face in profile wearing fanciful embossed armour
Cover photo c/o The Caffeinated Symposium blog

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Updated with a new epilogue. Westview Press: New York, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-8133-3372-4 (Bookfinder link)

This week I am going to talk about a book written by a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV of France, only two of whose eight chapters deal with ancient warfare in the broadest sense. That is because the book is one of the few which does the work of demolishing one of the most influential and least accurate ideas which an ancient military historian has ever presented to the public: the Western Way of War. Yet rather than be purely destructive, it goes on to sketch a scientific approach to war and culture, and even presents a model which scholars can apply to other cases. It does all that in an affordable volume written for lay readers in the United States where belief in a western way of war is strongest.

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How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?

A photo of two naked fencers with round strapped shields and long thrusting swords.
Capo Ferro’s engraver illustrates the perils of lifting one’s shield to parry a feint to the high left, giving one’s opponent a chance to strike low unseen (Gran Simulacro, Siena 1610 edition, plate 42). Photo c/o Wiktenauer http://www.wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Capo_Ferro_42.jpg

A discussion on another blog revised an old controversy, namely what size of sword the Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro expected his students to use. I am not a student of any seventeenth-century art, whether rhetoric or fencing, so I can’t contribute to the discussion with a perspective on what length of sword works best with his techniques, or what length was most common in northern Italy in 1610. I am a student of ancient literature, so this week I will talk about some things from the ancient world which help me to interpret his manual.

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