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The Orlat Battle Plaques

line drawing of two engraved bone belt-ends.  One shows archers on horseback chasing assorted ungulates, while the others shows a battle between cataphracts
Drawing of the Orlat Plaques after Jangar Ya. Ilyasov and Dimitry V. Rusanov, “A Study on the Bone Plaques from Orlat,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 5 (1997–98), pl. IV:1. care of https://sogdians.si.edu/orlat-plaque/

A lot of history forums and subreddits confuse me, but the main thing I got out of them was pointer to sources I did not know about. One of those sources that I learned about in 2009 was the Orlat Battle Plaques. These are polished bone belt-ends from a grave near Samarkand dating sometime between the 2nd and 4th century CE. On the right plaque mounted archers chase ungulates, while on the left plaque cataphracts battle with swords, lances, and piercing axes / sagareis.

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The Stele of G. Damianus

overview stele of the funerary stele of a Roman soldier. The stele is carved of coarse grey stone, probably limestone or similar. He stands in an arched niche wearing a cloak and tunic with a large belt. A spear with a bundle around the shaft is to his right, and he holds a scroll in his left hand.
The funerary stele of G. Damianus in the Roman museum, Bologna

In the before times, when I could travel and had something to travel to, I visited Bologna. In their museum of antiquity I saw this funerary stele. Judging by the clothing and style I would date it around 150-250 CE. The soldier wears boots not sandals, his tunic has long sleeves, and his belt is narrow and not covered with brass or silver plaques. At first I was amused by the soldier’s very Celtic moustache in one of the cities where the Romans did their best to eliminate the native Celtic population. A little research showed an unexpected story!

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Left-Handed Soldiers in Elizabethan England

a greytone painting of men with swords killing fallen knights in armour
A rare picture of a left-handed fighter with a longsword in a medieval MS (third from the left). BNF Français 167 Bible Moralisée (painted c. 1345-1355 at Paris, France) fol. 235v https://manuscriptminiatures.com/5187/16534http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8447300c/f15.planchecontact

Technical military literature before the 19th century is always worth reading, and one of the technical writers I often return to is Sir John Smythe who died at Little Badow in England in 1607. Smythe was a diletante and a crank who believed that the military art had been perfected on the day he turned 18, but he followed the wars and had thoughts on different ways of doing things. One of the things he talks about is militia recruits who are left-handed. The history of left-handedness is kind of like the history of queerness, in that some societies loved to talk and theorize about it, while left-handers (or queer people) got on with their lives, found solutions that worked for them, and did not leave many traces or worry too much about those talkers and theorists.

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Aristotle on the Pelte Shield

excerpt from a scholarly edition of four ancient Greek texts
Fragment 498 from Valentini Rose (ed.), Aristotelis qui ferebantur librorum fragmenta (Teubner: Stuttgart, 1967)

Those of us who grew up on Peter Connolly remember that Aristotle defines the pelte shield (Greece and Rome at War p. 48 “Auxiliary Troops”). What did he actually say? A bit of research in March lead me to fragment 498 in Valentine Rose’s Teubner edition of the ‘fragments’ of Aristotle. In classical philology, fragments are places where a surviving text cites or paraphrases a text which is now lost. Only rarely is a fragment literally a damaged manuscript or a scrap of papyrus. Four different texts give some version of Aristotle’s words, but I will translate the version in a commentary on Plato’s Laws:

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How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

See caption for description of painting
Another important detail: A Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the BNM Munich showing the telltale red belly and yellow back of a bowstave made from the heartwood of a yew tree.

At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string.  If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.

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Ferdinand of Naples on the Importance of Uniforms

a field looking towards a flock of sheep, a second-growth deciduous forest, and a small town in a valley
In another October this field was full of angry Frenchmen and Prussians not white sheep. Looking south from the battlefield of Jena, October 2010. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2010.

Long ago I heard the story of the South Italian prince who interrupted a discussion about the army’s new uniforms with “dress them in red, blue, or yellow, they will run away all the same.” The story embodies a truth that there is a big difference between looking like an army and being an army (and that some types of reform have more of an impact than others). But where does it come from? Twentieth-century British writers like Bernard Cornwell love telling stories about European foreigners and their national deficiencies, and I grew up reading a lot of twentieth-century British and US writers.

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When the Spartans Turned and Fled

Monty Python shows how it is done! Image courtesy of http://www.billdamon.com/ (Internet Archive)

An article by Roel Konijnendijk and Paul Bardunias reminded me of one of the passages which made researchers rethink early Greek warfare. Plato’s dialogue Laches discusses the nature of courage and the value of education or training. Laches, a gruff soldier, has just defined courage or manhood in the way Athenians in Plato’s day usually defined it: as the ability to stay in the place assigned to you and defend yourself. Plato’s Socrates can think of some counter-examples:

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Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes

a Greek vase painting of Darius on his throne as a man in Greek dress approaches to give advice
This painting is contemporary with Darius III, but the material culture does not convince me! Note the nice long kopis cleaver and the knobby walking stick. The Darius Krater in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples (from Apulia, c. 340-320 BCE), c/o Wikimedia Commons

Greek and Roman literature is certainly an important collection of evidence for clothing in the Achaemenid empire. Most of these passages describe the clothing of the king and satraps, or simply say that such-and-such is the Persian equivalent of a Greek garment. Herodotus and Strabo provide information about the garments of other people. Herodotus says that Babylonian men dress as follows:

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How Long a Sword is Too Long?

three male peacocks and a female peacock on a concrete staircase next to a Baroque castle garden
Just before the plague hit, I took this photo. Schloss Ambras, February 2020.

Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.

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