whimsy

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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A Carefully Worded Footnote

Trebuchet test at the University of Toronto Back Campus, 12 April 1991. Figure 1 in W. T. S. Tarver, “The Traction Trebuchet: A Reconstruction of an Early Medieval Siege Engine,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 1. (January 1995) In the early middle ages, Europeans learned about a much simpler technology... Continue reading: A Carefully Worded Footnote


Herodotus Didn’t Say That, Eduard Meyer Did

A view of a still lake and a cool sky from a stone breakwater
When I walked along the breakwater at Bregenz, I did not meet any old drunks willing to tell me the town’s terrible secrets for a tot of Schnapps, but that is a different winter story.

It has been too long since my last cheerful winter story, so on this Winter Solistice I will tell another.

Like the protagonist of a H.P. Lovecraft story, I came to Innsbruck to look for answers. The scholarship on Achaemenid armies in English was repetitive and fell apart at the first gentle question, but was there something more trustworthy in German? Duncan Head and Nicholas Sekunda cited all kinds of people who nobody else I was reading talked about. So I visited the wood-panelled Law Library reading room on the banks of a river named in a dead tongue, and borrowed an old copy of Eduard Meyer’s Geschichte des Altertums from a librarian who seemed surprised to have visitors. The first edition of Meyer’s Geschichte was completed in 1902, the last revision was in 1965 a generation after his death. Meyer tried to integrate the history of early Greece into the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia. And when I came to the following passage, I realized that the horrors were deeper and older than I had thought:
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Innsbruck’s Tell

Looking south along the Universitätstraße, Innsbruck Mud brick has fallen out of fashion, so cities no longer rise ever higher on the jumbled bones of dead houses. When the Flood or the Umman-Manda next come, perhaps we will regret that, for there is nothing like a good tell for persuading nasty... Continue reading: Innsbruck’s Tell


The Innsbrucker Labyrinth

The Innsbrucker Marktplatz in July 2017. Where do you turn, and turn again? How do delivery vans, bicyclists, and pedestrians share the space with the construction site, the underground garage [right next to a major river, natch], and the farmer’s market? Last summer I regaled my gentle readers with the story... Continue reading: The Innsbrucker Labyrinth


The Kindness of Strangers

On Friday a book arrived from the Magazin, which is what Austrians call the closed stacks or off-site storage of a library. Unlike other things which come from a magazine, it was not packed in an airtight box and covered in oil or grease, but I did have to do something else before it was... Continue reading: The Kindness of Strangers


The Paraskeuastikon of Peter the Son of Jack

A brick fortress with swallowtail battlements, a high tower, and double walls
Since I start this post by talking about an imaginary fortress designed by ignorant people, how about a real fortress designed by people skilled in the art: the Castelvecchio facing what was once outside the medieval town and is now part of the city centre, Verona. The low grey wall and the high red brick wall are separated by a ditch which was once wet.

In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.

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The Information Density of Cuneiform Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of 1 mm graph-paper
Tablet HS 643 in Jena.

When I was visiting the tablet collection in Jena (as one does) my mind naturally turned to fact-checking GURPS books. Back in 2007, some of the thoughtful writers at Steve Jackson Games put together an article “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” on the density of information from medieval manuscripts to modern printed books in words per square metre, words per kg, and words per cartload. They included some guesses about Greek papyri and cuneiform tablets, but did not seem to have as much data for those. Their house style discourages mentioning sources, but I am pretty sure that their medieval data comes from a survey of all surviving medieval European manuscripts which a professor mentioned in my undergraduate days. Today, I would like to put together some evidence on the size and capacity of small cuneiform tablets to help them fill in the gaps.
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Some Gargoyles in Prague

One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.
One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.

Because the Scholarly Skater has not been able to post for a few weeks, the supply of gargoyles on the Internet has been in decline. It is a little known fact that just as gargoyles in the real world channel away water away from flooding or dissolving the building to places where it can be used for irrigation and other useful purposes, gargoyles on the Internet channel spam and trolls so that instead of clogging the tubes they are safely redirected to a server farm in California where they keep spies and PhDs in Physics harmlessly busy. This week, I thought I would step in and fill the gap.

Although Prague is not known for its ancient history, I have some Achaemenid content at the end of this post.

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A Bronze-Age Solution

I was recently in Prague on the way back from a visit to another city, and in their National Gallery I noticed this:

A cord-and-wax seal on a door in the National Gallery, Prague.  Photo by Sean Manning, August 2016.
A cord-and-wax seal on a door in the National Gallery, Prague. Photo by Sean Manning, August 2016.

Art galleries in big old buildings often need to keep people from going un-noticed into areas which are not on public display, without blocking the connection completely. I saw the same solution at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg:

A cord-and-wax seal in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.  Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.
A cord-and-wax seal in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

But I knew it of old, because when I was growing up I had a book on Tutankhamun’s tomb which showed the cord-and-wax seal to the door of the shrine around his sarcophagus. The mourners who sealed Tut’s tomb added a special knot in the cord which thieves might find difficult to forge, but he was Pharaoh after all.

Photo by Harry Burton (1922) courtesy of the National Geographic Society and rarehistoricalphotos.com

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