Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’
Brian Hughes and Fergus Robson (eds.) Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) circa 80 Euros on Bookfinder
I borrowed this volume in hopes that it would have more clues as to the oldest source for Good King Robert’s Testament (it did not, although Alastair John MacDonald very kindly helped me with modern editions of the Scotichronicon). But I ended up reading about half of it (skipping the chapters on 20th century warfare such as Julia Welland on NATO’s unlucky intervention in Afghanistan and Raphäelle Branche on French Algeria).
The book is in reverse chronological order, but lets begin with Tim Piceu describing an outbreak of small war in Flanders as the Dutch Republic and Hapsburgs wrestled for control (p. 160, 164)
Freebooter raids generally started in a tavern in one of the above-mentioned frontier towns or in a town in the island of Walcheren (Zeeland). There a group of around a dozen men- no women are known to have been freebooters- discussed a tip received by a local informant who knew of booty. Although frebooter bands acted under the guidance of an experienced marauder, the conducteur, and some friends raided together, there seemed to be no regular composition of the crew. Everybody who had the courage could join in. If the value of the booty outweighed the risks, the group would decided to leave for enemy territory. They packed their weapons and victuals for some days, dressed themselves like peasants, and slipped past enemy posts to a hiding-place in enemy territory. The sources mention freebooters carrying a vaulting-pole to move across the many Flemish creeks, ditches, and tidal inlets. Travelling happened mostly at night and the band avoided major roads. … Most freebooters probably used their takings for living expenses, paying off debt or, to quote a Dutch civil servant, ‘to indulge for a little time in a bad and godforsaken life of drunkenness and whoring.’
You all meet in a tavern, forsooth! And every gamer agrees with that Dutch civil servant about the proper way to spend the spoils of an adventure, even if they have not read sources from the Wars of the Low Countries or the Yukon Gold Rush.
A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift
A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.
For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.
I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.
Just Like the Persians in Pictures
Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.
At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:
But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.
– Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)
Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?
Publishing in Xenophon’s World
A famous passage of Xenophon goes as follows (Xen. Hell. 1.4.3):
Cyrus had a letter with him, bearing the King’s seal … among other things it contained these words: I am sending Cyrus down to the coast as karanos of all whose mustering centre is Castolus (the word karanos means „having power“)
Xenophon never repeats the word karanos, and no other surviving Greek or Latin writer uses it. In the Anabasis (1.1, 1.9.7) he says that Cyrus was made strategos, or general, of those whose mustering centre is Castolus.
The word karanos has become encrusted with a painstaking and scholarly literature which investigates it philologically. Because the term was only attested once before the Parthian period, when it appears in Aramaic on coins and is spelled krny and equated with Greek autokrator, progress has been limited. The term clearly contains the root kāra-, the Old Persian word for the politically and military significant part of the population. This word is not easily translatable into English, but there are convenient equivalents in many languages, including German Heeresvolk. Because it appears in both the royal inscriptions and in Iranian names, its general meaning is clear. Philologists disagree whether the ending /-nos/ is simply the suffix for „someone in charge of“ (Latin tribus -> tribunus) or from a verb “to lead, to make go” as Nicholas Sekunda prefers (Gr. στρατηγός <- stratos “army” + agō “to go”, δημαγωγός <- dēmos “people-in-arms” + agōgos “one who leads astray”). In the first case the Old Persian would be something like kārana-, in the second kāranaya-. Neither theory clarifies exactly what the word meant in 407 BCE. Scholars who attempt to show that karanos was a common title in the Achaemenid empire find themselves in a foggy jungle, since just because a karanos could be called a strategos does not mean that any of the other strategoi in Greek sources were karanoi, and the masses of Elamite, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Demotic Egyptian documents did not use this term. But then the group of leather documents from Bactria from the fourth century BCE was published, and many of its readers noticed something.
Three Ancient Traditions of Tactical Writing
A forthcoming conference has me thinking about writings on tactics in the ancient world. While the English word tactics indicate a clever way of fighting, the Greek adjective τάκτικη means “having been put into a formation for battle.” In other words, in the ancient world tactics were what we call organization and drill. Ancient and modern critics have complained that tactics in the Greek sense are insufficient education for a soldier, but experienced soldiers tended to recognize that they were necessary.
Who writes the history books?
Michael Ignatieff, former head of the Liberal Party of Canada, has been musing about why he lost the election of 2011 (see eg. this excerpt from his book in the Toronto Star). One of his consolations is that succesful political thinkers often fail as practical politicians, because theory and practice are different arts and require different virtues. Canadian readers... Continue reading: Who writes the history books?