Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’

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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.
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I am Re-Reading

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Robin Reich, “Historians have too Many Learning Objectives”

(In the Anglo tradition) history as a field does not explicitly discuss our basic assumptions, methods, or theories and so what we as historians agree on we only pick up informally or through snippets and crumbs dropped by our advisers. In my undergrad curriculum at a small liberal arts college, which was exceptional in many ways, the only two required classes for history majors were a historiography colloquium to be taken Junior year, and a research seminar in preparation for writing a senior thesis. There was no introductory course that explained what history is or how it is practiced – in effect, the historiography colloquium was this introductory course, as well as an advanced seminar in field-specific methods. Other disciplines don’t do this, because they have a sense of what the basics are in their field. But historians can’t even agree on what makes us all part of the same field. So we relegate these kinds of lessons to survey courses, which are totally inappropriate to teaching these lessons because they are large and structured around taking on a lot of information at once. The result is overloaded, bloated syllabi and assignments. In large universities, this usually shakes out to one history class actually being two – there’s the survey lecture course that the professor teaches, and then there’s the intro seminar that the TA teaches in section, and they have completely different goals. How do TAs even know what to teach when we ourselves were educated in this way?

As I have said elsewhere, even the English word historiography covers far too much ground to be useful as an intellectual tool (it can mean writing about history, methods for understanding the past, or writing about how people have written about history).

Edwin Black, “IBM and ‘Death’s Calculator'” (based on his book IBM and the Holocaust)

I hope that since 2013, some executives at IT companies have re-read the story of the high-tech Dutch census of 1940.

How Long are the Spears of the Warriors at Susa?

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A glazed brick relief of a man holding a spear in both hands next to a clenched fist.  The fist gripping the spear and the live fist are aboout the same size.

One of the polychrome brick reliefs from Achaemenid Susa, now in the Louvre, Paris.

In an earlier post, I talked about the guards in Persian reliefs from Susa who are 17 bricks tall and have spears 19 or 21 bricks tall. Artists often ‘improve’ human proportions according to different ideas of what the well-formed body looks like: these guards are 5 2/3 bearded faces tall (17/3), Cennino Cennini would have them 6 1/2 bearded faces tall (26/4).

When I visited the Louvre in July I had a chance to look at some of those reliefs for the first time since 2016 (a few are on display behind glass in Tehran). As you see, my hand and the hand of the sculpture are about the same size (and I am not particularly tall or short). My hand is slightly closer to the camera than the sculpture is, so it is slightly enlarged.
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An Echo of an Aramaic Story in Five Greek Texts

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A new article by myself and Jack Schropp has just appeared in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigrafik. It concerns a well-known story that as Tigranes the Great of Armenia saw the Romans advance to challenge him outside Tigranocerta in 69 BCE, he quipped “if they are come as an embassy, they are too many, if as an army, too few.” Needless to say, the Roman army proved big enough. This story is known from contemporary writers like Memnon of Heraclea, writers of the Roman imperial period like Plutarch (Life of Lucullus 27.4), Appian of Alexandria, and Cassius Dio, and even the Suda (lambada 688) in the tenth century CE, all of whom wrote in Greek.

What is less well known is that the Aramaic Papyrus Amherst 63 in the J.P. Morgan Library, New York, has another story about an arrogant king: Šamaš-šum-ukin who rebelled against his brother Assurbanipal the king of Assyria in 652 BCE. This story presents Assurbanipal as a just and moderate ruler, his sister Saritra as a peacemaker, and their brother as lead astray by bad advisors. Whenever Assurbanipal sends someone to Babylon to reason with his brother, the story contains the following lines:

The watchman climbed
The wall of Babylon.
The watchmen answered and said:
‘The force that is coming ḥyl(ˀ) d(ˀ)t(y/h)
Is too great for messengers, sg(y) mn-ṣyrn/
Too small for warriors. zgyrn mn-ˁbdy ḳrb*

In this case the words are in the mouth of an anonymous ‘watchman’ rather than the king himself, but just like in the story about Tigranes, the oncoming force proves great enough. We argue that this allusion must come from a contemporary who was both fluent in Greek literature and familiar with Near Eastern stories, whether one of Tigranes’ critics who wished to show he was a Bad King, or the king himself who made a truly unfortunate joke.

The papyrus dates to the fourth or third century BCE and comes from Egypt. Since it strongly defends Assurbanipal and criticizes his brother, it probably descends from Assyrian propaganda of the seventh century BCE.

Scholars have often postulated that between surviving Greek and Latin texts and Akkadian and Sumerian texts stood lost intermediaries in local languages in Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. Since most texts in these regions were written on vulnerable writing boards, skins, or papyrus not durable clay, their existence and contents were hypothetical. This is a rare case where we can compare an early text in Aramaic and the later, Greek stories which it inspired. Far from being unworthy of serious discussion, Tigranes’ joke deserves close attention.

Further Reading: Jack Schropp and Sean Manning, “’Too Many for an Embassy, too Few for an Army’: On the Origin and Scope of a Tigranic Dictum.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 212 (2019) pp. 83-88

* In this blog post, I give the normalized Aramaic text from Steiner and Nims’ article The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script: Text, Translation, and Notes https://repository.yu.edu/handle/20.500.12202/51 For the article we compared different editions of this hard-to-read text. ↑ back to top ↑

Cross-Post: Thott Talhoffer MS Facsimile

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Michael Chidester of Wiktenauer is crowdfunding to make a high-quality facsimile of a famous fencing manual from the second half of the 15th century, Hans Talhoffer’s MS. Thott 290 2º. Like many of the German manuscripts, it contains other secret lore including a copy of Konrad Keyser’s engineering manual Bellifortis and a treatise on astral science (but in newfangled languages like German and Hebrew not cuneiform, so reader beware!): unlike most, it is lavishly illuminated. The price of a copy will be around 150 USD. If you want to learn more, you can check out his IndieGoGo Manuscript Facsimile Project.

(warning! IndieGoGo is full of tracking scripts from Facebook and Google, and the page appears blank unless you enable half a dozen Javascript libraries!)

Democracies Ancient and Modern

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A gathering of people with protest signs in the plaza outside of Innsbruck town hall

The Climate Strike in Innsbruck, September 2019

I had a couple of women, constituents, come to my office and say, ‘We fought so hard to get a seat around the table, and you got there and you gave it away.’ It kind of stunned me. My answer to them was, ‘We didn’t fight hard to get a seat at the table so that we [could] do things the way they’ve always been done and let the boys still run things the way the boys have been running things.’

– Jane Philpott, independent MP for Markham-Stouffville and former cabinet minister, interview with Jason McBride, “Can Jane Philpott Change Politics?” (2019) https://thewalrus.ca/can-jane-philpott-change-politics/

Remember when (the Prime Minister) was held in contempt of Parliament by majority of the members? And the Governor General let him get away with ignoring this and treating it as merely a partisan stunt? … Our elections seem to have been transformed into something like a plebiscite on who makes the best Prime Minister. … our 19th century institutions are in a shambles because we don’t remember the 19th century principles that made them effective, and we haven’t replaced them with more recent principles and institutions

– Steve Muhlberger, “Democracy in Trouble” (2013) https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2013/07/democracy-in-trouble.html

Perhaps we find it normal for voters to be told, in every election, that they cannot vote for the party they actually support, but must vote for a party they dislike to forestall the election of a party they detest. But in the vast majority of the world’s democracies that use some form of proportional representation the idea would seem absurd, not to say presumptuous. It is for voters to tell parties what to do, not the reverse. … there’s the obsession with the horse race: where the parties are in the polls, and what strategies they are likely to pursue in response … this is partly a phenomenon of first past the post, and the winner-take-all mentality that accompanies it. The point of an election is not just to find out who won, but what the public wants. And the point of election coverage is not just to report who’s winning, but what the winners would do with the mandate they seek.

– Andrew Coyne, “Shouldn’t every riding be a ‘battleground’? The problems with how we do elections” The National Post 13 September 2019

Formal democ­ra­cy, in such places, rides like a float­ing cork on an ocean of invis­i­ble influ­ences, tan­gled pow­er struc­tures and murky social forces.

– Phil Paine, “A New International Body” (2006) http://www.philpaine.com/?p=425

I am Canadian, and we have an election coming. The past four years have seen a managerial government in Ottawa which worked through some of its easier commitments– legalizing marijuana, providing drinkable water to some but not all First Nations communities, negotiating a not terrible revision of NAFTA with the current administration in Washington, taking a share of Syrian refugees- but avoided deep structural changes like electoral reform or accepting that unceeded land belongs to its inhabitants not the Crown. The three biggest parties have chosen to take vast areas of policy off the table this election: the staffers who run them all agree that we should have a mixed economy with a welfare state, that whoever the United States government defines as enemies are Canada’s enemies too, that their candidates should include men and women with all kinds of ancestry who repeat the same talking points. They dutifully talk about affordability, about “hard-working Canadians” or “the middle class” or “entrepreneurs,” and about cutting a public service here or creating a new one there. Where in some countries candidates spend most of their time calling potential donors and begging for money, in Canada they spend it knocking on doors looking for people to talk to. The new anti-immigration, climate-contrarian People’s Party is not expected to get more than 4% of the vote, and the other parties all talk about anthropogenic global warming even if some of their policies are more coherent than others. If you are outside Canada, it probably sounds comforting. But in Canada people who watch the system are worried that while the forms of parliamentary democracy remain, there is less and less substance underneath. Between writing job applications, I have been reading some excellent reports from the Samara Centre for Democracy based on interviews with former MPs.
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New Article: Mountain Passes Ancient and Modern

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Two bay horses in a steeply sloped pasture full of wild grasses and flowers

Descendants of mighty Rhaetian war-horses? West side of the Brenner near Patsch, Tirol.

In mid-September I got lost on my return from the Goldbichl and found myself between Patsch and the Brennerautobahn. If you spend time hiking in Tirol that happens frequently, even though the mountain peaks provide good points of references and there are networks of paved or gravelled paths dotted with nice yellow signs, some of which even point within 90 degrees of the actual direction. And if you think about why that happens, you will understand the topic of my latest article for Ancient Warfare, namely why armies in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) follow the same few routes for thousands of years.
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What if the Armada Had Landed?

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A parade with men in full armour on armoured horses and a thick cluster of pikes in the background

A good Protestant Englishman’s worst nightmare: Ermanni and Jacopo Ligozzi, fresco with a Cavalcade of Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII into Bologna, 1570s, from the Casa Fumanelli a Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, now in the Museo degli Affreschi, Verona, no. 1466

As it became clear in 1587 and 1588 that the Spanish were really going to send a fleet to collect the Army of Flanders and carry it across the channel to Kent or Essex, the English alternated between panic and self-delusion. No town in England had modern fortifications so the English put their trust in garrisons in temporary earthworks or “sconces” along threatened sections of coast. The Dutch had great success with sconces, and the militia was replacing its old bills and longbows with modern pikes, arquebuses, and muskets and surely that would be enough? Sir John Smythe of Little Badow, a crusty old veteran who had served in the wars on the continent, tells us what he thought of the English plan after spending the summer in Elizabeth’s camp at Tilbury:

I say, that if anie such as doo hold that won∣derfull opinion of the effects of Mosquettiers (how good soldiers soeuer they thinke themselues) were at anie Hauen in England with fiue or sixe thousand of the best Mosquettiers that they euer saw of our Eng∣lish nation, without 〈…〉 of horsemen and foot∣men of other weapons to backe them, I thinke they would worke verie small effect against the Enemie landing, although they had ensconsed themselues (as they terme it) in such Sconses as they and their Engi∣ners formed this last sommer 1588. vppon the Sea coasts of Suffolke, and in Essex and Kent, on both sides of the riuer of Thames. For if they should see a Nauie with an Armie of thirtie or fortie thousand men (be∣sides seamen, and such as should be left for the gard of the shipps) vnder some notable and sufficient General enter into anie capable Hauen of England, with wind and weather fit for their purpose, with intention to inuade (which God forbid) they should finde them∣selues in their opinions wonderfullie deceiued.

And Smythe is having a good rant, so he tells us exactly what would happen:
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Cross-Post: A Fourth Calgary Dissertation

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Back in 2015 I blogged about three Calgary dissertations related to Alexander, ancient Macedonia, or ancient horse culture.

The fourth of this group is now finished: Dr. Megan Falconer Ward, East Looking West: the Relationship between the Western Satraps and the Greeks (PhD dissertation, University of Calgary, 2018) http://hdl.handle.net/1880/109170

Dr. Ward had to deal with some internal changes at the University of Calgary which interrupted her original plans for the thesis, and she produced two human beings while finishing it. So praise her with great praise!

A Weekend at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow

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Eleven people in late medieval clothing standing in front of a wattle-and-daub building

A group photo from the workshop at the Geschichtspark, July 2019, by Martin

In July 2019 I attended a living history weekend at the Geschichtspark Bärnau-Tachow in Bavaria on the old Goldene Straße from Prague to Nürnberg. It was organized by Roland ‘Dimicator’ Warzecha and his group in northern Germany.

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