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Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg.  Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

In October I got to attend the conference on technical military writing at the University of Winnipeg. Aside from giving me a chance to have some A&W and Timbits (somehow Wienerschnitzel and Quarkbällchen are not the same) and catch up on academic gossip, I got to hear a great set of papers.

The presentations focused on Greek texts from Aeneas Tacticus and Xenophon in the early 4th century BCE to emperor Leo VI around 900 CE, with one group of three papers on Vegetius. Three others focused on Xenophon, leaving six on miscellaneous topics and authors, and one on methodology. Only two of the thirteen focused on tactical writing in any language.

Hans Michael Schellenberg of Düsseldorf argued that technical military writing should be marginalized as a historical source, except as a source for how its authors thought about war. I had a little bit of trouble understanding what research he was reacting against, and understanding his full argument, so I won’t try to summarize it. What I did find exciting was that he mentioned experiments with detecting hidden mines by means of a copper bowl faced open-side-down on the ground. Experimental archaeologists usually ignore siege warfare, so this is important, even if their experiments failed to reproduce the success described in the sources. (While many people build catapults and bombard their local soccer pitch or cow pasture, the only teams which have built sections of wall and then battered them with catapults or rams were working for the Discovery Channel and PBS Nova: Secrets of Lost Empires!) Edit 2016-11-26: If you read German, he also has an interesting article on the problems interpreting Diodorus’ famous claim that the katapeltikon (some kind of throwing-machine) was invented for Dionysius of Syracuse in 399/8 BCE.

Lucy Felmingham-Cockburn of the University of Birmingham is doing a close reading of Xenophon on Horsemanship and asking how he addressed the ideal of the hoplite who stood his ground while promoting mobile cavalry tactics. She suggests that rather than reaching back to Homer and his descriptions of fighting on the run, he worked language about standing upright and bearing loads into his descriptions of horses and riders. In this way, horsemen could imagine themselves as sturdy hoplites, just like those hoplites imagined themselves as Homeric heroes by focusing on the passages about shield pressing shield rather than the ones about leaping around and shooting arrows.

Graham Wrightson of South Dakota State University compared Alexander’s successful siege of Tyre and Demetrius’ unsuccessful siege of Rhodes to advice for besiegers in the ancient manuals. He argued that Demetrius violated the principles of military writers, while Alexander followed them. Thus these texts were, in this case, successful at describing the ways of fighting which tended to lead to success. His talk reminded me that while ancient historians often imagine ancient soldiers learning their trade through their family or by apprenticeship to older and more experienced soldiers, Alexander’s successors struggled to imitate their teacher! Learning by experience had many advantages, but it was not always enough.

Meredith Riedl of Duke University gave a talk drawn from her forthcoming book on Emperor Leo VI, one of the most scholarly emperors to govern from Constantinople. She is looking at the details of the Greek text and how Leo reworked his sources as a Christian emperor faced with a non-Christian enemy whose religion was attractive to many of his subjects. She felt that his emphasis on morality and divine will was new. Several people brought up Xenophon’s Cavalry Commander which begins and ends with injunctions to please the gods because human cunning and labour are puny things to put against the sheer unpredictability of combat.

I gave a talk about what the tacticians have to say about Persian, Parthian, Armenian, Scythian, and Thracian practices. While these texts are often labelled “Greek” “Macedonian” or “Hellenistic,” quite a bit of what they describe either has no ethnic label, or is attributed to other cultures. While not everything that they say can be tested with independent sources, it is all plausible, and might be the remains of a close look at foreign practices by soldiers and ethnographers. Ancient historians often present the flow of military knowledge and technology as exclusively from Greeks to barbarians, but comparison with later periods (or a flip through Margaret Miller’s Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity) makes that a hard assumption to defend.

Its always nice to be at a conference where you can casually overhear someone observing that later writers tend to cite the most salacious parts of a text, so its hard to use these ‘fragments’ to get a sense of what the work that they are quoting was like. While this agrees with what I read in the works which we mine for ‘fragments’ today, and some scholars have taken the time to compile examples,[1] many ancient historians and classicists still disagree. And where else can you find several dozen people who recognize the phrase “Maurice’s Strategikon“?

A good feature of this conference was that it combined people who were interested in the literary and philological side, and people who were interested in these texts as sources for broad historical questions. For example, there is a very large body of literature debating when Vegetius wrote his epitome. This is not so important for people who want to use his book as a source for earlier periods, but very important for anyone who wants to know why he wrote or who made use of his work.

I wish that at least one specialist in the second millennium CE had attended. In recent times, we don’t have to speculate about the relationship between theory and practice or books and behaviour. For example, specialists in 16th century warfare have written articles about the famous story that Maurice of Nassau reinvented volley fire while reading Aelian’s tactical manual, and whether the drill that he describes can be documented earlier.[2] (Its almost as if the “wars of the low countries” and questions about whether Spanish Catholics or Swedish and Dutch Protestants invented something still have political implications!). I think that if classicists were more familiar with military manuals as a genre, and how they were used between the 16th and the 18th century when they were popular but ‘unofficial’ texts, some of their concerns about using these texts might evaporate, while a few new ones might appear.

Studying technical military writing is a tiny and marginalized branch of a small subfield of the small discipline of ancient history. But it attracts wonderful and passionate people willing to fly from Australia or Germany to Winnipeg in October at their own expense. And really, is that not what we are all in academe for? Graduate school is not necessarily a ticket to a job, but it is a ticket to chances to talk to smart people and handle amazing things.


[1] Offhand, see the citations to research on Diodorus, Ctesias, and Ephorus in the introduction to my Master’s thesis, the collection and analysis of the ‘fragments of Herodotus’ cited somewhere in Briant From Cyrus to Alexander, and a recent study of different versions of the story of a tragic suicide preserved in both a summary of Ctesias by Photius, a retelling of Ctesias by Nicolas of Damascus, and a papyrus with a fragment of his actual words. I think that some recent work on Attic comedy also takes this skeptical approach. Sorry that I can’t spare the time to give a more precise citation, but I have a thesis to write! ↑ back to main text ↑
[2] I want to read Fernando González de León, “Spanish Military Power and the Military Revolution” in Geoff Mortimer ed., Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) which is available on Bookfinder for as little at 15 Euros. ↑ back to main text ↑