If you like videos, some of the people who are organizing Plataia 2021 (which will probably occur in 2022) and classicist Natasha Bershadsky have given a talk at the Centre for Hellenic Studies in Massachusetts. If you are not familiar with Giannis Kadoglou’s kit, Paul Bardunias’ experiment at Marathon 2015, and the Hoplite Experiment at WMAW 2019, its a handy introduction (and if you are, there are a few video clips which I have not seen before).
The Macedonian Phalanx is a thoughtful, engaging account of the ancient pike phalanx. By drawing upon literature, inscriptions, archaeology, and comparative evidence it uses the best available methods in ancient history. I am both jealous and relieved that I no longer have to write such a book myself.
Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:
All martial arts can be divided into three types, the traditional which have passed from master to student until the present, the historical which died leaving detailed instructions by a practitioner, and the prehistoric which died without leaving such instructions. Just as prehistory in Mongolia extends much later than prehistory in Iraq, prehistoric martial arts can be more recent than many historical or traditional ones.
People trying to reconstruct prehistoric martial arts such as Plato’s hoplomachia or 17th century Polish sabre fencing pay a lot of attention to the ergonomics of weapons. If a spear was balanced towards the butt, it probably was not meant to be thrown: if a sword builds up a lot of rotary momentum when it is swung, it was probably designed to move in circles rather than back and forth. Good weapons were expensive objects, and outside the Roman and some Chinese armies there were no committees forcing warriors to use one type of weapon, so we can take as an axiom that common long-lived forms of weapon were well designed to meet their users’ needs. If they were not, they would have fallen out of use.
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
Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.
I have crossed the streams of my interests in the ancient world and in mid-20th-century science-fiction to give a Zoom talk on how ancient astronauts built the science fiction of Egypt. It is on 8 May at 19.45 Toronto time (EDT) (so early morning of 9 May European time). I will try to record my part!
Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party (Baen Books: Riversdale, NY, 1993). Later released in an omnibus as Heris Seranno.
Calgary is a hard town for the poor and pedestrian, but when I lived there I discovered some authors in the few hardy used bookstores which held out like poplars in draws along the rivers. One of those was Elizabeth Moon. I had read a few of the Kylara Vatta novels and not felt inspired to finish the series, but when I read some of her earlier novels and short stories I was very impressed.
Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder][Biblio]
In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.
In most parts of Canada, we are suffering under shockingly bad officials. British Columbia is dealing with a pandemic of a novel coronavirus which emerged late last year but spread early this year when travellers brought it to a ski resort and infected workers who were living in close quarters, and our federal government just found 6 billion dollars to lend to an airline when a lot of people and communities are waiting for less expensive things.
In Ontario, one of these crises is at Laurentian University, whose administration has just entered bankruptcy protection at a closed Senate meeting. They have laid off approximately 100 faculty and closed 60 programs including one of only three midwifery programs in Ontario, all Francophone history at this bilingual university, and all history education above the bachelor’s level. The faculty are being notified by email in the first week of exam season. Faculty have strongly suspected that the university had financial troubles for some time but the administration refused to provide sufficient information until it was too late. Dr. Janice Liedl, the chair of the history department, is my only trusted source about what is happening (she abandoned her blog for birdsite sadly https://twitter.com/jliedl). There is an open letter to the provincial government on Google Docs here (link).