The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?
Back in 2014 I began a project to address a problem which I noticed. Amateur students of armour seemed to have trouble finding written sources, and historians specialized in one period sometimes seemed not to notice things which I saw again and again in the world history of armour. For example, my reading in the world history of prices in general, and armour prices specifically, makes me read the statement that Athenian settlers needed to bring arms worth 30 drachmas differently than some other ancient historians do (for a list of sources, see Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, p. 52, plus the Salamis Decree from the Acropolis at Athens). From watching the traffic on my blog, I noticed that if you give people a link to sources, many of them will follow it. In my view, making sources available is the single most important thing which historians can do: interpretations change and are a product of our culture, but sources are foreign and reading enough of them makes it hard to have any simple interpretation of history, or believe that people in other cultures and other times think just like we do. But often sources on armour are published in out-of-print books in a handful of libraries, or available in old translations by people who were not especially interested in material culture.
Unfortunately, I have had to put this project aside for two years now, so I think it is time to make sure that my gentle readers know about Armour in Texts.
Paul M. Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray, Jr., Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE. McFarland and Company: Jefferson, NC, 2016. ISBN <978-1-4766-6602-0 (paperback) 978-1-4766-2636-9 (ebook). 233 pages.
In 1989 Victor Davis Hanson threw a match into some scholarly tinder by publishing a book which was both very readable and obviously flawed. Since no two scholars could agree about which parts of his book were incorrect, this has lead to thirty years of argument about just what happened on Greek battlefields. Unlike most scholarly debates, this one has fascinated people outside the university who follow the debates and try to push forward their own theories. Some of them have gone on to graduate school, others organize re-enactments and backyard tests, and a few write books. One of these amateur contributions is Hoplites at War: A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BCE by Paul Bardunias and Fred Eugene Ray. That is an ambitious title for a book of 233 pages, and the preface is bold too:
In this book, we make use of traditional sources, but combine those with cutting-edge (apt for a book on warfare!) science … We hope the result provides a comprehensive source on hoplite warfare that will advance key debates for modern scholars, while entertaining the general reader. … [what we present here] is an assessment of what we firmly believe to be most probable based on all evidence at hand.
While this book’s reach exceeds its grasp, I think it contains some important ideas.
Matthew Amt’s Greek Hoplite Page is pretty well known among people interested in ancient warfare. It might not be as well known that he has been updating it, expanding the bibliography to include some of the new publications on Greek clothing, arms, and armour and addressing the great shoulder-flap-cuirass controversy. As I revise this post, his old glued linen armour is sitting in a bath, being cleansed of its sticky contamination so that the linen can be salvaged and remade into a quilted armour. He has also added a typology of Classical Greek swords based on several archaeological publications after deciding that his old swords and sources did not match the originals, and is working with Deepeka in India to help them make replicas which are closer to the originals (a Labour of Herakles in itself!)
One thing that I admire about his approach is its humanity. One of the problems with reconstructing historical artefacts is that any one depends on a whole system of crafts and industries which are usually missing today. It is very difficult to obtain wide sheets of copper-tin bronze, so would-be bronzesmiths are reduced to salvaging decorative panels on doors and cracked cymbals. Ancient woollens were often woven to shape so that they did not need to be cut, and could have had a density and thinness which we associate with cottons; having something appropriate specially woven and dyed is a long and expensive process. There is not much demand for split or coppiced ash poles today, so modern spear-shafts have to be cut out of sawn logs, with the result that they are probably more fragile and worse balanced than the originals. Rather than give up, or exhaust oneself in the search for the perfect, Matthew suggests choosing “good enough” and making continual small improvements as your skill or knowledge increases. I think that his site succeeds in its goal of giving readers the information to make a “good enough” kit, and enough pointers to sources that they can start digging deeper if they want to.
In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.
I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.
Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link
A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
One way I use this blog is as a commonplace book. Researchers often assume that to publish something in the fifth or fourth century BCE was more or less the same as to do it in 1950 AD: one wrote and corrected it, checked it carefully, sent it out to be copied and distributed, and thereupon ceased to interact with it unless at some distant time you decided to publish a second edition. Douglas Kelly is not so sure:
The other possible line of enquiry that appears fruitful is to consider what Xenophon expected to happen to a copy of the Hellenica when he let it out of his hands. Modern criticism assumes, as in the case of Plato’s dialogues, that the text went to individuals who read it, aloud of course, in private. So some may well have done, but the hypothesis being advanced here is that Xenophon expected his Hellenica, like the rest of his works, to go to those small groups of his peers: that educated and leisured audience saw a book more as the occasion for a sociable gathering for discussion than something for solitary reading. … The assumption here (and it can only be an assumption but at least is an explicit one that arises to explain things otherwise without cogent explanation) is that these small private reading circles could turn their attention to historical working as much as to philosophical writing. That Xenophon tried his hand at both might suggest that he expected much the same audience for either. Xenophon himself came from the small social class as that from which the little, club-like groups visible in some of Plato’s dialogues were drawn. His Socratic writings were addressed to a similar audience as were Plato’s, although in Xenophon’s case the audience will have been less rigorous in its taste for philosophical arguments and more interested in the practical lessons of conventional ethics. In Xenophon’s hands the writing of history for such an audience was going to be gentlemanly and edifying.
– Douglas Kelly, “Oral Xenophon,” in Ian Worthington ed., Voice into Text: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece pp. 161, 162
Now suppose that Xenophon discussed the things he cared about with such groups of peers, and sometimes gave them a copy of his current version of a particularly good lecture (which he had adjusted as he spoke according to his audience) or had someone come approach him between the mimes and the flute girls to ask if he was going to really slander so-and-so in his history, so that in his world, before he had become a ‘classic’ to be edited and glossed, multiple versions circulated and people were as likely to hear his ideas orally as to read them. That is hypothetical, but no more hypothetical than the assumption that he worked like Isaac Asimov!
In Achaemenid studies, Wouter Henkelman’s book The Other Gods Who Are is famous for using some very difficult sources to argue that we should not think about Iranians replacing and subjugating Elamites, but that the ancient Persians we know were the product of hundreds of years of interaction between Iranian-speakers and Elamite-speakers sharing the highlands of Fars, so that by the time of Cyrus or Darius it was hard to say what was Iranian and what was Elamite. Elam had traditionally included both lowland Susa and highland Anšan, and by the time of Cyrus the difference between mountain and plain may have felt more real than any difference in language or religion inside one region.
As this study aims to show, the religious landscape of the Achaemenid heartland was a fascinating and variegated tapestry woven from Elamite and (Indo-)Iranian traits. It will be argued that, though heterogeneous, this landscape was nevertheless a unity that was treated as such by the administrators at Persepolis. ‘Iranian’ and ‘Elamite’ cults were not only treated alike, but were actually not separated in clearly distinct sections. The gods venerated and the cults sponsored were only so because they were considered to be Persian, i.e. as belonging to the rich intercultural milieu of first-millennium Fārs. (p. 58)
As I take my first glance through it, I find that it has other treasures:
One question that arises at this point is whether [the hoard of silverware from] Kalmākarra is an exception, or an indication of the overall level of prosperity in the period under discussion [ie. the century after the Assyrian invasions around 640 BCE]. Confirmation of the thesis that ‘Kalmākarra’ is not an exceptional case is the rich inventory of a stone burial chamber, discovered by chance in 1982 at Arǧān near Behbahān in eastern Khūzestān. The funerary deposits, in and outside of a bronze coffin, included an elaborate bronze stand (or ‘candelabrum’), a large gold ceremonial object (‘ring’), a dagger decorated with precious stones and gold filigree, a silver rod, a bronze lion beaker and a large bowl with engraved scenes. Four of the objects have an Elamite inscription reading “Kidin-Hutran, son of Kurluš.” Apart from metal objects, the tomb also contained remains of embroidered garments. The 98 gold bracteates, also found in the coffin, may have been sewn to one or several of these garments. There is now a communis opinio on the tomb’s date: the later seventh or early sixth century BC (i.e. contemporaneous with the Kalmākarra hoard and the Acropole texts). The Arǧān find is of major importance for its international context. The tomb inventory displays a range of different styles and iconographic themes (Phoenician, Syrian, Elamite, Assyrian) and some objects probably reached Kidin-Hutran via long-distance trade. This is particularly true for the textiles found in the tomb, at least three of which are made of cotton – these are, in fact,among the earliest Near Eastern examples of cotton garments. As Javier Álvarez-Mon argues, maritime trade between Elam and Dilmun, where cotton was grown in this period, is the most likely source of the fabric or the raw material (Álvarez-Mon [forthc. 1]).
Designers of roleplaying games who are interested in learning how the real world works, and not just studying other people’s stories and games, usually put a lot of thought into the combat mechanics. One old argument is about how to handle the performance of armour. Fairly early on (sometime in the 1970s or 1980s?), the idea of a damage roll was combined with the idea that armour could provide a penalty to damage. However, this tends to bother people whose archetypical combat involves modern firearms and armoured vehicles or kevlar body armour.
Bullets and shells have a very predictable ability to penetrate armour, and modern industrialized, standardized-tested armour has a very predictable ability to resist it, and the damage-roll-minus-armour model tends to let some things get through which should be stopped. While sometimes this can be abstracted away (“eh, maybe those few points of damage represent bruising”) other times that is difficult to justify (“did the shell explode inside the tank or outside? Did the Deathly Dagger of Draining touch his flesh or not?”) One solution to this is to treat both penetration and resistance as more or less fixed, then generate the effect of the wound based on their interaction. GURPS fans often refer to this as armour-as-dice, because armour can be treated as reducing the predictable number of damage dice which the attacker rolls instead of the variable results of that roll.
However, models which treat penetration and resistance to penetration as more-or-less fixed tend to make people who are more interested in combat with hand weapons uncomfortable. In this post, I would like to explore what we know about how much the ability of hand-made armour to resist weapons can vary, even within a given piece of a known form and quality. If you want, you can skip to where I sum up.
Some years ago, I made up one of the famous Persian hoods in red linen cloth. I machine-sewed it and bag-lined it, and did not have sources other than reliefs, the Darius Mosaic, the bonnet from one of the Pazyryk tombs, and an interesting woodcut which Jona Lendering showed me. I used linen because it was available and appropriately light and flowing. I had a feeling that wool would have been more common. Back then, I knew that Strabo said that ordinary Persians wore a rag of sindōn (fine linen? by the middle ages sindon was a delicate silk) about their heads while rich ones wore a tower-like felt hat, so I had one possible source for linen (the original Greek is ῥάκος σινδόνιόν and πίλημα πυργωτόν and the citation is Strabo, Geography, 15.3.19). In the meantime I learned a bit of Greek, and also some Akkadian. It turned out that both of those languages are relevant.