In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).
Last summer I regaled my gentle readers with the story of the Innsbrucker Scylla and Charybdis. Time passed, and that monster was vanquished (perhaps when the wine bar on the riverbank side of the farmers’ market noticed that a lack of pedestrian access was cutting into its profits). But its always possible that when one monster dies, another will take its place and occupy the vacant real estate, or ecological niche if you want to go all second-edition-Dungeons-and-Dragons. I see a labyrinth with walls and paths which shift and turn when I am not looking, and while I am pretty sure that the dung on the street belongs to the horses which pull the tourist carriages, and all the cows in town are up in the high pastures for the summer, I am not so sure that there is not a minotaur lurking about, perhaps in the depths of the underground parking garage under the Marktplatz. For something built metres away from a river, it descends through a surprising numbers of spiralling turns, and that raises another disturbing possibility. Did the diggers of the storm drain delve too greedily and too deep? The Nordkette has been wrapped in an unseasonable fog split only by flashes like lightning of late …
Since I took this photo, the labyrinth has vanished and been replaced with a fish market. But I would not be surprised if the dragons across the street take up residence there, or a sea serpent wriggles its way up from the Inn across the stones which Hapsburg engineers enthusiastically laid in concrete to keep the Inn within its bounds. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that monsters are not as easy to banish as we think.
As part of my dissertation I have to talk about conscription and how well it functioned in the Ancient Near East, and that turned me to a classic article. As I was searching for it I found another which I want to talk about.
Back in 1999, Norvell Atkine set out to explain to the American imperial elite why the “Arab armies” which they had armed and trained were so reluctant to fight the way that Americans told them to fight. These armies kept losing, so why were they rejecting help from more effective soldiers like him and his friends? “There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.” When I read it the first time, I took away his lovely anecdotes about the culture clash between American military personnel and the Arab officers which they had been assigned to collaborate with. Atkine focusses on the armies of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But a few years ago, Caitlyn Talmadge wrote a scholarly article on one of the Arab armies which he is less interested in: Saddam Hussein’s. Her article has an abstract, so I will let her speak for herself:
Saddam’s Iraq has become a cliché in the study of military effectiveness—the quintessentially coup-proofed, personalist dictatorship, unable to generate fighting power commensurate with its resources. But evidence from the later years of the Iran-Iraq War actually suggests that the Iraqi military could be quite effective on the battlefield. What explains this puzzling instance of effectiveness, which existing theories predict should not have occurred? Recently declassified documents and new histories of the war show that the Iraqi improvements stemmed from changes in Saddam’s perceptions of the threat environment, which resulted in significant shifts in his policies with respect to promotions, training, command arrangements, and information management in the military. Threat perceptions and related changes in these practices also help explain Iraq’s return to ineffectiveness after the war, as evident in 1991 and 2003. These findings, conceived as a theory development exercise, suggest that arguments linking regime type and coup-ridden civil-military relations to military performance need to take into account the threat perceptions that drive autocratic leaders’ policies toward their militaries.
To put it bluntly, Saddam spent his time in power worried that someone would toss him in his own torture chambers. After all, most of the governments in the region, including his Baˀath party, were descended from a group of soldiers who had overthrown the previous regime. So he set up policies to ensure that the army was not a threat to him: strictly limiting communication between units, requiring minor acts to be authorized from Baghdad, refusing to allow different types of troops to train together, and killing officers who were too popular. This kept him in power for 25 years and able to play warlord, even if it also meant that his adventures cost the lives of too many of his own soldiers for little or no gain. The only time that he relaxed these politics was the late 1980s, when it seemed like if the war continued, his regime might collapse. As soon as he had driven the Iranians back across the border and made peace, he treated the army just like he had before, because once again he was more worried about a coup from within than an invasion from without. And while Saddam was crazy (and perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer), his 25 year rule suggests that he knew how to stay in power.
Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.
– The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)
More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.
– “Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mosul-battle-120-civilians-killed-days-170601113018034.html
Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.
Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.
Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.
– “Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/iraq-deserves-heroes-monsters-170601083337240.html
But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.
I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.
Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”
Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani needs funds to print his latest book, on black-powder firearms in Iranian museums. The title will be Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran.
His earlier book, Arms and Armour from Iran, contains a wonderful assortment of information drawn from books and articles in half a dozen languages. It also contained pictures and measurements of objects which had never been published in a European language before, and translations and summaries of many texts in New Persian/Farsi which are otherwise unavailable. So if you are interested, or like beautiful books on arms and armour, you might want to check this new project out! Without the support of patrons, he won’t be able to afford to print it.
Further Reading: https://www.moshtaghkhorasani.com/books/persian-fire-and-steel/
Today all kinds of skilful artisans are describing their work on YouTube, and some documentaries and demonstrations are available there. This makes it possible to learn about armouring on your laptop in the same way that 20 years ago you could learn about cooking or home repair on TV. Unfortunately, a simple keyword search will turn up both videos on historical armour and rants about video games, the New Zealand Army’s video on a trade, a British soldier grumbling about a change in pay scales, and other things not very helpful to someone interested in ancient and medieval armour. So this week I thought I would suggest some channels by good craftsmen who know what they are talking about. All of these links are videos hosted on a site owned by an American company which makes its money by tracking you [Google], so let the privacy-conscious or low-bandwidth clicker beware.
On Friday a book arrived from the Magazin, which is what Austrians call the closed stacks or off-site storage of a library. Unlike other things which come from a magazine, it was not packed in an airtight box and covered in oil or grease, but I did have to do something else before it was ready for action: cut the pages open. The top and lateral edges of many pages were still solidly fixed to their neighbours, and I had to separate them a flick of my trusty Laguiole.
The book answered my question about shipbuilding terms, and helped me finish a footnote. But how long, Sandahl, did you wait for me? Seventy years, from the half-built times after the war, through years of revolt that turned into drugged smugness, then haughty pride growing across the sea as enemies blustered and clashed until suddenly there was only one which claimed the victor’s name but was strangely transformed as kings raged in Babylon and methane bubbled upwards from the Arctic depths like a beating heart beneath the floorboards. Thy author perished. The handwritten cards and typed slips from which thou wert born were reckoned quaint, yet no-one came to read the ‘checker’s rolls for which thy author had waited patient while the torpedoes and fire-bombs were falling. And all that time, nobody opened thee to “rivet” and read. How many patient librarians kept thee from dust and water? When wert thou banished to thy exile in the Magazin? And all so that thou wouldst be there when I summoned thee.
I am not the most adventurous person, and it is possible to strip the romance from anything if you look at it the wrong way. But I can call dead men from the vasty deep, and they answer when I call them. While that brings madness, I am not sure how much of my world is sane.
Over on Crooked Timber, John Quiggin asks:
As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.
Comments there and on his blog are closed, so I will comment here.
Due to my profession, I spend a lot of time talking to people in classics, ancient history, Assyriology, philology, etc. And I have never heard anyone in that field dismiss a work because of where it was published, or suggest that it should be taken seriously because of where it was published. I have not heard that kind of trash from the most nervous young researcher putting others down to hide their own fear, or the grumpiest professor who wishes that he (its usually a he) had picked another trade.
A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.
παράδεισ-ος -ου, masuline noun, from Avestan pairidaēza-, Old Persian +paridaida-, Median +paridaiza- (walled-around, i.e., a walled garden), an enclosed park or pleasure-ground …
Dictionaries rarely have room to illustrate many entries, even when this works better than a written definition. On this blog, however, I am free to use more pictures than words!