Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)
I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.
– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Slavery_a_Positive_Good
I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (
20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.
The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.
To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).
In another place somebody cited Randall Garrett’s “Despoilers of the Golden Empire” (John W. Campbell Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction, March 1959). If you don’t know that story, pop over to Project Gutenberg and read it, at least for a few pages until you understand the gimmick. Because this one story tells some things that most of the people talking about Silver Age science fiction don’t want you to hear.
Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:
There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.
First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…
Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.
Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.
Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!
– Sue Brunning, “Sue Brunning on early medieval swords,” un trabajo tartamudo, 31 January 2020
I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.
Just a note to say that regular contributor and poster Paul McDonnell-Staff – “Xenophon” as members would know him – died on March 12th. Paul suffered from an illness, which I won’t go into here, for the last five years of his life. Though it did not always look like it here, Paul and I were strong friends over a couple of decades. There’s nothing better than pointing out the foibles of your mate! The “Old Man” (as I called him) and I (“Bertie Old thing” as he’d address me) had an ongoing relationship for some two decades. I recall us downing three bottles of red (after a beer or two over dinner) in “Brisvegas” going over the Second Diadoch War, the nature of the hypaspists and the foibles of “certainty” in a hotel in Brisbane some thirteen years ago. What others in the bar made of the hard copies of Diodoros, the Tacticians and Plutarch is anyone’s guess. As ever, we parted in disagreement on whatever sticking point(s) we’d arrived at by bottle three.
One of the effects of the Old Man’s serious and restrictive illness was that it attacked his phalanges. Given this, I was constantly surprised at the amount he could type – the email trees, on many subjects, were no bonsai – more like giant redwoods. Though one had to be patient. That back and forth will be missed.
Paul had been writing on ancient military history for decades going back to John Warry’s Warfare in The Classical World. From it’s inception, we both wrote for Ancient Warfare. The articles we prepared were the source of much private and occasional Pothosian debate. I recall calling him, at the editor’s suggestion, to see if he was still corporeal as he’d he’d missed a deadline by a couple of days (something he never did). He suggested that were he not “the whole world would…”. I suggested Demades’ acid quip was a little beyond the pale. He continued writing for Ancient Warfare under the nom de plume “Tacticus”. The journal will miss him and so will I.
Vale “Old Man”
Paul was more of a rhetorician and less of a scientist than I am, but I still learned a lot from him. He knew the classical literary sources, including the unfashionable ones like Aelian, very well. There is another memorial from Jasper Oorthuys at Karwansaray and some of his comments on In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game and How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?
I am surrounded by the ghosts of dead friends, dead communities, and dead activities. For an age that has made it hard to move at all: its hard to keep putting my heart into communities which will just vanish like the fog on a sunny day however hard I work, and hard to keep reaching out to new communities when the last one cut off my hand or used it to toss me into the nearest wall. But I also know that in this life there is one thing to do and that is to make good art. For in Sheol where we are going there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom.
Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.
Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.
We shall divide this sermon into six parts.
I would like to make two corrections to my post on Rein Taagepera’s study of the size of empires.
When I compared the 2006 and 2009 updates to Taagepera’s lists, I missed one new empire in the 2009 article: Scythia. I have added it to the original post.
I said that the 2006 article added eight empires to Taagepera’s lists. I was wrong. I trusted a note on page 221 of the 2006 article by Turchin, Adams, and Hall:
Our list of large historical states was based on the compilation by Taagepera, which has been systematized and posted on the web by Chase-Dunn and coworkers http://irows.ucr.edu/. We checked the Taagepera list with all major historical atlases in the library of the University of Connecticut and found eight additional empires that fit our criteria (Axum, Hsi-Hsia, Kara-Khitai, Srivijaya, Maurian, Kushan, Gupta, and Maratha).
Four of their eight empires (Axum/Aksum in the Horn of Africa, Srivijaya in Indonesia, the Hsi-Hsia/Western Xia who were rivals of the Song Dynasty in China, and Maratha in South Asia) appear to be absent from Taagepera’s articles, but the other four are present and accounted for: Kara-Khitai (as W. Liao in Taagepera 1997), Gupta (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Kushan (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Maurian (as Maurya in Taagepera 1979 p. 132).
I certainly should like to see Peisander the demagogos learning to turn somersaults among the knives; for, as it is now, his inability to look spears in the face makes him shrink even from soldiering.
– Xenophon, Symposium, 2.14 (tr. Loeb, slightly edited)
Concerning the dagger, that which is to bee done therewith, it is to be noted, that for great advantage, it would be holden before with the arme streched forth & the point respecting the enemie, which although it be far from him, yet in that it hath a point, it giveth him occasion to bethink himself.
– Giacomo di Grassi, “On the Sword and Dagger,” in Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’Arme (1570, tr. London 1594)
But all Etruria’s noblest felt their hearts sink to see
On the earth the bloody corpses; in their path the dauntless Three;
And, from the ghastly entrance where those bold Romans stood,
All shrank, like boys who unaware, ranging the woods to start a hare,
Come to the mouth of a dark lair where, growling low, a fierce old bear
Lies amidst bones and blood.
Was none who would be foremost to lead such dire attack?
But those behind cried “Forward!”, and those before cried “Back!”
And backward now and forward wavers the deep array;
And on the tossing sea of steel, to and fro the standards reel;
And the victorious trumpet-peal dies fitfully away.
– Thomas Babington Macaulay, Horatius at the Bridge (1842)
Violet Blue, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: Practical Tips for Staying Safe Online (No Starch Press: San Francesco CA, 2015) Digita Publications
Writer and journalist Violet Blue is working on a new edition of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. So even though its a little bit late for Data Protection Day on 28 January, I think its time to dust off my review. Her book has a clear and distinct vision of its audience, and avoids the traps which most writers on security and privacy fall in to.
After a chat with T. Greer of The Scholar’s Stage, I read an interesting article by Peter Turchin called “A theory for formation of large empires” (2009). He is curious whether other world regions show the same pattern as China of empires beginning in the steppe or in the neighbouring farmland not the richest and safest agricultural districts. As he says, a lot of research focuses on the decline and disintegration of empires, not so much how a single king can come to rule millions or tens of millions of people in the first place: why do some empires last centuries when most fall to pieces within decades?
Turchin catalogued 64 states until the year 1800 CE with an area of at least a million square kilometers, and found that “over 90% of historical mega-empires were located next to or within the Old World arid zone extending from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert” (which is a slightly different claim than the one about steppe frontiers, but never mind). When I read his list, one line popped out at me:
The table lists a Median empire with 2.8 million square kilometers in -585 (which is 586 BCE in Julian astronomical years with a year 0, but I think he means 585 BCE). That would have been as large as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan combined. And the trouble is that such an empire probably did not exist, and if it did exist we don’t know its area.