Notes for a Life of Victor Davis Hanson


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A broad, sandy beach reinforced with rows of piles

The banks of the river Inn near Hall in Tirol

Victor Davis Hanson has lived at least three lives: one as a small-town grape farmer from Selma, California who discovered that it was almost impossible to make a living running a human-sized farm (1980-1984), one as a classics professor who taught large classes and published some very important but flawed work (1985-2004), and one as what Americans politely call a pundit or political commentator (beginning around 2001). At some point he retired from his position at California State University, Fresno, to focus on his third life. However, his biographies online have been scrubbed as clean as the ones which Robert A. Heinlein used to let them print in the back of his books, and they very carefully do not say when he retired. California State University Fresno has the usual gushing lists of honours, publications, and awards; Wikipedia is as useless as you would expect; and the pages from his talks and fellowships usually draw on them.

Back in 2004, Rone Tempest at the Los Angeles Times published a piece on him which gives the key dates. He was hire to launch the classics program in 1985 and retired with emeritus status (so he has library privileges, probably a pension, and maybe an office) in the summer of 2004 after only 20 years of teaching. That seems to be the year that he launched his weekly columns in several papers. He received an advance of $500,000 for A War Like No Other around 2003.
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A Luristan Akinakes


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A square with trees, modern apartment buildings, old brick buildings, and young people talking and sitting on benches

It is still summer in Rimini! Photo by Sean Manning, October 2018.

I had a post about people being Wrong on the Internet scheduled for this weekend, but last week was a big week in Canada, and it seems like time for something more mellow. So how about a post about another of those studies of early iron from the ancient Near East?

Western Iran is an extremely important area for the history of early ironworking, because in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries large amount of iron and bronze were deposited in graves. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s these have attracted wealthy collectors in rich countries, and almost immediately the locals organized to feed this market: digging up promising mounds, importing old iron to sell under a name foreigners recognized, and casting and forging their own “Luristan bronzes.” This left museums and collectors with drawers full of objects which are interesting as artwork, but hard to use as archaeology. Relatively few sites from this area have been scientifically excavated and published in a western language, and I don’t know of any metallurgical studies of iron from these excavations. In the 1960s Cyril Stanley Smith decided not to wait, bought half a dozen pieces of old iron from dealers in Tehran, and analysed them as best as he could (and while he was working at the dawn of historical metallurgy, that was very well indeed: yes, this is the Cyril Stanley Smith with the Manhattan Project, Theophilius, and Biringuccio on his CV). One of these objects was an akinakes. He guessed that it dated to the 7th century BCE, but I would take that with a pinch of salt.

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Cross-Post: Medieval Dress and Textile Society CFP


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A narrow footpath through a forest of deciduous trees turning yellow

Fall is almost coming in Tirol … time for some nice cozy wool lined with silk cloth?

The Medieval Dress and Textile Society is organizing a conference in London on the theme “Wool: Cloth, Clothing, and Culture” in Europe c. 500-1600 CE. They want the usual 20 minute paper with a title and 200-word abstract. Themes might include:

  • Production
  • Techniques
  • Trade and transport
  • Fashion in wool fabrics and garments
  • Wool textile art
  • Utilitarian and recycled wool cloth

Deadline for Proposals: 30 October 2018 (early proposals gratefully accepted!)
Date of Conference: 6 April 2019
Send Proposals To: gale DOT owencrocker AT ntlworld DOT com

The original CfP seems to be only available as a photo on Twitter (!?!) Edit 2018-10-23: They have a website with a page for the conference at

Sallets in 1406


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Side views of two infantry helmets (one tall and open, one short with a projecting tail and low visor) with a manuscript illustration of the Canaanites smiting the Jews in between

How did we get there from here? A late-15th-century barbuta (left: Metropolitan Museum of Art 04.3.232), a late 15th century sallet (right: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 04.3.227), and a page from the Paduan Bible Picture Book (British Library Additional 15277) painted seventy years before they were forged.

Most people interested in medieval armour think that the word sallet is first attested in the inventory of the Gonzaga family armoury after the death of Francesco I Gonzaga in 1407:

#23: Vna cellata coperta velluto carmesi pilloso cum certis dindinellis racamatis viridis “One sallet covered with plush crimson velvet with certain green embroidered fringes”
#25: Quadraginta tres cellate ferri “43 sallets of iron”
#124: Triginta stufe a celata “30 coverings for sallets”

That is the oldest reference in Claude Blair, and his book in 1958 was the last book on European armour by someone who spent a lot of time reading medieval documents in the original. In fact, there are another group of references from this time which have not yet been brought into the debate. These are in the Archivio Datini di Prato in Tuscany and were published by Luciana Frangioni in her article “Bacinetti e altre difese della testa nella documentazione di un’azienda mercantile, 1366-1410.” She copied and printed all of the references to armour for the head in this archive, and now I have copied them for you.
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A Basic Problem in Interpreting Herodotus


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A Roman bridge across a hundred-metre-wide river at sunset

At Rimini there is an old stone bridge over an arm of the sea called Portocanale. The Riminese say it was built by their emperors Augustus and Tiberius, but I did not see the inscription.

The ancient and medieval writers who claim to have travelled the farthest- Herodotus, Marco Polo, Ibn Battua- have not convinced all their readers. Herodotus goes to great trouble to cite different views on controversial questions, give verifiable evidence to support his opinions, and remind his audience that knowing about the past requires deciding between contradictory and self-interested sources, but he also says that Upper Egypt is only narrow for a few days’ sail upriver after which it widens out like the Delta, gives detailed accounts of bedchamber conversations between Xerxes and Amestris, and says that flax is only worked by the Colchians of the South Caucasus and the Egyptians (2.105). One of Herodotus’ most influential and radical critics was the late Detlev Fehling. Fehling’s polemical work attracted a lot of passionate responses, and I would recommend that people read it rather than let someone else tell them what to think about it. However, I think that the following passage from one of his later articles is a good statement of the problem:

Any discussion of Herodotus’ methods will necessarily have to begin with a basic problem, which has been seen clearly by all serious scholars for more than a century. … There are no direct autobiographical statements in Herodotus (except that he calls himself a citizen of Halicarnassus, a small town on the coast of Asia Minor, but that counts as part of his name). But there are distributed over his work quite a number of passages where he says that he is reporting what is said in diverse places: ‘The Egyptians say …’, ‘the Spartans say …’ etc. There is also a smaller number of passages which, if what Herodotus states is correct, unequivocally imply his presence at the place he is talking about: ‘I heard from …, I asked …, I saw …, they told me …’, and in one exceptional case even: ‘I went to Tyros in order to ascertain …’ (ii.44.1). I do not count these as autobiographical, because they are clearly not meant to tell about Herodotus himself, but are closely bound up with the information he is presenting. Now the problem with these remarks– and I repeat: a problem recognized by everybody- is that much of what Herodotus tells us precisely in these places cannot be taken at face value, mainly for two or three reasons. [Fehling gives them] … We should not treat Herodotus as if he awoke one morning and said to himself: ‘I have a splendid idea how to make my name famous for many a century: let me be the first historian. Of course, this puts me under the moral obligation to behave like a conscientious historian, but, being an honest man, I should be able to live up to that.’ It has often been pointed out that the nearest thing to Herodotus’ enterprise existing in Greek literature before his time were the Homeric epics. The Greeks used to believe that the war which was the subject of these epics was, in principle, historical, and yet no Greek could or did overlook the fact that they consisted for the most part of pure fiction. Such considerations should help us to solve the dilemma in which Herodotean scholars always found themselves enmeshed. They believed that they had only the choice between Herodotus the truthful scholar and Herodotus the liar and impostor. They simply thought that between these two tertium non datur. Given this, it is understandable that the second possibility never had many friends. Herodotus so obviously makes the impression of a morally responsible and serious personality that nobody felt happy about catching him in a lie. Rather scholars would feel that it was not decent to do so, and so many of them preferred to close their eyes firmly in front of obvious observations.

Detlev Fehling, “The Art of Herodotus and the Margins of the World” in Z.R.W.M. Martels (ed.), Travel Fact and Travel Fiction: Studies on Fiction, Literary Tradition, Scholarly Discovery and Observation in Travel Writing (Leiden: Brill, 1994) pp. 1-15, the quotes come from pages 1, 2, and 7. You can find the article on Google Books.

You could say many things about this passage, but I think that Fehling has struck upon the key reason why few others accept his ideas completely. Herodotus sounds like a careful investigator with a keen interest in epistemology and encouraging his readers to think critically about what they are hearing. It is hard to believe that he lied, or that when he said ‘I asked them and they said …’ he did not mean that he, himself, talked to his sources. Many of his stories resonate with Near Eastern texts which are otherwise unknown in the classical tradition. At the same, it is obvious that he saw the world, its laws, and his duties as a storyteller differently than anyone does today. In his worldview, big things tend to become small and small things big not because of entropy or imperial overstretch but because such cycles are part of the world, and the Nile in Libya and the Danube in Europe are not just two big rivers but balanced parts of the earth whose forms and functions correspond in a way out of James George Frazer’s work on magic not a textbook on geology and the water cycle. The same man who carefully undermined his readers’ expectations and the messages which they would want to draw from his words also wrote that only the Colchians and the Egyptians work linen (2.105) in a world where linen had been grown, spun, and woven everywhere for thousands of years (Nosch, “Linen Textiles and Flax in Classical Greece: Provenance and Trade”).

Just what Herodotus felt was acceptable to do in turning other people’s stories into his own is a hard problem. It is very hard to believe that he systematically invented sources, but it is also hard to believe that he saw and heard everything which he says he saw without at least massaging them to fit his own needs and his audience’s expectations.

Edit 2018-10-09: Clarified what Herodotus says about linen in Egypt and Colchis and added a link to Nosch’s article

Innsbruck’s Tell


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A street which slopes visibly upwards, so that there are steps down from the sidewalk to the ground floor of the shops

Looking south along the Universitätstraße, Innsbruck

Mud brick has fallen out of fashion, so cities no longer rise ever higher on the jumbled bones of dead houses. When the Flood or the Umman-Manda next come, perhaps we will regret that, for there is nothing like a good tell for persuading nasty people to go brutalize someone else. But if you follow the Universitätsstraße which runs from a vanished city gate past the Hofkirche and a secularized cloister by the theological university towards the railway arcade, you can see this process still at work.

A gigantic excavation 6 or 8 metres deep with the foundations of mud-brick buildings at the bottom

The trench down to the Old Elamite 15th city in the Ville Royale at Susa. There are three tells like this at Susa covering a square kilometer.

I suspect that this rise in street level had something to do with the works to construct the railway arcade, or maybe converting the street from bare earth to asphalt with sewers below. These days the city fathers of Innsbruck have rediscovered that rebuilding the streets is a great way to create work, but they seem determined not to raise the streets any further just move a bus stop here and a tram station there. In a few thousand years, I don’t think Innsbruck will look like Susa. But customs change and the future is full of surprises.

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The Economics of Publishing


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A street scene of four-storey brick and concrete buildings with a bookstore at ground level

Even in sleepy Innsbruck with its fixed book prices, all is not well in any end of publishing. The Wagner’sche in the Museumstraße, Innsbruck (they own the first two storeys of the white building, and the second storey of the brown one).

One of my jobs is as a freelance writer, and it is a hard time for us. Advances and royalties are falling, and professional writers in a rich country earn an average of 10k a year from their writing (CAD, USD, GBP, EUR … the currencies vary but the numbers are similar). Elaine Dewar has seen a study that only 7% of the revenues of the Canadian publishing industry are paid to authors; I hope she names it in the print version of ‘The Handover’ and puts it next to how much goes to the publisher and how much to retailers, printers, server farms, and other middlemen and service providers, because another source estimates 10% to the writer, 10% to the publisher, 10% to production, and 70% to various middlemen. Chart writers’ incomes from their writing and you find a hockey stick: the top 5% of authors in the UK earned 42% of the income. If you follow novelists you will hear about the death of short fiction as a paying proposition in the 1970s, the midlist death spiral in the 2000s, or changes in search rules on Amazon or Facebook which devastate creative people’s sales. The central problems are, probably, that they keep inventing other forms of entertainment, and that so many people want to be writers even if the pay is bad. These days if you are interested in history you can watch YouTube or read blogs about books and swords instead of opening a book that someone paid for. (That said, I would really like to see some data on book sales over the last 10 or 20 years … right now all I have is anecdotes).

Now, people like Kris Rusch or Dean Wesley Smith will remind you that many writers change pen names as casually as some people change their clothes, and that surveys of writers are often answered by wannabes who do not write, do not finish what they write, do not put it on the market, and do not keep it on the market until someone buys it. If a favourite writer vanishes or only publishes a book now and then, they may well have switched to a new pen name or be spending time writing a different genre. However, I don’t see any reason to think that there were more wannabe writers in 2014 than 2005 to drive down the average income, and pay rates for short fiction have not increased much since the middle of the last century, while the value of a dollar or a pound has collapsed (the Science Fiction Writers of America, for example, count works paid at least 6 cents a word as professionally published … back in 1940 a penny a word was typical, but the penny was worth 17 times more). If rates are falling, clearly writers have to publish more to earn the same.

Talking about the publishing recalls the fable of the blind man and the elephant: everyone assumes that their little corner of the industry is the model for the whole. So in this post, I would like to talk about the situation in some kinds of publishing which are not as famous as novels.
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A Lancehead from Deve Hüyük


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A black-and-white closeup of steel with a swirling, lumpy, grainular structure like wood

A 4x magnification (macrograph) of the cross-section of a spearhead from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük. Plate III from Coghlan’s Notes on Prehistoric and Early Iron (1956)

Most studies of old iron begin with the Celts or the Viking age, with a few digressions on exotic eastern steels like the nickel-steel daggers from Tutankhamun’s mummy, wootz from India, krises from the jungles of southeast Asia, and katanas from Japan. In fact, there are a number of studies of very early iron from the Aegean and the Near East. One of the first of these examined a spearhead from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the upper Euphrates. (There is some dispute about which country the site is in right now). It was badly rusted and mineralized, but enough elemental iron remained to understand the composition.

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What I Did Instead of My Summer Vacation



A cheap steel bookcase full of academic texts and a thesis bound in linen with the title "Dissertation: Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire" (Sean Manning, MA, 2018)

On a foggy Monday the 3rd of September I sent my dissertation to the printer in Salzburg. I will defend it around the start of November. I suppose I should talk about what I have been working on for five years, aside from learning all of these languages, poking around museums and archaeological sites, and publishing articles.

If you look around for research on armies, soldiers, and warfare under the Teispids and Achaemenids, you will find that there are a lot of articles but only a few short overviews, and the methods behind those overviews are not the best. Scholars have all kinds of opinions, but they generally write what they think rather than list the different interpretations and make a case for one of them, and the people working on lists of equipment from Babylonia don’t talk very often to the people trying to decide what Herodotus was doing or the people excavating mounds in Turkey.

My doctoral dissertation has 348 pages and seven chapters. More specifically, there is a chapter on the history of research and why what we read today sounds so much like what Eduard Meyer wrote under Kaiser Bill, a chapter on war in the time of the the Neo-Assyrians and Achaemenid armies in the context of an ancient Near Eastern tradition, a chapter on warfare in royal inscriptions and imperial ideology, a chapter on warfare in documents and the ordinary soldier, a chapter on archaeological evidence, a chapter on warfare in classical literature and the pitfalls of interpreting those sources, and a conclusion which looks at the problem through Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific paradigms. This is partially a thesis about the ancient Near East, and partially about the forces and ideologies in the last hundred years which shape how we talk about it.
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One Last Pile of Thesis Fuel (and a Bit of Fun)


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Five books and a coarse file spread on a table

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science; Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; D.T. Potts “Cataphractus and Kamāndar: Some Thoughts on the Dynamic Evolution of Heavy Cavalry and Mounted Archers in Iran and Central Asia”; James C. Scott The Art of Not Being Governed; Howard Taylor, Travis Walton, and Sandra Taylor, Random Access Memorabilia