In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game


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A pitted sexa blade, a comb with sheaths for the teeth, a large clay pot, and some small metal dress accessories in a glass case

Goods from post-imperial graves in the Zeughaus, Innsbruck

Military service may often have been the business of rather older men than we might expect in the light of modern experience. Twentieth-century warfare was infamously the business of very young men. In Normandy in 1944, soldiers in their late twenties were regarded by their comrades as ‘old’ and the average age of the GIs in Vietnam was nineteen. British soldiers in the Falklands in 1982 were even younger: only eighteen on average. However, in the furnished cemeteries of the sixth century (CE) full weapon sets typically symbolise mature adult men (between about thirty and fifty, or even sixty). Later, Ripwin, a landowner in the middle Rhine area, first attests charters in 767 (CE), suggesting he must have reached legal majority (about fifteen years) by then. Twenty-five years afterwards, in 792/3, he was called out on campaign to Italy and made various dispositions about what was to happen if he did not return. Ripwin’s worries were reasonable enough; Italy was a graveyard for armies, if more through disease than battle. Nevertheless, Ripwin did come back – he appears in the documents until 806 – but these charters show that he was still serving in Charlemagne’s army until at least his forties.

Close fighting with spear and shield requires strength and stamina to be sure, but also, and possibly more importantly, cunning and the knowledge of how to attack and parry – knowing the moves. An experienced warrior can spot the type of attack being launched, parry it and riposte with a minimum of physical effort. He knows where and when to use physical effort, and not to waste it on wild, frenzied attacks. Except possibly against raw, untrained troops, accuracy and blade- or point-control is more important than mere ferocity. Repeated experience of battle made a warrior more likely to survive it. As will be seen, it was this accumulation of experience which made the Vikings such difficult foes to beat. It is very likely that the same factor made eighth-century Frankish armies so successful. Success breeds success. On the other hand, states whose armed forces had had little experience of warfare might find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when attacked by more hardened forces. Thus, it would seem, the easy success over Lombard armies enjoyed by battle-tested Frankish forces in the eighth century. The rapid collapse of the Avar kingdom in the 790s probably owed as much to the Avars’ generally peaceful and isolationist existence in the eighth century as to the clever strategies employed by Charlemagne and his commanders.

– Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. Warfare and History (Routledge: London and New York, 2003) pp. 35, 36

In antiquity, teenaged soldiers are often assigned to less demanding roles, like Polybius’ velites or Thucydides’ troops to man the Long Walls, until their bodies and minds had matured and they had gained the experience to survive prolonged combat at close quarters without flinching. Classical Greeks thought that the one thing young soldiers were good at was chasing down light-armed opponents, and in that they agreed with modern athletes.

Experience was probably the main reason that Athenian armies were so successful in the fifth century BCE. Except in Sparta and the Roman army after Augustus, military training was not institutionalized, so in two generations of peace key practical knowledge was generally lost. That knowledge could be reinvented, but Thucydides’ harsh teacher charged tuition fees in blood.

Further Reading: Jolene McLeod has an article somewhere arguing that while Plutarch’s story about Eumenes’ Silver Shields being ‘none of them under sixty years of age’ (Eumenes, 16.4) was probably exaggerated, plenty of middle-aged men served as combat soldiers in antiquity. Reyes Bertolin has researched ancient athletes who tend to be young adults as the games professionalized and competition became more intense.

Squatters not Owners on the Web


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A tabby cat squatted on its hind legs underneath a chair on a concrete sidewalk

I don’t know whether this chatton parisien is a squatter or an owner, but it seems content which is maybe wiser than writing a long post like this!

Many of the problems with Internet communities today stem from the fact that they are in places which don’t belong to the members. Youtube and twitter are nothing without their users, but Youtube and twitter are free to reject someone or change their standards of what is acceptable at any time, and users have no grounds to challenge them. Years of work can be deleted or hidden in a moment if the owner sees fit, and standards of behaviour designed to keep billions of people clicking are never going to be the ones which a small group of nerdy people chose for themselves. Moreover, its not in the interest of these companies to let users export their work in a convenient format.

Alexiares suggests that a good first step would be moving to services hosted by the post office or the public library. The public post has its problems, like the times it was used to block the spread of birth control information and equipment, but libraries and the post office at least have a tradition of offering service and privacy to everyone on equal terms, and are at least based in the same country with the same laws as their users- I don’t think that Germans and Americans will ever agree on what is protected free speech, or people in Ontario and people in Fars will agree on who can bare which bits. So decentralizing onto services like mastodon could help.

When I think back, though, it seems to me that this is a much older problem than centralized social media. In the 2000s, communities sprang up in places like the comments sections of blogs or the off-topic section of forums. Often, the owners of those sites are not happy about this at all, because moderation is work and organizing moderators is work and they have plenty of underpaid work of their own to do (the Taylor family shut down comments on their main site for this reason). Other times, they create a monthly thread or a members-only subforum to let their readers get it out of their system. But they have do do something because people often use an online space designed for one activity for another.
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Slavery in Mesopotamia


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A reception at the Collège de France, Paris.

At the 65th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale I was chatting to the excellent JoAnn Scurlock and Eva von Dassow about ancient slavery. The conversation turned to abortatative attempts in the Bronze Age to require all slaves to wear a distinctive hairstyle, and I mentioned the Roman senator who laughed down a proposal to make slaves wear distinctive clothing by asking whether they wanted slaves to see how many they were (I think Seneca tells the story). And that turned the discussion to some differences between Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman slavery. As always, when I am retelling a conversation you can attribute the wise insights to other people, and the arrant nonsense to me and my poor understanding and shaky memory.
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How to Mark a Footnote with an Asterisk in Libreoffice


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Its pretty common for an academic paper to have a first footnote marked with a star or asterisk which contains acknowledgements, a list of places where earlier versions of this paper were presented, and other polite formulas. Neither Duckduckgo or that other search engine shows me how to create one like that, but its actually easy:

Insert -> Footnote and Endnote -> Footnote or Endnote
Character: *

After that, you can insert footnotes normally, and they will be numbered 1, 2, 3, … or i, ii, iii … as you have it set. The special footnote does not interfere with the numbering of later notes.

Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century


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OK, the things they carried did sometimes include the gods of cities which made an uprising against the king of the world, but only under insolent provocation! A Neo-Assyrian relief in the British Museum.

People who are headed to Plataia 2021 and have picked the King’s side want to know what the King’s Men carried in 479 BCE. While Herodotus and the painters and sculptors focus on clothing, arms, and armour, two kinds of document from Babylonia list what was provided to particular soldiers at specific places and dates. These are contracts between men liable to service and their substitutes, and invoices for the issue of equipment to humble conscripts, many of them dependants of the great temples. They date to the period from Nabonidus to the terrible revolts in the second year of Xerxes (484 BCE), so just before the expedition against the Ionians Across the Sea.

Babylonians divided a soldier’s equipment into consumables, such as food and clothing (ṣidītu), which were provided once a year, and arms (Gadal-Yâma’s unūt tāhāzi “battle gear”) which lasted longer and only had to be provided once. The whole were called loin-girdling (rikis qabli). Some documents only list one category, others list both. A good example of the first kind of text is number 13 in The Arrows of the Sun: each shepherd or ikkaru stationed with the šušānu on horseback shall receive:

12 shekels of silver
8 kur (about 8 × 180 litres) of dates
1 5/8 shekels of silver for oil, salt, and cress
1 mountain garment ({tug2}KUR.RA)
1 širˀam
1 karballatu
x leather nūṭu-container (normally one per man)
x leather shoes (normally one pair per year)

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The Key Question in the Fall of the Roman Empire


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A conversation with Nathan Ross inspired me to track down two essays by Steve Muhlberger on what I think is the key issue in the fall of the western Roman empire. (The debate “were foreign invasions or civil wars more destructive?” is a bit of a semantic issue, since soldiers tried to be as Germanic as possible and wealthy Germans in the Imperium tried to become as Roman as possible: its never going to be easy to define figures like Stilicho as either Roman or barbarian). It has long been obvious that the fifth century saw light beautiful pottery, stone houses, roofs with leak-proof terracotta tiles, and philosophers who could do original work vanish from Europe north of the Alps, but recently archaeologists have noticed that people buried in Post-Roman Europe seem to be living longer and eating better than their ancestors who bore the Roman yoke.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with “the End of Civilization” (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don’t think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that’s it, then there was probably a lot less “civilization” in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury — whatever luxury you prefer — is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

– Steve Muhlberger, “Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire,” 22 April 2007
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Cross-Post: Subscriptions to Robin Netherton’s Festschrift


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Until 1 August 2019, Boydell and Brewer are accepting subscriptions for a Festschrift to textile historian Robin Netherton. Subscribers can buy the volume for 40 GBP/70 USD rather than the 70 GBP/135 USD retail price, and will get their name in the book. Chapters will include:

  • Introduction
  • Robin Netherton: A Life
  • Precious Offerings: Dressing Devotional Statues in Medieval England
  • Dressing the Earth: an Eleventh-century Garb in the Exultet Roll of Bari
  • Dress, Disguise, and Shape-Shifting in Nibelungenlied and Volsunga Saga
  • Survival, Recovery, Restoration, Re-creation: the Long Life of Medieval Garments
  • Coping with Connoisseurship: Issues in Attribution and Purpose raised by an Indo-Portuguese “Vestment” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Refashioning St. Edward: Clothing and Textiles
  • “Dressed to Kill:” The Clothing of Christ’s Tormentors in an Illustrated Polish Devotional Manuscript
  • Semper Ubi Sub Ubi: What Braies Cover and Reveal
  • Treason and Clothing in Sixteenth-Century England: The Case of Gregory “Sweetlips” Botolf
  • The Lexicon of Apparel in the Pastourelle Corpus: Refashioning Shepherdesses
  • The Real Unreal: Chrétien de Troyes’s Fashioning of Erec and Enide
  • Regulating and Refashioning Dress: Sumptuary Legislation and its Enforcement in Fourteenth- and Early Fifteenth-Century Lucca
  • Nuns’ Clothing and Ornaments in English and Northern French Ecclesiastical Regulations
  • Clothing Dependents: Dress of Children and Servants in the Petre Household, 1586-1587

To subscribe, download the order form at

Some Thoughts on Niven’s “A Gift from Earth”


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Larry Niven, A Gift from Earth (Ballantine Books: New York, 1968)

Larry Niven had a brilliant creative career from his first published story in 1964 to the Tales from Draco’s Tavern and The Integral Trees in the mid-1980s. Since then his star has faded, although his name often appears on covers next to a co-author; I get the impression that he got bored with writing but did not find a new vocation. I recently had a chance to re-read one of his novels which I don’t often return to, and was struck by how good it is.
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The Myth of the Heavily Burdened Hoplite


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How much weight did these warriors carry? Archaeological finds let us give a pretty good estimate. A Corinthian aryballos (oil flask)in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 41.162.157

Today, people with detailed direct knowledge of Iron Age arms and armour in the Aegean describe them as for athletes, as lightweight as the smiths could make them. Most hoplites had just one or two spears, a round shield, some kind of headpiece and some kind of sword, dagger, or cleaver. A hoplite was heavily burdened in comparison to man with a club and a selection of rocks in a fold of his tunic, not in comparison with modern ‘light’ (not motor-borne) infantry who often carry their own body weight in equipment. So where does the idea that hoplites wore 30 kilos of equipment come from? Back in 2010, Peter Krentz laid out the sad story.

Most scholars writing in English today estimate the weight of a hoplite’s equipment as 70 pounds (33 kilograms) or more, a figure that goes back to Delbrück, who took the figure 72 pounds from W. Rüstow and H. Köchly’s Geschichte des griechischen Kriegswesens von der ältesten Zeit bis auf Pyrrhos (1852). These are German pounds, each equal to 500 grams or 0.5 kilograms, as is clear from places where Rüstow and Köchly give weights in both pounds and kilograms. Their original estimate, therefore, was actually about 36 kilograms (79 avoirdupois pounds). Even this lofty figure has been exaggerated— in 1994 Richard A. Gabriel and Donald W. Boose gave the weight of a panoply (a full set of hoplite equipment) as 85–90 pounds (39–41 kilograms). But, as I say, most scholars writing in English today favor 70 avoirdupois pounds, which Victor Davis Hanson describes as “an incredible burden to endure for the ancient infantryman, who himself probably weighed no more than some 150 pounds.” Rüstow and Köchly’s figures do not deserve this veneration. They did not weigh museum pieces or attempt to reconstruct the equipment. As a result, a reviewer, Theodor Bergk, dismissed their figures as “purely hypothetical attempts,” while Hans Droysen justified his decision to ignore them by calling them “arbitrary estimates.” After all the archaeological discoveries of the past century and a half, especially in the German excavations at Olympia, we can do better today.

– Peter Krentz, “A Cup by Douris and the Battle of Marathon,” in Garrett G. Fagan and Matthew Trundle (eds.), New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (Brill: Leiden, 2010) pp. 188-190

In short, this number persisted because it was the first one on the table, and because archaeologists refused to systematically measure and weigh finds until the 1990s (and when they did, they mostly did so in Greek and German, while the people becoming interested in hoplites only read English). Krentz estimates the weight of hoplite equipment as follows:

  • Helmet 1.2 kg {Extant Late Corinthian helmets}
  • Body Armour 3.6–6.8 kg {Extant bronze cuirasses and modern linen and leather armour}
  • Greaves (pair) 1.3 kg {Extant bronze greaves}
  • Shield 3.2–6.8 kg {Reconstructions based on two extant shields from Italy; for example, the poplar wood shield covered in 0.5 mm bronze sheet in the Museuo Gregoriano would have weighed 6.2 kg/13.5 lbs new}
  • Spear 1.5 kg {Reconstructions based on extant spearheads and buttspikes}
  • Sword, Scabbard, and Baldric 1-2 kg {Parallels with Roman gladii, weight of one damaged original}
  • Clothing 1 kg {Reconstructions}
  • Total (rounded) 13–21 kg

All of his figures are consistent with the weight of kit from other cultures. While modern infantry have to carry more than their body weight over the mountains of Afghanistan or the steppes of upper Mesopotamia, a Greek hoplite carried about as much weight into combat as I hauled to and from school five days a week.

Help my web hosts hold up their load with a donation on Patreon or or even liberapay

Edit 2019-08-03: Corrected the names of the editors of the collection with Krentz’ article

An grave stele from near Athens c. 390 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, accession number 40.11.23

Datini’s Wares in GURPS


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Two soldier crush silverware for easier packing as a comrade throws more loot out a window

Want to know whether helmets of scales like Mr. Red wears were just artists’ fantasies? Check out Medieval Warfare VIII.1. British Library, MS. Royal 20 C VII (painted in Paris between 1380 and 1400)

Last spring I published a two-page article in Medieval Warfare VIII.1 talking about the kinds of concealed armour which were for sale in the Avignon of the Babylonian Captivity. As far as I know nobody else has talked about these sources in any language except Italian, so I hope translating them was helpful! Now, I am interested in the real things and how they were made … if I ever have money I might commission a few reproductions. But what if your interest is in gaming? How might you represent this armour, say in GURPS?

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