Publishing in Xenophon’s World

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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!

Cotton from Dilmun

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An eroded ziggurat against the background of the blue sky with bushes and depressions in the foreground

Tschoga Zanbil, the greatest surviving ziggurat in Elam (modern Khuzestan). Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

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).[79] 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]).

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How Much Does the Protection of Low-Tech Armour Vary?

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A selection of images from tactical displays in Star Wars: A New Hope

Despite all of our technological terrors, we still can’t predict the outcome of hand-to-hand combat very well. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Mike Reddy 2013 https://doctormikereddy.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/javin-java-battle-of-yavin-tactical-computer/

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.

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2016 Year-Ender

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Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

Every day that we throw out some seeds is Christmas for the local birds!

I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.

Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).

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The Linen Karballatu

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A bascinet with a perforated-metal visor wearing a red hood with cheek flaps and a tall comb at the top folded down

I am cautious about posting closeups of my face on the Internet, but while I am visiting my parents I have a convenient surrogate available

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.
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The Paraskeuastikon of Peter the Son of Jack

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A brick fortress with swallowtail battlements, a high tower, and double walls

Since I start this post by talking about an imaginary fortress designed by ignorant people, how about a real fortress designed by people skilled in the art: the Castelvecchio facing what was once outside the medieval town and is now part of the city centre, Verona. The low grey wall and the high red brick wall are separated by a ditch which was once wet.

In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.

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Scythed Chariots

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A painting of a scythed chariot with a driver and warrior

A Persian scythed chariot as imagined by the artists at DBA Online http://www.dbaol.com/ I like the style and colour, although someone should have reminded the artist that these chariots just had a driver, no passengers with bows!

As I write a section of the chapter of my dissertation on Greek literature, I have been thinking about how that literature drives ideas about the Achaemenids along certain channels. Achaemenid historians trained as classicists have trouble forgetting a long list of tropes, stereotypes, and traditions which began in the Achaemenid period but were even more vividly expressed in Roman times. A good example is the most famous Persian weapon, the scythed chariot.

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Why Does Research Clump?

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A wrought silver bowl showing Ajax, Athena, and Odysseus

Since my view of how research works involves a lot of arguing in front of an audience, how about the debate about who should inherit the armour of Achilles? Silver plate in the Hermitage with Ajax and Odysseus competing for the armour of Achilles (number ω-279.) Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Robin Hanson, the economist and futurist with a great deadpan, has been thinking about why academic research tends to clump around particular problems. Like many American thinkers today, he appeals to a theory of mind where most of what people do is really about status and social position and nobody is sincere. In his post Idea Talkers Clump, he puts it thus:

I keep encountering people who are mad at me, indignant even, for studying the wrong scenario. While my book assumes that brain emulations are the first kind of broad human-level AI, they expect more familiar AI, based on explicitly-coded algorithms, to be first.

… I’d estimate that there is now at least one hundred times as much attention given to the scenario of human level AI based on explicit coding (including machine learning code) than to brain emulations.

But I very much doubt that ordinary AI first is over one hundred times as probable as em-based AI first. …

In addition, due to diminishing returns, intellectual attention to future scenarios should probably be spread out more evenly than are probabilities. The first efforts to study each scenario can pick the low hanging fruit to make faster progress. In contrast, after many have worked on a scenario for a while there is less value to be gained from the next marginal effort on that scenario.

Yes, sometimes there can be scale economies to work on a topic; enough people need to do enough work to pass a critical threshold of productivity. But I see little evidence of that here, and much evidence to the contrary. Even within the scope of working on my book I saw sharply diminishing returns to continued efforts. So even if em-based AI had only 1% the chance of the other scenario, we’d want much more than 1% of thinkers to study it. At least we would if our goal were better understanding.

But of course that is not usually the main goal of individual thinkers. We are more eager to jump on bandwagons than to follow roads less travelled. All those fellow travellers validate us and our judgement. We prefer to join and defend a big tribe against outsiders, especially smaller weaker outsiders.

Now, I share his frustration when I see large amounts of attention being devoted to some problems, while others which seem just as interesting are ignored. If smart people have been arguing about something for 200 years, and no new sources or methods have appeared, I have trouble believing that my opinion will add anything to the conversation (this is Daniel Kahneman’s principle “thou shalt respect base rates, and not let thyself make excuses about why this time is different” and Edsger W. Dijkstra’s Third Golden Rule for Scientific Research [EWD 637]). On the other hand, as an ancient historian from Canada, I can think of some other reasons why research tends to clump.
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The Forces of Madness Over-Reach

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The unfinished end of the sleeve of a quilted garment against a cloth background

One cuff of the doublet about to be finished by stitching cloth along the raw edges.

The forces of madness have been on an around-the-world tour, but when they got back and slept off the tasty kebabs, weak beer, and very sweet sweets they discovered that their agent in the Alps had over-reached himself. This particular style of clothing was meant to fit very closely in some areas while standing away from the body in others, and in an excess of enthusiasm, their humble servant cut too much away from the opening of the lower sleeve to finish its edges by rolling or folding and stitching down. Fortunately, there are solutions.
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Greek and Roman Military Manuals in Winnipeg

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Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg.  Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

Looking east along the footbridge over the Red River at Winnipeg. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2016.

In October I got to attend the conference on technical military writing at the University of Winnipeg. Aside from giving me a chance to have some A&W and Timbits (somehow Wienerschnitzel and Quarkbällchen are not the same) and catch up on academic gossip, I got to hear a great set of papers.

The presentations focused on Greek texts from Aeneas Tacticus and Xenophon in the early 4th century BCE to emperor Leo VI around 900 CE, with one group of three papers on Vegetius. Three others focused on Xenophon, leaving six on miscellaneous topics and authors, and one on methodology. Only two of the thirteen focused on tactical writing in any language.
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