Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.Continue reading
This week’s blog post is on Ancient World Magazine: a review of Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900” (Routledge, 2003).
Halsall is a thoughtful scholar, and when I read his book I was struck that in looking at the end of the ancient world, he faces many of the challenges that we face trying to understand warfare in the earlier parts of ancient history. And thanks to my studies in Victoria, I have some idea of how his book is positioned in some debates, even though my own opinions on those debates are not worth sharing. When academic debates have settled down to two camps sitting down and declaring they have won and the other side should come over and surrender, it can help to look at how people one or two sub-fields over work through similar questions. And its an interesting, affordable book without too much self-indulgence. If you are interested in martial arts or arms and armour, this book’s ideas about how early medieval weapons were used are in line with the ideas of people like Roland Warzecha.
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.
2020-06-06: trackback from Eleanor Konik, Vikings & Spartans: Women in a Militaristic Culture (some inconsistency between the two sites is creating a problem with CSS here so I am linking manually)
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 https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2007/04/brave-new-war-upside-of-down-and-fall.htm
There is a new life of Hypatia of Alexandria out for a modest price ($30). Hypatia is a figure who has a significant role in modern pop culture (there is even a good film about her!) and polemics about religion, but comes from a place and time which is not as accessible as Socrates’ Athens or Marcus Aurelius’ imperium. But Alexandria in the fourth century CE was a colorful place, full of faction-fights and nations, sects, and languages all jumbled together. So if you want a look at that world by someone who is more interested in the ancient world than scoring points in modern debates, you might want to check it out (you can find a new or used copy on bookfinder).
Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.. Pp. xii, 205. ISBN 9780190210038. $29.95.
Reviewed by Aistė Čelkytė, Underwood International College, Yonsei University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This monograph, dedicated to reconstructing the life and career of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, is part of the Women in Antiquity series. The study has a strong historical focus, so that little is said about Hypatia’s philosophical views, apart from identifying Hypatia as a Plotinian Platonist, that is, one who did not engage in theurgical practices popular among contemporary Platonists. The choice of a historical focus might seem surprising as the evidence for her life is very sparse, but Watts presents a detailed picture of Hypatia’s career by means of innovative use of a large variety of texts. The book is comprised of introduction, ten chapters and concluding remarks.
One of the treasures housed in the Castelvecchio of Verona is an extraordinary silver plate. It dates a bit later than the Sasanid silverwork which I have blogged about before, to the age which gave us Maurice’s Strategikon when East Romans, Goths, and Lombards were struggling for control in Italy and destroying what was left of the wealth and learning built up in the centuries when Rome ruled the world.
In the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid empires around the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Often we do not have sources to answer all the questions which people have today about how soldiers used their weapons, because ancient people preferred to pass that kind of knowledge on in person. But it happens that we have many kinds of evidence for archery in this period, including slightly later archery manuals, books on generalship, a wide variety of works of art, the remains of archery equipment, and odd references in histories and other kinds of literature. I would say that we have at least as good evidence for how Romans and Persians shot at each other in the age of Khosrow and Heraclius as for how Greek hoplites fought one another in Xenophon’s day.
One of the most important pieces of evidence for how the Sasanid Persians drew their bows is a group of gilt silver plates and vases hammered with images of the king hunting with the bow on horseback. It happens that I was recently in St. Petersburg, and I was able to photograph many of these bowls and vases in the State Hermitage Museum. This week I thought I would post some of my photos. Because I have not shot a bow for too many years, nor read up on this period of history, I won’t try to provide a commentary. The captions for each photo are based on the English labels in the Hermitage.
In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).