In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).
As part of my dissertation I have to talk about conscription and how well it functioned in the Ancient Near East, and that turned me to a classic article. As I was searching for it I found another which I want to talk about.
Back in 1999, Norvell Atkine set out to explain to the American imperial elite why the “Arab armies” which they had armed and trained were so reluctant to fight the way that Americans told them to fight. These armies kept losing, so why were they rejecting help from more effective soldiers like him and his friends? “There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.” When I read it the first time, I took away his lovely anecdotes about the culture clash between American military personnel and the Arab officers which they had been assigned to collaborate with. Atkine focusses on the armies of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But a few years ago, Caitlyn Talmadge wrote a scholarly article on one of the Arab armies which he is less interested in: Saddam Hussein’s. Her article has an abstract, so I will let her speak for herself:
Saddam’s Iraq has become a cliché in the study of military effectiveness—the quintessentially coup-proofed, personalist dictatorship, unable to generate fighting power commensurate with its resources. But evidence from the later years of the Iran-Iraq War actually suggests that the Iraqi military could be quite effective on the battlefield. What explains this puzzling instance of effectiveness, which existing theories predict should not have occurred? Recently declassified documents and new histories of the war show that the Iraqi improvements stemmed from changes in Saddam’s perceptions of the threat environment, which resulted in significant shifts in his policies with respect to promotions, training, command arrangements, and information management in the military. Threat perceptions and related changes in these practices also help explain Iraq’s return to ineffectiveness after the war, as evident in 1991 and 2003. These findings, conceived as a theory development exercise, suggest that arguments linking regime type and coup-ridden civil-military relations to military performance need to take into account the threat perceptions that drive autocratic leaders’ policies toward their militaries.
To put it bluntly, Saddam spent his time in power worried that someone would toss him in his own torture chambers. After all, most of the governments in the region, including his Baˀath party, were descended from a group of soldiers who had overthrown the previous regime. So he set up policies to ensure that the army was not a threat to him: strictly limiting communication between units, requiring minor acts to be authorized from Baghdad, refusing to allow different types of troops to train together, and killing officers who were too popular. This kept him in power for 25 years and able to play warlord, even if it also meant that his adventures cost the lives of too many of his own soldiers for little or no gain. The only time that he relaxed these politics was the late 1980s, when it seemed like if the war continued, his regime might collapse. As soon as he had driven the Iranians back across the border and made peace, he treated the army just like he had before, because once again he was more worried about a coup from within than an invasion from without. And while Saddam was crazy (and perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer), his 25 year rule suggests that he knew how to stay in power.
I sew by hand, and I like to use this needle case. It holds pins better than my pincushion, it is easy to pack away and set up wherever I am working, and I like the feel of the stamped leather in my hand. I bought it from someone at a medieval fair 20 years and several lifetimes ago.
Now, if you ask most people how ancient and medieval people stored pins and needles, they will show you metal or bone cylindrical cases with lids, and maybe speculate about leather or wooden versions. As for the pins and needles themselves, they will usually point out clumsy things suitable for making sails or picking a lock. But there is a problem of evidence. They point to these things because they appear in collections of small finds and are reported by metal detectorists. And wee little fishbone or steel needles don’t survive as well as giant bronze ones, and are not as easy to detect and identify. A folding needlecase is just as hard to spot, especially if it is not of vegetable-tanned leather. Hide which is treated in other ways, with drying, oil, fat, or alum, tends to break down in the ground, and in many cultures these other treatments were much more common than tanning with oak or other sources of tannins. A folding needlecase also suits conditions before the 20th century, because it required few materials or tools: just a scrap of leather and felt, which can be made from the ‘cabbage’ left over from cutting larger items, and a needle and thread to put it together. Before the 20th century, preparing the materials for clothing was usually much more expensive than turning them into a specific product.
So how long have people been using these before someone at the fair sat down at their crafts table to earn some pocket money? I have no idea. But I would expect it to be very long indeed, and much longer than I can prove. In studying ancient history, you have to accept that all kinds of things were done which you can’t prove. And I am OK with that.
Further Reading: http://larsdatter.com/sewingkits.htm Carol van Driel-Murray of the Archaeological Leather Group has been one of the leading figures in laying out the evidence that vegetable tanning was not the dominant way of treating hides in the ancient and medieval world.
At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:
And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.
It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?
The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?
I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.
In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.
I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.
Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link
A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
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!
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.