Saturday, 15 February 2014

If the Late Roman Military Was a Sports Team: should the emperor/coach get fired?

Some time ago, while suffering through, and thinking about, the inconsistent performances of my favourite NHL team (the Ottawa Senators) and the local one (Winnipeg Jets), two things crossed my mind:  first, what constitutes "a good record"; second, do - or even could or should - the criteria for sports team excellence apply to other phenomena?  The other that I had in mind was the late Roman military, often either good or bad in modern estimations, with very few verdicts falling in between.  If I took the general criteria for evaluating the success of a given team over the course of a season and applied it to the late Roman military how would it stack up?  With this ridiculous idea and parallel in mind, I present this comparative approach to an evaluation of the late Roman military.

The criteria that I'm going to use are quite basic:  how many wins are there and how many losses.  This is the easiest way to compare sports to militaries:  both win and lose.  To make the analogy between then (late Rome) and now (modern North American sports), I've also decided to see how the military performs in different centuries, with the aim being to present a wider picture.  I should note too that I've limited this discussion to wars agains external foes, for in civil war surely everyone's a loser from the Roman perspective.  Any significant military activity (and I have been rather loose with respect to what counts) has been included, whether it's what could be considered a full-scale war or some sort of military campaign.  Also, it's hardly an extensive list:  I've only considered those wars listed in the back of volume 2 of the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare.  So, without further ado, here's late Rome's "performance":  a preliminary investigation.

Wins-Losses-Draws  5-8-2
208-210 Septimius Severus in Scotland  WIN
213-214 Caracalla against Alamanni  WIN
215-216 Caracalla invades Parthia  WIN
230-233 Alexander Severus campaigns against Persians  DRAW
234-235 Alexander against Alamanni and Marcomanni - buys them off  - DRAW
238 Persians attack eastern frontier  - LOSS
243/244 Gordian defeated by Shapur I - LOSS
249/250 Goths raid Balkans - LOSS
251 Decius dies in battle against Goths - LOSS
260 Valerian captured by Persians - LOSS
260 Franks invade Gaul - LOSS
260 Alamanni invade Gaul - LOSS
262-267 Goths invade Asia Minor/Greece - LOSS
271 Aurelian defeats Palmyra - WIN
273 Aurelian reconquers Gaul - WIN

Wins-Losses-Draws  1-4-1
337-350 inconclusive war with Persia - DRAW
357 Julian defeats Alamanni - WIN
359 Shapur captures Amida - LOSS
361-363 Julian invades Persia - LOSS
378 Goths defeat & kill Valens - LOSS
396 Alaric & Goths ravage Greece - LOSS

Wins-Losses-Draws  0-6-1
410 sack of Rome - LOSS
429-439 Vandals take Africa - LOSS
440s Attila - DRAW
455 Vandals sack Rome - LOSS
460 Majorian's expedition to get Africa fails - LOSS
468 Basilicus' expedition to get Africa fails - LOSS
480s Goths overrun northern Balkans - LOSS

Wins-Losses-Draws  5-4-1
502-531 Rome wars with Persia - DRAW
533 Belisarius takes Africa - WIN
540 Belisarius takes Italy - WIN
540 Khusro attacks east - LOSS
544-552 Narses defeats Gothic resistance in Italy - WIN
568 Lombards invade Italy - LOSS
572 Justin II invades Persia - WIN
578/579 Avars start invasion of Balkans - LOSS
586/587 Slavs raid Greece - LOSS
590s Romans "win" in Balkans - WIN

Wins-Losses-Draws  1-2-0
614 Persians take much of east - LOSS
627 Heraclius defeats Persians at Nineveh - WIN
642 Arabs capture Alexandria - LOSS

Overall Wins-Losses-Draws  12-22-5

As noted, this is a far from thorough and extensive compilation of wars and wins/losses/draws and the like, and what has constituted for me a win or loss, or draw for that matter, has come down to a vaguely arbitrary decision.  Still, a few comments - the evaluation portion - are in order.

Overall, the late Roman military (henceforth lrm) has a dismal record.  In most north american sports leagues, or any for that matter, a 31% winning percentage isn't likely to lead to an extension of a coach's or manager's contract.  That percentage puts them in the same rank as the Buffalo Sabres of this current NHL season (at 28% at the Olympic break - even worse remarkably).  If we break it down by century, things look particularly grim in the third and fifth centuries, which is perhaps what we'd expect.  So too, however, does the situation seem to be in the fourth, when most consider the lrm  to have been performing at a reasonable level.  In fact, it's the sixth century that the lrm does best, though a 56% winning percentage is nothing to write home about.  Just ask the Jets; it's not going to get you into the playoffs.  The record for the sixth century may not seem so dire either, though I stopped in the middle of that century.

There's at least one other way to look at these figures, however, at least if we look at the century by century breakdown:  does the lrm win its last or most important battles/wars?  If that's the criteria, then the third and sixth centuries again represent winning seasons:  they've finished on top.  Still, the records leave much to be desired.

In the end, a poor showing, though a more detailed complete would be far more helpful.  So too would some additional comparative material, like Rome during the republican era and the early imperial one.  Perhaps in another post...

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Need for Speed: in Defence of the Winter Olympics

A few days ago I read this, and it got me thinking about how the winter Olympics stack up to the summer ones.  Obviously, being a Canadian and given that I'm sitting here looking out my window at the early stages of a 10-15cm snowfall, I'm a bit biased.  Still, being human we all are, so on with the show.  And, rather than write a rambling post filled with all the weird and wonderful things about winter sports, I'll respond to those 10 items point-by-point.

10) Founders’ intent.
The point here is that the founders of the Olympics never intended for winter sports to be included.  My counter is, with respect to the modern games, that they also intended for them to be for men, who were white and rich, alone.  With respect to the original Olympics, they too were male dominated, and not open to all.  And, how much snow would you actually get in the settled bits of ancient Greece?  Not much.  Heck, the original founder, Heracles - not whom she had in mind - is hardly someone to look up to.  In sum, argument fail.   

9) The Winter Games just doesn’t draw the same crowd.
Fair enough:  fewer people watch it than the summer ones, and yes there are far more countries who participate in the summer ones than the winter ones.  Point conceded.  Still, seeing the thronging masses in downtown Vancouver for the gold medal mens' hockey game 4 years ago or the 40,000 or so in the cold at the base of the ski jump hill in Lillihammer 20 years ago it's hard to get a bit of a chill watching the Winter Olympics...

8) Almost every Winter Olympic event can be summarized as follows: Someone is on a plane of snow or ice (it can be flat, or inclined) and that person falls down or does not fall down.   
I think this argument fails itself.  And, a ridiculous amount of skill goes into each and every one of those events.  How much skill is involved in running straight for 10 seconds?  Or doing a pirouette and then chucking a little metal ball?  Have you ever tried skiing downhill at speed on skis and then jumped dozens of feet in the air, done a host of flips, and landed perfectly?  Now how about going downhill backwards?  And jumping facing backwards?  And landing facing backwards?  In sum, argument fail.

7) The Olympics is supposed to be a world Games, not a Snow-World Games. 
See 9) - she's repeating herself.  Still, point conceded.  Cost is an issue and Canada is a rich country.  

6) Even the weakest summer sports are more interesting than some of the strongest winter sports.
Seriously?  Most winter sports are faster and involve a great deal more skill than a great deal of the summer sports.  Yes, curling doesn't appeal to all.  But archery?  Or shooting?  Or any running event?  How are those better than their winter equivalents?  In the winter games you not only shoot, but you shoot after cross country skiing.  If you fall while speed skating, well, that's just part of the sport.  If you fall while running in any sprint you're an idiot.  To reply using her own language, if I wanted to watch someone run and be entertained, I could watch someone run down the sidewalk, bags and hair flying, towards his or her bus as it speeds off.  In sum, argument fail.

5) The barrier to entry is lower.  
Again, see 9) and 7).  3 of her 10 points essentially say the same thing.  Point conceded but overall argument fail.

4) You can’t tell if the participants are attractive or not because everyone is wearing layers that make them look like either those dancing windsocks outside used car dealerships or Power Rangers. 
Really?  Last time I checked Olympic sport was about athletic achievement rather than the sexuality of the participants.  In sum, argument fail.

3) In recent memory, the Opening Ceremonies at the Summer Games have been infinitely weirder. 
I don't know.  The closing ceremonies to the Vancouver games were very entertaining.  With that said, I tend not to watch these.  So...undecided.

2) Star caliber. 
This is all relative.  Yes, Usain Bolt is undoubtedly more famous than any athlete from the winter games the world over, to give one example.  But in Canada the members of the men's hockey team are more famous than just about any athlete from the summer games from any country, to give another example.  I'm going to go with a draw with this one.

1) Curling.
Nearly every track and field event.  In sum, argument fail.

In conclusion, the Winter Olympics come out on top 5-1.  There were 2 draws, and 3 possible arguments for summer games were actually just variations of 1 argument.  Even if we count all of those, winter still comes out on top 5-4.  I'll count that as another gold medal for Canada.  

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Historical Accuracy, Television Drama, and Storytelling

It's been a while since I've posted anything, and so to get myself back into the groove I thought I'd start with something light: the "problem" of historical inaccuracies in TV shows and movies set in historical periods.  The impetus for this is the teaching of classical myth (round 5) and the BBC drama "the White Queen".

If you haven't seen it, BBC's "the White Queen" is set in late medieval England in the years leading up to Henry VII's (Tudor - father of the more famous Henry VIII) seizure of the English crown - I've seen three episodes and so far he's just a boy.  One of the most familiar figures in the show to the masses today is likely Richard III, the king in the car park.  I confess I know little about the English monarchy, but I've enjoyed the show so far.  It's something of a slower and vaguely historical version of "Game of Thrones".  While watching, my curiosity has gotten the better of me and I've resorted to - gasp! - wikipedia for some background on Edward IV, the (XVIth) Earl of Warwick, et al.

No second season is planned, at least one produced by the BBC (though Starz has other ideas).  While perusing the websites that set out the critical reception of the show I discovered that one of the issues that has attracted some criticism is the ever-present issue of historical accuracy.  Some have bemoaned the lack of this in the show.  For example, some have found fault with the dashingly white teeth, others with the location of the Battle of Bosworth (an episode I haven't reached yet - summary of these comments here:  This leads to the main subject of this blog:  does historical accuracy really matter to an appreciation of an historical drama (TV or movie)?

As a classicist cum-historian cum-Romanist cum-Byzantinist, etc., etc., you're often asked what you think or how you view movies and television shows set in the ancient or early medieval worlds.  The usual assumption is that you spend the bulk of your time nitpicking.  In truth, however, I don't.  In fact, as long as something historical is vaguely plausible, that's all that matters so long as the story and the characters are compelling.  Do people really watch historical dramas to learn about the respective historical contexts?  Or do they watch them to be entertained, and maybe even challenged on some level or other?

To my mind, it's not really important whether specific details are right or wrong, particularly if they're small like teeth colour (though some issues, like teeth colour or something similar can make for interesting commentary with friends).  If an author/screenwriter/etc. changes a few details here and there but it serves to strengthen the story then all the better.  Fact is, despite the historical context, they are still, by and large, works of fiction, even if they are 'based on a true story'.

This is where historical dramas are in many respects a lot like classical myths (or the texts that tell them), at least to my mind.  What makes a particular version of a myth compelling is when the author takes the bare bones of an earlier or traditional story and makes it his or her own in an interesting way.  Electra and the trials and tribulations of her brother (Orestes), mother (Clytemnestra), and father (Agamemnon) provide the bare bones of a good story.  Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles each wrote their own version.  Intriguingly, they all did slightly different things with the story (here - Orestes' and Electra's revenge against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus), and perhaps one of, if not, THE main characters, Electra.  I'm particularly drawn to the Electra of Euripides, who has to spur her brother on to murder their mother. Basically, what I like is not how closely Euripides sticks to an original story (which we can't know anyway), but what he does with what we know.  For me it works the same for a good historical drama.  Getting back to the "White Queen", what makes it good to me is not how accurate the setting and costumes are, but how good the characters and the actors who play them are; those who play Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Warwick are particularly noteworthy.  The story too is enthralling: there's plenty of murder, political wrangling, and courtly intrigue.

So, does historical accuracy really matter?   To me, no.  Ultimately, it all comes down to the story.

Monday, 28 October 2013

SCAPAT Essay Contest

SCAPAT Undergraduate Essay Contest 2013-2014

La Section canadienne de l’Association pour l’Antiquité tardive est heureuse d’annoncer le lancement d’un concours annuel d’essais niveau 1er cycle portant sur n’importe quel thème relatif au monde méditerranéen entre 200 et 650 après J.-C. Les essais, soit en français ou en anglais, doivent être d’une université canadienne mais il n’est pas nécessaire qu’ils soient rédigés dans un cours portant sur l’Antiquité tardive, ni que les participants soient inscrits dans un programme spécifique (archéologie, histoire de l’art, études classiques, histoire, etc.). Un prix de 150$ sera attribué au gagnant. Les essais devront être soumis par courrier électronique (à partir d’un courriel d’une université), soit par l’étudiant ou par le professeur au nom de l’étudiant. Dans un cas comme dans l’autre, l’étudiant devra avoir l’approbation du professeur. Les documents doivent être envoyés en format pdf à:
Dr. Conor Whately
Department of Classics
University of Winnipeg
515 Portage Ave.
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Tel.: 204-786-9879

L’essai ne doit contenir aucune information permettant d’identifier l’auteur. Le nom de l’étudiant, son courriel, son institution et le titre de l’essai seront fournis dans un document séparé aussi envoyé par courrier électronique. Si l’essai est soumis par un professeur, le nom et le courriel de l’étudiant doivent être inclus.

Les essais doivent être soumis tels qu’ils ont été présentés dans le cadre du cours, sans révision ou corrections, à l’exception des fautes typographiques. Les textes doivent compter 15-22 pages (incluant la bibliographie) à double interligne. Les étudiants ne peuvent soumettre qu’un seul essai par année.

Les travaux seront jugés à la fois sur la forme et sur le contenu. L’essai sélectionné devra être bien écrit, structuré de façon claire, devra être exempts d’erreurs grammaticales ou syntaxiques et le gagnant du concours devra avoir fait preuve d’un bon usage des sources pertinentes dans la rédaction de la dissertation. De plus celle-ci traitera le sujet de façon rigoureuse et présentera idéalement un caractère innovateur. La date limite du concours est le 30 avril 2014. Le gagnant sera avisé en juillet (2014) et annoncé dans le prochain bulletin SCAPAT.

The Canadian section of the Association pour l’Antiquité Tardive (Association for Late Antiquity) is pleased to announce the launch of an annual prize for the best undergraduate essay, in English or French, on any theme on the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity between A.D. 200 and 650 at Canadian universities. Applicants do not need to be a major in a pertinent discipline (Archaeology, Art History, Classics, History, etc.) to submit their work. Furthermore, the course for which the essay was written need not be focused specifically on Late Antiquity. The prize for the winner will be $150. Essays should be submitted electronically (from a university e-mail address) by either the student or the instructor on the student’s behalf. In either case, the student should have the instructor’s endorsement. They should be sent in pdf format to:

Dr. Conor Whately
Department of Classics
University of Winnipeg
515 Portage Ave.
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Tel.: 204-786-9879

There should be no indication of the student’s identity on the essay document itself. Instead, the required information should be provided on a separate document (also sent electronically) that indicates the student’s name, email address, university affiliation, and the title of the paper. If the essay is being submitted by an instructor the name and email address of the applicant should be included.

The essay should be submitted as it was written for its course without revisions, with the exception of typographical corrections. It should be 15-22 pages in length (including bibliography) and double-spaced. Students may submit only one essay per year.

The judging is based on both the essay’s content and its form: the winning essay must be well written, clearly organized and free from errors of grammar and syntax; and the contest winner will have made good use of the pertinent sources, have covered their chosen subject thoroughly, and ideally have provided new insights on their chosen topic. The deadline for submitting material to the competition is April 30th, 2014. The winner will be notified in July (2014) and will be announced in a subsequent SCAPAT newsletter.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Fall, Transformation, and Beyond

It's been far too long since I've written one of these.  So, here goes - even if this really is just a rehashing, or, maybe, revisiting something that I wrote about earlier.  Basically, the questions I have are how ought we approach late antiquity (fall, decline, etc.), can or should we apply this sort of interpretation to particular eras, and/or does this obscure our picture of the period (or sub-periods) as a whole?

I've finished reading the first set of assignments for my Topics in Ancient History Course here at the UofW entitled the "Fall of Rome".  Said assignment was on just that topic:  whether the empire fell, transformed, or something else, or at least what some scholars have had to say about this.  I've really enjoyed reading their papers, and not surprisingly, even with such a small group of students, there are a range of views.

Some have highlighted the fact that the Roman Empire no longer exists; ergo there must have been a fall of some sort.  Others have highlighted the success and vitality of Christianity and so taken the transformation approach.  Others have argued that it's largely a question of perspective, and gone with something approximating the middle ground.  Others still have argued that it's all rather futile, and that more energy should be devoted to the events and facts, and less to modern labels.  Good cases have been made for each view.

Suffice to say, given that I've spent a good deal of time with Procopius, it should come as no surprise that my personal view has been that what we have in the late antique east is more akin to a transformation than a decline, at least up to a point, and at least for a number of people in the eastern Roman Empire.  The empire was expanding, the population and the economy were growing, and its capital was in a state of monumentalization (if that's the right term).

But around about the time that the plague showed up in 541 or so things seem to have started to go in another direction.  Many have commented on this, some saying it was as bad as some sixth century authors make it out to be, others saying that the effects were far less pronounced.  Certainly, it had some sort of impact.

All in all, reading these assignments (and doing this course) has me thinking that I really do need to consider Justinian's role in all this a bit more.  This has to be the next major project:  Justinian, the Burden of Reconquest, and the Fall of the Roman Empire.  We have texts that cover the good and the bad in considerable detail (Procopius, notably), there has been some work done on sixth century sites, and there are some suggestive sixth century inscriptions.  But, with respect to the material evidence I fear we don't have the same quality of stuff that we have for the west, particularly for places like Italy (discussed by Ward-Perkins, and others).  Does this make a balanced-analysis impossible?  Is there a way to overcome these obstacles?  I'm certainly of the mind that every last piece of evidence must be employed, as I've said before - and now in print! (LAA 8.1).

Is it suitable to make the premise of the project:  "The Eastern Roman Empire declined in the second half of the sixth century as a result of the military actions and foreign policy of its most famous emperor, Justinian"?  Does cornering myself into something like this from the get-go make my view necessarily narrow?  Hmmm....

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Another "Cohors I/II Aurelia Something": the Cohors I Aurelia Pasinatum Bites the Dust

Lo and behold, immediately following my discussion of the Sacorum cohort I found my earlier discussion of the Pasinatum cohort.  Initially, it looked like it too might end up being the same sort of thing.  A unit resting its existence on one lone inscription (here CIL III.14545).  

Fortunately, this particular unit has attracted a reasonable (so to speak) amount of attention, and more interestingly opinion is divided with respect to its existence.  Distinguished Balkan auxiliary scholars such as Wagner, Kraft (he thought there were two), and Mirkovic all argued (so to speak) for its existence.  On the other hand, two of the heavy-weights of auxiliary unit catalogues, Cichorius and later Spaul, both excluded it from their respective discussions, the latter possibly because he was following (to some degree) the former. 

As for me, it seems that in my MA thesis (on which the book/project is based) I had argued for its existence, highlighting a certain tribe, the Pasini, mentioned by Pliny and Marcus Aurelius' recruitment of latrones from Dardania and Dalmatia (the evidence for this being found in the always sensible Historia Augusta).  What seems to have clinched it for past Conor was that Pliny's Pasini were from the nebulous borderlands between Dardania and Dalmatia.  Thus, it would be easy to see, or so I'd thought, how the Pasini of Plinly could be equated with the latrones of Marcus Aurelius, and this mysterious cohort.  Luckily for present Conor, past Conor had said that the evidence was suggestive rather than conclusive.  

Well, some years later, and with the benefit of hindsight (and more experience), after re-evaluating the evidence, and taking a look at a transcription of the fateful inscription, I'm now convinced that past Conor, as well as Wagner, Kraft, and Mirkovic (the latter three at least with regard to this topic), were full of poop.  That fantastic lone inscription simply reads as follows:

[I](ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) [-S]cribonius Faustus v(eteranus) e<t> Aure(l)ia(?) Pasina(?) V[---]CRCX [&

How did we go from v..Aureia Pasina to an entire unit (let alone two, for Kraft)?  God knows.  As with the previous, actual (?), cohort (Sacorum), there are no other records that specifically refer to this particular unit, and as far as I know nothing's been published to reinforce any theories about the existence of such a unit.  So, it deserves to be stricken from any lists from Balkan auxiliaries.

Yet again, if anyone out in cyberspace knows anything about this and would be willing to enlighten me, please do.  I'd be very grateful.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sacae, Sakai, Sakas and Roman Auxiliaries on the lower Danube

I'm going through an older version of a draft for an "old-school" book on the imperial-era Roman military in the Moesias. The chronological range for the book is Augustus to Severus Alexander-I'd been toying with taking things to Constantine or so, but eventually came to grips with the near impossibility of doing such a thing. Too many unknowns; not enough concrete and datable evidence. I blame the Notitia Dignitatum for this. Anyway, the book is very much a late 18thC/early 19thC style volume in which I set out troop movements: who was where when, sort of thing. 

I've made it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius or so and I've come to a unit and an inscription that I'd forgotten about. CIL 3.14217, 6 (AE 1901, 21; IMS 1.119). It lists an Aurelius Victor, a soldier of the c(ohors) II aur(elia) n(ova) sacor(um). There are a few interesting things about the unit mentioned but I want to highlight two: first (A), this is the only record we have, so far as I can tell, of this unit; second (B), the identity of the mysterious "Sacor(um)".

A. There is at least one other cohors ii Aurelia based in Moesia Superior, maybe three others. As noted, there is no other record of the "sacor" variant. That in itself is noteworthy. Why only here? Is it a mistake? On the other hand, the "sacor" seems distinct enough that it seems unlikely to me that it's a lapicidal error. Did the unit later get this title for some reason that we can no longer deduce? 

B. Most readers of the inscription are happy with "sacorum" as the unabbreviated form, the genitive plural, well, of what exactly? Some have suggested that the people it refers to are the Sacae, though the genitive plural would not then be Sacorum, but Sacarum. So, lapicidal mistake after all? 

If it is a people, however, and there's plenty of precedent for including the genitive plural of a people in the nomenclature of a unit, who are they? I've found vague references to Sakai in the second century (Ptolemy and Aelius Aristides). Some modern works use this name/term too. But we also find references to the Saka or Sakas people in modern studies. Are these the same people?

Those who stick with Sakai tend to classify them as eastern Scythians. Those who refer to them as Saka/Sakai tend to associate them with the Sarmatians and give them an inner Asian background. The two-Scythian and Sarmatian-aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and given the confusion often found in Graeco-Roman sources with respect to barbarians such a mistake is not surprising. Still, more information would be warmly welcomed.

In the end, my preferred theory is that these "sacorum" are part of the contingent of Sarmatians that were compelled to fight for Rome after their defeat in the Marcomannic wars. I only wish that I had more to base this rather flimsy conclusion on. Any suggestions out there?