Monday, 19 June 2017

This Revolution Wasn't Televised, or Horses, Huns, and Romans, Oh My!

I continue to chug away, working on this conference paper, which is connected to the grant and its attendant research.  This means more thinking about the steppes, and today the Huns in particular and their role in all of this.  It also means going back to some earlier work for a Roman army textbook, which I think I've mentioned before.  Anyway, about a year ago, when my energy was focused on the army textbook and this grant was an unimaginable miracle (not yet a reality), I spent some time looking at what people had googled about the Roman army, as this seemed a good (or reasonable) way to approach writing something for those coming to something cold (or coldish).  One question that google identified was something to the effect of, "how effective was the Roman army?"  Considering that question led me to work on military revolutions, military effectiveness, decisive battles, and more.  There was much of interest and much that wasn't - or simply concerned with eras I know little about.  
While I plan to touch on these sorts of questions (revolutions, effectiveness, etc) at various points in that textbook, it's looking like it will have some bearing on this other work too, including the conference paper, which looks more closely at the Eurasian influence.  I will, in part, be talking about where the warfare that Procopius describes (and the sixth century Romans waged) fits into the greater scheme of things.  Is it representative of Rome's new way of fighting, an age of hippotoxotai?  Is it still largely connected to what came before, the infantry armies of centuries past?  Or is it some sort of hybrid, between these two worlds?  Regardless of where it is (and at present I lean to the middle, a transitional age), attendant issues include when and how all these changes came into being and their impact. 

As I consider all this, one thing that's been most useful is the work that I've done on the Roman military in the Moesias, as it's allowed me to look more closely at organizational changes over an important area over a significant period of time.  It's also put me in an excellent position to understand some of the later changes that came, especially when were are less well informed about how they came about.  It's clear, for instance, that the Romans were constantly and gradually changing their military and everything about it.  In the Moesias they go from a few units of perhaps 1000s of soldiers and maybe a handful of known military bases, predominantly filled with infantry, to dozens, if not hundreds, of units in even more bases, from wee fortlets to larger legionary bases, and still, predominantly, infantry - but with growing numbers of cavalry too.  We can also see in some cases changes both in response to significant military challenges (soldiers shifted to the east from the Moesias, so new troops brought in from parts west and north) and in advance of major military operations (the number of auxiliary units in the Moesias spike in the run-up to Trajan's wars against Dacia). 

We can't observe organizational changes in this same level of detail for any other period of Roman history, so far as I know (thank you diplomata).  This makes for much more guesswork later.  Nevertheless, the general pattern seems to be that many emperors made changes on some level, some more than others.  These might be in regard to specific issues, or more general ones.  Admittedly, the specific motivations of the emperors are hardly ever immediately clear, so a great deal of guesswork, though of the educated sort, is involved.  Generally, though, I get the sense that big, significant, changes didn't come about all that often, if ever, in the Roman world, at least in the military sphere.  Certainly none of them, to my mind, could be called revolutionary to any degree.  In fact, for many of the "big" changes that we can discern, you can usually find a counter-argument to claims about their usefulness.  I'll come back to this momentarily.

The next set of questions surround why they come about.  The sort of changes I alluded to above with respect to troop movements perhaps have more to do with short term issues and so are perhaps less useful for dealing with this sort of question.  But there are plenty of other changes in the Roman military that attract attention, from changes in equipment to changes in tactics, changes in dress, and even changes in soldierly origins.  As I see it, the sort of changes I'm alluding to here - adoption of the weapons and/or techniques of a different people - are usually explained in one of several ways:  technological breakthroughs; cultural change (the move to the Spanish sword in the republican era came down to a so-called sword culture); military necessity (the Huns caused lots of problems and so the Romans responded by introducing the cavalry to match); financial considerations (money issues, like the deteriorating value of pay, led to the implementation of payment in kind to soldiers in the third century before things stabilized); and practical considerations.  To get back to counter-arguments, then, too much emphasis on any one issue, and not enough awareness of the broader context can obscure some things.  For instance, Alofs has shown that the stirrup, which was introduced in the sixth-century in the Mediterranean, did not transform mounted combat despite the claims of some (his bugaboo is Hugh Kennedy).  Although I don't think he mentioned them, the mounted archers of earlier imperial Rome (i.e., not late antique/early medieval era), like the Ala Gallorum et Thracum Antiana sagittaria were stirrup free.  In fact, this is where I think Simon James' book Rome and the Sword hits the mark in any number of ways, for he tends to bring in quite a lot of evidence and perspectives.

So, to get back to the steppes and its peoples' impact on sixth-century Roman warfare, it seems to me that to see their system as offering some sort of revolutionary approach which came about because of the marked inferiority of the Roman military machine (this is the view of Hyun Jin Kim) is an overstatement.  The Romans had mounted warriors for centuries before the Huns came along even if they were fewer in number before the sixth century.  Any increase, which would be hard to illustrate with the same level of detail, might be down to any number of factors.  And if it came about before our earliest confirmed Hunnic contact (the end of the fourth century), it's difficult to attribute this to their influence.  Along those lines, to see Adrianople as proof of the limitations of the Roman military, especially when faced with a nomadic threat, is to adopt a far too liberal reading of our primary source, Ammianus, and to ignore too much of the work that has been undertaken on that battle.  While it certainly seems to have left its mark on some contemporaries (as Lenski's article from 1997 shows), its impact on the organization and tactics of the eastern army, which suffered so greatly in the battle, was not of the sort adduced (a completely new approach adopted), as the Notitia Dignitatum makes clear (the organization of the eastern and western halves, while not coterminous, still have a great deal in common, organizationally speaking).  This isn't to deny an impact from the steppes, it's only to hold off from putting too much weight on the role of the Huns in particular in all of this.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Globalizing Sixth Century Combat in the Mediterranean (Eurasian Way of War Part 2)

I broke up this post into two chunks largely because I don't want my posts to get too long.  Additionally, it seems that more than one or two people are reading the blog, so I should try to keep what posts I make a manageable as possible.  So, back to the Eurasian Way of War...

One issue surrounding the supposition that sixth-century Rome had adopted a Eurasian way of war centres on the problems with our evidence.  There are two many holes in our information for organization and combat in the Mediterranean in the third and fifth centuries for my liking, to say nothing of the second, fourth, and sixth centuries.  These make it hard to pin down when certain practices were adopted, and in what circumstances.  Granted, this is, for all intents and purposes, just the way things are for the ancient and medieval worlds; nevertheless, it's still a bit of an issue.

Another issue is the replacement of one of two labels with a third.  Hanson's and Keegan's western way of war, and its corollary, the eastern way of war, has been the object of sustained criticism for some time.  To that end, recently I've read Mark Humprhies' plea for bringing more of the global into late antiquity in the Studies in Late Antiquity journal.  In it Humphries' suggests we look beyond the Mediterranean to the wider world in our research on late antiquity, and that we bring in more comparative material, at least where possible, which might allow for greater collaboration (the challenges to his approach are significant, as he notes), and for new questions to be asked.  His piece appealed for a number of reasons. For one, for a year or two, with some pauses, I've become increasingly unsatisfied with what little reach my work has and so have been eager to reach out to larger audiences (see this blog as one such avenue).  Pushing this larger Procopius-centric project into the realm of something global history would seem to serve some of those ends, and might even get more people reading my stuff.  For another, I found myself immersed in this world, at least in part, as a result of some pedagogical tools I worked on in the fall.  So, attempts at globalizing some of my foci have been on my mind for many months now.  At the surface, then, the notion of a "Eurasian Way of War" appeals. 

When it becomes clear that the Eurasian in the title refers entirely not to some pan-Eurasian mode of combat but to something more specific, a recognition of the impact of the steppes, I wonder if it's not the case that we're replacing one set of labels (western and eastern) with another.  While efforts to expand the net more broadly when looking at the myriad influences on the Roman Empire to include the steppe warriors are to be commended, to some degree or other this has been going on for some time.  Ammianus himself put great stock in the Hunnic role in the invasions that led to Adrianople (a battle which Humphries thinks we should downplay, though many have been doing this for some time too).  Peter Heather, who's written a great deal on the subject, has long stressed the roll of the Huns in the fall of the western empire, though this sort of impact is, admittedly, of a different sort than that discussed so far. 

But I have another issue/question.  Even if Graff had intended Eurasian to be something more wide-reaching, it would then seem to be the case that we would be heading for a type of interpretation that some have seen as anachronistic.  In military history debate sometimes centres on universals versus the more specific.  Certain aspects of the experience (and more) of war are universal across time and place.  Or it's all conditional on the specific contexts, both temporal and geographic.  A closer look at horse archery and Eurasia would seem to lead us back toward the world of the universal; if we broaden our scope, it's worth considering the mounted archery that emerged in other parts of the world, and here in particular I'm thinking about the part of the world I live in, the North American prairies. 

Horses disappeared from North America some 10,000 or so years ago.  They returned with Europeans in the early 1500s, and eventually were found across the continent.  Some of the indigenous groups who lived on the prairies adopted horses and incorporated them fully into their lives.  Horses were used in hunting, for instance, and hunting could often involve the use of bows and arrows.  Before long, some indigenous groups were hunting with bows and arrows from horseback (to say nothing of combat), likely using practices similar to those found on the steppes.  In this instance, there's no suggestion, so far as I know (I must stress this research is VERY preliminary), that they were influenced in anyway from contemporary horse archers from the steppes.  The employment of mounted archers by peoples like the Comanche of the American plains was an independent action - i.e., not influenced by contact with the steppes.  This very adoption would imply that this means of hunting (and by proxy fighting) was something perhaps shouldn't be associated with any particular group.  Rather, it's a universal, of sorts.  And if the indigenous people in the right conditions could adopt the mounted archer on their own, why might not this be the case in the Mediterranean?  Might not the Romans have done the same?

Granted, the contexts are different, and there is plenty of evidence for interaction in the case of Rome with peoples from the steppes.  It's worth stressing, however, just how much of it is circumstantial.  If this suggestion - horse archery is a universal thing, not something specifically associated with the steppes - is true or not I cannot say. I haven't done nearly enough work yet, and I don't even know where I'd go from there anyway (and this is one of my problems now).  If nothing else, I think these are points worth making, and I plan to come back to some of these issues before too long.

The Eurasian Way of War in the Sixth Century (Part 1)

In late July I'm making my first trip to a Celtic Classics Conference, and, surprise-surprise, I'm speaking in the Roman Army session.  By chance, at least in part, I speak dead last:  most of the papers cover republican-era topics, and I'm speaking on the end of antiquity.  In some ways it also seems fitting.  The topic, generally speaking, is the "Eurasian Way of War", and the impetus is a similarly-named book by David Graff on seventh century Byzantium and China.  His book ranges widely, and goes from the institutions, literature, and resources to campaigning, weapons, and tactics.  I can't cover it all in one talk, so I'm going to limit discussion to one part of Graff's book and subject, the steppe influence on how the two parties, Byzantium (Rome) in particular, fought.

The subject has not struggled for attention.  Coulston, for instance, has discussed the influence of the steppe on Rome's military, especially during the high empire, while James has gone a bit further by looking too at the impact of interactions with Parthians and Sasanians.  Jin Kim, whose interests lie in the Huns and their impact on Rome, has argued that the steppe's impact on Rome in late antiquity and earlier has been significant and wide-ranging.  But these are just three such examples. 

A good deal of the attention has focused on cavalry, and Rome's gradual (or not?) adoption of heavily-armoured and mounted horsemen.  The usual view is that the infantry-heavy military of the Roman world in the republican and imperial eras gave way to a cavalry driven one. This process was complete by the sixth century.  The proof for this transformation is usually assorted comments of Procopius and Maurice (pseudo).  Procopius famously (to the few) compares contemporary mounted archers to Homer's archers in his preface to the Wars, an odd comparison to be sure, and ultimately finds the latter wanting.  This comparison has attracted a lot of attention (myself included), and the jury's still out on whether we should take it seriously, and what it says or means for the rest of Procopius' narrative.  Eleven of the twelve books that comprise Maurice's Strategikon focus on cavalry, and there's good reason to think the infantry chapter was a later addition.

We know that the peoples of the Steppes and the Iranian empires were well versed in these two broad types of horsemen.  The nomadic steppe peoples, the Scythians in particular, were recognized for their horse archery as far back as Herodotus (4.46.3).   A number of auxiliary cavalry units in the Roman military were mounted from the second century, some, evidently, of Near Eastern origin, others not.  As for the heavily-armoured horses, the Romans might have come up against them as early as Crassus' defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BC, if not a few decades earlier in Armenia (Plut. Luc. 31.6).  It's the wars in the Balkans against the Sarmatians and related peoples in the first and second centuries AD, however, that are usually said to have had the greatest impact, however.  In fact, the first Roman cataphract unit, the ala Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafracta, appears in Moesia Inferior in the second century (CIL 11.5632), though we don't know when it first emerged. 

By the sixth century the mounted archer seems to have been even more widely used, while the heavily armed cataphracts (and clibanarii) perhaps less so.  Procopius suggests that many Roman and allied mounted soldiers were adept at archery in the middle of the sixth century.  Although it's not always clear what constitutes Roman and what doesn't, the point seems to be that its use was spread throughout the military.  Given that a number of Huns were fighting for Rome at this point, it might be reasonable to assume that the so-called Romans doing the fighting learned it from them.  We would then have, in these instances, evidence for a direct transference of this mode of combat from steppe warriors to Roman soldiers. 

Where things get tricky, however, is when we try to discern when this happened.  My implied evidence for Procopius only works if there hadn't been mounted archers in the military before he was writing, and yet we know full well that there were.  In fact, one scholar (Alofs), in a series of papers, goes to great pains to argue that mounted archery was an integral aspect of warfare from at least the end of the fifth century onwards, if not earlier, with no discernible break in the seventh century which some, like Kennedy, have supposed.  To be fair, Graff too highlighted the build-up of atypical (i.e. non-Roman or Mediterranean) cavalry amongst the Romans in his book (and a DOP journal article, which is, effectively, a precis), and so sees this impact stretching back some decades.  The adoption of a Eurasian way of war was a gradual thing.  I'd been tempted to compare the prevalence of these kinds of mounted warriors in Ammianus and Vegetius (best evidence for combat itself in the late fourth and early fifth centuries) with what we find in Procopius and Maurice (best for the second half of the sixth), but I'm not sure how far I'd get.  I'd really like the surviving portions of the fifth century fragmentary historians, like Priscus, to be far more substantial than they already are.

As far as how widespread heavily-armoured cavalry and mounted archers were in the sixth century that's harder to say, and opinions differ.  Most see a prominent role for the mounted archers, less so for the heavily-armoured ones.  They don't feature all that often in the texts, though a unit based, or at least attested, in Egypt, the Leontokilibanarii suggests heavily-armoured cavalry were still in use, at least in some capacity, in the sixth century.  Suffice to say, mounted archers certainly feature in all three of Procopius' Wars, and play a particularly prominent role in the Gothic wars, which to my mind says a great deal about how willing the Romans were to adopt their tactics to different enemies, though his literary proclivities had an impact too.  Fact is I still have to look at the specifics of Procopius' accounts in more detail (I've got lots of notes), and that's something I haven't gotten around to yet.  Suffice to say, however, many of the signs are pointing towards a significant role for horse archers in sixth-century Roman combat (Petitjean, Syvanne, and Alofs would all agree), which means that Graff's supposition that Byzantium had acquired a Eurasian way of war is all the more likely. 

All this being said - and I have provided a sweeping overview - some questions remain, which I'll turn to in part 2.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Plundering the Sixth Century Mediterranean

I've been a bit overwhelmed, for lots of reasons.  But, as I trudge on, I think I am making progress.  In fact, the principal offshoot of my grant (SSHRC Insight Development Grant), one part of what was once conceived as one large book-length project and now three, is starting to take shape.  In fact, I think I've found the ties that should bind it all together in a meaningful way.  Given that I expect to start typing before too long, this seemed a good time to pause and write my thoughts/intentions down.

The overarching plan for the grant and now this book was to look at all three of Procopius' works in tandem with a focus on military matters, but more than the battles that occupied book one (and the thesis).  The plan was to make my approach as holistic as possible, with Procopius serving as the foundation for all matters pertaining to war, from organization and strategy to logistics and tactics.  As I plugged away, however, it started to seem that it was going to become something I'd rather it wasn't:  a psuedo-commentary in which I went through all the key topics usually associated with military matters found in Procopius and evaluated them systematically.  While that's important, it has the danger of forcing modern concepts or ideas on Procopius.  And, it might be a bit dry:  I'd rather there be some sort of thread underlining such an approach.

A number of years have passed since I started working on this, and a few things have influenced my thinking including my continued interest in the cultural approach to warfare, which I will likely address in some capacity or other in this book, world history, and in particular the sixth-century Roman state's place in the wider Eurasian world and how it was impacted by people to its west, north, east, and south, and its evidently evolving approach to warfare. Some significant publications have helped too, particularly Justinian's Codex, but also aspects of some of Anastasius' imperial edicts (a bit earlier, yes, but part of the same broader context).

What I've found is that the two central themes that tie the three works together, at least from the perspective I'm interested in, are defence and plunder.  In the Secret History (SH) Procopius lambastes Justinian for, among other things, his greed and desire for money, his inability to protect the empire from plundering raids carried out by myriad peoples in the Balkans and the Near East, and the damage he wrought on newly conquered lands like North Africa and Italy, as well as those of the very people he's trying to protect the empire from, the assorted barbarians.  In the Buildings (B), Procopius is obviously obsessed with Justinian's (alleged in parts) building programme, and much of it is connected with defence.  Indeed, as Procopius sees it in the B, Justinian's job is to protect the empire, and this is done by means of both men and materiel.  The B is, of course, filled with forts and fortified settlements, which Procopius alleges Justinian either built himself or repaired.  While good questions have been raised about how much of this he actually effected, there's good reason to think that he did devote considerable attention to fortification work, as a host of studies have shown.  As I suggested, however, he also regularly mentions the garrisons of these forts in the B, and he even implies that it's not enough to build fortifications, for they need men to man them.  Then there's the Wars (W), and Procopius focuses on either defence or plunder depending on the context of a particular war.  So, there's much more on defence in the PW than there is in the VW and GW.  In fact, defensive-issues tend to surface in those latter two wars after Rome has managed to win, at least initially.  The VW is rife with plundering Roman (or allied) soldiers.  While it is not quite as prevalent in Italy, it remains a problem, as the actions of Bessas, for instance, illustrate. 

I've only just given you the briefest of summaries:  the final version will flesh out the details.  Suffice to say, what we seem to have is a world rife with armies, Roman, Persian, and otherwise, eager for plunder, in which no one entity is greedier than another.  Procopius' works, when read collectively, seem to agree, in some way or another, on this.  Indeed, his perspective is understandably pro-Roman, but even he touches on the impact of Rome's actions in this regard on other places in both the W and SH.  It's also become clear to me that Procopius' emphasis on the importance of a strong defensive outlook is reflected in much of our additional evidence, from inscriptions and papyri to the law and some of our other literary sources.  There is, for instance, a strong undercurrent of fear that seems to pervade life (I've found), and Procopius, and Justinian, really, seems keen on countering this by means of defensive measures that provide safety and security.  It's possible that that this climate of fear was constructed by Justinian, and I think that many feel that this was the case.  What's less clear (and so new to me), I think, is that this extended to foreign affairs too, i.e. not only natural disasters and the social unrest that often plagued Constantinople. 

Anyway, so that's it, or what I'm running with.  The final version, obviously, will be much longer.  Should add that once all this is finished a few years from now (that's all three parts), I'll be delighted to be free from Procopius.  Not sure what I'd do next (I had something I now think I need a prolonged break, if not a clean break, from that former resident of Caesarea), but that's a few years away yet.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Qasr el-Hallabat and the Edict of Anastasius

Last spring, an internal grant allowed me to make a grand tour of the UK, which included stops at Roman military sites, and some libraries (London, Oxford).  At the Institute for Classical Studies Library in London, I spent some time pouring through its excellent collection of published volumes on epigraphy in late antiquity.  One inscription I came across was the Edict of Anastasius found in Qasr el-Hallabat.  I had already spent a bit of time reading about the similar edict (or one of several edicts) Anastasius had published at Perge, so coming across this other one was something of a boon.  I made some notes, made a scan, and determined to come back to it at a later date.  Needless to say, I would never have expected that I'd be able to visit Qasr el-Hallabat, an unknown entity to me in early May of 2016, only nine months later.  I owe that opportunity to a major external grant I never imagined I'd get.

When in Jordan I put a visit of Qasr el-Hallabat near the top of my list.  And on the fourth day, it was our first top, sometime after 8:30am.  We were just about the only ones there, barring a few people working at the beautiful welcome centre.  The site itself is some ways up from the centre, and it sits on a little plateau with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

Once I made it to the top I resolved to make a tour of the walls, which included a stop at the "Roman" crane in righthand side of the photo.  I then plunged in, eager to find traces of the edict.  Much of the structure, which at various times was an imperial-era (Roman) fort, a late antique quadriburgium, a monastery, and eventually an Umayyad (?) palace, had been reconstructed and reinforced.  The presence of the crane suggests that more is planned.  Among the many interesting things I stumbled across were yet more mosaics, in this case carefully protected behind a gate.
If the mosaics are, roughly, in the eastern section of the structure, the fragments of the edict are in the southern section.  Several pieces are fixed into the walls.  Some were placed in the middle of other bricks, as below.

Some are placed with the letters oriented as they should be, like the photo above.  In other spots, the letters are upside down.
In yet others, the letters are sideways, and even partially cut off.
As it happens, these fragments are, well, only a fraction of the original total, and by all accounts they seem to be in situ, at least with respect to the time when these blocks were fixed into these walls at el-Hallabat.  Many more fragments, however, had toppled over, and though these particular fragments were visible to early excavators, those that had fallen over were not.  Although I don't have any visual evidence for what the pile of rubble is likely to have looked like, there are other sites in Jordan, military ones too (it seems), that are overrun with blocks, and which are undoubtedly concealing all sorts of wonderful things.  For instance, the fortress at the heart of the World Heritage Site of Umm er-Rasas is strewn with blocks.

This is in contrast to many of the surrounding structures, many of them churches, which are filled with incredible mosaics, like those below.
Anyway, in good time many more fragments of the edict were recovered, and these have been fixed to a wall in the visitor centre.  A picture of one of those fragments is below, with a shot of a good portion of the total below that.
One feature that stands out about these fragments is their colour:  it contrasts, sharply, with the limestone found in the modern visitor centre (above), and the majority of the blocks in the reconstructed structure.  A little detective work determined that these blocks had likely come from Umm el-Jimal, some 20km down the road (a fair distance by car, as it happens), and just south of the modern border with Syria (and not far from a Syrian refugee camp incidentally).  Umm el-Jimal, a remarkable site itself, and with hardly a visitor, me aside, is filled with these black basalt blocks.  Note, for instance, the photos below, the first a shot of the town, the second a larger house/villa.
Archaeologists four blocks from the larger edict at Umm el-Jimal, and largely on that basis (and the coloration), it seems likely the edict was initially posted at this larger, and seemingly more prominent centre.  Umm el-Jimal was at the halfway point (roughly) on the road between Bosra and Gerasa, unlike Qasr el-Hallabat.  A copy of the edict is posted on a wall on the visitor centre at Umm el-Jimal.
Now, we don't know where the edict was originally posted, though the suggestion that it was posted at the praetorium (headquarters) at Umm el-Jimal, which happens to be near the main gate to the town, seems sensible enough.  At present work continues on the edict.  Professor Denis Feissel, along with Drs. Ignacio Arce and Thomas Weber, have been working away, and it seems that a complete edition will be published before long (a precis I found of theirs forms the basis for this post).  Regrettably, the easily accessible (free, online) version of the text contains only a portion of the total - fragments discovered later have filled out our picture of the original, though 20% of the total remains lost.  You can see that earlier version on the link below.

A majority of the fragments remain at Qasr el-Hallabat.  Some more are scattered at Umm el-Jimal, and assorted museums, universities, and military (contemporary) mess halls in Jordan.  It's hard to overstate the importance of this text.  While there are other comparable edicts from Anastasius, including an English translation of a comparable edict found at Cyrenaica (Libya) below, this particular edict seems particularly important for some of the administrative and military-organizational changes implemented by the emperor.

We are told, for instance, that this edict, covers a number of issues ranging from the salary of dukes and assorted branches of the military administration in the east, to the regulations regarding soldiers unfit for service and the requirement that public money for churches not be funnelled to military issues.  Needless to say, I eagerly the publication of this edict, and for the time being will content myself on working my way through the currently published portion of the text.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Water and Frontiers in Roman Jordan

I just got back from a short visit to Jordan.  It took me just under a day to get there.  I had five full days visiting the sites.  And then just over a day to get back home.  I took between 1500 and 2000 photos (the total eludes me because of some copying errors), which I plan to use in a host of publications.  Though brief, the trip was incredible.  So much so, in fact, that I'm pretty sure I want to shift my focus more squarely to Roman Jordan. 

It's fair to say I've loved (or at least really, really liked) the Near East for some decades now.  In the early days of my indoctrination in Classics, I even contemplated shifting to Near Eastern studies, and Assyriology in particular.  I was spurred, in part, by my first visit to the British Museum in 1999, when I saw the incredible Assyrian frieze.  It was only the relatively limited options for Assyriologists that kept me away. 

But there's more.  For a few years when I was little (1983 and 1986 - I was born in 1978), we lived in Saudi Arabia, first in Tabuk in the northwest, then in Dhahdran/al-Damman in the southeast.  While there, we visited Jordan and Egypt.  Somewhat surprisingly, many years later my parents returned to the Middle East, only in this case to the UAE, first Abu Dhabi, and for several years now Dubai.  There is, then, good reason for this personal affection for the Middle East. 

Coming to Jordan now, however, after I've managed to make a career (or at least started one) as an ancient historian/Classicist/Byzantinist, made the visit all that much more special, especially given that I've done some work on the area, and have desired doing more.  To see, then, some of the sites I've written about and/or studied as an undergraduate and graduate student was fantastic. 

The intention of the visit was to visit as many Roman military sites as possible, and I managed to make it to Petra (honorable mention on the military front - inscriptions, papyri), Udruh, el-Lejjun, Qasr-Bshir, Umm er-Resas, Qasr el-Hallabat, and Umm el-Jimal.  I missed quite a few, and hope to see some of those next year, in addition to some of the ones I've already seen. 

One of the purposes of the visit was to get a sense of Roman strategic sense in the choosing of these sites.  It's a big issue that's attracted a good deal of attention thanks in part to the work of Luttwak, Whittaker, and Isaac on frontiers more generally, and Parker, Mayerson, and Graf on the southeast frontier more specifically.  It is, admittedly, hard to know why certain sites were chosen, particularly new ones like el-Lejjun, which weren't occupied beforehand, unlike, say, Udruh, the history of which seems to stretch back to the Nabataean age.  We don't, really, have documents that explain their decisions, so scholars have tried to figure this out by means of evaluating the locations of the forts and fortifications themselves, and careful analysis of what documentary and literary evidence of relevance we have. 

I've visited Roman military sites in the opposite frontier before, namely Roman Britain, particularly along Hadrian's Wall.  Of the few that I've seen, it can sometimes be difficult to tell why particular places were chosen.  Roman Britain, however, is another story - and I think I would need to visit them all to really appreciate the British context.  The same's true for what little I've seen myself of Roman Bulgaria, though what I did see suggests to me that crossing points played a big part. 

Having now visited these few in Jordan, one of the last of Rome's frontiers, it seems careful consideration was given to sight-lines and general visibility, and access to water.  First, the site lines.  I've attached below some photos of select views from some of the fortresses I visited.  Udruh, el-Lejjun, Qasr-Bshir, Umm er-Resas, and Qasr el-Hallabat all offer excellent views of the surrounding countryside in all or most directions.  This is especially true of Qasr Bhsir (top) and Qasr el-Hallabat (bottom).

But this is also true, to a large degree, of Udruh (top) and el-Lejjun (bottom), two late Roman legionary sites of roughly the same size. 

But it's also the case that access to water was important.  Funnily enough, about two weeks before this trip I'd been in Vancouver giving a paper.  During the talk I mentioned el-Lejjun, and someone asked me about its water supply after I'd finished.  I didn't have a good answer, for it wasn't something I'd given much thought to beforehand.  Given the desert conditions, I'd assumed the water had to come from somewhere.  What I hadn't appreciated, however, was that each of the forts I visited was constructed with access to water well in mind.  Some were adjacent to free-flowing water (or what had been free-flowing water).  Note, for example, el-Lejjun below.

There was no obvious water source at Qasr Bshir (the wadi we crossed to reach the fort was dry), but the immediate environs of the fort itself was green, as you can see below.

Then those that were a bit removed from water sources had cisterns to store said water.  Note, for instance, this re-purposed - and still in use - cistern from Umm el-Jimal, admittedly not solely a military site.

In many ways, then, visiting these sites reinforced some of the beliefs I'd already had about Roman decision making when it came to the construction of forts.  But it also opened my eyes to others, especially when it came to water.  Suffice to say, the trip has done its trip and more, and I have reams of data to process as a result. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Agathias, a Herodotus for the Age of Justinian

I've been slowly working my way through Agathias, reading the text, in translation I admit (though with the accompanying Greek text), much closer than I ever have before.  Some of it I'd already gone through before, but this time I'm trying to soak it all in, so to speak, partially keeping my open for certain things, like evidence of combat motivation (for a paper) and military communities (again for a paper), but while also keeping my eyes open to interesting features.  I've found more than a few, and as I near the end there are a few things stand out.  I'd planned to discuss a few of them here, but the others, the careful crafting of his historian persona, his abundant (in comparison to Procopius) methodological statements, his interest in the personal or intimate anecdotes, and his interest in the sensory and the emotional will have to wait for another day, because I'm tired.  So here, a couple of observations on his Herodotean proclivities.

For one, Agathias is, in many respects, far more Herodotean than I had appreciated before.  Some time ago Averil Cameron went carefully through a set of supposed correspondences identified by Franke and highlighted some of the glaring problems.  Much of what she said all that time ago makes a lot of sense.  Some years later, Whitby (nb - former supervisor) highlighted, if briefly, Agathias' love of digressions.  While I take Cameron's point, it's worth highlighting those digressions.  While they might seem weird and unnecessary - Agathias has been criticized for spending too much time on things that matter too little - I think they do offer him a means of engaging more fully with his audience.  He wants to show us what he knows, though more on that personal aspect in a second.  It also gives him a chance to display his learning, while also adhering to the grand classical historical tradition.  Digressions were important, and this was one of their distinctive features that he chose to pay attention to, in part because he knew what his strengths were. 

Now the very fact that his longest of digressions concerns the Persians should be a red flag:  he has Herodotus on his mind.  Yes, it's also relevant.  The most recent Persian war was drawing to a close, and the historian who professed to be succeeding, Procopius, had devoted considerable attention to them.  But the most obvious ancient historian, for any late antique or Byzantine historian to my eyes, when Persians are the subject is Herodotus.  That doesn't necessarily mean that he needed to flood his Persian-themed discussions with Herodotean-borrowings.  In fact, it would be difficult, given Herodotus wrote in Ionian Greek and Agathias favoured the Atticizing Greek of Procopius and their predecessors.  While there likely are a host of particular episodes in Herodotus that are paralleled in Agathias, I'm not so sure it has to be so exact. 

There's one last Herodotean characteristic, a smaller one, admittedly, that I want to draw attention to.  Agathias regularly presents two explanations or theories in his digressions.  So, something along the lines of, some think this is the case, others think this is the case.  Quite often, and possibly in the latter half in particular - though I'd have to check, it might just be my memory - Agathias will also finish a digression or extended discussion with something along the lines of, let the reader decide for him or herself how she feels.  To me, that screams of Herodotus, more so than anything else.  It'll do with some fleshing out, however.

So, his Herodotean-leanings deserve additional attention.  Plus, it has me rethinking what I said about his Thucydidean-borrowings in a chapter that'll be out next year.  Basically, I said he was less successful, by some margin, at the Thucydidean-style history than Procopius.  While this hasn't changed my mind, I would, on further thought, have made greater emphasis on the possibility - lo likelihood - that this was ok, because that wasn't what he had in mind:  Agathias didn't want to be a modern-day Thucydides, for Procopius had already done that.  Indeed, he spends lots of time commending Procopius for what he's already done, and stressing what he'll do differently.  Rather, Agathias, I'm starting to think, was much more interested in being a modern-day Herodotus.