Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Sensory History of Combat in Late Antiquity

Several months ago, Jonathan Eaton introduced a book to me on Twitter that presented a seemingly novel way of approaching historical combat.  The book in question is Mark Smith's The Smell of Battle, the Taste of a Siege: a sensory history of the Civil War, does what it's title suggests.  I haven't finished it yet, but I've been working through it while working on a number of other things.

Admittedly, and for my sins, I've contemplated/started working a sensory history of combat in late antiquity, and the sixth century in particular.  While it's early days yet, there are a few things that have struck me about this approach to war, especially when the ancient world is the subject matter.  The first is the inevitable, "is this even possible".  Smith's book draws on all sorts of different kinds of evidence, from letters to newspaper and magazine articles, and paintings.  He's also able to draw on the perspectives of a wide swath of the 19th c. US.  As always, we don't have the same quantity of material, and the perspectives are much more limited.  What's more, even if there is considerable variety in the kinds of literary evidence that we have from the sixth century, and if it comes from all sorts of different people, that late antique swath wasn't all interested in the same things.  We may have monks and officers and local elites writing about all sorts of things, but it's still a restricted group of people who write about war:  historians, though not always, and the occasional poet.  We do have letters, of course, both the more polished published ones (say of Augustine), and seemingly more authentic ones preserved on papyri, but even when we have letters with military figures they're not writing home about war.  So, we're still restricted:  we have well-educated men, writing in Greek and Latin, operating in an archaic, by their own day, literary world, with some exceptions.  This makes it tough to get a balanced picture.

Another thing that has struck me is related to the first.  Most of our evidence for combat comes from literary descriptions that, for right or wrong, follow a traditional model.  The bulk, majority, even all the writers were classically educated, and well-versed in rhetorical exercises.  Those rhetorical exercises, when they were discussing battle or not, emphasized the sensory.  Indeed, battle itself was classed as an ekphrasis, and the purpose of an ekphrasis was to bring the thing described before the eyes of the reader or listener.  You could, too, extend the eyes to the mind - the reader/listener should be able to imagine what they're reading/listening to.  And, while a great deal of attention is placed on the visual, some of the language is directed towards other senses, like sound.  The conundrum, then, should be all too obvious.  I'm looking for evidence of the sensory experience of battle.  To find it I'm having to rely on, by and large, literary accounts that are, in turn, heavily dependent on classical models that emphasize the sensory.  How do you separate the literary from the historical?  Book 8 of the Wars and Agathias' History provide very descriptive sensory accounts of combat, which aren't dissimilar from the literary flourishes of Corippus, the epic poet, in his Iohannis.  Is it possible to disentangle this material?

One last thing I want to draw attention to is the character of Smith's book, at least so far.  It seems to be heavy on description, and short of analysis.  Granted, the purpose seems to be to get a sense of what it was like to experience an historical event, in Smith's case the Civil War (US), based on what evidence and tools we have at our disposal.  In the case of war, however, this seems to be a version of Keegan's "face of battle", which advocated approaching battle from the perspective of the common soldiers rather than the officers and generals that had featured so heavily.  I am, then, struggling to see what makes this sensory history unique.  Granted, I've read almost nothing, and none of it has focused on antiquity, but at this point I'm quite sceptical. 

I have a growing list of items to read, one of which combines archaeology and the senses.  Indeed, when I decided to give it a go, I thought about how I might find comparative evidence to support (contradict, or other) what I find in the literary accounts, and the physical evidence seemed to be a way forward.  I've thought about the kinds of weapons that we're likely to be used, and what sorts of sensations they were likely to give:  what do iron swords sound like when they crash together, what does it feel like when 100s or 1000s of horses come barrelling down a hill, what does it taste like to have your face in the dirt as you're trampled by your comrades in the midst of mad dash to escape?  If I know something about the environment of a battle (near a city or out in the middle of nowhere), the season (what temperature might it have been, and what sort of precipitation might they have had to deal with), the time of day, the number of participants, and their constituent parts perhaps I can draw on this factual material along with some comparative evidence (the feel of 100s/1000s of horses) perhaps I can write a sensory history of sorts. 

At this point, however, and to be perfectly honest I'm not sure.  Indeed I might be able to pull this off, though I might also end up writing an essay that all-but-slams this approach to history.  And yet, on the other hand, while my mind says yes, my heart says no (don't do it) - this has often been what I'd like to know most.  What was it like to be alive and experience a particular epoch?  Well, perhaps I'm finally about to find out.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Procopius on the Battle of Satala

Surprise, surprise, I'm not done with Procopian battles yet.  More of the historical in the sequel, however, and less of the military historiographical.

In the first book the idea was to try to discern something of Procopius' military mind, and how that fit into larger cultural and historiographical trends from his era.  Reading through these same accounts again, and in the same kind of detail, but with what I guess you could call a more balanced perspective, thanks in part to all the work I've done in between finishing the PhD and finishing the book, I'm encouraged to see that I'm still seeing that P has understood combat in the way that I surmised.  In other words, my head isn't in my hands and I'm not shouting, "Oh God, what have I done/what was I thinking?" It's tempting to say too that, in hindsight, it seems to have made a lot of sense to have tackled "Procopius on War" aspects in the order that I have.  Understanding something of his approach to describing and explaining combat should now make it easier to make sense of what he says.

I've just taken a look at the Battle of Satala (530) again, which you can find around 1.15.1ff.  For Procopius, the battle seems to hinge on the bravery of one elite Roman individual (a Florentius - 1.15.15), who charges the Persian line, at a point when no one side seems to be making much headway, and manages to seize the Persian general's standard (to strategikon shmeion) and thrust it to the ground before meeting his fate.  The Persians panic, freak out, and return to base in light of this, before heading home the next day.  And the battle ends.  For Procopius individuals, especially those in command positions, are important, and with in mind it's no surprise that things turned out the way they did.  But while this might tell us something about what Procopius and some of his peers thought about what happened and understood as important in what happened, does it tell us anything about might what have happened?

The trick, this time round, is to cut through what Procopius says, and I confess that upon looking it over it's more than a little maddening.  Still, there are some things we can pick out.  We find, for instance, the importance of numbers.  Procopius' implies that the Persians had almost twice as many soldiers as the Romans (30,000 to less than 15,000), and that they were all cavalry.  Whether these numbers are feasible or not is something that I'll have to look at later.  For the moment, while the difference does seem to be significant, it's also important to note that Procopius himself seems to imply that both sides are perhaps less than aware of some important details about each others' contingents.  Procopius (1.15.12) claims that the Persians couldn't work out how many men the Romans had - aided in part by the all the dust kicked up by the conditions, though I suspect too by the speed of the Roman advance, as well as their height advantage.  There is then a hint of the sensory here - sight, sound (implied if not stated), and perhaps too taste (we could imagine the taste of the dust on a hot summer's afternoon).  We also get some of the concerns highlighted by the authors of military manuals (Vegetius and Maurice):  conceal your numbers, especially if you're at a disadvantage.

I've been reading Decker's book on Byzantine warfare, and he implies that the Byzantine state (which includes this era) was lacking exceptional commanders, but did have some competent ones.  It's hard not to think that this might be a bit harsh, or at least that we have evidence of some better-than-competent performance is on view here, if Procopius is anything to go.  For we also read that the Roman force had been split up, with a comparatively small contingent (about 1000) sent up high onto the hills that surround Satala (and you can see them on Google Earth), while the rest moved inside the city walls.  The barbarians had moved outside the city walls when Sittas' force came down upon them from on high, as noted earlier.  He also split it in two - this allowed him to use gravity and the conditions to his advantage against a clearly superior-in-numbers foe.  It also seems to be the case that the Persians were amassed in some sort of confined space round the city walls, which meant that they were bunched up.  Indeed, if you take a look at Satala on Google Earth (best I can do without going there), the ancient city is in a little valley, with a plain, and is surrounded by hills.  In other words, it's easy to imagine this happening, especially if the Persians had as many men as Procopius claims.  So while Sittas may have had more than 1000 with him, contra Procopius, the conditions all seem to support Procopius' claims:  Persians crowded together, backed up against the city walls on one side, looking up at the hills on another side, and seeing an indeterminate number of men charging down on horseback, in the middle of a large dust cloud, and then another army charging out from the city gates.  It's easy to think that the Persians would have been terrified, as Procopius implies.

While the Persians may have had the numeric advantage, everything else so clearly favoured the Romans - spatially, they were much better off.  It's hard to work out (impossible really) what the units were at the Romans' advantage - 15,000 seems a large garrison for Satala, and one wonders when all the soldiers arrived and whether any were based there (that's something to check).  Interestingly, Procopius says all the participants on both sides were horses, which seems astonishing to me.  Either way, he also says that the battle became fierce, but even, with both sides constantly, owing to their abundant cavalry, charging and then withdrawing.  In this I'm reminded of Van Wees' suggestions about Homeric warfare, for which he drew on research on warfare in Polynesia (or, well, somewhere).  Basically, there's a lot of each side sitting back while contingents, individuals, what have going forward regularly to charge and so forth.  Not sure if the Homer/Van Wees/Polynesia (somewhere) parallel works - quite different kinds of soldiers involved (see Procopius' preface even).  It seems to imply not a lot of tactical wizardry, however, at least based on how things were going.  So maybe I'm coming round to Decker's claims (competent but not exceptional leaders - still, given they were outnumbered).

I better wrap this up - and so, this is the historical that I can deduce so far (at this early stage).  Procopius's account is short on detail, full of drama, but most certainly plausible.  This brings us back to the charge of Florentius:  is this not, then, too a plausible outcome for why the Romans won?  Given that the two sides seem to have been evenly matched based on all the other available criteria, if Florentius' charge is all that's left, might it not be the reason for the outcome?   This battle may not tell us too much about how the Romans waged war in the sixth century, but I think it does point to the veracity of Procopius' writing, which in turn would lend greater credence to those other, more detailed battles that he describes.  They'll all have to be checked independently and compared with all available evidence, but suggestive.  NOTE:  I tend not to edit these posts, so apologies for typos/moments of awkwardness. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Finding Evidence for Strategic Thinking in the Age of Justinian

Besides the aforementioned Roman military textbook, I'm also working on the follow-up to book one on Procopius.  The follow-up exists - something I've referred to in past blog posts - because of some of the troubles I had with that earlier project.  Basically, it nearly fell off the rails completely, then I attended a conference in Oxford (2014 on Procopius), which got me back on, by which point I had already made plans to go in a different direction.  The result was that the original project was rejuvenated, while the new one became a follow-up.  In a nutshell, that's why it exists.

Anyway, I happen to be on sabbatical, and so I have the time to work on these two projects, and if all goes well I'll have made considerable progress by the time the period draws to a close in July.  Like a lot of things, my enthusiasm waxes and wanes depending on my progress, but there is as much positive as negative, which is more than I can say about the hockey I've been watching most of the year (and am right now - mostly negative).

Today, and presumably for the next little while, one of the topics in that project that I'll be working is strategy, fortifications, frontiers and Procopius, in part because I've been (re-)reading Procopius' Buildings, with what could be considered a fine-tooth comb. A number of things are jumping out at me this time round, and one that I'll be devoting more attention to, and which I want to flag here, is his emphasis on defence.  In particular, my reading of Procopius' Buildings so far seems to point towards a strong emphasis on defence in east Rome, and there is a real sense that the purpose of the fortifications was both to monitor and to prevent/check incursions of Saracens and Persians.  Now, maybe this isn't all that surprising.  The Buildings is on, well, buildings, and so of course he's going to talk about fortifications, and if you're talking about fortifications it seems self-evident that you'll be talking about their defensive properties, particularly based on the character of late antique fortifications.  So, of course its defence, and scholars have argued in support of this defensive mentality for quite a while - Luttwak and defence-in-depth, Greatrex more recently on a longer-term defensive mentality. 

Now, in this book/project, the idea is to test as often and wherever possible Procopius' views/comments/descriptions/ with other evidence, whatever shape it comes in.  How do you do this, however, when your subject is strategy?  Given I'm dealing with Justinian, what I'd like is his memoirs, commentarii, or some such thing that sets his foreign policy thinking.  Of course, these things don't exist.  Now, if I'm arguing for, or better testing for whether the strategic mentality with respect to the frontiers was defend and if I'm taking as my starting point the Buildings, there's always the Wars to compare.  I could (will) take a look at all known conflicts in the east and identify who in each case is the aggressor.  If you're always been attacked, then a defensive mentality would seem likely.  On the other hand, it is presumably more than a little bit sketchy to check Procopius by means of Procopius.  In other words, it would be easy enough for him to make sure his statements in one of those works support his statements in the other. 

Thus, I'll certainly have to take a look at the other accounts we have, works like those of Count Marcellinus, Malalas, Pseudo-Joshua, Pseudo-Zachariah, and Agathias.  It would be helpful to visit all known fortifications, but of course this isn't feasible (cost, political situation, etc.), so I suspect that Google Earth and assorted published excavation reports and otherwise will become my friends.  On the other hand, a fort on its own can't say what a fort is doing, and that's where things get stickier.  I could also take a look at Justinian's legislation - does he delve into defensive concerns at any point in his massive collection of Roman law, and if he does is it the case that this reflects a defensive strategic mentality?  There's what evidence of propaganda I can find too - though would you emphasize a defensive mentality?

If I adopt the definition of strategy that I've adopted in the past (following Kagan's 2006 article), that would mean that I should look for evidence of the Roman state using its resources to pursue various foreign policy ends, and in the earlier Roman imperial situation we have all sorts of really good evidence for troop movements, dispositions, and so forth.  In late antiquity, especially after about AD 400, the situation is dire.  The Notitia Dignitatum is a fabulous piece of evidence, and recent research has emphasized the accuracy of the list as we have it for the east (based on examinations of the situations in Egypt and in the Caucasus).  Should we really expect the list as we have it to still be applicable by the time that Procopius is writing though, nearly 150 years later?  Perhaps not, or not exactly, and unfortunately we just don't have something from the sixth century that I'm aware of that provides the desired level of detail.  What are we, then, to do?  To be honest, I'm not sure yet, though I'll be getting to this issue soon enough.

If the defensive approach does turn out to the case at least with respect to the east, that makes for a nice contrast with the wars in Africa and Italy, so clearly offensively-minded, at least on the surface.  I was wondering if these could be taken as attempts of Justinian to counter criticisms that he was too defensively-minded.  If that were true, however, why not take a more offensive approach in the east rather than the west?  Also, if all anyone has known for some time was a defensive approach in the east, who would really criticize a presumed-defensive mentality? 

So, I anticipate a considerable amount of trouble with this topic, and more so than for some of the others that I have in mind.  Only time will tell, I guess, whether I can't find some sort of resolution.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Roman Military Revolution

One of the projects that I have on the go at the moment is a textbook/survey of Roman military history that will be arranged thematically, and run from the late republic (let's say the Gracchi) to the late empire, at least in the west (let's say Theodosius II, even though he's an eastern emperor).  Today I've been working on the two main background chapters:  the first is the historical overview, which will present a fleeting survey of Roman history over the course of the period in question, with an emphasis on those events that have special bearing on the subject matter (Roman military); the second surveys the sources, and the historiography and varied approaches to Roman military history.  The first chapter is well under way - I have some material from past courses that I'm going to use for this, with some new material tacked on.  As it happens, I have a good chunk for the late republic through the high empire, and less for late antiquity.  Given that in some ways I feel far more comfortable about late antiquity, this is good news.

The second chapter is well underway too.  The first half will present the myriad of sources at the disposal of students of Roman military history, and my plan in the chapter and the book is to incorporate as much of it as possible into my discussions.  Thus, it won't be a history of the military based on the literary sources, or the archaeological evidence, or the papyri, or the epigraphy, but all of this and more (legal evidence, visual evidence, etc.).  Sprinkled in amongst those overviews of the various sources will be some detailed discussions of select pieces of evidence that the problems they create and the questions that arise.  So, for example, I'll take a brief look at Caesar's take on the rivalry between Titus and Pullo, Ammianus' description of his harrowing escape from Amida, Hadrian's speech to his troops in Africa (which survives in an inscription), our evidence for the soldier-poets from North Africa, the famous birthday party invitation from Vindolanda, and so forth.  There'll be a few - and I'll likely have to cut down my working list to keep the discussion readable and workable.

The second half of the chapter provides an overview of the scholarship on the military (not in any way complete) and various approaches that have been adopted, and it will range from the impact of Keegan's "Face of Battle" to notions of western way of war, under which Rome would fall, and cultural readings of military history, those which look at the relationship between how war should be fought (in Rome's eyes) and how it actually was.  In this discussion I'll raise the issue of military revolutions, and this, at long last, brings me to the subject of this little post. 

Rome's military is famous, perhaps justly so.  Its impact continued well after the end of Rome into the middle ages, and resurfaced again in late medieval/renaissance/early modern Europe, thanks in part to the influence of Vegetius (somewhat surprisingly) and the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the concomitant flood of things Roman, and Greek, to the west, amongst other things.  What surprises me, however, is that no major revolutionary advance has been attributed to the Roman military.  Indeed, most change in the Roman military was gradual, and this is true for nearly every aspect, from their equipment to their tactical preferences.  In other words, ostensibly, there doesn't seem to have been any one thing that revolutionized Rome's military and which we could say led to its impressive string of successes, like the advent of iron weaponry, or the gunpowder.  Rather, the Romans were good at a whole host of things, few if any of which could be attributed to them specifically. 

The only possible exceptions - at least to my mind at this point in the writing process - might be the professionalization of the military under Augustus, admittedly a process that seems to have been under way for decades before that.  When I say professional what I mean is:  men were paid to fight on a permanent basis, the military became a career for a large number of people, and the state even regulated their supplies, housing, equipment, training, payment, and so forth.  One issue is whether this really should be deemed a military revolution - or, like with so much else in the military sphere, whether it should be considered a specifically Roman development.  It does seem to have been an important thing, and perhaps played no small part in Rome's longevity, but they gained their empire without such a thing.  Could they have started with a professional military, and if they had, would they have been so successful in accruing an empire?  But then, as I say, what really constitutes a professional army?  Is it misleading in Rome's case because it seems to resemble modern militaries?  What about the Macedonian army?  Or the assorted Assyrian armies?  Or the Egyptian ones?  Because they organized, supplied, and supported their armies in slightly different ways does that make them any less professional? 

Of course, even if we cannot attribute any particular military revolution to Rome, it's probably worth asking whether any state, kingdom, nation, or empire that could be associated with any such development actually enjoyed the level of success that the Romans did.  In other words, does it matter?  It seems to worked to their benefit to be good at a large number of things, revolutionary in none, and perhaps excellent in but a few.

Perhaps one important issue that I will have to consider in the book is why I think they were so successful in the first place.  The Roman military succeeded because of X, Y, and Z.  Another post, perhaps.  Intriguingly, some answers might be sought in the armies and warfare that immediately followed Rome in the Byzantine east and early medieval west.  To follow what I said above, it is perhaps significant that some military historians see "Roman military organization, training, strategic and tactical principles, and patterns of campaigning as pervasive throughout the early medieval world" (Morillo and Pavkovic 2013:  96-97).  In other words, it's this sort of collection of things that are seen as representative of Roman military prowess, not any one thing.

Friday, 13 November 2015

When an Auxiliary Unit Becomes Equitate And/or Milliary

Just when you think you're nearing the end of a major project you can sometimes find yourself derailed - and rerouted - by a seemingly minor detail.  In this case, I'm nearing the end of substantially revised MA thesis-cum-book.  I have a draft of just about every chapter, and much of another (the outstanding one), and my hope is there won't be too much left to go on those which are essentially complete.

At present, besides going over the near-complete chapters, I'm in the process of writing the final chapter, which involves sorting through a mountain of data.  The book is on the Roman military in the Moesias (Serbia/Bulgaria, essentially), and this final chapter deals with strategic issues, at least with respect to troop numbers and types.  Not necessarily horribly complicated stuff - just a lot of guestimating and sorting. 

Well, things seemed to progressing fairly well until I came to the point where I started sorting through the respective numbers of infantry and cavalry. That too would seem to be straightforward enough: legions are predominantly infantry (with a handful of cavalry), while auxiliary alae are cavalry and auxiliary cohortes are infantry, mostly. Ignoring the occasional unit of archers (sagittaria, sagittariorum) and heavily-armoured cavalry (catafracta), it happens (as I knew) that you sometimes find these exceptional auxiliary cohorts classed as cohors equitata that are part mounted. Again, fair enough. You also sometimes find auxiliary cohorts that are nearly double-strength, the milliary cohorts or cohors milliaria. Again, straightforward enough.

Where I've been thrown off is the process of checking the names of units I've put together in tables with some names found in some standard/important works, like the book and papers of Matei-Popescu. Well, I've just discovered that he's named what seems like most of the auxiliary cohorts of Moesia Inferior as both equitate and millitary (or occasionally either/or). Somehow, this point had passed me by. I guess since I hadn't been concerned with the nuances just yet - only strictly relevant for my purposes when I'm tabulating and explaining, which is where I am now.

One of the catches with all of this is that my lists have been complied almost exclusively from diplomas (meant to be copies of official documents) - and all these extra bits don't show up. I've done a bit of digging in the other known inscriptions, with more to go, but those extra names aren't coming up. So, as things stand, I've come up with the following set of questions.

When does a unit become equitata or milliaria? It seems unlikely that this was something that happened initially. What constitutes the official title for an auxiliary unit? Is it the title we find on the diplomas issued to eligible soldiers, and perhaps too on the various stamps that we find in fortifications? What is more, how does one decide which part of a name to include on an inscription? To some degree, you can understand the desire to include civium Romanorum or pia fidelis given their association with excellent performance. Who wouldn’t want to honour the deceased with a unit name that contained those elements? On the other hand, if a unit name does not include some of these elements, does that mean we should exclude them, and if not, how do we know about them in the first place? There seem to be an awful lot of milliary and equitate cohorts in Moesia Inferior; with respect to the latter, it almost seems to reach a state whereby almost the entire auxiliary garrison of the province is cavalry based. Would this not be excessive and undesirable? Even more, could the Roman state even afford so many horses? And why Moesia Inferior? Was this a recognition of the unique problems posed by the specific kinds of enemies that we find across the border, so to speak, what with all the Sarmatians and the like with their horse-archers, cataphracts, and so forth?

So, it's time to look through a few hundred inscriptions (thankfully considerably easier than it was 12 years ago when I started this), and to re-read some books and journal articles.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Moesian Vexillations

I think I'm getting into the stretch drive when it comes to my book on the Moesian army (which I'm thinking of renaming - Exercitus Moesiae/Moesicae).  Many of the chapters are ready to go, and a couple need some tweaking.  Of those in need of tweaking, I think I'm about ready to do the major rewriting for one entitled, at present, "Vexillations and the Black Sea". 

I've been catching up, so to speak, on my reading on the Roman military's presence on the northwest coast of the Black Sea and into the Crimea.  There seems to have been a demonstrable military presence in a handful of cities (settlements) including Tyras, Olbia, Chersonesus, and Charax, and by demonstrable I'm thinking of the remains of fortifications, from the walls of forts to the remains of towers.  There is also evidence of the units that manned those sites, though it's more difficult to pin down when they arrived and in what quantities.

The - or a? - significant component of that contingent was comprised of vexillations, a common option from the late first century (AD) onwards.  Eventually they'd become a type of unit of their own, though that wouldn't be until late antiquity.  During the second century and into the third, vexillations were, for the most part, detachments from legions, auxiliaries, or some combination used for any one of a number of purposes (temporary reinforcement, building work), though we have little in the way of specifics about their numbers and make-up.  That hasn't stopped some, Saxer and Tully most notably, from delving into their intricacies, at least where possible.

Getting back to the lower Danube and the Black Sea, it seems that the bulk of the Roman soldiers active in the region (Tyras, Olbia, etc.) were housed in vexillations.  This I knew already.  By my 2005 reckoning, there were maybe a half-dozen to a dozen known references to vexillations in the region.  My current reckoning is well into the double-digits.  What I wasn't aware of, until a recent search on the principal epigraphic database, was the range of differently named vexillations. 

At the moment, I've found 21 different names for vexillations used/present in the region, and obviously in some cases names are used more than once.  Those names are (in the order I've found them):
vexillatio classis Ravennatis
vexillatio XII Catafractariorum
vexillatio Moesiae inferioris
vexillatio legionis V Macedonicae
vexillatio legionis I Italicae et legionis II Herculiae
vexillatio legionum I Italicae V Macedonicae XI Claudiae et cohortium
vexillatio Chersonissitanae
vexillatio exercitus Moesiae inferioris
vexillatio exercitus Moesiae
vexillatio equitum scutariorum
vexillatio Capidavensium
vexillatio expeditionis per Asiam et Lyciam Pamphyliam
vexillatio legionis VII Claudiae
vexillatio legionis XI Claudiae
vexillatio legionum I Italicae V Macedonicae et VII ad Tropaeum Traoiani
vexillatio legionum V Macedonicae XI Claudiae
vexillatio per Germaniam et Raetiam et Noricum et Pannoniam et Moesiam
vexillatio Ponticis aput Scythia et Tauricam
vexillatio Egisseis Valerius (?)
vexillatio legionum I Italicae XI Claudiae
vexillatio legionum I Italicae XI Claudiae classis Flavia Moesicae

That is a ridiculous number of vexillations for one region, at least to me and based on my earlier understanding.  On the one hand, it is perhaps easily explicable:  vexillations, by their usual understanding, were ephemeral in nature and I probably shouldn't be surprised to see such a hodgepodge.  On the other hand, it's worth stressing not just the number of different names, the different types.  Not only are there the vexillations named for the legions that they are comprised of, or even the auxiliary units, but there are vexillations named after larger armies, like the army of Moesia Inferior (or just Moesia), vexillations for places (Capidava - possibly a hint at an auxiliary unit?), vexillations named after the various places where they seemed to have been active (how else to understand per Germaniam, etc.), vexillations named after the region in which they are currently based/active (Ponticis and Chersonissitanae), vexillations for the fleet/s (Moesian and Ravennan), and a, well, randomly named one (Egisseis - not sure what's going on there and will have to look more closely). 

So, again, while I wouldn't have expected the technicality and consistency that we find, for the most part, with the names of legions and auxiliary units, I wasn't expecting this - and it was only directed towards one particular region.  Some of those names might reflect the ad hoc nature of a vexillation's creation, but perhaps some, like the "vexillatio Ponticis aput Scythia et Tauricam" and the "vexillatio Chersonissitanae", reflect the increasingly long-term character of their deployment, or that's my running theory.  Could this be pointing towards the emergence of the vexillation units that we later find in late antiquity?  Catch is those later vexillations were cavalry regiments, and names like "Ponticis" and "Chersonissitanae" don't tell us much about what kind of soldiers comprised them, and certainly not in the same way that vexillations named after legions do (legions being still primarily staffed by infantry).

Anyway, much food for thought.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Thucydides in Late Antiquity

One of my tasks over the next few months is to write a chapter for a companion that explores the place of Thucydides amongst the historians of late antiquity, which both has something for the specialist and the uninitiated.  It's no small task, and to make this manageable, and in the vague hopes of saying something (even if it's little more than a sentence or two) somewhat new, I'm going to focus my attention on one episode in Thucydides' History that has had a particularly marked impact:  his description of the Siege of Plataea.  Yes, this also means I get to touch on something I know reasonably well - the ins and outs of siege descriptions.  It turns out that there are three historians (that we know of) who modelled at least one of their accounts on Thucydides' Plataean siege:  Dexippus (3rd century), Priscus (5th century), and Procopius (6th century).  The main question that I will address is how far can we take this Thucydidean influence, and what does this mean for how we read these later historians?

As I comb through the modern literature and read and re-read some of the relevant ancient accounts, there are a number of issues that have jumped out at me thus far as I have considered those questions.  First, why have those historians chosen to base their description on a siege found in Thucydides and why Plataea?  Combat is ubiquitous in the ancient world, and we can find descriptions of sieges in all sorts of different historians.  What is it about Thucydides' siege that makes it so special?  I wonder how many moderns would ran it as a pivotal moment in the the text, let alone the war?  A siege like Syracuse?  OK - and it did have an impact on Procopius, for it seems to have influenced his account of the siege of Rome in 537/538, and just as Syracuse ushered in big changes in the course of that war, so too did Rome in the Gothic war.  There must have been something about Thucydides, then, and this particular siege that stood out in their minds when they sat down (so to speak) to describe their respective sieges (Philippopolis in Dexippus, Naissus in Priscus, and Naples in Procopius).

Of course, ancient historians are less likely to be motivated by the relative importance of a siege in selecting models, or so I would think.  Rather, it's the literary character that carries of the day more often than not.  This then brings up the second consideration, the impact of education and the rhetorical handbooks.  Indeed, as it happens a number of the surviving progymnasmata highlight Thucydides' account of Plataea as one worth noting.  If those three historians, and others, had read any of those rhetorical handbooks, and they likely would have done in the course of their similar educations, it seems likely the primacy of Thucydides' account would have been hammered into their heads and so it's not surprising, then, that they did think of Plataea.  If anything, maybe we should have been asking not why Thucydides, but which other historian and siege could they have used instead?  Could there ever have been any doubt? 

This, though, brings up a third issue.  Is it really Thucydides they have in mind, or some sort of list of key phrases, quotes, or even passages, the sort of thing that was said to be present (common, ubiquitous?)  in late antiquity?  Did they remember Thucydides from school, then turn to the section they needed and simply copy what they wanted?  Less of a full appreciation of Thucydides then than something far more superficial?  If you read Lucian's How to Write History you get the impression that there were a number of historians (most lost - and assuming he was alluding to real historians) from the first and second centuries who might have fallen into this superficial category, so to speak.

In fact, this brings up a fourth issue.  Although there are all sorts of interesting potential examples of intertextuality involving Thucydides and other authors like Procopius, a topic discussed in a number of provocative works by Pazdernik, is this the same sort of thing we have when we focus on episodes like these sieges or, as suggested above, are they something more superficial?  Can they ever really be something more than a sytlistic choice?  Given the comparative lack of importance it would seem unlikely.  And, the fragmentary state of both Dexippus and Priscus makes this a difficult issue to discuss outside the bounds of Procopius' Wars.  It is worth asking, however.

A fifth point, related to the previous one, if tangentially, has to do with what this Thucydidean impact then has on the veracity of the respective accounts.  If they're all based on Thucydides - and a handful of studies have highlighted the profound linguistic impact - does this mean their sieges are little more than literary artifices?  Ought we then throw out the baby with the bathwater?  The sieges are too closely modelled on Thucydides for comfort, they (the descriptions) couldn't then be based on the actual accounts, and so we should discard them as little more than something of literary interest.  Valuable for what they say about the impact of Thucydides:  check.  Useful for historians with a real interest in the respective conflicts:  no. 

A sixth issue, what does all this tell us about the practice of history-writing in late antiquity, when such a seemingly significant chunk of the works of one segment of the era's historians can be reduced to what we could consider examples of flagrant plagiarism?  In other words, from this perspective, should we consider going back to the old appellation, dark ages?  Are the classicizing historians of the age not deserving of the credit we tend to afford them if this is what they call history?  Perhaps, then, it really is the Malalas', the Jordanes', the Eusebius', the Theodorets and the Marcellinus Comes' that really deserve our attention, as they seem to be the ones who were really doing something different.  Or does the fact that there were still individuals capable of engaging with arguably the world's greatest historian in the age in addition to those experiementing with new forms and new subject matter reveal to us the age's vitality, at least from the perspective of historiography?

All this from Thucydides, late antique historians, and one little siege.  Should be a fun (if endlessly frustrating) chapter to write.