Monday, 25 March 2013

Who Reads Ancient Military Manuals?

Who reads military manuals?  This is the question I have been (and still am) grappling with over the past couple of months in preparation for the Shifting Frontiers X Conference, which finished this past weekend in Ottawa.  I gave a paper that tackled (well - tackled is a bit strong) this very issue and as I prepare to write it up for publication it's something I plan on discussing in more detail.  In fact, I'll probably make it the primary focus of the published version.

My decision to shift (or narrow) my focus - (from how to approach the transformation of the military manual in late antiquity to genre and readership in the late antique manual) was inspired in part by the useful discussion that followed my talk, which was in turn aided by the absence of one speaker (there was more time for me to speak and answer questions).  Admittedly, in the paper itself I only discussed readership a few times and in passing.  In fact, it was in the run-up to the presentation itself (a day or so beforehand) that I started thinking about it in greater detail.  There were select other papers that discussed technical subject matter, and given that genre was a big part of the conference as a whole it's not surprising that I was given more pause for thought.

Getting back to the question and subject, who did read these things?  I was particularly interested in the anonymous De Rebus Bellicis, Vegetius' Epitoma, Urbicius' assorted works, Syrianus' (I still lean towards a sixth century date) assorted works, Maurice's Strategicon, and Apollodorus (for other reasons - not late antique).  Their subject matter varies (I prefer to think of them as one genre), and one of the principal issues in scholarship is whether they were there descriptive or theoretical sort.  This, as you can well imagine, has some bearing on the readership.

In the questions afterwards some questioned whether anyone read them - their existence had more to do with survival rates (not much survives from antiquity and we just happen to have these) than anything.  It's a fair question.  Have we lost any more than those we know about?  Were there more?

Some of these manuals have some bearing on reality.  Maurice's, for example, is the one often held up as the best example of this, though there are some out there who think even Syrianus might have fall into this category.  Vegetius seems to as well, at least in part.  The best earlier example is Arrian's treatise about the Alans.  But is this true?  Is Maurice really practical?  And for whom?

A related issue (that came up - and that I delved into) is military training.  Was there some sort of military academy that the would-be officers could attend in late antiquity to hone their skills and learn the tricks of their trade?    If not, how did they acquire these assorted skills and the varied knowledge?  Would they have read these manuals?  Maybe the generals read some manuals like Maurice's.  Maybe they read the others.  But would manuals espousing Roman military details really be easily available?  Might not there be some concern of it falling into the wrong hands?  So, maybe these were read for fun by the literate of the capital and beyond.  After all, a lot of modern readers read assorted military stuff.  Officers might have learned their trade anyway from conversation with their peers, or through other means we just don't know or have.

Anyway, these are things for me to consider.  More to follow.

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