Thursday, 5 February 2015

Using Military Language in Late Antiquity

I recently read an interesting article (by Jonathan McLaughlin) on letters exchanged between members of the, let's say, cultural elite and the military elite in the fourth century in the latest issue of JLA (Journal of Late Antiquity).  The two principal characters were Libanius and Ellebichus, a "barbarian" general.  It turns out that we have the letters of Libanius (we have a lot of those, actually) to this general, but not the replies.  Nevertheless, a friendship was struck between these two unlikely gentlemen, who didn't always see eye-to-eye, and this exchange of letters helped bridge the culture divide - well, exchanges of this type between all sorts of different members of the elite helped to so.  Anyway, the article's give me much food for thought on a variety of issues from late antique communications and interactions, and the character of elite networks, to issue of genre, here epistolography.

One little point I want to pick up on here is a comment McLaughlin made about Libanius' use of military terms in a letter to Ellebichus (Ep. 925), and the phrases in question include:  "hurled arrows [ta belh] at both" and "put down their weapons [katethento ta hopla]".  The military terms and language that Libanius employs in this letter, and presumably in others - I'd have to check - is not very technical.  Yes, there are arms and arrows, but the words that he used had a long pedigree.  The point I'm trying to make is that the words that Libanius was using in the late fourth century (AD) are the same ones that Thucydides used in the late fifth century (BC).  There's nothing revolutionary about this, of course, for the classicizing practices of late antique writers have been commented on for some time.  Still, what I was struck by the generality of the language used by Libanius, much of the same sort that Procopius uses, someone whose language use I'm much more familiar with.  The point is Procopius isn't overly technical either, even though he does spend most of his time getting into military matters.  Indeed, it's quite likely that the sort of people who read Procopius (or listened to it) were those who read (or listened to) Libanius, and they might well have appreciated this general militayr langauge.  At least, that's been my take on it.

Libanius' apparent use of military language and terminology (JLA 2014:  272, n. 81) has me thinking: what constitutes military language?  It might seem obvious, terms that describe things that military do and are.  But, a considerable amount of technicality is often implied when discussing military matters, both ancient and modern, and thinking about military language reminded me of a night out a year or two ago.  It was a friend's bachelor party (something to that effect - maybe pre-bachelor party), and it was a fairly select group at the start. There were four of us, three of whom had served (or were serving in some capacity) in the armed forces, both British and Canadian.  Needless to say, the one person who hadn't (me - the guy who spends a good amount of his time thinking about ancient militaries) was about lost in a myriad of military acronyms.   I'd try to reproduce some here, but I can't remember any of them (sure some can be found here Anyway, this is probably my modern experiences blurring my perceptions of the ancient world, but I have this notion that Roman military language would be some sort of ancient version of that, originally in Latin, but eventually in Greek.  Following this line of thinking, then, the "military language" of Libanius and later Procopius is actually the civilian version - it's been rendered into a form that civilians can understand.  Just as I struggled to understand (and struggled is generous - failed might be better) to understand what they were saying, the largely civilian audience that consumed Libanius' and Procopius' (and others') works would have had a much easier time with their language then anything "properly" military and technical. 

Let me step back for a second.  I've been reading more Procopius (for teaching purposes mostly, though research obviously too - in translation, Kaldelli's new version), been giving some thought to the earlier imperial military, and some perusing of the Notitia Dignitatum.  If we focus on one particular group of terms, those for units for example, if you read Procopius you find very little indication of technical terms for unit types and names.  There are vague references to infantry, cavalry, occasionaly a reference to some sort of Latin term, and there are mentions of all sorts of ethnic units (maybe).  But there are none of the sort of titles we find in the Notitia Dignitatum, or the units that populate the earlier funerary epitaphs and diplomata.  Those sorts of long-winded names, like the ala antana dromedariorum (Not. Dign. or. 34.33), strike me as, well, proper military language - and all the aspects that would go with it.  And admittedly, if Procopius' works (and those of all other classical and classicizing historians for that matter) included all of the participating units they would soon make for some very painful, and possibly confusing, reading, at least to most of us. 

Of course, unit names and so on might apply only to administrative matters.  It may even be that the military bulletins and so forth discussed in previous posts were filled with the names of participating units, and all sorts of other terms (officer ranks, troop types, etc.).  That too would, I think, count as military langauge, though at the administrative level.  Maurice's Strategikon, which I haven't mentioned yet, probably also consists of what could be called technical military language (I believe Rance has made a strong case for this in a number of publications, and I look forward to his translation and commentary).  I think then too that the stuff Procopius and Libanius use is something else - the civilian versions, translations even, of the technical military mumbo-jumbo.  To get back to the acronyms, does that mean Roman soldiers were running around using acronyms and technical terms when talking to one another in day-to-day life?  I don't know, and I'm not sure we have any good evidence for this (not that it didn't or might not have existed - we just don't know).  What we'd probably like is some letters, and there might even be some, but even those are problematic, at least if we assume that the literacy needed to compose letters was higher than that of your average soldier.  Officers - well, they had different experiences and upbringings in a lot of cases.  But regular soldiers?  How could we find out about the sort of language they used?  Harder to say.  Maybe graffito, if it existed, would be useful?  Maybe there are wooden tablets that might enlighten us?  Have to check.  But, it might remain an enigma for some time. 

Anyway, enough for now, though I supect I'll return to this in the future...

1 comment:

  1. Having just compiled a small dictionary of Roman military terminology, I would suggest that there is probably a slightly better case for a 'military language' as such in the Byzantine period than in the Roman. The interplay between intentionally literary writers and the military in the Roman period means it is very hard to discern a military argot, despite the common perception that there was a 'sermo castrensis' (itself, so far as I could tell, a modern coinage). There were no clear ancient equivalents to the modern 'DUKW', 'SNAFU', 'MLRS' or 'collateral damage' that define the Roman military as 'something other'. What you do find amongst the Roman army is a rich sense of humour (one need only think of Festus' sub vineam iacere/sub vitem proeliari jokes or the casting of sling-shot in the shape of an acorn to get a hint of that.

    In fact, the Byzantine tactical manuals (notably that of Maurice) embed Latin terminology for commands within a Greek text in precisely the way that suggests they had indeed achieved something of the status of a military language which they never had in the Roman period.