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.

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