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.

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