Monday, 19 June 2017

This Revolution Wasn't Televised, or Horses, Huns, and Romans, Oh My!

I continue to chug away, working on this conference paper, which is connected to the grant and its attendant research.  This means more thinking about the steppes, and today the Huns in particular and their role in all of this.  It also means going back to some earlier work for a Roman army textbook, which I think I've mentioned before.  Anyway, about a year ago, when my energy was focused on the army textbook and this grant was an unimaginable miracle (not yet a reality), I spent some time looking at what people had googled about the Roman army, as this seemed a good (or reasonable) way to approach writing something for those coming to something cold (or coldish).  One question that google identified was something to the effect of, "how effective was the Roman army?"  Considering that question led me to work on military revolutions, military effectiveness, decisive battles, and more.  There was much of interest and much that wasn't - or simply concerned with eras I know little about.  
While I plan to touch on these sorts of questions (revolutions, effectiveness, etc) at various points in that textbook, it's looking like it will have some bearing on this other work too, including the conference paper, which looks more closely at the Eurasian influence.  I will, in part, be talking about where the warfare that Procopius describes (and the sixth century Romans waged) fits into the greater scheme of things.  Is it representative of Rome's new way of fighting, an age of hippotoxotai?  Is it still largely connected to what came before, the infantry armies of centuries past?  Or is it some sort of hybrid, between these two worlds?  Regardless of where it is (and at present I lean to the middle, a transitional age), attendant issues include when and how all these changes came into being and their impact. 

As I consider all this, one thing that's been most useful is the work that I've done on the Roman military in the Moesias, as it's allowed me to look more closely at organizational changes over an important area over a significant period of time.  It's also put me in an excellent position to understand some of the later changes that came, especially when were are less well informed about how they came about.  It's clear, for instance, that the Romans were constantly and gradually changing their military and everything about it.  In the Moesias they go from a few units of perhaps 1000s of soldiers and maybe a handful of known military bases, predominantly filled with infantry, to dozens, if not hundreds, of units in even more bases, from wee fortlets to larger legionary bases, and still, predominantly, infantry - but with growing numbers of cavalry too.  We can also see in some cases changes both in response to significant military challenges (soldiers shifted to the east from the Moesias, so new troops brought in from parts west and north) and in advance of major military operations (the number of auxiliary units in the Moesias spike in the run-up to Trajan's wars against Dacia). 

We can't observe organizational changes in this same level of detail for any other period of Roman history, so far as I know (thank you diplomata).  This makes for much more guesswork later.  Nevertheless, the general pattern seems to be that many emperors made changes on some level, some more than others.  These might be in regard to specific issues, or more general ones.  Admittedly, the specific motivations of the emperors are hardly ever immediately clear, so a great deal of guesswork, though of the educated sort, is involved.  Generally, though, I get the sense that big, significant, changes didn't come about all that often, if ever, in the Roman world, at least in the military sphere.  Certainly none of them, to my mind, could be called revolutionary to any degree.  In fact, for many of the "big" changes that we can discern, you can usually find a counter-argument to claims about their usefulness.  I'll come back to this momentarily.

The next set of questions surround why they come about.  The sort of changes I alluded to above with respect to troop movements perhaps have more to do with short term issues and so are perhaps less useful for dealing with this sort of question.  But there are plenty of other changes in the Roman military that attract attention, from changes in equipment to changes in tactics, changes in dress, and even changes in soldierly origins.  As I see it, the sort of changes I'm alluding to here - adoption of the weapons and/or techniques of a different people - are usually explained in one of several ways:  technological breakthroughs; cultural change (the move to the Spanish sword in the republican era came down to a so-called sword culture); military necessity (the Huns caused lots of problems and so the Romans responded by introducing the cavalry to match); financial considerations (money issues, like the deteriorating value of pay, led to the implementation of payment in kind to soldiers in the third century before things stabilized); and practical considerations.  To get back to counter-arguments, then, too much emphasis on any one issue, and not enough awareness of the broader context can obscure some things.  For instance, Alofs has shown that the stirrup, which was introduced in the sixth-century in the Mediterranean, did not transform mounted combat despite the claims of some (his bugaboo is Hugh Kennedy).  Although I don't think he mentioned them, the mounted archers of earlier imperial Rome (i.e., not late antique/early medieval era), like the Ala Gallorum et Thracum Antiana sagittaria were stirrup free.  In fact, this is where I think Simon James' book Rome and the Sword hits the mark in any number of ways, for he tends to bring in quite a lot of evidence and perspectives.

So, to get back to the steppes and its peoples' impact on sixth-century Roman warfare, it seems to me that to see their system as offering some sort of revolutionary approach which came about because of the marked inferiority of the Roman military machine (this is the view of Hyun Jin Kim) is an overstatement.  The Romans had mounted warriors for centuries before the Huns came along even if they were fewer in number before the sixth century.  Any increase, which would be hard to illustrate with the same level of detail, might be down to any number of factors.  And if it came about before our earliest confirmed Hunnic contact (the end of the fourth century), it's difficult to attribute this to their influence.  Along those lines, to see Adrianople as proof of the limitations of the Roman military, especially when faced with a nomadic threat, is to adopt a far too liberal reading of our primary source, Ammianus, and to ignore too much of the work that has been undertaken on that battle.  While it certainly seems to have left its mark on some contemporaries (as Lenski's article from 1997 shows), its impact on the organization and tactics of the eastern army, which suffered so greatly in the battle, was not of the sort adduced (a completely new approach adopted), as the Notitia Dignitatum makes clear (the organization of the eastern and western halves, while not coterminous, still have a great deal in common, organizationally speaking).  This isn't to deny an impact from the steppes, it's only to hold off from putting too much weight on the role of the Huns in particular in all of this.

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