Friday, 10 November 2017

Back to the Future: More Battles

It turns out, at least for me, that moving from one kid to two kids is a lot more draining than the shift to one.  I've had lots of ideas cross my mind, but I haven't had a chance to write anything down.  At the moment, the dog's locked in the basement, the youngest is happily bobbing away behind me in her chair, while the eldest is sorting out dinosaur-themed number cards.

This term I'm teaching a course on Hannibal, and it's been a great experience for all sorts of reasons.  For one, it's allowed me to revisit a topic and period that I'm very interested, but not thought about for a long time.  While I've sometimes thought that the mid-republic and Punic wars were a bit saturated, it seems clear there's still things to be said.  I've been struck by all the exciting new finds that have added to our understanding (the wrecks of ships of the Egadi Islands from the First Punic War, the remains of Roman and Punic camps from Baecula in the Second Punic War).  As before, I've been fascinated by all the research on the wider context of the wars:  the demographic challenges, the international relations issues, and the difficulties with the historiography.  In fact, in terms of the latter, I find myself contemplating undertaking a lengthy of study of Polybius (and if you've read this blog you know where I'm heading):  Polybius as military historian, with an emphasis on his love of all things tactical and generalship-y, and whether we can deduce underlying hints of his lost Tactica (or how many of it we can).  On the other hand, whenever I decide to write this large book on Justinian's wars of reconquest, I've often thought I'd draw heavily on all this interesting work on the impact of the Hannibalic wars.  So, like I've said, very useful.

I'm in the middle of a discussion of Cannae in the class, which is a bit concerning if only because we've only got a few weeks left.  That said, it's been useful for thinking about this Sensory History of War popular-history book, as well as one of the grant offshoots, the book on battle in classicizing histories from late antiquity.  While preparing for the class I've had the fortune of reading Ted Lendon's new two-part study of ancient battle, which was originally, I've deduced, meant to appear in the Wiley Encyclopedia of Ancient Battles.  My name appears in the study (a bit of a thrill), and he makes, not surprisingly (I'm quite receptive to his views), quite a lot of insightful comments. 

One of the points he argues, which I brought up in class, is that we can't or shouldn't expect to know anything about the specifics of any individual battle from antiquity with a few exceptions.  We can know a lot about the generalities - and so here he's in keeping with work by Goldsworthy and Hanson on the face of ancient battles - but the ancient accounts are just too vague and stereotypical to get much deeper.  He also, quite wonderfully, illustrates and introduces the point by referring to Lucian's True History, which includes some fantastical battles between the people of the Moon and the Sun.  I read it all last academic year in my second year Greek class, and I'll be doing the same again next academic year (2018-2019).  Like him, I noticed all these cliched battle (and historiographical) elements, which added considerably to the story.  I can see myself drawing on it at a later point.

Anyway, I think Lendon's points are well-taken, and it's had me wondering what to do with the late antique battle book.  That book will include, essentially, a series of case studies of big ancient battles in late antique classicizing authors (Ammianus, Jordanes, Procopius, Agathias, Theophylact).  It aims to show the variety in approaches those authors adopted (they're not all the same stereotypical accounts), while staying true, so to speak, to the conventions of the genre.  It'll bring in some narrative theory, look at rhetorical practices, contextualize in terms other late antique approaches to battle (panegyric, imperial monuments, epic poetry, chronicles), and make some comments on the classical tradition.

For all the generalities, there are still a fair few idiosyncrasies in the classical tradition, at least that I've picked up on.  Few of the later historians seem to have adopted Herodotus' specific approach to combat.  There aren't many episodes, like that post-Marathon involving Epizelus, where classicizing historians include anecdotes that could be likened to instances of PTSD.  Herodotus' attention to individual casualties from the Battle of Thermopylae also stands out.  While you could make the case that Herodotus includes this because of the gravity of the situation, it's hard to argue this wasn't the situation in many later battles.  Why no catalogue of the fallen in later historians?  While they often do highlight the exploits of elite individuals (cue Lucian), the regular folk get left out, or grouped together at the very least, with some exceptions - I confess that as I write this I'm revisiting my views on the roles of all those bodyguards in Procopius.

Reading Livy and Polybius in tandem has been useful for this too.  My class was divided into two parts and each told to focus on one version or the other of the Battle of Lake Trasimene.  Because the battle takes place in a fairly distinct spot, at least in geographical terms, we can use those two authors to pinpoint the precise location (a valley and then a plain along the lake on the side closest to Cortona).  While the two accounts are hardly long and detailed, they do indicate that there is quite a lot more room for teasing out the individualities of specific battles than Lendon suggests, even if, in this instance, it is largely a question of location.  On the other hand, this might well be what Lendon was implying:  you can find the specifics by looking for the unusual in the battle accounts.  If an historian mentions things that aren't part of the usual battle fodder, then that probably means that it was something that happened in that particular engagement.  We'll see if there's anything in those five case studies that bear this out.

So, all this is to say that not all is lost.  I'm back to battles a lot more than I'd planned on being.  I've also left out my planned inclusion in an SCS panel on lesser battles (I'm going to write on the Catalaunian Plains, believe it or not), which has given me much food for thought. 

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