Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Western Way of War

Ancient Warfare book

I have been reading a short book called Ancient Warfare. A Very Short Introduction, by Harry Sidebottom.

The jacket blurb claims that the author "provides a fresh approach to all aspects of ancient warfare, from the philosophy surrounding it, to the strategy and the technical skills needed to fight". All aspects of ancient warfare?! This is a big claim to make for a 165-page book. And one which (surprise, surprise) is not entirely justified.

As far as supporting material goes, there are five nicely-produced maps; admittedly, they are not really tied into the text and I don't recall consulting them as I read, but so many history books appear without maps that their presence here seems to be "a good thing". And there is an interesting selection of black-and-white illustrations, including 8 scenes from the Column of Marcus Aurelius (a welcome departure from the usual Trajan's Column). Also, the "Further reading" section runs to 28 pages, so it is nothing if not comprehensive.

But what about the content? The title promises an "Introduction" to ancient warfare ... but is it? I certainly found it to be an interesting read. But does it really discuss "all aspects of ancient warfare"? There is a chapter on "Thinking with war", where Dr Sidebottom emphasizes that war was an all-pervasive constant in the ancient world, and a chapter on "Thinking about war", where he sketches the thoughts of ancient philosophers on the subject. There is a chapter about "Strategy", which includes a brief critique of Edward Luttwak's 1976 book (The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire), and a chapter about "Fighting", where he considers the battle experience of a hoplite, a phalangite, a legionary, and cavalry, touching upon the old chestnut about whether "only a few fight?" But, in terms of the overarching theme, what Dr Sidebottom has written is actually an extended critique of the opening battle scene from Gladiator. On p.1, we read:

"The film Gladiator opens with an epic battle in the forests of Germany. On one side are the Romans, in disciplined units with uniform equipment. They wait in full view, in silence, and prepare their relatively high-technology weapons. Their watchwords are 'strength and honour'. ... In combat they help each other, and display courage. On the other side are the barbarians. They have no units, and, clad in furs, no uniformity. Some carry stolen Roman shields, but they lack the catapults that represent the top level of military technology. Initially they conceal their force in the woods. Surging backwards and forwards, each man clashes his weapons on his shield, and utters wild shouts. ... They rush into combat as a mob, and fight as ferocious individuals. On one side is civilisation, on the other savagery."

It is Dr Sidebottom's thesis that Ridley Scott's Romans represent the accepted picture of The Western Way of War, and he is at pains to demonstrate that this is incorrect. Whether or not this cinematic construct actually does represent our view of western warfare must remain a moot point. In my opinion, Dr Sidebottom has simply set up a straw man which is easily knocked down.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Croatian Limes

An emperor should never admit when he's wrong. But it seems that my knowledge of the Roman frontier (or "limes") along the middle Danube was deficient.

Map of CroatiaIn an earlier post, I suggested that the only Roman military remains in Croatia were the pre-Flavian legionary fortresses at Burnum (near Kistanje) and Tilurium (Gardun). Located in the Adriatic province of Dalmatia, in the far west of Croatia, they are almost 200 miles from the imperial frontier.

In my own defence, I can only point out that, besides a one-year governorship of Asia in AD 135, I have never set foot out of Italy, and have no military experience whatsoever! Nor is geography my strongest subject. So it is perhaps understandable, if not entirely forgivable, that I was unaware of one important fact: namely, that 188 km of the Croatian border in the east is marked by the river Danube (as an anonymous correspondent kindly informed me).

For much of its course, the Danube marks the northern limit of the Roman empire, flowing east through Austria and Hungary to the great bend above Budapest, whereupon it turns south, eventually entering Croatian territory between the rivers Drava and Sava, before turning east again at Belgrade and (having traversed a series of spectacular gorges) wending its way through Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria to the Black Sea coast.

This sector of Roman frontier is apparently awaiting recognition as a World Heritage Site. Forts are known at Batina Skrela (Roman Ad militares), Osijek (Mursa), Dalj (Teutoburgium), Sotin (Cornacum), and Ilok (Cuccium), but the remains have yet to be developed for public viewing. Let us hope that World Heritage Status will provide the impetus.