Saturday, 28 September 2013

Under Another Sky

Now, I will get around to dealing with the third part of De Re Militari, but before I do, I really want to review this book. The book in question is ‘Under Another Sky’, by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape, 2013).

The book is subtitled Journeys in Roman Britain, and is a series of accounts of travels into various parts of Britain (including Scotland), looking at Roman remains (or at least, the remains of Roman Britain) and giving something of an account of the meaning of such items, how they were discovered and how interpreted.

The author of the book is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and a classicist with a useful grasp of Latin and Greek and knowledge of Roman poetry and mythology which comes in handy in interpreting inscriptions from monuments and mosaics.

As a wargamer, of course, her book is somewhat peripheral to my main interests, but it does serve as a useful reminder that much of Roman Britain was peaceful under the Empire, and culture did exist, commerce even, perhaps, flourished, and, possibly, no one, in general, was unhappy enough to rebel or invade terribly often.

The most interesting aspect of the book is that it is about how Roman Britain came to be uncovered, interpreted and assumed into our picture of the way the world is. I’m sure I have mentioned before this aspect of history, in general. The popular view of history is that it relates to fact, to dates, and battles, and kings and so on. However, as Miles Russell points out in his book mentioned last week, even a skeleton of undisputable facts can have more than one interpretation attached to it.

Higgins is not, as mentioned, an archaeologist, but she has an eye for detail, even though it sometimes lapses into slightly purple prose. Even well known Roman sites are sometimes overgrown, she comments, and some, like Hadrian’s Wall are possibly overblown, although the local economy is coming to rely on the tourism it generates.

Mostly, Higgins tells us the stories of artefacts and how they are interpreted. In this, she largely, I think, would agree with Russell. The archaeology is fragmented, and does not tell us a single, or at least, straightforward, story. The interpretation of them is similarly fraught. For example, she discusses the pictures commissioned for the Palace of Westminster. A number of scenes from Roman Britain were proposed, but none included. British history starts, there at least, with the conversion of Saxon kings to Christianity. As Higgins remarks: ‘Perhaps the problem is, and has been since antiquity, that Roman Britain is too jagged and unsettling and ambiguous to be pulled into line. It will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite’ (p 228-9).

How, then, can Roman Britain be interpreted. Of course, the Victorians and those earlier had views. For example, Higgins describes how, for example, William Camden, writing in the 1580’s, saw savage Britain being civilised by the Romans. Such a view continued throughout the eras of the British Empires, and became, perhaps, a reflection of how the intellectuals of that Empire, educated, of course in the classics of Greece and Rome, saw their own mission.

Of course, it was possible to peer down the other end of the telescope. The existence of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall could be used for Scottish purposes: clearly, the ancestors of the current residents had never been conquered. Of course, the current state of Roman Britain led to warnings of the potential end of the British Empire.

The Victorians, or some of them, also used Roman Britain as a terrible warning for their own age. They could take, say, Tacitus’ warning about the growing decadence of Rome during the early second century and apply it to themselves. The Roman Empire fell because of this growing softness. This could be applied to Britain, the civilising world power of its time. Rome, in the end, failed, and failed after becoming a publicly Christian state. This is, of course, something that troubled St Augustine, as well.

As Higgins notes (p. 175) the pendulum has swung. Post-colonialism now means that the Romans (and, for that matter, the Victorians) are now viewed as the villains of the piece. This, of course, politicises Roman Britain for our present day. We tend to over-empathise with the conquerors, because they wrote the history. Roman-ness was only wafer thin, and so we return to Russell and Laycock’s ‘Un-Roman Britain’.

These views work themselves out into our culture. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ is perhaps one of the most popular stories of Roman Britain. It has been filmed, recently, and as such has consciously, perhaps, been displayed as a modern problem. A tenuous military hold is maintained over a restive native population. The landscape is unknown, treacherous, dangerous. Disaster is just around the corner, or over the hill.

There is, thus, a conflict at the heart of our interpretations of Roman Britain, between the civilising Romans who bought all sorts of benefits to the place, and the savage Romans, who bought death, destruction and slavery to the freedom loving Britons.

Our own interpretation of Roman Britain is liable, I think, to be influenced by whichever of these views we happen to subscribe to. And so, the way we wargame is going to be influenced by it as well. How do we view the invasions of Britain? An invitation from a client king in trouble? A piece of theatre designed for the home audience? Are the Roman armies the cutting edge of a civilizing force or a crushing lapse into even greater barbarism?

You may well think that these issues are nothing to do with wargaming, but I think I would claim that they do have at least some contact. To start with, whether we like it or not, such resonances rebound through history. The classical world has been rediscovered several times during our history and used to redescribe the world in those terms. As noted, even the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been portrayed in terms of Roman Britain.

Secondly, of course, we have only the same sources as the Victorians to play with. Tacitus is Tacitus, the same as he was for them. We have other interpretations, but of course most of us do not read Latin so miss the nuances. Varying interpretations and applications of the lessons of history are, themselves, lessons from history. Wargaming itself is built on such shifting sands. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Celts and Romans Again

The mysteries of Roman Britain, or at least, Britain in the Roman Empire are manifold. Possibly the most mysterious of them are, roughly speaking, the beginning of Roman Britain, and its end. How did the Romans come to be in Britain in the first place, and how did they end up leaving.

To focus on the first of these areas, that is the beginning of Roman Britain, is to try to understand a one sided story, for the sources of Roman history are, of course Roman. While Caesar, Tacitus, Seutonius and Dio Cassius mention Britain, it is from the perspective of Rome. The Britons are mute.

We therefore do have an account of how Britain came to be part of the Roman Empire, but it is a Roman account. Roughly speaking, Caesar invaded twice in 55 and 54 BC to punish the Britons for aiding the Gauls against him. He gave them a reasonably good thrashing and ensured that they behaved themselves for the next hundred years or so.

In 43 AD, to secure himself on the throne and, possibly to outdo the deified Caesar, Claudius authorised an invasion, which defeated the assorted British tribes, crossed the Medway and Thames and then, the commander having summoned the Emperor for the coup de grace, took Colchester and received the submission of the Britons.

Thereafter, the Romans simply gradually pushed out across the country, albeit with a few hiccoughs such as Boudicca’s rebellion and a wobble wherein the whole of the country was taken by Agricola and then the legions were withdrawn to the line of Hadrian’s Wall.

This, then is the established narrative of the beginnings of Roman Britain. However, I have just finished a book, ‘Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain’, by Miles Russell (Amberley, 2010) which casts doubt on this, which Russell calls Established Fact.

There is, I think, little doubt that the Romans did in fact turn up in 43 AD, but practically nothing else, as Russell notes, is really known. The landing of the Romans at Richborough is assumed, not proven. The location of the battles at The Medway and Thames are inferred from dubious (much later) narratives, and so on. There is also substantial archaeological evidence that Roman forts were established in Britain before 43 AD.  None of these issues usually disturb the basis of the invasion narrative.

Those of you with decent memories will realise that Russell has a track record here. He was the co-author of ‘Un-Roman Britain’, which I mentioned here a while ago, which sought to overturn the applecart on the Romanisation of the country. In that work, a chapter or so was devoted to the establishment of Roman Britain. This is the book sized version of that.

As I understand it (and it is a complex story, with large gaps), Caesar invaded to aggrandise Caesar by taking his armies to the end of the world. He was beaten, more or less, by the guerrilla tactics of the Britons and managed to extricate himself because the Britons were politically disunited and did not want to have a successful war leader, who might then conquer the other tribes. Agreements were made, however with pro-Roman tribes, who then benefitted from this status to trade with the Continent and also from some sort of protection from Rome.

It is a matter of record that both Augustus and Caligula contemplated the invasion of Britain, but the questions arise as to why they did so and, finally, why they did not actually invade. Russell suggests that this was due to internal British dynastic policies; as the pro-Roman leaders die off, tensions arise between their heirs, and some may take an anti-Roman stance. As Briton (or at least, the south coast) is effectively the northern frontier of the Empire, Roman policy would be to ensure the client status of, at least, those states (to use an anachronous term) along the coast within reasonable pirate sailing of the southern shore.

This politicking and sabre-rattling thus accounts for both the movements of troops under Augustus and Caligula and the evidence of Roman forts in Britain. Rome was simply keeping an eye on its interests in the client kingdoms.

For the invasion, Russell suggests that possibly the initial force was much smaller than previously thought, about 5500 men, and that it landed at pro-Roman Chichester (or thereabouts), and that the battle of the Medway was fought on the Arun in Sussex. He also suggests that this was a Roman intervention in favour of the pro-Roman faction, and that the bulk of the fighting was done by British. For example, the river, which Dio Cassius reports being crossed by Keltoi was, in fact, crossed by British allies of the Romans and not, as is usually suggested, by Batavian auxiliaries.

I think the overall point Russell is trying to make is that the history and archaeology of Roman Britain is too splintered and biased to support the overall narrative that we usually follow. While he does not explicitly reject the established narrative, he shows, fairly convincingly, that it does rely on a given reading of the evidence. Other readings are equally viable, insofar as they accord with the evidence. Indeed, he argues that his version might accord better with the archaeological evidence and with the known attitude of the Empire to its clients beyond the border.

There are a few downsides to the book. Firstly, there is no proper bibliography, which makes finding the references difficult. Secondly, it is written in a consciously abrasive style. He describes Caesar’s legionaries as ‘heavily armed psychopaths’ (p. 33), and Caesar himself as ‘…nothing more than an opportunistic bully, a callous tyrant and one of the greatest mass murderers in history.’ (p. 35) While he is understandably trying to make a point about Caesar and his men, upturning the classical scholarship of centuries which has relied on Caesar’s description of himself as being accurate, it is hardly likely to endear his argument, whatever its merits, to his audience.

Finally, I think that what Russell has achieved is to question the basic narrative of Roman Britain’s origins. The anomalies he weaves into his narrative have been sitting on the shelf waiting for answers for a number of years, and he manages to include them. Whether or not his narrative is more nearly correct is not for me to say; I am not an archaeologist. But, as a wargamer, I have to say that he provides some intriguing alternatives to the normal Battle of the Medway which is about all you can say about the Roman invasion of Britain.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Wargamer’s Texts I: De Re Militari – Part 2

According to Vegetius, by his day the legion had decayed. The name was still there, but the unit was hollowed out, under strength and under-disciplined. It was time for a return to the old ways.

Interestingly, Vegetius incorporates a significant degree of Christianity into his text. The recruits into a legion are to ‘swear by God, by Christ and by the Holy Ghost, and by the majesty of the Emperor who, after God, should be the chief object of the love and veneration of mankind.’ This is, of course, a quick theological two-step around the tricky fact that the original Romans were not Christians but pagans, and, in fact, worshipped the Emperors.

Within this, then, is a tacit admission that history cannot be repeated. The legionaries in Vegetius’ day could not swear the same oaths as in Augustus’. The religious context has changed, and some means of squaring the idea of legions and the ‘military oath’ with the effective religion of the Empire has to be found.

The legion, Vegetius says, should be of ten cohorts, the first being a double one. The strength of a cohort is five hundred and fifty-five foot and sixty six horse, giving a total legion of six thousand one hundred foot and seven hundred and twenty six horse. Legions should never be understrength, he claims, but could be made stronger by the addition of extra cohorts.

This, again, is fairly standard ‘Roman’ fare, but it does seem to ignore the peculiarities and practicalities of defending and policing the empire. We know from, for example, the Vindolanda tablets, that cohorts even on an active frontier could muster way below their nominal strength. Vegetius is, it seems focussing on a field army unit, not on frontier forces.

Assuming that the limes of the empire were still garrisoned, we can see that for Vegetius’ legion, frontier work was not in mind. Considering (to take a random example) some of the works on Hadrian’s Wall, the turrets would have, perhaps, accommodated eight men or so, about the size of the basic ‘buddy group’ of the century. This is not a unit that can be concentrated particularly quickly.

This then refocuses attention on one of the more interesting (to wargamers, anyway) controversies of the last few years in Roman Historiography: the ‘Grand Strategy’ of the Empire. Unfortunately the debate has sometimes caused more heat than light and the original work, by Edward Luttwak has not always been treated on its own merits.

Essentially, Luttwak argues that in the early empire, Rome was simply advancing, securing its frontiers by a system of allies and client king agreements, which provided a buffer zone and early warning system for trouble from ‘outside’. Often, however, this buffer zone became itself a problem, and, ultimately, had to be absorbed into the empire proper. Thus the empire expanded, or, eventually, threatened to over-expand.

The solution, implemented by Hadrian, was to stabilize the boundaries and make it clear what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’ of the empire. There were still outposts beyond, of course, the eyes and ears watching for trouble and the limes themselves, such as Hadrian’s Wall were not isolated fortresses but were defences in depth.

Over time, Luttwak suggests, this system evolved to leave a thinly guarded frontier line, backed up by powerful field armies based on fortresses in rear areas. Thus, Hadrian’s Wall was backed by Chester and York, covering both sides of the Pennines.

The consequence of this shift, according to Luttwak, was that the early empire fought beyond its boundaries, while the later empire fought within them. I think it is fair to say that Luttwak’s analysis has been rather disputed, but also that no-one has come up with any better ideas. Luttwak does not, I think say (as has been attributed to him) this this process was deliberate; it simply arose from the considerations of the context (money, men, resources, etc). Luttwak is a military strategist, not, strictly a classical historian and he wrote ‘The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire’ in the 1970’s. There are parallels, perhaps, with the Cold War situation in Europe and NATO’s Shield and Sword policy.

Anyway, back to Vegetius. In drawing up his legion for battle, I confess I got a little confused. In his enthusiasm for the old ways, Vegetius divides his legion into principes, the first line of five cohorts, and hastate, the second (as is the Polybius manipular legion). Ten cohorts in total, the full strength of the legion’s infantry. Behind them he claims, cone the light troops, javelins, archers, sligners and so on. Then behind them come the triarii, who wait kneeling until needed. These are not, so far as I can tell, included in the legion’s establishment. I am not quite sure what is going on here. A bit too much backwards looking? An inability to count? A corruption in the text? Any or all of these could be the case, but as I am not using a scholarly edition I cannot tell.

Vegetius then gives a standard sort of account of a legion in battle. The light troops engage first, then the lines of the legion, with strict instructions to the heavy foot not to pursue beaten enemies. This is to be left to the light foot and cavalry (who are on the wings, incidentally).

Vegetius finishes section two of De Re Militari with regulations for promotion within the legion, keeping records and accounts, music and drills.

The latter is, in part, a repeat of things in section one. The most interesting point, perhaps, is about depositions. Half of any donative is to be kept back by the unit, to keep the soldiers loyal. Where your money is, there is your heart, evidently.

As for promotion, Vegetius conceives of a soldier rotating through the cohorts gradually increasing in rank (and pay). So he moved from the tenth to the first cohort, and then back around again at the next level up. One suspects that this was fine in theory, but never really happened that much.

Finally, Vegetius commends the idea of the legion being self-contained, carrying with it all the equipment and men it needs for battle or engineering works such as bridges or siege works. Again, it seems like a nice theory, but I suspect that economies of scale would make it sensible to provide such things at an army level. Still, theorists are for ideals, are they not?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Wargamer’s Texts I: De Re Militari – Part 1

One thing is clear, even at this stage: I have probably bitten off far more than I can chew here. This does not necessarily make the idea a bad one, or the attempt to do something sensible about the subject on the blog impossible, but the texts are dense and lengthy. So even reading De Re Militari is going to have to be broken up into parts.

One of the interesting things about reading De Re Militari is that, having read a fair number of secondary sources already, I can identify, at least in part, where some of the statements, claims and confident assertions that they make come from.  I hope that this confidence is not mis-placed.

For example, Vegetius makes the claim that soldiers even armoured soldiers, are more often ‘annoyed by round stones from the sling’ than by archery. This I already knew, and it had passed through my mind when writing Polemos: SPQR, where armoured troops get a bonus against ranged weapons except slings. Vegetius then advises that all troops be trained in the use of a sling, and that slings are of great service in sieges. Again, I have seen this elsewhere, and it does seem to originate in De Re Militari.

And so to the text itself. It is addressed to the Emperor Valentinian, in somewhat sycophantic terms. Vegetius does not (dare not?) presume that the Emperor needs instruction in the arts of war, but the work is designed to be an encouragement to others towards establishing the Roman Empire along the lines of the way it was done by the ancients.

This, it seems to me, is an important point about much ancient writing: it is backwards looking. Even innovations are presented as being ancient. For example, Tacitus is disparaging about second century Rome. It has gone soft. The ancients were tougher, less self-indulgent, more virtuous, than the current Roman. Even barbarians, the Germans, for example, of even women barbarians, such as Boudica (or however you spell her name this year) were the equal of the Romans in rhetoric, nobility of character and determination, even if they lost, as the Iceni did.

For Vegetius, then, the cause of the success of the Romans in the past was their discipline, training and organisation. This is what is missing (or, in deference to the Emperor, what needs to be encouraged) in current armies:
“A handful of men inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.”

Of course, this is a historical truism. One could, I suspect, derive the same point of view from Herodotus and his description of the Persian invasions of Greece. Herodotus regarded the Persians as being hordes, while the Greeks were the few, the heroic warriors, “inured to war”, who could defy the world.

Vegetius then discusses in some detail how to recruit and train good soldiers. They should be at puberty  (which was, I imagine, rather later than it currently is in the west, anyway), they should be as tall as possible (although strength is more important) and so on. Their soundness should be assessed and their trade investigated. Those with occupations properly belonging to women are to be excluded. They should ideally be of noble family and honourable, as they are then less likely to run away.

I suspect that Vegetius’ regime for training varies relatively little from today’s armed forces: they march a given distance in a given time. They take exercise, learning to leap and swim, and they have weapons training.

There is also a system of punishment for soldiers not performing. The ‘backward’ soldiers are to be put on barley rations. This does not sound too serious to us, but wheat bread was the food of the elite. Barley was coarser and harder to digest, as well as being harder to grind. I suspect that being given barley rations was a bit like being made to peel potatoes today.

Vegetius makes some interesting claims about armour, starting with the argument that negligence and sloth has caused troops to dislike it, and slack discipline has led to its being discarded. This has, in turn, leads to defeat by the arrows of the Goths (he has already argued that armour is good protections against arrows). Armour, then, must be restored and the troops exercised in it, as the legions of old used to do.

The entrenching of camps is also described. Although I have never read De Re Militari before, it is familiar from all those secondary sources. Which does raise the question: how reliable is Vegetius? For example, different sizes of the fortification of camps in different circumstances are described. A ‘slight’ ditch is nine feet wide and seven deep. Is this not rather substantial to most people? I am not aware of anyone seriously comparing the archaeology of Roman camps with these descriptions, which is a shame, as it would uphold, or otherwise, the veracity of the document.

Anyway, Vegetius also describes ‘evolution’, that is drills. Forming a rank and then doubling it, and doubling again and so on. A variety of formations are mentioned, and the point made that these are of great utility in action.

Finally, in another hearkening back to the glory days of old, Vegetius demands thrice monthly marches fort both horse and foot, over all sorts of terrain. These might even be described as military exercises; sometimes troops are to behave as if in pursuit, sometimes in retreat and so on. Again, I suspect this is not dissimilar to armies today.

So, there you are, the first part of De Re Militari. Two things in particular strike me. Firstly the extensive use made today of Vegetius when describing earlier Roman armies. Vagetius was writing in the fourth century (probably around 380 AD) two hundred years of so after the glory days he refers to. This is a bit like a modern author extolling the virtues of the armies of the Napoleonic era. It may be that Vegetius’ claims are untrue, as well. A text cannot be read in isolation.

Secondly, relatedly, is Vegetius’ constant hearkening back to the glory days of the Empire, where the legions conquered all. This seems to be a constant theme of military writers down the ages, to look back to an age when all the current problems were solved.

But we all tend to do that a bit, at least, don’t we?