Sunday, 7 November 2021

A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare, Reconstructing the Physical Experience of War in the Classical World - Conor Whately


When I saw this title on the new listings from Pen & Sword I was really intrigued and thrilled to get it as a birthday present and moved it rapidly to the top of my 'to read' stack of books that occupies a discreet section of my book shelf.

The back of the dust jacket lists the reasons for that intrigue thus:
  • An ambitious new approach to the subject of ancient warfare.
  • Assesses the evidence for what ancient battles and sieges would have looked, sounded, tasted, smelled and felt like to its participants.
  • Re-examines the contemporary testimony of ancient historians, poets and artistic representations, as well as the evidence of both traditional archaeology and reconstruction/re-enactment.
  • Case studies examined in detail are: Cinaxa (401 BC); Issus (333 BC); Cannae (216 BC); Jerusalem  and Masada (66-74 AD); Strasbourg (357 AD); Edessa (544 AD). 
One of the really interesting aspects of historical wargaming for me and others is developing, through our games, a different insight into the issues that faced the commanders and their men engaged in the struggle we are attempting to replicate on the table and part of that understanding starts with an appreciation of what the situation looked like from the man on the ground being Alexander the Great inspiring his men before the Battle of Issus with encouraging words whilst passing direct orders to subordinates, to the poor bloody infantry standing in the front line, shield braced for impact and preparing to face the ultimate challenge in the life of most human beings, faced with the terrible prospect of mortal combat with the enemy up close and personal.

Having a clear understanding of the challenges faced by each soldier, at each level of command within an army, better still described by them as near to the time of the action that they were able to record their experiences of that action, the more likely we are able to reflect those experiences in the game we produce and thus start to appreciate why events may have unfolded in the way they did.

Thus with the other aspects of the hobby such as reading accounts, walking the terrain, looking at the insights that modern day re-enactors can bring, we can use these perspectives to feed into a more appreciative experience around the wargames table.

So it was with a cautious level of interest that I approached this title as an opportunity to perhaps fill a gap in the literature surrounding the experience of warfare in the ancient world that is better represented in other periods, such as John Keegan's 'The Face of Battle' published in 1976 and a book I read several years ago now or Paddy Griffiths 'Forward into Battle'.

Interestingly Whately highlights the particular impetus for his book as being The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War by Mark Smith a similar tome that covered the assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston, the sights of First Bull Run, the smells of Gettysburg, hunger at Vicksburg, and the close quarters of the submarine H.L. Hunley. He then goes on to state when considering a similar study for the ancient period;

"Digging deeper might seem problematic, for Smith was able to draw on a body of evidence that we do not have in antiquity, namely early photographs, newspaper reports and personal diaries, among others. Yet, despite these seeming limitations, we have extensive accounts of warfare, and some of the striking and useful pieces of evidence include the historical epics )Homer's Iliad), Latin histories (Livy's Ab Urbe Condita), later  classicizing histories (Procopius' Wars), and military manuals (Maurice's Strategikon)."

Noting that with the aforementioned studies, their focus in the main is on generals at the expense of the common soldier, and indeed with little or no inclusion of the experience of women and children and the day to day life of civilians, he highlights other sensory sources such as papyrological, legal and material evidence, looking at foodstuffs and the trade in animals, thus giving a sense of the foods people were eating and the animals they were in daily contact with; this evidence contributing to building a picture of the living conditions of the soldiers and their diets, mixed with the topography of a given theatre and its associated weather patterns, adds in to the sensory picture of what warfare would have been like for the 'Common Grunt'.

My own picture of the Epitaph of Marcus Caelius, first ranking Centurion of the 18th Legion who died in the Varian disaster aged 53 and referenced by Whately in his introduction to the book describing the likely battle in the Teutoburg Forest from the view point of the Roman soldiers engaged in that battle.
JJ's Wargames - Xanten LVR Archaeological Park & Roman Museum

The book then launches into an introduction that attempts to portray firstly the experiences of the common Roman soldiers to their commanders, faced with fighting in the Teutoburg Forest, rain soaked, hungry, weighed down with their kit under constant attack or threat of attack from close assault and missile fire, eventually overwhelmed as much by fatigue as by the enemy as they slipped around on muddy ground trying to hack their way through a forest whilst staving off an ever more confident foe.

This first description rather sets the tone for the book presenting the reader with a description of the other seven battles and sieges, based on the literary accounts and sources described with the author filling in the missing bits and attempting to 'cross the T's and dot the I's'.

In his introduction Whately attempts to define what a 'Sensory History' looks like when he describes the structure of Smith's American Civil War book, noting that in it, he divides the book into five chapters to help understand one particular engagement through the lens of the five physical senses; recounting one chapter devoted to the sounds of the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 1861) or the visual impact in another chapter covering the Battle of First Bull Run (July 1861).

As his Teutoburg Forest account illustrates, and he readily acknowledges, the same kind of sensory accounts in the ancient world don't exist and thus the prose has to turn to conjecture.

An example of the difficulty of writing a book like this is exemplified by the listing and detailing of the various sources for describing Alexander's battle with Persian King Darius in 333 BC, ranging from Plutarch, Justin, Polybius, Diodorus, Curtius and Arrian and the mosaic from Pompeii.

Here we have accounts written in the first, second and third centuries AD no doubt relying on other previous and perhaps first hand sources now lost to history and with four of the aforementioned authors, Plutarch, Justin, Diodorus and Curtius 'short of technical military material'.

Lucius Flavius Arrianius (Arrian) the Greek historian, and Roman commander who fought the Alans, one of the more accomplished military sources.

Perhaps the most compelling source is Arrian who was at least an accomplished general and author of the short tract on tactics, famous for his defeat of the Alans in the second century AD, and describes the Battle of Issus in detail which Whately goes through, but rightly pointing out that;

'Unfortunately, despite the battle's fame, the contradictory details found in the different accounts make reconstruction difficult' 

And so the reader is left to consider what follows with that very important caveat, which is educated guesswork at best; interesting yes, but not entirely satisfying in terms of moving our understanding much further forward other than conjecture.

Apart from the enjoyable aspect of reading the detail about certain battles that I had a top line familiarity with prior to reading this book and enjoying the accounts that were pieced together from sometimes opposing sources, I can't say I was convinced by the attempt at building the sensory picture.

The fundamental difficulty I have with the book is that it seems to me to fall down at the hurdle that Whately highlights himself in his introduction, namely the lack of primary source evidence, and in his 'Acknowledgements' section of the book when he refers to an exchange on Twitter which posed the question 'could this kind of work be done about the ancient world given the source limitations?'

Thus we are left with an account that, frankly, I could probably assess myself based on my own extensive reading of other periods of military history, mixed in with the usual diet of 'sandal and swords' fiction that I like to read anyway to supplement the lack of such first hand primary accounts that very much feed the imagination when I'm working on other period collections.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh and that my perspective is slightly coloured by my disappointment at what the dust jacket boldly declares as an ambitious new approach. Yes the book is definitely ambitious, but I remain unconvinced about the 'new approach' and until we have the unlikely discovery of the diary of an ordinary optio in the ranks of your typical Augustan legion, giving me the real life first hand insight into ancient warfare, similar to the accounts of Peninsular War veterans outlined below, I think I will remain unconvinced.

The artwork of Peter Dennis in Osprey's, The Jewish Revolt, really appear to capture well the experience and likely look of  the sensory experience of combat, with the siege of Jerusalem and Masada both featuring in the text.

To perhaps better exemplify my point and to further extend Whately's consideration of Mark Smith's Civil War account, and the lack of similar classical ancient sources you can look at the wealth of primary accounts from an earlier period of military history before even photographic evidence and the wonderful first hand accounts left by British and some French veterans of the Peninsular War, devoid of any poetry or attempts to influence a political master, but simply telling the reader what they saw and experienced in the face of battle, descriptions that we simply lack for the classical period.

These are accounts that I used to help me construct a very focussed look at recreating the Battle of Talavera for my own Talavera 208 project:

Lieutenant Girod de l'Ain of the 9me Legere is quoted describing the attack of the British light cavalry into the Northern Valley as seen from his position on the lower slopes of the Sierra de Segurilla as his regiment skirmished with General Bassecourt's Spanish infantry;

"this was a charge by some English cavalry, that we saw arrive from afar like a hurricane, it was a regiment of dragoons charging in order of battle and launched full tilt... We observed this line of enemy cavalry, incapable of manoeuvre, following a single direction so blindly, that we shouted with one voice: 'They are deserting, they are deserting!' But soon saw one of our regiments of legere (the 27me Legere) which, marching in column close to an isolated house, found itself in the path of this cavalry; not having time to form square, it threw itself around the house, with their backs against the four walls; the square thus found itself naturally formed, and the more solid ... The English line extended well beyond both sides, to right and left ... the two wings no longer master of their horses ... continued on their course straight ahead, always flat out. We then saw a line of French cavalry, which stationed in the rear, came up at the 'petit trot' before the English cavalry; it was the brigade of General Strolz, composed of the 10eme and 26eme Chasseurs a Cheval. We anxiously wondered what would happen when these two lines of cavalry met; but the shock did not last long: we saw the English line pass through the French line, without stopping or losing their formation; we only had time to notice a few sabres flash in the air and the smoke of some pistol shots... but soon our chasseurs remounted and, a little shaken, launched themselves at the gallop in pursuit of the English dragoons, which only stopped in the waters of the Alberche, where they were all taken prisoner."

The attack by General Lapisses's  French I Corps, 2nd Division at Talavera
Ensign Aitchison of the 3rd Guards recalled the attack;
"The French came on over the rough and broken ground  ..... in the most imposing manner and with great resolution."

A French officer described the first line of columns attack;
"The French charged with shouldered arms as was their custom. When they arrived at short range, the English line remained motionless, some hesitation was seen in the march. The officers and NCOs shouted at the soldiers, 'Forward March; don't fire'. Some even cried 'They're surrendering'.  The forward movement was therefore resumed; but it was not until extremely close range of the English line that the latter started a two rank fire which carried destruction into the heart of the French line, stopped its movement and produced some disorder. While the officers shouted at the soldiers 'Forward: Don't Fire' the English suddenly stopped their own fire and charged with the bayonet. Everything was favourable to them; orderliness, impetus, and the resolution to fight with the bayonet. Among the French on the other hand, there was no longer any impetus, but disorder and surprise caused by the enemy's unexpected resolve. Flight was inevitable."

And finally 

Ensign John Aitchison of the 3rd Guards described the effects of French artillery fire and the troops response to it;
"a tremendous cannonade - shot and shells were falling in every direction - but none of the enemy were to be seen - the men were all lying in the ranks, and except in the very spot where a shot or shell fell, there was not the least motion - I have seen men killed in the ranks by cannon shots - those immediately around the spot would remove the mutilated corpse to the rear, they would then lie down as if nothing had occurred and remain in the ranks, steady as before. The common men could be brought to face the greatest danger, there is a spirit which tells me it is possible, but I could not believe that they could be brought to remain without emotion, when attacked, not knowing from whence. Such however was the conduct of our men I speak particularly of the Brigade on 28th July, and from this steadiness so few suffered as by remaining quiet the shots bounded over their heads."

I applaud Conor Whately for his attempt with this book, but the constraints he and other ancient scholars work under in this particular area of military history when attempting to extract the detail similar to the level that we have in the accounts above, makes this book's ambitions a very high bar to pass and one that I felt it missed despite the effort.

In addition I think the contribution made by re-enactment groups that have worked really hard at trying to recreate the dress, living conditions, food and other aspects of walking a day in the caligae of your average Roman soldier as with the Ermine Street Guard group, and others, for example, have offered more of the understanding and insight that the classic sources struggle to match.

The other area that I feel offers the kind of opportunity this book attempts to develop is the gradual translations of the tablets being found on Hadrian's Wall at Vindolanda where the kind of 'first hand' insights that the classical world lacks are starting to be revealed, and I hope and look forward to a book compiling the best finds to help give a comprehensive look at that world through them. Perhaps that book exists and I've missed it!

The tablet above is a letter of appeal from a civilian to a governor seeking redress for a beating received at the hands of a subordinate.
" he beat(?) me all the more.......goods...or pour them down the drain(?). As befits an honest man(?) I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods and, my lord, inasmuch as(?) I was unable to complain to the prefect because he was detained by ill-health. I have complained in vain(?) to the beneficiarius and the rest(?) of the centurions of his unit. Accordingly(?) I implore you mercifulness not to allow me, a man from overseas and an innocent man, about whose good faith you may inquire, to have been bloodied by rods as if I had permitted some crime."
JJ's Wargames - British Museum, Part Two, The Romans

Finally in terms of fictional accounts to help bridge this large gap, I can think of no better recommendation that picking up copies of Adrian Goldsworthy's Vindolanda series of fictional accounts of life in first century Britain and the exploits and adventures of Centurion Flavius Ferox which I think now number three books in the series and very enjoyable reads; with all the scholarly input that Dr Goldsworthy is able to weave into them with the inclusion of a detailed note at the back of each book outlining the known historical record that underpins his fictional account.

A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare is published by Pen & Sword Books and is 175 pages which include:

List of Illustrations

Part I: The Greek World
Chapter 1 The Battle of Cunaxa (401 BC)
Chapter 2 The Battle of Issus (333 BC)

Part II: The Roman World
Chapter 3 The Battle of Cannae (216 BC)
Chapter 4 The Sieges of Jerusalem (70 AD) and Masada (72-74 AD)

Part III Late Antiquity
Chapter 5 The Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD)
Chapter 6 The Siege of Edessa (544 AD)

Notes and References
Bibliography and Further Reading

The fact that I sincerely applaud Conor Whateley's attempt at composing a 'Sensory History' is demonstrated by my reading it cover to cover and really enjoying reading about the battles described and the unique aspects surrounding them, together with the sources relied upon to do that. For that aspect alone I enjoyed it and include it as a useful resource and addition to my Ancient's book collection, but in terms of its declared objective of presenting a sensory historical account of them, I remain unconvinced, but tentatively look forward to other new insights going forward from perhaps other yet undiscovered sources.

My copy of 'A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare' is in hard back and has a list price of £19.99, but at the time of writing can be picked up for a little as £11.00 

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