zenpundit.com » ancient history

Archive for the ‘ancient history’ Category

New Books, On China and Neighbors

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

[by J. Scott Shipman]

china books

 

Imperial China, by F.W. Mote

Mountains of Fame, John W. Wills (not pictured)

Liao Architecture, by Nancy Steinhardt

The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, by Ralph D. Sawyer

Inner Asian Frontiers of China, by Owen Lattimore

Empires of the Silk Road, Christopher I. Beckwith

The Perilous Frontier, by Thomas Barfield

The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, by David W. Anthony

3,000 Years of Chinese Statecraft, by Dennis Bloodworth

The Imjin War, by Samuel Hawley

The Tyranny of History, by W.J.F Jenner

The Wars for Asia 1911-1949, by S.C.M. Paine

Hard Road Home, by Ye Fu (not pictured, and a specialty publisher with great customer service Ragged Banner Press)

After the first of the year I commenced yet another “modern” assessment of China as a potential adversary, and had not gotten too far before the author attempted to channel ancient Chinese history to explain current Chinese policies. The author’s confidence and specious use of history made me aware of just how illiterate I am in that portion of the world. I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with a known gap and seam in some area of knowledge, I do a (fill in the blank) study. (I’ve done studies on central Africa, cognition, neuroeconomics, strategy (which seems on-going), and naval tactics to name a few.) My normal process is to find a syllabus from someone I trust or admire, or ask my network to offer five or six must read books on the topic. T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage, is a well known to the readers here at Zenpundit as a commenter and very knowledgeable on Chinese history. He recommended most of the books in the list above.

Sawyer’s Seven Military Classics was already in my library, and often read as a reference. Also I’d read large chunks of Empires and Horse, Wheel, Language (these books were already in my library, too, and are very complementary in their approach). And while the Imjin War book is focused on Japan, someone on Facebook suggested the addition. The only books purchased new was the Imperial China volume by Mote and Imjin. The remainder were purchased used and cost less than $75 total on the secondary market (I use both Amazon and ABE.com).

I’m a little more than a third through Imperial China, and while it is textbook, Mote’s writing style is engaging and exhaustive. Halfway through Mountains of Fame; it has been my go-to travel book—hence I forgot to include in the picture as the volume remains in an unpacked bag from a recent trip. I have read the introductions to all of these titles and by far the Paine book seems the most intriguing—I love the writing style. The only two likely to be relegated to the anti-library are the architecture book and the volume by Lattimore.

So, along with Zen, what new books are you reading?

The third greatest story ever told

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Colleen McCullough is dead (props Razib Khan).

It’s a sign of George Lucas’ complete incompetence as a storyteller that he found the third greatest story ever told and left it an abomination. It is a sign of McCullough’s greatness as a storyteller that she took the third greatest story ever told and lifted it far enough to almost glimpse the second greatest story ever told. When I see the fall of the Roman Republic, I see it through McCullough’s eyes.

McCullough wrote seven books in her Masters of Rome series:

  1. The First Man in Rome
  2. The Grass Crown
  3. Fortune’s Favorites
  4. Caesar’s Women
  5. Caesar: Let the Dice Fly 
  6. The October Horse
  7. Antony and Cleopatra

I’ve read the first six.

McCullough is given one of the greatest cast of characters in history and brings them to life:

Lesser-known characters given their due:

One aspect of history that McCullough’s novelizations allow her to highlight how interconnected these characters were, especially by blood ties. Genealogy helped and hindered the lives of prominent Romans in ways history books sometimes fail to capture. Servilia Caepionis, for example, was Caepio’s daughter, Drusus’ niece, Cato’s half-sister, Brutus’ mother, and Cassius and Lepidus‘ mother-in-law as well as Caesar’s long-time mistress.

McCullough uses fictional but plausible plot devices, arrived at through meticulous research, to plug gaps in the historical record. She marries Sulla to an invented short lived younger sister of Julia Caeseris, making Sulla Marius’ brother-in-law and providing a rationale for why Sulla was on Marius’ staff in Numidia. She explains Caesar Octavianus’ chronic absence from the field of battle by making him asthmatic.

Vivid scenes I recall:

  • Marius, deep in Asia Minor, unarmed and alone, giving Mithridates and his army the stare down and forcing Mithridates to retreat (“O King, either strive to be stronger than Rome, or do her bidding without a word.”, according to Plutarch).
  • The pompous young Pompeius, looking forward to meeting the great general Sulla on his return from the east, is shocked when the formerly handsome Sulla, disfigured by a disease (of McCullough’s invention), having lost his hair and teeth, wearing a ridiculous Raggedy Andy wig, drunkenly greets him like an sentimental old fool.
  • Sulla, wandering in this ridiculous over the top getup through the streets of Rome later, then he promptly proscribes the enemies he has been sniffing out as an innocuous circus act.

McCullough’s star though out is clearly Caesar, growing from a young boy learning at the knee of Uncle Marius, to the devoted husband of the daughter of one of Sulla’s archenemies who refuses to divorce her despite Sulla going into full beast mode to the rising politician to conquering general to assassinated dictator.

Sulla, however, is her most unforgettable character. A Cornelii, one of the great patrician families of Rome, but born into a branch fallen on hard times, Sulla hangs out with the low life hipsters of Rome, uses his good looks and charm to first win the love of two rich women (who he promptly murders), and then climbs his way to the leadership of Rome’s conservative aristocratic oligarchy. He is first friends and then deadly enemies of Marius. He ruthlessly culls Rome of his enemies only to give up power and go back to his partying ways. Her Sulla makes Caesar and Octavianus look like helpless babes.

Come for Caesar, Pompeius, Cleopatra, Octavianus, or Antonius. Stay for Sulla and Marius, men overshadowed by the prima donnas they made possible. McCullough can rest in peace knowing she brought one of the primal stories of Western civilization alive for anyone who reads her books.

George Lucas can toss and turn.

Arrow of mass

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

[by master-archer, Lynn C. Rees]

The Strategikon, a Byzantine Roman military manual attributed to the Emperor Maurice Flavius Mauricius Tiberius, summarized Roman calvary training towards the end of the sixth century:

He should be trained to shoot rapidly on foot, either in the Roman or the Persian manner. Speed is important in shaking the arrow loose and discharging it with force. This is essential and should also be practiced when mounted. In fact, even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless. He should practice shooting rapidly on foot a certain distance from a spear, or some other target. He should also shoot rapidly mounted on his horse at a run, to the front, the rear, the right, the left. He should practice leaping onto the horse. On horseback at a run he should fire one or two arrows rapidly and put the strung bow in its case, if it is wide enough, or in a half-case designed for this purpose, and then he should grab the spear which he has been carrying on his back. With the strung bow in its case, he should hold the spear in his hand, then quickly replace it on his back, and grab the bow. It is a good idea for the soldiers to practice all this while mounted, on the march in their own country. For such exercises do not interfere with marching and do not wear out the horses.

Dane Lars Andersen may have gotten in touch with his inner Mauricius with his contemporary elaboration of ancient archery techniques (props Isegoria):

As the Strategikon explains, and Robo-voice-over emphasizes, archery proficiency required years of drill. For tribesmen native to the Eurasian steppe stretching from Hungary to the Pacific, constant archery practice was a logical extension of daily life: bow work was essential to routine tasks like hunting or raiding the neighbors. For a hybrid settled/nomadic state like Parthia and its Sassanid successor, balancing the interests of your nomads out east with your farmers out west produced sharp tensions but often found a way to field archers without breaking the farmers or the treasury. For an wholly agricultural state like Rome in the sixth century, raising and training archers was an expensive strain.

Rome’s traditional strategy, crushing enemies under the weight of infantry mass, was hampered by population decline in the empire, bruising face-offs with new horse riding archers like the Huns, and an inability or disinclination to raise many soldiers from its own peasants. Rome turned toward smaller armies composed of horsemen, some drawn from native Romans, some mercenaries drawn from nomadic tribes like the Heruli. These armies were, man for man, better trained than prior Roman armies. They could check and even defeat opposing cavalry armies like the Persians.

But they were expensive. Roman finances groaned under the costs of supporting its armies. Their cost made it hard to maintain enough forces to cover all of the Roman’s territory. The Balkans were frequently abandoned to non-stop nomad raids because most forces were needed against the Persians in Armenia and Syria. Roman armies of the sixth century were politically fickle, prone to rebel if payment didn’t show up on time and sometimes prone to rebel even when pay arrived on time.

And they were brittle: like World War I-era dreadnoughts, they were too expensive to use. They couldn’t be replaced overnight like Rome replaced armies during the Second Punic War. Equivalent forces required time and capital to raise and train to proficiency. Native Romans had to be taught how to fight like steppe nomads at state expense. Nomadic mercenaries who had the needed skills from childhood were often unreliable. This made sixth-century Roman leaders as unwilling to risk battle as earlier Romans were eager to force battle.

Caution was justified. Destruction of just one of these armies, capital intensive transplants from their natural habitat on the steppes to the more foreign but pricey fleshpots of Thrace, Anatolia, Syria, Carthage, or Egypt, were not only catastrophic but world-changing. The military bench was left so thin that there was little left to resist a victor who succeeded in annihilating a sixth century Roman army.

Defeats by the Persians and civil war after the fussy Balkan army mutinied and overthrew Mauricius over discontent with their employment benefits and uncomfortable winter accommodations reduced Rome to precisely one army. If the Persians destroyed that one army, led in person by the Emperor Flavius Heraclius, that was the end of Rome. Heraclius came back from far behind, skillfully using that one army to defeat the Persians, though it meant leaving his capital reliant on only the Theodosian Walls and the remnants of the Roman navy to fight off an Avar-Persian siege. Turns out those were good odds against the Avars and Persians, though it left the Balkans open to permanent Slavic occupation.

But Heraclius only had that one army. When he sent it against a surprisingly persistent army of desert raiders six years after his victory over the Persians, he ended up with the equally surprising loss of that entire gold-plated army to those raiders. Destruction of that one Roman army was world changing. It’s why today’s Middle East and North Africa are Moslem instead of Christian.

Armies come and armies go but Yarmook is forever. The Romans had little in reserve. What little Rome had, Heraclius retreated with behind the Taurus Mountains. Tenuously holding that line, Rome served as an annual punching bag for Saracen raids for the next three hundred years. The Balkans, occupied successively by Slavs, Bulgars, and Magyars, also remained an open bleeding wound. Given chronic suffering from two-front-itis, Roman resurgence after 941, lasting to the death of the Bulgar-slayer, was the greatest comeback since Lazarus. It came to naught with another world-changing beating, this time permanent, as another gold-plated Roman army leading with its glass jaw was destroyed in one blow.

“Even when the arrow is well aimed, firing slowly is useless”. Mass has quality all its own.

T. Greer on Sun Tzu the Radical

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on Sun Tzu and his classic The Art of War the other day in which I learned a number of things that were new to me, which is the best kind of blog post!

The Radical Sunzi

When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzifrom the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical. [….]

Here comes the important part, one that demonstrates a curious symmetry with the cultural shift  between the post-Dark Age heroic-aristocratic Archaic Greece to the Classical Greece of the Golden Age that laid the foundations of Western civilization:

….The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing???, does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

Read the rest here

I just finished reading a book by the Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice; here’s an enormous difference between a culture that “sacrifices to” and one that is worth or requires “sacrificing for“. It is not only a cultural difference, it is cognitive. Strategy is possible in a “sacrificing to” society only to the extent that it does not conflict with (often maximalist) religious dictates, which will often mean a rational strategy to achieve victory is impossible. The Jews at Masada or the Greeks of the Trojan War would have understood the precepts of warfare of the ancient Chinese of the Zhou era very well.

In war, the bronze age peoples sacrificed to. We sacrifice for – and to spend our lives to best effect we need strategy.

Phineas Priesthood 2a: back in the old days

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — who was admittedly more concerned with champagne than cuneiform as a student ]
.

Back in the old days, this is how it was:

SPEC DQ Moabite Stone I Sam 15.2-3

While researching Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh, I found myself reading John J Collins, The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimization of Violence, his 2002 Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Literature — and ran across the Moabite Stone, which I should probably have remembered from my time reading Theology at Oxford under such luminaries as HFD Sparks of Oriel, who introduced me to Pritchard‘s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (“ANET”) if I am not mistaken.

The parallel is a familiar one to more diligent scholars than I — but worth bearing in mind, I think, when considering the story of Phinehas / Pinchas / Phineas.


Switch to our mobile site