Miscellanea: A Brief Discussion of History and Scope, or What Am I Doing Here?

Today, I just want to talk a little about what I’m doing here on the blog and how you might want to read the posts I’m making. I’ll finish up with a sense of what’s in the pipeline. This is going to be less of a prepared mini-essay and a bit more of a fireside chat.

Form and Function

My goal when I started this little project was really three-fold:

  1. Provide me with a place for some of my – unpolished and sometimes half-formed – thoughts, in the vainglorious hope that they might be of interest to someone other than myself.
  2. Tackle some of the ways that historical societies (especially pre-industrial ones) and historical warfare is represented and misrepresented in broader popular culture.
  3. Create a learning opportunity for readers, introducing them to some of the knowledge that comes out of real scholarship, how that knowledge is generated, and so on.

Essentially, the goal was – and is – always to use topics in popular culture as jumping off points for folks to be able to learn something interesting about the past. That means each post tends to need both a pop-culture ‘hook,’ but also some historical content (I’m not here to do pure film criticism – other people do that much better than I would already).

But this project is also not several other things. First of all, what I am doing here is not intended as a replacement or substitute for formal scholarship – it is much less formal and less polished. I’m keeping to a fairly minimal form of citation (that is crediting where my ideas come from, rather than “here is everything useful written on <topic>” – and if any of my students are reading this: yes, this is minimal citation, cite more!). There is no copy-editor, so there are typos; I fix what I see. Finally, I’ve adopted a much more informal, conversational writing style here compared to how I write my own scholarship – that is, part of my ‘day job.’ Speaking of which:

This is also not my day job, nor do I intend for it to become my day job. My day job is ‘academic historian’ (if you are wondering what that actually looks like, I have a post planned on that for the not-too-distant-future). I have no intention of monetizing this space, attempting to become internet famous or turning this into a regular job. The upside of that is that you aren’t going to see an explosion of ads on the website or anything, but the downside is that the rate of new posts is going to stay roughly what it has been for the last two months or so, somewhere between 1 and 2 a week (but always the post on Friday).

If you want to help out this little project of mine, what you can do is share it. I don’t plan – despite WordPress’s best efforts – to search-engine-optimize or anything like that, so I am reliant on word-of-mouth for readership. So far that’s gotten me an absolutely astounding 37,000 page views in just about two months, which is more than I honestly expected to see in – checks notes – ever. So, tell your friends!

How to Read These Posts

Looping back around to “this is not formal scholarship” I want to make some notes about how to reach these posts and understand the limitations of the form.

First off: because of the broad nature of the questions we tackle here, there will always be exceptions. And yes, in a formal piece of scholarship, I’d address those exceptions. But if I did that here, you would get one post every third month and they would all be very long and very dry. That’s just not what I’m doing here. I try to gesture at some of the major exceptions to the ‘rules’ or ideas I am laying out, and I also try to flag quite clearly the date-brackets of any systems I discuss for this reason.

(If for some strange, insane reason you do want to reach my actual scholarship and you have access (usually via a university) to ProQuest, my dissertation, “The Material and Social Costs of Roman Warfare in the Third and Second Centuries B.C.E.” exists there in all of its 788-page glory (or infamy). I hope to have more of my actual scholarship in print in the coming months and years – I’ll post where it can be found as that happens).

My research specialties tend to inform how these posts are focused chronologically and geographically. I ‘do’ mostly the economic and military history of the Roman world (particularly these days the republic (509-31 B.C.) but my interests range all the way through the empire). I’m also trained as a military historian more generally and I have a fair bit of coursework and background in the European Middle Ages as well. That means my areas of best knowledge tend to radiate out – both chronologically and geographically – from the Mediterranean Sea in those periods. The further away I get – especially geographically – the less familiar I am. That isn’t to say that other parts of the world aren’t important, they are, just that I don’t happen to study them as closely. Yet.

That, in turn, means that what I say on the blog is likely to be most true nestled in and around the Mediterranean, and probably pick up more and more exceptions as it moves out. When I know that another region of the world is different (for instance, rice cultivation in the Lonely Cities posts), I’ll say so, but there will be times when I don’t know – no one can know everything, after all. If you do know, feel free to chat about it in the comments, but as always, be polite and respectful.

Second: These posts are typically broad overviews of much more complex topics. If you are more interested in them – great! This is why I point to a handful of useful works on the topic in most posts. There is always more detail to be found in those books (although some of them can be quite hard to acquire without access to a university library – but, neat tip, many university libraries (should you have one locally) do offer the option for folks unaffiliated with the university to get access for a fee, often quite low. This frequently includes access to the ILB (inter-library borrowing) system, which in turn can get you almost anything).

Finally a corollary to this for any and all of the students out there: don’t be using my blog (or any blog, really) as a source for your school paper. I don’t want to hear it from my colleagues or see it in my own classes. Instead: follow my sources, go to the library, read the books I cited, and then cite them, because they’re the actual original research. When I note other works, I always provide author, title and publication year, which is plenty enough to track down the work. This is the essential task of research – running facts to ground and seeing what they are based on – that you are supposed to be learning in your history class.

Coming Attractions

As I noted on twitter, I’m am always open to folks suggesting new potential topics for the blog. Feel free to @me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) or throw a comment on a post (like this one!). Here’s what I’ve got coming up in the relative near-term:

  • Lonely Cities, Part II. This Friday’s Collection Post, looking at how our ideal city from the first post changes as we add more layers of complicated terrain to it.
  • Gondor Heavy Infantry Kit Review. Probably as a New Acquisition, this week or (more likely) next.
  • Command and Chaos. Not sure if this will end up as one post or a few, but the idea is to explore the difficulties of command before (and even with!) radio, compared to the sort of instant, frictionless command and control in most video-games.
  • War Elephants. By request, a look at war elephants. This is a bit further off, because I need to re-read a few things. We’ll talk battlefield role, but also logistics concerns and compare to how war elephants function in film (esp. LotR) and games (Total War and also Imperator).
  • A look at the units of Total War: Rome II and their relative accuracy, also by request. Probably a two-part post (part I on the units themselves, and part II as a kit review).
  • What does an Academic Historian Actually Do? I’ve gotten this question in a few forms, and its worth answering. Probably as a Miscellanea ‘fireside chat’ like this one.

More distant, but on the to-do list:

  • How expensive was armor
  • Kit Reviews:
    • Rohirrim, Lord of the Rings
    • Northern Soldiers, Game of Thrones
    • Golden Company, Game of Thrones
  • Helm’s Deep, done in the fashion of the Siege of Gondor posts.
  • Likewise the Battle of Five Armies
  • Worldbuilding advice: How to make farms and farmland that works
  • Worldbuilding advice: How to make a Greek/Roman style paganism that works.
  • Battlefields after a Battle: What does it look like after the battle has been fought?

I also may do more of these sorts of very informal ‘fireside chats’ under the Miscellanea heading, though do not fear: there will be no personal oversharing or politics on the blog. Though, if I go to historically interesting places (I am a sucker for touring forts and museum ships), y’all may get pictures.

Again, if you have a request you want me to handle, go ahead and throw it my way. The best suggestions come with either a pop-culture ‘hook’ (a scene or sequence or what have you that you have questions about) or a historical topic, or (ideally) both.

Obligatory warning: My life runs on the school-year schedule, since I teach at a university; both the Fall Semester and the Academic Job Market Season (more on both of those in the future) are fast approaching. That may mean a somewhat slower pace to new posts, although I promise there will always be something on Fridays and all new posts will get announced via my twitter.

And that’s it for this chat. This project has been more successful in the first couple of months than I ever expected it would be (seriously, I figured I’d have maybe 100 unique visitors per month; I typically have that in a day, it’s madness) and I’m excited to keep it going.

10 thoughts on “Miscellanea: A Brief Discussion of History and Scope, or What Am I Doing Here?

  1. First of all I have to say your blog is the best thing I stumbled upon lately. As a avid Rome 2 Total war player I full heartedly recommend you check out the Divide et Impera mod which tries and in my opinion succeeds to give a more realistic depiction of the era as far as the game engine allows. Looking forward to your blogs, I dont know which of the new topics is more interesting!

  2. Re: Coming Attractions: Command and Chaos, I’m curious if you’ve ever played or heard of Waterloo (1989, DOS/Atari/Amiga)

    It’s the only game I’ve heard of that actually DOES “explore the difficulties of command before (and even with!) radio, compared to the sort of instant, frictionless command and control in most video-games.”

    I read about it in an article from Rock Paper Shotgun quite a while back. https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/05/23/heavily-engaged-waterloo/

    From Wikipedia:

    “The player’s knowledge of the progress of the battle is limited to what he can see from a fixed low angle from behind his lines, and the reports of subordinates. The player may move around the battlefield to better observe events, but risks death or capture if he approaches too close to the front.

    The player is not permitted to micromanage the movements of individual units, as these are not under his direct command; instead he must give orders to subordinate commanders who interpret them according to their own judgement. A subordinate commander will ignore an order he considers unfeasible.

    Orders are issued using natural language commands reminiscent of adventure games. “

  3. Hi Bret, I just want to say thank you for this work, now I can have a better knowledge of all this interesting topics.
    Keed with the wonderful job, and hace a nice day.

  4. Hello Bret, I subscribe to what Sam F, said.

    Very insightful and enlightening post.

    I´d like to know your opinion on the accuracy of units and their general ambientation for the most detailed Rome Total War mod I have played: Europa Barbarorum (1) for the old Rome TW. There´s also EB II for R:TW 2 but I haven´t had the chance to play. I don´t know if you´re familiar with them or not.

    Cheers from Spain!

    1. My plan was to look at the Empire Edition version of Rome II’s base game’s units, for the Roman faction in particular. There are a lot of mods out there – EB and Divide et Impera both come to mind – and these posts are often tough enough to put together without creating a sort of moving target of dealing with the mods. I also think – if I’m going to criticize someone, it seems an awful lot fairer to direct that at the professional game design team with the multi-million dollar budgets than a band of dedicated modders.

  5. Thank you for the excellent material Bret. After reading up through your November 2019 posts, I realized that there was one broad topic that I’d particularly like to hear from someone about: I’ll try to call it “pre-logistics”. For example:

    – Civilization games have iron deposits as a strategic resource, but also some guy can just cook iron out of red river muck ( https://primitivetechnology.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/iron-prills/ ) and copper and tin for bronze seem to be in relatively limited locations ( https://www.e-education.psu.edu/matse81/node/2122 ). Niter/Saltpeter has been a strategic resource only sometimes. What resources were considered strategic prior to like 1750? Big trees for ships? Elephants (RE: war elephants)?

    – Many pre-gunpowder RTS games (e.g. Age of Empires) have players stockpile wood, food, and more resources, but what did people actually stockpile for use in future years (not just days or months)? Especially, what would the near-universal “food” (apple, meat, bread, or cheese icon) stockpile have actually been? Do certain grains (or pre-ground flours?) keep better than others?

    – Lords of the Realm 2 let me stockpile weapons. Did kings stockpile weapons above and beyond what the standing army might need a few extra of? If so, then at what scale was the stockpile (e.g. a cheap sword and shield for every 2 male serfs in the kingdom)?

    – How much did seasons matter to military planning and what did that look like? What potential game mechanics might games be missing out on by largely ignoring seasons?

    – In the age of steam power, the British Empire established coaling stations across their empire. Did any older groups do something similar with different resources?

    – You mentioned the importance of not just food but of fresh water to army supply when talking about elephants in war. What did ancient military water management look like? Did that drive a need for maps of adjacent areas? How *did* ancient armies know where they were going before the left?

  6. June 2020, a friend recommended the site to me for the critique of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Since you focus on Roman times and I’ve often wondered if this was true, did Romans actually decimate legions that did poorly on the battlefield? Just seems like a waste of trained soldiers.

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