Fireside Friday: March 13, 2020

Welcome! Fireside again this week (but Collections next week!). Pull up a chair.

The Classicist in his natural environment: hiding behind a small mountain of Loebs, OCTs, Teubners and Cambridge Green-and-Yellows. I actually don’t own any Budés, which are much like the Loebs, but in French (published by Les Belles Lettres), but they’re also very good.

First, an announcement combined with some musings. The announcement: I’m starting a Patreon for the blog.

The quick tl;dr:

  • The blog remains forever free and open to the public and keeps updating on schedule.
  • Patrons get a monthly update on my academic research. There is only one tier.

Now let’s start with the obvious things: the blog is going to stay free and open to the public. My purpose here is to (in my own small, pedantic way) help educate the public and improve historical literacy and hopefully we all have some fun along the way. I can’t do any of that behind a paywall, so this blog will never be paywalled. And no one – no one – should feel the least bit bad remaining a reader if they’d rather not contribute.

Folks who do opt to become ‘Friends of the Pedant’ (amici paedagogi in Latin) will get a once-a-month update on my current research and writing. I’ve set the ‘tier’ of that at $3.50 US because that’s about what it’d cost to buy me a chai and have me chat with you about my research in person; it seemed fitting. Initially, it’s going to be a short written report (the first one is already up), but I may shift to an audio or video recording once I get more familiar with the tools (which I have to do anyway, as my institution just went all-online due to the current pandemic). For now, I’m holding off on any kind of patron-only discussion forum, because I don’t want to split the community and fracture some of the really good discussion that is happening in the comments here. I have no intention of adding additional tiers above the basic one; if I add other Patreon features, it’ll be the same for everyone. And again: no part of the blog proper will get moved into Patreon.

Now the why of the Patreon leads neatly into my musing for the week. Because you may be thinking “wait, I thought this fellow said he had a day job” – and I do! I teach history at a university! But it does not cover my research or projects like this. But this is a good time to talk about the contingent/non-contingent divide in academia, which I have wanted to do for a while. So let’s do that (what I’m going to say here is mostly about the United States’ universities, so I’m going to use that terminology; academic titles differ country to country):

When most people think about professors, they are thinking about tenured or tenure-track (TT) professors. In the USA, generally, tenure-track professors (those who will be eligible for tenure at some time in the future) have the job title of assistant professor. Academics with tenure are typically associate professors or full professors. What all of these have in common is that the professor’s salary and workload assume that they are being paid both for their primary teaching responsibilities, but also some amount of research or public outreach. It’s a whole package. How much teaching and how much research differs substantially institution to institution.

Then you have contingent or (more commonly) adjunct professors, who are not eligible for tenure. Mostly these are early career academics still looking to land a permanent tenure-track position. Now I want to be clear here: adjuncts almost always have PhDs – the days when it was possible for people to land even these jobs without a completed dissertation and a finished PhD are long over. Most students have no idea their instructors are adjuncts which – given how poorly many institutions treat their adjuncts – is often damned heartbreaking.

Universities have realized that ‘adjunct’ has a negative ring to it, so they call these folks (which, as you may have grasped, includes me) all sorts of job titles designed to disguise that fact (mostly from prospective students and parents). The most honest of those (and, in my opinion, the best) is “Visiting Instructor” or “Visiting Lecturer,” but you’ll see all sorts of permutations of ‘visiting’ or ‘teaching’ faculty. In job postings, the most substantial of these positions (with a full teaching load) are often described as ‘Visiting Assistant Professor” (VAP) – but note that visiting in the front essentially invalidates the two words that follow it: a VAP is an adjunct, not an assistant professor. They’re just an adjunct with a full load (and maybe benefits, but often not).

Now, the exact arrangements for these sorts of contingent positions vary wildly, but as a rule (again, there are exceptions!) as a rule, adjuncts are paid for their teaching on a class by class basis, essentially as contract workers. They often don’t get benefits (like health insurance, or even an office in some places!) or any kind of job security – the positions are frequently year-to-year or even semester-to-semester. Crucially, while adjuncts are often expected to discuss their research during the hiring process and frequently aim – as I do – to continue with it during their adjunct job, they are not paid for the research they do and generally do not recieve the sort of institutional support which would enable an active research agenda (funding, sabbaticals, etc). They are paid to teach classes and pretty much only teach classes. It is not an ideal system.

(I’m intending, probably as we get closer to summer, to do a short post-series covering the entire academic life-cycle, along with what exactly an academic historian does all day. The popular image that we’re all just hanging out, smoking pipes, drinking wine and having deep thoughts is not very accurate.)

Which brings us back around to the Patreon. I am currently (as I write this) teaching as a Visiting Lecturer, which is to say, an adjunct. Now, I want to be clear that I am not beating up on my current institution here. I actually think the department I am currently in has been very good with my appointment here – it was extremely useful for me (for reasons I won’t get into). But they aren’t paying me for my research or for this blog.

Which is why I’ve gone ahead and opened the Patreon, which is intended to fund both the blog and also my research. The blog itself will remain completely free and open to the public and I place no burden on any reader to contribute financially. If you do want to help out this project, but don’t feel comfortable being a patron (absolutely fine, I completely understand), please help by sharing the blog. I get all of my readers through word of mouth – I don’t advertise or search-engine optimize or anything like that. I rely on y’all to spread the word. So I appreciate tremendously how y’all have built my readership over the last several months. This blog has always been about sharing my little academic world more widely and the opportunity y’all have given me is really tremendous. Thank you.

On to the recommendations!

First off, I want to highlight this podcast from February at War on the Rocks about landmines. There’s a lot of good discussion here focused on a recent policy change in the United States concerning landmine usage (which I won’t get into), but what I thought it really brought out in an interesting way was how doctrine shapes usage. There’s no question that landmines work generally, but Luke O’Brian makes some really interesting points about how landmine usage interacts with current American land warfare doctrine and raises the question of how well landmines work within that doctrine.

From the HEMA-enthusiast community, I want to recommend Matt Easton’s two recent videos on the Roman heavy javelin, the pilum, both his mini-documentary on the weapon and his video showing some of his real-world tests. A lot of youtube takes on ancient weapons tend to be unmoored from the ancient evidence, but Easton here is quite on-target, I think, as to the current state of the scholarly understanding of this weapon. He is – like most popular material on the Roman army – more focused on the army of the Empire (for instance comparing the pilum to the lancea, its imperial contemporary, rather than the hasta velitaris, it’s republican era equivalent) and I will admit, some of the artistic reconstructions in the images are a touch off-target. But overall, it’s a good summary of an odd weapon that captures our current understanding of it quite well.

For a book recommendation this week, I’m going to shift over to my other research focus, the ancient economy and suggest Paul Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire: A Social, Political and Economic Study (2009). It’s on the pricey end, but well worth it. What I find most to recommend in this book is how it works to reorient our thinking towards subsistence and agriculture and the concerns that would have dominated the day-to-day lives of nearly everyone in the ancient world. Even the mega-wealthy elites generally had their wealth in agricultural land and even the emperor could not afford to ignore the grain supply. Erdkamp is a skilled but also very careful scholar and is very deliberate in his approach, avoiding speculation and sticking to what we can know. The first three chapters, which get into the experience of the small farmer, are especially indispensable.

Next week, we’re going to take a brief look at chemical weapons and ask why the top-tier military powers no longer use them. Is it moral compunction? Or efficacy?

20 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: March 13, 2020

  1. Speaking of throwing weapons:
    Matt Easton is fun, but he’s a bit of a chatterbox. He rarely makes a video shorter than 15 minutes.

    I want to recommend this video by Adam Celadin, a throwing weapons maniac who won many international competitions. His enthusiasm is contagious.

    Throwing Weapons vs The Most Impact Resistant Police Riot Shield In The World

    He’s NOT into HEMA or history, but this video in particular gives great insight how good various types of weapons are at beating armor. For me the highlight was that a war hammer is amazingly effective, especially if you use the spike side. It was really the specialized ‘anti-tank’ weapon of the medieval era.

    Also one thing about HEMA is that they consistently don’t practice with maces or axes – even dull ones are too dangerous and no amount of padding makes it safe.

    If anyone is interested, I can provide videos which show how surprisingly effective slings are (with kinetic energy measured!). Some sources claim that slings are in many ways a superior weapon (damage, effective range) but much more skill-intensive (you need to be training since childhood), ammo is heavier and not standarized (less accurate) unless you manufacture sling bullets. And when you start manufacturing them, you lose one of more interesting advantages, namely “ammo is everywhere”. That said, lead has amazing density so it can really pack a punch in a way an arrow can’t. One commenter said Roman doctors had special tools for extracting sling bullets from wounds. Fustibalus (staff sling) is more accurate and powerful because of a more controlled release and mechanical advantage, but slower to reload and takes two hands so no shield. Also I imagine bows are easier to use in a tightly-packed formation.

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    1. By the way, the video above featured a Roman plumbata. That’s not something you see every day.

      Anyway, these and other examples suggest that the deadliest missiles are those which combine big weight with a narrow tip (or blade)*. A brick looks scary but is a spectacular failure against a shield. A throwing spear is probably the best compromise: a missile weapon you can use while still wearing a shield. If a thrown axe needs to be thrown spike side for best result, you may as well make a weapon that’s all spike. I wonder how exactly Frankish thrown axes (Franciska) were used that they liked them so much. I used to think it was the overhead, 2-handed throw, but Wikipedia cites a source that says they were used with a shield.

      * which is why medieval crossbow deadliness is a myth. Crossbow bolts had to be thicker, because they were shorter. Otherwise they would break from the force of the shot. Thicker means higher air resistance and worse penetration. Medieval metallurgy was mediocre, so long, flexible metal (crossbow) bows were not possible, and not depicted in art etc.

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    2. One notes that for wood-chopping purposes, dull axes are the dangerous ones. Too much danger that it will bounce off wood and hit legs.

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      1. @Mary

        Good point, it’s been a while since I had an axe in hand. You may want to check out “Navigator” with Buster Keaton.

        People sometimes say an axe could be better for destroying enemy shield. I think it’s dubious, Skallagrim’s video on youtube shows how much effort you actually have to put through to destroy a thin wooden shield. If you approached each enemy this way, you wouldn’t last through battle even if all you had to deal with was exhaustion and blisters. An axe heavy enough to chop wood effectively would be unwieldy, too much of a disadvantage against people using lighter weapons like swords or (two-handed) spears.

        Some people actually preferred soft wood (pine, etc.) shields precisely because enemy weapon may be stuck in it, and a couple of seconds needed to take it out is an eternity in a fight. Better reach for a backup weapon.

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      2. To the point that soft wood “traps“ an axe, Im well aware that a sharp axe on rotten wood is frighteningly unpredictable.

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  2. What is the main topic of your current research? I’m not asking for you to post the patreon post in the comments here, of course, but it’d help knowing what the research is about to decide about participating to the patreon.

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    1. Fair enough.

      My research tends to focus on the question of how Roman armies were financed and equipped during the initial phase of Roman overseas expansion in the Middle Republic (c. 300 to c. 100 BC). The big project I’m working on is on the relative cost of Roman arms and armor when compared to other contemporary Mediterranean states (Carthage, Seleucids, Antigonids, Ptolemies, etc). But that also gets me into questions on the productivity of farming (because they’re paying for all of this), the cost of other kinds of warfare (naval warfare especially), or questions about individual pieces of equipment (introduction date, morphology, cost, adoption, use, etc).

      So more broadly, topic-wise, I think I’d say “the Roman economy and military of the Middle Republic.”

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  3. One thing I would find useful (and which is ill-supported by the blog format and most blogging tools) would be a collected list of book recommendations. I average buying (and usually reading) 30-some books/year and when I’m in the mood for history stuff, it would be nice to have one place to hit, rather than having to search across multiple posts.

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    1. I can do that! I’m a bit busy today and the next few days (my university is going all-online due to COVID-19 and that’s creating some chaos), but I can create a tab up at the top to collect all of the book recommendations!

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  4. I read some discussion on a forum that lorica segmentata, the iconic Roman armor known from Trajan’s column wasn’t actually that great at protecting. Legions also widely used lorica hamata (ring mail). People argued that the main advantage of segmentata is it’s… cheaper and faster to produce, and can be assembled faster. Hamata (ring mail) took a lot of time to put together, but it was more reliable and easier to maintain as rings would rub against each other and remove rust. Also, ring mail is more flexible and easier to cover most of your body with. Does that sound plausible to you?

    I know Byzantium had two distinctive kind of forces: front line legions with better equipment and training, and border garrisons in castles which were meant to repel weaker attacks and stall bigger ones by harassing them and threatening supply lines. Maybe the Western empire used segmentata and hamata in simialr ways? Hamata for long distance campaigs. Roman legions were famous for their artisans and engineers, but could they craft a segmentata on the road?

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      1. Speaking of the Hamata and Segmentata, how would the Lorica Squamata fare? I have heard pretty poor opinions of scale mail technologies online, but it seems to be somewhat similar in principle to a later brigandine or a coat of mail, and from your blog those appear to be good protection.

        I’m frankly surprised that the Segmentata could be poor protection. Unless the Romans used poor quality iron, that stuff looks almost like a prototype of some aspects of 16th century almain rivet in terms of design and I admire their helmets.

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      2. @Thematus

        At one point I realized I don’t know what the advantages of scale mail are, and for a typical European it’s one of the more exotic armors. It was used in antique, also by some steppe warriors. Here are my findings:

        Scale mail in general was an early invention, to the point that there were bronze versions. It’s flexible, but not as flexible as ring mail. Scales are attached at the top and may be “flipped over” by an upward strike, or the blade may hit the edge of a scale. Because scales are pretty big and attached to a line at the top, it’s a bit unreliable – it depends where the blade hits. Russians continued to use them and made improvements, like different attachment methods. Skallagrim on youtube has some videos hitting a scale mail.

        Lamellar is made of small plates that are attached to each other, not just on top but also on bottom. Brigandine also has many small plates, but the crucial difference is they’re not attached to one another, but instead to heavy fabric which is the main material holding it together.

        Segmentata looks impressive and maybe it was part-time parade armor. I mean if it impresses us, it must have impressed and intimidated ancient peoples too. But it has weak spots, perhaps more that a ring mail (hamata) would have. It’s held together by hinges and leather bands. A blade can hit a hinge or a strap and maybe it won’t destroy it, but it adds up over a few battles. Force of blow is not evenly distributed.

        It’s dangerous to go into too much detail when it comes to a type of armor, because many armor and weapon names are neologisms. Weapons and armor often had many variations and names. The most suspect armor types are: leather armor, banded mail, chain mail (it was called ring mail or maille). Bret also made a post about flails which apparently didn’t exist. Plenty of D&D equipment types.

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  5. It’s a crying shame that adjuncts are treated as poorly as they are for the amount of work that they do, and I’m glad that your department is treating you well. Judging from your posting, your research must be top quality. Pardon me if this sounds like an idiotic or bizarre question, but are Visiting Assistant Professors/Lecturers/Instructors ever unionized when it comes to defending their pay and benefits? I have heard of universities in Massachusetts and New York where they are, but I scarcely believe that applies to the whole of the United States.

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  6. I had a freeing who went through adjunct thing. He did a post-doc where he got his degree and then a local college offered him a visiting professorship. They told him that they would be posting new tenure track jobs soon. The next Spring they did but none of them aligned with his field. He then got a post-doc at an Army lab and was told that they would convert him to permanent but after two years it was still just promises. I finally helped him get a permanent position at the lab where I work. Part of his duties are teaching graduate classes at the graduate school our HQ stood up (about to be accredited).

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  7. So, basically modern riot police need to look out for Roman Legionaries, Samurai, and Medieval men at arm’s? 😆

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