Collections: A Trip Through ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad (Victory Songs)

This week we are taking another trip through a medieval author, but quite a bit earlier – the end of the sixth century – and quite a bit further east: the Ethiopian-Arab warrior-poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad. This trip ought to be ready closely with the one that is going to follow it (Bertran de Born, I flipped the order from my original intent). The similarities in values and vision between Bertran and ‘Antarah – both mounted military elites singing (with a mind to performance) about the experience of battle – are really striking, given the vast chronological, geographic and cultural gulf that divides them (though they are hardly identical). But perhaps even more striking than the connections between the worlds of these elite cavalrymen is the vast chasm that separates their view of war from our own.

And that’s what we’re going to look at today: how the poems of ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad express a set of martial values and how we can read a text like this to tease out a worldview and value-system.

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Finally, I suppose I must say before we begin – because this point is so frequently misunderstood – that we are reading these sources for the understanding, not for the endorsing. I do not share ‘Antarah’s valuation of war (or for next week, Bertran’s either) and even within the martial space my sympathies are more often with the stoic valor of the common infantryman – entirely absent from ‘Antarah’s poetry – than the cavalryman’s dash that he exhibits so strongly (a preference perhaps not surprising for a Roman-specialist). But all of that is quite beside the point: the question is how people in a particular era of the past thought, not if I – or anyone now – agrees with them (to preempt the question – if you are curious about Roman military values, the best place to begin is J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts (2005)).

(This is, I think, the same species of blockheadedness that assumes that military historians study war because we like it, which is a bit of asinine stupidity that I still encounter from members of the academy from time to time. Every modern military historian I know studies war for the same reason that doctors study illness: not because we like it, but so that we might have less of it.)

(I should also note: Thank you to the ISAW booth at this past SCS/AIA, where I acquired my copy of ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad, War Songs trans. James E. Montgomery & Richard Sieburth (2018). But for them, I would not have known this existed and could hardly have my own copy!)


The Author: We know a lot less about ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad (“Antarah, son of Shaddad” though it is not entirely clear if he is the son or grandson of this Shaddad; note that ‘Antarah’s name is often spelled Antarah (without the initial mark) as well) than we would like; he is an almost legendary figure as soon as he appears in our sources, roughly two centuries after he would have written.

‘Antarah was born a slave; his mother seems to have been a captive taken as a slave by his father from Axum. Our sources agree that ‘Antarah was black, born to a black mother, raised in the Arab Banu Abs tribe of his father. He lived in the second half of the sixth century and his skill as a warrior allowed him to win his freedom and even become a person of some import within his tribe.

Via Wikipedia, a manuscript illustration of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad. While Wikipedia gives no useful sourcing for the image, it is also the cover image of my volume of his work, which notes that it is a illustration from a 12-13th century Syrian manuscript of the Romance of Antar.

The quality of ‘Antarah’s poetry was likely recognized at the time, but it is after his death and with the flowing of high literature in the Abassid court that his poems and legends of his life enter the literary record, with ‘Antarah’ known as one of the three “Arab Ravens” of the pre-Islamic period – black warrior-poets writing in Arabic and within the Arab poetic tradition.

In the broader geopolitical background, we have to understand that the Arabia of the sixth century was a fracture-zone between dueling empires and collapsing kingdoms. To the north, the remains of the Roman Empire were formed into a wealthy, powerful and feisty Eastern Roman Empire by no means satisfied with ‘decline,’ which was engaged in a centuries long conflict with the Sassanid Empire, an aggressive, powerful and culturally vibrant empire. Both empires were multicultural and multi-religious, but with a single religious group running the show (Christians in the ERE, Zoroastrians in the Sassanid Empire) and both had a religiously based vision of universal authority which were fundamentally incompatible with each other. The Roman-Sassanid wars (note: I profoundly dislike Wikipedia’s classification, which splits Roman-Persian and Byzantine-Sassanid wars, rather than Roman-Parthian, Roman-Sassanid), running from 285 to the late seventh century. These were big wars in which both the Romans and the Sassanids used their wealth and power to recruit entire tribes of Arabs to fight for them, sparking continuous proxy wars on their frontiers. Meanwhile, to the south the decline of Axum in Ethiopia and Himyar in Yemen further stirred the pot and provided opportunities for raiding and further destabilization.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the situation c. 500 AD. This is mostly useful for a sense of where the Romans, Sassanids, Himyar and Axumites are, as my understanding is that political affairs within Arabia proper were far more chaotic than the neat four-state (Ghassanid, Lakhmids, Kindah, Hejax) distribution here implies.

In short, ‘Antarah lived during a period when the normal background hum of warfare between Arab tribes – which always a major facet of life – seems to have been accelerated by the violent context. The Arab tribes – while the term ‘Arab’ may date to the seventh century B.C., we should be cautious as the peoples of the Arabian peninsula who I will refer to here as ‘Arabs’ for simplicity went by a number of names and we should not underestimate the likely diversity within those groups – were a mix of nomadic Bedouin and groups with more permanent settlements (which gave rise to further conflict). Within that context, we see the emergence of a mounted warrior elite as the leaders of tribal groups, which might be based on kinship, but also on friendship or comradeship.

‘Antarah, from his humble beginnings, rose to be one of these mounted warrior elites by virtue of his own military skill and his poetry reflects that.

The Genre: ‘Antarah writes in a form of poetry called qasida. Like many poetic forms dealing with what a society views as ‘high’ matters, it is an elaborate form with a single meter (per poem) and lines that all rhyme on the same sound (as an aside, this is a rule I find generally applicable – with some notable exceptions – over multiple cultures – the topics that are most valued by the elite tend to get rigid, elaborate, difficult forms that speak to the high value placed on them, while ‘low’ or ‘common’ matters get flexible, free-flowing forms that facilitate more personal expression. Thus the contrast between Greek epic (high) and lyric (lower) or tragedy (high) and comedy (low); medieval high literature goes in Latin, but even in the vernacular, note the contrast between the chanson and canso (high-middle) and the sirvantes (middle-low). We do the same things in our own art-forms, of course: one does not film Dunkirk or 1917 the way one films Thor: Ragnarok or Deadpool.).

This kind of poetry was fundamentally oral when it began and was oriented towards performance, meaning recitation. The qasida revolved around the concerns of elite warrior-poets: manly virtue, honor, though also love and the fierceness of kin-bonds. Within that genre, the poems we are going to look at are victory songs – raucous celebrations of military success and the martial valor that earned it.

The Poems

(Trans. J.E. Montgomery and R. Sieburth, op. cit. Alas, my Arabic is very poor (I have a couple of semesters, but that was a long time ago and I was never very good then either), so I am working with this text entirely in translation. That caveat out of the way, I heartily recommend War Songs, cited above. These excerpts are just two of the 51 poems in the volume, and the introduction was also invaluable.)

“Damn the Ruins!”

Damn the ruins! Damn you!
Stop dwelling on the past again.
Damn you, stop all this talk – you
won’t ever get the sweet times back.
At al-Faruq we shielded our women,
trampled the locusts underfoot
when the armies collided.
“No retreat!” we swore.
“Our spears are from Rudaynah,
hard iron to make you whine
like dogs at the sight of vipers!”
You bolted, rumps in the air
like old camels sniffing a corpse.
Couldn’t you see-
our spears protect us?
You’re not going to drool
over our
soft-necked gazelles.
Still, Time
takes us all.

Death appeared.
I said to my men
“Whose up for a wager?
Who’ll face Death with me?
Turn your horses
the raiders are here.
Don’t let them win
the prize.” They met
warriors, not slaves
at al-Faruq.
We drive our horses
hard, their manes
matted like lice-ridden hair.
Come back for more
now that you know-
Time damns us all.

“The Battle of ‘Ura’ir”

The Battle of ‘Ura’ir was a healing.
Has she heard?
Can my soul ever be cured?
We came upon a mighty army
serried and drilled
bigger than a mountain
and digging the trough of war.
Our raid, a brutal storm of death,
ended their dispute.
Charges of Mashraf blades and pliant
Samhar spears
took them by surprise.

Nourished by grim battleswords
our wounds still fresh
we’ll never cede to our foes!
We line up our taut Radwa bows
grips groaning
arrows tapered
like tongues of Himyar leather.

Let Quda’ah revel in glory.
Our squadrons stand ready
In asquf and Rahrahan,
armor burnished
arrayed for battle
banners flapping
like vultures’ shadows.

The Battle Was a Healing

We cannot, so far as I know, connect these poems to any particular known battle. These are not the massive engagements of the great dueling empires to the north. The first poem seems clearly a smallish raid aiming to steal women and livestock (the former was clearly a constant concern: the possibility of the poet’s own wife being abducted should she neglect his war-horse forms a motif of a later song). For the latter, the site ‘Ura’ir is too far south (close to modern Riyadh, if I am reading the map correctly). Instead, these poems relate much of the endemic small-scale raiding and counter-raiding which defines non-state and proto-state warfare, especially among nomadic peoples.

Instead of looking at these poems as a record of a historical event, I want to read them as evidence for a system of values, the same way we read Dhuoda of Uzès. One easy trap for students of history to fall into is the assumption that people in the past share some key component of our values – typically because in our culture that idea is rarely seriously questioned. One of these ideas, which is has taken deep hold is the conviction that war is bad. In particular, the view that war both not only destroys people and things, but that it also fundamentally corrupts, leaving those who experience it fundamentally damaged in a way that requires healing, if healing is even possible.

(I feel I should note here that this is a view that I largely agree with: war really is bad. Especially modern war, with its much higher degree of destruction, but also pre-modern war. Much of the ‘nobility of war’ values that we’ll look at today and next week depend on a very narrow vision of humanity as we’ll see – one that excludes or devalues the non-elites who do most of the actual suffering and dying in most forms of pre-modern warfare. We’ll get more into that next week with Bertran de Born.)

But that vision of war as fundamentally a process of damage is quite modern; the current version of it is very directly a product of the literary and cultural response to World War I (compare a modern war song (because I will take any chance to plug bands from Virginia) which actually uses a lot of the same techniques of vividness and an implied listener, but to very different effect). That set of values (‘war is bad’) is contingent, a phrase we use describe things which are not, in fact, inevitable or universal (though they may so seem to societies where they hold) but are instead dependent on certain circumstances – and thus crucially, things which are contingent might well be different with a different set of circumstances, or a different time or different place.

For ‘Antarah, war is not damaging at all: it is healing and ennobling. War improves, rather than destroys. In the first poem, it is the experience of battle and the call to hazard, “Whose up for a wager/who’ll face Death with me?” which brings out the essential truth (a ‘time comes for everyone’ motif which opens the poem as the poet urges the subject – which in victory songs are usually the taunted, defeated enemy – to abandon their attachment to lost glories, “damn the ruins”) which in turn enables the brave nobility (“come back for more”) of the final line. Likewise, in the second poem, the battle is a healing for ‘Antarah’s soul; it also ends the dispute, causes revelry and the poem concludes with a description of the brilliant array of the cavalry, underscored by the brilliant juxtaposition of the shadow of the vultures who may feast on the corpses produced by this impressive array (which, in turn, echoes the ‘presence of death’ of the first poem).

Now, some of this we might attribute to the genre here: the victory song. These songs would have been performed by the poet and you want to imagine them in the context of that sort of (probably quite raucous) live performance; some of the verses seem like clear ‘applause’ or ‘cheer’ lines, with big defiant finishing flourishes. The implied subject of many of these songs is the defeated enemy, being taunted over his defeat – the songs revel in mocking a foe no longer present to make his reply.

And in that context, we might imagine ‘Antarah to expand his achievements and his own valor. If he felt terror in battle, or faltered that would hardly be an appropriate note in such a victory song. Yet, speaking for a moment from a broad reading of martial literature, even within genre constraints, such literature tends to embody the values of its society. If war and battle were viewed ambiguously, we would see it (consider the contrast with the ambiguity of war from the Iliad, a poem that, I think in the end, falls on the ‘war is good’ side of the line, but drinks deeply of the sorrow of war before getting there). For ‘Antarah, at least, war is not a complex, morally freighted thing – success in war is an uncomplicated good, and no pity or remorse is spared for the vanquished. This is not, I must stress, some sort of unique product of a non-Western tradition: we will see, next week, a medieval French (Occitan, to be precise) voice presenting effectively the same vision; the temptation to ‘orientalize’ this positive vision of war is a false one and must be resisted.

And yet, for all of that, it is hard to miss that for ‘Antarah – and indeed (as we’ll see next week) for a great many historical cultures, war and battle were thought of not only as normal, but as potentially quite positive things. Now, we need to be clear with that statement that this isn’t some sort of Star-Trek-Mirror-Universe society (though ‘Antarah is usually depicted with impressive facial hair…); it is not that all or even most violence is viewed positively. But within a certain set of socially sanctioned bounds – in this case, the seemingly endless space for violence created by inter-clan feuding – violence for ‘Antarah is not a regrettable necessity, but a positive, unalloyed good.

We Drive Our Horses

Also relevant is the kind of violence that the poet places value on. Because it isn’t just any kind of warfare that ‘Antarah celebrates: it is a very specific sort of warfare tied to a mounted aristocratic elite.

Through his poems, the ‘us’ alongside the poet is always mounted. Their weapons, when described, are typically brilliant, imported weapons from places of renown – Rudaynah and Samhar spears, Radwa bows with Himyar leather (none of these are places within the typical ranging of the Banu Abs). Elsewhere in the poems, ‘Antarah describes his coat of mail (somewhat rusted from heavy use), his own sword (“never dented or dull”) and other weapons. Such equipment (especially the mail, which was expensive) mark ‘Antarah and his companions out as a member of the warrior elite. These are not poor fighters, nor marginal ones. It is not hard to imagine why the even more rarefied warrior-aristocrats of the Abbasid court found this narrative to resonate so clearly.

Their station is contrasted throughout the corpus with slaves. Enemies meet “warriors, not slaves” as noted above. Elsewhere, a defeated enemy is described as grasping at spears like “a slave-girl gathering wood for a fire.” The possibility of the abduction and enslavement of the tribe’s women, in particular – but even of warriors like ‘Antarah himself – stalks many of the war poems. It seems a bitter irony that ‘Antarah, born in the slave’s lot nevertheless expresses no real empathy for them, but rather shows a sort of elite disdain for them – but that’s actually fairly common for slave-holding societies (cf. for instance the song of Gripus, the slave-fisherman in Plautus’ Rudens, where Gripus, imagining he has come into a great fortune, immediately thinks of the slaves he will buy once he is free; to add another layer to that, it is often thought that Plautus’ self-mocking name – it means ‘flat-footed’ – is indicative that he too, was a slave or a freedman). But it seems to me that the motif of the slave serves as the counterpoint for ‘Antarah’s warrior-elites. It is always worth remembering that these ‘chivalrous’ (a word quite a few commentators apply to ‘Antarah) warrior codes would never apply to most of us, but rather were meant for our ‘betters.’

Potential Anachronism note: this is an illustration from the 1568 Shahnameh showing the 636 Battle of al-Qadisiyyah which I am using to illustrate mounted warfare in the late 500s. The reticence of early Muslim artists to depict human figures makes finding period depictions of warfare very difficult.
But I think it does a great job of demonstrating how mounted military aristocrats tend to airbrush the infantry out of the narrative. Here we have what appears to be a near-total cavalry engagement – which it most certainly wasn’t, as both armies were mostly infantry by raw numbers.

In the same vein, it is not surprising that one specific kind of martial valor is commemorated here: that of the mounted aristocrat. The set of equipment and weapons is neatly consistent from poem to poem: the bow and spear, wielded from horse- or camel-back, the sword as a back-up weapon. As we’ll see even more clearly next week, elite military readers often minimize or even entirely exclude less prestigious warriors from visual or narrative commemoration; infantry do not vanish from the battlefields of horse-borne aristocrats, but they do vanish from their literature and artwork.

Likewise, the system of military values that ‘Antarah presents are themselves contingent on the kind of warfare is he elevating. It is the individual skill of the mounted warrior that ‘Antarah singles out for praise – not the clever general, or the careful organizer, or the stoic infantryman. Indeed, the cavalryman’s ‘dash’ often lionizes some things – the reckless assault, the swift and skilled feinted retreat – which would be cowardly or fatal to the infantry (and as a consequence are often not lionized by infantry-centric systems of martial values – the Greeks (e.g. Herodotus, Demosthenes) have unkind words for the sort of fighter with this kind of ‘dash’ who attacks and retreats readily). Reading war literature widely is a helpful reminder that there is more than one set of ‘martial values,’ despite the fact that writers within these traditions (and readers within ours) often represent this or that set of ‘martial values’ as universal.

What does ‘Antarah value in his mounted aristocrat? There’s little place for stratagem or the stoic courage of standing one’s ground here: all of the honor is in the attack, fearless and brutal. And while most martial systems value aggression (understandably!), here it is relatively untempered by discipline, unit cohesion, careful plans or doctrine. That isn’t to say it is unthinking – I’ve alluded to cavalry ‘dash’ as distinct from other martial values (that the courage demanded of a cavalry charge is not the same as that demanded of infantry made to stand under fire or to receive a charge) and this strikes me as being of a piece with that sort of ethos. At the same time, it is not the attack-and-retreat of the steppe – one poem concludes, “cowards run/I stand/my ground” and ‘Antarah at multiple points invites death over retreat.

Most of all, ‘Antarah values the attachment to his clan or tribal group. In one poem he defiantly concludes that, “My mother descends from Ham/but my father’s the finest of the clan!” contrasting the low birth of his mother high status of his father. The Banu Abs features frequently in the poems, it’s glory celebrated or its honor defended. Describing a victorious raid, ‘Antarah recounts “the swords of the ‘Abs/answered each other-/Indian blades severing skulls…” and elsewhere “In war my clan/are the finest riders,/gripping the reins/in the hands that killed/Laqit and Ibn Hujr,/Hajib and/the sons of Aban.” The ties of clan dominate the poems to the exclusion of all others, except perhaps the ties between ‘Antarah and his women (a topic of considerable interest on the corpus of poems in its own right; I cannot say I found ‘Antarah’s attitude towards any of the women, either of opposing tribes or of his own particularly endearing).


There is a lot more of interest in ‘Antarah’s poems. We have here, for instance, focused almost entirely on martial values at the expense of the other great theme of the work: ‘Antarah’s love for ‘Ablah. And there are running themes throughout the poems – the desert, the role of time (and its expression as death) and the promise of timelessness through deeds and song – which are obvious enough that I picked them up even as a non-specialist in this literary tradition and which would reward discussion in their own right.

At the same time, the values in ‘Antarah’s war poetry also echo in their own way. ‘Antarah’s poetry seems to have mostly lay dormant during the 7th and early 8th centuries, as pre-Islamic poetry was eclipsed by the emergence of Islamic culture. And then, in the Abbasid court of the late-8th and 9th century, it was rediscovered and included in the period’s growing interest in a pre-Islamic literary and poetic canon. Montgomery and Sieburth attribute this to the reemergence of clan rivalries with the collapse of unified Umayyad control – that the return to clan warfare suddenly made the bold, fearsome and fiercely clan-loyal ‘Antarah a relevant model of military masculinity in the Abbasid court (though subsequent generations of court scholars, they imply, become more interested in narrative as context to poetry and put more effort into trying to excavate ‘Antarah’s life from his poems).

Consequently, ‘Antarah’s poetry serves two purposes, casting light both on the culture that created it, but also the later culture that, having rediscovered his poems, deemed them worthy of commemoration – speaking to a set of military ideals. And for that reason (and several others!), the poetry of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad is well worth the trip.

58 thoughts on “Collections: A Trip Through ‘Antarah Ibn Shaddad (Victory Songs)

  1. Here’s one modern viewpoint. I can’t comment on veracity, but this veteran has a way with words.

    Either way, there IS something primal and morbidly fascinating about war. I know some very non-violent people, mothers, who are nevertheless very happy to see a war movie. Personally I think people have some kind of atavistic instinct and hunger for the macabre. Horrors and crime thrillers are very popular and often share the same rack in a library.

    Also, didn’t mothers take children to watch public executions in Middle Ages?

    Yes, the noble warrior elite was far from the typical case. But most people know all that, and still *choose* to read books and watch movies about rich people, be it warrior elite, mob bosses (*cough* The Godfather), CEOs, secret agents, astronauts, presidents, celebrities, top inventors, the elite in general. I think people like hearing a good story much more than they like hearing truth. If you tell them truth, they often don’t react with interest but with fast forward. People who like hearing truth are the exception.

    Why this is the case is probably not a question to answer for a historian, but for psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary scientists.

    It is widely understood that war is bad for business, and that bothers people more than loss of human lives. To paraphrase Bret Devereaux’s blog post about chemical weapons, war is officially condemned only because it’s comparatively ineffective. Ineffective at making profit.

    1. The Apollo astronauts couldn’t afford NASA’s life-insurance policy. Their elite status was wholly non-financial.

    2. “It is well war is so terrible, otherwise we might enjoy it too much.” said Robert E. Lee, who was in a position to know.
      And it’s not just men. I am a woman who has never been near a battlefield yet I can imaginatively empathize with every word in that Esquire article.
      Maybe it’s an unattractive trait but would humans have survived as a species if they weren’t capable of finding enjoyment in the intensity and mess of violent conflict?

    3. > To paraphrase Bret Devereaux’s blog post about chemical weapons, war is officially condemned only because it’s comparatively ineffective. Ineffective at making profit.

      I suspect judging wars by GDP returns is a rather modern, materialist perspective.
      Warfare has long been ruinous, but that did not stop people from engaging in it.

      1. Sometimes “ruinous for whom” is a key question. If it makes the leaders better off, that can “justify” a lot of suffering elsewhere.

        But there’s also whether war was always ruinous, or sometimes profitable, in a world where often people were cheap and land the limiting resource. Vs. the modern economy where skilled people and a stable society with good government are the overwhelming factors behind wealth, and war between advanced nations would destroy the only things worth fighting over.

        1. And whether short or long term.

          There are a number of cultures that did very well on plunder, but the thing is that you have to keep on plundering new lands because a land can not produce a new crop of plunder every generation.

          (Then there’s the view of the First Emperor of China that you should keep your country at war because being impoverished will keep your uppity subjects from getting interested in such things as rich food, rites, and filial piety.)

      2. @Mary


        Can you even successfully plunder in the bankpunk era? Pickpocket and old-school theft rates are down largely due to banks and credit cards. People used to keep valuables on them. Until recently at least, there were pushes to make all transactions cashfree. I remember Sweden being one of exceptions. Someone from the government said people should have at least a certain fraction of their wealth in cash because it helps prevent panic and chaos when a crisis strikes. There are wars on oil, but can someone enlighten me in what way a modern war can be profitable?

        Are there actually any futuristic fiction books which depict a society where banks and financial institutions took over the world, and state governments are just a facade? Sort of like cyberpunk, but with banks substituted for technology? The documentary “Hypernormalisation” gave me the idea.

        It will be fascinating to see if capitalism survives the covid-19 setback.

      3. @Borsukrates

        And don’t forget, lots of modern goods are designed to have poor durability. What’s the use to steal fancy clothes if they don’t last. Others become obsolete – a smartphone or a computer will not be worth much soon. Some others like cars require, I imagine, maintenance, spare parts and a lot of technical know-how.
        Another thing is outsourcing of service. Rich people can have servants anywhere they go, they don’t need to employ them full-time. My last boss used couriers for groceries.

        What is is that you’d plunder from people today if you were given a modern city, an army, and 3 days?

  2. “the Iliad, a poem that, I think in the end, falls on the ‘war is good’ side of the line, but drinks deeply of the sorrow of war before getting there)”

    Though contrast the shade of Achilles in the Odyssey:

    ‘“‘Say not a word,’ he answered, ‘in death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.’ – Butler

    ‘“‘Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
    Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
    Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
    A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
    A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
    Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.’ — Pope

    ‘‘Nay, speak not comfortably to me of death, oh great Odysseus. Rather would I live on ground[20] as the hireling of another, with a landless man who had no great livelihood, than bear sway among all the dead that be departed.’ — Butcher

    1. As an aside — notice that the worst condition he can think of is hireling, rather than slave.

      1. Pope does use ‘slave’. I’d assume that’s him being poetic rather than both other translators being squeamish, but I’m not in a position to be sure.

        Also unclear whether he views hireling as worse than slavery, or if it’s as low as he’ll go and being dead is better than being a slave.

        1. It’s hireling. The thing is, a slave was a recognized member of a household. A hireling was basically outside society.

      2. That’s intriguing.

        I’m wary of jumping to conclusions because it’s poetry and translated at that. But perhaps something to do with peace of mind? A slave at least knows his future pretty well. And it was a time where owning land was common.

        1. A hireling doesn’t even know if he can get hired tomorrow. And it was perfectly typical for a day’s wages to be just enough to pay for your support for a day. No chance to save!

      3. This conversation is giving me massive deja vu. I can’t remember whether it was a class I took, a book I read or some blog, but I remember being exposed many years ago to some analysis of this specific passage from The Odyssey and what it revealed about Greek values that being a hireling was worse than being a slave, and being dead was worst of all.

    2. I feel Achilles’ lament falls on the “death is bad” side, but does not carry over to imply that warfare is bad because of that. To contrast your quote, Odysseus immediately goes on to recount Neoptolemus’ brilliant successes in the war and his return unscathed with great spoils. At this, Achilles goes bounding over the feels with joy at his son’s glory. I wouldn’t read Achilles’ gloom as a lament of warfare, but a very specific lament of death, but with the joy that can be found in continued glory (either your fame, or the success and fame of your children).

    1. Of course, there’s other sorts of modern war songs.


      The band claims that they discuss war without glorifying it, but it’s hard to believe them sometimes. They do glorify those poor doomed Poles from 1939, and rightly so as far as I’m concerned. And they’re certainly willing to write anti-war songs sometimes too(See, for example). But it’s not universal condemnation.

    2. I’d love to hear more about Antarah’s unendearing attitude to women. I can easily imagine the general gist but the detailed implications would be interesting.
      For example, in the Iliad women are war booty, to be used at their captors’ pleasure. No surprises there. But was is surprising and fascinating is that no moral censure is applied to the women for being so used. There is no hint that they should prefer death to dishonor or are tainted in any way by whatever happens to them in captivity. Chryses knows his daughter has been raped, probably repeatedly, by Agamemnon but he still wants her back. And when she’s returned she takes up her life where she left off. She’s still an elite woman, still desired as a wife by elite men. Classical Greeks were outraged by the fact Helen is similarly treated. Menelaus takes her home and she goes back to being his honored queen, like nothing had happened. Captive women are clearly expected to swallow their grief for their former menfolk and be loyal, even affectionate, towards their new owners. In the unlikely event of rescue this behavior is not held against them by their original owners.

  3. Thank you for the introduction to a non-European author.

    I don’t think I’d agree that the Iliad comes down on the side of war is good. (That doesn’t mean it thinks war is bad, not in the sense that it’s advocating that conflicts should be resolved by other means.) It doesn’t end with the victors celebrating their victory. Even Sarpedon’s speech implies that military glory is not sought for its own sake.

    1. Of course, in what sense Ibn Shaddad is a “medieval” author is debatable; strictly speaking he’s no more medieval than he is Sui Dynasty, Sassanid, or Later Gupta Era—you almost might as well call him Middle Mesoamerican Classic Period, except that half of the planet had no influence on his society and what was going on in Western Europe only had almost no influence. The Middle Ages are a Western European historical era, not a universal one. (That phrasing is particularly obnoxious when applied to Japan, since the era usually called “medieval”, the Sengoku Period, is actually mostly Early Modern, purely chronologically—aside from the fact Japan no more has a Middle Ages than France has a Nara Period. Strictly speaking it doesn’t even have an Early Modern, unless “immediately after the Meiji Restoration” counts, because even “Modern” is a Western era that only tentatively applies to East Asia.)

      1. I’d argue that the Middle Ages as a period also has value when extended into the Middle East.

        Then again, if I had my druthers, we’d actually understand ‘Western’ history to concern the geographic unity created by the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia – Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and Iran to the Hindu Kush, but not beyond it. It’s the water-shed of Bronze-age Mesopotamian cultural influence (which, yes, reaches Europe through Greece), it is the land of the Heirs of Cyrus, Alexander and Rome (yes, including the Muslim world), the home of the three Abrahamic faiths.

        Consequently, I think they can share a broad periodization. Honestly, the end of the Middle Ages in both is pretty clearly 1400-1500ish, with the modern state emerging in both, from different vectors (rise of the Ottomans vs. reformation + Westphalia). But then, that’s me.

      2. If it comes to that I question the application of “medieval” to even the Byzantines. I think it may be what’s known in zoology as a “lumpers vs. splitters” debate.

  4. I feel like there’s an important angle on these poems that isn’t really discussed above – in brief, it’s the line from the first one of “we shielded our women”.

    They knew perfectly well that war involved death, and death was bad. But that’s not the whole story – there’s also the question of what you fight for. And while “women” is not a byword for “the defenceless” today the way it likely was in 6th century Arabia, it’s still generally considered noble to protect those who cannot protect themselves. (There’s probably a few pacifists who’d disagree, but not many).

    In a culture where enemy attacks are endemic, the need to defend the non-martial parts of your society will be so basic that they might be taking it for granted, instead of explicitly saying something that they’d find fairly obvious. And if losing means your culture’s women are kidnapped and raped, or your children slaughtered, or your livelihoods stolen, it’s no surprise that victory would be seen as glorious.

    1. Noble, or pragmatic?

      If your community faces an existential threat, the number of fertile women is the bottleneck, the limit of population growth. 20 men can impregnate as many women as 100. But a death of every single woman lowers growth.

      1. Why not both? It is noble to sacrifice yourself for the pragmatic benefit of those around you.

  5. I suppose you may get on to this next week but to what extent does a heavy cavalry ethos differ from a light cavalry ethos? It hadn’t struck me before that military ethos varies with favoured troop type. My impression is that European knights on warhorses did not engage in the feint and retreat tactics you describe for light cavalry or have an ethos that much favoured feint and retreat.

    1. Certainly the samurai being light cavalry (primarily; something like 70% of their casualties were from arrows) did not seem to affect the samurai’s obsession with dying in battle. It was shameful to survive a defeat, and especially so to outlive one’s lord unless explicitly commanded to do so, e.g. to bring news to an ally, or to testify to the lord’s real character in case he was slandered by successful rivals (there’s a specific word for the retainer who was ordered to do that, but I can’t recall what it is).

      Then again a dismounted samurai was basically heavy infantry, so maybe the generalizations don’t apply.

      1. “It was shameful to survive a defeat, and especially so to outlive one’s lord unless explicitly commanded to do so”

        How much is that true of the real fighting samurai, vs. the Edo period romanticisations of bushido by a bunch of bureaucrats?

      2. Well the concept of “surviving in dishonor” predates the Edo Period, as does the retainer being ordered to live on to tell his lord’s side of the story. It probably mostly applied to the actual “has a significant estate from the lord” higher-level retainers than to the rank and file bushi whose income was only enough to supply him while fighting for the lord (and might well just be a cut of the lord’s estate’s produce), but it was a recognized thing. The Edo Period romanticized and simplified a real concept.

        Long before even the Sengoku Era the samurai preferred to fight wars as a series of duels between officers of noble lineage—then came the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, which forced a more “realist” attitude on their military. (Though long before that the samurai had basically softened up each other’s battle lines with a series of archery volleys before the officers rode out to challenge each other—which kinda seems like an extra step, when they could just decide everything with duels between samurai champions and leave their footmen at home.)

        The biggest distortion introduced by the Edo Period was actually the idea the samurai were swordsmen, rather than archers—because the sword was how you fought those duels, which remained the most prestigious part of their job. (You see a similar though much less pervasive distortion in Europe, where the knight’s sword was the thing talked about even though he actually did his specialized job with a lance.)

      3. Based on “Samurai Warriors” by Stephen Turnbull, a lot of samurai weren’t that obsessed with dying in battle. It seems to have been more like the Vikings, it’s a good way to die for a warrior but living to enjoy the glory and rewards/loot isn’t so bad.
        In the 16thC civil war there were European Jesuit observers who were (usually) objective, as Christians fought on both sides. The Jesuits reported tactical withdrawals, routing troops being rallied by generals, and that in a thoroughly defeated army some would fight to the death, a lot would be willing to serve a new lord once the old one was dead.
        Of course, pragmatists don’t make good epic poetry 🙂

  6. If you look at the civil wars of the earlier period, or the wars that brought the Tokugawa to power, most of the combatants were peasants with spears or, later, musket-men. The samurai were officers and higher-grade troops (roughly parallel to the distinction between the feudal levy – the fyrd or ban – and the household retainers). I doubt they fought to the death.

    1. I would’ve said just the reverse, the samurai were the ones with personal loyalty to the lords, while the ashigaru were just conscripts fresh off the rice-paddies. Very likely many samurai didn’t fight to the death, but if anyone was going to, it would be them, not the people for whom a new lord just meant a different person they had to dogeza to as he rode by.

      Certainly in European feudalism I would not expect the levy to be the ones fighting to the last man in defense of their lord. And Japan, unlike Europe, had no real concept of “honorable surrender” (even if they didn’t always consider surrendering actually disgraceful), and had no established custom of ransoming noble captives back to their allies.

      1. Sorry – my mis-wording. By ‘they’ I meant the ashigaru. Many of the wars went on for years – even decades – and bred a mass of veterans inured to the field and eager for plunder. After the Tokugawa came to power a good many went overseas. They were a major pirate menace to the Manchu and took service in Thailand and with Europeans in Southeast Asia (Portuguese Malacca was defended against the Dutch by Japanese mercenaries in a lengthy and bitter siege)

  7. What’s the relationship between these elite warriors when they’re not actually fighting each other?
    IIRC during the early Crusades the European knights and local “Saracen” nobles got along fairly well when there wasn’t an actual war on. If Antarah had been invited to a hunting trip or something by the next tribe over, would he have accepted?

    1. Sure – the laws of hospitality were sacred (except for the numerous times they were violated, often with a knife in the back).

  8. I want to raise a possible difference in how a warrior-poet like ‘Antarah *might* have ‘recognized’ how the virtue of his martial performances worked (–maybe *made* as poiesis more glory and ‘good’). Contemporary literary theory (and post-war rhetorical studies) have emphasized that language has special active performative functions. Loudly screaming “Fire!’ in a crowded theater *makes* the audience evacuate. We understand this context of language use is conventional, practical, transactional. People move first and ask later because they know the drill, the procedure of warranting a panic. But I want to suggest that in many pre-modern societies, speech put out in the world is ‘recognized’ as being ontologically connected in the orders of how all other things truly interconnect. In many cultures, language invoked and caused real aspects of things to become present. Part of our modernity is to rubbish those notions as atavistic superstitions. But if you had a worldview that perceived that your personal limited significance and agency were important because they were inherent aspects of global hierarchies of truth and excellence, you might insist that honorable, elitist warfare was intrinsically great. Finding some explanations for why martial virtue has beneficial class and social outcomes might enhance a wise aristocrat’s awareness. But honorable combat would be inherently great–even if you didn’t figure out those consequences.

    From this old holistic perspective, powerful performance and vivid figuration wouldn’t just help bring triumphant battle to mind but would–by acknowledged but not fully explainable ways–embody, *body-forth*, what was invoked. So, when Brett suggests that “topics that are most valued by the elite tend to get rigid, elaborate, difficult forms that speak to the high value placed on them,” those aims make good sense to us. But to the long-gone warrior-aristo-poet, the truth might be that noble elite warriors are superior in themselves and are participants in trans-generational natural and supernatural systems of order (as in *kosmos*). Consequently, it’s expected that public performance of martial glory ought to astonish the aristocratic audience (often related to and thereby glorified by the poet’s memorializing fighters) with suitably complex, artful, decorous poems that we find rigid, over-elaborate, difficult, allusive, and pointlessly formal. It turned my brain when I encountered Quentin Skinner arguing (_Reason and Rhetoric_) that the rhetor’s incorporation of ‘ornatus’ wasn’t just bits of flare for grandiose public speech but the way a trained humanist agent demonstrated martial prowess in the affairs of the vir civiis. Well ornamented speeches *were* the sword and shield and fortified wall required to prevail in legislative agonism. That would be an old way of conceiving elite discourse and poetics.

    We’d know that’s . Words aren’t things. Sticks-and-stones . . . Language is representational. Argument is procedural and transactional. The pathetic impulses that motivate and manipulate audiences are irrational. Yet we still have lots of folks who’ll raise hell if you burn a tiny Chinese-manufactured nylon American flag in public. And many people gasp with taboo-horror (as well as incredulity) when the nation’s chief executive identifies himself with absolute monarchs. Those strong impulsive reactions we explain in terms of immemorial decorum are vestiges of our own sustained sense of integral orders that words can still body-forth.

  9. Mary, I read your observation about the implied subordination of “the hireling” to “the slave” and boggled, “That can’t be right!” But I think your reasoning’s super: the slave in this period’s domus might be the most marginalized member of the family, but the slave’s still ‘family’. Nice one. —So it got me thinking about when in it might have been that the employable but sturdy beggar took precedence over the hereditary servant and slave. I don’t know, but I highly recommend a quick read of Joseph Steele’s apology (*shudder*) for the liberatory temporary labor contract that abolishes the old mutual debts of landed obligation (In _The Spectator_ #174: Sir Andrew Freeport is quite the creative destroyer. I’m surprised he doesn’t tout the flexible hours as well.

      1. There is, also, proud people with the contrary point of view.
        Old spanish proverb: “Mas vale cabeza de ratón que cola de león” (Better to be a mice’s head than a lions tail).

  10. @Borsuckrates: You can’t have a ginormous, volatile bubble in predatory finances without something voguish yet ephemeral to get the punters. –“Are there actually any futuristic fiction books which depict a society where banks and financial institutions took over the world, and state governments are just a facade?” Probably lots, but, at this moment, William Gibson’s offered stubs played with all the Axe-scented obsessiveness of tactical board-game enthusiasts by a future Klept.

    1. After a trip to urbandictionary I still have a feeling I only half-understand your post. English is my second language.

      Anyway, my impression was that William Gibson’s corporations were more technical and less financial. The way they subdue people is through technology, violence, direct intimidation, and bribes. I perceive banks and financial institutions as spinning a web of lies, or confusing the hell out of people with layers of obfuscation, seeding apathy. It’s a form of confusopoly. I don’t know any examples of this kind of dystopia. The movie Brazil gets closer, but it’s more about bureaucracy than finance. Maybe the first scene of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life ;-).

  11. Much of the ‘nobility of war’ values that we’ll look at today and next week depend on a very narrow vision of humanity as we’ll see – one that excludes or devalues the non-elites who do most of the actual suffering and dying in most forms of pre-modern warfare.

    I wonder how common people felt about war in ancient times. It doesn’t take much imagination to suspect that a helot whose family was killed or taken by soldiers from a rival polis would be more pessimistic about war than their Spartan master, but what about that polis’s freedman artisans, politically powerless but also shielded from the effects of all but the worst of Greek wars?

  12. But that vision of war as fundamentally a process of damage is quite modern; the current version of it is very directly a product of the literary and cultural response to World War I

    From my more modern-centric studies: this timeline is true for Europe (especially Western Europe), but for the United States the transition came half a century earlier, after the Civil War. In proportionate terms, that war was as lethal in the US as the First World War was in Europe, killing upwards of 2% of the population. This difference was reflected on a mass basis in the widespread public celebrations in Europe when the war began, as opposed to the more somber attitude in the US.

    It’s also reflected on the elite level in the way that European states without a direct stake in the conflict of 1914 (e.g. Italy or Greece) actively sought out justifications (like irredentist territorial aggrandizement). When an opportunity for war opened up within that value system, they did indeed frame war as an invigorating experience and masculine rite of passage. American involvement, on the other hand, was founded right from the start on the idea of a “war to end all wars”, which European societies took years of trench warfare to adopt.

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