Hey folks! Fireside this week, but I promise we’ll see that promised addendum on pre-modern crucible steel and cast iron next week. In the meantime, as you are no doubt inescapably aware, the United States (where I live) is having an election. I mostly avoid politics itself on this blog and that’s something I intend to keep doing, but I thought that this particular moment was a good time to explain how my studies influence my own political thinking. After all, I went on about how “men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past” (Plb. 1.1.1), so with a momentous decision to be made, I thought I would talk about about how that ready corrective influences my own conduct as a citizen.
For those worried that this blog too will slip down into the grasping black hole that is American politics, worry note: this will not be a regular occurrence. As normal, I’ll have some recommendations on things to read and listen to (history and national security, not politics) at the end.
Also, in the name of my sanity, I am going to go ahead and disable comments on this post rather than invite an angry political discussion which might well lead to unkind words being said from one reader to the next (I am quite OK with people saying unkind words about me – I’m on twitter, after all – but I’d rather not have a civil war in my comments) or invite the swarm of internet trolls to descend upon our fair little community here. If you do want to discuss the recommendations, let’s all agree to go do that in last week’s post’s comments.
On with the show!
One thing that emerges quite clearly from a study of Greek and Roman antiquity is the intense fragility of self-government. That fragility is easy to miss in a modern context (to the point that it is occasionally argued that so-called ‘consolidated‘ democracies are self-sustaining) in part because the sample size is so small and recent, relatively speaking. By some measures, the United States is, in fact, the world’s oldest current democracy at just 232 years. In practice, the German democracy is about 65 years old (and only 30 years fully united); the Fifth French Republic is even younger, just 62 (though if we want to count from the beginning of the Third Republic, we get a more impressive 150 years). The great majority of democracies are even younger. Moreover, there just aren’t that many of them; the Democracy Index figures there are only 76 democracies currently, out of 167 states it tracks and that’s very near to the highest the number has ever been.
The ancient sample-set is much more robust! For much of the last millennium B.C., Greece and Italy (not merely Rome, but the array of other similarly structured Italic communities) were filled with small self-governing communities of citizens. I don’t want to get into the weeds of how democratic these states were, or their government structure, or we will be here all week. Needless to say, there is a very robust argument about that topic among ancient historians that continues to this day. What matters here is that these self-governing communities were just that: self-governing, with a citizen body that largely governed itself, by more-or-less democratic means in governments that were more-or-less republics (in our modern sense of the term).
And it is in observing that sample that it becomes clear that these systems of government can be very fragile internally. Patterns also emerge as to how such systems break down. The cycle of breakdown was sufficiently common that the Greeks had a nice, compact word for it: stasis (στάσις, pronounced STAH-sis, not STAY-sis. The nearest Latin equivalent is factio, but Roman authors – especially Cicero – also translate stasis as seditio). At its root, a stasis was ‘a standing’ (the ‘sto-‘ root to mean ‘stand’ is common in many Indo-European languages), but rather than our word stasis (from the same root) which meant a standing still, stasis came to mean a ‘standing together’ and from there a ‘faction’ or political party, and then ‘factionalism’ and finally from that meaning, ‘civil strife’ and even ‘revolution.’
Stasis began in the normal political rivalries and competition within the self-governing community, almost always, in the Greek or Roman context, breaking down on wealth and status lines, with the more numerous, but poorer, common citizenry pushing for a larger role and greater rights within the community, resisted by the elite who argued for the importance of ‘traditional’ government (which may or may actually have been traditional or legal – Roman aristocrats spent 133 BC arguing for their ‘traditional right’ to lease patently illegal – for once the Romans had written this law down – amounts of state lands at artificially low prices) and their own traditional prerogatives.
That said often – as with our current politics – those political factions were not as neat as that description suggests, with some wealthy elites allying themselves (cynically or sincerely) with the faction of ‘the People,’ while at the same time, a great many clients, middling farmers and regular people clearly supported the factions of ‘the few’ or ‘the best’ or whatever the more oligarchic faction called itself. After all, all of those optimates Roman senators had to get into the Senate (by winning election to at least the quaestorship) somehow; somebody voted for them! Thucydides, in describing stasis, makes it quite clear that members even of the same families might often end up on opposite sides of civil strife.
Of course, such negotiations of power are the basis of politics and were nothing new. What changes as a community lurched towards stasis was the steady erosion of the norms, traditions and simple restraint that made self-government possible. This process was obvious enough – with so many examples – that it is explained and discussed in a number of the ancient sources (most notably Thuc. 3.82-86, but note also Hdt. 1.59; Plb. 6.3.9-13; Arist. Ath. Pol. 2, 5, 13; Plut. Sol. 13, 29). Simply put, the two political factions would be locked in a cycle of escalation, neither willing to compromise but rather using the previous outrages of the other faction to justify the future outrages of their own faction. Thucydides notes how this had a sorting effect, “until even blood became a weaker tie than party” (Thuc. 3.82.6).
That escalation damaged the essential social trust that allowed the society to function (and violence damaged the prosperity which made competition even fiercer). The decline of trust makes the ‘trap’ of stasis self-reinforcing: as trust declines and more decisions are made as cynical calculations (Thuc. 3.82.1-3) it becomes harder and harder to broker a deal to end the strife that all sides will trust and respect, particularly because stasis tended first to cannibalize any moderate figures or factions. The endpoint, of course, was self-destructive violence as the last limits and norms broke under the weight of escalating competition. The most common result of that violence was the emergence of tyranny – one man strongman rule, although sometimes (typically with foreign support) one faction would ‘win’ and massacre their opponents – their usual reward was becoming an exploited puppet government to a self-interested outside power; they had merely exchanged a domestic tyrant for a foreign one. That ancient authors could present a system to stasis speaks to how relatively often it happened – from the sources it certainly seems like, with so many small Greek and Italian states, at least one of them was going through stasis at one point or another.
But in that large sample size, we also get a sense of what solutions succeed and what solutions fail to hold together a self-governing community in these sorts of pressures. Beset by repeated political crises from 494 to 287 (known as the Struggle of the Orders), the Roman Republic repeatedly survived and grew stronger through compromise and by constructive, inclusive redefinition of the republic to include a broader range of people (not merely the patrician elite, but also the plebeian elite). In no small part, that success seems to have been motivated by the avowed need of elite patricians for the support of the plebeian commons in order to campaign, since the plebeians made up most of the army.
In stark contrast, the effort by conservative (in the general sense, not in the American sense) elements of the Roman senate to ‘hold the line’ and permit no compromise on questions of land reform and citizenship in the Late Republic led quite directly to the outbreak of civil war in 91 (with the Italian allies) and in 88 (between Romans) and consequently to the collapse of the Republic. Initially, the influence and raw power of the elite was sufficient to squash efforts at reform (including the murder of some prominent reformers), but in the long run the discontent those crackdowns created laid the fertile ground for the rise of demagogic military leaders to supplant the Republic entirely, culminating in first Caesar and then Octavian doing just that. In an effort to compromise on nothing, the Roman elite lost everything.
The Greek experience offers a similar lesson. Thucydides presents a quite moving passage describing the destructiveness of stasis which stresses that – again and again, because this cycle repeated itself in many poleis, being a common feature of systems of self-government – efforts by one faction within a polis community to ‘win’ the conflict merely led to the decay of moderation and the laws; there were no victors in stasis, only survivors. The continued stasis was so destructive that ‘winning’ merely left the badly weakened polis easy prey for the malign influence of outside powers. It turns out the point at which you “get tired of winning” is roughly the point that your domestic stasis makes the polity so weak that you exchange domestic electoral opponents for puppet foreign governments.
Thucydides sees no escape from this cycle, but it could be done and indeed his own native Athens would do it in 403, restoring the democracy after a spiral of civil strife had led to a brutal oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian War (in a series of events too complicated to get too far into here). As Andrew Wolpert points out (in Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens (2002)) they did it through the combination of an amnesty for all but the very worst of the oligarchs (the aptly named Thirty Tyrants themselves), combined with a redefinition of the democracy which wrote the oligarchic faction out of the Athenian story, substituting in its place a constructive fiction that all of the Athenians had really been supporters of the democracy at heart, providing a way for even some collaborators with the oligarchy to reinvent themselves as Athenians loyal to the democracy. Which is to say, they do it through – wait for it – compromise and constructive, inclusive redefinition of the polity (combined with accountability for the worst offenders – which was also, by the by, part of the Roman Struggle of the Orders as well, e.g. the fates of Appius Claudius Crassus, Spurius Oppius Cornicen and the exile of the second decemvirite).
Which brings me back to the current moment in the United States. Everyone, I think, senses that partisan polarization and the general level of rancor in politics has been rising over time; dire warnings come from both the left and the right. We’ve seen scattered instances of political violence over the past year – it is not yet serious, but some groups are clearly preparing for more. I should note that this isn’t some claim that this is a ‘use it or lose it’ election, some last gasp before the plunge. To the contrary, I think it is precisely because American civic institutions still have some life in them, precisely because we are not yet to an extreme crisis point, that now is the moment to change course. Because, as Thucydides observes, as stasis progresses, it becomes harder and harder to stop, as the stasis weakens the very institutions that make compromise possible. It is thus important to act to arrest the rise of stasis long before the point of intense violence. It is important to act now not because we are in the crisis today but because we can see the crisis coming.
Yet it is easy to feel helpless or cynical in the face of this rising tide of distrust. But one of the points Wolpert makes most strongly is how the Athenians were able to escape this cycle through choice: by choosing, in their votes, in their legal and political speeches, in court decisions, in public pronouncements to reaffirm, again and again, their commitment to the democracy and the redefinition of the polity as one that supported democracy and self-government. The Romans seem to have done much the same during the Struggle of the Orders, though admittedly our sources for that period are thinner and more distant, so it is hard to speak with as much confidence.
Elections are not merely how people in a democracy choose policies. They are also how we choose who speaks for us and a vital part of how we define ourselves. It is, for instance, at this point incontrovertible that, whatever the preferences of others voters or even the candidate himself, a significant number of white racists voted for and promoted Donald Trump in order to make their ideology more mainstream (to be clear, I know my share of folks who voted for Trump in 2016; none of them thought they were voting for more open racism in America, but that does seem to have been the consequence). And it worked. Elections don’t merely change politics; they can change the culture. Wolpert observes the exact same thing about Athens – albeit in a far more positive direction.
Now events and simple luck can be fickle; the Romans – whose political system, like ours, asked the people to essentially chose between elites – lacked the option to choose compromise in the Late Republic. They had a choice between unbending conservatives like Cato the Younger, or grasping, cynical demagogues like Caesar and Pompey; one could only vote for the politicians available. But in the United States, we are in this moment possessed, I think, of a bit of fortune (the ol’ special providence) because we have a candidate running on almost the exact formula that a reading of the successful resolutions of ancient stasis would suggest – someone running not to ‘win’ the conflict, but to govern in compromise and coalition building, who redefines his coalition to include people who likely won’t vote for him, and who freely and directly rejects political violence and escalation, even from causes he supports. It is easy to suppose this is cynical, but politicians actually tend to keep their promises in terms of how they will govern more often than not. I think we ought to seize that opportunity.
In short, Joe Biden is running on a platform of compromise and a constructive, inclusive redefinition of the polity which explicitly welcomes past opponents to join him at the table. To me, reasoning from historical example, that seems like the correct answer to the current moment.
On the other hand, we have a different candidate (and current President) who is running on a promise to ‘win’ the stasis by main force, to dominate and to win, indeed, until he (or we) get tired of winning, to escalate the tensions to the final victory of the faction. This is exactly the approach that I think a sober reading of historical examples warns us is likely doomed to failure, regardless of what one thinks of the underlying policy aims (which might well have been achieved without the rhetoric and practice of escalation). I cannot help but think that, as happened in the last decades of the Roman Republic, rewarding this sort of rhetoric and behavior will produce more of it from both parties and put our republic on a dangerous path.
Of course, every American will need to make up their own minds on who to vote for (and all of my non-American readers, if they have slogged through this, have my permission to be more than mildly annoyed at how completely our politics dominates the internet). But I felt that seeing as how I have argued that the study of the humanities in general and of history in particular has been understood since the discipline began in Greece to be a school for training political thinking, I would be remiss if I did not present my historian’s perspective on our current moment. To me, we seem to stand at a moment where the most important question is not what sort of self-government will we have, but if we are committed – even to the point of sometimes sacrificing our preferred policy outcome – to having self-government at all. I see this as a moment where it is necessary for me to sacrifice my preferred policy outcomes to ensure the continued good health of a system that lets me have a say in politics at all.
And so that is how my study of ancient history is informing my vote this year.
On to the Recommendations.
Over at Tod’s Workshop’s Youtube Channel, Tod continues to have some of the best and more interesting archery tests using his ‘lockdown longbow’ (a crossbow designed to achieve launch velocities and energies equivalent to a 160lbs-pullback longbow). Lately he’s done a video testing three myths: that silk shirts could make arrows easier to remove (apparently not, though a test of multiple fabric layers more like a gambeson would be interesting), that arrows could be shot through 3-inch thick oak doors (only sort of?, but see his update on the point which offers more clarity) and that the arrow’s spin allow it to ‘drill’ into its target (nope).
Also in the field of ‘practical weapon tests done on video’ I want to recommend a pair of videos by Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatoria putting the Roman pilum (the standard javelin of the legions) to the test. The first video tested the pilum against shields, while the second tested it against various forms of armor. First off, actual pila may have been more effective – there is evidence that the Romans actually did use pila, at least in the imperial period, with hardened steel tips. Easton’s main conclusion – that pila were designed for penetration, both of shields but also of armor – isn’t exactly a major breakthrough (he is mostly testing the consensus view on the design – I suggested the same design considerations in my dissertation and I wasn’t being very original on the point). But seeing that penetration tested in practice is really quite striking, especially that the pilum absolutely penetrates a shield with sufficient force to meaningfully wound someone standing behind it.
One correction though – in the second video, Easton suggests that a good analog for the lorica segmentata would be ‘slaggy’ wrought iron. This is not quite right, as D. Sim and J. Kaminski discuss in Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Early Imperial Military Armour (2012), we should expect fairly low-slag iron or steel sheets produced by rolling, rather than hammering. The samples we have tend to be of more uniform thickness than is possible to produce by hammering and quite low in slag content (to the point that experimental archaeologists have struggled to get the slag content that low using traditional methods; Sim and Kaminski suggest several reasons for this, the most plausible of which, to me, is that slag was kept low in the bloomery process itself, possibly by use of a flux).
Also in the recommendations is the latest Net Assessment podcast, which deals with the (potentially boring) question of the U.S. Navy’s 2045 force structure proposal and the funding and technological questions that underlies those suggestions. While the lay listener may need to quickly wiki a few things (Bryan McGrath, the guest, has a tendency to refer to ship designations without glossing them, for instance), I think the discussion is relatively understandable even for those not deep in the weeds of the question. Modern naval strategy, because ships can take years to design and build, is built strategy which has to be decided on many years (or decades!) in advance in anticipation of future threats and mission profiles. This discussion provides a good surface-level summary of the considerations of funding, mission, technology and just plain politics that go into those assumptions and thus produce the force structure that a country might find itself essentially ‘stuck with’ at the start of a conflict or crisis.
Finally for the Book Recommendation, I’m going to keep on this theme of naval warfare and recommend what I think is one of the best books to start with in getting into a study of modern naval warfare: Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005). Now it may seem strange for me to recommend, as an introduction, a book about a single, specific engagement in the Second World War. But what I find so valuable about Shattered Sword is that it discusses every stage in the process, starting with the development of doctrine (the book is particularly good on doctrine) and how that (and other constraints) influences ship design, which in turn constrains operational capabilities which are then processed through a politics meat-grinder to produce a (deeply, terribly, incredibly) flawed operational plan. Because the book is focused on a single battle, those steps aren’t described in the abstract, but in the concrete, which I think makes it easier for a reader who isn’t deeply steeped in military theory to both understand the concepts and then see those concepts play out in the battle.
Which is not to say that Shattered Sword is, by any means, a simple or simplistic book. Parshall and Tully get into the details of fuel allowances, combat doctrine, air search patterns, the precise timing of spotting and launching carrier aircraft and the individual personalities and priorities of the commanders. This is a chunky tome of a book, with a lot of detail for the expert or the beginner. And I’m not just saying that because one of the authors occasionally reads this blog. It really is an excellent book and well worth a read.
Next week: crucible steel and cast iron!