Fireside this week, since the last post in our series on pre-modern textile production is not quite done yet (I had a fair bit of other writing to get done this week). Before I dive into this week’s musing, I want to note two things, in case you have missed them.
First, I am opening up ACOUP for guest posts, from other scholars and researchers in the fields of classics, history and archaeology (and broadly related subfields) who want to bring their research to a wider public audience. I am hoping in particular to give you all a greater sense of the wide range of interesting and useful work happening in the humanities as well as giving scholars an opportunity to get whatever small amount of attention my blog can provide on their work. I am especially interested in highlighting the research of graduate students and early career academics, but I am going to restrict submissions for now to folks in the fields of history, archaeology and classics broadly construed (which is to say, topics I feel at least somewhat qualified to assess).
I have set up a page with submission information here, including the general style and format I am hoping to maintain (and a link to a google doc with more precise guidelines). Exactly how guest posts fit into the blog’s posting schedule will depend on the number of submissions I end up getting, but my aim is to run them regularly in addition to my own weekly writings.
Second, in case you missed the announcement on twitter, I want to note that one of your fellow readers has very kindly narrated the Practical Case for the Humanities and Siege of Gondor series (all 300 minutes of it!) and uploaded them as videos. So, if for some reason, you want to hear my writing capably narrated (really, he does a great job, including good descriptions of the images for anyone who might not be able to see them) at a length rivaled by the Snyder Cut, now you can!
Now on to this week’s musing, where I thought I might expound at a little more length than I have done on twitter (not everyone, after all, is on twitter; in actual fact very few people are on twitter, which I think is interesting given its prominence) on the nature of our evidence for the ancient world and its limitations. I thought this might be a particularly good time for the topic, because it goes to some of the difficulties in talking about ancient textile production in particular.
As folks are generally aware, the amount of historical evidence available to historians decreases the further back you go in history. This has a real impact on how historians are trained; my go-to metaphor in explaining this to students is that a historian of the modern world has to learn how to sip from a firehose of evidence, while the historian of the ancient world must learn how to find water in the desert. That decline in the amount of evidence as one goes backwards in history is not even or uniform; it is distorted by accidents of preservation, particularly of written records. In a real sense, we often mark the beginning of ‘history’ (as compared to pre-history) with the invention or arrival of writing in an area, and this is no accident.
So let’s take a look at the sort of sources an ancient historian has to work with and what their limits are and what that means for what it is possible to know and what must be merely guessed.
The most important body of sources are what we term literary sources, which is to say long-form written texts. While rarely these sorts of texts survive on tablets or preserved papyrus (we’ll get to those), for most of the ancient world these texts survive because they were laboriously copied over the centuries. As an aside, it is common for students to fault this or that later society (mostly medieval Europe) for failing to copy this or that work, but given the vast labor and expense of copying and preserving ancient literature, it is better to be glad that we have any of it at all (as we’ll see, the evidence situation for societies that did not benefit from such copying and preservation is much worse!).
The big problem with literary evidence is that for the most part, for most ancient societies, it represents a closed corpus: we have about as much of it as we ever will. And what we have isn’t much. The entire corpus of Greek and Latin literature fits in just 523 small volumes. You may find various pictures of libraries and even individuals showing off, for instance, their complete set of Loebs on just a few bookshelves, which represents nearly the entire corpus of ancient Greek and Latin literature (including facing English translation!). While every so often a new papyrus find might add a couple of fragments or very rarely a significant chunk to this corpus, such additions are very rare. The last really full work (although it has gaps) to be added to the canon was Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia (‘Constitution of the Athenians’) discovered on papyrus in 1879 (other smaller but still important finds, like fragments of Sappho, have turned up as recently as the last decade, but these are often very short fragments).
In practice that means that, if you have a research question, the literary corpus is what it is. You are not likely to benefit from a new fragment or other text ‘turning up’ to help you. The tricky thing is, for a lot of research questions, it is in essence literary evidence or bust. We’ll talk about other kinds of evidence in a second, but for a lot of the things people want to know, our other forms of evidence just aren’t very good at filling in the gaps. Most information about discrete events – battles, wars, individual biographies – are (with some exceptions) literary-or-bust. Likewise, charting complex political systems generally requires literary evidence, as does understanding the philosophy or social values of past societies.
Now in a lot of cases, these are topics where, if you have literary evidence, then you can supplement that evidence with other forms (we’ll talk about in a moment), but if you do not have the literary evidence, the other kinds of evidence often become difficult or impossible to interpret. And since we’re not getting new texts generally, if it isn’t there, it isn’t there. This is why I keep stressing in posts how difficult it can be to talk about topics that our (mostly elite male) authors didn’t care about; if they didn’t write it down, for the most part, we don’t have it.
But let’s say you still have a research question that the ancient sources don’t answer, or only answer very incompletely. Where can you go next? There are a few categories, listed in no particular order.
Let’s start with the most text-like subcategories, beginning with epigraphy. Epigraphy is the study of words carved into durable materials like stone or metal. For cultures that do this (so, Mesootapmians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans: Yes! Gauls, pre-Roman Iberians, ancient Steppe nomads: No!), epigraphy provides new texts to read and unlike the literary texts, we are discovering new epigraphic texts all the time. The downside is that the types of texts we recover epigraphically are generally very limited; mostly what we see are laws, decrees and lists. Narrative accounts of events are very rare, as is the epigraphic preservation of literature (though this does happen, particularly in Mesopotamia with texts written on clay tablets). That makes epigraphy really valuable as a source of legal texts (especially in Greece and Rome), but because the texts in question tend to be very narrowly written (again, we’re talking about a single law or a single decree; imagine trying to understand an act of Congress renaming a post office if you didn’t what Congress was or what a post office was) without a lot of additional context, you often need literary texts to give you the context for the new inscription you are looking at.
The other issue with epigraphy is that it is very difficult to read and use, both because of wear and damage and also because these inscriptions were not always designed with readability in mind (most inscriptions are heavily abbreviated, written INALLCAPSWITHNOSPACESORPUNCTUATIONATALL). Consequently, getting from ‘stone with some writing on it’ to an edited, usable Greek or Latin text generally requires specialists (epigraphers) to reconstruct the text, reconstructing missing words (based on the grammar and context around them) and making sense of what is there. Frankly, skilled epigraphers are practically magicians in terms of being able figure out, for instance, the word that needs to fit in a crack on a stone based on the words around it and the space available. Fortunately, epigraphic texts are published in a fairly complex notation system which clearly delineates the letters that are on the stone itself and those which have been guessed at (which we then all have to learn).
Related to this is papyrology and other related forms of paleography, which is to say the interpretation of bits of writing on other kinds of texts, though for the ancient Mediterranean this mostly means papyrus. The good news is that there is a fairly large corpus of this stuff, which includes a lot of every day documents (tax receipts! personal letters! census returns! literary fragments!). The bad news is that it is almost entirely restricted to Egypt, because while papyrus paper was used far beyond Egypt, it only survives in ultra-dry conditions like the Egyptian desert. Moreover, you have all of these little documents – how do you know if they are typical? Well, you need a very large sample of them. And then we’re back to preservation because the only place you have a very large sample is Egypt, which is strange. Unfortunately, Egypt is quite possibly the strangest place in the Ancient Mediterranean world and so papyrological evidence is frequently plagued by questions of applicability: sure we have good evidence on average household size in Roman Egypt, but how representative is that of the Roman Empire as a whole, given that Egypt is such an unusual place?
Outside of Egypt and a handful of sites (I can think of two) in England? Almost nothing. To top it all off, papyrology shares epigraphy’s problem that these texts are difficult and often require specialists to read and reconstruct them due to damage, old scripts and so on. The major problem is that the quantity of recovered papyrus has vastly outstripped the number of trained papyrologists, bottle-necking this source of evidence (also a lot of ancient papyri get traded on the antiquities black market, potentially destroying their provenance, and there is a special level in hell for people who buy black market antiquities.).
What about pictures? We call this representational evidence. Representational evidence can be quite good at telling you what something looked like (but beware of artistic conventions!), but is of course little help for the names-and-dates kind of historical work. The larger problem though is that representational evidence especially becomes difficult to interpret without literary or archaeological evidence backing it up. The problem of correlating an image to a specific person or object can be very hard (by way of example, the endless debates about what is meant by kotthybos in the Amphipolis military regulations). Representational evidence gets a lot more useful if you can say, ‘Ah, X depicts Z events from B-literary-source” but obviously to do that you need to have B-Literary-Source and B is going to do most of the heavy lifting. To see just how hard it can be to use representational evidence without a robust surviving literary tradition, one merely needs to look at work on pre-historic Gaul (it’s hard!).
Which brings us at last to the big dog, archaeological evidence (although all of the aforementioned also show up in the archaeological record). Archaeology is wonderful, easily the biggest contributor to the improvement in our knowledge of the ancient world over the last century; my own research relies heavily on archaeological evidence. And the best part of it is we are getting more and better archaeological evidence all the time. Some archaeological finds are truly spectacular, like the discovery of the remains of the wrecks from the Battle of the Aegates Islands (241), the decisive engagement that ended Rome’s first war with Carthage (underwater archaeology in general in a young part of archaeology, which is itself a young field so we may well expect more marvels to come).
But (you knew there would be a but), archaeological evidence is really only able to answer certain specific questions and most research topics are simply not archaeologically visible. If your research question is related to what objects were at a specific place at a given time (objects here being broad; ‘pots’ or ‘houses’ or ‘farms’ or even ‘people’ if you are OK with those people being dead), good news, archaeology can help you (probably). But if your research question does not touch on that, you are mostly out of luck. If your object of study doesn’t leave any archaeological evidence…then it doesn’t leave any evidence. Most plagues, wars, famines, rulers, laws simply do not have archaeologically visible impacts, while social values, opinions, beliefs don’t leave archaeological evidence in any case.
Take, for instance, our evidence for the Cult of Mithras in the Roman Empire. This religion leaves us archaeological evidence in the form of identifiable ritual sanctuaries (‘mithraeums‘). Archaeology can tell us a lot about the normal size and structure of these places, but it can’t tell us much about what people there believed, or what rituals they did, or who they were, with only a handful of exceptions, which is why so much of what we think we might know about Mithraism is still very speculative.
Moreover, archaeology only works for objects that leave archaeological remains! Different materials preserve at different rates. Ceramic and stone? Great! Metals? Less great; these tend to get melted down when they don’t rust. Wood or textiles? Worse, almost never survives. This is why we have so much data on loom weights (stone, ceramic) but less on looms (wood, textile), and so much data on spindle whorls (stone, ceramic) but less on spindle-sticks or distaffs (wood). Compounding this are preservation accidents, in that things that survive tend to be things thrown away or buried with bodies and those practices will impact your archaeological record.
But the best part about archaeology is that it has network effects, which is to say that the more archaeology we do, the more useful each find becomes. New discoveries help to date and understand old discoveries and with lots of archaeological evidence, you can do really neat things like charting trade networks or changing land-use patterns. The problem is that you really do need a lot to generate a representative sample so you know you aren’t wrongly extrapolating from exceptions, and for right now, only the best excavated regions (Italy, to a lesser extent Greece and Egypt) are at the point where we can talk about, for instance, changing patterns of land use and population with any detail. And even then, uncertainties are huge.
Finally, archaeology, like everything else, works best with literary evidence. Take, for example, pre-Roman Gaul. The Gauls, due to their deposition practices are very archaeologically visible. Rich burial assemlages, large ritual deposits and archaeologically visible hill-fort settlements mean that the archaeological record for pre-Roman Gaul is very robust (in some cases more robust that the equivalent Roman context; we can be far more confident about the shape and construction of Gallic weapons than contemporary Roman ones, for instance). But effectively no literary sources for Gaul until contact with the Romans and Greeks. Consequently, almost everything about their values, culture, social organization in the pre-Roman period is speculative, with enormous numbers of questions and few answers.
If you want to ask me, “When did the Gauls shift to using longer swords” I can tell you with remarkable precision, in some cases, region by region (but generally c. 250 BC, with the trend intensifying in the late second century). But if you want to ask, “what was it like to rule a Gallic polity in c. 250 BC?” The best we can do is reason from what we see Caesar describing in c. 50 BC and hope that was typical two hundred years earlier.
Which at last brings us to the weakest form of evidence, comparative evidence or as I tend to call it (by way of Jurassic Park), the ‘frog DNA.’ Basically, if the evidence to answer a narrow question doesn’t exist, you can fill in the blank with a similar but better attested (perhaps more modern) society. Comparative evidence is weak, but better than just guessing or, in proper mid-19th century fashion, just assuming that ancient elites and nobles were really rather a lot like your fellow British/French/German/American aristocrats and extrapolating from there.
While comparative evidence can be brought to bear on effectively any question, societies are in fact different from each other; often very different, especially when separated by hundreds of miles or half a dozen centuries. Comparative evidence thus works best when there is a reason to think these societies are similar, for instance when dealing with topics rooted in relatively unchanging realities. For instance, ancient people need to eat too and have similar bodies (and thus dietary needs) to modern humans, so it is possible to reason backwards from early modern subsistence patterns to ancient ones, so long as changing technology and crops are carefully taken into account. That can help fill in the gaps between attested farming practices that show up in either the archaeological or literary evidence (this can be especially true with very simple tasks no literary source bothers to describe in detail because everyone knew, like hand-spinning).
A big part of the training of ancient historians is learning to use all of these sorts of evidence and what their limitations are (and I should note this is only the broadest of overviews, with significant gaps). There is, I think, a mistaken assumption in much of the public that because history (like many humanities disciplines) is done in ‘plain’ English that it requires no particular training. But I hope that even just running over the sorts of sources an ancient historian might use (I should note that the sources for a modern historian are almost entirely different, but no less complicated; plumbing the depths of an archive is its own trained skill) serves to demonstrate some of the necessary training to be able to effectively spin history from the raw wool of the primary sources.
On to Recommendations.
If for some reason, you want to actually hear my voice instead of just reading, I’ve been on a few podcasts lately. On Russell Hogg’s Subject to Change podcast, we discussed (in what turned out to be two episodes) the military history behind Helm’s Deep and the Siege of Gondor (also be sure to check out some of the other guests that have been on the podcast, including Tom Holland on 300 and the Spartans and David Abulafia talking about The Boundless Sea). I was stopped in on the Warhammer 40k Chapter Tactics podcast to talk imperial dynamics with reference to the setting’s Imperium of Man, which turns into a wide ranging conversation covering tributary empires, administrative state capacity, mobilization and conscription systems and, of course, cohesion.
Over on Youtube, Drachinifel is approaching the end of his informative rundown of the naval aspects of the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II. The series is particularly valuable for getting into some of the nuts-and-bolts of individual engagements where you can really see the impact of information flow and gathering capabilities, with commanders being forced to make decisions based on the incomplete picture they have in a chaotic series of mostly night engagements. The fact that each individual engagement is given its own (often fairly long) video drawing out the movements of individual ships and the decisions of their captains (and in some cases more junior crew) really brings those elements out very clearly.
From Peopling the Past, check out this blog post with Najee Olya, a classical archaeologist graduate student as he discusses depictions of Africans in ancient Greek vase-painting, discussing the promise of examining representational evidence particularly as a way of probing non-elite (or at least, less elite) values and the Greek conception of non-Greeks. I think Olya’s point that we shouldn’t assume a “neat alignment” between the views of the literate elite and the more general Athenian populace is an excellent one (similar to the point I’ve made about not trying to understand ancient religion through ancient philosophic writings), and I personally am really excited to see where this research project goes.
For this week’s Book Recommendation, I’m going to suggest The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt, 323-204 BC: An Institutional and Operational History (2020), by Paul Johstono. Of the armies of the three great successor states of Alexander (the Antigonids, Seleucids and Ptolemies (the latter also called the Lagids)), we have perhaps the best evidence for the Ptolemaic army (a case where papyrus makes the difference; in the literary sources, the Antigonids are the best attested). Johstono uses that evidence to craft an approachable history of the Ptolemaic army down to 204.
The book essentially details two stories that are entwined with each other, tracking both the operational fortunes of the Ptolemaic army – battles and campaigns won and lost – alongside a discussion of the changing institutions and personnel makeup of the army. The two focuses complement each other, the former neatly answering the question of how one gets from the army that Ptolemy I inherits from Alexander to the army that Ptolemy IV marches to Raphia with in 217. The Ptolemaic Army is frequently neglected (and typically somewhat poorly represented in popular culture; the Total War games have never really done the Ptolemies the same justice they’ve done Rome, for instance), so an accessible treatment that the general public can actually read is of great value.
The book has several great virtues. It is, I think, quite accessibly written, despite covering a very technical subject. Even when digging through detailed census data gleaned from Egyptian papyri, the information is kept clear with snappy tables, clearly explained technical terms and so on; this is a book that an beginner in the Hellenistic world could, I think, make sense of with little difficulty. At the same time, the topic is technical, Johstono handles those details well and foregrounds the exact evidence he is using, both in the text (where he frequently refers to specific papyri) and in the notes. For the specialist (or the enthusiast looking to access specialist knowledge), I think Johstono’s book makes an excellent companion to C. Fischer-Bovet’s, Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt (2014), though the two books have somewhat different focuses and do not always agree. In particular, Johstono’s sometimes narrower focus benefits his book; he is, as the title implies, rather more focused on the army than the society and covers it rather higher ‘resolution’ (so to speak) than Fischer-Bovet.
Now if only we could get someone to give the Seleucid army the same treatment (and thus replace the age-worn B. Bar-Kochva, The Seleucid Army (1976); good for its time but alas now decades beyond its sell-by date) and then get an English translation of M.B. Hatzopoulos’ L’organisation de l’armée macédonienne sous les Antigonides (2001) – which is, assuming you read French, I think to be preferred over N. Sekunda, The Antigonid Army (2013) – we ought to at last have a good set of foundational treatments of the major armies of the Hellenistic world.