Referenda ad Senatum: November 19, 2021: Hidden String-Pullers, Falling Empires and Tactics Against Horse Archers!

Welcome! As we’ve done once before, this week I am going to take a chance to answer a number of shorter questions by my patrons over at Patreon who are at the Patres et Matres Conscripti tier, which entitles them to a seat in the ACOUP Senate (and for those of you who are in the ACOUP Senate, please note that over on Patreon there should be a poll up on the first longer question that ought to get its own dedicated post).

As before, I want to make clear that the responses to these questions aren’t necessarily as carefully researched or planned as a longer post; they reflect roughly what you’d get if you asked me the same question in office hours or after one of my classes. Of course I try to avoid errors or pontificating on topics about which I know little (I try to do both of those things all of the time), but these are still a bit less comprehensive than a full post.

And of course if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; as mentioned patrons who join the Patres et Matres Conscripti get to propose questions that I answer here. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Via Wikipedia, Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari. This isn’t an accurate layout of the Roman curia Hostilia (the Senate house where the speech in question would have been delivered), which was rectangular in form and would have been a lot more cramped than this. Nevertheless, as it is probably the most famous depiction of the Roman Senate, it seemed a worthwhile title card.


Q: Leo Zhang asks, “What are other non-Mediterranean analogs for the collapse of the Roman Empire?”

A: So how to answer this question depends a fair bit on how specific we are about ‘non-Mediterranean.’ The most obvious analog is the Mediterranean-adjacent Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC) which occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East around 1100 BC. If anything, the LBAC was substantially more severe than the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, though it shares a pattern in that areas that were on the periphery of the state system (Greece in the LBAC; the Roman West and especially Britain during the fall of Rome) were far more dramatically impacted than areas in the core. In the Roman case, of course, the Eastern half of the empire kept on after the collapse of the West with relatively limited disruption; during the LBAC, Egypt and the (Middle) Assyrian Empires weathered the collapse with substantial but not overwhelming disruption. By contrast, during the LBAC, many of the urban centers of Greece (to be clear, this is not classical Greece, but Greek urban centers some four centuries before Homer) were abandoned, architecture in stone almost entirely ceases (a shift back to wood), and technology of writing (in Linear B script) is lost, to be readopted (using the Phoenician script) three to four centuries later.

The causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse are difficult to untangle. There’s some evidence for climatic disruption (possibly related to volcanic activity, but the dates don’t line up as clearly as we’d like) which would have negatively impacted agriculture. There seems to be pretty significant evidence that once things started going wrong, there was a domino-effect where state collapse in one region produced raiding and refugees that strained resources in the next, while disrupting the trade networks that states relied on for both revenue and military equipment. It’s also possible that the emergence of ironworking (and thus iron weapons, which were cheaper than bronze) may have had a role, though I have to admit I am quite skeptical of this last model.

If we want to get solidly outside of the Mediterranean, the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220 AD) into the Three Kingdoms era (220-280) has fairly strong parallels with how Roman power declined in the western parts of the empire, particularly in how the loss of power int he imperial center caused the steady fragmentation of the empire into much smaller competing states. The warfare and fragmentation of the period seem to have been very destructive, though as with all pre-modern collapses, most of the population decline must have been in the form of disease and famine (potentially taking place gradually in the form of increased infant mortality playing out through subsistence farming survival strategies). If the census figures of the period are to be believed (there is, as I understand it, grounds for significant skepticism), by the time the Jin dynasty reestablished unified control of the country and could do a new census, the population of China had declined by almost 60% from its Han Dynasty peak over a period of just over a century. Its hard to compare that figure to the collapse of Rome because the evidence of the latter permits no firm estimate of population decline (though there probably was some) but my sense is that a decline of two-thirds of the population would be substantially worse than what we tend to think the decline was after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

And as an aside, “Was the Fall of Rome Bad and If So How Bad Was It?” is one of the long-response topics up for voting over on Patreon for members of the ACOUP Senate, if you want me to write something more on that and the historical arguments that swirl around that question.

Q: Maxwell Goebl asks, “What tactics did the Romans use to defeat steppe peoples, Parthians or other people who used horse archers?”

A: We have a few interesting bits of evidence for this, but at the outset it seems worth noting that we don’t hear of anything like dedicated anti-horse-archer tactics here (or indeed, in many places we might expect them). As we’ve discussed, unlike in video-games where horse archers can sit at long range with virtual impunity, actual horse archers have to get fairly close to their enemies, making them in turn vulnerable both to missile fire and to sudden charges by melee cavalry. Generally, the successful Roman responses to horse archers (and the Romans do beat horse archer armies fairly frequently) was to use their heavy infantry to provide an unassailable ‘base’ (protected by shields from arrow fire) for either missile troops, cavalry or artillery (torsion catapults) to engage the enemy cavalry. Failure tended to be the result of situations where the killing element (cavalry, missile troops, artillery) is put in situations where it cannot be supported by the infantry, or vice-versa.

An interesting source here is Arrian’s Array against the Alans (you can find a translation here); the Alani were an steppe nomadic people and Arrian presents a notional battle formation for fighting them, although there is no indication this formation was ever used in any particular battle. Arrian suggets a formation which places the heavy infantry in the front ranks, with javelin and archer troops directly behind them (he suggests finding a position where these troops can be on higher ground, for understandable reasons) with field artillery (torsion catapults, again) deployed on the flanks and to the rear. The cavalry is placed tightly on the flanks behind the infantry. The plan is to then let the enemy attack, the idea being the enemy cavalry wouldn’t be able to penetrate the infantry line, but would take missile fire from it and the artillery; if the enemy appeared to break half of the cavalry was to be released to pursue with the rest kept in reserve in case that was a feint. It’s not clear how much this matches actual Roman practice, but it isn’t an absurdly impractical battle plan.

Arrian’s positioning of his cavalry as purely an exploitation force seems to speak almost directly to the mistakes made at Carrhae (53BC) where (Marcus Licinius) Crassus’ army was defeated in part his son, Publius Licinius Crassus foolishly advanced with a fairly large part of the cavalry, was lured away from the main force and destroyed in detail (Plut. Crass. 25.1-3; Dio 40.21.2-3). It’s also striking just how few missile troops Crassus seems to have at Carrhae in the narratives of the battle we do have, compared to Arrian’s assumption of fairly ample missile troops (including friendly horse archers and field artillery). Disaster in Mark Antony’s own Parthian campaign (in 36 BC) also began with dividing the army, in this case splitting off the siege train from the main army. The Parthians destroyed the detached siege train which substantially hindered Antony’s later siege operations (Plut. Antony 38.3), though Antony is still able to win a field engagement by luring the Parthians close enough to his lines that his cavalry could dash out (almost exactly as Arrian imagines it), and ‘catch’ the Parthian cavalry in close combat near enough that the heavy infantry could follow up and support (Plut. Antony 39.3-5). Antony’s campaign subsequently falls apart, however, due to logistics issues.

The importance of infantry and missile troops working together is also apparent from our man, the one, the only, Publius Ventidius Bassus (::airhorn sound::) and his defeat of a major Parthian army at the Battle of Cyrrhestica in 38 BC. Bassus’ army was positioned on the high ground and when the Parthians were lured into an attack, the Roman heavy infantry held and then forced the cavalry back down the slope, catching at least some of it in close combat in the confusion. Dio, who reports the battle, notes especially the impact of slingers who could effectively reach out and strike the Parthians at range (Dio, 49.20.2).

I will say that I find it striking that getting these sorts of tactics almost never work effectively in modern tactics games (like the Total War franchise), which is part of what made me write that post on archery and ‘kiting’ back in 2019.

Q: Carabas asks, “How do you go about picking a given fictional battle and composing/researching a series like the ones you’ve done [Siege of Gondor, Helm’s Deep and the Loot Train Battle]?”

The planning process for the “Siege of Gondor” series actually set the mold for a lot of how I set up and plan these longer series, since it was the first (and also, incidentally, remains the most popular). I’d initially thought to look at the Siege of Gondor itself because I knew there were going to be positive things I could say about it and I wanted to avoid just ending up with the blog as one more ‘historical nitpick society’ that was only ever negative. I had originally planned to just move through the battle in sequence and hadn’t thought a ton about the structure; it was in drafting the first post that I realized that there was an opportunity here to demonstrate some of the core concepts in military history in a systematic way.

And you can actually see in the process of writing that series in particular that I sort of ‘find’ the identity of the blog (I had always planned it as a history-and-pop-culture blog, of course, but if you look at the oldest posts in the first few weeks one would be forgiven for thinking the blog was going to be ‘historian complains about Game of Thrones‘ and mostly focused on arms, armor and tactics); it was the point where I realized I could actually use these long series (and the pop-culture reference point) to get into more sophisticated historical analysis (something beyond “that armor is comically wrong”) in an accessible and interesting way.

Now while I’d like to say I have a good, well-organized system for all of this, I really don’t. I keep a number of (poorly organized) lists of potential topics, but mostly I just sort of back-burner these ideas until they ripen. I don’t have any particular pipeline in part because I seem to always have more things to write than I have time to write them (my blog-writing ‘backlog’ has nothing on my research backlog where I have at least a decade’s worth of research projects sitting in ‘ideas’ folders just waiting for me to have the time to do them). Though it is hard to see because of the frequent delays between when a concept is ready to start drafting and when I actually start drafting, a lot of these topics emerge out of either earlier posts (Lonely Cities is a direct continuation, for instance, of my complaints about Peter Jackson’s ‘Pelennor Steppe‘) or out of what I am teaching. It is more often that I’m driven along by the historical concept I want to explain than by the pop-culture reference point, which is why I often find “can you discuss X fantasy novel/show/film?” requests difficult to get my head around if I don’t already have a sense of what the historical concept would be.

I generally keep topics restricted to those which aren’t going to require a lot of bespoke new research (just for time constraints, if nothing else), so once I’ve decided on a topic I can typically already look through my existing research notes or teaching notes to get the beginnings of a bibliography (and then blast my university library with book requests so I can go look up details). Ironically the battle post series required very minimal research time; most of the books I reference there I own and since pre-modern armies is what I do, I could often just speak from my own knowledge. When a topic is really foreign to me (the Dothraki series is a good example, both the Mongols and Native American Plains cultures are well outside of my specialty), I generally take the expedient of asking someone I know who does do that sort of history, typically with the question, “What should I read?” (asking for bibliography is a substantially smaller ‘ask’ than asking for a direct explanation of complex historiography). Many, many of my colleagues can likely report getting those emails, twitter DMs, Facebook messages, or hallway conversations.

There’s something of an irony here, because for my research writing I am very systematic in my approach, with lots of planning and outlining, but for ACOUP I am much more willing to just start writing on a topic and see where I end up (the entire outline for the Fortifications series lives on a single page of a 7×4 inch notepad).

Q: Leo Zhang (two in one week!) asks, “Are there any historical analogs for something like Lodge of Sorceresses in the Witcher series who pull the strings of local monarchs from behind the scenes?”

A: This particular trope, the trans-national cabal of educated knowledge-havers who manipulate secular rulers in pursuit of some hidden agenda (the Lodge, but also the Maesters of A Song of Ice and Fire seem to qualify, as do the Mages and Templars of the DragonAge setting) has always made me more than a bit uncomfortable, because there are historical analogs, but they have more to do with historical prejudices than actual historical power-structures.

The fairly obvious starting point for this trope seems to be the medieval Catholic Church which was a trans-national organization of educated people operating in a society with low literacy rates. In Western Europe, the Church really did have possession of a lot of the knowledge available to those societies and it did exist to a degree outside of the scope of secular power (though to what degree changes considerably depending on where and when you look). But treating the church as a single, more-or-less unified actor pursuing a single set of political goals resembles less the actual medieval Catholic Church and more early modern and modern anti-Catholic rhetoric (e.g. fears as late as 1960 that a Catholic president would be ‘under the sway’ of the foreign interests of the Pope, which were significant enough about them that Kennedy was asked about them and issued statements to assuage them that, “the Church does not speak for me.”).

The actual medieval clergy (especially its upper reaches) was more typically drawn from the same families which filled the ranks of the aristocracy; bishops and cardinals tended to be the brothers and cousins of dukes and kings. They also tended to have their seats in the regions they came from and very often were as loyal (and sometimes more so) to their local rulers than to the Holy See. Not for nothing did Henry IV, when he wrote to object to Pope Gregory VII’s reforms in 1075, write that he did so “with all of my Bishops.” Moreover, while in fantasy fiction the machinations of these literate cabals are seemingly unnoticed by the secular rulers, actual medieval kings were well aware of the influence of the Church and pushed back on it to secure what they saw as their own prerogatives (with mixed success). Where the church won these confrontations, its power was not in manipulation, but in religious authority; these people, after all, believed their religion, which invested the clergy with spiritual powers that mattered to folks.

Even more uncomfortable is the degree to which these fictional organizations seem to reflect nonsense antisemitic canards which claimed that there was some ‘vast Jewish conspiracy’ directing world events from the shadows. This in turn reflects a sort of prejudice frequently suffered by ‘Middleman minorities‘ in both historical and modern societies. Highly educated Jews show up fairly frequently in medieval and early modern European courts, often (but not always) because of their role in finance (since Christians were not permitted to lend to other Christians at interest). The existing prejudice also made those same Jews vulnerable to being scapegoated – often by, and for the failures of, the same secular rulers who invited them in the first place – and persecuted.

Conspiracy theories of this sort, blaming problems on a cabal of highly placed ‘Papists’ or ‘the Jews’ have thus always been around (and frequently been distressingly popular), despite again – to be clear – being garbage nonsense. Absolutely the medieval Catholic church wielded massive institutional power, but it did so openly and the clergy were hardly a single united bloc with a single plan pulling the strings of the world towards a collective goal. Meanwhile, if it even needs say, there was not then and is not now any vast Jewish conspiracy. Persecuted minorities almost definitionally do not wield substantial institutional power; if they did, they wouldn’t be persecuted.

Humans are clearly drawn to these sorts of conspiracy theories, imagining power wielded from behind the scenes, but in actual history, most power is held by the obvious fellows who command armies and rule states and wield that power openly. Because the fact is, the ruler with access to lots of soldiers with weapons generally has no reason to let anyone pull their strings.

And that’s that for this week’s deliberations! Next week, hopefully, we’ll continue our march through fortifications!

262 thoughts on “Referenda ad Senatum: November 19, 2021: Hidden String-Pullers, Falling Empires and Tactics Against Horse Archers!

  1. IIRC, isn’t some of the Arrian Array formations rather similar to how the later Byzantine forces deployed, per source like the Strategikon of Maurice?

    and iirc The Sassanian Persians used a similar “Spearmen in front, archer behind” formation in the 5th and 6th centuries,with the shield-and-spear Sparabara in rank and file ahead of archers in order to protect the archers from being overrun by enemy infantry or cavalry?

    1. They kind of were, if we believe Arrian’s account of how Alexander the Great defeated the Scythians. Of course we also know that he probably had an agenda in writing up the action that way.

      1. If Arrian had an agenda, it was to portray Alexander as a brilliant battlefield general. He would not achieve that by showing Alexander using tactics that his audience would know were dumb or didn’t work. So whether or not Alexander actually used artillery against the Scythians, people at the time thought it was good generalship.

        I’ve read the suggestion that ancient artillery had much more effect on horse archer morale than in inflicting casualties. For horse archers the dangerous part of combat is at closest approach to the enemy but they can usually relax once they’ve retreated back a couple of hundred metres before going in again. For the Scythians facing Alexander, that was no longer true as every so often an unlucky rider or horse got turned into a kebab.

  2. Side note: I once checked the biographies of popes up to late medieval times. At least ten per cent were of humble origin. Smart peasant to pope was not a common road, but it wasn’t entirely a pipe-dream either.

    1. And lower clergy were probably proportional more, because the higher you went, the more the powerful cared.

  3. I find it curious that this Leo Zhang fellow thinks of the Lodge of Sorceresses first, as a fictional case of a power-behind-the-throne sort of organization. So shortly after the premiere of Villeneuve’s Dune, I’d rather expect Bene Gesserit to be the go-to example.

    Perhaps some of the courtly clicques in China could compare, but it still seems a stretch to me. Or some of the rather modern-day scholarship organizations such as the Rhodes Scholarship, but they’re not centralized and they don’t really seem to succeed much at their goals, at least on any level that would make them qualify for being an organized power-behind-the-throne. (Unless you are a conspiracy theorist, but in that case this discussion leads to nowhere anyway.)

    As for the maesters in ASoIaF, my guess would be that Martin needed a secular equivalent to the medieval Church. Because, you know, if they were religious folks you’d need to focus on their religion in writing and worldbuilding, and that’s all sorts of mess, and I can see the appeal of avoiding the issue. (Even though, as much as you say people in the past generally believed their religion, this doesn’t mean a high-ranking or learned clergyman just must be fervently religious. There’s plenty of opportunists, especially when intellectual career means either the clergy or nothing at all.) Also, this way the Northern and Ironborn lords can have a learned advisor without having to awkwardly explain why they keep around a clergyman of a religion they regard as an unwelcome foreign influence. (Even though, again, there’d be plenty of historical examples of just that, such as the high regard given to Muslim scholars in not-yet-Islamicized medieval West Africa.)

    1. These Patreon questions are from the summer when Dune wasn’t out yet. (First thing I thought of was Illuminati conspiracy for that question.)

      1. Well, seems like that one issue is settled, then. I figured the fella was just really into video games.

        1. There was also a Netflix series which gives you a fair amount of time inside the Lodge. All the royal families want one, because witches are walking artillery pieces, but also the witches definitely have an agenda of their own, as well as personal desires. (A lot of those desires seem to begin with “a will to power”, of course.)

          1. Since this blog is about unmitigated pedantry, I’m gonna be that guy and point out the Netflix series didn’t quite get to the Lodge of Sorceresses yet. (The Lodge of Sorceresses is specifically a clandestine organization set up after the fall of the official magical authority, which is actually what we see in the first season of the show.)

            Perhaps he read the novels, but let’s be frank, the only ones who do it are those who have already read them before the first game came out, and those who are into video games to the point of buying tie-in materials.

          2. @pontifex maximus

            Thanks for clarifying! Having only seen the show, I didn’t know that it was a separate thing.

    2. There are a few cases of underground movements that succeeded – and many more that failed. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium documents the hidden millenarian cults of southern Germany that fuelled peasant rebellions every so often. Shia movements in Islam sometimes had this character. Of course, for real shadowy string-pullers, you need to go to ALEC or the Federalist Society.

      1. I think the idea of the illuminati or stonemasons is probably more influential on the modern NWO style conspiracy’s like the lodge than the blood libel.

        Funnily magic makes the idea of a scholarly circle of conspirators much more believable.

        1. On one level it does as it resolves the long distance communication problem (under most forms of magic), but it doesn’t generally solve the factionalism problem (or shouldn’t) and usually (with some exceptions like the Black Company where magic users are so overpowered they just do rule nations) doesn’t resolve the ‘why should the king do what you say instead of making you do what he says?’

          The usual excuse for this is either mind control (which, if available should be an expected tactic which people are prepared for) or cunning manipulation (which radically overestimates the success/influence of manipulators).

          More generally I’d say that the biggest problem with magic (in cases where it’s not incredibly rare) is the unwillingness to allow non-magic users to adapt to it, despite its prevalence and history.

          In a world with Disguise Self, everyone who knows anything will take some form of precaution against being framed or against someone pretending to be them to steal money/resources. Now, to be fair, this is really hard. Unlike most stuff, you can’t just pull from reality (though you can try, how do we solve security problems these days? Two-factor identification, passwords, biometric data). Usually the assumption seems to be that people only try to counter magic with magic rather than any sort of basic precautions which seems silly to me.

          Wow, went off on a tangent there…

          1. I believe the most influental form of magic would be divination, as it was itself highly influental in our own history but would be moreso if it actually worked.

            Factionalizm could be overcome if the people teaching magic all came from the same school, but even then there should be magical orders splitting off and grouping together common enough to break the masquerade.

            i.e. the stonemasons during the American civil war.

          2. Mundane countermeasures to magic is an interesting topic! Of course it depends massively on how powerful and flexible the magic is. But some specific ideas:

            magical disguise -> passwords (and more complex shared knowledge), physical tokens, dogs (if disguise doesn’t encompass smells.)

            invisibility -> lots of spaces that are noisy and/or make foot prints, like gravel or sand; doors with bell curtains; more dogs.

            magically persuasive voices -> councils that deliberate by writing; if spells have known duration limits, important decisions may require isolation + time delays so that someone can’t be ‘persuaded’ or ‘charmed’ into withdrawing all their money or signing over land. For less mundane countermeasures, important decisions requiring ‘detect charm’ beforehand.

            3e D&D passwall -> thin metal layer in walls

            D&D knock spell -> use of multiple locks, or locks + rope ties, locks + gate

          3. The reason for this is that people REALLY want both:

            1. A shit-ton of magic.

            2. A world that looks like Medieval Europe.

            Since if a world with a shit-ton of magic would look nothing like Medieval Europe they instead fudge things by having the magic hiding under the bed or somesuch.

            In earlier some fantasy worlds you can get around a lot of this problem by having magic (especially powerful magic controlled by people) INCREDIBLY rare so people don’t have much in the way of countermeasures set up against it since they don’t expect it. Then just have the story center around those rare exceptions and the worldbuilding can make some degree of sense.

          4. Some versions of magical or psychic worlds do include routine counter measures.
            James Schmitz’s Confederacy of Vega has high powered psionics but also routine training for all levels of ability and commercial psi-tech to even the playing ground. Very gifted individuals can get around these or those with special tech but they are opposed by similarly gifted and equipped law enforcement.
            In Lord Darcy’s magical universe privacy and locking spells are highly developed and very difficult for even the best sorcerers to get around. Hence the need for detectives like his lordship.

          5. I remember an old Dragon magazine that brainstormed mundane protections from D&D magic:
            – domed roofs on castle towers to defend against aerial assaults
            -dividing sections of the wall where defenders sit (e.g. a corridor of arrow slits for archers) into smaller sections with walls and doors so one area of effect spell doesn’t wipe out all the defenders
            -doors lined with airtight seals of fur and felt to prevent gaseous beings from sliding in

          6. Classic D&D thing is to mix Gorgon’s blood in the mortar to prevent teleporation…

        2. If magic were real, it would be just another tool to move the universe in a desired direction, and different people would desire to move it in different ways. Every country would have its own National Magic Security Agency, or more probably several rival ones all squabbling with each other. People would denounce international Big Magic companies for taking over from local Mom-and-Pop magicians. Universities would offer courses in Magic Science.

          And the effects of any magical conspiracy would be lost in the noise caused by all the other magical conspiracies.

          1. You’re making a lot of assumptions about magic: that it’s a neutral force which can be accessed by the right education.

            Magic can be mediated by or the action of spirits (which then have their own interests), or can have a moral/psychological effect (like the Force), can be linked to specific bloodlines, or “spiritual purity”, or mental states, can depend on virginity or on having never killed someone or on *having* killed someone, it can allow effects so horrible that every society tries to suppress it despite the other goods it can do…

          2. Harry Turtledove explores this in The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. The Lord Darcy stories also explore this space

          3. C.S. Lewis went into this both in essays such as “The Abolition of Man” and his novel “That Hideous Strength”. Lewis contrasts the Renaissance view of magic as a tool, a power to get what you want, with what Lewis terms “the older Art”, which consisted of establishing relationships with the arbitrators of a fundamentally supernatural universe.

          4. I immediately thought of Shadowrun, a cyberpunk setting where magic has returned to the Earth and caused a great deal of trouble. This is basically exactly what happens!

            Because magic is a personal talent, it can’t be easily controlled by the megacorporations, but as with any skill it’s something they can hire – and they do. Magical security is at a premium, but there’s also a wide array of magic used for technical or medical functions. And corporations compete with governments to hire them, while at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s a wide array of criminal groups and terrorists who love throwing spells when they can.

            Mentioning *mindstalko*’s post, below, Shadowrun magic *can* involve all the things he mentions, but it isn’t inherently limited to any of them. In fact nobody in-setting has clearly figured out why some people have it and others don’t. It’s widely assumed to be genetic but nobody has actually sorted out how, if so.

          5. ‘Magic’ covers everything from having gods (or godlike beings) respond to requests to something close to technology. There are at least hundred – probably thousands – of different takes on it. I author my own version, but that’s no more or less plausible than any other.

          6. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about magic: that it’s a neutral force which can be accessed by the right education.”

            From the viewpoint of someone without magic powers there is only one magic system: Find someone who can perform the magic you want done, and persuade them to do it for you. Doesn’t matter whether they are the Court Magician, the wise woman down the road, or International Business Magic.

            Although I will note that if magic is hereditary any King with any sense is going marry someone with it, and the world will quickly come to be ruled by Kings whose ancestors had sense. The magical and ruling classes will merge for the same reason the landholding and ruling classes did.

          7. Even then it matters whether the spell-slinger is a priest of the god of radiance and goodness, the warlock with a pact with the devil, or the wizard with a lot of eye of newt.

      2. The Federalist Society is not really secret: it meets openly, invites attendance from interested students, and its political aims and funding sources are more or less clear for anyone who follows politics. It is quite well-known what are the steps and political positions you need to take if you want to join them and get a judicial appointment sponsored by them. They are quite as open in their power as the medieval Catholic Church. (Of course, you can disagree with their aims and say that those are mischaracterised, but all in all, they are a known factor to their friends and foes alike.)

        1. Same goes for ALEC, which has conventions, brochures and proud “state chairs” who are sitting members of the legislature who proudly declare it’s their job to introduce and move ALEC’s model legislation.

          Attacks on “special interests” in American politics usually takes one of two forms, either an attack on the figure head of a popular and powerful movement so it doesn’t sound like you are attacking the large base of voters that support them: NRA, Planned Parenthood, etc.

          Or attacks by Democrats on Republicans who see Republicans as a party of movements, (it’s not – the Democrats are) which is amusingly paralleled when Republicans attack Democrats as believers in ideological conflict (they’re not – that’d be Republicans).

          1. The Democratic Party is made up of a series of political movements, Labor Movement, Environmental Movement, African American Civil Rights Movements, etc. One of the movements is even an almalgimation of other movements, LGBTQA+ rights movement, or in Minnesota the DFL (Democratic Farm Labor Party). Some of these political movements are naturally allied, various “rights” movements, others are often conflicted Labor v Enviros. But each faction has its own independent interests and views and is sceptical when a leader arrives from another faction. Factions have even been forced out of the party. The Southern political faction dominated from the founding of the party by Jefferson through the 1930s and by the end of the 1960s they were gone. A political movement of movements.

            The Republicans, on the other hand, were founded to forward an ideological libertarian view for capital business and wage labor, know at the time as “Free Labor”. After winning the American Civil War they implemented their ideological vision, which ended slavery and ushered in robber baron capitalism. Over time through control by business elites they became the party of conservative resistance to social and economic change. In the words of William F. Buckley “to stand astride the train tracks of history yelling ‘STOP!'”. And where as intraparty squabbling among Democrats tends to be over whom drives the bus, Republicans tend to fight over who is most ‘conservative’ using policy only as symbol for how vigorously they’ll fight change or implement reaction. A political movement of ideological conflict.

          2. I was just being snarky. I agree that shadowy powers behind the throne are unlikely, then or now.

          3. @Peter T,

            But I think your point is very well taken. In fiction if you want to tell a story about a low-profile group with a substantial long-term impact, you could do a lot worse than modeling it off of well-known pressure groups, which have an open face and a full-court press lobbying engine, rather than on the (purely hypothetical and substantially implausible) notion of truly secret conspirators, whose actual aims are independent of their stated purposes.

    3. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is interesting about this.

      Right at the start of the game, we are introduced to the Church of Seiros, the religion which holds great sway over the setting and has some pretty major internal issues. It’s basically Anime Catholicism with a whole lot of Buddhist imagery (and was founded by Fantasy Muhammad). Because it’s Fire Emblem, there’s also some stuff involving dragons that are close enough to immortal it makes no difference.

      For the first half of the game, we are led to believe that the Church is covertly manipulating the affairs of the countries in which it holds influence, and that ultimately we will turn against it and overthrow the ancient conspiracy. And then… that is exactly what doesn’t happen. While the Church has secrets, it’s mostly on the level, and even its more questionable acts were at least done with good intentions. It’s influential, sure, and has its own small-but-effective military force, but all its power is wielded completely openly.

      There is an evil group secretly manipulating events behind the scenes over centuries, but they are the Church’s enemies, and the plot of the game is about defeating *them*. And they are Fantasy Nazis.

      (There is a hidden route where you team up with the Flame Emperor and the Fantasy Nazis to destroy the Church and conquer the land. Some people think this route is default and is what the game is truly about. Don’t try speaking to these people unless you have a very, very high tolerance for frustration).

      1. Nice to see a mention of Fire Emblem: Three Houses here. Ever since I played it, I’ve felt that that game is, in part, a subversion/deconstruction of the old cliché JRPG “the church is evil and the final boss is a God-figure” plot, but it seems like a lot of people didn’t notice that it was.

        To tie it in more to the conspiracy topic, while the Fantasy Nazis in Three Houses are a bit underdeveloped, I found them chillingly true-to-life in their motivations, their mindset, and their actions; without going too deep into spoilers, they’re a group of genocidal, hate-filled racial supremacists who were motivated by their defeat in the distant past, and the related conspiracy theory that they believe in about the church, to create their own actual conspiracy in response. So, in Three Houses, the true evil conspiracy is actually the group spreading conspiracy theories about an evil, racially-distinct hidden elite. Which, IMO, is far more true to real life, and largely avoids the unfortunate implications that plotlines about evil, shadowy conspiracies usually have.

        (Spoilers ahead: in that hidden route you mention, supposedly the Flame Emperor turns on the Fantasy Nazis in the epilogue, but I don’t think it exactly makes it better. The implications of that route are still that the protagonist aided the Flame Emperor in finishing a genocide with the help of the people who originally carried it out, which IME defenders of the Flame Emperor and that route tend to, um, gloss over. Which is to say that I agree with your view both on what the game is about, and on that part of the fandom. I think the game does a subtle thing with that route where the Flame Emperor is convincing and charismatic and seems sympathetic, and it all plays out like a typical JRPG plotline — but then, when one plays the other routes and finds out certain things which aren’t revealed on the hidden route, the horrifying implications of that route become clear. I think it’s very well-done and an effective part of the general deconstruction the game is doing, but it may have been a little too subtle, given how much of the fandom unironically thinks that’s the best route. It’s probably influenced by the fact that it’s actually quite easy to get onto the hidden route, so I think it was the first one a lot of people played.)

        1. One thing about the Slithers that I didn’t really think about until I was reading these comments, which is a subtle but I think important distinction, is that they really count as a “secret society” by a lot of these standards, either. (The Church doesn’t either, of course; Rhea wields its power quite nakedly.) Instead, they are, IMO, insurgents, whose operational capacity (leaving aside a few relics of the war they lost 1000 years ago) is limited to assassination and infiltration. If they actually operated openly, the Church would come down on them like a ton of bricks, which is more or less what happens each time they show their faces in the first half of the game. (Partly because, without spoiling too much, the top Church leaders personally remember the war from 1000 years ago.)

          As for “the right route”, it’s worth noting that, regardless of who wins the war, Rhea is not Archbishop at the end. The writers for the DLC also go out of their way to make the Church look worse with, among other things, a short list of inventions suppressed by order of the Archbishop herself that includes the movable type printing press. The game is not at all subtle about declaring that the Church and the older generation of the nobility work hand-in-glove to suppress anything that might be a threat to their power, and that therefore they are bad. (Meanwhile, all your students are somehow reformers, and even Lorenz, whose attitudes run towards “every man in his place and a place for every man,” apparently advocates for the benefit of the commoners. Maybe he’s trying to create a welfare state.)

          Personally, I did the Golden Deer route first, and by the end, I was ready to suggest that it might be for the best if Rhea died in Edelgard’s dungeon before we could take Enbarr. Admittedly, my own attitudes run towards the anti-theist. Given that caveat, it’s worth noting that Claude comes in and, with only the slightest of nudging by being pointed at relevant books by Tomas, concludes that the Church is a corrupt mess that went off the rails practically from its inception. As a result, I don’t think the game is at all subtle about who the bad people are.

          You’re entitled to your reading of the material, and I won’t tell you not to think Edelgard did terrible things out of proportion to what anyone deserved, but I think you’re wrong if you rate Edelgard anywhere lower than “Worst person you know has a point.”



            The thing with Rhea is that she’s a genocide survivor. She’s deeply traumatized, and as I see it, all of her actions are motivated by that trauma. Everything she does, in my view, is based in a desire to protect the surviving Nabateans and makes sure the genocide never happens again, no matter what. Those goals (along with resurrecting her mother) are her first priority, and her manipulations of humanity are in service to them. Her actions aren’t right, and she shouldn’t be in the position that she’s in, but they’re very understandable when one looks at them from a Nabatean perspective.

            Edelgard, meanwhile, also suffered greatly at the hands of TWSITD, but she ends up placing the ultimate blame on the very people that TWSITD most hate, which is difficult to read as being anything but the product of their manipulations. I actually think there are a lot of parallels between Rhea and Edelgard, and it’s one of the ironies/tragedies of the game; they’re both charismatic, powerful, morally gray figures who seek power and try to change the world because they want to eliminate the source of their trauma and make sure it never happens again. Edelgard, though, ends up adopting the ideology of her abusers and helping them to carry out their agenda (even if she does plan to turn on them afterwards), which is why I ultimately find Rhea the more sympathetic of the two. Rhea, for me, is a tragic, flawed but sympathetic figure who should be removed from a position of power and given therapy. Edelgard, for me, is a tragic, flawed figure who was sympathetic up until the point where she decided to wage a war of aggression with TWSITD as her allies. It’s true Edelgard has a point about the church, but as you say, Claude ends up making the same point, and in his case it’s not influenced by the racism of TWSITD. Considering that the Crimson Flower route not only involves allying with TWSITD and helping them finish the genocide they started a long time ago, but doesn’t really accomplish anything positive that the other routes don’t also, I can’t see it as anything but the clearly “evil” route.

            I’d agree that the game isn’t subtle about who the bad people are, but I’d say that those people are TWSITD. The game definitely doesn’t hold the perspective that the church is right, but I think it sees it as having shades of gray and understandable motivations, and as being redeemable even if it needs to be greatly changed and/or stripped of the power it holds. TWSITD, though, are the ones ultimately responsible for basically everything bad that happens in the entire game. They are the source of trauma for both Rhea and Edelgard; by extension, they are ultimately the reason why the church is the way it is, why the Crest system exists in the first place, why Edelgard does what she does, and more. They don’t have any sympathetic motive for it, either; they’re genocidal racists with no shades of gray or redeeming qualities (which I feel is an appropriate portrayal, given what I think they’re an analogy for). To me they’re quite clearly meant to be the main and true antagonist of the game.

          2. @Verdant (since we’ve now hit the reply column limit)

            I agree with you on a lot of this, and also your second post feels like a much more nuanced take than the first one.


            Claude is great, but I also think Claude gets an enormous PR boost from being in the position where he’s cleaning up from a mess Edelgard created. She does all his dirty work by smashing the things that need to be smashed, and then he gets to come in as a “liberator”. Edelgard even has the astonishing level of faith in destiny that she is willing to die a villain if that’s what it takes to achieve her goals. An early version of my last post had a glib comment about the bad guys being “everyone else”, because whoever the player sides with ends up behaving a lot better in that route than the other ones. The ideological conflict is pretty much always the same, but whoever ends up on the other side is a lot more desperate, and wild and crazy, than they are in their own routes.

            On the side of the Church, I admit Seiros had an impossible problem on her hands at the end of the war: Both sides had crest-empowered warriors. Furthermore, the war spanned decades; they would have had children, too. She couldn’t exactly proscribe crests, having one herself, and they were too widespread, besides. But then she basically made it so that the Divine Right of Kings flowed from crests, and that was a real mess. Nobody is ever told where the relics come from, either, and I can’t help wondering what would have happened if weapons with crest stones were instead declared to be abominations that must be destroyed. There’d be a lot fewer WMDs floating around 1000 years later, if that had been the case. (and also no game, but let’s ignore that)

            To be fair to the early Church of Seiros, they believed they had wiped out everyone who eventually became TWSITD. When Rhea figures out that isn’t the case, she clams up really dramatically about what’s going on. I do wonder what would have happened if she had told people, on learning that there were still Agartheans, that the ancient enemy had returned. Given the schism with the Western Church, it’s possible that would have made things worse, though.

            I guess, in general, I have real trouble being sympathetic to the Nabateans because I take the statement, “The progenitor god came from the Blue Sea Star,” literally. I think they’re literal aliens, and I can’t help wondering about the counterfactual where the dragons never came to Fodlan. No dragons means no magic blood means that the wing of Agarthean society that produced the Elites would not have been able to do that particular thing. I feel like Edelgard, much more than anyone else, wants to turn back the clock to before any of that happened. It’s probably not possible, even at sword-point, unfortunately.

      2. So as not to derail this blog, I’ll just say that for those who didn’t play Three Houses – there’s some flame wars between elements of the fandom, but the above summary is not really correct. But it’d involve spoilers and such. The very short version is that all sides in 3H are fallible and have interesting flaws. Some parts of the fandom think that the smash-the-Church crew is totally right, Vampire Buddha & other parts think the Church is totally right, but I (and most fans) argue the author makes it quite clear that it’s just mixed grey morality on all sides.

        Also, rather than Fantasy Nazis, I’d more uncomfortably acknowledge the super-evil team as closer to the medieval conception of Jews- international conspiracy, evil sorcerers (except technology-flavored), some seemingly normal people might be crypto-Jews in hiding, they hate everyone for no reason, etc.

        1. I mean the Nazi’s being secretly among us and trying to subvert the government with super tech is also a very prominent conspiracy theory in the modern age. Crypto-fascist is a word i’ve been hearing growing in popularity.

          1. Maybe modern Nazis a bit, but classic Nazis wore their affiliation on their sleeve, and most modern ones are close enough IMO. While (especially in Spain) there was a whole paranoia thing about whether you were a proper old Christian or a “new” Christian (read: descended from Jews or Muslims), which fits the imposter plotline pretty well.

            (3H SPOILER WARNING)
            The other thing that makes me think more fevered medieval view of Jews – the Slitherers killed God a thousand years ago as part of some evil plan to gain ultimate power, their descendants agree with these crimes and want to continue them, they hate the Church, and they still want to kill God’s vessel. Lots of “The Jews killed Jesus” energy.



          On Those Who Slither In The Dark as a medieval Jewish stereotype; I can see how they can be read that way, but in the game, whenever they’re encountered, TWSITD come off way more “Nazi” than “Jewish stereotype” to me. Even if TWSITD have come to seem somewhat inhuman over time, they’re human supremacists; it’s made very clear that they hate the Nabateans because the Nabateans aren’t human, and they don’t present their ideology as being “Agarthans are superior and should rule”, but as “humans should rule and Nabateans have no right to exist.” To me, that feels like far more of a parallel with white supremacism; TWSTID are part of the race that the player is likely going to identify with, not a racial minority themselves. Combine that with the black uniforms, inhumane experiments, and genocide, and I think it’s pretty obvious what the historical parallel is meant to be.

          The “killing God” thing is probably the thing which most parallels antisemitic conspiracy theories on the surface, but again, looking at the details of it, it feels more far more Nazi than Jewish stereotype. Nemesis isn’t at all a sneaky, conspiring Judas figure; he’s a ruthless, conquering warrior. He’s all about strength and “warrior honor”. Furthermore, Sothis wasn’t a prophet who replaced the Agarthan concept of God; she was the first God figure of the Three Houses world, as far as we know. TWSITD aren’t portrayed as having a religion of their own, and their ideology seems to have a component of “religion is a tool of the elite that holds back human potential.” Putting all of this together, what it makes me think of is common misinterpretations of Nietzsche, specifically those favored by the Nazis. Nemesis killing the Goddess, IMO, isn’t a “Jews killed Jesus” story, it’s a “blond beast Übermensch free from the shackles of morality killing God” story. Once again, especially considering that the entire event is part of a campaign of racial genocide, it feels to me like a pretty clear Nazi analogy.

          I think that if there’s a group that’s meant to parallel Jews in Three Houses, it’s the Nabateans. That could be seen as having some questionable aspects itself, but it’s mostly a different set of issues in that case, and I don’t think that the Nabateans were intended to be an analogy for Jews to the same extent that TWSITD are for Nazis.

    4. Even in China, the idea of a *secret* power behind the throne is pretty rare. I know of plenty of examples of regents that ruled in place of the emperor, but in all the examples I know of the regent in question was quite open about their seizure of power. Cixi is the archetypical example. I wouldn’t call it “behind the scenes” when the regent sits in the throne room, making decisions directly, and arrests the emperor when he gets uppity.

      There was a lot of concern over behind the scenes string pulling, but as far as I have read that can be explained as hysteria or rival politics. Wei Zhongxian, the eunuch advisor to the Chongzheng emperor (Ming dynasty), has gone down in history as corrupt and overreaching his station. However, there is no indication that the Chongzheng emperor disapproved of what he was doing or wanted to manage affairs directly. So even if we take historical slander at face value, he would be more of a Wormtongue, not a Bene Geserit.

  4. > the successful Roman responses to horse archers was to use their heavy infantry to provide an unassailable ‘base’ for either missile troops, cavalry or artillery

    is artillery like catapults common on field battles in the classical antiquity? I though they would be restricted to sieges, considering the set up time

    1. Marsden’s works on classical torsion artillery instance a few occasions when dart-throwers were clearly present on the field. One was a third-century civil war fight, when two soldiers were decorated for disabling an enemy catapult that was doing damage to their side. The small ones would fit in a cart.

    2. Maybe not common but they had been used in the field as early Onomarchus when he defeat Phillip II.(c353 BC). Alexander used them sometimes in the field as well. Either a prepared position was needed or I suspect just the lighter dart/light shot ones that were not packed in pieces in general.

    3. The Romans, following on from the Hellenistic Greeks, built artillery in all sizes, from massive siege engines, to static-defense mounts like that at Hatra, down to light, mobile field artillery. According to (IIRC) Vitruvius, these included the cart-mounted Carroballista and even the handheld “manuballista”, a sort of torsion-powered crossbow. There seems to have been no mechanical difference between the Scorpio and the large ballistae, except size; the scorpion was a light battlefield version.

      NB: To the Romans, a ballista was any two-armed engine that could fire darts, stones or iron or lead balls. The name descends from Greek petroboulos, “stonw-thrower” – so they didn’t just shoot big arrows!

  5. May I ask why you are sceptic of the thesis that iron weapons had something to do with the bronze age collapse?
    Is it because we don’t have actual evidence of proliferation of iron weapons in that time, or is it because you do not think that iron weapons would have had an big impact on balance of power at that time?

    1. I’d be very interested in this too. It was my understanding that iron is enormously more common than the copper+tin combination used to make then-current bronze (As I understand it, arsenical bronze is older than “normal” bronze, but even to the ancients, they realized it was absurdly dangerous to try to make and didn’t bother all that much). To make bronze, you need acess to a huge geographical area to source both copper and tin. To make iron, not so much, so multiple smaller competing states were more viable.

      I admit to having done no research on the subject whatsoever, but it always seemed fairly sensible to me.

      Also, as a total aside, the Armeni tombs in Crete from the BAC are one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read about. Usually, when people talk about low average life expectancies in antiquity, it’s because of high levels of infant mortality. These tombs only had adult bodies, and there still were only a handful cadavers who made it to 30. I don’t know exactly what happened there, but it was *bad*.

      1. The chronology doesn’t make sense is basically the beginning and end of it. LBAC starts to kick off, then iron working becomes more common, not the other way around. The longer version is that it was a hypothesis from when we had much less knowledge of the era. For example, when I was younger, I learned (from the age of empires manual) that the Hittites were a dominating military force due to their early mastery of iron. This is a very outdated hypothesis: our current knowledge shows that the Hittites were bronze users, and perhaps more striking were not really that exceptional at military affairs, having a fair number of successes but also quite a few failures (including obviously the destruction of their empire by an invasion from the north).

        Much more likely is that iron doesn’t have enough advantages over bronze to justify completely revamping a 2000 year running economy (if it ain’t broke…), up until the system implodes and bronze becomes unavailable: copper is common-ish, but tin is very difficult to source and the bronze age relied on complex international trade networks, when those failed (the origin of this failure is the crux of LBAC debates) the bronze production system fully breaks and iron goes from a novelty to a necessity.

        1. Interesting parallels between iron vs bronze in the bronze age med and copper vs stone in pre-conquest mesoamerica (from what I understand copper was known of, but primarily used for decoration rather than tool production).

          I wonder if there may have been similar breakdowns of previously functional tool complexes between the upper paleolithic and chalcolithic/bronze age in eurasia.

      2. The chronology doesn’t work is the basic problem. We have enough archeological evidence at this point that we can see that the LBAC kicking off precedes widespread iron work. Iron working was known prior to the collapse but was more at the novelty level than the mass production level.

        1. Did LBAC produce the Iron Age?

          I doubt authorities could have done more than a marginal amount to suppress it, and its danger to the elite wasn’t obvious at first, but it created an obvious incentive for looking for cheaper weapons.

          1. I guess the argument is less, that the bronze age elit surpressed iron working, but rather they did not invest in it- If you are a smith why put time into developing better iron, when you can just work, at the kings bronze forge?
            After the LBAC you couldn’t get tin anymore, so you had to change to a different material anyway.

          2. I was thinking more of increased levels of conflict and so danger. Weapons are more attractive then, especially when there are fewer authorities to object.

          3. Iron-working was slowly spreading before the LBAC. In some ways it’s a harder technology than bronze – you need higher temperatures, the ores are less distinctive and it’s a longer route from mining to metal. Elite attitudes don’t seem to have much to do with it – several took to iron use with enthusiasm (eg Assyrians and Chinese) with no perceptible cultural break.

    2. I think that the best example against the existence of cabals is provided by the cases of freemasons and carbonari.

      The carbonari were an actual cabal: they were a secret society forming a pro-Sardinian nationalist fifth column in pre-unification Italian states. During the revolutions of 1830, they did significant work to undermine the internal legitimacy and functioning of the enemies of Sardinia, including armed rebellions. They were struck down, and then regrouped under the banner of “Young Italy”. Though a secret society, their existence was well known, and after the unification, their remaining veterans were honoured openly.

      In the USA of the same period, freemasons were a bit similar clique. With weak central and local government, they did attract many educated and well-to-do members, who wielded considerable power. However, unless you go for conspiracy theories, we also know that they were not really able to affect anything particularly important. In the US Civil War, the movement broke down just like the rest of the USA, with freemasons fighting on both sides without regard to their masonry. If they were a cabal, they were ineffective, as they failed to prevent the Civil War.

      So, together, these organisations show the limits of secret societies. They may be able to have some effect, but they don’t change the political landscapes.

        1. There is perhaps the social difference: the carbonari were, very much, an urban middle class movement. So, they are socially very different from your typical 20th century rural guerillas of Maoist people’s war. In addition, the carbonari had a political organisation also at times when they didn’t conduct open military operations, which meant they were operating as an actual secret society. In any case, they are an example of an actual, honest-to-God cabal that tried to subvert the legal government both covertly and then overtly. And this government was the Imperial Austria with its semi-independent allies, usually remembered as a comically inefficient political entity. Still, the cabal was, ultimately, unsuccessful. It took the armed might of Both Sardinias to unify Italy.

          1. It took the armed might of Napoleon III’s France and then Bismarck’s Prussia to push the Austrians out of Italy; Sardinia’s armies defeated the “semi-independent Austrian allies” after the Austrians had been pushed out of supporting them, but not before.

        2. Similarly, I’m not seeing a difference between the Freemasons and the Episcopal Church (or even the Society of Mayflower Descendants): in either case an organization of socially prominent, generally powerful people with no real common agenda, and probably insufficient power to implement it if they had it. Perhaps one should respond to conspiracy theories generally by remembering Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

      1. An important reason for the decline of the Illuminati was that people just couldn’t keep quiet about being part of that cool club 🙂

    3. It’s just as likely that the adoption of iron as a substitute for bronze was a result, rather than a cause, of the LBAC. Early iron was inferior to well-made bronze but was at least cheaper and more available. The frequent references in the Old Testament to the use of iron AND bronze for example.

      1. Iron wasn’t always cheaper – more important is that its cost was less dependent on the state of long-range trade networks.

        Bronze-working uses rare, expensive ores with relatively cheap, low-labor processes. Iron-working uses common, cheap ores combined with expensive capital investment and enormous amounts of labor and thermal energy. If you couldn’t get copper from Cyprus, it was either go back to stone or find some way to use these iron ores that were floating around everywhere but were an absolute pain to work with.

  6. The censuses of the ancient China were essentially tax registers of who was eligible for taxation and labour service (military and non-military), people belonging to the many tribute-paying southern tribes were not on the registers even in Han times.

    And well, tax evasion has always been a popular activity, meaning that people had every incentive to evade the census. So while the break-up of the Han empire no doubt caused a drop in population, it also caused a drop of capability (and will) in the successor states to carry out an accurate census. And those two factors can’t really be untangled by looking at census figures alone

  7. I Actually think that the proliferation of Iron weapons probably did have something to do with the bronze age collapse, since bronze relies on two relatively uncommon ores from far off areas being brought together it encouraged large trade networks. It could also be relatively easily regulated by centralized states, such as the mycenean palace states.

    Iron in contrast can be dug up most places, and once turned into weapons becomes far harder to moniter the production of. This encourages insurrection and infighting since force isn’t being monopolized by the state, and disrupts the predominance of the bronze based trade routes.

    1. My question about all the bronze vs iron debates is, then, why does classical Greece continue to use mainly bronze armor? And pretty much all the classical Mediterranean states until the Roman late republic/early imperial era. Bronze made a big comeback in the Archaic Greece age and beyond. Why didn’t classical Greece move on to iron for hoplite armies? All they used iron for was blades, spear points, arrowheads, that sort of thing.

      1. Because bronze is easily cast into a variety of shapes, if bronze was so superior why wouldn’t high status swords have all been bronze?

        Also the core of my argument is that iron production harder to regulate leading to a more armed population and less stable social structure. Iron doesn’t need to be as good as bronze, it just needs to be good enough that it disrupts the state monopoly on metal weapons.

      2. You can swap bronze for steel and get better swords and arrow heads, because steel holds an edge better. But people didn’t make iron breastplates for another 2000 years; across Eurasia, iron armor was made of little rings or little plates, linked together somehow. Greeks could turn steel into swords but not breastplates, so they stuck with bronze breastplates. Celts invented mail, at least for Europe, and Romans copied them.

      3. They didn’t use primarily bronze armor. They used primarily textile (linothorax) or wooden (aka a shield) armor. Bronze armor was primarily for the rich. I recall reading that’s it’s unclear if the bronze breastplates we recovered were thick enough to offer better protection than textile armor. But it seems like a primary utility of bronze breastplates was to look impressive.
        Regardless, it’s very difficult to turn iron into armor. Iron breastplates didn’t become commonplace until the late middle ages. Iron mail was invented by the Celts and adopted by the Romans around the time of the Punic wars, hundreds of years after the Classical Greek period.

        1. I don’t know if Prof. Devereux reads this deep into the comments, but it he has the energy and inclination, an explication of the later (from Rome to the late middle ages) evolution of armor would be interesting. Why didn’t people make iron breastplates until centuries after they started making iron swords? It much have something to do with the metallurgical properties of iron, but I don’t really know. I don’t recall this issue being discussed in the earlier series on iron.

  8. > Humans are clearly drawn to these sorts of conspiracy theories, imagining power wielded from behind the scenes…

    One of my favorite explanations for this stated–somewhat jokingly–that people prefer the thought that there’s a shadowy power controlling the world from behind the scenes because at least it means someone is actually in charge and it’s not all chaos.

    1. A more serious take on this explanation would be that a shadowy power means that all your problems have a personal cause and all will be good once it’s exposed and removed. You can’t do that to impersonal societal and economic forces.

      Now, there’s a line of thinking that assumes you can expose and remove the impersonal societal and economic forces that make your life miserable, but so far the attempts to do just that have had rather questionable outcomes.

      1. And there’s the line of thought that says, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

    2. In similar vein, it’s quite ridiculous how spy movies portray intelligence operatives. Secret services are all SUPER competent. Real governments around the world are sloppy, lazy, and and unprepared, but somehow fiction secret agents are all amazing. At least competence porn in “The Martian” is plausible because they don’t pick random Joes to work at a space projects with literally astronomical budgets.

      1. I wish to God the CIA was even half as effective as movies and TV make them. And that goes for the fbi, NSA, and the rest of the alphabet agencies too.

        1. Every time I see someone online talking about the CIA like they’re some omnipotent, omnipresent organization, I just point them to the absolute disaster that was the Bay of Pigs invasion.

          1. Ah, that only APPEARED to be a disaster. Obviously their motive was something other than military victory.

        2. I don’t really hope that: If they were then probably their enemies would also be as effective as in the movies and terrorists smuggling a nuke into some luckless metropolis would be an annual event.

          1. Highly effective secret spies also quite likely go the cabal/conspiracy theory route and really do take over places.

          2. And megalomaniac billionaires trying to exterminate the human race would happen every decade or so…

    3. I also think there’s a psychological element (although I would, being a psychology graduate). Being ‘in’ on a conspiracy theory feels good. It makes someone feel like they’re intelligent. Smarter than all the ‘sheeple’ who buy into the status quo. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that belief in conspiracy theories is heavily weighted towards those who haven’t had access to quality education, cutting them off from the prestige and self-worth afforded to people who are deemed by society as intelligent and thus worth listening to.

      There’s muddying factors around education’s ability to instil critical thinking skills, but (like everything enduring) I expect the causes are multi-factoral.

      1. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that belief in conspiracy theories is heavily weighted towards those who haven’t had access to quality education, cutting them off from the prestige and self-worth afforded to people who are deemed by society as intelligent and thus worth listening to.

        That’s because, if a theory is popular amongst educated people, we don’t call it a conspiracy theory.

        1. I dunno; I know of at least one person who managed to get hired by a well-known tech company and vociferously argues (on an appropriate internal forum) for all manner of conspiracy theories including that the Apollo missions’ moon landings were faked.

          I assume he’s reasonably well-educated and even reasonably smart, but he has spent way too long stewing in some of these things.

          1. Yeah, but he’s just one person. Most educated people don’t believe that the moon landings were faked. A few do, but they’re very much in the minority.

            For an example of what I mean, consider the theory that Barak Obama is actually a Kenyan citizen and was therefore ineligible to be POTUS vs. the theory that the Russians hacked the 2016 election and Trump was/is a Kremlin asset vs. the theory that the Democrats rigged the 2020 election and Trump actually won. All three posit conspiracies to improperly interfere with who got to control the USA, but generally speaking, the first and third are much more likely to be described as “conspiracy theories” than the second.

  9. I think an important aspect of the Lodge of Sorceresses / Bene Gesserit trope is gender. Women are excluded from political leadership, so form their own organizations to wield power.

    Historical examples might be politically influential nunneries. Or maybe knitting circles of the wives of members of Congress. I would be interested to hear of any particular examples.

    1. Now that you mention it, there were no female rulers or even major characters in Dune. But does it say anywhere in the book that women aren’t allowed to wield power?? Remember, the action starts somewhere around A.D. 10000.

      1. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but if it doesn’t say women can’t inherit, it’s because it doesn’t need to come out and say it.

        I saw the movie about a week ago, and it’s made clear that the Emperor’s daughters can’t inherit, but a son-in-law might. (Also, come to think of it, it’s odd that the Emperor only has two kids, given that sons of concubines can inherit.)

        1. Without digging out the books, I think the Emperor Shaddam IV had four daughters and no sons, with the implication that his Bene Gesserit wife did that intentionally for [BG conspiratorial reasons]. Irulan becomes Paul’s wife in name only, and later a loyal regent for his orphaned children.

          In “Children of Dune” one of the other daughters is planning to assassinate the orphans with cyborg tigers to put her son on the throne.

          [Someone else referenced this briefly elsewhere in the thread.]

          1. “In “Children of Dune” one of the other daughters is planning to assassinate the orphans with cyborg tigers to put her son on the throne.”

            Dune is a very serious work of speculative fiction.

    2. I think the gender element is very important, though it’s interesting that (as Bret observes) the trope’s main historical forerunner seems to have been an organisation that was almost exclusively male: the Roman Catholic Church. Anxieties about manipulative women did exist in medieval Europe, but they tended to focus more on individuals (e.g. over-ambitious royal mistresses) than organised groups. I can think of two 16th-century ‘historical’ examples, but they’re both more fiction than fact (1) the witch craze, which in its more elaborate forms conjectured female-dominated cabals scheming to infiltrate and corrupt mainstream society (2) the ‘Flying Squad’ of aristocratic seductresses supposedly used by Catherine of Medici to influence court politics during the French Wars of Religion, who were largely the invention of hostile pamphlets seized upon by later generations of scandal-hungry historians.

      Both of these cases were heavily influenced by the Reformation backdrop, which reinforces my suspicions that the gender anxieties it unleashed were fairly key to laying the groundwork for the later version of the trope, as Protestant attempts to resurrect a kind of Old Testament patriarchy led to a blurring of boundaries between various demonised groups who didn’t follow the ‘right’ gender roles. Eunuch-like clergy, effeminate Jews, and disobedient women could all be imagined as different aspects of a Satanic conspiracy; hence, female rulers opposed to Reform began to be grouped together as a “monstrous regiment of women”, merging traditional fears of individual powerful women with stereotypes of the Church as a scheming transnational cabal. That’s a very rough generalisation though!

      1. Just a quick note–“regiment” in that phrase (which comes from a particular pamphlet published by a Scottish Presbyterian reformer– was an archaic usage meaning “rulership” or “government.”

        The phrase wasn’t claiming to identify a particular group involved in a conspiracy; it was saying “rule by women is monstrous.”

      2. I’m now reminded of the comic Strangers in Paradise, which went from wacky artist hijinks to (rot13 for major arc spoilers) N srznyr mnsvn tebhc hfvat qrrc pbire frqhpgerffrf gb zneel naq pbageby Frangbef

    3. Magic users are not exclusively female in the Witcher series – the Lodge of Sorceresses was created as an intentionally female only secret cabal after the collapse of the traditional magic authority in what amounted to a brief but highly destructive civil war. It was actually the females excluding the males in that case.

      Although the series does contain the “powerful but oppressed minority” angle, as there is a strong prejudice and occasional pogroms against magic users, despite their unique powers being highly valued in certain contexts (every good court has a sorcerer as an advisor and weapon).

  10. Another commenter mentions the Bene Gesserit as a classic example of the ‘secret cabal of knowledge-hoarding manipulators’ trope, which got me thinking about a related issue that’s puzzled me a bit lately; why, in several classics of late-20th-century sci fi, is it assumed that the future will be characterised by humanity’s guided evolution into a psychic race? The Bene Gesserit exemplify this, as do Asimov’s Second Foundation, plus various groups in 40k (including Tzeentch cults and the Emperor himself), and arguably the Jedi in Star Wars. From a 2021 perspective, ‘psychic powers’ seem more at home in a superstitious past than a spacefaring future, so it seems a little strange that many iconic fictional galaxies are dominated by the futuristic equivalent of spoon-bending fortune-tellers.

    Of course, the best explanation may simply be the obvious one, which is just that 40k and Lucas copied Herbert who copied Asimov, who needed to invent ‘mentalics’ in order to make psychohistory work (plus, 40k wanted space-wizards to match Warhammer Fantasy). Clearly, imitation of successful precedents is important. However, I wondered if anyone knows of a deeper context that explains why this particular idea was an attractive one to pick up and run with; was there a serious strain of scientific thought at the time which held that humans might be bred or trained (Men-Who-Stare-At-Goats style) to develop mind-control powers? Was it a product of the postwar drugs boom and related interest in consciousness-expanding experiences? Or is there something else I’ve missed?

    I note that the idea of a psychic humanity seems to have faded away from more recent sci fi, and where characters have magic-like powers it is usually explained as the result of them being augmented or replaced by computers (the Matrix etc), fitting in better with our contemporary anxieties about the direction of technology. Perhaps future generations will find our cyborgs and hyperintelligent AIs an anachronistic oddity too.

    1. “The strangest part of Turing’s paper is the few paragraphs on ESP. Perhaps it is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, though, if it is, this fact is poorly signposted by Turing. Perhaps, instead, Turing was influenced by the apparently scientifically respectable results of J. B. Rhine. At any rate, taking the text at face value, Turing seems to have thought that there was overwhelming empirical evidence for telepathy (and he was also prepared to take clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis seriously).”

      This is quoted from:

      As in, I can’t say anything about the origins of the idea, which is the question you asked, but I wanted to point out that very serious people seriously entertained the possibility. I can’t blame fantasy writers for running with the concept if the world of science was willing to give it consideration.

      My take, it took some time for science to figure out it didn’t work, and by that point it was too entrenched in fiction. Like, take genetic memory for a similar example. It’s long been known to be bull-crap, but fictional stories taking the concept seriously are written to this day.

    2. Another thing to be aware about with Bene Gesserit is that Sci-Fi / Fantasy writers around 50’s were very prejudiced towards women. Another example is “Gather, Darkness!” a very nice action novel (proto Star Wars) which makes very sweeping statements about all women and power somewhere in the last third of the book. The same author also wrote “Conjure Wife”, about a man whose wife turns out to be a witch.

      I personally find it interesting that modern feminist-friendly political climate tolerates Bene Gesserit – is it because it appears empowering?

      1. Bene Gesserit have magical martial arts powers and the spermjacking motif is less pronounced than the magical fertility control motif. Simultaneously, Herbert doesn’t get around to putting women as central protagonists or antagonists until the 1980s and the back half of the Dune books. So it’s easy to read the Bene Gesserit subversively, especially since they hit a sweet spot between potent and unthreatening that I think is more appealing than, eg, Russ’s Whileaway to, say, cishet women.

          1. And Herbert must explain this by recourse to having her be possessed by a man’s genetic echo. It’s not until the 1980s that he admitted women could be primary antagonists without having to have space magic explain why they were metaphysically men.

          2. Not necessarily; it might just have been that the Baron was too eeevil a character not to quasi-resurrect.

    3. The turn of 20th century was marked by the surge of new physical phenomena: we found radio waves, radioactivity, X rays, numerous new particles etc. Clinical psychology was founded as a science. Schliemann found Troy. Western colonisers met strange spiritual traditions of Islamic, Chinese and Indian cultures. It was completely reasonable to assume that the mythological and legendary feats attributed to heroes and saints might actually have a scientific basis, and that they could be rationally utilised and developed, just like we had built developed from water mills into hydropower plants, from strange magnetic stones into electrical motors and radio tranceivers and from purple of murex snails into chemical dyes.

      Thus, the early 20th century was filled with esoteric movements that claimed to be doing this. Usually, they were some sort of theosophists, but on the whole, their claims were not completely unbelievable for the contemporaries. Nonetheless, it just turned out to that the parapsychological phenomena were imaginary.

      1. Westerners encountered Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on well before the turn of the 20th century. It is true that some of the mystical cults of the time like Theosophy were inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism.

        1. It’s not that no Westerner met a Buddhist before 1900.

          It’s that there wasn’t enough cross-pollination of people and ideas for Buddhism to leave impressions in Western culture before 1900.

          1. Eh…. Before 1800 you might have a point, but the 19th century actually has a pretty large interest in indian religion (both hinduism and buddhism)

    4. There was a phase in science fiction for “psionics” as a thing. I think it paralleled the fad for “psychic” stuff in mass media in the 60s (crystals etc.) although it had earlier roots (mesmerism, theosophy).

      Much like UFOs, they seem to have become less popular (or at least less spoken of).

    5. My understanding is that while it was obviously not JUST that, the fact that Campbell was a huge believer in ESP and the psychic human future meant that a lot of Golden Age SF included it basically because he liked that kind of stuff, and latter-day SF copied the Golden Age stuff, etc.

      1. Given how much Campbell shaped that era in other ways, I suspect this is the most direct explanation.

    6. “The idea of psychic powers is cool” probably explains some of it (and it’s not like they’re completely gone today—psionic powers are an integral part of the popular XCOM series of games, for instance). Another way to think of it could be that it’s the ultimate refinement of humanity’s one attribute where we excel all other animals: our minds. Going from “my superior intellect allows me to harness nature and tame beasts with tools” to “my superior intellect lets me directly effect change in nature” is an enticing power fantasy and perhaps not too huge of a leap of logic when viewed from the right angle. Also as “Finnish reader” pointed out above, the 20th century had a lot of newly-discovered and poorly-understood scientific phenomena which might’ve allowed such concepts to seem plausible for a time, and the coolness factor let them continue in pop culture even after we’d consigned them to the same scientific bin as phlogiston and luminiferous aether.

    7. As others have said, a _lot__ of people found it plausible, with supportive ‘experiments’ and CIA funding and “we only use 10% of our brains” such. But also Analog editor John Campbell was really into it.

      Also it seemed a ‘scientific’ way to put ‘magic’ into your SF. Sometimes very ‘scientific’, Asimov’s telepathy was supposed to be actual electromagnetism, and Julian May made up some ‘field’ terminology. Other times less so, just ‘psychic’ like Pern or Darkover or _More Than Human_ or Spock or…

      It possibly also helped writers in being more constrained; instead of having to figure out magic rules, you could just grab some mix of telepathy/telekinesis/teleportation and run.

      But, like, even if humans evolving powers isn’t likely, it probably felt more likely than people discovering that chanting the right spells works.

      I think it’s a lot rarer in new written SF, but took longer to die (if it even has) from TV SF: Babylon-5, Stargate, Roswell…

      1. +1 to this post, right here. John Campbell was in many ways a terrible person by modern standards, but he was very influential in sci-fi circles in the 40s-60s and encouraged authors to stick Psionics & ESP in their stories and he’d make sure they got published. Campbell was very influential.

    8. This reminds a bit of Watchmen, though it was made later.

      Even though there are explicitly no costumed heroes with superpowers other than Dr Manhattan, the crucial plot point hinges on the existence of psychics, the existence of which isn’t explored elsewhere in the story. MY hypothesis was just that Moore, being sort of a weird new-agey guy, just assumed psychics existed and no further explanation of that was necessary, just like he wouldn’t have to explain the workings of an internal combustion engine or firearm.

    9. Might be that thinking and mental stuff was one big area that people didn’t understand. Fire, light, machines, space travel, etc. were all being done by machines, physical laws, etc., but how minds work was an area you could plausibly add something like magic.

      I noticed this in computer games, where things like Starcraft and Alpha Centauri kept the psychic powers as something like magic while the rest was machines and more or less reality based things (if heavily exaggerated for coolness like starcraft.)

    10. “humanity’s guided evolution into a psychic race”–You might also mention Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish cycle–written a bit later than some of the other examples–as being in this category.

    11. >However, I wondered if anyone knows of
      >a deeper context that explains why this
      >particular idea was an attractive one to
      >pick up and run with; was there a serious
      >strain of scientific thought at the time
      >which held that humans might be bred
      >or trained… to develop mind-control
      >powers? Was it a product of the postwar
      >drugs boom and related interest in con-
      >sciousness-expanding experiences?
      >Or is there something else I’ve missed?

      Yes, yes, and maybe.

      In the mid-20th century, ‘parapsychology,’ the scientific study of human mental abilities that we today would call paranormal, was treated with a great deal more respect and dignity than it is today.

      The postwar drugs boom- not just the psychoactives, but the proliferation of medication that could tweak the body in various ways, and the corresponding rapid expansion in how much doctors really seemed to understand about the body, along with even the beginnings of a glimmer of scientific understanding of the mind, fueled a lot of speculative fiction about these particular kinds of transhumanism- transhuman capacity as a result of superior understanding of human potential.\

      There was also holdover from early 20th century and late 19th century notions about what evolution meant and the idea that humanity was evolving “towards” some superhuman state.

    12. Parapsychology was taken seriously even outside of science fiction, as the CIA research indicates. I don’t know what made it take off in the 70’s, though. A side effect of regular psychology research? A spinoff of New Age spiritualism?

      I had an book as a kid, the Usborne Book of the Future, which predicted, alongside the usual stuff about space colonies and robots and radios that fit into a wristwatch, that research into ESP would lead to new advances in communications (telepathy), military (telekinesis and precognition), and medicine (aura healing). This was written in 1979, and they predicted it for the 22nd century, which at least shows a little bit of humility and recognizing that this is a very new field that might not pan out.

    1. Yeah. The Jesuits really were an international group that had a pseudo-monopoly on a “power” equivalent to magic: education. This gave them lots of influence specifically among Spanish/Portuguese administrators and governors who had access to Jesuit education in the 1600-1770 era or so. You can see how this earned them some resentment: administrators educated at Jesuit colleges would overturn something stupid and evil the local colonists did, and earn their ire. They proved a useful scapegoat – the Spanish king was convinced by anti-Jesuit advisors that food riots in Madrid were somehow orchestrated by the Jesuits as part of a plot, ‘cuz they just like doing evil stuff to undermine the king, and were kicked out of both the Spanish & Portuguese empires. Very backroom deal manueverings & whispers kinda plot for a novel.

  11. Re. dealing with cavalry archers in video games: while Total War games being far from perfect (kudos from calling out the fairly mediocre portrayal of sieges in the fortification series, again!), I honestly don’t get the bashing here. The tactics you describe – infantry in front to soak up arrows, archers and/or artillery behind to do the killing, cavalry back in the flank to counterstrike at the right time – is THE tactic to deal with cav archers in any Total War game worth its salt. While chasing them down with cav is usually a suicide.

    And funnily enough, back in the day of Rome (I), I remember being asked the same question on twcenter forums and, after having done some testing, I concluded that the most efficient way to handle horse archers, taking especially cost-effectiveness into account, were…slingers 🙂

    Disclaimer: I do refer to older TW games, back when they were, well, GOOD. So maybe that’s the reason.

    1. Yeah that jumped out at me too. My experience is that those tactics work quite well against horse archers in Total War games, so I’m a bit confused at Bret saying otherwise.

    2. I also seem to remember the han-chinese using very similar tactics for dealing with horse archers (polearm-infantry supported by crossbows in their case)

    3. Really, I thought the way to deal with horse archers in Total War games was to overcast Net of Amytok and then delete them with your Sisters of Averlorn doomstack, or charge them with dinosaur artillery.

    4. The criticism- which is laid out at length in the linked article- is that TW horse archers kite from maximum range. This works in TW because arrows are equally deadly at any range. In reality, arrows quickly lose kinetic energy to air resistance, so horse archers tend to gallop in, shoot, and gallop away. The mobility of the horses is useful because it enables you to get close, not keep away.

      The tactics that work against them might be vaguely similar (but then, a combined-arms approach with close-order infantry, missile infantry, and cavalry works against pretty much *everything* in the ancient world), but the battle looks totally different.

      1. “The criticism- which is laid out at length in the linked article- is that TW horse archers kite from maximum range. This works in TW because arrows are equally deadly at any range.”

        I’m aware of that, thank you. My criticism is that none of these statements are actually correct (again, at least concerning the more historical TW games). Horse archers rarely kite from maximum range because their maximum range is in almost all cases lower than the range of foot archers. And arrows in TW are indeed not as deadly at any range. I admit that the discrepancy in lethality might not be as pronounced as it should be compared to real life, but it definitely exists.

        As for the battle looking totally different…well, it does look *somewhat* different because the caracole is difficult to properly simulate in the game’s engine. Although most cavalry archers do have the “Cantabrian circle” formation that comes close to it. But they definitely are similar.

        Again, the discrepancy may come from the fact that I draw my experiences from older (and, dare I say, better) TW games like Rome I and Medieval II, and heavily modded at that. I guess the reason why I’m writing this is so that the audience (and Bret) shouldn’t write off those games so fast and maybe rob themselves of some enjoyment. True, unmodded versions are an endless source of frustration for anyone who is at least a bit versed in history (and I have in fact endlessly ranted about a lot of things re. historicity on TWCenter back in the day :)), but with some quality mods, the historicity is actually much better than they’re given credit for.

        1. My experience is also mainly older titles (plus Shogun 2, which is also fairly old at this point, I guess). My take on horse archers is mostly based on Rome I, which is my favorite and the one I’ve sunk the most hours into, and also the one where I’ve done the most horse archer spam (because there’s two factions, the Parthians and Scythians, built around using horse archers extensively.)

          So! In Rome I, missile units come with two ranges- standard (120) and long (170). The former is the range for all slinger units and most archers, foot or mounted. The latter is the range for a few elite archer units, including a horse archer unit for each faction mentioned above- Persian Cavalry and Scythian Noble Archers. So foot and horse archers generally have equal ranges, but horse archers have the additional advantage of being able to shoot while moving, which makes kiting possible (though finicky) even against equal-ranged foot archers. And if the opponent does the “melee in front, missile in back” approach described here, it’s also possible to kite the melee troops while staying just out of range of the missiles behind them.

          (I think it’s possible that one of your mods alters this to make horse archer ranges shorter, in the name of balance or historical accuracy. Or possibly that it works slightly differently in another title, like Medieval 2, and I’ve forgotten because Rome is the one that’s permanently seared into my brain.)

          It’s true that projectiles lose some accuracy over greater distances, but (in my experience, as someone who is not an expert but has spent an embarrassing amount of time with these games) that penalty is negligible compared to the advantages of greater range- more time to shoot, and safety from return fire. The ideal position for any missile unit is at the extreme limit of its range, because from there it does nearly-full damage while also being completely safe from anything but an equal- or greater-ranged unit. And shorter-ranged units get absolutely shredded by longer-range ones, because the former take a lot of damage while closing with the latter.

          In short, my experience of these games exactly matches Bret’s description, and I confess I’m rather surprised that someone else who also has extensive experience has such a different take. (Though, like I said, spending a huge amount of time on these games doesn’t necessarily make me good at them, and it’s entirely possible that you’re just more expert than me and have mastered stuff I’ve missed.)

          1. Again, thanks for taking time for a detailed reply! It is indeed quite possible that the different experiences arise from referring to different games – I haven’t played Rome I in a while, and although I think I remember it differently, it may very well be my memory playing tricks on me. And thinking back, I now realize that in Rome I, I also played much more with mods than vanilla.

            My experience of the last years comes mostly from Med 2, with mods (also, Shogun 2, but horse archers don’t play a prominent role there anyway). Med 2 engine supports various ranges, and most good mods take advantage of this to really flesh out various levels of archers, all the way from peasants wielding fairly primitive hunting bows, to elite units using longbows or composite bows. Within this framework, the horse archers of roughly the same quality typically have shorter range than equivalent foot archers. Seeing that the horse archers also have a bigger hitbox, and typically less men in a unit (to simulate the presumably less populous steppe polities), foot archers will win almost always in a shoot-out. As you (and Bret) correctly point out, in this scenario their main strength is mobility, which allows them to get away from light cavalry, position themselves at the best possible point for shooting, and also sometimes just charge foot archers (I wonder how realistic this is? I guess a lightly armoured man would be vulnerable to a horse charge…)

            Also, in Med 2, if a unit is wearing any armour, ranged units (unless armour-piercing, but few archers are) will be dramatically less effective, especially in longer ranges. If the defending unit is well-armoured and with shields, shooting at max range and head-on is typically completely useless. I remember once playing a TW version of the battle of Hastings (I think it might’ve even been in the Rome I mod Chivalry!), where I opened with archer fire against Saxon shield wall at maximum range, and the results were…well, pretty much like in real life, 95% of my arrows harmlessly bouncing away.

            I guess the point I was trying to make was that, on this particular aspect, the TW games are at least able to be somewhat realistic (unlike, say, sieges, where they just cannot be salvaged and suck in any version). I concede the most TW games might not be realistic at all in unmodded versions though, it seems that I sometimes forget how much time I actually spent with modded games as compared to vanilla.

            Oh, and FWIW, I do also exclusively play against the AI and almost always on very hard, where the AI opponent seems to also get stats bonuses. Maybe that also makes a difference. In any case, with that setup, and with mods, maximum range is very much NOT where you want to be, except against completely unarmoured opponents.

    5. I think Bret’s referring to his frustration at how many video games treat the “range” of ranged weapons as a “hard limit. Inside? Full damage. Outside? No damage.” This leads to emergent tactics not observed in history, and students familiar with these videogames have misconceptions they need to unlearn in his class. The whole topic is explored at much greater length at the post linked in that paragraph:

      I am unfortunately not familiar enough with Total War to resolve the differences between your comment and that post, but I hope it at least demonstrates where he’s coming from.

      1. Thank you, for your reply! I’m aware of that original post. In my opinion, it’s, to say it gracefully, not one of his finest works. There’s a comment in the comment thread to that post which explains in some more detail how TW actually works, but to sum it up, the range in (at least some of) those games is actually not a “hard” limit in the way he presents it. I’m no modder so I can’t say much on the actual mechanics, but from experience, range absolutely makes a difference in lethality in TW. And not just because of accuracy, mind – I’ve played a few mods where more “elite” archers have a very high accuracy where even at maximum range 75% or more or projectiles will hit (which may be another issue, but we’re not talking about that right now), but with very little lethality. Granted, the impact of range on power and lethality might not be as pronounced as it should be, but it absolutely is there.

        1. As mentioned in other comments, this sounds like a difference due to actually playing different games, so it’s unfair to criticize Bret for describing something that’s different from your personal experience with modded M2TW. As someone who played RTW competitively in online tournaments, I would say Bret’s description is dead-on. Everybody kites from max range most of the time. Sure, getting closer might improve lethality a little, but the difference is so small that it is not worth the risk. Bret contrasting this to the difference in real life make the post one of many gems on this blog, and I rate it highly to anyone who generalizes historical tactics from RTW.

  12. I wonder if horse archers are a bit overrated, since most successful horse people use them in conjunction with heavier cavalry. The parthians and mongols both had an elite corp of heavily armoured lancers who would be the killing stroke in their battles.

    On the other hand, I wonder just how many ‘mongol’ warriors would actually be horse warriors. If they’re drawing soldiers from china and other tributaries you’d see those forms of fighting dilute the nomadic methods. For example the battle of mohi wasn’t won by a caracal or false retreat, but chinese artillery and gunpowder. So perhaps horse archery was no more deadly than infantry in most scenarios.

    1. The Mongols, like other nomads, certainly recruited Chinese, Persian, etc soldiers into their armies.

      But this was *after* they’d conquered those states, so the original Mongols by themselves could defeat powerful armies. Mongol armies were mostly horse archers according to sources, with one European observer (sorry don’t have exact details to hand) writing that only 1 in 10 had armour and weapons heavier than bow and sword.

      1. The Mongol secret was a novel organisation and unified command, rather than any new technology. In general, the nomad successes were balanced by long periods where they were under the thumbs of their sedentary neighbours.

      2. Really? I’ve heard that mongol cavalry was around 40% shock cavalry. Also the wikipedia article on the mongol conquest of china suggests that there were large numbers of Han defectors throughout the invasion. Not to mention their Xia tributaries.

        There was probably a slow transition from a mostly nomad army to combined forces army as raiding turned to conquest.

        1. Chinggis was very systematic. He broke the tribes that came under his rule apart, into standard formations officered by Mongols, ruthlessly eliminated their traditional leadership (which is why Chinggisid descent became a requirement for leadership afterwards – there was no competition). His campaigns were similarly systematic – raid, establish forward bases, move up, go for the leaders, incorporate nomads, go to next target. As they moved into China Han troops were recruited or impressed. I don’t know if this was planned, but it would not surprise if it were (the contemporary sources are not huge, and arcane).

          Nomad armies always had a percentage of medium cavalry, mostly the chiefs and their entourages. Keeping the heavier horses in condition was a challenge, hence nomad desire for grains – and sedentary emphasis on control of trade.

        2. My understanding is that especially for steppe cavalry it’s not neccessarily either-or. Primarily horse archers might carry a lance and primarily armored shock cavalry might carry a bow.

  13. Women and groups of women haver certainly exercised power through men down through the centuries but the idea of a centralized organization of anybody ruling from behind the scenes for centuries is nonsense. Women aren’t that lockstep, People aren’t that lockstep.

    I’ve been re-reading the Wheel of Time and while everybody talks of the shadowy power of the Aes Sedai, and the women themselves look back to a time when they ruled the rulers, what we see if a loosely confederated group of powerful women each of whom mostly does her own thing. And subdivisions, the Ajah, that compete against each other. In other words the power of the Aes Sedai is mostly myth.

    1. Wheel of Time spoilers below, beware:

      I very much like that the Aes Sedai, while in the general mold of the “trans-national secret society that secretly pulls the strings,” doesn’t do secretly (all powerful people in the series generally distrust the Aes Sedai and consider them to be manipulators—though Morgase Trakand is an exception since she actually trained at the Tower and has direct knowledge of how the AS operate) and their agenda is fairly well-understood (preserve stability, find male channelers and gentle them, and, for a *very* few (at first), find the Dragon Reborn). And the esoteric knowledge they possess is directly about things that only they can really deal with (the One Power, Shadowspawn, etc.). *And* that it turns out there’s a lot they don’t know (e.g. that channellers who aren’t bound by the Oath Rod are basically immortal) based on their own institutional prejudices and assumptions about How Things Work.

      1. Minor pedantic correction. Channelers aren’t basically immortal. In fact, the lure of immortality is one of the big ones that the DO uses to attract the channelers who eventually became the Forsaken. The Oath rod, however, seems to roughly halve the extended lifespan of a channeler. 300 is more or less the oldest you can survive being bound by those oaths, and 600 is how old the oldest of other channelling traditions like the Aiel Wise Ones or the Kin seem to get.

        I do like some of the institutional prejudices and assumptions though, like how the ageless look is from extensive One Power usage and not a deliberate side effect of a rod meant to mark dangerous criminals in its original society.

        1. I do think that for his (many) flaws one of Jordans real strength is his depictions of institutions, both that they are often factional but also how they influence their members thinking in various ways. (like the little bits about how the different versions of channelers all have different hierarchies and how that affects how they deal with others)

      2. Same is true for the Bene Gesserit, isn’t it?At least the whole ruleing class, is very well aware of them. There is even a certain amount of awareness of their greater goals as well. Everyone is also deeply suspicious of them.
        They are less a hidden rueling class behind the rulers and more an strange cult, that is accepted because they are useful for diplomacy. I think the comparison to the Jesuits fits best.

  14. Okay, I have more examples of real groups who secretly manipulated rulers:

    1. The Order of Assassins (1090-1275). They did create their own state and built castles, but at the same time they projected great fear. They were famous for not running away after killing the high profile target, but often instead just laughing. They were happy that they earned their place in heaven. I think many terrorist organisations could qualify, especially in places where state power is weak.

    Modern groups:

    2. Scientology

    3. The finance world!!! I think it was Yannis Varoufakis who remarked that best, youngest and brightest no longer go to politics because that’s not where the real power is. The real power is in finance (remember the 2008 bank bailouts?). Or maybe David Graeber, I was watching their lectures around the same time.

    Speaking of Jews, a common meme in Poland is the quote: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” I’ve seen it attributed to Oscar Wilde. Wikipedia says it’s attributed to Voltaire but actually traced back to Kevin Alfred Strom, a (surprise!) neonazi, holocaust denier, white nationalist, white separatist. So if Israel has effective diplomacy and some clout in international organisations, it’s treated as a proof of Jewish conspiracy.

    1. “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

      Usually immediately rebuked with a comment along the lines of “we need to free ourselves from the tyranny of kids with cancer”, innit?

    2. “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

      That does not show who rules over you, but it is a pretty good guide to who they care about. (Or wish to be seen to care about.) Of course, some of the people the rulers care about are themselves.

      Note that you can run the argument backwards: Throughout most of history you could denounce Jews with no trouble at all, so obviously they were neither ruling nor popular with the people who were ruling.

      1. It’s a guide, not a hard and fast rule. Seems the best way to sum things up. Speaks to something real, but can easily be misused.

        1. It doesn’t so much speak to reality as it speaks to “truthiness-” to the intuitive perception that a proposition is true, even though that proposition doesn’t stand up under serious analysis.

          Thinking about it, the vast majority of things in our culture that we’re “not allowed” to criticize (that is: can face serious consequences for outspokenly criticizing because they are widely popular either with the masses or the ruling elite)… Most of those are things that are just popular.

          Criticizing people’s mothers is a good way to start a fight, but that’s not because motherhood rules the world. Insulting kids with cancer will earn you tremendous disapproval, but not because there’s a secret conspiracy of seven year old leukemia patients running things.

          “To learn who rules you, learn who you’re not allowed to criticize” isn’t an argument. It’s an excuse for why a group whose opinions are genuinely unpopular (e.g. neo-Nazis) isn’t getting influence in the legislature. Surely, it’s because the secret conspiracy they’re denouncing is [i]suppressing their power![/i]

          [rolls eyes]

          1. Yes because when people get censured for criticizing a political figure it’s because their opinions are unpopular, and not a persecution of political enemies.

            Hell actual nazi’s made all media state-run so that no journalists could criticise them. Not that criticizing them was unpopular, hell freedom of speech allows you to criticise something that’s popular. Unless it gets censured off the net by people who take offense to it i.e. the FBI raiding journalists and leaking information to state favouring media sites to create propaganda.

          2. The thing is, you’re trying to say that “P implies Q” means “Q implies P.”

            You note that ruling elites often ban criticism of themselves, notably citing an autocracy as your example. Which means you have proven “tyrannical ruling elites get their critics in trouble.”

            But the quote we’re discussing (which, let me remind you, originated with a 1993 essay by a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier) turns that right around. The quote’s obvious message is “if I get in trouble for criticizing something, it must mean the group I am criticizing is a secret ruling elite.”

            This is of course a great argument from the point of view of a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier. Because it means that when they get ostracized for being a Holocaust denier, it’s just more proof that there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy running everything and which “does not permit criticism” of the Jews.

            If I’m unpopular, it’s not because I’m perpetuating nonsense and insulting people who don’t deserve it and the public knows it. It’s because I’m onto something and the conspiracy is trying to shut me down!

            Now, you can certainly point to specific examples of powerful elites who control the government targeting those whose opposition or criticism is a threat to the status quo (see Fred Hampton for reference).

            But you can’t generalize that into “everyone who is shut down, violently or otherwise, by the use of state power or not, is being shut down because they have ‘touched a nerve’ and offended the secret power that controls society.”

            Which is the thesis of the quote we are discussing. And it’s fairly clear, when you think about it, why conspiracy theorists thrive on this. Because it lets them reimagine any group that is unpopular for any reason as martyrs whose victimhood is proof of a conspiracy.

  15. Sorry for double post, I thought it was another occurence! Can someone please delete this post and the sibling (in response to ‘pontifex maximus’)?

  16. Question re. legion vs horse archers: aren’t the thrown javelins enough to repel the horse archers? AIUI, the horsemen have to approach within a few dozen meters to have any significant lethality. At that point, they’re well inside javelin range, and they’re far less protected vs javelins than legionaries are vs arrows.

    1. At a total guess, ammo limiations are a big concern. A dedicated javelineer would only usually carry like 4-5 of them, and a heavy infantryman like the Romans usually had 2. A horse archer could carry dozens of arrows. So you’d have a couple of volleys and you might even do well in them, but then you’d have nothing left to continue the missile exchange with unless you can recover the thrown javelins, which seems difficult.

      1. Which harkens back to comments about slingers: easy to carry large numbers of prepared shot or even just available stones.

      2. My objection to the ammunition disparity hypothesis is that there would be significantly more infantrymen than horsemen in a given formation (horses are big).

        On the other hand, thrown pila would probably be bent or broken (the soft deforming head), thus unrecoverable. I don’t think actually marching to recover thrown javelins would be a problem, IIRC even Crassus’ doomed men formed testudo and walked significant distances, 50m would be easy.

        On yet another hand, a legion going against horse archers would probably stock up on light javelins.

        Maybe the “shields in front, missile troops behind” formation actually has legionaries taking turns as missile throwers? I mean, archers and slingers are specialist troops, whereas a legion already has plenty of guys trained to throw javelins.

      3. “Dedicated javelineers” would likely be poorly armored otherwise. Just because it says “horse archer” on the tin doesn’t mean they were unable to ride up to enemy formation and slice or spear some people – if they spotted a weakness.

        Javelins have relatively short range and are not that accurate. The range is not a big deal against charging light infantry, because they HAVE to get close to you. Horse archers can stop a few meters outside your range and pelt you with arrows(the closest safe range for them). And they had not just ordinary bows, but often composite bows which were made to retain good power and range in a small package (no room to shoot a longbow on horseback). Nomads had to be skilled with bows because they often hunted small game, such as hares or birds.

    2. Basing on writings by Phil Barker, tabletop ancient/medieval wargame rule designer who also relies heavily on sources like Arrian.

      Javelins might repel horse archers once or twice, but unless you can inflict devastating casualties they’ll be back again … and again … and again.

      Individually, throwing a javelin (with full force) requires you to lower your shield and expose your body, not a great idea against skilled horse archers at short range.

      Most classical Greek/Roman era javelin infantry are the poorest of the city dwellers who can’t afford good armour and weapons and fight as skirmishers. The other classical and medieval javelin infantry come from hilly areas where rough ground means infantry can’t form up into solid blocks, so they also fight more in skirmish formations, a series of individual combats rather than line against line.

      But this means that on flat ground where horse archers operate, they are in open formation. As our host has written about previously,

      infantry against cavalry need to form a solid line that horses will shy away from. Horse archers can still charge when they see an opportunity, so will cut loose formation javelin infantry to pieces.

      The Roman infantry carry pila, which are designed to be thrown but they’re still big long spears. Against cavalry Phil Barker writes that they seem to have formed up in a closer formation and held their pila as conventional spears rather than throwing them. That’s what all the other infantry who could successfully stand off cavalry did.

      Even fire arm infantry in the 17th and 18th centuries couldn’t always repel cavalry charges by shooting alone, and still relied on close formation and long pointy things to keep the cavalry away.

      1. Must suck if you’re a fantasy infantry army facing a foe who has cavalry *and* fireballs. Close up and the fireballs get you, open up and the cavalry do.

        1. Very similar to Napoleonic era battles. A lot of the British casualties at Waterloo came when the infantry had to form squares because the French cavalry were close enough to be a threat, but the cavalry didn’t charge and the squares made wonderful targets for the French artillery.

          1. There is a greate scene in Union of Salvation where Napoleon era (ok a little later) infantery is literally shot to bits by grape shot. I think it depicts the horror of that kind of event pretty acuratley.

        2. “Must suck if you’re a fantasy infantry army facing a foe who has cavalry *and* fireballs.” Or if you’re the Lannisters, and your opponents can cut holes in your shield wall with dragonfire and then pour cavalry into the openings. Not to revisit old issues, but I thought Bret’s criticism of the tactics in the Gold Road battle was unfair: it seemed to me that Daenerys’s tactics were appropriate and probably would work for an actual pre-modern army that had dragons.

      2. We’re discussing horse archers. The problem is *not* holding against the charge, it’s making them afraid to approach to effective arrow range.

        Quote: Most classical Greek/Roman era javelin infantry are the poorest of the city dwellers

        I’m talking about legionaries in the Parthian wars. The pros.

        Quote: Individually, throwing a javelin (with full force) requires you to lower your shield and expose your body, not a great idea against skilled horse archers at short range.

        Fortunately, they’re fighting in formation, not individually. First rank raise shields, second rank throw. Swap ranks, rinse, repeat. A formation 10-deep would have about 20 volleys, assuming they somehow didn’t think to bring extra spears.

        1. I’ve now read the translation of Arrian provided by our host. (Not as long as I feared.)

          This is a Roman army fighting “Scythians” who are described as lightly armed with unprotected horses. Light cavalry, not cataphracts or proto-knights, almost certainly horse archers given the setting and being called Scythians who are not really considered noteworthy by classical authors for anything except horse archery.

          The first four ranks are to be legionaries, carrying spears. Assumed to be pilum, especially with mention of iron shanks.

          If the Scythians come close, the spearmen are instructed to hold their spears ready to thrust at the horses. The front three ranks lock shields and stand shoulder to shoulder.

          The fourth rank, and the lighter troops behind them, do throw javelins. The hope is that a tremendous weight of missiles will keep them from getting close.

          But there’s no mention of swapping ranks under fire, no mention of trying to retrieve javelins after use.

          So yes it seems the Romans did use javelins against horse archers. But like every other infantry army that successfully fought cavalry, the most important thing to do is present a solid line of spearpoints.

    3. As Adam notes, there’s the ammunition issue. Even if on any given stretch of frontage at any given moment, your infantry have as many total javelins as the opposing horsemen have arrows, the horsemen can have far more arrows total all over their force, while rotating out archer units to restock arrows and rest their arms between bursts of loosing a lot of arrows in a short time.

      As to the range issue, note that the horse archers’ effectiveness doesn’t have a hard cutoff, even against body armor. Their arrows aren’t as effective at 50 meters as at 25, and are far less effective at 75 than at 50… but in a pinch, they can stand off and pelt your formation with arrows from 50-75 meters, at which point javelins are largely ineffective. A lot of their arrows will miss or glance off of armor, but not all. And they can have far more arrows available, total, than you have javelins, because they may well have brought pack horses in addition to just being able to carry more in a quiver than you can in a bundle. So in a protracted battle that will tell eventually, even if not right away.

      A further possible issue is that the horse archers often won’t be restricted to fighting you along a fixed frontage of your choosing unless you are doing very well with terrain selection. They can, for example, concentrate against one flank of your line and try to lap around it. Your battle plan needs a line item for “how do we stop several hundred enemy horse archers from all concentrating on the 100 guys at the extreme left end of our battle line?”

      If that’s a concern, then you really want to be able to project a “bubble” of firepower around your unit that’s large enough that horse archers can’t even get close to their optimum range without getting shot at a lot. As in, to get a bunch of their horse archers within 25-35 meters of your flanking infantry, they have to come within 75-100 meters of a whole lot of your slingers/archers/crossbowmen. Javelin units don’t really have the range to do something like that.

      If horse archers confront the infantry on your flanks and your army’s only ranged weapon is thrown javelins, then the specific javelin unit actually on the flank is pretty much on its own and cannot be directly supported by other friendly units.

      1. That’s about right. At Arsuf Saracen horse-archers noted glumly that their arrows were ineffective at a distance against armoured infantry, while going closer exposed you and your horse to lethal crossbow fire. A Polish ruler preparing to defend against the Mongols instructed his vassals to bring infantry – “and let them have crossbows”.

        1. Yes, and importantly, javelins don’t cut it in this role, not by themselves, because of the range disadvantage. Crossbows fired at horse archers can more or less match the horse archers’ own bows for effective range. Javelins alone cannot.

          Because even though in real life “effective range” exists on a sliding scale and weapons don’t immediately get full lethality the moment you cross an arbitrary line in the sand and get “close enough…”

          Well, a weapon that can plausibly put an arrow 100-150 meters away and penetrate armor at 50-75 meters is going to have a lot of advantages over a weapon that can plausibly put a spear 50-75 meters away and penetrate armor at 20-40 meters.

          1. Quote: a weapon that can plausibly put an arrow 100-150 meters away and penetrate armor at 50-75 meters is going to have a lot of advantages over a weapon that can plausibly put a spear 50-75 meters away and penetrate armor at 20-40 meters

            The thing is that the horse archers *do not have armor*, and javelins bleed far less energy with distance than arrows, so that if a javelin can hit, it can kill. Whereas the legionaries not only have armor, but it’s spaced armor (their shields) that render arrows far less dangerous.

            I think the legionaries would be lethal to horses, and to the riders for that matter, as far *or even further* than the horse archers are dangerous to them. And there are far more infantrymen than there are horse archers (because they are cheaper logistically and financially, and you can put more in the same space).

            The idea being, horse archers vs legionaries would look less like a turkey shoot (where archers shoot infantrymen with impunity) and more like a guerilla war. The horses have mobility and can strike where and when they wish, but engaging formed infantry head-on is a bad idea.

          2. It’s conceivable that javelins against horse archers do have equal or greater effective range than the horse archers’ arrows do against Roman legionnaires (or other heavily armored infantry).

            On the other hand, “a lot of advantages” includes a lot of options.

            The war of horse archers against heavy infantry is sort of like guerilla warfare, but also not. The horse archers, as noted, have much greater freedom of movement (not always true in true guerilla warfare). Unlike classical guerillas, the horse archers can keep up harassment fire with a lot more flexibility and consistency, even if from ranges at which arrows are vanishingly unlikely to penetrate shields and armor. And this harassment fire can have an effect against the heavy infantry- not necessarily from inflicting meaningful casualties, but from fatigue and from forcing the enemy to maintain tight shield wall formations that cannot move quickly in any direction.

            The infantry’s actual army is safe, but its camp or baggage may not be, and its pack animals may not be. Its auxiliary forces are vulnerable to being drawn out and cut up by the enemy. Access to water may be imperiled if the battle drags out long enough; men cannot stand out in the sun all day forming tortoises against long range harassment archery without something to drink.

            And so on, and so on.

            The heavy infantry force will necessarily struggle to damage the horse archers against their will, even if the horse archers remain close enough to be a clear and present threat. By contrast, a force supported with actual archers can keep the horse archers far enough away from its own lines that it has a bit more freedom of action; foot archers create a larger “exclusion zone” the horse archers cannot safely enter than javelin troops do.

          3. Historically the western Roman armies based around legionaries were most successful against other infantry armies: hoplites, pikes, Celtic warbands. The pilum is the most well known heavy javelin used by ancient infantry thanks to Roman legionaries, but there were Greek peltasts with javelins and spear, and the tribes in Germany started using throwing axes and heavy javelins after being beaten up by Romans.

            As noted by Borsukrates, javelins are a really good weapon against other infantry who are trying to close with you. But they were never adopted on a large scale by infantry armies who often faced cavalry on more open ground.

            The Assyrian infantry, who definitely had to fight chariots and probably cavalry, was front ranks spears, rear ranks bows.


            The Achaemenid Persians started with a similar mix of spears and bows when they established their empire in the middle east. The Byzantines, who had to fight horse archers in Hungary and the Middle East, converted their legionaries into mixed spears and bows. The Crusaders, as noted by Peter T at the battle of Arsuf, stopped knightly charges and relied on foot soldiers with spears front rank, crossbows behind. The Chinese, whether fighting nomads directly or other Chinese armies with nomad soldiers, used front ranks with spears or polearms, crossbows behind.

            All these armies were capable of using javelins, but they didn’t. I assume they knew what they were doing.

            This is NOT to say that javelins are useless. As per Arrian, if you’ve got javelins, you may as well throw them!

            And no, Roman legionaries are NOT helpless against horse archers. But they never fought them often, and didn’t have a great record when they did. Best known example is Carrhae, where a Roman army was destroyed by Parthian horse archers.

          4. And no, Roman legionaries are NOT helpless against horse archers. But they never fought them often, and didn’t have a great record when they did. Best known example is Carrhae, where a Roman army was destroyed by Parthian horse archers.

            Carrhae’s the famous Roman-Parthian battle, but it was by no means the norm. The Romans captured Ctesiphon three times during the Parthian period (and twice more after the Sassanids took over), which isn’t the sort of outcome you’d expect if the Romans struggled to deal with Parthian horse archers.

          5. Javelin infantry vs horse archers is tactics, on the battlefield. Capturing the enemy capital is operational or strategic. As Pyrrhos of Epeiros or Hannibal of Carthage would testify, Romans are really good at winning the war despite losing the battles.

            Compare how long Ctesiphon stayed part of the Roman Empire to say Athens, Corinth, Tyre, Alexandria, Lyon, London.

          6. Javelin infantry vs horse archers is tactics, on the battlefield. Capturing the enemy capital is operational or strategic.

            But you don’t generally get a chance to capture the enemy’s capital if you can’t defeat them on the battlefield.

            As Pyrrhos of Epeiros or Hannibal of Carthage would testify, Romans are really good at winning the war despite losing the battles.

            But the Romans didn’t win their wars against the Parthians by grinding them down with superior manpower. Not only does that not fit with the surviving accounts of the wars, but most of the wars took place after the Roman army had become a force of long-service professionals fighting on distant frontiers, and therefore couldn’t rely on just raising army after army to win.

            Compare how long Ctesiphon stayed part of the Roman Empire to say Athens, Corinth, Tyre, Alexandria, Lyon, London.

            Well, firstly, the reason the Romans couldn’t hold on to Mesopotamia was because it was too far away from their centre of power, not because they were unable to deal with Parthian cavalry archers. And secondly, compare how long Ctesiphon stayed part of the Roman Empire to how long Rome stayed part of the Parthian.

  17. Would the eunuchs who supposedly dominated the government during several Chinese dynasties be a closer analogy than that of the Catholic Church?

    As for the middleman minority: I have been part of several middlemen minorities over the course of my life- I move often- and it is a deeply strange social rung to cling to.

    1. And it’s hard to know how based on reality such supposed domination was since it’s a trope to blame ministers advisors or consorts for the failures of monarchs cross culturally.

      1. I’ve read a theory that the eunuchs faithfully carried out the Emperor’s will, which didn’t always sit well with other elites who had other priorities. Of course criticizing eunuchs was much safer than criticizing the Emperor directly.

        This would explain why Emperors kept hiring eunuchs despite their bad reputation.

    2. IIRC, the point of eunuchs was that since they could have no children, and generally came from unimportant families, they could have few loyalties which could conflict with their loyalty to the Emperor. Hence the trust in them shown by many Emperors. Hence the dislike of them by the intact bureaucrats.

      1. Well, that and they couldn’t sire children, meaning they could be trusted with the wives and concubines of the emperor’s household. Otherwise, you could just have random people from outlying families with no competing loyalties.

      2. Though i do note that it at times was fairly common for eunuchs to adopt. Cao Cao was descended from an eunuch, for instance.

  18. In re: the Catholic Church, if anything it seems more like the secular rulers were conspiring to subvert the Church (by inserting their own loyalists in its upper echelons), rather than the other way around!

      1. The “secular state” should be understood here in the same sense as “secular priest”, I think: a state concerned with the daily matters of the world (as opposed to a “regular priest” who lives as a monk). The medieval states were completely religious in all their works. About every public event or gathering would include a religious element, and many monarchs who worked fervently against the pope were equally serious and honest in their conviction that they were actually better Christians. For example, reformation was not just about local princes opposing the Emperor. It was quite as much about the reformed princes being concerned about their own salvation.

        1. This, even when kings opposed the Pope, or the Church, it was often because they believed they were better representatives of God, not out of some kind of ideological opposition to the notion thereof.

          The medieval state was fundamentally religious, and arguably the entire idea of a secular state comes out of the reformation (and not deliberately!) out of a need to reconcile different religious groups coexisting.

          1. That sounds possible. But most church-state conflicts were about power and jurisdiction not theology.

          2. Well, sure, but I think we also have to acknowledge the extent to which thinking you’re right about the politics will lead you to think you’re right about the theology, too. It’s a totally predictable cognitive bias: those who disagree with me are my enemies, and my enemies are wrong every time we disagree.

            Dr. Devereaux’ refrain that “people believe their own religion” has an important corollary: religious beliefs are part of a larger worldview and can be astonishingly flexible. Believing very sincerely is in no way incompatible with having those beliefs evolve to accommodate worldly concerns.

            Or, Upton Sinclair’s line that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” isn’t just humorous understatement–it’s also an accurate psychological insight; it really is substantially harder to integrate an understanding that disagrees with the rest of your worldview and your interests.

          3. Roxana – true – but ‘power’ included religious power. Rulers were anointed – ie were formally included as religious figures, and were conceived as representatives of their people before God. There was also a tradition of rulers calling and participating in church councils, in the west as well as the east, and deposing popes who were out of line (often for flagrant misbehaviour, in the days when the papacy was the plaything of Roman aristocratic factions). One historian remarked that Charlemagne likely regarded the pope as his VP for church affairs, with himself firmly as CEO.

  19. For secret cabals, what about White Lotus during Yuan and Sufi lodges in Turan/Iran/Anatolia?
    The White Lotus Society was a secret Millenialist (ie doomsday cult) that ended up controlling many rural villages, monasteries and secretly city officials even before the Red Turban rebellion. They were a Mahayana Buddhist cult but heavily Manichaen syncretic and (due to pax Mongolica silk road) very Sufi influenced (the Matreiya Buddha advent was mixed with Shi’ia Mahdi). They trained Zhu Yuanzhang who lead an army in the Red Turban rebellion the White lotus instigated, and eventually overthrew them to found the Ming.

    The Hashishin/Assassins were a covert order who wielded considerable influence in Seljuks, Iran and crusades, through what we would today call terrorism. The Mongols hunted them down

    The Safavid order was a post Ilxanate Sufi lodge that claimed continuation from the assassins. They were masters of diplomacy that created vast webs of allegiance from clans, steppe warriors, Shah’s and even eeven marriages to Byzantine, Trapezuntine and Ottoman princesses. Though surrounded by Timurid princelings, the Aq and Qara Quyunlu, they were immune because through spiritual influence (like charismatic preachers in JW or mormons today) no army would fight them. Then when Ismail went a conquering age 12, warriors came from Ottoman turkey, Mauaranahr, Kwaresmia, Afghanistan and Syria to be his Qizilbash cavalry.

    Later when the Ottomans declared his proclamation of Mahdi as gulat (beyond the pale, the closest Islamic equivalent of heresy) and went to war, so many herdsmen left Ottoman Cappadocia to join Ismail (believing his claim to be Mahdi) that the province was depopulated. The Ottomans crushed him though, using fortified wagon pike and shot formations.

    My point is that secret cabals did exist. The fractured nature of political (and soldiery) power in post Seljuk (assassins) or post Ilxanate/Timur Iranmeant that loyalty to Sufi saints was a more reliable and powerful organisation, even though it would not be apparent on the map.

  20. I think the trope of a shadow cabal is to some extent a reflection that often the titular ruler is not the actual ruler, and formal kingdoms with an absolute king are often oligarchic to some extent or other. I can speak most knowledgeably on Japan. In Japan the emperor has for most of history been only a symbolic ruler. Generally speaking a strong emperor lead to a destructive war, the wars leading to the establishment of the Kamakura and Ashikaga shogunates being prime examples (and arguably World War II).

    That’s not to say there weren’t periods where power was concentrated in one person, and definitely rulers often attempt to consolidate power in their person even in supposed democracies, a pattern seen in Venezuela and Russia recently. But I think hereditary rulers very often WERE having their strings pulled, simply because being born in power was no guarantee of being the type of person who could wield power effectively.

    The shadow cabal is rarely that shadowy, but powerful groups struggling with each other over control in supposed absolute monarchies is definitely a thing.

    1. Japan seems to have been particularly prone to indirection. At one point the most powerful man was a retired Hojo elder, who told the official Hojo head of house what to do, who was regent for an underage Fujiwara shogun, who was supposedly ruling Japan in the name of the Tennou/Emperor.

      Japan and modern China also seem to have a pattern of “I’ll retire from the official position with its boring duties but will still be making the real decisions.”

      1. Nah, you missed a few steps, there was the Kamakura shogun (of the minamoto clan) and then a regent (of the Fujiwara clan) and then you had the retired/cloistered emperor, and THEN the reigning emperor.

      2. It was a long lasting Japanese tradition and may be directly responsible for the survival of the imperial family as the most ancient royal dynasty in the world. The Emperor became the source of legitimacy if not the actual ruler.

      3. Japan and modern China also seem to have a pattern of “I’ll retire from the official position with its boring duties but will still be making the real decisions.”

        I’ve seen that attributed to the Confucian emphasis on filial piety. Disobeying your father would be impious, even if you’re (theoretically) the emperor/shogun/shogun’s regent/shogun’s regent’s regent, and he’s (theoretically) retired and living as a private citizen.

        1. It certainly explains why people who fell out of power weren’t allowed to retire to their country estates.

  21. Thinking about secretive groups manipulating governments, it seems that the Black Hand (Црна рука) and League of Blood (血盟団) were pretty successful at helping start world wars by assassinating politicians.

    1. That kind of secret societies are dime a dozen: but notably they don’t exactly tend to manipulate politics much, Al-Qaeda (to take another example) certainly had an impact on world politics, but they aren’t some kind of secret behind-the-thrones cabal.

  22. Surprised no one has mentioned the Dissolution of the Monasteries yet. Thumping triumph for the guy with the armies over the guys with the books.

  23. It is more often that I’m driven along by the historical concept I want to explain than by the pop-culture reference point, which is why I often find “can you discuss X fantasy novel/show/film?” requests difficult to get my head around if I don’t already have a sense of what the historical concept would be.

    …with Teaching Paradox (sorta) being the exception that proves the rule, since the concept being explored is pop cultural depictions of history rather than history itself.

    [I]n actual history, most power is held by the obvious fellows who command armies and rule states and wield that power openly.

    Plus, being known to have power is its own kind of power. This is a point I think a lot of people both understand and overlook. It’s easy to nod when people point out the perks of fame, how people try to get on your good side (or at least avoid offending you) without having to lift a finger, but equally easy to forget about this kind of universally handy soft power.

    By contrast, secrecy is really only useful for preventing other people from interfering with whatever secret things you’re doing, and that’s only useful for people without power (or at least with significantly less power than someone else). There are ways to contrive an extremely powerful society for which secrecy gives significant benefits, e.g. if it has access to extremely powerful supernatural abilities but limited manpower; however, this is obviously only applicable to certain kinds of fiction.

    1. “A man who must say “I am King” is no true king”
      – Tywin Lanister

      But early GoT is playing with this trope several times. It has sevreal shadowy cabals pulling strings from the background, like Littles Fingers organisation, or the Tagaryen loyalist group. There is even that scene were Little Finger threatens Cersei and she rebuffs him, by showing him that commanding armed men is were the real power lies.

      1. Littlefinger’s “organization” is basically just his personal spy network and people he’s bribed. That’s not quite the same thing as a ‘cabal,’ it’s just one man who’s running a private intelligence service off the books thanks in large part to being free to embezzle funds in his capacity as a state official under King Robert.

        The Targaryen loyalists are a better example of a cabal, but notably they don’t actually do much to manipulate events on a continent-wide level. The extent of their plans is to keep the heirs secure over in Essos and keep their heads down in hopes that something will present an opportune moment to bring the heirs back in. They’re not actively controlling much of anything and they’re not a power bloc; the closest they come to directly influencing events is from taking advantage of the general collapse of factions that might oppose them.

        1. Little Finger obviously sees himself as a powerbroker. And the whole point is, that he is rebuffed, because his behind-the-courtain soft power, means nothing without boots on the ground.

          The loyalists have at least on agent in the small council. And at least in the books they activly working to destabelize Westeros, and are able to arange deals pretty half an continent over.

          But as I said, the books are playing with the trope, by making those organization pretty ineffectual at the end.

  24. Why the emphasis or importance placed on video games as a reflection of historical battle tactics? Why are video game designers or programmers looked on as some sort of savants? All they are concerned with is entertainment value, marketing, and PR. They are not serious students of history or the military. I keep being bemused by references in these blogs to videogame simulations of ancient military history. Disclaimer/contextual note: I once worked for TSR Hobbies and other game publishers as a game designer, long ago, pre-computer games as such. But we never considered ourselves arbiters of historical accuracy.

      1. It’s because pop culture gets a lot more exposure than actual historic investigation, so if games or tv shows etc are presenting inaccurate information a lot of people will only see that and will end up thinking it’s true.

        Look at the likes of Game of Thrones, which presents almost everyone in the middle ages as living in filth and that no one believed in their own religion, or games like Skyrim (and tons of others) which present archery as requiring almost no strength and armour as so heavy barely anyone can wear it.

        Those examples are completely wrong, but I’ve seen so many people assume they are correct because they don’t realise that the producers have either made a mistake or are just acting off previous tropes themselves. Or just don’t care.

        1. One thing I’ve noticed is how many people, even in historical discussions, use the GOT-style “House Tudor” (or whatever) rather than the more accurate “the House of Tudor”. A small example, maybe, but I think a significant indicator of how many people get their ideas about medieval history from watching Game of Thrones.

          1. Final Fantasy XIV, at least in the English version, is full of odd turns of phrase pillaged from Game of Thrones.

    1. >All they are concerned with is entertainment value, marketing, and PR.They are not serious students of history or the military.

      Game developer here. Some of us actually care about plausibility. Of course we’re in the entertainment business. But there exist a significant number of people who are entertained by games that are (as far as possible) immersive, realistic and historically/physically/psychologically accurate.

      I think our host is right to wish for less nonsense in games. It’s fun to walk a mile in another’s caligae.

  25. The vyzantines definitely spent a lot of focus on fighting enemy cavalry and especially using your own cavalry that you can see in the existing military manuals (Really good sources, Strategikon and tactica are great. Especially at seeing some evolution in Byzantine thought as the tactica is a reproduction with some changes reflecting modern enemies of the strategikon).

  26. On the other hand, climate change skepticism really is backed by a business conspiracy of very rich people funding think tanks, news agencies, and sketchy scientists to make climate change seem less scientifically secure. They take pains to hide exactly where all the money goes.

    But there is no such thing as a conspiracy so good that it can’t be figured out. it’s not hard to figure out the Koches and other energy sector businesses are funding climate change denialism. It is hard to find out exactly where all that money goes to. It requires digging. And that’s the heart of it. Make it too hard for the average person to figure out easily. Bury the links behind links until you have to go a dozen deep to find the source.

    1. > But there is no such thing as a conspiracy so good that it can’t be figured out.

      Well, not that we know of.

    2. Also tobacco company funding FUD regarding smoking and lung cancer; the sugar industry framing dietary fat for obesity; Russian and Chinese online disinformation campaigns; corporate ‘astroturf’; the CIA allegedly funding modern art and literature…

      1. None of these things seems terrifically effective: middle-class suburban attachment to cars and detached houses seems more powerful than secret energy company think tank contributions, the tobacco companies have been in steady retreat for several decades, the power of Russian and Chinese propaganda has hardly rendered the American government more friendly to either of them, etc.

    3. The most blatant conspiracy’s are the ones everyone knows but are gas-lit by the government, such as fraudulent votes or the people investigating hillary clinton ending up dead “comitting suicide”. Remember when fauci said there wasn’t an epidemic in china when corona virus just started?

  27. Have they intended to achieve this?

    If not, then I would definitely not count it as success. If yes, then I would not credit it fully to them.

  28. > with no real common agenda,

    That reminds me of an example where French freemason lodges had enough of a common agenda, with l’affaire des fiches, where lodges across the countries were providing information on religious and political orientation of officers to the minister of war, enabling him to discriminate against those with unwanted opinions

    1. Sorry, it was supposed to be a reply to ey81’s post above. I guess I’ll avoid replying to comments on my mobile phone in the future.

  29. “And as an aside, “Was the Fall of Rome Bad and If So How Bad Was It?” is one of the long-response topics up for voting over on Patreon for members of the ACOUP Senate, if you want me to write something more on that and the historical arguments that swirl around that question.”

    Yes please. While the “total disastrous collpse” narrative held from the Enlightenment to Modern Times seems to have been largely modified, there seems to be a counter model that appears to have gone too far the other way, treating the Declne and Fall as no big deal, just another phase. It sometimes goes as far as to suggest the term “Dark Ages” (itself problematic) was merely due to an absence of contemporary written documents because of a hitch in parchment production.
    This (regrettably but honestly) seems to be sourced to some, ahem, rightwingCatholicauthors (it doesn’t hurt if you say it fast) who, while accusing their opponents, sometimes rightly, of characterising the whole Middle Ages as a barbaric Dung Era, go to the other extreme and see it all as the High Middle Ages, full of happy peasants shepherded by learned clergy who were mostly concerned with admonishing the rulers for the sake of the lower classes.

    As to population collapses in China, is somebody suggesting that Stephen Pinker is not a reliable spource (sarcasm tag)?

    1. There’s a bunch of things going on, partially it’s trying to highlight the different areas. (obvious one: hard to talk about a “collapse” in areas outside of the roman empire per se, though it certainly had consequences, but even so Britain and Italy faced very different situations) and the other thing is the question of “To what extent did the collapse of organized state functions actually make life worse for the average person?” and the third is the question of “To what extent are those the effects of the collapse vs. the causes?” (eg. population decline starts before the Empire collapses and continues afterwards, similar thing is happening with quite a few other trends)

    2. This (regrettably but honestly) seems to be sourced to some, ahem, rightwingCatholicauthors (it doesn’t hurt if you say it fast) who, while accusing their opponents, sometimes rightly, of characterising the whole Middle Ages as a barbaric Dung Era, go to the other extreme and see it all as the High Middle Ages, full of happy peasants shepherded by learned clergy who were mostly concerned with admonishing the rulers for the sake of the lower classes.

      I think it’s more because of academics’ need to say something novel in order to justify their research. The idea of the dark ages being awful was the dominant one until a few decades ago, so if you worked on the period and wanted to say something new, the obvious take was “Actually, the dark ages were good.” In a few decades’ time, I expect we’ll see a swing back to “No, the dark ages were really quite bad after all.”

  30. Bows aren’t guns.

    They’re rather bad at actually KILLING a moderately armored man with a shield.

    They are good at getting that man to run after you, run away, or huddle up into one spot. And in two of those, that man is dead when you or the heavily armed lancer ride him down, and in the third he still can’t hurt you back. It’s about controlling the battlefield and making the enemy move how you want.

  31. Also none of my replies end up actual replies and instead their own separate thing. XD I will never get technology

  32. Disclaimer: I haven’t read any specialist literature on the Bronze Age Collapse. However, it seems to me that sometimes the preceding period of stability is exaggerated. Egypt had its two intermediate periods when the unified state broke down, around 2200 BC and 1700 BC. Both were worse for Egypt (in terms of state stability) than 1100 BC. Mesopotamia was only intermittently unified or even dominated by a singly polity: the Sargonid empire, Ur III, the Old Babylonian empire (Hammurabi), the Old and Middle Assyrian empires, then later the New Assyrian empire and the Chaldaean one… As far as I know, most surviving cuneiform texts date from either the Old Babylonian empire (before 1600 BC) or after about 800 BC. So the downfall of the Old Babylonian empire at the hands of the Hittites and Kassites would seem to have had more of an impact than anything around 1100 BC.

    For Greece, of course, the loss of writing and centralized bureaucracy is a big deal. However, for comparison, almost the entire Balkan Peninsula, with the exception of the immediate surroundings of Constantinople, Thessaloniki and to some degree Athens, Thebes and the fortress of Monembasia, lost writing between 612 AD and the 9th century AD.

    All of which is to say: I don’t quite understand why the “Bronze Age Collapse” gets so much press. The Egyptian Old Empire collapse and the downfall of Sargonid Akkad in the 3rd millennium BC and then of Babylon around 1600 BC, the end of the Indus Valley civilization, the end of the Han empire, then the drawn-out end of the Tang Dynasty, all seem to be more dramatic to me. Hardly anything can be as dramatic as the events of 750 AD, the first act of Tang downfall!

  33. Hey Bret, just wanted to tell you that Thunderbird and probably a few other email programs flag your [New Post] emails as phishing, probably because they include the whole post and thus the field to enter your e-mail address! I don’t know whether the field in the email would actually work at all, but it seems unnecessary given that you only receive the e-mail if you’re already subscribed.
    In light of this, do you think it would be worth changing the way the emails are generated to no longer include this field, probably making the phishing warning disappear?

  34. On the subject of the fantasy-writer’s problem of combining cool magic with a familiar mediev-esque social structure that would be absolutely disrupted by said magic:

    One method I’ve seen for dealing with this is magic systems that deeply constrain their wielders; for example, magic that can only be used by or with the permission of a legitimate holder of X noble title, often working as a tangible denotation to the reader of more fuzzy concepts like dynastic legitimacy or religious credentials.

    1. “On the subject of the fantasy-writer’s problem of combining cool magic with a familiar mediev-esque social structure that would be absolutely disrupted by said magic:”

      Which makes me ask, in our actual medieval Europe where belief in the supernatural was ubiquitous (even if it didn’t actually exist), what did people do to ward off these supposed magical threats? AFAIK people used a combination of folk charms and holy church rituals.

      1. Iron to ward off fairy folk, garlic for vampires, signs to avert the evil eye, hex marks to guard against witchcraft, charms and talismans beyond counting, and that’s just folk magic. The sign of the cross wards off evil, prayers can exorcise demons, blessings to protect women after childbirth, baptism to protect her newborn. It goes on and on.
        The common folk were very well defended against malific magic.

        1. Ah, see, so that’s why magic didn’t really have any observable effect. People were too well warded against it!

      2. When it comes to “pro-social” sources of supernatural power, the solution was usually to follow social strictures very very punctiliously; see Dr. Devereaux’s primer on oaths in the ancient world for an example.

          1. (Assuming this is in re: another of my comments?)

            The typical literary trope there – see, again, Aragorn – is for a person’s use of supernatural power to serve as proof of either their legitimate claim, or of the prestige of the title, or both. The Return Of The King, as a trope, after all requires the audience and polity to be convinced both that this rando is the King and that it matters.

      1. A Practical Guide to Evil is a fun one, in that certain classes of supernatural powers require their wielders to conform to certain cultural narratives.

        Re: using them as symbols and reinforcers of more fuzzy issues of legitimacy, that goes all the way back to The Lord of the Rings and the powers it attributes to the line of the Kings of Numenor. A particularly interesting example is “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer” – the attribution of physical healing powers to a legitimate king (not to a steward, note!) which were an actual thing believed in mid/late medieval northwestern Europe. There’s also a vague implication in modern Arthurian legend that the supernatural powers attributed to Arthur are tied deeply to his combination of dynastic legitimacy and vaguely-Christian moral certitude.

  35. Just a nitpick: the fact that Jewish people were prominent in finance in the Middle Age is a bit of an anachronism, and the fact that the reason is that Christians did not lend at interest is a bit of a myth. The prohibition to lend at interest was never really enforced, not even by religious reprimand or social ostracism. Not only the idea that lending at interest was a sin never really gain traction outside theological debate, but a lot of theologians in fact disagreed!
    In fact, during the Middle Age, the main bankers and merchants are mainly Christians, with Jewish ranging from skilled craftsmen to skilled professionals. If a Jewish person was to be in a medieval court, it would be way more likely he was a physician or a juris doctor, not as a banker.
    Jewish communities become heavily involved in banking and trade only later, during the early modern period. Again, not because Christians could not do that or because Jewish were forbidden to own land, but because at this point Jewish community were heavily self selected, since for centuries impecunious or uneducated members had dropped out, and Jewish communities started having closer relationships with each other. THAT was the comparative advantage of Jewish people, being a community made up only by affluent and educated individuals, who by necessity developed an extensive network with affluent and educated communities spanning across the whole continent, that became crucial as Europe became more economic integrated in the XVII century. Christians could, and in fact did, enter in banking, they jut happened to not have the same comparative advantage.
    Source: The chosen few, by Botticini and Eckstein

    1. There were still Jewish moneylenders.

      And if a man dies owing a debt to the Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if he leaves children under age, their needs shall be met in a manner in keeping with the holding of the deceased, and the debt shall be paid out of the residue, saving the service due to the lords.

      Yes, it does go on:

      Debts owing to other than Jews shall be dealt with likewise.

    2. The Chosen Few is a controversial work, according to wikipedia. (I haven’t read it.) I wonder if Prof. Devereux cares to favor us with his views.

  36. ‘The thing is that the horse archers *do not have armor*,’

    Are you talking about some specific archers who didn’t have armor? Because saying horse archers in general never hard armor seems to be false; wikipedia talks about various heavy horse archers in mail or lamellar, up to cataphract archers. Different tactics though, volleys more than skirmishing.

  37. As a Jew, I find the question of why hidden strings pullers are such a… trope to be a particularly poignant one, and I know this post is older but I’m just reading it now and I want to leave my Unmitigated Opinion on the subject because man I have some Thoughts:

    Conspiracy theories are fundamentally about control and about power and about understanding. When you feel out of control, when you feel powerless, and most of all when you don’t know who to blame, a conspiracy theory gives you someone to blame.

    Sometimes, that feeling of powerlessness is based on something real, even if it leads you to buy into horrible conspiracism. This study found that votes for the Nazi Party in early 1930s Germany were strongly correlated with rising local mortality rates. Sometimes, your feeling of powerlessness is based on existing bigotries, often as part of a dominant social, cultural, or economic position beginning to erode. The biggest single factor in the demographics of the January 6th insurrectionists in the US was coming from a county that had grown less white, ie more diverse: (also re-reported elsewhere if waPo gives you a paywall; here’s a couple that Google gave me: )

    But the thing is, sometimes someone, or more likely a group of someones, really can be said to be to blame for your powerlessness! And the resulting cultural products can be feel very much like conspiracy theory. Consider Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century, and one theme often used to portray it in political cartoons- an octopus, tentacles (or sometimes pipes!) reaching out to grasp the levers of ‘legitimate’ power and strangle freedom. You can see similar imagery used for all the usual bigoted canards: Catholicism (or “Romanism”), communism, Jews, whatever. But monopolies like Standard Oil really did wield an enormous amount of power at the time! The same visual language used for base bigotry can be used to attack very real centers of power. Or it can be both an attack on real power and a pretense for something else, even! American political cartoonists depicting Imperial Britain as an octopus were depicting a very real world power, but given America’s fondness for empire in its own right, one has to question the intent of these particular messages.

    So then, we have to make distinctions. Imagine plotting them out on a table, or grid.

    If a conspiracy theory is ostensibly about a group having some kind of secret power, we can divide the grid horizontally into three spaces. Let’s say on the left, we have groups that don’t have any kind of secret power. These are your Jews, your Catholics, your queers. On the right, we put groups that really do have power. Generally, this is your capitalism. The middle is reserved for groups that have some power, often serious powers, but not the kind that the conspiracy theory alleges. Think about alien abduction theories, Area 51 and the like, and other theories that allege a massive government coverup. The US government does not do this specifically. But MKULTRA? Very real. The CIA trafficking drugs and installing dictatorships? The CIA has even admitted to some of that! Shady shit was our government’s bread and butter during the Cold War. (Not that our government isn’t shady now, but we seem to have moved on to different forms of shadiness.) Or, for a more right-wing example, consider the general collection of rhetoric about the ‘liberal media’ or ‘woke media’ or whatnot. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that mainstream, corporate media is some bastion of progressivism. But they absolutely do select for certain views, push certain biases, privilege some stories over others, even if those decisions are far more friendly towards the right than the right would like to admit (Tom Cotton op-ed calling for deploying military units against BLM protestors in the New York Times, I’m looking at you). You can argue about whether it’s the result of capital I Ideology or simple economic pressure or both or whether there’s even a difference, but it’s certainly there; it’s just a much more mundane power than what the conspiracy theorists are generally imagining.

    Of course, our table has two axes. This brings us to the second distinction. Vertically, we’ll divide our table into two. On the top, we have groups who the conspiracy theorist thinks don’t deserve that power. On the bottom, groups who the conspiracy theorist thinks DO deserve that power.

    I can already hear you, imaginary reader, saying, with the distinct accent of a British person as imagined by an American person, “Well ‘ang on! Ain’t it the bloody point of a conspiracy theory that the supposed power is illegitimate, mate?!” And to which I say: thank you, imaginary reader, you’re absolutely correct. Conspiracy theories generally involve a secret villain, but never, as far as I can tell, a secret, powerful hero; they pit the everyman against the secretive establishment. (Except maybe for Qanon, which is a whole kettle of fish I can’t possibly wrangle with in this already bloated comment.) This bottom space, then, is a negative space that completes our chart by pointing out where the conspiracy theorist does not see conspiracy.

    Of particular interest here is the bottom right, where a group does have power but is not viewed as a ‘conspiracy.’ Going back to the octopus, you don’t see it used as a symbol of big business so much these days. In the prewar American political conscious, this kind of conspiracy-style rhetoric against big businesses and often capitalism as a whole was not uncommon. After Red Scares and half a century of Cold War propaganda, capital isn’t such an inviting target. Capitalism is freedom, after all! So the conspiratorial tone largely has to move on to other subjects, both old ones and new ones.

    This distinction explains a lot of how we got from the actual Catholic Church to the conspiracy theory canons. Even the earliest popes, who I’m led to understand were more like kings who happened to claim their legitimacy from religion, were never a secret cabal. People believed in their religion, so they believed in the legitimacy of the pope. The institution of the church could be opposed and fought with, but it was almost always viewed as at least partially legitimate. Fast forward 1400 years, give or take, and you have the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. Suddenly, we move from the bottom to the top; the institution is no longer seen as legitimate. Now, you have room for conspiracy theories, though I imagine that it takes generations of people living in Protestant majority communities to other the Catholic Church enough that you get into the really heavy stuff.

    You can see this question of legitimacy unfolding in real time in the US today. The federal judiciary is a good example. For a long time, the mainstream liberal position has been to view the court as essentially apolitical, ‘just calling balls and strikes’. This is the position that the justices themselves try to portray, for understandable reasons. Being a politician taken to task for their position kinda sucks! Judges would much rather be understood as subject matter experts, as academics answering academic questions; that way, if you disagree, you’re just wrong about the subject, or more charitably having a different interpretation of the question, rather than objecting to some real decision that has material impacts on people’s lives. (This, incidentally, is probably some of the appeal of liberal, ‘apolitical’ technocracy to elected politicians. No one can accuse you of selling out your ideology if you claim not to have one, right?) The right, meanwhile, has understood the judiciary as a vital part of the conservative political project since at least the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, if not earlier. There’s a whole ecosystem devoted to cultivating conservative legal talent, organizations funding conservative legal studies, entire fields of legal scholarship that just happen to usually guide the reader to conservative outcomes. With the installation of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barret to the Supreme Court, I think it’s fair to say that for the moment, the right has won. They may have continued to move right and froth with rage when the court isn’t quite conservative ENOUGH for them, but by any reasonable metric (IE, you’re not a political opinion writer for a major newspaper), the right has won. And yet, it’s taken two decades after Bush v. Gore, you know, that thing where the Supreme Court basically called the presidency for Bush along strictly ideological lines, for mainstream liberals to finally cotton onto the idea that maybe the Supreme Court is a fundamentally undemocratic institution (it is) and maybe we should do something about that (we should)? And even then, it’s largely coming from the left flank, which has been on that shit way longer than the mainstream Democratic Party and has only now been able to make the mainstream at least pretend to consider it. And those circles of either traditionally left wing or more recently radicalized left-liberals often talk about the Supreme Court as a conspiracy! Nine unelected politicians in robes, making shadowy decisions sometimes literally in the dead of night! It’s almost effortless to write about the Supreme Court in that tone. Weird clothing, weird habits, a small, secretive, selective group which nonetheless can carry immense power over the country and indeed the world. Really explains why so much of the justices’ public speaking (and much of John Roberts’ work as chief justice) is devoted to trying to defend that legitimacy.

    I could go on, but this post is long enough already!!!

  38. Thanks for that thread about Bassus — my only encounter with him before was his bit part in Antony and Cleopatra. He’s got quite a backstory!

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