Fireside today to close out the week; if you missed the main post for this week – a review and discussion of Victoria III – because it appeared earlier you can head back to read it.
This is going to be the last post, however, before my November break. As I’ve noted before, I’m planning to take November as an ACOUP-sabbatical in order to make a concerted push on my book project; while I do balance blog-writing and research writing normally, sometimes it just helps to be able to focus singularly on a project for an extended period of time. So that means that the next normal Friday post will be 12/2/2022. Meanwhile to be fair to my patrons who are supporting this project, I will be posting some short sections of the book project for them over on Patreon. If this break works out, I may make it an annual thing (though I’ll probably pick one of the summer months) along a similar set of lines. But fear not, change not ye bookmarks, we will back back to our regular schedule in December; I’ve got a really cool guest post to share with you, along with a discussion of Roman Egypt and my own lukewarm takes on some of the worldbuilding in Rings of Power (also lest any of you fear that ACOUP is going to become an all-Paradox-all-the-time space; there will be more Teaching Paradox series, but probably not for a bit).1
Since I am taking the next month off of the blog to work on my book project, I thought this might be a good time to talk about my book project, outlining the questions I’m examining, the kind of research I’ve done and some of the conclusions I’ve come to in ‘elevator pitch’ form (albeit for what seems to be a fairly tall building).
The one sentence version is: My book argues2 that Roman military success in the third and second centuries B.C. was a consequence of superior Roman mobilization systems rooted in Italian social institutions which expressed themselves in the form of a comprehensive mobilization advantage, both more men but also more expensive men, which I can in turn detect by looking at the evidence for the costs of fielding armies in the period, particularly the cost of equipment. I didn’t say it was a short sentence.
First we need some necessary background; my project is focused on “the third and second centuries B.C.” The Roman Republic functionally completed the conquest of peninsular Italy in 272 B.C. with the capture of Tarentum. The peninsula was split between Roman territory (about 1/3 of the land area) and the territory of the socii, formally Rome’s allies but in practice subjugated communities required to send troops to Rome’s armies and denied any other foreign policy (but internally self-governing). Then in 264, Rome got itself into a scrap over a small town in Sicily (Messina) which then blew up into a major war with Carthage. That war would trigger a chain of other wars, driven in part by Rome’s belligerence and in part by the also considerable belligerence of every other large Mediterranean state. Rome thus would enter a series of wars against the Carthaginians (the Punic Wars), the Antigonid kingdom of Macedon (the Macedonian Wars), one war against the Seleucid kingdom (which ruled much of the Middle East), along with literally dozens of smaller conflicts in Spain, the Balkans, Cisalpine Gaul (today Northern Italy) and Transalpine Gaul (today Southern France). By 133, the Roman Republic was the unquestioned master of the Mediterranean, having destroyed or humbled all of these rivals – in such a position that a Roman tribune (Tiberius Gracchus) could disestablish a major kingdom (that of Pergamum) simply by passing a law in Rome. It is this range, from 264 to 133, a sort of ‘long second century’ where Roman dominance comes into being that is my focus.
Naturally the question of how Rome was able to effectively run the table, overturning the entire Mediterranean state system in just a century and a half or so, is an important one. Traditionally, scholars have pointed to some of the tremendous and outsized Roman mobilizations (especially in 216-214) and thus argued that ‘manpower’ was the Roman secret: Rome had, in the words of Nicholas Sekunda, “horde after uncomplaining horde of Italian peasant manpower” to throw at its enemies.3 You can see this focus animating some of the important foundational works in Roman demography for instance – the assumption being that if we could count Italian peasants, we could understand Rome’s success.4 To put it kindly, this answer is not actually very helpful, because as we’ll see raw population – manpower in the most basic sense – was not the problem ancient states faced in mobilizing armies. The more sophisticated studies of this sort instead focus on mobilized manpower; Michael Taylor has noted that Rome’s ability to mobilize manpower seems largely unconnected to its relatively weak state finance, for instance.5 But that just poses the question anew: why was Rome able to mobilize so much more manpower? Evidently state finance wasn’t the answer, so what was?
It isn’t that the Romans just had more surplus manpower because, as we’ve noted here, the nature of ancient agriculture meant that everyone had lots of surplus manpower, with small farms generating little surplus because they supported families that, as units of labor, were much too large for their tiny farms. I work this out in the project with some modeling of ‘typical’ smallholders, but the upshot is that the countryside was pretty much always going to be ‘long’ on labor but short on agricultural (or other economic) surplus. But you need that surplus to support a population of non-farmers, to provide their wages, equipment and so on. The question was never finding a lot of farmers with not a lot to do (they were the one thing you had a lot of), the question was turning those farmers into soldiers, which was in turn about prying resources, not people out of the countryside.
And here is where my focus lies: the main constraint on raising armies were the costs of turning farmers into soldiers, but those costs were often not borne by the state. At Rome, for instance, the Roman state paid only for the wages of Roman soldiers and the food of allied soldiers. Roman soldiers had to pay for their food out of their wages and allied soldier’s wages were presumably paid by the community required to send them to Rome’s armies. Both sets of troops had to pay for all of their own equipment (which for the wealthy might include a horse) out of pocket. Consequently, as Taylor has demonstrated, measuring state finance isn’t a good way of getting at military power, because a lot of military spending wasn’t done by the state and so state expenditures are very poorly correlated to military strength or success. Very wealthy states often struggled to field top-rate armies that could compete with Rome.
So in my research I set out to get a handle, as best I could, on the total cost of mobilizing soldiers in this period. The approach had to be comparative rather than Rome-focused in order to be useful in understanding Rome’s advantage, so each method I applied to Roman mobilization, I had to apply – in as much as possible – to the systems of Rome’s rivals: Carthage, the three successor states (Antigonid Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Anatolia+Syria+Mesopotamia; seriously, the Seleucid Empire was big), and Rome’s non-state foes (mostly focused on Spain and Gaul). The goal here is to treat ‘total social cost’ – that is the ‘all in’ cost of a soldier including costs devolved onto the soldier himself or subordinated communities.
Now what the ‘manpower thesis’ should lead us to expect is that Roman soldiers should be cheap and expendable; that would neatly explain how Rome managed to bounce back from some really nasty defeats in the third century, for instance. What I found, however, was the reverse: Rome’s way of warfare seemed to be incredibly materiel intense; the Roman soldier was, man for man, the most expensive fellow on the battlefield, a stunning and unexpected conclusion, which is of course the best kind.
Some of these areas were well-studied enough that I could quickly survey what we knew and make comparisons. Rome’s logistics, for instance, were expensive: Rome’s far-flung operations demanded that the Roman Republic ship grain across the Mediterranean to support campaigns (in addition to local foraging); the Roman Republic did skimp on paying its troops (but from this ‘total social investment’ angle that just devolves the labor cost of service onto the soldiers), but it did not skimp on food. Meanwhile, while the Romans sometimes have a modern reputation for not bringing much cavalry (always a very expensive arm, because horses are costly), in practice Roman armies were broadly typical in terms of the amount of war animals they brought to war; Roman cavalry sucked, but it wasn’t for not having enough of it. We can also think about ‘quality’ costs – what today would be training costs; here Roman rolling recruitment and continuous warfare meant that all Roman men of any property were going to spent quite a few years in the army. That’s a cost too: keeping the soldiers out doing something which in turn created this deep well of trained (and equipped, see below) reserves in case of disaster or the need to open a second (third? fourth?) front. Rome’s habit then of always having at least a couple of small wars going could be seen, I’d argue, as a significant investment in quality.
Instead the tricky part was equipment. For non-battlefield equipment, developing a sufficient archaeological sample base was likely to be impossible in this period; we don’t have a really good sense of what stuff and how much Rome’s adversaries carried and identifying dual-use tools as military would be very difficult.6 That said our non-Roman sources, particularly Polybius and Josephus, are unanimous that the Romans marched heavy, with a quantity of heavy tools and building materials (for those fortified camps) that surprised contemporaries familiar with Greek and Macedonian styles of warfare (and they in turn tended to think the Carthaginians did less field fortification, implying that the Romans were heavier than the Greeks who were heavier than the Carthaginians when it came to non-combat materiel).
But battlefield equipment is rarely studied comparatively in this way and there was enough evidence to make a direct comparison of surviving archaeological exemplars. Literary sources and representational evidence can give us a fairly good picture – there are some major uncertainties, but fairly good – of the equipment different kinds of soldiers and warriors carried for fighting. We have almost no price data for this equipment; I cannot tell you how many denarii a good gladius cost because no ancient source records that. But I could compare the material demands – iron, bronze, wood, leather, textile – and in some cases where modern time-and-labor studies had been done, the labor demands, of all of these elements of equipment. I could then sort them into panoplies (complete sets of equipment for a sort of soldier) and then make a comparison of relative equipment cost between armies in the period. That may sound simple in practice but doing this comparison means untangling a bunch of tricky questions about ancient equipment and bringing together a lot of archaeological evidence, so this comparison is the biggest evidentiary chunk of the project.
And what emerges from this, as I said, is that the Romans were anything but expendable: they were the most expensive kitted fellows out there. The main quantitative comparative element ended up being worked metal (iron and bronze) because worked metal was so expensive compared to other materials, for reasons we’ve discussed here before. And the Romans wore a lot of it, 25% more than their nearest competitors, in fact. Indeed just about everyone else’s kit seemed to look for any opportunity to substitute metal equipment for something else (like textile for armor, as in the linothorax). Meanwhile the Romans went gangbusters with mail armor, a new defensive technology whose main drawback was that it was very expensive, being both made of lots of expensive iron but also demanding a very labor-intensive manufacturing process. Initially worn by wealthy Romans, by the end of the period this became the standard armor of the legions, which is just wild.
So the Romans not only had more soldiers (when they needed them), but more expensive soldiers, whose superior combat performance was (I argue) connected in part to the fact that the Romans spared no expense in their equipment and kept lots of them in the field all the time. That makes sense of course: Roman soldiers were buying their own equipment (we suspect, but cannot be sure, that some of Rome’s rivals state-issued at least some equipment) and so invested heavily in their own survival. But this in turn means that Rome’s mobilizations were not just an issue of ‘manpower,’ rather Rome comprehensively out-mobilized its rivals across a wide range of resources.
Which of course led into my second question, “how did they do that?” There’s certainly no indication that it was because the Romans were particular rich; Rome was more urbanized and wealthier than its non-state rivals, but not (in so far as we can tell) compared to the Seleucids, the Carthaginians or the Ptolemies (the wealth of the latter two being proverbial at the time). Instead it looked like Rome dug deeper rather than having a deeper well. That led me to look at the recruitment and mobilization systems each of these groups used.
For the non-state peoples – the Gauls, Celtiberians, Iberians and so on – mobilization seems to have been very intensive, meaning they got a big percentage of their total available resources, but the lack of large-scale state organization meant that the pool of resources was small because these polities (tribes and chiefdoms, mostly) were small. Recruitment was based on the social networks of ‘big men’ – both horizontal and vertical elite relationships – or on ethnic or tribal solidarity; neither of which ‘scale up’ well.
Meanwhile the other major states mostly relied on what I came to refer to as ‘engines of force.’ The core of the state was the army, which used its dominance to extract revenues from a subjugated population which was ethnically distinct (e.g. the Mesopotamian, Syrian or Egyptian subjects of Alexander’s Macedonian successors), which was then used to fund the continuation of that army. Thus taxes were used to raise force and then that force was used to raise taxes and around and around the wheel spins. But that system imposes a lot of administrative overhead and also demands that a lot of the troops it creates be held back to keep the engine running. It also limits the ability to mobilize subject peoples because if you give these folks weapons, they might decide they shouldn’t pay taxes anymore (or that they deserve the same military pay as the Macedonians, a factor in the Great Revolt in Egypt of 205).
The Roman system was different: it relied on what I’ve termed ‘willing compliance.’ There were dire penalties for draft dodging by Roman citizens and Rome interpreted any effort at the same by Rome’s ‘allies’ as rebellion and responded with brutal force, but beyond that there were no real enforcement mechanisms. Rome had one really big ‘stick’ that was very costly and thus fairly rarely used, but that was it. Rome had no bureaucratic presence among the socii and the Roman census which determined military service obligations was conducted more-or-less on the honor system. Instead when it came time to raise an army (which was every year), the consuls put out a list of Romans who were drafted and sent messengers to all of the socii to tell them how many men to send and that was it. And with a few exceptions, that worked, which is wild for a system of extracting manpower from a disenfranchised subordinated populace; the men showed up, having purchased their own weapons, armor and tools (at considerable expense) and the Romans marched off to go crack some skulls. The administrative overhead of this whole system was minuscule.
Now it’s not hard to see why the Romans would show up: this was their Republic, they were fighting under the command leaders they had elected in voting bodies that closely correlated liability for military service with voting. But a little more than half of every Roman army was made up of socii; why did they dutifully show up more often than not?
What I argue is that the ‘secret’ here is the structure of Rome’s alliance system; while it isn’t really an alliance, it also isn’t a one-way deal either. The Romans themselves recognize this, repeatedly comparing the system to another social institution they shared with the other Italians: clientela (we’d say ‘patronage’), a system where by lower-status person could enter into a reciprocal relationship with a higher status person; the former would be expected to support his patron politically, while the patron was expected to protect their clients legally and economically.
The Roman alliance system in turn worked kind of like clientela between communities. A community of the socii, as the junior partner, promised to serve in Rome’s armies and stick by the Romans in war. Meanwhile Rome, as the senior partner, promised to protect the socii militarily and to let them have a share of the loot and glory of successful military action. And Rome largely lived up to that bargain in this period. And that helped foster allied ‘buy-in’ for Rome; whereas being a client in some non-Italian cultures (e.g. the Greeks) was shameful, for the Romans and Italians being a ‘good client’ could be a source of positive honor. There was no shame in this relationship, which is really important for managing subordination in slavery-cultures where any hint of ‘slavishness’ demands a violent response to protect honor. In short this was a good deal for allied communities living in what was frankly a pretty ‘tough neighborhood’ (so the security guarantee was valuable) and who might benefit from loot from Rome’s wars. And crucially it was a good deal they could recognize, that they had a language for, which was was valued in their culture, just as it was in Rome.
That buy-in let Rome rely on ‘willing compliance’ with the allies except in extreme cases, which in turn let them rely on each allied community to manage its own recruitment, under the direction of its own local leaders. That essentially let Rome take it’s very intensive recruitment system and ‘franchise it out,’ expanding the geographic, economic and demographic reach of the system without compromising its foundation in community solidarity and civic militarism.
Consequently, when Rome called, nearly all of Italy answered. Even when Roman armies were defeated in the field (esp. 218-216), only a minority of the socii ever tried to break away; the majority remained with Rome. The result was that Rome could dig deep, fielding armies that were heavily equipped and well-supplied, but also replaceable in a disaster. It also enabled Rome – combined with a Republican political system that allowed functionally any senator to be given the command of an army and be expected to know what to do with it – to wage wars simultaneously on multiple fronts and even against multiple enemies. After 216, the Romans spent the next several years with around a quarter of a million men under arms, fighting simultaneously in theaters in Northern, Central and Southern Italy, Sicily, Spain and eventually the Balkans and North Africa and maintaining an active naval presence the whole time.
It was a spectacular display of military resources, rooted in Rome’s clever utilization of Italian social and political institutions, mobilized through a freeholding farmer class willing to dig deep into their pockets to field the heaviest equipment in defense of communities (both Rome and the allies) they saw as their own.
In any case, that’s the book project! Right now I’m working on getting enough revised chapters together to be able to put together a ‘pitch package’ in January. The joint annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies and the Archaeological Institute of America (SCS/AIA, the biggest ‘ancient world’ professional conference in North America; Jan 5-8), at which I’ll be presenting on some of this, should be ideal place to gauge the interest of some of the key academic presses.
On to Recommendations!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t lead in with a bit of a self-plug of this profile of my teaching and research over at Endeavors, UNC-Chapel Hill’s magazine for highlighting the work of UNC researchers (where I still have a research appointment that keeps me in things like library access that I need for this and other projects), written by one of my former students, Renata Schmidt.
Meanwhile, our heroic narrator is still at it, this time providing audio versions of the Teaching Paradox series for both EU4 and Victoria II (the latter, very well timed!).
In connection with the series we did on generalship in the pre-modern world, I want to highlight this fantastic r/AskHistorians answer by ancient historian, ditch enthusiast and all around good fellow Roel Konijnendijk (whose name I think I have now learned to pronounce) on the use – or lack there of – of battle maps or models by ancient generals. I’d be remiss as a student of Richard Talbert if I didn’t also note that for those interested in reading about how the ancients understood geography, maps and their place in the world, you might check out R. Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (2010) and Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in your Hand (2017).
Meanwhile, over on YouTube, Matt Easton has done a couple of videos at the Wallace Collection with the curator there, Dr. Tobias Capwell, talking first about a set of plate armor stylized to look similar to the distinctive clothing of the Landsknechte, early modern German mercenary infantry and also a longer discussion, focused mostly on Capwell’s books. Meanwhile, Skallagrim also has a video rather vividly demonstrating why rigid head protection was generally the first sort of armor combatants on pre-modern battlefields tried to acquire.
Finally, on the topic of education and particularly teaching reading (an important thing for any humanist whose discipline is based on the written word), I wanted to highlight this recent article in The New Yorker, based heavily on the work and reporting of Emily Hanford who writes over at APMReports and who also has a great podcast on the topic. That’s basically three ways to get to the same conclusion, which is that we know how to teach English literacy effectively; we have a small mountain of studies that confirms what works for the greatest number of students and that’s a phonics-centered approach.7 But reading education keeps getting distracted by the latest ‘shiny object’ to the detriment of students. I find myself often wondering how declining reading achievement in primary school might also be playing a role in the decline of the humanities, as students who struggle with reading due to substandard teaching methods tend to become less enthusiastic readers later in life.
Finally, for this week’s book review, I am going to recommend M.H. Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (2008). The book is, as its title suggests, an analysis of the Revolutionary War from the British perspective, considering what the British aimed to accomplish militarily, the methods that the British army adopted to achieve those ends (from strategy all the way down to tactical adaptation), and finally the success or lack thereof of those methods. The first great virtue of this approach is its treatment of the British army as one engaged in the suppression of what was effectively an insurgency, a perspective shift that will, I suspect, be eye-opening for American readers but is quite valuable for the analysis, especially on the strategic level.
The larger intervention here has to do with tactics: Spring takes aim at the Hollywood vision of ungainly Redcoats marching in deep formations being outwitted and outmaneuvered by the clever Americans. First, Spring explains the whys of linear tactics, which is always a valuable enterprise as to modern eyes such tactics seem almost suicidal and yet they worked extremely well with the technology of the day. This cannot be said enough: with linear tactics European armies conquered much of the world; they were not stupid even if they seem strange to us. Nevertheless, Spring does note that the tight, three-man deep heavy infantry musket line of continental warfare was ill-suited to much of the terrain and fighting in North America, which is why British commanders swiftly dropped it and adapted. Instead, Spring argues, both British and American forces steadily congealed around fighting in two-deep lines with eighteen inch intervals between files, a departure from the shoulder-to-shoulder European formation which owed to both the lack of effective cavalry in the theater and also the rougher terrain. Interesting, Spring’s sources understand the formation as a British adaptation, subsequently adopted widely by both sides. Moreover, British commanders placed increasingly heavy emphasis on light infantry operating in loose order as the screening and assault force for their armies (though it is difficult not to note how incomplete the implementation of this realization was in the organization of the army). The impact of the American marksmen is hardly gone however; Spring notes that in loose fighting, the British response was to try to use light infantry with bayonets to quickly shock American forces into retreat. In relatively open terrain that method worked, but in rougher ground the fighting quickly turned to a shooting match, where the American advantage in numbers told.
Instead, Spring understands British failure (and thus American success) as a consequence of a deeply unfavorable operational environment. British forces, Spring notes, were always outnumbered and lacked the numerical strength to actually hold any substantial part of the countryside. They responding by adopting a strategy of trying to batter the Continental Army with heavy losses, which was hopelessly complicated by the general refusal of American generals (especially Washington after early setbacks) to offer the conditions where that could happen, while the logistical difficulties of operating in hostile country with low population density meant that British forces could do little to force those conditions. The Continental Army could always just withdraw towards the interior where the British regulars could not safely follow, recover and try again. Meanwhile, repeated clashes steadily honed the Continental Army until the quality gap between it and the British regulars dissipated. That in turn was a catastrophe for the British as the logistics, finances and political will for only a relatively small force in North America existed; trading progressively more even blows with the Continental Army was not sustainable and so it wasn’t sustained.
And that’s the fireside. For the Patrons, look for a few snippets of the book project to show up over the course of November. For everyone else, have a great November and I’ll see you all in December!
- But the next one is probably Hearts of Iron.
- Once I finish writing it.
- N. Sekunda, “Hellenistic Warfare” in Warfare in the Ancient World ed. J. Hackett (1989).
- Most notably here P.A. Brunt, Italian Manpower (1971).
- M. Taylor, Soldiers and Silver (2020).
- Easier in the Roman case where later forts and battles like the deposits at Kalkriese provide a good cross-section of Roman non-combat kit, but still very tricky.
- And not a light sprinkling of phonics on an otherwise broken ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ approach.
129 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, October 28, 2022 (The Book Project)”
How reusable was all that gear Romans marched to war with? Or, to put it somewhat morbidly, how many people were likely to wear the same set of mail armor?
My understanding is that a set of mail armor that had failed in one spot — and was just no longer useful to the previous owner — would still be both quite useful and valuable to another person. If that’s not a misunderstanding, is there any sense of a plausible ratio of new production to reuse for a given year’s draft?
More directly: is this something where after a large initial investment, sustaining the heavy kit might not have been as intensive as it would first appear?
I note that during the Dark Ages, the older a sword was, the more highly regarded. Might be loss of techniques but also could be only good swords survive
Or just respect for tradition and age. No doubt they also respected old people, but that doesn’t mean old people were strong.
They were wise. They remembered stuff. Swords don’t remember
Exaggeratedly so. In the religion articles, Bret mentions that the Romans basically took at face value claims to the effect of “this culture/practice is older, therefore better”. However, I’d mention that today you mostly respect cranky old grandpa because you’re nice and sometimes say no to him, rather than because he is paterfamilias and can disinherit you if you say no. (And it is too obvious to mention that today preserved technical objects usually carry an air of “wow, even the best stuff they had is horribly uncompetitive with contemporary ones”.)
Cultural attitudes to history-in-general also differed.
– Classical antiquity: things are getting worse both materially and spiritually. This is where the metallic ages (“golden age” to “iron age”) come from.
– China: cyclical.
– Medieval Christianity: things are getting worse materially, but eventually there will be a happy end. Spiritually, that is.
– Renaissance: maybe if we LARP classical antiquity hard enough (e.g. armor “alla antiqua”) we can get back some of that? Not outdo it or anything, you understand, that’s impossible; only restore some of the loss.
– Enlightenment: humans can understand the world and reshape it for their benefit. Yay Progress, both material and moral! Incidentally, the gods are kind of unimpressive when problems are not like “it’s so dark at night, I’m afraid I’ll get eaten by a
gruewolf” but rather like “we make so much light at night that I can’t see the stars”.
An old sword was a heirloom, a thing your ancestors did deeds with, proof that your ancestors were aristorcrat´s or warriors and they were rare and expensive
If an old sword had seen many battles and was still in good shape, you knew it was a quality item. A poorly made sword might look good fresh out of the forge, but after several battles it would have a bunch of damage on it and might even break.
If nothing else, I’m quite confident that any piece of iron or steel equipment produced by the pre-industrial metallurgy cycle can be reprocessed into new equipment at much less cost of fuel and labor. Recycling compares very favorably to the cost of digging new iron ore out of the ground and smelting it with extensive use of charcoal that is itself labor-intensive to make.
Even a sword that’s been sitting underground on a muddy battlefield until it’s a mass of rust, well… you hear the word “rust,” I hear the words “high-grade iron ore, chuck it in with the rest of the ore.” 😉
Perhaps one of the ways in which the “long century” of Roman expansion created a positive feedback cycle for the Romans is a side effect of their battlefield victories. The winner of a battle is generally in a good position to recover weapons and armor off the enemy dead, along with any equipment cast aside by the retreating enemy. When you win most of the battles, you get to loot the enemy’s metal very often, while rarely having your own metal be looted. This makes metal cheaper for your society as a whole, and means you’ll have a deeper pool of good equipment, such as lots of heavy metallic armor.
And beyond the raw material gains, making new equipment is a high-skill task whereas repairing equipment would frequently be less so. Extensive and regular wear on armor would make it much easier for a society to train up craftsmen from apprentices.
Not necessarily failed.
Look at Skallagrim´s vid,
Maille etc was not there to make someone invulnerable but to add better protection and iexpect some got inherited over time
“My understanding is that a set of mail armor that had failed in one spot — and was just no longer useful to the previous owner — would still be both quite useful and valuable to another person.”
Think of it this way: mail armor wasn’t a single thing. It was a few thousand things. The failure of a dozen or so links via spear-thrust wouldn’t impact the utility of the links outside that zone of impact. Any links not broken or bent to the point of being useless could be re-used. If it’s one or two holes in a shirt, those holes can be repaired and the shirt is literally as good as new.
The process of repairing the armor was identical to the process of making the armor in the first place. You make the links, flatten the ends, put a hole (or two; specifics depend on location and time), and rivet it. (Solid links were used in the Middle Ages as well, not sure about Rome, but they’re easy to add.) Doing that 20 or so times to repair a shirt is ALWAYS going to be more cost-effective than making a whole new shirt, due to the drastically reduced scale of the project. Since the methods are literally identical scale is the only thing that really matters when differentiating between repair and replacement, and repair wins hands-down. The fact that the hole is inside the shirt doesn’t matter, the weave used for mail armor (European 4-in-1) allows for you to work inside the armor without any significant problems. And I’ve heard (but cannot confirm) that armorers often would make patches of mail that could be “sewn” together to quickly make armor, meaning that they’d already be used to dealing with links inside the weave.
A minor hole may not even matter. If your opponents primarily deal slashing blows, or primarily have weapons that mail is bad against anyway, a small hole is unlikely to make much difference.
If the mail armor is too beat-up to be worth repairing, you can strip it for spare parts, which greatly increases production time or allows for more extensive repairs to existing armor, either of which is a benefit.
Other items would probably be subject to similar calculations. If the cost of repair is lower than the cost of replacement you repair; otherwise you replace.
Okay, that basically tracks what I expected. So, whatever your losses in personnel, you only lose *gear* (well, the particularly expensive metal gear) if you lose the battle and thus aren’t in a position to reclaim the armor, etc. of the fallen? That would seem to make the economics of heavily armed soldiers much more practical.
I recall the blog talking a bit about looting the *enemy* dead, but don’t recall it talking about norms around *allied* dead (but maybe I’m forgetting). Since soldiers had to buy their own gear, by modern norms I would think of it as belonging to their families but I don’t expect that to hold here. Was it finders-keepers for whatever soldier got it first? Did the Roman military lay claim over all allied “spoils”? Or is this one of those “our sources don’t tell us so we just don’t know” things?
I would expect looting of allied dead to be unusual and discouraged.
If soldiers bought their own gear, then by most ancient and medieval norms it also is inherited by their families.
On the personal level, Bret has written before about small unit cohesion and bonds among effective warriors / soldiers. It’s generally safe to take stuff from the dead on the losing side, but if you try to take stuff from allied dead, the friends / comrades of the deceased will most likely object and they have weapons.
(Friends / comrades might say “Well my sword is busted, he wouldn’t mind me using his sword for the rest of the campaign until we get back home.” That’s not looting.)
On the organisation level, even if the general / state regards allies as of lower status, it’s still not a good idea to aggravate members of your own army by disrespecting those slain in battle.
And although I doubt it was explicitly stated, the state or equivalent benefits from the weapons and armour going to the family. Rome will want a younger brother or cousin or somebody to replace the dead, so make sure they’re properly equipped.
With a large army, I’d expect there’d be a lot of, “We don’t know who this is, even though it looks like he was on our side; either we take his armor or we just leave it to rust on the ground, which would be a waste.”
What about Loot profit ?
Did some Roman farmers get rich by loot during campaign ? Triggering lottery psichology with young man eagerly join armies to get rich ?
Something I heard was “The Romans built an unstoppable military machine and financed it by conquering and looting foreign countries*. This worked fine until there weren’t any foreign countries left that were both weak enough to beat and rich enough to be worth it.”
* With much of the loot being enslaved people.
How much, if any, truth is there in this?
That more or less tracks with what I’ve heard, for what it’s worth. As I understand it, Rome stopped expanding when their only neighbors were the Parthian Empire, and non-state peoples on marginal land. Then their army declined from lack of use and from financial problems, though I’m not sure how much of the financial problems came from a lack of loot.
I understand the financial problems started earlier than that, simply by Rome being so large that it started playing in a game where campaigns started lasting several years. That was no longer acceptable to wealthy farmers, hence the Marian reforms drawing from the lower classes (and having to use state resources to kit them out). Unfortunately, while the self-equipping farmer military is inherently “elastic” inasmuch as the farmers are eager to go back to their middle-class civilian life, after a few years of service a Marian volunteer soldier …kind of doesn’t have a civilian life to go back to. They channeled Mars for too long, thus Mars possessed them. This tends to lead, via a period of “hell no, we won’t go home” mutiny (typically banditry, as in the Early Modern era) or civil war (in the Gaius Julius Caesar case) to an officially standing army (under Augustus), basically a reimplementation of the “engine of force” model that the Republic’s state enemies had. Economically speaking, this is more efficient (more specialization of labor, between the professional military and the demilitarized civilian population — the Pax Romana was a huge improvement) but, as shown, it’s vulnerable to another polity within logistical reach outmobilizing you. The Roman Empire could survive prosperously for roughly two centuries because it had no peer within logistical reach. Then in the third century it somehow managed to start fighting itself, and ever after, the largest army (not necessarily more than 50% of the state’s military capacity, but still a huge chunk) had to always be where the emperor was, and thus usually couldn’t fight outside enemies. What it did instead was: become the strongest ever special-interest lobbyist group, capturing state decisionmaking because they could — and did — kill the emperor if he didn’t give them a big enough pay raise.
Yeah, the explanation must also answer why the Romans didn’t even go as far as Alexander the Great, much less conquered China and Japan…
The soldiers in Caeser’s time wanted to be awarded lands to farm. It was a major political issue of the time and came up repeatedly. When Pompey tried to fight Caeser after losing Greece, calling those soldiers back to service is where his army came from.
I think Bret has talked before about the Roman economy. AIUI the peak prosperity was 1st and 2nd centuries AD, after expansion had stalled out, but enjoying the benefits of a peaceful and market-oriented society.
But then in the late 2nd century you had plagues that maybe killed 1/3 of the population. *That* will put a dent in your economy. Not to mention climate change.
What about Loot ? Did many farmers get rich from loot during war ? And triggering lottery mentality where young man eagerly join war in hope of getting rich ?
Colonia – Roman and allied settlements on conquered land – were part of the spoils. So a good farm might well be part of the loot. Also, another large part was slaves. Some you sell, but the wife appreciates another pair of hands around the house. This kind of soldier-republic expansion – fight war, gain land, distribute, and so on, happened elsewhere. Rome was unusually good at it.
The book sounds interesting. But I have two related questions:
How accessible is this likely to be for a non-academic? And how affordable would this book likely be when it comes out? For instance, my dad has a very amateurish interest in military history, and I’ve gotten him several books already. Would this be a good birthday gift for him?
The mobilization idea is great. I’ve always wondered how Rome could lose a battle like Cannae or Lake Trasimene anmd bounce back. At oine point during the Punic Wars they had an army shadowing Hannibal’s army in Italy doing the Fabian tactics, one in Hispania taking out Carthage’s allies and cutting Hannibal’s supply lines, Scipio’s army in North Africa and they were fighting a more or less seperate war with Macedon. I wonder what their breaking point was.
Was the advantage of the maniple still very important? (Obviously any formation is useless without soldiers.) Per Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast, they developed it after years of intense fighting with phalanxes on hills against the Samnites, then just about everywhere they went in the Mediterranean, people tried to fight them by putting their phalanxes on hills.
“The book is, as its title suggests, an analysis of the Revolutionary War from the British perspective”
As I understand matters, at Yorktown half the British army’s opponents were French. So does the book consider the French, as well as the British and Americans?
According to this review
A great rec! I’ve requested from my library.
I’m particularly interested as it seems to confirm — again — the very points Washington made to General Braddock back in the 1750’s, about terrain and logistics of both supply and military engagement — which Braddock evidently didn’t pay attention to: these were not European battlefields, where there were villages and farms to plunder for food and wagons and roads etc. in every square mile. These were forests with nothing in them but game and the enemy. Washington seems to have proven himself repeatedly poor on the battlefield, but he did understand these matters, which he made good use of against the Brits later.
“great generals understand logistics”
“Understanding” is complicated.
If we look back at Dr. Devereaux’s recent post series on pre-industrial logistics, he effectively works through the logistical constraints of an army like it was a high school math project. It’s very well done because the step-by-step analysis really highlights a lot of key points that are otherwise nearly impossible to understand.
But if you go back to real pre-industrial armies, while the officer corps might be very experienced in war, they weren’t necessarily approaching it STEM-style. A lot of their knowledge of how to march armies around across the map of, say, Early Modern Europe would depend on rules of thumb, estimates, experience, and principles that worked reliably. They weren’t going “hm, this area has a population of X farmers per square mile and it’s been Y months since the harvest and my foragers can march a constant Z miles out from the column every day, therefore we will run out of food after traveling ABC miles.” Much of that information wasn’t even available to them to begin with apart from ‘Y.’
So any commander who moved from fighting wars on the European continent to fighting on the Atlantic Seaboard would find himself in an environment where all his rules of thumb, all his experience, was constantly making predictions that would turn out to be wrong. The entire nature of the terrain was just… different. The available resources to support a campaign were different, and differently distributed even when they were available. Nothing worked the way it should.
And these were, as a rule, not generals supported by something like a modern military staff system, with dozens of pencil-pushers working under each general to calculate out exactly how to make any of this work. So they struggled to adapt to the conditions because they were having to rewrite the entire playbook on the fly.
It’s entirely possible that if George Washington had been transported to command wars in Europe, he’d have constantly been getting beaten like a drum, making equally mistaken assumptions about what was and was not possible for a military force.
I read through this in a bookstore for an hour or more a few years back – it is definitely accessible for a lay person with an interest.
“And crucially it was a good deal they could recognize, that they had a language for, which was was valued in their culture, just as it was in Rome.”
And now I am wondering if other Italians cities had a similar alliance structure?
Sort of, yes! Federal or alliance structures were very common in pre-Roman Italy. For instance the four tribes of the Samnites were grouped together into a confederation, the Etruscans formed together into a twelve-city league (a fairly loose confederation, but with a single leader), there was a Latin League (initially with Rome at it’s head this forms the foundation of Rome’s later alliance system) and Capua also maintained a Campanian alliance at points.
Rome’s system was more centrally directed than these, but the Romans insisted, without fail or exception, on using the language of these sorts of equal confederations or leagues rather than the language of subordination. Which goes back to that analogy to Roman patronage: Roman patrons don’t call their clients clients in public – they call them ‘amici’ (‘friends’), a polite euphemism that props up the honor of the junior party.
Wait, does this mean your “patrons” on Patreon have actually been your clients this entire time?
They supply him with money and occasionally (by a vote) tell him what to do. And he’s in no position to provide them with military protection or legal counsel if they get into trouble.
I think “patrons” is actually pretty accurate, although the entire concept of crowdfunding patronage is of course totally alien to the Roman system.
Well, that makes it sound a lot more natural that an Italian city should conquer the Greek ones, rather than vice versa. It also reminds me a lot of the systems of vassalage discussed on this blog under Crusader Kings.
I suppose the obvious difference is that human lords and vassals are mortal, and must eventually die of something. When they do, the system of vassals and lords must shift. Cities tend not to die. The more dominant one city becomes, the more other cities tend to attach themselves to its network, and there is not obviously anything to bring the process to a halt before a single city dominates the entire system. Which sounds very like what happened in pre-Roman Italy.
A system of immortal city-vassals seems more likely to freeze into one centralized system than a system of mortal human vassals, in which even the most important node must die eventually.
It does make me wonder why medieval Italy did not end up like pre-Roman Italy, leagues of cities allying/ conquering each other until only one was left. If a city could swear allegiance to a king, why would kings not swear allegiance to a city?
Partially it was because bigger powers kept mucking around in the place, so if it looked like someone might end up dominating the peninsula it was easy for the weaker parties to bring in allies from abroad.
Cities are “mortal” too, but on slightly larger timescales…
They definitely did once Rome came by!
Jokes aside, I’m also interested in that. I assume the rest of Italy had something comparable—nothing comes from nowhere—but that’s just an assumption.
We* homeschool our kids, and my wife has now taught five children to read. And we have done so through an almost entirely phonics-based method, because it works. A deep experience of homeschooling children has left me with a suspicion of any new fad in education. The things that work are the things that always worked: Phonics, arithmetic, etc. Most important: a focus on memorization early, then reasoning, and then synthesis.
In short: Phonics Good.
*By which I mean, “my wife, with my support”
The “whole word” or “figure it out from context and picture” approach to teaching reading goes back at least 70 years. I learned to read (mid-1950s) with phonics; my younger brother, in a different school a couple of years later, didn’t, and my parents had to track down phonics books to supplement what he got from school. In fairness, the teachers at his school didn’t like that approach, but it wasn’t their choice. I’m sure they knew why remedial reading classes were necessary at the local high school. I read the New Yorker article and found it pretty depressing that this method was still in vogue. Apparently the shine hasn’t worn off.
I think it sounds intuitive to some teachers because it is often how adults read. If you read “mom”, you dont say every letter like “mmm-ohh-mmm, mom” and understand you just read mom. You just see the word and you just know it. Just seeing the word shape and linking it to a picture makes sense in that way. It also avoids how English is terrible at being consistent. Like how doubt has a silent B and woman->women completely changes the pronunciation. Or the mess that is tough/though/through/thorough. The “look at pictures” method avoids having to engage with the exceptions in phonetics.
Talking about thorough though, how could you ever link abstract words like that to pictures.
But the non-phonics ideas totally ignore that we can read new words and names that we’ve never seen or heard before. Possibly with the wrong pronunciation, because English, but some recognizable pronunciation.
“The archheroine Kailynn flew on her dracodestrier to the city of Chocapitl…”
You just see the word and you just know it. Just seeing the word shape and linking it to a picture makes sense in that way.
I learned to read that way with on problem. It did leave me an atrocious speller but given the crazy way English is spelt, I could well have been a horrible speller anyway. In something like Russian where the spelling and pronunciation pretty well correspond, I can really see the value of phonetics. I have read that a child speaking Finnish can be a fluent reader in a few weeks (and presumably can spell)
Does any language other than English have spelling bees?
Well, French has dictees.
“Chall concluded that phonics instruction was far superior to look-say, especially for students from underprivileged families. But she was more evenhanded than Flesch, proposing that phonics be set aside as early as possible in a child’s literacy education in order to focus more intently on introducing her to great books—to move through the mechanics of reading with some dispatch so that the joys and pleasures of it could be revealed all the more swiftly. ‘Jeanne Chall settled the argument in 1967,'”
… and “balanced literacy” seems to come from this ? Its failure seems to be from failing to teach and properly support the teachers, and forgetting that “as early as possible” implies “but no earlier than that” ? (And most importantly : you’d have to be a teaching genius anyway to be able to properly teach a class of 30+ kids…)
I taught my younger sister to read when I was five. It is not so hard as it looks.
I imagine a normal human being, left to teach reading an alphabetic writing system on their own, would start with the idea that the letters represent sounds, and that you should tell the person being taught what sounds the letters represent.
You would have to be paid a lot of money by someone important to come up with something less obvious, like a medieval physician telling his patients that when they are sick they must let out as much blood as possible.
Actually bloodletting can help both TB and malaria by reducing strain on the heart. First there is less blood volume, and then because the liquid part recovers first, it’s less viscous.
But I might quote the initial paragraph of Wikipedia on the subject:
“It is claimed to have been the most common medical practice performed by surgeons from antiquity until the late 19th century, a span of over 2,000 years… In the overwhelming majority of cases, the historical use of bloodletting was harmful to patients.”
Just because something is sometimes helpful, doesn’t mean it should often be done.
Don’t forget hemachromatosis, which was relatively common in the parts of Europe that bloodletting was popular in. Removing some of the blood helps rebalance the iron levels.
Especially since people with hemachromatosis resist the bubonic plague.
Hmm, my older sister taught me to read when she was about 6 and I about 4, but it’s my younger sister whose given name is Mary, so I deduce that we are probably not talking about the same case. And yes, of course she used phonics.
“Fads” in education divide very sharply into three categories.
The first is when someone invents a method that activates kind of energy or capability in children that ‘conventional’ 1950s-era schooling wouldn’t. For example, a classroom where students physically move around from one corner of the room to another, doing categorically different work at each station in pursuit of the overall learning goal. Or where there’s a heavy focus on group work, to the point where the traditional rectangular array of desks is replaced by islands that face inwards towards each other and not outwards towards a single dedicated board at the front of the room. Or where you use a lot more graphic organizers.
The second is when someone tries to invent an entirely new way of presenting content. For instance, the math is still in a textbook, but it’s taught in a different order with different priorities, such as trying to teach algebra much younger and arithmetic older. Or the English class is still writing essays, but you rephrase the prompts and alter the balance of different kinds of stories.
The third is when someone decides that some fundamental load-bearing component of the school system should simply be removed, such as ‘repetitive practice of any kind’ or ‘kids get taught to be accepting of other kids in the same school who are different from themselves, rather than bullying said others into oblivion’ or ‘kids get suspended/expelled if they run around in the halls in circles all day, skipping classes and screaming insults at passersby.’
Fads of the first type are often quite productive, though also often difficult to implement on a mass level because they require a lot more time to think on the part of the teachers responsible for implementing them, and the entire rest of the system is set up to minimize how much time teachers have to think.
Fads of the second type are often just neutral, occasionally mildly positive. But they are sometimes quite negative if someone does something really stupid (like trying to teach analytic geometry to seven year olds while leaving ‘how to add fractions’ for later, something I saw advocated in a science fiction novel once). “Stop using phonics” is a negative fad of the second type.
Fads of the third type are poison and death. They will ruin your school district while central office remains in merry denial about how badly they are ruining your children.
But they are sometimes quite negative if someone does something really stupid (like trying to teach analytic geometry to seven year olds while leaving ‘how to add fractions’ for later, something I saw advocated in a science fiction novel once).
Possibly in “Beyond This Horizon” by Robert Heinlein, where the son is taught math but not arithmetic.
Yep! Since the exact identity of the novel didn’t matter, I didn’t bother mentioning it. It’s the kind of thing that would only work in a Heinlein novel. While you may be able to infer from my screenname that I do like some Heinlein characters and stories, the fact remains that he didn’t show a very good or nuanced understanding of human nature. And what he didn’t understand about how teaching and learning normally work would fill a very large library at some teachers’ college somewhere.
Reading the article, the key flaw I saw in the people who preferred non-phonics approaches is that they were putting carts before horses at every turn. Yes you eventually want kids to view reading as a pleasure rather than a chore, and yes you want them to think critically about texts… but they can’t actually do that until they actually know how to read! Being told that you should enjoy something that you are bad at is bound to be an incredibly alienating experience. You cannot build the roof when you haven’t laid the foundation.
Letters first, then words, then sentences, then narratives, then concepts, then analysis and critical thinking. In that order. Trying to teach things, even good things, before the kids have the prerequisites is a waste of everybody’s time.
I also suspect that a lot of teachers mistakenly believe some kids are “natural” readers when actually, those kids were taught to read by their parents at home and showed up to kindergarten already literate. I know that was the case for me.
Different kids are different but by and large phonics is what works best. Non-phonics stuff worked horribly on me perspnally so my mom had to teach my phonics at night since I was struggling horribly with non-phonics teaching styles at school.
My older son needed phonics too but my younger son just brute force memorized the spelling of many words and taught himself to read based on that without me even trying to teach him (was three years at the time so I wasn’t trying to teach him to read yet).
Yes, the evidence is clear that phonics is best, but it isn’t how I learned. I just memorized the words. It was in kindergarten that I figured it out, but I was a very secretive child and didn’t tell anyone, so when I got to first grade they had to send me to read with the second and third graders.
Memorization without understanding is worthless,
and btw i prefer the well written word.
I wonder if the fact that soldiers provided their own equipment was a factor in it being the best? I’m reminded of when (before such things were generally used) the wife of a policeman I know got him the best anti-stab vest, more expensive than they could really afford (or that he would buy for himself), because in the hierarchy of need staying alive is right at the top. I imagine the family and loved ones of a roman soldier would also want him to be as well equipped as they could afford. Or was the equipment bought by the unit commander and then the soldiers were charged for it? I Guess I’ll have to buy the book or become a patron to see the nitty gritty 🙂
Well, providing your own soldiers with good weapons and equipment was a prestige move in many ancient and medieval societies. The personal retinue of a king were often some of the best-armed and best-equipped warriors in their society.
What matters more is the overall wealth of a society and willingness to in some way commit a large percentage of that wealth to equipping the troops. Whether that’s done by extracting farmers’ agricultural surplus through taxation and paying to equip a lot of state troops, or by having a large class of yeoman farmers spend themselves down to the brink of impoverishment and collapse to arm their sons for war, the end result can be quite similar.
Two very fine felines indeed!!
Bret’s analysis of Spring’s book reminds me of the old Avalon Hill Boardgame, 1776. If you played it with basic rules, a methodical British commander would almost always win, pushing the revolting Americans back with field army columns from New England and Canada and garrisoning behind them, but the advanced game turned that on its head because it used tactical cards and hidden movement for the revolutionaries. It meant that the British commander knew where an enemy force was, but not how large it was, and as the British gained territory their field armies dwindled because they needed significant garrison forces in case the sneaky Americans went around them. Even when a revolutionary army was caught, the British commander had a bad choice of tactical cards: they could either choose a frontal assault which would continue the contest if the enemy chose to withdraw, but would mean their casualties were higher if the enemy didn’t withdraw, or they chose a more sensible tactical choice and see the enemy withdraw before any significant losses were inflicted. In that version of the game, all the revolutionary commander had to do was keep their armies in existence, leading the British in a merry dance around the colonies and eventually they would win. Which sounds like it might have been a pretty good simulation!
“But the next one is probably Hearts of Iron”
Bah! Do Imperator! I know they stopped developing it, but it still exists, and it’s right in your professional wheelhouse (and my interests).
I really enjoy Paradox games in general and love WWII history and games, but for some reason the combination of the two never interested me. But IR is now a pretty good game even though it’s been abandoned, and I’d really like to get your take on its systems.
I suspect that part of why Bret wants to do HOI4 first is that it isn’t in his wheelhouse. There’s more to say there that he hasn’t said a dozen other times on the blog.
That, and HOI4’s bigger audience means both that more people will want to read the post and that there’s more to say. Imperator has the base game and five content packs; HOI4 has the base game, five expansions, three country packs, and a free Polish flavor pack.
Oh good, I’ve been wondering how the Academic Cats are doing! Ollie is still wide eyed and Percy is still Kubrick glaring.
Very much looking forward to reading the book, once it is finished.
Have you read Nick Bunker’s “An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America”? For me that was a very eye opening account of just what Britain was thinking (or not, as the case may be) in the run up to the American Revolution.
I have a couple of questions.
First of all, I’m seeing some similarities with the arguments you made in “The Queen’s Latin” which makes me wonder: how did the Romans maintain their military advantage once they were ruling over people who lacked the cultural language of patronage? Did they try to adapt the “alliance” structure to the local culture (and if so, how successful were they)? Or did they try to find entirely different ways to get “buy-in” from their subject peoples?
Secondly, you’ve mentioned a few times that the Roman cavalry was garbage. Do we have any idea of why? Since they were broadly typical in the amount of cavalry they used, this doesn’t seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, like with medieval Europeans and infantry. Is it a cultural thing? If so, what are the necessary cultural preconditions to producing good cavalry? I’m assuming that the Romans themselves would’ve realized that their cavalry was bad, so were there any efforts to improve it (and if so, why weren’t they successful)? I think you mentioned that the Romans eventually relied on their allies for (non-garbage) cavalry. Was it in this time period that that happened, or ealier/later?
On your first question, the socii system was not as far as I know expanded outside of Italy. These tended to be run as provinces, (the first being Sicily IIRC), analogous to a warzone rather than an alliance. Not sure how this affected their military advantage
In the simplest of ways: By the time the italic roots of the system started to creak they were already masters of the mediterranean. There just wasn’t anyone really capable of challenging Rome on an even footing at that point. They eventually reconfigured the system, but at that point the situation had changed entirely, and Rome simply didn’t *need* the kind of deep reserve mobilization they had needed earlier: they could make do with scraping a much shallower bit of their now much larger empire.
Yeah, the first real gain for the Romans that was outside that system was Sicily which they annexed in 241 BC. By 188 BC with the defeat of the Selucids it was all basically over and there was no no peer rival left, just a gradual mopping up of foes and non-state actors. That made it a lot easier to transition from the intensive client system to a broader imperial one. The Roman army stayed very roughly level in size as the population under their control soared.
That intensity was absolutely insane, Rome might have mobilized as much as 70% of its adult male citizen population at times during the Second Punic War. That was a level of societal mobilization that would not be seen again on such a large scale in Europe until World War I.
the middle republic mobilizes a quarter million men out of a population of several million. that’s an enormously high mobilization rate. the early Imperial army mobilizes maybe twice that number, but out of a population of several tens of millions.
The late republic and early empire sees the transformation of the roman army from a hybrid force that manages to combine the low cost of militias with the professionalism of a standing army into a genuine professional standing army. This army was massively more expensive for the state, but the old system was breaking down and the state was wealthy enough to afford it.
One, arguably THE, requirement for producing good cavalry is having a cavalry culture. Romans rarely rode in their normal lives, so did not routinely practice the related skills . . . And staying on a horse without stirrups is actually challenging, even before you add using weapons into the mix.
The Parthians / Persians had that sort of culture. Rome did not, their elites generally being urban.
Notably, the cavalry forces that routinely trounced the Roman cavalry tended to come from horse country polities, with generally more rural power structures.
The importance of culture is exemplified by the statement ascribed to Edward III: “How do you make a longbowman? Start with his grandfather.”
The lands outside of italy were ruled as provinces, where the roman politician that was assigned to the province would try to squeeze it dry to recoup the cost of running for office. This system was pretty bad and eventually they changed it.
The buy-in strategy was the roman legions. As non-citizen you could sign up for the army as auxiliary. You’d earn slightly less than the citizen soldiers. In the end of your service you would earn citizenship, a plot of land, and any children you have with a non-citizen woman would also be citizens. During service the auxiliaries would be submerged in roman culture. So the system produced people that felt roman, that bought in by spending a lot of time in the army, and they would form a city that would secure a region.
Speaking of Rome and their auxilia… this might be a bit of a silly question, but did everyone pile into the same fortified camp at the end of the day’s march, or were the legions and the auxilia in different camps? If the former, did the auxilia help with setting up camp, or was that something that the legionaries did by themselves?
Ever since you mentioned in the Queen’s Latin series that auxilia got lower pay, I wondered if that at least partially a result of a division of labor like that. It’s hard to complain about someone else getting paid more than you when he’s the one who built your nice safe camp, rafter all.
> Rome was more urbanized and wealthier than its non-state rivals, but not (in so far as we can tell) compared to the Seleucids, the Carthaginians or the Ptolemies (the wealth of the latter two being proverbial at the time)
Since I’m not a historian, I must ask: did the era’s “tourists” describe the wealth of the Carthaginian and Ptolemaic population or perhaps of the court? My suspicion leans toward the latter, thus it seems intuitively possible to me that Rome (being highly commercialized/urbanized) did something interesting with labor organization (on the level of the putting-out system) and had a higher GDP-per-capita than the other states, in addition to being more efficient at converting GDP into military effects.
The whole romans had cavalry that sucks thing is a myth roman cavalry was great!! It was able to beat even famous cavalry like the Thessalians
This somehow turned into a separate comment rather than a reply to yours:
Your overall intuition is correct- regardless of how splendid the capital city or royal courts were, the majority of any ancient society were subsidence farmers or herders/ranchers.
But you got the direction wrong. Egypt and North Africa were much more agriculturally productive than central Italy. In fact, they were the breadbaskets and richest province of the Roman Empire. Many say that the loss of North Africa was when the decline of the Western Roman Empire became irrevocable. The loss of Egypt was also devastating to the Eastern Roman Empire, but they successfully consolidated into smaller, but still very rich empire.
Breadbaskets, yes. My question was more along the lines of how the societies used the surplus labor of the farmers outside of harvest and planting seasons (and of non-rich city dwellers year-round). Did Rome perhaps enjoy an edge in total factor productivity? Or did — to wildly speculate — the Roman system of more consensual surplus extraction, or perhaps Rome’s relative success at not having its farmers looted by foreign armies, allow/incentivize the accumulation of more working capital per person? Even in the absence of better tools, something as ordinary as not running out of inputs to process allows improved productivity.
I think there is evidence that Roman small farms were better capitalized than most in the ancient world, like there were more olive presses and other tools found in Roman farms. But I think that might be more the result of their conquests than the cause- A Roman soldeir who got a chance to loot Carthage or Smyrna might bring home enoguh cash to leave a chainmail shirt and olive press for his descendants.
But also, I’m not sure those increased the overall productivity by much. Total Factor Productivity didn’t differ that much pre-Industrial Revolution. If anything drastically improved productivity, it would have been the large scale irrigation systems along the Nile.
I believe Bret has already talked about what improved Roman productivity: enough peaceful trade that people could specialize in growing what they were good at, rather than trying to personally grow most of their own food. Instead of everyone growing wheat and maybe some grapes and olives on the side, you have plantations go all out on grapes where it makes sense, while others go in on wheat.
I’m not sure when this starts to kick in, but if you’re invoking the Nile, that’s already Imperial in a Roman timeline, and not an explanation for how Rome conquered their world in the first place.
I wonder how much sheer resource distribution matters. Republic virtue: lots of moderately well off farmers, fewer palaces and chariots.
OMG! You have set out to answer a very interesting question (and one that I confess has always puzzled me.) That is a promising premise for a book. I hope you succeed in getting published! I’ll pre-order for sure.
Am very much looking forwards to reading from you about Roman Egypt and about Rings of Power, since I am not much of a gamer I must say the amount of Paradox posts has been a little too much for me. Also rather understandable that you would take a break from blogging to focus on the book, which I would like to read when it comes out. For a question:
Your description of Rome’s strength being in free farmers fighting for their communities reminded me a bit of VD Hanson. Did you cite/use his scholarship or simply came to (seemingly) results in this issue?
The Roman military sounds a lot like the American: regularly and constantly at war (many commentators have noted this as an advantage over the Chinese military), and with far and away the fanciest equipment.
One problem with that is that the american military is increasingly ‘hollowed out’ in that even we dont have the budget to do a future proofing of the entire armed forces and a war and maintance on the stuff we already got.
Which sounds a lot like Imperial Roman military ?
Does Spring mention malaria? According to Mann’s _1493_ that was a big factor, particularly in the South, with half of Cornwallis’s army sick when he surrendered.
(_Pox Americana_ looks at smallpox, but that favored with the British initially, who were survivors and/or inoculated in a way that most Americans weren’t. Washington’s inoculation mandate for the Army might have been necessary to win the war.)
As for Rome, yeah, how’d they get all that mail? I’ve been told that wire-drawing wasn’t invented until medieval times, too, making it even harder.
Flat rings, stamped out of sheet metal, probably. Those still were popular in Eastern Europe in the late middle ages. (I once read about an example of russian Mail, where an prayer was engraved into every ring).
Apologies if this has already been covered either on the blog or on the patreon, but I wonder, Bret, if you could talk about how you came up with your research project?
In my brushes with further education in the humanities (undergrad in Ancient History, MA in Conflict Studies) I always struggled with the concept of the dissertation, and forming an original research question that is both of interest to me/within my specialism, not previously covered in the wealth of scholarship on these topics, and fundamentally possible to answer in an intellectually rigorous manner.
With your research topic, did it start with ‘Why was Roman military expansion so successful in the 2nd/3rd century?’ Because my understanding is that that is a subject that has been extensively written about (since Polybius) – were you dissatisfied with the current state of the scholarship? Was it reading something like Taylor’s work on the weakness of state finance that lead you to realise no one had else had yet made a connection between the old ‘manpower’ thesis and how Taylor’s work weakens it, which led you to work on the broader implications of it?
Or did you start with ‘I want to research Roman mobilisation’, and as you did you identified what you thought was a gap in the scholarship which could lead into a wider conclusion to be drawn about this time period?
Or did you read some of the more sophisticated studies that you talk about focusing on mobilising manpower, and decide to apply their methods to the Roman example (if they covered alternative case studies)?
I appreciate though that inspiration can be very hard to reach back along an audit trail though, so this may be a difficult question to answer! But I’m so interested in how historians (and other academics) get their ideas. I suppose I’m too prone to supposing that any question I have has probably already been answered by someone smarter than me and I just need to do more research to find it, but that probably says more about my self esteem than anything else!
So it really started with me observing in a rough, back-of-the-envelope way that the Romans really did wear a lot of metal and that was hardly consistent with the ‘expendable Roman’ folks seemed to assume. From there it became a question of how to substantiate that assumption. Some of the analytical framework – the foundation laying, basically – I already knew, but a lot of it I was reading as the project was forming (being sent to go read Landers, The Field and the Forge prompted a pretty substantial reconfiguration in how I understood what I was doing, for instance). Michael Taylor’s work actually came in very late; I started this project as my dissertation, which I finished in 2018; his book didn’t come out until 2020. I did come across his dissertation but only in 2017 (it was finished in 2015), which was a great time to be able to draw on some of his ideas for my last chapter. Ironically, one of the revisions in the book project is going back and incorporating more recent work, including bringing Taylor in more fully into the *first* chapters.
So it was, “gee, these guys have a lot of expensive metal” in a very rough way, then me asking if I could quantify that usefully with the understanding that if I could demonstrate a meaningful gap that would be a pretty significant contribution to our understanding. It was only once that part of the project got moving that I thought more about mobilization systems (a lot of Landers here) and thinking about why and how the Romans were able to do this.
Thank you for such a comprehensive response! Really fascinating to find out how a professional goes about their work.
I’ve read the thesis and I like it, though I have a hard time with the naval chapter. I hope you’ll spend some more time talking about how that middle republican system broke down towards the end. I just read through the cambridge ancient history and was really frustrated by the lack of detail/bibliography on the middle to late republican transition.
The lack of detail there is because we don’t have much detail from the sources. Polybius and Livy both largely give out by the 160s and they are our best sources for the structure of the army of the Middle Republic. Meanwhile, our best source for the army of the late Republic is Caesar, who only shows up in 58. So for the space between the 150s and 58, we’re left with patchy sources who may talk about events (Jugurtha, Marius, the Social War, Sulla, etc.) but don’t give us a lot of details about how the army is changing.
Apropos of nothing in particular can any one recommend a books on the Republic of Venice and its Arsenal?
The reddit thread on the lack of ancient battlemaps made me sad, but I won’t argue with a historian saying that there’s no evidence for it. But on the *fantasy* front, I would note the general point that “medieval” fantasy is under no obligation to be exactly constrained by real medieval capabilities. And for Game of Thrones in particular, the world has both dragonriders and bird-wargs in its history, either of whom could have introduced the idea of birds-eye representations in a natural way. Maps there could plausibly go back to the ‘Stone Age’ of Westeros and the children of the forest.
In fact, its worldbuilding is hampered not only writers who don’t see what is needed for what they put in, but don’t put in what is obviously needed and has all it needs. Sometimes at the same time.
The second one is less egregious though. All the time in history we see people not making such leaps.
One commenter asserts something similar in a twitter thread (https://twitter.com/FejdaszRichard/status/1583230073330540545), and Dr. Konijnendijk responds out that there’s massive distortion when looking down from above unless your doing it from satellite height, that asking local people and walking around would still be good enough for military purposes, and why even make maps when you can just hop up on your dragon or position your warg to see to battlefield?
Bird-warg or dragon might not be ideal for *making* maps, but I think they would increase the interest in them, since you’re “looking down” a lot anyway. For a bird-warg, you need some way of expressing what you saw by bird, which a small-scale map might well suit. For a dragonrider, you have long distance navigation problems, which a large-scale map could solve more efficiently than itineraries.
Dragons presumably come with an inbuilt navigation system, possibly a combination of a sense of magnetic fields, memory of way-points and inertial reckoning (much like pigeons). Useful for them and the rider, but hard to translate into something ground forces would use.
The Dragonriders of Pern explicitly do aerial surveys of the nearby Holds when they’re not flying against Thread
“…why even make maps when you can just hop up on your dragon or position your warg to see to battlefield?”
Because that creates an intel bottleneck. YOU have to be there. Not terribly useful if your wargs or dragons are busy. Maps allow you to transmit that knowledge to regular generals and officers, effectively turning them all into low-capacity wargs/dragon scouts.
Further, I think this downplays the utility of maps. Geologic maps in particular are useful for non-military activities. Iron ore, lead, tin, copper, gold, silver, even limestone are useful, even vital, commodities. However, you’ve gotta get supplies to those locations. Optimization of supply lines for industry would be useful. Lawyers also love maps. Knowing who owns what and who has the rights to where are important, especially in societies that used wood for fuel. Agriculture also benefits from maps–crop rotation can be enhanced, especially on the manor level, by having a map everyone can see and agree on.
Maps are one of those technologies where use allows for the discovery of novel utility. Once you start using maps you find all kinds of excuses to use more maps.
Exact cadastral surveys go back a long way – to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, together with registers of who owns what land. They did not lead to maps. For maps as we know them, you need teams with trigonometry, chains, and the ability to take accurate bearings – 17th century tech. If you look at aerial observation and plotting, it needed cameras and relating the images to already mapped terrain. A sketch map from height is not going to be much more refined than an itinerary.
I disagree. A sketch map from a height is going to be better than nothing, even if it’s not as good as a survey map. Aerial views provide a very different perspective, and even if the distances aren’t perfect they’ll be better than what would be produced if a guy on the ground tried it. Someone reasonably skilled at drawing (a skill we know they had back in Rome) could make a map accurate enough for “men marching” measurements. No one would argue that portraits require trig.
Geologic maps in particular don’t require trig. It certainly helps, but it’s not strictly necessary. There are a few techniques that are used that any prospector could apply. Swiss mapping, for example, consists basically of standing on one mountain and mapping the geologic units on the other mountain–once you’ve trained your eyes it’s surprisingly accurate. For another, following contacts is often a matter of finding where the debris from a formation stops as you go uphill. Trig is irrelevant to such mapping because it’s not precise enough for math to come into play. (Where trig comes into play for geologic maps is cross sections.)
Maps of farms also don’t need to be precise to be useful. If you’re off by a few feet on a field no one’s going to care; the important thing is having the fields, and knowing who’s got rights to what and what you’re going to plant where.
I will also point out that many maps in the 1700s were imprecise. I’m most familiar with naval maps, and there’s a LOT of “Eh, it’s kinda sorta like this” in those maps. The measurement devices were not exactly precise, and there were ample political reasons to “find” an island even if you had to make it up.
Precision is a function of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not necessary for something to be useful.
A ‘few feet’ mattered when it was someone’s crop. Land surveys were fairly exact where it mattered (eg in Egypt, establishing land boundaries after the annual flood, or Mesopotamia). Getting distance from height when moving is not easy, especially when you have no way of measuring speed or drift. Dragon-back view is much better than cavalry scouts, but a long way from exact.
How does Macedon itself fit in that Roman vs. Helenist Army with a state systems? I assume Macedon was different from these subjugated states, but it also was not a republic. Can you, Brett, elaborate on Macedonian case? Also, i always wondered how it is mostly the core thah makes strength of ancient states, e.g. Parthia was based on Parthia itself not the extensive other areas of their state, auxiliary troops nonwithstandig. I mean, Rome did not seem to grow in strength proportionally to its expansion…
Hi Brett, thanks for you great work from a long-time follower! A little off-topic, but I’m wondering what you think of this reconstruction of the Roman close-combat fighting technique (sorry, it’s in Russian, but hopefully the subtitles are decent enough): https://youtu.be/TrJMQDtpseg
Could be an idea for a future post.
Your overall intuition is correct- regardless of how splendid the capital city or royal courts were, the majority of any ancient society were subsidence farmers or herders/ranchers.
But you got the direction wrong. Egypt and North Africa were much more agriculturally productive than central Italy. In fact, they were the breadbaskets and richest province of the Roman Empire. Many say that the loss of North Africa was when the decline of the Western Roman Empire became irrevocable. The loss of Egypt was also devastating to the Eastern Roman Empire, but they successfully consolidated into smaller, but still very rich empire.
I’m starting to understand what Bret Devereaux meant when he said an army mirrors the society of a country.
In Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the famous medium-heavy cavalry “Husaria” was recruited from wealthy nobility. PLC had unusually high number of nobles for a few reasons, including that nobility structure was flat (no vassal of vassal), and the fact all children of a male nobleman inherited the status. You had to buy the equipment and horses yourself. According to a record from 1685, the cost was equivalent to buying a village.
Polish Hussars were sometimes called walking armories. Horses were the most expensive part of the cost, and at one point there was an embargo on exporting the breed. Only lances were standarized and provided by the king. They were extremely long, hollow inside and designed to be disposable. They would ride up to the supply train and fetch another one. Modern pike&shot armies of Carl Gustaf were unable to beat them in the open field(see especially Kircholm), and had to make extensive use of shovels.
It also seriously sounds like the willingness of the free-holding small farm-owning class to buy into this system and invest so much of their energy into warfare was what destroyed this class, as their farms fell into disrepair after years of constant campaigning, and the wealthy senatorial classes snapped up this land on the cheap and turned them into vast slave-run latifundia.
That was the interpretation taken by sources at the time (often attributed to the Gracchi brothers) and was commonplace among modern historians working from literary evidence, until modern archaeology found that smallholders held growing shares of land in the Late Republic and little evidence of the expansion of elite estates within Italy. There’s an argument to be made that the limited bureaucracy of the Roman Republic lacked the data gathering and processing to understand what was going on, so the elites were throwing theories at the wall and seeing what won them political support and what didn’t.
Just finished reading your dissertation & very much enjoyed it. I don’t recall whether you’re pitching to an academic or popular audience, but if the latter I suspect you’ll need to compress the chapters on how you determined how much things weighed. On the whole though it was fascinating!
Question: how much of the overall “social expenditure” for a Roman soldier was on his equipment, versus his training? Later legionaries were famous for their grueling training regime, but did this apply in the “long Second century” that Bret refers to?
Roman rolling recruitment and continuous warfare meant that all Roman men of any property were going to spent quite a few years in the army. That’s a cost too: keeping the soldiers out doing something which in turn created this deep well of trained (and equipped, see below) reserves in case of disaster or the need to open a second (third? fourth?) front. Rome’s habit then of always having at least a couple of small wars going could be seen, I’d argue, as a significant investment in quality.
I’m interested in the contrast between this and your earlier statement, discussing Ukraine, that it is a tremendous bargain for the United States to fund Ukraine’s side of a military conflict between Ukraine and Russia, tying up Russia and draining its resources at a cost that is trivial compared to the American military budget.
The paragraph I’ve highlighted presents the same thing – Russia being involved in a border conflict – as a valuable investment in keeping the Russian army battle-ready, which people seem to agree it wasn’t prior to the start of the conflict.
Why do we think one effect (“war is expensive, which is bad”) will dominate the other (“armies that go through wars end up being stronger and more effective than they used to be, which is good”) in the case of Russia?
Mostly because, in the case of Russia vs. Ukraine, it’s not really a “border conflict”–you don’t need to call up your reserves for the kind of war Devereaux is talking about in the italicized paragraph. The war in Ukraine is forcing Russia to expend enough resources and effort that the live-fire training isn’t really worth it.
Well, what if we think about the end state of the war?
Stipulate that Russia ends up with a military that wasn’t worth the cost. Let’s say that, thanks to an attrition strategy on the part of the US, Russia must spend down all its assets, leaving it with essentially nothing to spare. Also, everyone hates it.
Now Russia is a huge unpopular country choking under trade barriers and its only asset is the well-trained, high-functioning Russian army. What happens next?
This is still wildly contrafactual. The Russian army has proved to be neither well-trained nor high-functioning. The debacle in Ukraine will not magically make it so; Russia would have to do lots of reforms, just as Ukraine did after the last time they tangled with Russia.
Also, you cannot have a high-functioning modern army without a deep logistical chain including food production and manufacturing — which is an asset. If Russia had the means to supply a modern army, it would have the means to produce consumer and trade goods.
The sanctions would probably drop if Russia withdrew from Ukraine. Though replacing Putin would probably sweeten things.
And even if Russia had a working army (with Chinese supplies) and no manufacturing, invading other countries for land and loot would still be a shitty option. The nature of economy and wealth is very different from 200 B.C. War isn’t even a great way for greedy elites to become obscenely wealthy these days, being a corrupt oligarch is a lot safer and perfectly lucrative.
A corrupt and economically backward country cannot have a well-trained, high-functioning army. That is one of Bret’s basic points on this blog: an army is necessarily a product of the society that produces it.
Rome’s soldiers were experienced at fighting, and quite often experienced at winning. Roman battle tactics had built-in measures to allow raw recruits to become trained without too much risk to the army (“Ad triario redissi”), so even if the new guys got their butts kicked they would, unless things went REALLY sideways, live to fight another day. They were also trained to endure military discipline, not a small thing in Rome–which means that when you make up a new unit you’re going to hear a lot less “Waddia mean, I gotta dig a trench?! I just marched all day!” and a lot more “You wanna cook? Cool. I’ll dig the trench, while Joe here will set up the tents, he’s good with donkeys. Bill, you still good with sewing? Awesome, we’ll gather your share of the grain if you patch our shirts.” In other words: A lot of the NCO’s work is going to be done for them because it was done by the last NCO; everyone’s already bought into the idea.
Russia, on the other hand, is basically sending out cannon fodder. They don’t appear to have any system in place for training new recruits in the realities of combat. What Russia’s new troops are getting very good lessons in are brutalizing civilians, running away, and surrendering. None of these are likely to make these soldiers particularly effective if Russia should have another war. They aren’t used to military discipline because they don’t have time to get used to it. They won’t have those ground-level skillsets because they never had time to develop them.
At best the Ukraine war will show the gaps that Russia needs to plug in their military establishment. But that presumes that the leadership cares. They may not. It’s entirely likely that they use this debacle to consolidate power, ignoring the practical aspects entirely.
There are a number of historical examples of unpopular / dysfunctional countries where the only asset is the army, from Rome to the present day. Usually what happens is the army overthrows the civilian government in the belief that they can do better.
So if the scenario proposed by @Michael
Crap, pressed the wrong key. Wish for the umpteenth time there was an edit button…
So if the scenario proposed by @Michael actually happens, I would expect the Russian army to execute Putin and his senior government members.
Note that those armies are not, when put the test, particularly competent at actual warfare. Ask the Argentines.
In general, the thing about suffering a serious military defeat in a major war, is that it tends not to leave you with a large high-functioning army. Inflicting military defeat on someone tends to require depriving them of such an army.
For something completely off topic, I was poking around, looking at some R packages and tripped over something that might interest readers here.
R is a massive, open-source, statistical and graphics agglomeration that does everything up to ordering pizza though I think the pizza function only works in Melbourne Australia.
In any case, the Social Dynamics and complexity in the Ancient Mediterranean research group based at the Department of History and Classical Studies at Aarhus University has released anR package for manipulating some of its data called sdam . I’d suggest having a look at the Cartographical maps and networks
R is not exactly user-friendly to a beginner but it looks like these people have put together some useful tools.
Disclaimer: I have not even used it. I just thought that it looked interesting.
The only thing I’d add to the map discussion is artillery, which by the early 19th century was beginning to surpass the point where it was limited to line-of-sight firing – you could hit (or nearly hit – close sometimes counts with explosive shells) something on the other side of a hill or a fortification that you couldn’t see, but only if you knew where it was. There’s a reason why a) the definitive mapping organization in the UK is called The Ordnance Survey, and b) pretty much everything about modern geodesy and cartography grew out of Gauss’s work for the militaries of northern Europe.
Hi, I’m not on twitter, but I read your thread about mail. I don’t think the reason why the movie industry dislikes mail armor is the cost. You can get good sets of riveted mail for ~350$ from your local LARP supplier.
I think the reason they don’t like it, is that it does not make you look impressive, like other armor does. Plate and scale armor creates broad shoulders, and a massive frame. You look a lot more impressive in that stuff. Mail on the other hand? Well, at best you look like you are wearing a dress three sizes to big for you.
Re: your book sentence, may I recommend Isabell Patterson’s “The God of the Machine”? She made this exact comment there.