Hey folks! Fireside this week! I was hoping to have a post on Roman infantry tactics this week, in particular the oddity of the Romans not using spear-and-shield infantry (much), but it isn’t ready yet and other things have me quite busy, so fireside it is. Fortunately, we have Ridley Scott to complain about.
For this week’s musing, I want to comment at least briefly on dust-up surrounding Ridley Scott’s latest film, Napoleon and historians. As was evidently heavily reported, Ridley Scott responded to historians doing critiques of the film’s historical accuracy by telling them to ‘get a life‘ and suggesting that the earliest works on Napoleon were the most accurate and that subsequent historians have just progressively gotten more wrong.
I think there are two questions to untangle here: is the film accurate and does it matter? Now I haven’t yet seen the film, I’ve only seen the trailer. But my response to the trailer seems to have been basically every historian’s response to the trailer: Napoleon shows up at all sorts of places, doing all sorts of things he didn’t do. In particular, the battle scenes I’ve seen in the trailer and other snippets bear functionally no relationship to either Napoleonic warfare in general or the Battle of Austerlitz in particular (the bit with large numbers of soldiers drowning in a frozen lake was disconfirmed at the time; the lake was drained and few remains were found).
All of this is not a huge shock. All of Ridley Scott’s historical movies take huge liberties with their source material. Sometimes that’s in the service of a still interesting meditation on the past (Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel), sometimes in service of just a fun movie (Gladiator). Ridley Scott, in particular, has never mastered how basically any historical battle was fought and all of the battle scenes in his movies that I’ve seen are effectively nonsense (including Gladiator, which bears functionally no relationship to how Roman armies actually fought open field battles). Cool looking nonsense, but nonsense. Heck, Gladiator‘s entire plot is basically nonsense with some characters sharing historical names and very little else with their actual historical counterparts (the idea of Marcus Aurelius aiming to restore the republic in 180 is pretty silly).
So it isn’t a surprise that Ridley Scott’s grasp on Napoleonic warfare is about at the level of a not particularly motivated undergraduate student or that he has finessed or altered major historical details to make a better story. Its Ridley Scott, that’s what he does. Sometimes it works great (Kingdom of Heaven), sometimes it works poorly (Exodus: Gods and Kings).
Does it matter?
Unsurprisingly, I think that Ridley Scott is being more than a bit silly with his retorts to historians who are using his film as an opportunity to teach about the past. That’s what we do. Frankly, I find the defensiveness of ‘get a life’ more than a bit surprising, as I assumed Ridley Scott knew he didn’t have much of a grasp on the history and was OK with that (or better yet, did have a grasp on it, but chose to alter it; I do not get this sense from his commentary), but it rather seems like he thinks he does know and is now very upset with the D+ he got on his exam and has decided to blame his ‘nitpicky’ professor instead of his not having done the reading.
That said, when it comes to criticism (in the sense of ‘saying things are wrong,’ rather than in the sense of ‘critical analysis’), I think there is a distinction to make. In the past I’ve framed this as the degree to which works ‘make the claim‘ to some kind of historical validity. It might be a fun exercise to talk about the armor in, say, Dungeons and Dragons or The Elder Scrolls and we might even learn something doing that, but neither of those works is making any claim to historical accuracy or rootedness. And so the tenor of the discussion is quite different.
But here I think Ridley Scott is to a significant degree making the claim. Of the battles, Ridley Scott says, “It’s amazing because you’re actually reconstructing the real thing” and that he “started to think like Napoleon,” which is once again both clearly making that claim (‘the real thing’) and also just a remarkable thing to say given how much of a mess his battle scenes generally are. He also comments that “the scale of everything is so massive…I’d have 300 men and a hundred horses and 11 cameras in the field” and while that’s far more cameras than were on any Napoleonic battlefield, that’s just not a statement which suggests that Ridley Scott is even very aware of other achievements in recreating historical battles. Gettysburg (1993) had something on the order of five thousand reenactors on the field for filming and it is by no means the largest such effort! Spartacus (1967) had a cast of eight thousand Spanish soldiers to play the Roman legions.
So while I do not know if Napoleon is a good movie or not – I haven’t seen it yet – it seems pretty clear to me that Ridley Scott did make the claim for some of its fundamental historicity and the response of historians has been to reject that claim. And I think it’s actually quite fair to also skewer the apparent whiny arrogance of Scott making that claim baselessly and then responding petulantly when historians handed him that ‘D+, please come see me after class.’ If you want to make historical fiction, by all means do – Scott is very good at it! – but do not be upset if historians call it what it is.
On to Recommendations:
First, friend and colleague Mary Elizabeth Walters, assistant professor at the Air Command and Staff College had a really good interview/podcast on the implications and difficulty of urban warfare. The discussion is clearly tilted for implications in Gaza which we’re seeing unfold now but is a generally useful expert’s case on urban warfare.
On the current situation for universities, I had planned to link to a working paper posted by University of Chicago Classics professor Clifford Ando, but he seems to have pulled that down, announcing that the paper will be appearing soon in revised form at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the meantime, here is a Chicago Maroon article covering some of the points in his paper, where he notes that the University of Chicago’s debt level is rapidly increasing despite the university’s high tuition and considerable funding, with the funds plowed into a mix of expensive programs and vanity projects for administrators (including $3m to renovate the president’s residence). It seems fairly clear to me at this point that the professional administrators brought in to ‘run universities like a business’ have generally failed their institutions. UChicago is a private institution, but the same thing is going on at public universities and it is long past time that taxpayers demanded some accounting.
Speaking of which, I should also flag this Wall Street Journal article on wild overspending by universities and their unsustainable financial models from August. As the article notes, university spending on things other than the core education mission, including athletics and new construction (especially on student amenities) has tended to be profoundly profligate, backstopped by rapidly rising tuition and debt.
Over at Pasts Imperfect, University of Iowa professor Sarah Bond has an interesting piece on incorporating AI into her assignments by having students fact-check the results ChatGPT spits out at them. I think that’s a useful response for a certain kind of assignment and know of others who have done the same; I don’t think that makes ChatGPT useful, but I think it is a good approach for assignments otherwise vulnerable to ChatGPT as a method of limiting harm. Put another way: it is a good assignment for what I am still unconvinced is a good technology.
And finally, over at Peopling the Past, they have a short blog with Macquarie University’s Danijel Džino on the Illyrians, the peoples of the eastern coast of the Adriatic. The Illyrians, who do not write to us, are one of those peoples who appear primarily in the writing of the Greeks and Romans (and in material culture), and so about whom we are less well informed than we might like, but Džino essay here is a useful entry-point for the beginner trying to get a sense of who these people were, where they were and how they interacted with the broader Mediterranean.
Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I was going to save this until after we discussed the emergence of Rome’s rather unique tactical system, but now is as good a time as any, I’m going to recommend Jeremy Armstrong’s War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals (2016). In this book, Armstrong presents an up-to-date vision of what we know about Roman warfare before the evidence of the Middle Republic (Polybius and books 21-45 of Livy) gives us some relatively reliable foundations on which to rest our feet.
So the great value Armstrong provides here is in putting together the archaeological evidence with the literary sources and tracing out what we can know about Rome’s warfare down to roughly 338 B.C. It’s a tricky task: While we have literary sources that claim to document this period (Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, inter alia), they write much later and so can be very difficult to use, especially for the non-specialist. Archaeological evidence can help, but it can be tricky to interpret and cannot answer all of our questions. Compounding this is the tendency of the literary sources we have (and as a result, also of some modern historians) to assume a far more centralized, state-organization to early Roman warfare – something rather a lot more like the organization we see in the third and second century (and in our societies today). But the archaeological evidence (and bits in the literary evidence) suggests quite strongly that early Roman warfare probably wasn’t centralized like this.
In particular, Armstrong guides the reader through how the aristocratic gens-based (read: clan-based) warfare of the sixth century gave way first to the incorporation of a broader range of non-aristocratic Roman in the fifth century and finally to a fully state-centralized Roman army, based around a new set of equipment – what will becomes the distinctive Roman equipment package of the pilum, scutum, Montefortino helmet and so on – in the fourth century.
The book benefits greatly from Armstrong’s clear and straight-forward writing, which makes it very readable even for non-specialists. I have no idea how he managed to convince Cambridge University Press to give him footnotes (not endnotes, footnotes) but whatever magic was used it is most welcome here as it allows the reader to follow the evidence through the notes as they read the text. There are a few black-and-white illustrations, including some very useful line-art drawings of period artwork, though one wishes for a bit more. The maps are excellent, grouped neatly at the beginning of the text and extremely useful. Overall, this is a book intended to move the scholarly consensus (it is the book-version of Armstrong’s PhD thesis), but one which is, I think, accessible to a general audience who I imagine will find it quite interesting. A solid recommendation for those looking to get a sense of what the Roman army was like before there was a singular Roman army in the way we see it later.