Sunday, 2 October 2022

On War III

                                                       Samnite Warriors, in Repose

The rise of Rome, from a small town on the seven hills flanking the river Tiber, in central Italy, to the Great Empire it became is a story that has enthralled historians, ancient and modern to their very core. What was unique about this particular city, and its people, that propelled the Romans to rule great swathes of western Europe, and southern Europe, together with the Middle East, the Balkans and north Africa? Rome in 400 BC did not appear particularly special amongst the many warlike peoples of central Italy. But first, there are other matters to contemplate.

Although Greek civilisation was at its zenith, in 400 BC, it had suffered and survived a series of bitterly contested internecine wars, as well as wars against the Persian empire and the Carthaginians. Its greatness, fostered by the fierce independence of the city-state system was ultimately responsible for its downfall. Greece was never a nation and though the Greek cities were bound by language and strong cultural ties, there was never a unity that would allow the Greeks to found and rule over an empire. It is true they would forge leagues and alliances. These leagues formed for defensive and offensive reasons were too fragile to provide true unity- they were always subject to the turbulent flow of Greek politics and changing expediencies. In the end, fractured city-state politics were to be exploited by a semi-barbarous Greek kingdom to the north. Macedonia would bring forth unity and coherence by means of the sword and the skilful manipulation of Greek politics (338 BC).  But it would always be a Macedonian Empire. The Greek cities could never overcome their fierce and innate independence and could never really come to terms with the 'political reality' imposed from without. It took the cohesive genius of Phillip and thereafter, Alexander, to force the Greeks to become partners in the empire to come.

It will always remain a mystery, that after conquering and securing the Persian Empire, Alexander became obsessed with expansion, further east, unto mysterious lands. His army was none too keen and it was their reluctance to continue that would define the eastern limit of his Empire in 324 BC. In hindsight, his persistence was an insane vainglorious adventure not predicated upon sound military or logistical foundations. It seems odd that he never contemplated, turning west, once Persia was conquered. During his exotic bellicose peregrinations, he left one formidable enemy unbloodied and unsullied, 'Westward ho'-, the Carthaginians. 

The Carthaginians hailed originally from the city of Tyre, Phoenecia, and were supposedly founded by an exotic queen/bint with astonishingly acute/astute/cute tailoring skills, sometime in the 9th century BC. Apparently, according to myth and folklore, she was named, Dido. This wayward/seaward seafaring folk made land on the North African shore, in what is now, Tunisia, sometime after teatime. Anyway, it twas an astute colonial possession/progression, and the city they founded was named, rather unimaginatively, 'New City' (Carthage). The relatively civilised Punes (a Greek rendering) soon dominated the barbarous tribes of the hinterland and founded dependent cities along the North African coast. As time went forth, the Carthaginians began to quarrel with the equally land grabbing/grubbing Greeks, especially over possession of the island of Sicily. Eventually, and after much blood-letting, there followed an uneasy truce, leaving the Greeks in possession of the eastern parts, whilst the Carthigininains held the west (265 BC).

And thus, I have set the stage for the entrance of the Romans (stage left). Eventually, the Romans would take over all the Hellenes had built. This was not apparent to Alexander or to his immediate successors, of the time. The Romans were slow and steady on their way to greatness, however, and regardless, their initial succession, albeit sluggish, was inexorable and sure-footed. Certainly, the Carthaginians didn't see them coming.             

By, 290 BC the Romans were well on the way to their conquest of  Italy and were left unmolested by the Greeks until Roman expansion threatened the Greek diaspora in southern Italy. In 282 BC they came into dispute with the Greek city of Tarentum. A notorious Greek king and freebooter, Pyrrhus of Epirus, a nephew of Alexander the Great, decided to intervene on behalf of his Greek cousins. He amassed an army and confronted, and defeated, the Romans at Heraclea (280 BC) in southern Italy. Pyrrhus, like all Greeks, thought of none Greeks as barbarians, Romans included. However, it is said that he was impressed by the Roman army's camp disposition and orderliness. While in hostile territory, Roman soldiers constructed a fortified night camp with a ditch, earthworks and a palisade. On seeing the industrious Romans constructing their camp, Pyrrhus remarked: "funny, they don't act like barbarians". The Macedonian general was able to defeat the Romans once again at the battle of Asculum (279 BC). Both battles were hard fought and costly. It seems that Pyrrhus was not without an ironic sense of humour and exclaimed: "another victory like this one and I will be going home alone" (Pyrrhic Victory). A final battle ensued, in which the Greeks were defeated at Benventium in 275 BC. Pyrrhus had had enough of his Italian adventure and decided that there was more profit to be obtained elsewhere. And so he left his southern Greek allies to their fate. This garrulous Greek offered a final prediction. As he was embarking with his army from Sicily, he declaimed: "what a wonderful wrestling ground we are leaving to the Romans and Carthaginians." It is a great shame I don't have the space to write about this energetic, and generally underrated, Greek soldier/king, in this series of posts. Anyway, he came to an ignominious end after being struck by a roof tile in Argos, in 272 BC.  Worthy of another series, perhaps?           

At this juncture, it will be useful to consider how the Roman army of the time of the Second Punic War (218 BC-202 BC), was organised and armed. For most folk when they think of the Roman army, they imagine a truly professional set-up. In truth, the army only became the professional edifice of modern conception with and after the Marian reforms (107 BC). Prior to the Marian reforms, the Roman army, was very like Greek armies, in that it was a militia formed by citizens who could afford to equip themselves, with arms. The army would be raised for a campaign and disbanded once the hostilities concluded. Originally, the army was armed and fought very much like the Greek hoplite. After a series of wars with a hill people (Samnites) of central Italy (ended 304 BC), the Romans found that their mode of fighting was too inflexible in broken hill country and adapted their equipment and way of fighting accordingly. The Romans were always happy to adopt ideas from their enemies if it suited and ancient writers declare that the Romans copied the Samnite shield (Roman scutum). However, other sources state that the Romans had adopted the scutum at an earlier time. From now on the battle order was more open, and small units of men could operate independently (maniple- 120 men). They also arranged the army into three battle lines: the first line consisted of the youngest class of citizens (hastati); the second line (Principes) contained men in their prime, and the third line was formed of grizzled, battle-hardened veterans (triarii). 

By 272 BC the Romans had conquered most of the Italian peninsula and were about to embark on their first overseas adventure that would set their course to becoming a Great Empire. It was in 264 BC that the Romans decided to meddle in Scillian affairs during which they came into conflict with the Carthaginians. Two glorious wars later, ending in 202 BC, the Romans had control of Sicily, the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica, together with most of the Spanish peninsular. Carthaginian power was forever broken and the city was destroyed in 176 BC by the Romans and former Carthaginian territories in north Africa were annexed. 

This will do for now. I consider this post as an introduction to the 'Roman Way of War'; why were the Romans so successful and how have they influenced the Western Way of conducting war up until the modern era? This will of course represent the final post on the 'On War' series unless I decide otherwise.       


Monday, 26 September 2022

Socrates Has the Best Answer

     Jewish Heaven- please do not  adjust your set

I'm just putting the final touches on my third post in the much-vaunted series, 'On War'. To break up the bellicose monotony I felt moved to intersperse a post concerning the oft-misunderstood topic of ancient Judaic and early Christian concepts relating to what happens after we die.

Humankind is obsessed with death and the question of what happens after we die. Tis the final great mystery. To be fair, there is no intellectually satisfying answer to this question. If we are, to be honest, we must throw our hands up in the air and state: we don't know. This has not stopped speculation on the matter. Religions, numerous, and the Christian religion, in particular, have an unequivocal answer- yes there is an afterlife, although when pressed, religious leaders are unable to provide specifics, except the Jehovah's Witnesses- they are very specific; they are always specific. Tis to be noted that many Christian sects denounce the JWs and do not consider the adherents as Christians. And likewise, the JWs are more than happy to return the compliment. For simplicity, and for the sake of consistency, I'm happy to exclude Jehovah's Witnesses from the Christian fold and covenant.

Returning to the beliefs of 'Real Christians'. What is the Christian concept of heaven; where is heaven to be placed and what do we actually do there as we ride out an eternity? If we are to accept that Christianity is founded upon Judaism, then we would do well to examine what Judaism teaches about the afterlife, in the centuries before Jesus' birth, and subsequent to his demise (arbitrary divisions). Also, what do modern Jewish scholars think happens after we draw our final breath?

For Jesus' historical antecedents, the above question is easy to answer: there was no expectation of an afterlife. The Torah (first five books of the old testament), if you dare to read, have nought to say upon this matter. All that can be inferred is that your corporeal existence is your Lot. No heaven or 'Great Mystery' was to be asked or answered. Perhaps it was why the ancient Jews (and modern Jews) placed, and place, such a great emphasis on doing good and doing no harm during, this life. This is the core essence of Judaism to this day, the so-called: Golden Rule. It could be argued that any further admonishments/ embellishments are just/Just commentary- go read. This universal view began to change, in some Jewish circles, at least, during the 6th BC century. Thoughtful Jews began to ask: ''how come the righteous in this life suffer, while the rich and the wicked prosper? Surely this is blatantly unfair?'' This line of thought may have become popular at about the time Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and many Jewish families were marched off into exile. 

While it is true that there is virtually no mention of an afterlife in the written Torah, the oral Torah speaks volumes. I will not go into why the oral Torah became into being, how it was promulgated and why it was thought necessary after 70 AD to put forth into writing.  In essence, the written oral tradition (surely an oxymoron) is but a commentary on the Torah developed by Jewish scholars over many centuries. Anyway, although it is difficult to extract a coherent and consistent 'after-life tradition', certain elements are worthy of comment. When God made Adam, he did so by breathing 'divine breath' into inanimate mud to create life. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for spirit and breath are the same (ruah). And expanding on this theme, we can see how the ancient Jews could conceive of death as a time when the last breath (spirit) leaves the body. Aspects of Judaism began to, as I understand it, perceive a reawakening of life when the physical body and the spirit (breath) come back together. This will occur en masse on a future judgement day (End of Times). Living corpses, deemed righteous and worthy will reside with God, forever. The naughty folk will be destroyed. To be honest, this view is not universal. By Jesus' time the Pharisees believed something like this, although the conservative Sadducees appear to have abided by the teachings of their ancestors, in that, there was no existence after death. Both the body and the soul would cease to exist. From the gospels, it is reasonable to infer that Jesus' pontifications on the afterlife were in tune with what the Pharisees expected. In this regard, consider the parable of the 'Sheep & Goats' (Mathew's Gospel). This is the view of most modern, critical bible scholars on how Jesus viewed the afterlife. That said, not all serious scholars agree. Jesus' teachings are not always internally consistent throughout the Gospels. This likely has more to do with how the unknown gospellers interpreted Jesus' teachings, within their own doctrinal context and prejudices, rather than due to the original teachings of the Nazarene.  

Modern lay Jews, if they have an opinion on the matter, are likely to stick to the Pharisee's interpretation. This also seems to be the majority viewpoint amongst Rabbis. Judaism has always been a religion of 'this life', as already mentioned. Modern Judaism reflects this ancient tradition. Furthermore, Jews are becoming increasingly secular in their thought. There are, however, ultra-conservative sects that remain strict in their observance of the Law and the tenets of Judaism. From my observations, a significant proportion of Jews are 'unbelievers' however, they continue to practise Jewish rituals, to a lesser or greater extent, as a consequence of strong cultural associations and identity. In addition, there is a minority perspective that speculates that even the 'ungodly' will eventually be saved after a relatively brief period in some form of purgatory. This is akin to Catholic doctrine. Though, as I understand it, purgatory, in the Catholic tradition, is a place where 'the good/godly' go to be purged (tis in the name, after all ) of their sins before being allowed into heaven- this is not an option for the naughty- straight to the hot place, for eternity, for them.  The Jewish doctrine of purgatory seems a tad more humane than the Catholic version. And let's be honest, with our knowledge of human nature, to the fore, a more sensible and ultimately practical, proposition. 

And finally, I'll consider the early Christian stance and thoughts on the 'thereafter'. I think it is fair to state, that the earliest Christians (they were born Jews, after all), adopted the mainstream Jewish doctrine, of the time, with regard to the possibility of an existence after death. Christianity's future (and virtue) lay, not with the Jews, but with the Greek-speaking gentiles of the Roman Empire. Gentile converts immersed in Greek concepts of life and death undoubtedly had different ideas from their Jewish contemporaries. And these ideas and concepts were well established amongst the ancient Greeks and differed significantly from Jewish notions. It is fair to state, that the Greeks considered their own teachings, culture and philosophy vastly superior to those of different cultures, including the Jews. Therefore, Greek-speaking converts added their own Greek philosophic concepts to Christianity, and this included their own pagan Greek ideas of  'life after death'. And it is these concepts that would form the basis of Catholic philosophy, eventually- Jewish doctrines were to be discarded, willy-nilly. 

Tis enough for one post. I will go into more depth on the topic of 'Early Christian Thought on the Afterlife' in a second post. Also, I would like to look at how the concepts of Christian Heaven and Hell developed over the centuries culminating in the dominant views of the various, major Christian denominations. This may develop into another enthralling series.      

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Promenading About Town


Needs a Nostrum, Methinks

Yesterday, I decided to wander around my local town to engage in a modicum of focused shopping. Mrs F did not accompany me on this occasion. Sadly, she has had a series of surgeries on her right foot and is thus convalescing at home with a strict injunction, from the banebrake, not to place weight upon her macerated appendage. Consequently, shopping in the town is forbidden. And so, I'm allowed to shop unfettered. Although I would not wish enforced immobility on my good wife, the opportunity to engage in light, untethered shopping is a boon that needs to be clasped/grasped between two plastic shopping bags (if you can find 'em), with alacrity.

 When it comes to shopping, Mrs F is not of this world. To be honest, I regard shopping as a necessary chore, and as such, should be undertaken as efficiently and quickly as possible. Mrs F belongs to a different school of philosophy where shopping is a studied and divine form of recreation. She is quite happy to spend all day shopping and to return to the garth with nowt but corns. In practice, this means I avoid accompanying Mrs F on any of her 'shopping extravaganzas', with due gusto. I am not alone in my assessment of my wife's shopping prowess. In fact, our son and daughter are also none too keen to engage in said activity with the woman that gave them life. Moving forward.......

Anyway, I was between shops when I espied a gaggle of folk on the corner of Ferret Street and Ferret Boulevard. As I'm of a curious disposition I was drawn unto the congregation and peregrinated thereoff/ forthwith. To my surprise, and on further inspection, the commotion concentrated upon a proselyting duo of Jehovah's Witnesses (henceforth known as, JW x 2). Why do they always come in twos- if not pairs?  If I had been accompanied by Mrs F, I would be obliged to look the other way and continue without gainful and fruitful engagement. I would get the: 'don't you fucking dare/stare'. As I was without restraint/constraint either physical or ethereal, I decided to ask the sweet smiling, middle-aged lady for spiritual enlightenment. After a few probing enquiries, it became quite apparent that I was not dealing with the intellectual elite of the organisation. My opinion became fully cemented once she asked from where I once hailed. I replied that I was birthed in the township of  Dudley in the faraway kingdom of England.  Immediately upon my exclamation, she followed up with: "Then you must have heard of Kenny Smith, he's from England". After a brief pause/hiatus, I replied, accordingly: "Could this be the Kenny Smith of 24 Mons Road, Kate's Hill, Dudley. She responded: "No, he was from Wigan". Twas at this time I decided to terminate the conversation, go home, and drink copious amounts of fine ale. This was of course rather unusual as the majority of JW x 2 I have conversed with in the past have buggered off, of their own volition, admittedly after I had been confronted upon my own doorstep. For reasons, that will always remain inexplicable to me, JW x 2 are none too keen to prolong our dialogue.  But on this occasion, I made an excuse, stating that the 'Mega Supa Big Woppa Do Da Store' was having a sale on expired and fire damaged  Arthur Askey Memorabelia- I thank you. I wonder if Kenny Smith reads my blog?    

Sunday, 11 September 2022

On War II

  A work of art or war?

This post is a continuation of the previous post, titled, 'On War'. Rather unimaginatively I have entitled the second post in this unbidden and often forbidden series: 'On War II'. In my ignominious first foray, I made a series of unsupported and sweeping statements concerning how our stone age ancestors engaged in armed struggle with fellow man. I also mentioned that the Western concept of war, as initially practised by the Ancient Greeks, was somehow different from how most cultures conducted warfare. I also noted that the Greek mode of organised fighting went against human nature's innate preservation instincts. I would now like to advance a few observations and ideas on why this form of armed struggle became predominant amongst the Ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek warfare developed its characteristic form during the 7th century BC. Individual warriors were called 'hoplites' after the large round shield carried into battle (the hoplon). In addition, the hoplite wore a cuirass of bronze and or layers of linen glued together; bronze greaves to protect the lower leg and the highly characteristic bronze helm. The Greeks were armed with a long spear, of 8 feet in length, and a short, 'stabbing and cutting' sword. The hoplite stood shoulder to shoulder with his comrades and thrust his spear overhand or underhand depending on his position within the ranks. Due to the great length of his spear, those men in the second and third ranks could extend their spears past their comrades in the front rank. This disposition made the replacement of those killed in line relatively easy and without loss of cohesion.  

The Greek phalanx existed as a dynamic interlocking whole. Each man faced the enemy warrior to his front and would try to aim his spear at any exposed areas of flesh whilst his opponent did the same. Each warrior relied on his companions left and right to perform the same dance of death. Engagements were short-lived and it has been estimated that the battle proper did not last longer than 30 minutes. Fighting in heavy armour, in the sun, and under conditions of constant controlled terror could not be maintained for long. When a battle line eventually broke, the army would lose cohesion and it is only then that the actual killing would occur. However, it was a rare occasion, when Greek was contesting with Greek, that wholesale destruction of the beaten army would follow. Modern estimates suggest that the casualty rate never exceeded 15%.  The victorious hoplites rarely pressed the defeated for long and were usually content with their triumph and possession of the battlefield.   

A hoplite army was mainly/manly composed of heavy infantrymen, as described. Cavalry was never a significant component of the army. Greece never had the grazing capacity to support a large horsed contingent. Light infantrymen also played a role prior to the clash of their heavier armoured brethren and would trade missiles (javelins and sling stones/lead pellets) with light infantrymen of the opposing army. This group consisted primarily of young men without the means to support the expensive arms and armour required of the classical hoplite. Once a formation broke and fled, lightly armoured men would chase down the encumbered enemy hoplite. In these circumstances, the defeated hoplite would often discard their heavy shield and spear. For a hoplite to draw a sword was considered a mark of desperation.    

Hoplite battles had a regularity, constancy and ferocity about them that may seem strange, at first consideration, but are readily explainable given the circumstances under which the Ancient Greeks laboured. The Ancient Greeks were a disputatious folk and agreeably fond of fighting amongst themselves, often to their overall detriment. Their civilisation centred upon the city-state and each city-state was fiercely independent. And to maintain their independence, a military force, for defence and aggression, was required. The military force was maintained through a 'militia system', the only notable exception, of course, was Sparta. Therefore, freeborn men (generally, although not exclusively, georgic tillers of the sod) who were able to purchase their military equipment and trappings were expected to muster, when called, to undertake their military duty. In contrast to modern professional armies, the Greek armies were distinctly middle class. To be called to arms was an honour and an obligation unto your polity. The Greeks would come together as an affiliated 'nation' only in times of a serious external threat, for instance as occurred during the Persian wars of the 5th century BC. A coming together of several cities, often termed 'leagues', to form a military alliance was a pragmatic expedient to prevent domination of the isthmus by a single state. Not all leagues were primarily military in nature but could reflect commercial, religious or ethnic considerations  The various leagues formulated over the centuries are worthy of a post unto itself- if I can be arsed (Arse).

As for the peculiarity of the Ancient Greek mode of war, modern historians have proposed a number of ingenious ideas worthy of note. Greece is a mountain-dominated country and suitable arable land is limited and a highly desired resource. One goal of a warlike expedition into enemy territory would oft be directed at destroying the enemy's crops.  If the invading army could achieve this aim, this, of course, could lead to serious famine in the succeeding year. Crops to be destroyed would be put to the fire- for some reason I find this concept strangely alluring. Moving on. It seems that grain crops, (in Greece at least) prior to harvest, are only dry enough and therefore combustible for a few weeks in May. After harvest, the ears of corn would be stored, and concentrated, in easily defended barns and silos. Consequently, if an enemy could be kept at bay, from ravishing the fields, for just a brief period, the worst effects of their despoilation would be averted. Also to be taken into account is that, the aggressors' fields would be vulnerable to destruction whilst their war band was off a rollicking as there would be insufficient armed men left behind and available for their own defence. All this taken into consideration, would place a premium on a rapid and decisive outcome. For the Ancient Greeks, the nature of the land, the people and the intractable cultural environment telescoped war into a nightmarish but brief affair. The fact that the temporal dimension of war was short favoured a brutal decisive clash. A desultory, low-key extended strategy would not do and therefore we see an evolution of warfare unrivalled in sheer ferocity. The frightfulness was self-limiting. Once the din and clash of arms subsided both protagonists seemed content, and no further military action would occur for that year. After the battle, a truce would be called and the all-important ritual of tending to the fallen could be undertaken without fear of interference. The victor would errect a cairn of triumph and war would be over for this season. How civilised.

The Romans were the natural heirs of 'Greek War'. They were willing students and thus embraced and nurtured the Greek concept of 'innate horror' of the set piece battle with relentless gusto. But they did not practise the Greek concept of limited war or military restraint. For the Romans, the nastiness continued unabated and Western warfare lurched into/unto a new adventurous landscape of supreme terror, where the enemy could expect no respite, temporal or otherwise.  As a continuation in this seminal and singular series, I will now turn to contemplate the phenomenon that was Ancient Rome, at war. This post will be the penultimate in my trilogy, in four parts, 'On War'.  May the Gods that look over such madness forgive me. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

On War

Okay, folks, the usual disclaimer, caveat, forwarning, foreboding and dictate: The following are the ramblings of a man with a tenuous grasp of reality, on the best of occasions. Thus, consider my musings no more than a man who has an interest in things military and, over the years, has read wide/wild and free on matters of which I have absolutely no practical experience. I am but a simple, 'Armchair Warrior' with an overactive imagination/medication. What follows is opinion and in no way should be construed as expert commentary. Consider your comments and opinions in this light. As for censure regarding my 'scholarship'. I will not hear or brook such a thing. Take from this post, what you will in the spirit of a man renowned for spouting, total and utter, bollocks. Arse.      

It has to be admitted that we are a somewhat contentious species. But we may not be the only species on the planet that actually engages in planned conflict. For instance, several ant species undertake a 'campaign' to attack other ants and destroy the 'citadel' complete/replete with resident/resplendent Queen. Our closest relatives, the pongids, specifically chimpanzees, can be particularly unpleasant. That said, over many centuries, societal pressures have shaped humans into the organised, highly efficient proponents of organised conflicts. This has not always been the case. 

Primitive humans, 12,000 years ago, lived the 'idyllic' life as hunter-gatherers. This was before our ancestors became acquainted with the joys, and fruits, of stock domestication and the cultivation of crops. The human population was low and consequently, a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle was acceptable without conflict with other human groups practising the same mode of existence. Life within the tribal structure, by necessity dictated by the harsh mistress of survival, was highly stratified. Adult men acted in concert together to hunt prey. The larger the game taken, the better. A large animal provided the necessary protein required to maintain the family structure. Sophisticated hunting strategies focused on herd animals. Herd animals flock together for protection. But primitive hunters could utilise this tendency through tactics designed to exploit an evolutionary loophole. Thus, herding animals to a naturally enclosed area facilitates ambush and subsequent destruction by cooperating, coordinating hunters armed with javelin, spear and club. Such high protein yields were conducive to an explosion in population coupled with the development of means for meat preservation and storage in times of inevitable shortage due to seasonal fluctuations and random/unpredictable privations affecting man and prey in equal/unequal measure.

When the first wandering bands of primitive humans entered mutual violence is lost unto temporal oblivion. Reasons for conflict are also beyond extraction although reasonable scenarios may be pondered with a degree of plausibility and merit. In ecology, there is a concept called, 'Carrying Capacity'. Simply stated, the concept refers to the resources available on a unit area of land that is able to support X individuals of a particular species. In the animal world once this limit is exceeded there is a 'biological adjustment' or in common parlance: there is a degree of dying to account for the degree of disequilibrium; eventually, the adjustment is sufficient, and death, at least due to starvation, returns unto the natural carrying capacity of the environment. This is how nature works in all its feral, majestic glory- are you not in awe?      

In a situation of limited resources, strife between groups would be inevitable. The hunting tools require no modification to inflict destruction on fellow humans. The javelin and bow preclude the need to close with the 'enemy'. Even primitive, stone-age bows would be effective killers up to 50 metres. For close quarter action, stone hand axes, hafted or simply clasped, could be used to inflict disabling 'cerebral haemorrhages' on an adversary. A comment on flint tools: there is a wide misconception that flint is not particularly useful as a cutting implement. Whilst it is true that flint is easily chipped (also a helpful feature), an edge fashioned by a skilled artisan is super sharp. Indeed, in the modern context, shards of flint have been employed in delicate eye surgery. Here endeth the lesson/digression.    

Strife amongst bands of hunter-gathers would be often spontaneous events and risk-averse. The term  'risk averse' needs a little explanation. In our modern world protected by professionally trained soldiers, we have little concept of the mechanics of stone-age, conflict. Anthropological studies over the last century, focussing on 'pre-contact' groups in South-East Asia and the Amazon basin have helped to gain some perspective. Tis hard to tease out generalisations but with my characteristic, breathtaking, all-encompassing arrogance, I will do so. During contact and strife, combat is tentative. Individual warriors are very concerned with their personal safety and don't usually act in a way that we would construe as brave or bold. If the opposing warriors are of about equal 'effectiveness' (needs to be defined) casualties are often low. This is not to say that widespread killing is not an option. If one group is smaller, unprepared for battle and cannot flee, wholesale mayhem and killing are likely. Also, a similar situation can arise if a group is caught unawares and is unable to fight back. Bravery and steadfastness in battle are not something that comes naturally to our species. We have evolved to 'way up' risk in a given survival situation, and running away has always been a highly viable life and consequently evolutionary strategy. A man has to undergo rigorous training and indoctrination to become an effective soldier. Natural self-preservation instincts need to be subsumed into the unnatural, rigid and disciplined society that is a modern army. By modern army, I'm referring to armies that have existed in 'civilised' communities for the past 2,500 years. It is fair to state, that as far as Western civilisation is concerned, the Greek hoplite was the precursor and template for what followed. A template adopted/adapted by the Romans and eventually passed on to the Germanic peoples who succeeded the Romans in the West, post-collapse. I will deal with the rise of the Western way of war, defined by the concept of the set piece battle in my next post in this series of posts on 'the fundamental nature of warfare'.              

Sunday, 28 August 2022

Bert and Ernie

The Boys in Happier Days

About 8 months ago we acquired a couple of rams for free, Bert and Ernie, as their owner just wanted to get rid. Otherwise, they were destined for the knacker's yard. Mrs S is a big old softy (not me, I'm tough) and became upset that these young healthy creatures were about to be discarded unto the bone gatherer. At the time, they were about a year old. We already had three alpacas residing in one of our large fields and it was no problem adding a couple of ovines; the carrying capacity of the land was not to be exceeded. The lads were promptly delivered and the alpacas watched/awaited the delivery of the new arrivals with studied/studded interest (the alpacas had metal nose rings). Once released, the new additions began to graze immediately and we left them to settle in. As we left the field, Ted the alpaca came over to say hello and promptly mounted one of our new additions. 

It needs to be emphasised that neither my wife nor I are from farming stock. Prior to moving to our current rural property our only experience of 'livestock management' was owning a succession of white, fluffy lap dogs. However, managing alpacas and sheep is relatively easy- leastways according to YouTube. After all, both types of animals are just more woolly and larger versions of ferrets, aren't they?  Both sheep and alpacas require an annual cut and treatment for worms and other potential parasites, and nowt else. Of course, my wife and grandchildren regularly feed the animals over the fence with ovine/camelidae nutritional pellets. For a handful of nuts these, usually standoffish creatures, will allow hand patting and a little unassuming human interaction.

And thus the Great cycle/circle of life continues, without abate and drama, until..... One sunny winter's morn I toddle awf to the livestock field with a song in my heart and a beer in hand. Twas after 10.00 am after all. The purpose of the visit was to administer repair work to the hut that had been erected for the animals to gain respite from the extremes of New Zealand's weather. In this instance, a panel had come down due to rain and wind and thusly my woodworking ministrations and exertions were expressly, and sorely, needed. As I was about to set to work, I espied Ernie 'resting', supine. As the day was sunny and unseasonably warm I felt little concern. I, therefore, got to work and within a short span, I had undertaken the repair. Henceforth, livestock on the property would no longer be at the mercy of the vicissitudes of New Zealand weather. My husbandry obligations had been fulfilled with skill and undoubted aplomb! Satisfied, and filled with wonder, I regarded my land with a squint-eyed, vista-encompassing, sweep. It, at this stage, I noticed that Ernie had not moved since last regarded. With understandable trepidation, I drew near. His stillness at my approach did not bode well. I sat by the still, stricken animal and cradled his head. He was with life but by a small margin. I called the vet and she arrived within a short span. After a cursory, but professional inspection, she relayed that the prognosis was terminal and that to avoid any further suffering, poor Ernie, was to be euthanised. The family gathered and spent a few minutes with our ailing friend. Afterwards, the vet administered the drug and his family stayed until he gave up his last breath.

Next day, we buried Ernie and on the following morn, we assembled and my granddaughters placed a few wildflowers upon the place of his final repose. It was then we noticed that Bert had deposited a pile of his excremental waste (is there any other?). Could this be his way of saying, 'Goodbye'? We will never know.                    


Saturday, 13 August 2022

Cleopatra Mark Two

I have been known to rehash the odd post or two. Some would say I'm a lazy bugger and should be castigated accordingly. And with that sentiment, I would heartedly agree. Lazy, indolent and mayhap, a tad slothful. What can I say? Guilty as charged. This post originally appeared in c2015. Writing is hard and although I do appear to have a modicum of talent for penning complete and utter bollocks, it does not preclude a degree of lassitude.  
That said, I have also updated grammar and amended errors, sundry. Thus, this post is supposedly about said exotic bint dissolving an expensive pearl in vinegar and drinking the acidic concoction, in one. Tis enough to give, even the most robust constitution, digestive dyspepsia- is there any other?

Reminds me of an ex Girlfriend- her name was Karen

Cleopatra (b 69BC-d 30BC) has inspired writers and artists for over two thousand years. The purported Egyptian beauty, who seduced two of the most powerful men of the Roman world has fascinated and beguiled us, ever since. Cleopatra has become a byword for despotic, lush, oriental opulence and extravagance; a woman who during a banquet with her lover, the sot, Mark Antony, is said to have dissolved a priceless pearl in vinegar and drank it. So what is the truth and after all this time, and should we care?

The first thing to note is that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but a Macedonian belonging to the Macedonian dynasty that took control of Egypt after the death of the great general of antiquity, Alexander the Great (d 323BC). Macedonians: A load of Highland ruffians that ruled the world, because they could. The rulers spoke Greek and didn't even bother to learn the native Egyptian language, although Cleopatra apparently made the effort, as she did with other barbarian tongues. She became ruler of Egypt after the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, at 18 (51BC). To legitimise her rule she married her younger brother, aged 12, at the time- don't ask.

As regards her supposed beauty, let us consult the ancient writers for their considered opinion of her said pulchritude: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

Plutarch's Life of Antony 

The only other evidence we have is her depiction on coins and sculptured busts. Allowing for a degree of stylisation, especially in the Greek renditions, a modest conclusion can be made. By the way, the Roman depictions are considered more realistic as befits this most practical and bucolic of peoples. On the available evidence it seems she was no ravishing beauty in the mould of Elizabeth Taylor, nor was she a hideous hag. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Her greatest attributes, lay in her charm, intelligence and accomplishments, which indeed, were great. How could it be otherwise?

We are on less firm ground when we come to the story of the pearl. Supposedly, Cleopatra bet Mark Antony that she could serve a meal costing 10 million sesterces. This would translate to about 30 million US dollars at today’s rates. Obviously, Mark Antony was intrigued (probably drunk) and so he accepted the bet. The next day she set before Antony an extravagant banquet. He was impressed but pointed out that the meal came nowhere near 10 million sesterces. Cleopatra smiled and produced a glass of vinegar into which she placed one of her large and incredibly expensive pearl earrings. The pearl fizzed in the vinegar and promptly dissolved. With a wicked gleam in her eye, Cleopatra drained the drink in one. All at the banquet agreed, that she had won the bet.   

The account appears in the writings of a Roman author, Pliny the Elder, in 77AD. We should be wary of its veracity for several reasons: Firstly it was written many years after the alleged event;  further, it was written by an enemy who had no love for Cleopatra and it has all the hallmarks of a myth. The ancients loved a 'rollicking' good story, just as we do today, and were not immune to subverting the facts if it suited. The story also suited Roman propaganda in which Cleopatra is suitably depicted as a
luxuriant despotic ruler- the antithesis of tough, rustic, stolid, georgic, Rome.

There should always be a kernel of truth in a good (and plausible?) 'tall story'. One part of the story can be tested today. Is it possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar? The essence and nature of pearls and vinegar have not changed in two thousand years. Pearls will dissolve in vinegar but not in the way described by Pliny. A pearl, and especially a large pearl, will not dissolve within a very short time- we are looking at days. And remember, Cleopatra's pearl was very large. Therefore, the story could not have occurred exactly as described. The ancients should have got their facts right, we are talking about posterity, after all. This doesn't mean it didn't happen; a few modifications are required. If the pearl was crushed into a fine powder beforehand, then it would be possible.

Having established that at least one part of the original story can't be true, it casts a modicum amount of doubt, over the rest of the story. The story, with reservations, is wholly consistent with what we know about Cleopatra herself. The great lady was wealthy, a ruler in the grand ancient tradition and flaunted her power and privilege with extravagant abandon.       

I suppose, in the last analysis, we should revel in a tale well told and should not be asking penetrating and prosaic questions. Fiction can be intoxicating. After all, who questions whether Shakespeare's, 'Antony and Cleopatra' is a tale of real history? Tis a breathtaking, tragic, and beautifully narrated story framed in lilting prose that, on occasion, inflames the senses. Apparently, it can make grown men cry (not me though, I'm tough).

Historically, Cleopatra was an important character, although ultimately doomed. She played a fine game as only an intelligent ruler could in the face of subjugation to a greater power. She recognised the Roman Empire for what it was. Not sophisticated, politically, or culturally. However, it possessed the only two characteristics that really matter in the world's great arena; political stability (*see comment, below) and a large and well-trained military force. Nothing else really matters, at least from the grand geopolitical perspective. Expanding on this analysis, it is well to consider that the subjugator, the Roman Empire, when its time came, fell more to internal enemies than those without. Modern Western powers should take note.     

*As I'm sure you are aware, I'm not a great one for digression, but I thought it necessary to introduce a caveat on Rome's 'political stability', before I receive censure. The period in which I write is a time of great political upheaval for Rome. Prior to this era, Rome experienced relatively stable political conditions under the Republic, however, it did suffer from periods of social tumult. Caesar introduced a form of stability that pleased no one but himself. After his death, the Roman world descended into civil war. And with interludes, real peace and tranquillity (at least for the Romans) did not descend until the coming of the first Roman Emperor, Octavian. The rest is history- go read.   

Gratuitous photo of da missus and grand fruit