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Can We Trust the Ancient Texts?

By Richard Gabriel
5/31/2018 • Military History Magazine

Some were found lying alive with their thighs and hams cut, laying bare their necks and throats, bid them drain the blood that remained in them. Some were found with their heads plunged into the earth…having suffocated themselves by overwhelming their faces with the earth which they threw over them. A living Numidian, with lacerated nose and ears, stretched beneath a lifeless Roman who lay upon him… for when the Roman’s hands were powerless to grasp his weapon, turning from rage to madness, he had died in the act of tearing his antagonist with his teeth.

Pretty vivid stuff—but there is no way to tell if it is true. This description of the 216 BC Battle of Cannae was written 200 years after the actual events for which no eyewitness accounts exist, and the historian, Titus Livius, or Livy, had no military experience.

What often passes as ancient history turns out to be dramatic representations of what the writers thought may have occurred. And yet one cannot examine the wars and battles of antiquity without reference to these accounts. The modern historian studying Greek and Roman military history is a prisoner of the ancient texts.

The single biggest obstacle to our understanding of ancient military history is the scarcity of reliable evidence. The Greeks’ invention of history as a search for a rational explanation and understanding of events, expressed in written prose or oral recitation, created a means by which ancient historians could record events in a manner still comprehensible in the modern age. Three centuries later the Greeks passed on their invention to the Romans. The consequence was an archive of written texts on which the modern study of Greek and Roman military history is based. Unfortunately, some of the information contained in those texts is unreliable, biased, incomplete or even false.

The modern reader is right to suspect that there is something different about history as written by ancient historians: Greek and Roman historians were often less concerned with a factual accounting of events than with writing something that taught moral lessons or guided the behavior of powerful political classes or individuals. This didactic approach to history often focused on the deeds of great men.

Moreover, ancient historians expected their work to be recited more than read, and their concern for rhetoric led to the incorporation of great, but fictitious, speeches attributed to famous generals and kings. If the bare facts were insufficient for an effective presentation, then the known facts could be adorned, modified or variously combined in the interest of heightened drama. Names, numbers, exact dates, chronology and geographic details of battles were frequently inaccurate, invented or sometimes omitted.

These military “histories” were often written long after the events they describe; only a few address events contemporary with their authors. Ancient writers usually did not check the validity of their sources—a mostly impossible task in any case, as few usable archives existed and would probably have required lengthy and dangerous journeys to get to them. Some ancient historians simply repeated accounts from earlier sources, telling them in a different, often more dramatic fashion. Thus, Livy (59 BC–AD 17) relies primarily on Polybius’ (c. 200–118 BC) account of the Second Punic War for his military narrative, while Dio Cassius (c. AD 150–235), writing more than a century later, relies on Livy’s account for the same war. Often, sources available to the writer in his time cannot be referenced because they have since been lost. For example, the works of two of Polybius’ most valuable sources, Sosylus and Silenus, Greek “war correspondents” who traveled with Hannibal, are lost to us. The sources Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) used for the Greco-Persian Wars are little more than monument inscriptions and a collection of oral tales. There are exceptions: Campaigns of Alexander, by Arrian (c. AD 87–145), is a trustworthy account of Alexander the Great’s life based on earlier eyewitness accounts by Nearchus, Ptolemy and Aristobulus, all soldiers who participated in Alexander’s campaigns.

Today, military historians are also the prisoners of the surviving translations, most of which contain errors introduced when they were translated from Greek to Latin or simply copied by medieval monks, who often lacked language skills and knowledge of the military subjects. The most common errors involved numbers. The monks had limited knowledge of ancient numerical systems and regularly mistranslated or transposed numerical values, sometimes substituting completely new numbers of their own. Ancient historians had a tendency to exaggerate the number of enemy combatants and casualties in the first place, and that was compounded by the monks’ errors, further distorting the facts. Rates of march, distances, weights, numbers of animals, the widths of rivers and streams, and terrain heights are usually expressed numerically, so such distortions affect the information most important to today’s military historian.

Writers of ancient texts dealing with military history can be divided into three categories: (1) those with no military experience who wrote years after the events; (2) those with some military experience who wrote years after the events; and (3) those with military experience who participated in the events about which they wrote.

Herodotus, Appian (c. AD 95–165), Livy and Dio Cassius all fall into the first category. Appian’s Roman History covered all the wars fought by the Romans from their early history through Trajan’s campaigns. Polybius’ works and Livy’s War With Hannibal are the basic source materials for the Punic Wars. Dio Cassius’ work is extensive but flawed in its reliance on uncriticized sources and its dependence on Livy as a major source. Herodotus’ account of the Greco-Persian Wars is more dramatic novel than military history, its technical details of things military often suspect. These sources are more valuable for general themes than for exact details and must be treated with caution.

Polybius, Tacitus (c. AD 56–117) and Arrian fall into the second category. Polybius’ Histories is the best account of military events, details and tactics pertaining to the Second Punic War and Scipio Africanus’ role. Cavalry commander of the Achaean League, Polybius fought in the Achaean War and commanded Greek troops before being taken as a hostage to Rome, where Scipio’s family befriended him. He had access to all of Scipio’s papers, interviewed major commanders of the Second Punic War and visited some of the battlefields about which he wrote. Thus, his account of Roman warfare is written with an accomplished military eye and is generally accurate.

Arrian also served as a cavalry officer, seeing action in Dacia. Later, as governor of Cappadocia, he commanded two legions and may have participated in Trajan’s campaign against the Parthians. His treatment of Alexander’s campaigns is based on eyewitness accounts and is the most reliable source for Macedonian tactics and military organization.

Tacitus was a legion commander but apparently did not see combat. His greatest work is the Annals, which provides the only extant descriptions of Roman legionary warfare and equipment of the 1st century.

Firsthand military experience, alas, is no guarantee of historical accuracy, and even experienced soldier-historians cannot always be trusted to put aside their own biases. Sallust (c. 86–35 BC), for example, was an experienced soldier who saw combat in the civil war in Illyricum and Campania and later in North Africa. Yet Jugurthine War, his account of the Roman conflict against Jugurtha the Numidian, is generally untrustworthy as to numbers, dates, distances and size of forces. Josephus (c. AD 37–100), another combat veteran who commanded troops both for and against Rome, is a good source for the details of Roman equipment and arms but is otherwise untrustworthy. His primary work, The Jewish War, an account of the great uprising against Rome, may have been commissioned by the Romans.

Among those soldier-historians who wrote contemporary accounts of battles in which they fought, Thucydides (c. 460– 395 BC), Caesar (100–44 BC), Xenophon (c. 431–352 BC) and Aeneas Tacticus (4th century BC) are especially valuable.

Thucydides wrote the definitive account of the Peloponnesian Wars. He fought on land and at sea in that war, witnessing 5th century Greek phalanx warfare and trireme naval tactics. He probably participated in or saw every major engagement of the war. Thucydides’ command of tactical and strategic realities of that period is unrivaled.

In his Commentaries, Caesar offers firsthand narratives of dozens of legion battles and sieges, including the siege of Alesia in Gaul and the battle at Georgovia, making him the best source for Roman military capabilities in the 1st century BC.

Xenophon was an Athenian mercenary captain who spent most of his life in military service. He served all over the eastern Mediterranean in the pay of several Greek states and even fought in the Persian army. Xenophon participated in or witnessed dozens of Greek vs. Greek and Greek vs. Persian battles and is the best source for 4th century BC Greek land warfare. His best work is Anabasis, an account of his service to Persian King Cyrus, the defeat at Cunaxa and his command of the Greek troops in retreat for more than a thousand miles across Asia Minor. A cavalryman, he wrote a short work on cavalry command appended to a treatise on horsemanship, the earliest extant work of its kind.

Aeneas Tacticus was one of the earliest Greek writers on military matters. He wrote several didactic works on warfare, but the only one known to exist is How to Survive Under Siege, a detailed manual on defending a fortified city. A Greek mercenary captain of the Peloponnese, Aeneas served in the Aegean and Asia Minor and participated in several battles, including the 362 BC Battle of Mantinea. His work is especially valuable for its plethora of historical illustrations of Greek warfare.

Although the shortcomings of these ancient texts were well known, for many years there was little else on which historians could draw. The study of ancient military history was left largely to classicists, who could read the texts in the original Latin and Greek. But while classicists’ forte is language, few are trained military historians. They have long perceived military history as a minor field, thus paying it scant attention.

A European university education of the 19th century consisted largely of a classical education in which the original texts were read. Many university graduates of the aristocratic classes became high-ranking military officers, who did pore over the accounts of ancient warfare for modern lessons. Soldier-historians such as Basil Liddell-Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Hans Delbrück and Georg Veith revised accounts of the ancient battles based on their own experiences with military training and war.

Two developments in the late 19th century led to a more empirical study of ancient military history. First, the 19th century was an age of invention and discovery in which the scientific impulse required carefully measured confirmation of all propositions before they could be accepted as fact. For the first time, military historians were able to apply new findings from psychiatry, medicine, nutrition, human endurance studies, cartography, metallurgy, engineering and other fields to the study of ancient warfare.

Second, the 19th century saw the emergence of modern war on an unprecedented scale. Large standing and reserve armies required the precise management of men and materiel. This gave rise to tabular organization and implementation, including calculations of how much food and water each soldier required; how quickly a brigade could march under different conditions; how many mules and wagons were needed to transport men and supplies over a given distance and how long they could be sustained in the field; as well as what kinds of wounds could result from different types of attacks and how many of the wounded would die from hostile fire, accidents or disease. Military science replaced what had once been the “art of war.”

The new approach was further spurred by the reserve mobilization system used by European armies of the day. While standing armies were relatively small, reserve units were enormous, comprising almost every male adult between the ages of 18 and 45. Between the Crimean War and World War I, many of these reservists saw combat or at least underwent military training. The reservists included professors and university students who learned the new science of war and its attendant tables, schedules and measurements, then returned to the universities, creating an impetus for more empirical analysis of the ancient warfare texts.

By the beginning of the 20th century the new approach was gaining credibility, and professors who were not classicists but ancient military historians began securing positions at European universities, only to have the disruption and carnage of World War I decimate the ranks of the new scholarship and bring it to a halt. After the war, surviving professors who still had posts to fill and classes to teach tried to reestablish the new discipline. They produced a number of groundbreaking empirical works, like Johannes Kromayer and Georg Veith’s Battle Atlas of Ancient Military History and Hans Delbrück’s four-volume History of the Art of War. The postwar political turmoil and the catastrophe of World War II in Europe again eclipsed the study of ancient military history. The subject had never been popular in the United States, and the study of ancient military history remains today a comparatively minor discipline.

The last two decades have seen the emergence of an empirical approach to ancient military history in the United States and Europe, prompted by an electronic revolution that has brought the contents of the world’s libraries and the work of distant scholars to the historian’s desktop. This same revolution has increased communication among scholars. There are also the beginnings of financial support for such research: Oxford University, for example, sponsored the re-creation of a 4th century trireme to test its operational characteristics.

New research has added to the tools the ancient historian can now apply to the texts. J.F. Lazenby’s and J.K. Anderson’s work on Greek warfare, Victor Davis Hanson’s study of the Battle of Cannae, and Philip Sabin’s research on the battles of the Punic Wars have added to our understanding of the mechanics of close combat and the respective roles played by fear, exhaustion and “battle pulses.” Markus Junkelmann’s real-life experiments measuring the carrying loads, speed and endurance of actual soldiers have raised new questions about these factors in ancient warfare. Donald Engels’ excellent study on the logistics of Macedonian armies has been supplemented by Jonathan Roth’s analysis of the logistics of Roman armies from 264 BC to AD 235. (Karen Metz’s and my efforts at “experimental archaeology” have provided insights into the killing and wounding power of ancient weapons.) In short, today’s ancient historians now have at their disposal a new set of tools with which to analyze the ancient battle accounts, thus revising and enriching our understanding of what war was like in those times.

One of the most important factors in our understanding of ancient warfare, the terrain on which the battles were fought, has remained mostly beyond our ken. Urbanization, industrialization and two world wars have altered the landscape of the ancient battlefields beyond recognition. (At this writing, the battlefield of Chaeronea in Greece is under development as a shopping mall.)

This was not the case before and just after World War I. Then, Johannes Kromayer, chair of the Department of Ancient Military History at Leipzig University, and Georg Veith, director of the War Office archives in Vienna, located and mapped the major battlefields of antiquity. Employing military cartographic teams, they spent a decade visiting these battlefields and overseeing the production of color topographic maps for each site. After consulting the most famous European military historians of the day, Kromayer and Veith superimposed illustrations of troop dispositions and maneuvers on each map. Their Battle Atlas of Ancient Military History comprised 168 color contour maps of all major Greek and Roman battlefields from the Greco-Persian Wars (499–448 BC) through Octavian’s campaign in Illyria (35–34 BC).

The atlas was published between 1922 and 1928 as several individual folios. Due to the expense and time required to publish the work, only a small number of complete sets found their way into the hands of scholars or libraries. The devastation of World War II destroyed many of these copies, and in 2008 only 28 complete copies remained, most secured in rare book rooms and not permitted to circulate. This year the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario, will republish one of the last complete atlases remaining in private hands and make it available to scholarly and military libraries in Canada and Europe. With the republication of Kromayer and Veith’s work, military historians will be able to travel back in time and examine the blood-soaked ground of antiquity.

 

For further reading, Richard Gabriel recommends: The Ancient Historians, by Michael Grant, and The Roman Historians, by Ronald Mellor.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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