Christian Cameron

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Looking for History — Greek fortification and Medieval gun positions

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My grandmother was an exceptionally intelligent woman who was passionately interested in antiques.  I’m pretty sure I got my love of antiques from her, and possibly even my passion for authenticity and material culture.

She was also very cheap.  Or rather, she liked a bargain.  She had a whole theory on how to search for and purchase antiques.  Her theory was that you wanted to find an area that had been prosperous during the period you wanted; say, the late 18th century (her favorite).  And then, ideally, was much less prosperous afterwards, so that the area kept its old chairs and didn’t refurnish all its houses; so the nice early pewter and good Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture was still, so to speak, sitting around.  Used, but loved, never thrown on the rubbish heap.

A few years ago, I became interested in early examples of military architecture purpose built for cannon.  I was fascinated by the development of the bastion trace or ‘Trace Italienne‘ system and I’ll note, snarkily, that the author of the Wiki who thinks that Trace Italienne and the star fort are the same is… well, not seeing the same development path I see. Anyway….

I have a book that says there are ‘few, if any, surviving examples of round gun ports and early gun positions left in the world.’  I happened to read this comment while on vacation in Greece, and I stood at Mytilene on Lesvos and laughed, as the whole fortification, built in 1462 and ‘renewed’ by the Turks around 1470, is riddled with round gun ports and very early ‘bastions.’  I thought I’d found something exceptional.

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Actually, what I’d found was the military history equivalent of my grandmother’s theory on antiques, proved large.  It turns out that Greece is a place where the very best, and most expensive, Italian military engineers available to the two richest states in the Mediterranean and perhaps the world, Genoa, and Venice, built dozens… maybe HUNDREDS, of fortifications in the years between 1440 and 1470.  And then it all collapsed; within a decade, virtually every Genoese and Venetian possession had fallen to the Turks for complex sociopolitical reasons that good fortifications could not prevent…  The Turks didn’t need a lot of the forts, so they just sat there. Like a good Heppelwhite chair in an old logging town, waiting to be collected.

But sometimes, doing research has a comic element, and Medieval gun positions provided one of the very best.

A week ago, I was on tour with my friends.  It’s called the Pen and Sword tour; and we visit fortifications and battlefields and.. wineries and really good restaurants.  And ships… archaeological sites… almost any bar that serves mastika…

I digress.

We all enjoyed Mistras (last capital of the Byzantine Empire; a city that towers over the plain of Sparta; one of the world’s coolest places; my bet for the real life Minas Tirith) so much last year that we decided to visit again.  And, rather like re-reading a favorite book and finding something you missed the first time… we were coming down the steep stairs when Stephan Callahan said something about a ‘gun position’.

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I came around the corner and there was a beautiful example of a very early gun position; round topped, slightly sloped.  The site has a likely terminus ante quam of about 1462, so the gun position has to be pretty early.  I was just looking at it, and the incredible view down over the lower town and gates, when Stephan (or maybe Jamie Harrison) said, ‘And here’s the gun.’

Indeed.  Lying right there was a large section of the (probably exploded) breech of a welded, not cast, Medieval gun.  No marker, no tag.  Just… sitting there.

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Wow.  It even has the touch hole, which rather ended discussion of whether this was really part of an original medieval gun we’d found on the ground by the gun position.

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The close up…

OK, comedy aside, it’s actually exciting and rather moving to realize you are looking at multiple artifacts that, together, actually tell a story.  I don’t know what the story is; that gun may have sat in the rain, decorating the road, until the 1770s when the inhabitants of the town, misguided, tried to revolt against the Turks under the impression that the Russians would save them (who could make this up?).  Maybe they tried to fire the gun; it would have been 300 years old and riddled with rust on its welded (not cast) seams.  Or maybe it was so bad that it exploded in 1462.  Maybe the Turks blew it up after taking the place, because, (as you see when you stand there) it was just too hard to haul it down the hill…  That was a big gun.  I’d peg it around the 24 pound bore size.

The best moment, however, came when we read the sign, located about 5 meters from the gun position.

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No.  Really.  Top notch job, Ephorates. Note the part that says ‘only be seen in large, coastal, Venetian castles.’  This was the capital of Byzantium, friends. Venice only got here in the person of Malatesta, in 1464…

And while we’re on the topic of guns; Stephan Callahan (again) arrived to the Pen and Sword tour from Venice.  He had a great time in Venice, but his complaint, reiterated several times, was that ‘Venice has lost its military history.’  I remember this too; lots of carnival masks; no memory of an overseas empire and a giant fleet and marines and everything.

In fact, by one of those odd acts of nerdy serendipity, we were talking about the paucity of Venetian military antiquities as we walked along the harbor front of one of the Jewels in the Serenissima’s crown of empire; ie, Nafplion.  It was sunset, on a magnificent day.  I paused to light a little cigar.

Several history nerds whooped all together, the long war cry of veteran gamers, usually heard only on 28mm battlefields and occasionally in ‘Rome, Total War.’

Around a slight curve in the road was an 18th c. sea bastion; a little harbor defence for Morisini’s military masterpiece of fortification.  And filling every embrasure.. or at least, five of six — was a fortune in magnificent bronze guns.

Here, enjoy some artillery porn.

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These are the very stars of Venice’s arsenal; long, heavy guns, probably from Morosini’s siege train.  Every one of them cast by a master; all with their names cast in.  To me, they looked like 32 pounders, but perhaps bigger, and I don’t even know what the Arsenal’s standard bores were in the period 1682 (earliest gun) to 1696 (latest gun).

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And of course, Naflplion fell to the Turks in 1715; another point for Nana’s theory; these guns are still where Morosini left them.  And they are not in Venice, where, let’s face it, by now they’d be church bells, or tourist bric-a-brac, or probably most likely, carted away as scrap by Napoleon Bonaparte.

I think I’m a pretty good historian, for an amateur; but I would never have thought to go to Greece to study late Medieval fortification, and I’d have been wrong.  Nor the evolution of Enlightenment fortification, and Nafplion’s high fortress is one of the most extreme and advanced pieces of Vauban-style architecture in the world.  Leaves Fort Ticonderoga cold.  As good as Louisbourg.  Which, come to think of it, is in Canada; because most of the great French examples are wrecks due to other wars… and rebuilding of cities…

Addenda:  Only after writing this blog did I look at the next picture… a Venetian howitzer.

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It is too late to have done the job itself; but the one in front of the military museum wasn’t.  If this was Morosini’s siege train… and it looked it… what if one of these guns was the culprit who blew a whole in the Parthenon?

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My friend Doug Cubbison, a veritable artillery detective, is the man for this job.  Doug?

Oh.  And to increase sales and clicks… the mandatory cat photo. I have good tie ins… Morosini always had his cat with him, even in combat.  Interesting, eh?

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These cats live in the nunnery just below the Mistras gun position, so are probably pure Byzantine.

Oh, yes… we saw lots of Ancient Greece… the next blog will cover all that.  But the gun positions were ‘world class.’  And.. well, I hope you laughed.  I’m writing to the Greek Archaeological service.

 

 

Pen and Sword II; Teaching Martial Arts — and Delphi

 

IMG_1071Intro to Bolognese in the Vale of Delphi

By today, my Pen and Sword tour will have gone to Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Olympia, and be well on our way to Delphi.  If we’re lucky, we’ll stop and look at the battlefield of Plataea; the battlefield, and the ruins of the walled city where Arimnestos grew to manhood.  And the plains of Morea in the Red Knight.

Delphi is a magical, haunted place.  i suppose if you go at high summer, the mystery is largely gone; I wonder sometimes if the Greeks thought the same.  But in the fall, there’s delight everywhere, and with a little luck, we’ll be horseback riding in the Vale of Delphi later today, after a reverential visit to the temples and the museum.

But before that; every morning, in fact….

….There’s sword class.

Listen, I’ve been incredibly lucky as a swordsperson.  I’ve had great teachers all my life; I’ve known a great many good swordspeople in a wide spectrum of disciplines; so many, in fact, that when people say ‘you do sword fighting?  that’s really cool.  Never met anyone…’ etc, I always think ‘You should get out more often.’  Jay Borne, my middle school fencing coach; Mike Edgar, my first ‘sensei’ although he’ll blush when I say it; Delos Wheeler, a great epee fencer; Ian Brackley, still my favorite small sword teacher; Sensei Zimmerman, in Aikido and Iado; Guy WIndsor for Italian long sword in Finland; Greg Mele for the whole world of Armizare and Chivalric fighting arts…

And I’ve been taught in a fascinating variety of styles.  Not sword styles…that’s another blog.  My first maestro, in classical (Italian) fencing, carried a very heavy fencing saber and not a fol, and hit us when he didn’t like something, which was all too frequent.  Mostly I got hit in the back of the leg.  Because of my stance, or posture.

In a piece of remarkable, and painful irony, when I was in boot camp, my Marine Corps DI used to hit me int he same leg, for a very different fault.  I hope this makes you laugh, especially if you are a Navy or Marine Corps vet, but I was, when I joined up, a 10 year veteran of Revolutionary War reenacting.  I’d done a lot of drill.  I was pretty much a master of His Majesties 1764 Manual, which is shockingly very close to the ‘Naval Boarding Party’ Manual they teach in basic.  Except the whole right foot going back at ‘present arms.’  I did a great many push-ups, and I had a DI in conniptions.  For weeks.  Same leg.

Later, when learning Armizare, the leg was in trouble again, this time for not being ‘wide’ enouhg in my stance.  But no one hit me…

As usual, I digress.  So, my first experience of martial arts training was very regimented; only the instructor talked, and everyone was too terrified to ask any questions.  No theory was taught at all; we did pretty rigid drills.

Then I took Kendo.  We were encouraged to shout, at times.  Everything was very fast moving, and seemed to me a little chaotic after classical fencing.  But the rigid structure was still there, underneath.  You bowed to your maestro.  I mean sensei.  All the time, it seemed.

Later, I did Aikido.  My friend Wes Shuler fired me with enthusiasm for Aikido in Kenya on an operation, and tossed me around a hotel room, but given his infectious enthusiasm, his John Wayne ‘can do’ attitude, and my general hero-worship of him, it was way more fun than all that regimented stuff.  I got one on one instruction.  Lots of it.  The lesson was not lost on me, either; I mean, by then, I was a very, very good epee fencer, and I’d had lots of private epee lessons from good coaches.  Not one of them was as good at making me want to emulate him as Wes, and I don’t think Wes even thought of himself as a ‘martial arts instructor.’

A few years later, in Canada, I took Aikido formally, and it was yet another teaching style; lots of respect for the sensei, true, but a very informal attitude about many things; regimented displays at times, but lots of demonstrations.  Bit almost no one ever speaks aloud in my dojo.  The sensei instructs.  But he (or she) does not usually speak.  The silence is very nice, but at times, to this gai-jin, hopelessly confusing.  About the ninth time I ask the sensei to show me a technique, I no longer want to play.  Or I’d like a little verbal coaching.  Still, I got that lesson too; sometimes words get in the way. Patient repetition is wonderful.  Well, to a point.

In the world of Long Sword and Armizare, I started with Guy WIndsor, who runs a very successful and rather wonderful school in Finland, the School of European Swordsmanship.  It was very like my early fencing life; Guy teaches, and students are quiet and respectful.  To be honest, Finns are very quiet when they accept authority.  But Guy also teaches with immense charisma, and his line of patter… is very smart, very focused, and sort of diametrically opposed to the Aikido silence.  Fascinating, Captain.  There seem to be many ways to learn martial arts.

Finally, in the North American schools of fence, or of Armizare, there is a certain rather American (or Canadian) unease with authority.  No one in North American Armizare wants to call themselves a ‘Master’ although there are at least four people I see as ‘masters.’  There is a certain informality of dress; no one bows to anyone.  And perhaps it is the Millennial generation, but I hear and see fewer and fewer of the outward signs of respect, and I wonder….

And yet, early this summer, I took a pole axe class in my own Salle (at Pia Bouman school of Dance in Toronto) and Jason Smith had a wonderful touch; clever as Guy, sometimes silent and sometimes loud, full of patient repetition and good drills, but also encouraging some student thought and experiment.  By the way, Jason ‘informs’ the character of Ser Danved in ‘Dread Wyrm.’

So… when I teach, I’m trying to channel all the best bits of all these styles of teaching.  I have a good friend who does no martial arts at all; she’s a linguist, and she teaches ESL.  Despite this, she’s taught me a great deal about ‘teaching’ and the thought-processes involved.  Perhaps the best thing she’s drilled into me is that every student is different, and every one of them probably needs to be taught individually.  Even when you face a dozen new beginners, you need to suss them out and start thinking about what they need.

That’s why the Pen and Sword tour’s sword section is so much fun.  As we’re together 24/7, I get to think about all these people as sword students every day.  And think about who they are and how they learn.  And how I learn.

Perhaps the oddest lesson, last year, was about the aesthetics of sword class.  Having class 2000 feet above the Vale of Delphi is amazing.  So amazing, so beautiful, as to be an incredible experience.  Those mountain dojos in Japan… perhaps they are on to something.  We tend to train in drag, modern, almost industrial spaces; is there anything uglier than a modern gymnasium?  Or a boxing gym?  I’ve been to pretty dojos, but not many.  But training outside, amidst beauty… is very good for students and for the teacher.  I have no real idea why; I could theorize, but I’ll spare you all, just this once.

IMG_1078That’s me and Mike Brennan…

Pen and Sword II — Day four, Mistras and Sparta

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Steven Runciman — a great, if sometimes romantic, historian, wrote a book I’ve read many times called ‘The Lost Capitol of Byzantium’ with a forward by John Freely.  It’s about Mistras, a town that overlooks the vale of Sparta.

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Mistras is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.  The location is superb,and so are the views.  It seems to be the real life Minas Tirith; at least seven levels of houses and palaces and walls.  And art.  And churches.  It represents the last, last, last gasp of the Roman EMpire; the last of many small renaissances, and the place provided a haven for Greeks and Greek learning int he dark days of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  George Plethon, who, incidentally, thought he was Plato reborn and whose life and writing inspired Harmodius, my mage in the Red Knight series, floushed here, and conducted one of the last great Greek philosophical schools; he educated Bessarion who became a cardinal int he western church and one of the leading sponsors of the Italian Renaissance.  Plethon also taught in Florence for a little while, and had a huge impact  Sigismondo Malatesta retook Mistras from the Turks as almost the last acto fhis brilliant military career and moved Plethon’s bones to Rimini; the two old pagans lie there together.

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And there at your feet is Sparta.  The vale of Sparta is magnificent; the ruins of ancient Sparta are not.  In fact,  they are a little dull.  The Spartans prided themselves on being aristocratic communities and not a metropolis like Athens.  And so they did not leave us a temple like the Parthenon.  I wonder what that says about history?

Today we’ll also see the battlefield of Sellasia, where Antigonus and an army of Macedonians and Achaeans took on the Spartans in a nearly impregnable position.. and defeated them.  Philopoeman was the hero of the day, as a young cavalry officer.

Day after tomorrow we’ll go to Olympia.

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I’ve never been.  Olympia has the best collection of original armour of the Archaic and Classical periods in the world; I’ve read whole books on this collections, and tomorrow I’ll see it, and I hope bury you in photos… not to mention the staggering beauty of the site.  the Greeks chose their temple sites for their beauty, and I must say that they had a remarkable eye.  Given Delos, Delphi, and the Parthenon, as well as the temple locations I’ve seen on Lesvos and elsewhere…

Olympia will probably blow me away…  I’m really looking forward to it.

 

But tomorrow…   is Mycenae.  And Tiryns and Argos…   one of the best scenes in Dread Wyrm (IMHO) emerged from my last visit to Mycenae…  we went down into the ancient cistern, about 70 steps into unfathomable darkness.  I had forgotten how dark it could be, 70 steps deep.  In a place people carved out of the rock about four thousand years ago.  Dark.  And not without fear.  Slippery stone steps.

Khazad Dum?  the Stygian darkness?  Anyway, that’s where I dreamed up how I would write Desiderada’s scenes.  But for those reading them, I won’t spoil them further…

Pen and Sword: Marathon — Hoplite Combat. This week….

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This week, as you may have noticed, I’m in Greece,  The first week I’ll be with friends and family recreating the world of late Archaic Greece at Marathon, near Athens.

A great many of the experiments we’ll be trying will involve issues of combat in the ancient world, and especially in the phalanx of the Greeks.

Again, not many photos here…if you want to see photos from this tour and reenactment, look me up on Instagram.  https://instagram.com/christian_cameron_author/

Or Facebook…

Experiments, you say?  So, if you play Rome Total War, or various other computer simulations; or if you play various tabletop games; or if you just read voraciously, in all cases, you may say ‘What don’t we know about hoplite combat?’

Sadly, the answer is, ‘Everything.’  There is almost no aspect of hoplite warfare that we ‘know.’  Let me tell you first why such arcane stuff matters to anyone beside reenactors and gamers.

Polibius said that the study of History, ‘Mankind has no better guide to action than the knowledge of past events.’  I tend to agree, especially in areas involving tangible results, like politics and warfare.  And more ink (and for all I know, blood) has been spilled over the armament and conduct and social status and training of Greek hoplites than almost any other subject in the ancient world.  Because, as evidence for how the past can teach us about the world in which we live, the hoplite is either a citizen soldier, member of a militia, who owns his own equipment and is self-trained; or he is a cog in a state driven machine; he is either a hardened aristocratic warrior in a city-state that makes war  and takes its main purpose from war, or he is an amateur soldier who never makes war in a society mostly at peace…

On and on.  Everyone wants the experience of Ancient Greece to back their own views on modern topics like standing armies, 2nd amendment gun rights, the utility of martial arts skills, the role of the citizen in society.  Did the foundation of democracy in Ancient Athens rest on the enfranchisement of Middle Class hoplites?  Was there always an ‘aristocratic elite’ that led from the front?  Did Athenian military prowess collapse when the elite no longer wanted to fight?  Or when the demos no longer wanted to fight?

Because Greece saw the birth of our modern world in so many ways; philosophy, art, democracy and politics, war… what we believe about Ancient Greece is pivotal to how we view ourselves, and how we imagine history to function.

That’s why it matters, all this complex stuff about the weight of an aspis and the weight of armour and the way you hold a spear.

Let’s ask a few questions.

What is a phalanx?  That may seem daft, but really, no one knows.  We accept much later sources (mostly from the 1st C BCE, or about 400 years too late for us) that the phalanx was a dense, and in fact, highly drilled body of spear men, with perhaps 8 men deep and as wide as the body could be formed.

OK, We accept that’s what they thought in 100 BCE.  But really, the word itself is full of meanings.  Any body of men can be a phalanx; in the Iliad, it’s just a group.  Classicists have suggested that the original meaning was a log roller; that the ranks of men resembled logs, on behind another.  But Xenophon (a source from 360 BCE, much closer) uses the word to describe several formed bodies, and to describe an orderly camp.

And did they drill?  Friends, there’s not a shred of evidence that Greek hoplites ever did drill.  In fact, our best source says that the Spartans practiced for war by hunting and dancing.  We do have some 1st C. BCE ‘manuals’ which may, themselves, be descended from 4th c. BCE manuals.  That’s great, except that another major issue…

…. Is ‘ Back in the Day’ Syndrome.  Which is to say, we have a terrible tendency, even among massively educated professional historians, to imagine that Hoplite combat in 330 BCE was just like, or pretty much like, hoplite combat in 490 BCE.  Or 530 BCE.  Because, you know, the combat of the US Infantryman in Afghanistan is/was just like the combat experience of his great great grandfather at Shiloh or Gettysburg.

Brief digression; not that, as a cultural historian, you couldn’t make some astute observations about relationships between the U.S. infantryman in 1863 and in 2008.  There are many things that are ‘American’ and some things that, even tactically, remain similar.  But you couldn’t get even a GLIMMER of what combat experience was like for the one from the other. Except the fear.  I’ll bet that’s constant.

We KNOW (we think we know) that the hoplite technology changed over time, sometimes quite rapidly.  Hoplites in 500 BCE wore more armor than those in 330 BCE (but there are exceptions) and carried a bigger shield (exceptions) and a shorter spear (exceptions) and sometimes a second spear which they threw (and pretty late in the period people are still throwing spears).  Helmets change; they become lighter and cover less of the face, and my own observation is that they stop covering the ears quite the same way… making it more possible to hear orders shouted.

Digression 2.  Some of the ‘exceptions’ noted above appear to be Alexander the Great’s famous Hypaspists, who appear to have been armed…like classical hoplites (some people disagree, of course).  In full armour with greaves, and carrying the full-size ‘rimmed’ aspis.  Of course, the source that says so is as late as all the other sources…  But if true, this means that the equipment of the ‘original’ hoplites of say, 430 BCE was still ‘valid’ on the 330BCE battlefield; perhaps even moreso in the hands of a few expert bodyguards…  It is easy to assume that military technology makes ‘progress’ and get’s better’ but that’s not always true, and the sarissa (long pike) may have been a mere product of the King of Macedon having crappy infantry.  (NB, the Great Captain, Cordoba, said that the longer a pike was, the less you trust your infantry.  He said that in 1494… but I bet it’s true…  he advocated 12 foot ‘pikes’ for ‘elite’ infantry.  Interesting, eh? And we don’t call him ‘The Great Captain’ for nothing….

See how this is not a soundbite issue?  So, there are basically two ‘hoplite theory’ camps; that of Victor Davis Hanson, who advocates the ‘citizen hoplite’ as a ‘middle-class farmer’ and for whom warfare is an ‘agonistic’ (that means, painful and sport-like) contest to be settled fairly against his peers without too much interruption of agriculture.  Now, I don’t happen to agree, but I will say that Hanson’s book ‘The other Greeks’ about Greek agriculture, and his book ‘The Western Way of War’ about what we owe to Greek ideas of ‘battle’ are amongst the best and most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.  I just think he’s mostly wrong.

Third digression:  because history is science.  You have to play with the data you have, and theories, and you have to listen to, appreciate, and take in the theories that maybe you don’t ‘like’ and compare them to the evidence, or you are a bad historian.  The world is full of bad military historians.  But some of the best books I’ve ever read are full of flaws, but brilliance too; and often, they move the ball forward.

Second ‘Camp’ is captained by Hans Van Wees, and he advocates a more tribal, loosely organized form of warfare between what are basically (I’m over-generalizing both camps) aristocratic elites with some slaves and archers and retinue thugs trailing away behind, as you see in the Iliad.  Hans Van Wees will say that there was no ‘Middle Class’ in Ancient Greece… that the property requirement for being a hoplite includes only what we would call the rich, or 1%; that hoplite equipment was very expensive.  He’d also argue that the Phalanx was pretty loosely organized in 490 BCE and only tightened up in the 4th century; that it still had archers in it; that individuals fought duels in the front line, and the whole thing looked more like African and New Guinea tribal conflict than we’re comfortable with.  No drill.  Very little close combat.  Lots of spear throwing, until the Spartans ruin everything, kind’a like the Zulus.

I disagree with his theory, too, but his article in the ‘Cambridge History of Ancient Warfare’ is every bit as thought provoking and excellent as Hanson’s books.

Van Wees feels that his argument would be partly vindicated if hoplite equipment were light and easy to wear; and if it provided good coverage for individual combat and spear fencing…

Hanson prefers to stress that agonistic quality, and he’d like hoplite combat to be a matter of discipline and endurance; strong men pushing all day in heavy armor, and the weak fail and give up.

That’s why reproductions of equipment matter.  That’s why we go field test.  Basically, the history of democracy is at stake.

And oh, by the way, I think they’re both wrong.  And right.  I don’t think, in fact, that heavier armour precludes spear fencing (ask any Chivalric Fighting Arts practitioner) and I don’t think that light armour suggests a lack of agonistic warfare.  And I think that the reality of warfare was too complex for simple theory; I’m not sure that any two hoplite fights were any more alike than any two battles of WWII.  Terrain, circumstance, weather…. tactics, political situation… come on.  Not to mention that we KNOW they wore the same armour to fight as marines on ships, where it was, pardon me, nothing but individual or small team combat.

Anyway, I doubt we’ll change the world this week, but we’ll work hard to get the scholars some new, better evidence.  For myself, I’ll run 1200 meters in full panoply, and hopefully, swim in it as well.  I feel that as a modestly fit 53 year old, if I can run and swim in my carefully recreated and weighted panoply, real hoplites could do such things.  And maybe this will provide evidence for a new, and better theory of hoplite warfare, and democracy.  I promise you it will give impetus to writing.  It always does!

Pen and Sword: Marathon — Writing about History and friends, too

Favorite Historical Period

Not many pictures today.  My computer is refusing to load new ones.  If you want to pick up the pictures I’m taking in Greece, follow me on Instagram. https://instagram.com/christian_cameron_author/

This is the second in my series of blogs about my trip to Greece.  From today until next Monday, I will be at Marathon (Marathonas) a small town in Attika, about twenty five miles from Athens by road.

One of the most famous battles in world history was fought here.  It was pivotal, even to us today in the English-speaking world, because Athens had a (then) 12 year old experiment with democracy going on; they’d just pushed basic, restricted citizenship and voting rights down past the class of aristocrats and onto a new class; wealthy men, certainly, but not ‘descendants of the gods’.  These ‘new men’ made the phalanx of Athens bigger… but could they be trusted to fight the way aristocrats fought?

Despite millennia of Athenian propaganda, the Persian attack on Athens was little more than a raid in force, intended to restore the tyranny, get rid of the troublesome war-makers like the pirate/terrorist Miltiades (at least, as seen from Persia) and the insufferable Themistocles and the aristocratic Aristides, and end Athens ‘state sponsorship of terrorism’ by which the Great King of Persia would have meant Athenian meddling in the affairs of his Ionian satrapies; stirring up the Greeks of Asia Minor to revolt; making very profitable raids on Phoenician shipping; and providing military support to insurgencies in Babylon and Egypt…  We like to imagine Athens as a sort of early United States, or maybe United Kingdom; really, to the Persians, they were a good deal more like Khadafi’s Libya.

But the thing is that the new, aggressive democracy beat the Persians at Marathon.  They beat them decisively; and they did so without the aristocratic Spartans, who had a tendency to sympathize with the Persians, whatever the Frank Miller movies might say.  In winning, the greatest effect may have been to create a myth that stands to this day, of the citizen soldier standing against foreign tyranny.  But it’s not a bad myth; there’s a lot of stuff behind it, and all in all, the West is a very different place because the Athenian aristocrats and their New Men stuck together in a crisis (barely) and won a major land battle against the greatest empire in the world.

Anyway, for the next five days, I’ll be celebrating that time.  Not so much reenacting it; a hundred people cannot really do any justice to a battle that had at least ten thousand men on a side.  But a hundred good reenactors can give each other and the public a feeling of what it looked like; can talk about what we know and what we have learned recently, and can, perhaps, dispense with some myths.

With my friends Giannis Kadoglou, Chris Vermijweren, David Dudek, Mike Brennan, Anders Wiik, Cindi Le Dudek, Shelley Power (my agent) and Jevon Garrett, fellow author Jax Reader, (among many others) we’ll do some experiments.  We have, among us, the very best reconstructions of late archaic Greek military kit ever made; and surprising as this may be, they are revolutionary.  Five years ago, I built what I still regard as the first good reconstruction of an aspis, or ancient Greek shield, but the ‘new’ reconstructions by Mikko SInkonnen of Finland leave mine far behind; weighing six to eight kilos (several Classical historians, including the justly renowned Victor Davis Hanson, posit 20 kilos); helmets by Matt Lukas and Craig Sitch of Manning Imperial made to actual, authentic thicknesses and correctly lined and padded, the first ever; archaic thorakes, or body armour (cuirass) in bronze, painstakingly copied from originals and gain in original thicknesses, by Jeffrey Hildebrandt of Royal Oak Armouries.  All much, much lighter than most scholars have guessed, despite the plethora of originals available in Greek and German museums…  I’ll be carrying a sword, probably the first accurate reconstruction of a Greek xiphos ever made, in multi fold steel (as the originals were made… they didn’t invent that technique in Damascus) and with the correct hilt, the correct scabbard, allowing experimentation with drawing and cutting and thrusting techniques….

Properly weighted and custom fitted armour as good as ancient armour will allow us to test theories.  Herodotus says that the Greeks charged 8 stades to contact — about 1200 meters, a damn long run in the 60 kilos of armour that has, until now, been the standard assumption of many historians.  (NB, my 14th c. plate over chain, in steel, covering every inch of my body, with a full face visor helmet, weighs 60 kilos.)  So we will run the distance, and see what it’s like to spar with spears at the end.

We’ll run one stade (about 150 meters) which, BTW, is roughly the range of ancient archery, and see how many times Chris Verwijmeren, an expert historical archer, can loose a heavyweight Persian bow at us.

We’ll set up these beautifully recreated aspides (many aspis are aspides… hey, thought you’d like to know) and we’ll shoot at them with painstakingly recreated arrows made of the right cane, the right bronze heads cast to copy existing originals…  which will probably destroy at least one $1200 aspis… but that’s how you learn.

Oh, and why, you ask, was all the other armour wrong?

Europeans, in the Middle Ages, built armour for what I will call ‘absolute’ protection.  A fully armoured knight expected to survive — uninjured — a major blow from a heavy sword, an axe, or a lance.  Steel armor, over maille, with padding, allows an unprecedented level of personal protection.

That’s not what Greek armor was for.  It is the armor of the athlete; light, and thin.  It will stop a sloppy blow; it will prevent injury from your friend’s saurauter hitting you in the head, or a sword sliding across your ribs.  But a dedicated, careful blow with intent will penetrate it.  It’s also a fashion accessory; there are theorists who says it’s main intent was to make men beautiful.  Don’t be surprised; making men feel beautiful has been a major part of military fashion for thousands of years.  Don’t sneer; if you feel yourself to look like a god, you function better in the terror and horror of battle.  You are also easier to follow, and in hand to hand combat, you want your friends to know where you are.

There’s another mistake commonly made by a certain kind of reenactor; the insertion of modern ideas and aesthetics instead of close attention to the ideals and aesthetics of the past.  There is, out there, a generation of equipment more designed for Conan movies than based on actual Greek artifacts; unpolished bronze, fur, crude sewing.  Thick bronze and heavy, heavy shields so that modern weekend ‘warriors’ can pretend to be tough.

Just FYI, being a reenactor is tough enough without fabricating bad equipment.  But it’s not about ‘tough.’  It’s about history.

So we reenactors have made various mistakes for years (me too!), trying to make Greek armor heavy enough… to stop various blows, and making the aspis of the wrong materials…like plywood, a material full of epoxy and not at all like the light woods of the Ancient World.

This weekend, we’ll be…better.  Much better, but never perfect, and in five more years, we’ll know more, and do more with it. We will better model and experience the past.  Incrementally.

And we hope on Saturday and Sunday that Paul Bardunias, an old friend and debating partner in the mystical world of hoplite combat, will come and lead some experiments on the function of Othismos (pushing) in phalanx combat.  And I’ll try and cut arrows out of the air, and we’ll all dance, and we’ll drink wine, and we’ll cook Ancient Greek food and camp on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

And hey, if you are in Greece right now, we’re at the south end of Schinias National Park.  Come visit.

Pen and Sword Tour — Athens

For the next two weeks I’m in Greece.  I have pre-written a bunch of these, which I will touch up before they launch.  These are the wonder of technology.  I plan to bury you in instagram photos of Greek Hoplites, ancient ruins, battlefields, and scenes from Fell Sword and Dread Wyrm…  and I thought that the blogs would provide some context for what I’m seeing every day, a sort of ‘virtual Pen and Sword Tour.’

Day one, and again, Day 8 and 9.  Athens.

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Athens is one of my favorite places in the world.  It is difficult to fully describe why I love Athens, as I agree with its detractors that it can be endlessly frustrating, dirty, ungenerous…

Who cares? I go to Athens much as Medieval pilgrims visited Jerusalem.  As an aside, I am reading a book right now, called ‘Pilgrims to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages’ by Nicole Chareyron.

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I think what makes Chareyron’s book so moving is the ‘reenacting’ nature of the Medieval pilgrim experience.  It is quite clear that while they were in Jerusalem, they felt a literal, visceral connection to the life of Jesus Christ, and were, in some strange way, taking part in it.

To be honest, it’s not that strange to me.  I dress up in the clothes of the past and visit places; Fort Ticonderoga leaps to mind (Ticondonaga in the Traitorson books), or the Castle of Montorio outside Verona in Italy, and I am… connected.  I also find it fascinating that there were staged ‘reenactments’ on the guided tours of Jerusalem; a woman with a baby sat by a creche in Bethlehem.  Pilgrims commented about how it was obvious that this wasn’t really Jesus; some pilgrims even noted that it was impossible that a certain paving stone on the tour is where Jesus tripped and fell with the cross, and the level of the Ancient city was so obviously many feet below the streets they were walking on…

…And yet, there it was.  They were ‘in Jerusalem’.

And so it is for me, in Athens. When I sit, tonight, in the roof bar of the Attalos Hotel and look at eye level at the Parthenon, I will tear up.  While I know in my head that this magnificent temple is not a symbol of liberty, but rather, the extortionate tyranny of the Athenian Empire… it IS my favorite symbol of the birth of democracy.  It has so many layers of meaning I’d be hard put to list them all in an essay.  It is also a fantastically beautiful piece of architecture; the western world has spent several millennia emulating it.  There’s a full scale version in Nashville, TN.

It’s not just the Parthenon.

From the Roman Agora to the Ancient Agora; from the temple of Hephaestos; the New Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum, the Benaki Museum, from the Plaka to the Pnyx to the Areopagus, (known in our family forever as the ‘Aerial Hagus’); Olympic stadiums old and new, slums, high rises, the beautiful metro system, the characterful cab drives, the incredibly random opening and closing times, the excellent food, the mediocre wine, the legions of shops that sell remarkable items like icons and Orthodox chruch vestments and hanging lams and censors, the Byzantine churches, the superb landscape around the city…. the meat market, the hardware stores, the excellent coffee, the terrifying driving…

Athens is a  marvel, and to me, it is alive beneath my feet.  I think that when I stand at the new Acropolis Museum, outside, on the plexiglass, with the open, live digs of the Medieval and ancient town beneath me, I am nearly in historical heaven.  Saint Paul preached here; Pericles gave his orations, Socrates walked, talked, and annoyed; Nerio Acciaioli made himself Duke of Athens (William Gold’s arrogant friend).  Arimnestos — the real one — probably received the plaudits of the Athenians here.  Aristides and Themistokles struggled for the future of Athens, Phrynicus and Aeschylus and Aristophanes all performed their works here.

Like those pilgrims in Jerusalem, I can see it and feel it and smell it as I go about.  I don’t even have to wear my magnificent new thorax (a bronze breastplate) or drink from my mastos cup.

15816753693_5d6ca14404_oThat’s a mastos cup.  Guess what ‘mastos’ means in ancient Greek?

Anyway, I don’t need to wear my kit in Athens.  But… I probably will….

The Dread Wyrm Release Day….. or maybe tomorrow…

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So….

Traitorson three, will finally be released in the next few hours.  In Canada, a surprising number of people already have it.  I’m glad for them, but not particularly glad that the mega-chain Chapters Indigo gets my books before my friends at Bakka Phoenix, without whom I’d never have been writing fantasy at all.

And I do not know why the Publishing Drow have elected, in their deep underground publishing centers, to have the US, Canadian and UK versions all come out on different days; none of them the date announced months ago (October 15th).

But anyway, it’s about to be out, and chances are you will have your hands on a copy very soon, or already do.

The glory of digital media is that I can now have a conversation with you about the book.  There are things I’d like you to know…

As of today, my new author website launches.  It’s less ambitious than my first one, but easier to use and more pointed at fantasy.  http://christiancameronauthor.com/   I mention this first because there are things you may find useful on the new website.

First, the Messenger stories.  There are blogs on this already, but you will enjoy Dread Wyrm more if you have read ‘The Messenger’ one and two.  Save ‘Renaissance’ for nearer the publication of book 4, Plague of Swords.  Or read it now.  Either way, it will only help show you how wide the world is…

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OK, Second, there are illustrations, (thanks to Dmitri Bondarenko) and maps (thanks to Steve Sandford).  Look for the resources.  Maps are handy, and not every edition has them,and again, those decisions are made by the Drow without any reference to me.  I also know that the UK editions had chapter head illustrations of many characters in the fashions and armour I had imagined for them, and most US and Canadian readers have never seen them.

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Third, a a few comments.  Dread Wyrm had a complex evolution as a book, and had some very complicated developments to cover.  I will not risk spoilers, but I will give hints.  A major character was slated to die, and in the end, neither my editor nor I wanted her to die.  Her survival transfigured the story and to me made it much better.

The military campaign against Thorn and Thorn’s allies is made complex because war is never simple, and I have to assume that war with hermetical powers would be as complicated as modern, technological war.

And I feel I upped my ‘Arthurian’ game as well.  I spent a very enjoyable chunk of time reading a lot of 13th and 14th century Arthurian ‘fiction ‘ (Chanson de Geste) and I tried to improve the elements of the fantasy to represent not what we might like to see in ‘Arthurian’ but what a Medieval audience would have expected.

Dread Wyrm also, and finally, exposes swathes of the cosmology and meta plots, some of which will not be neatly resolved in this series.  I’ve always loved cosmology, so closely related to Theology and philosophy and other pursuits…  often my favorite part of deigning an RPG.  There’s more on the nitty gritty of how Hermeticism works, and there’s some mystery too.

And yes, there are some fight scenes, including, I hope, the best fight I’ve ever written.

And love…   as complicated as war.  I’m not Jane Austen, but I tried to represent the complexities of relationships being lived in the hothouse world of camps and war…

Anyway, I hope you like it.  I think it is the most satisfying, cohesive, and elaborate in the series.  Enjoy!

 

BTW< lots of other blogs on my old blog site at https://1phokion.wordpress.com

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Writing about the past – and the present, too

Copied from my 1phokion.wordpress.com

 

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That’s my friend John Conyard of Comitatus

Sometime next fall, I plan to write a novel about Philopoemen, the so-called ‘Last Greek Hero,’ cavalry commander and strategos of the Achaean League in the time of Hannibal and the 2nd Punic War; a brilliant soldier, an innovator, and according to some, the creator of the concept of ‘special forces.’ He’s an exceptional character, and so is his ally and sometimes rival, the Roman Titus Quinctius Flamininus. The two of them are the subjects of a pair of biographies in Plutarch’s Lives’; the only pair that were contemporaries and friends (each of Plutarch’s lives is part of a pair, always one Greek and one Roman, always supposed to be similar men, but usually spread apart in time).
So, in the best tradition of Plutarch… while I write about Philopoeman, my friend SJA Turney is going to writer about Titus Flamininus. We will ‘pair’ our novels with interlocking narratives and probably even some shared scenes… like team-up comics. Maybe the two will be ‘unreliable’ about aspects of events… but mostly they will be a team… Greece and Rome…together, again. It’s an exciting idea; I love writing with a collaborator (I wrote eight books with my dad, you may recall) and it also allows me to explore a brand-new period in military history.
Brand-new, you say? Wait, Christian, haven’t you written a ton of books about ancient Greece? Don’t you have this thing wired yet?

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Well, first, no, I don’t. Having spent the last five weeks feverishly preparing roughly a hundred people to go recreate a very small part of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. I have to say that really, I barely have a clue how late Archaic hoplite warfare worked. I could write a whole blog on my changing perceptions of hoplite combat in 490 BCE. And I will, in time.
Today, though, I’ll merely say that the very worst mistake a military historian can make is to posit that war didn’t change over a significant period of time; that’ Greeks are Greeks’ and ‘Romans are Romans’ is to deny the whole social process that goes with war. Stuff changes. People change.
War itself changes.

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When the Athenians and a handful of Plataeans fought Marathon, both sides probably had armies of around 10K men. Ten years later at Plataea, when they fought for ‘all the marbles’ both sides might have managed to raise 50K each. There are higher numbers. I will not debate them just now. I’ll merely note that nearly all historians agree that Greece was fairly populous in 490 BCE, and also, rather poor. Three hundred years later, in 190 BCE, Greece was much less densely populated. There were fewer Spartans, to a level of actual demographic crisis. There were fewer Greeks, period, as far as we can see, and they appear, for complex reasons, to have had a higher standard of living, and perhaps more slaves. Who, of course, were not reliable for war. Athens had gone from an economic powerhouse with industry and shipping unrivaled int he Mediterranean to a philosophical but provincial town.

Rome, by contrast, had a very high population, a lot of relatively new ‘citizens’ and an ability to squander manpower and rebuild that was unmatched by, say, Macedon or the Ptolemies running the major Hellenistic empires. It wasn’t just that the shape of shields had changed. It wasn’t just the invention of chain mail; or Tarantine cavalry with shields, or charging lancers. Those are the sort of technological developments that gamers track (I’m one of them) but they are not really the determinants in war. Morale, logistical systems, factory production of weapons, and increasing professionalization had more to do with the changes in warfare.
A small case in point; the Spartans in 490 BCE lacked the political capability to conquer anyone outside of the Peloponnese. So they didn’t. Athens had to virtually rebuild her polity to rule an empire. On the ground, most Greek hoplites in 490 BCE expected to serve for a few DAYS, at their own expense, close enough to home that a slave could go get more food from home. This army cannot conquer ANYTHING. It can, at best, defend itself. No amount of blather about shield shape or hoplite armour can change the fundamental reality of the system… It is a citizen militia. A home guard.

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By 190 BCE Rome, Carthage and the Hellenistic Empires could sling fleets and armies around the Mediterranean basin with something akin to reckless abandon. Horse transports and gigantic grain ships and real logistics allowed the maintenance of armies larger than anything imaginable in the early fifth century to fight, win or lose, and be replaced if required. No one expected every soldier to own his equipment or train himself in the gymnasium (actually, some small states still did; they were hopelessly outclassed). Armies were very different. Men might serve for years; war might be a career. Our burgeoning sources suggest massively enhanced levels of actual strategy; we can see small unit tactics evolving as soldiers become more professional; and mainland Greece is a backwater. It’s a different world.
Can you tell I’m really enjoying learning about it?
At the same time, I want this book (pair of books) to have a distinct flavor that will be very different from other Historical Fiction, and the dual protagonists allow us to play with nuance and politics. Historical Fiction, at least, when involving adventure and conflict, tempts the author to contrasts; black and white, good and bad. War polarizes; even modern war gamers tend to ‘take sides’ and believe that ‘Rome is good/Carthage bad’ or some such.
And yet…

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And yet, watching the world participate in a regional conflict in Syria (a backwater), we should be aware that war, however polarizing, almost never has ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ Or rather, there’s a spectrum. I doubt anyone in the west would seriously suggest that ISIS is anything but ‘bad.’ But when you look at Turkey and the Kurds, both allies of the west, and yet at daggers drawn; Russia and the Syrian government of the tyrant Assad, both adversaries of the west and yet, at least temporarily, sort of allies; Iran, perhaps the most efficient adversaries of ISIS, but in no way trusted by any part of the west… the USA, with a massive military of incredible capability, attempting to find ways to ‘influence’ Assad, maintain peace between Turkey and the Kurds, avoid conflict with a largely toothless but nuclear armed Russia, support ‘good’ anti-government Syrians but using airpower alone, for internal political reasons, to fight a ground war in Asia… That’s war.
That’s how war is.
We pretend that war simplifies, but in fact, there’s nothing simple about war; from logistics to relations between leaders and troopers, it’s all pretty complicated, and burdened, in fact, with all the nuance that makes Jane Austen’s novels work so brilliantly. (One of my best friends calls Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’ series, arguably the best military HisFic ever written, ‘Jane Austen for boys.’)
So I want to tell a story about Roman super-power attempting to deal with Carthaginian inroads into Greece; with resurgent Spartan ‘nationalism’ as a tool of distant enemies; of Macedon and Rome involved in a proxy war… a sideshow, and yet, to Greeks, a war that raised vital questions about what freedom really was, and sovereignty; where a single Roman who understood the complexity of the situation and the Greek mind managed to untie the Gordian knot for a while without too much cutting.
And I want to write about what makes a leader; how one grows, and what he does to keep faith with his people while managing his politics. Very modern.
And horses…
And the birth of Special Forces and small unit tactics…
See? All that, against a backdrop as complex and nuanced as modern Syria.
Simon and I think we can use Philopoemen and Flamininus to tell a very modern story, and keep you all on the edge of your seats.
Oh, by the way, we haven’t sold the idea yet, so if you love it, tell us, and if you hate it, tell us that, too. We need readers!

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The original (Walters Art Gallery Baltimore) with the reproduction from Manning Imperial

And finally, Simon blogged about this today too. You can read his version here!

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What the Walter’s helmet probably looked like, brand new. And I’ll be wearing it in 10 days, at Marathon!

And tomorrow, a Drear Wyrm blog!

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