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April 15, 2006
This is just a little research thought that I wanted to get down in a format that's easily accessible, at least for me, at some later point.
I was just at the Classical Association Conference in Newcastle and went to some interesting talks by some guys from Manchester. One was looking at the pyschology of battle; the other was looking at some of the mechanics of battle, or at least what he could make of the mechanics of battle for the Republic from a hitherto unused source: Livy. I think he made some good points; and it was an interesting paper. In general, however, the two papers raised some questions for me concerning the psychology of battle in Late Antiquity, a topic which I'm exploring at the moment, at least through the work of Procopius. I'm going to be presenting a paper in about 2 and a half months in which I'll be looking at discipline, morale, and generalship. So, I've had occasion to take a closer look at the work of Maurice – the study is focusing on Procopius and Maurice. What's the new, or at least pertinent, bit that I want to discuss now. Well, here it goes.
Maurice's work is a technical treatise that was presumably written to show the powers that be – or at least that's the stated aim in the preface – what to do in the various military encounters that they might encounter in warfare around AD 600. So, there are various training exercises, tactical formations, leadership tips, strategy, preparing for battle, and the like. Each 'book' is broken down into smaller sections. In recent years the book, or manual, has been afforded more prominence as a reliable guide to battle and warfare c. 600: I see no reason, at least not yet, to dispute this. Now, before I get to the really interesting bit – at least for what's relevant to this discussion – let me mention something else.
I'm sure that most people would think that one of the key factors in success for a unit is its cohesion. A group that works well together is likely to be more successful than one that does not. The ties that bind soldiers is a theme found in countless war movies, of which the most recent, at least of those that I've seen, is Jarhead. Thought that was a film, it was based on a set of memoirs written by an actual marine who served in the first Gulf War. It's plausible right? Besides, anyone who has an interest in, or has actually participated in, team sports would probably agree that teamwork is the cornerstone of success. Talent's one thing, but if the team doesn't work toegether, they're unlikely to finish on top – we'll find out soon enough which NHL team and which national football team has mastered that. So, you might be surprised to learn that in academia there has been a move away from the role of cohesion in the success of individual units in battle. One other factor that has moved to the front of the fray is competition: the most recent monograph concerned with the Classical World to tackle the issue is Lendon's 'Soldiers and Ghosts', a well-written, and convicing book. Despite Lendon's forceful arguments, I cannot help but think that we shouldn't toss out the cohesion theory just yet. Now, let me take you back to the sixth century.
Over the centuries different cultures have had different ways of writing about battle. What you may think is important in battle, is not necessarily what someone writing in the 16th century would have thought was important, or what someone wrting in the 5th century BC would have thought was important. That's one thing that makes recreating, and really understanding, ancient battle so tricky. But, there's still a lot that you can learn from reading ancient battle accounts. My dissertation is looking at one particular author's accounts of warfare in the middle of the sixth century, of which battle is only one solitary, but a very important, part. What's interesting about Maurice is that he looks at battle from a different perspective. Whereas Procopius' work is more literary, Maurice's is more practical. I firmly believe that he (whoever he was – Maurice, the name of a late 6th/early 7th century emperor may not be the author of the treatise) was trying to tell it like it is, and how he thought it should be. Plus, the stuff he writes isn't cooky – logically it makes sense – and is quite believable. In fact, there are even similarities between what Procopius describes in battle in his opus and what Maurice prescribes in his manual (okay, there are some other issues there, but I don't want to get into them). So, it think it should be quite clear now how important the two works are, and how tricky a thing battle can be to examine.
Getting back to cohesion, it's hard to find examples of that sort of behaviour in Procopius. When he does highlight individual elements, he usually focuses on important figures, and more often than not generals. That's understandable: the line between history and fiction was a bit fuzzier for him then, than it is for us now. What is more, I'd like to think that he had an audience to consider, and they'd be more interested in hearing about the great deeds of the figures of the day, not the exploits of Joe-foot soldier unless they were exemplary; they'd have to be more than spectacular to fit the bill. Here's where Maurice is important. I'm going to include one particular snippet from book 12 on 'Mixed Formations, Infantry, Camps, and Hunting'. This is Dennis' translation from 12.B.10 entitled 'Instructions to Be Given About Punishments':
"After the army has been organized as described above, it should be assembled in its entirety one day. If the soldiers and officers already know the regulations set down by law, simply remind them. Otherwise they should be read to the troops separately in each tagma by their own commanders, as we explained in the chapters dealing with the cavalry."
The first key bit is in the first sentence: "assembled in its entirety one day". Even if we didn't have the rest of the text, we could speculate, heck, we could even state with a fair bit of confidence that it was implying that each unit trained on its own. If there was any doubt, then the third sentence clears that up: "should be read to the troops separately in each tagma". Now, one problem that stands out at first is the size of a tagma: Syvanne gives an ideal size of 256 men for each tagma. Maurice says itís 310 men. Either way, that size is a bit too large to fit the bill for this concept of cohesion.
As it turns out though, the troops, and units, were divided even further into contubernia (the Gk is kontoubernin). In the Principate a contubernium had 8 soldiers; there were 10 contubernia in a century, and so on up the legion of about 5200 men. Now, by the end of the 6th century the units had certainly changed, but I think itís important that Maurice was still using the term contubernium, quite a small and personal size, in his description of the equipment for soldiers (this comes from book 1). He says that each contubernium should have a tent.
Anyway, this small note on some thoughts on cohesion in the late Roman army is becoming an essay and so Iíll leave it there and do some more reading before returning to it. More to followÖ