Odysseus’ Bow

Edward Luttwak

  • Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity by J.E. Lendon
    Yale, 468 pp, £18.95, June 2005, ISBN 0 300 10663 7

The extraordinarily long, extraordinarily bloody world wars of the 20th century were fought very largely by unwilling conscripts, and that too was extraordinary, as was the consequence that many came home as worn-out veterans less attractive to women than slick, stay-at-home spivs. The two wars that still loom so large in Euro-American collective memory therefore obscure the twin verities that, in the words of the military historian Martin van Creveld, ‘men love war and women love warriors.’ That he is right cannot be doubted because, with few exceptions, wars throughout history have been fought by volunteers, who had to love war to tolerate its inevitable hardships; and men would certainly have found other diversions if warriors had not been especially attractive to women. There is also a corollary: when women love warriors, they procreate sufficiently to replace the losses of war – and that too cannot be doubted, for otherwise we would not be here.

What happens if men cease to love war and women no longer have warriors to love? We needn’t guess because both discontinuities are already present among some human populations – the ones whose numbers are declining. Only a fool would blame falling birth-rates on a single cause and in this case, moreover, cause and effect obviously work in both directions. But it is undeniable that Europe’s indigenous populations, which kept increasing from bloody war to bloody war, are now ageing and declining under an endless peace. Fascist implications, vitalism and all, logically follow but to no effect, because the only wars that can still be fought in the nuclear age are small and engage very few; even the supposedly warlike United States has far fewer than a million men and women in the combat echelons of all four services, out of a population approaching 300 million.

So it is only to understand its history and not for any suspect purpose that one must recognise the truth that war can be very enjoyable, notwithstanding all the teachings, preachings and writings to the contrary, or the denials of the practitioners themselves. Famous generals learned long ago to deny shamelessly all the fun of it, and these days even ordinary American soldiers have absorbed enough political correctness to be evasive or downright deceptive when asked why they are re-enlisting after a tour in Iraq, given the near-certainty that they will have to undertake another. They prefer to imply what very few of them will confirm when questioned directly – that the war is a worthwhile endeavour – rather than admit the truth that they enjoy it, in spite of the remarkable ugliness of most of the country, its sullen or demonstratively hostile inhabitants, the total absence of off-base booze and sex, and the 99.9 per cent boredom and 0.1 per cent terror of the insurgency. But even in Iraq the essential attraction of war is present in full measure: its substitution of the repetitive idiocy of everyday life with the supreme excitement of combat readiness, that intensely pleasurable feeling of self-possession that comes from the knowledge that a fight to the death might start at any time, and that one is prepared for it, by mental disposition and acquired skills.

The moments of actual combat – uninterrupted hours of combat are a physical impossibility, though there might be an endless series of moments – are another matter entirely. Fear and the overcoming of fear obliterate all other sentiments; one’s actions are much more somnambulistic than conscious (that is why even the simplest weapon skills must be drilled not just learned, and why incontinence is as common in battle as in geriatric wards); and in place of the highly individualistic, even masterful anticipation of combat, its reality induces an infantile sense of dependence on anyone not unfriendly nearby, which, barring immediate disappointment, transforms strangers into comrades, comrades into brothers, subordinates into precious allies and superiors into authoritative leaders. In peacetime, all proper armies try to induce small-unit cohesion artificially with a more or less torturous basic training regime that is supposed to evoke mutual solidarity among its victims; and some, such as the British Army and US Marine Corps, also greatly emphasise the esprit de corps of their regiments, which is not at all the same thing as unit cohesion – there are too many people for that – but can help to create it. But successful combat itself is the strongest source of the cohesion that makes formations and entire armies successful – and thereby even more cohesive, and then yet more successful. Conversely, it is immensely difficult to redeem formations in which soldiers, superiors and subordinates have let each other down in combat, even if only once.

The bureaucrats in uniform that officer most armies most of the time are fond of saying that while amateurs talk strategy and tactics, professionals must first of all focus on logistics. They are wrong of course, because the human factors – individual and group training, discipline, morale and unit cohesion – are usually much more important in combat than the material factors: exactly three times as important, according to Napoleon’s famous dictum. He was much too competent a military man to have meant this in earnest, given that the relative importance of the moral and the material changes from one form of combat to another: there is a big difference between the morale and cohesion needed to bomb from afar with cruise missiles, or to place a mine or side-bomb in the night, and to fight through a town on foot, street by street and house by house.

It is the persisting centrality of the human factors that ensures the persisting relevance of past warfare, however ancient, for military practitioners; though when it comes to the Greeks and Romans, their contemporary military relevance is of no importance to the great number of people who are interested in their methods of warfare for purely historical and literary reasons. They are the intended readers of J.E. Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts – and their degree of satisfaction with this book may well depend precisely on whether the focus of their interest is historical or literary. For while Lendon teaches history, his approach is literary, and with that comes a large reliance on narrative sources that tell us all kinds of wonderful tales, not on the much more circumscribed but potentially reliable physical evidence of recovered constructions, inscriptions, documents, coins and medals, and other contemporary objects of evidentiary value, beginning with the pottery that scholars have long laboured to classify and date systematically. Potential reliability is all we can aspire to, because physical evidence too can be attributed or misattributed, dated or misdated. But at least it contains fragments of some truth or other, even if it is not the truth that we happen to be seeking, whereas for narrative sources, whether classified as factual or poetical, we have only the weak test of subjective plausibility, in addition to the firm boundary of impossibility. There is no difficulty with the latter as we simply ignore the gods, intelligent designers, Cyclops, Sirens and such included in almost every narrative text we have, but whatever is deemed plausible may be so only because we have first accepted some prior plausibility. That is why the rule – and the advance – of the contemporary historiography of the ancient world is to reconstruct the past by relying on solidly attested information, citing narratives only to decorate the text.

Given his own approach, however, Lendon can begin with the Iliad, which always provides good stories, even while he disclaims its value as a source (perhaps to excess, for there is now hard information from official Hittite correspondence that mentions Alexander-Priam and an attack on Troy aimed at him personally by multiple enemies from the west, who could only be the early Greeks we call Mycenaean but might as well be Achaeans). Following his literary bent, Lendon takes us through the Iliad’s debate on the heroic status, or lack of it, of archery as opposed to close combat; he cites the amusing dialogue between Paris, as always in a dubious role, this time as an ‘arrow fighter’ who attacks from afar, and the ineffectually stricken Diomedes (‘you have scratched the flat of my foot’). This was a debate resuscitated in the sixth century by Procopius, one of the very last classical historians, who undoubtedly invented the cited criticisms of the formidable mounted archery he tells us he witnessed alongside Belisarius, purely for the fun of echoing the Iliad – which is itself ambivalent on the subject, as the Odyssey is not.

As Lendon points outs, superhero Odysseus fights his last combat with the famous bow that only he could string. No doubt because of his lack of interest in material evidence, Lendon fails to tell us that this particular story does not belong with the Cyclops and the Sirens. In fact we know exactly what kind of bow could not be strung by anyone with fewer than three hands, yet which Odysseus or anyone else with the necessary skill could have strung ‘without even having to get up from his seat’, as the text recounts. This couldn’t be any ordinary wooden bow but only a composite bow of the steppes. Backed with layers of elastic horse sinew and bellied with compressible bone plates, it outrightly reverses itself when unstrung, and can only be strung again by first pulling back each ear with a ‘bastard string’ looped on a wooden stick secured to the stave, to then slip the true string on the re-reversed bow with no effort at all. Unlike literature, history must ignore both suitors and Odysseus, but this passage in Homer still counts as evidence because it brings back to whatever date is chosen for its composition the arrival in Greece of the most powerful personal weapon of antiquity, which could nevertheless plausibly be unknown to stay-at-home suitors because it was so difficult to make, conserve and use that it kept being reintroduced by successive steppe migrants from very early times till the 13th century.

Soldiers and Ghosts has a somewhat mawkish prologue about the warrior ethos of the US Marines under the heading ‘Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, 1967’, and an introduction, in which there surface both Lendon’s perfectly sound notion that warfare is culturally conditioned and therefore rule-bound rather than purely functional, and also his rather odd preoccupation with the lack of technological progress in antiquity, especially by the otherwise so broadly accomplished Romans. He evidently doesn’t recognise that continuing, science-driven, technological progress is a historical anomaly, a uniquely modern Western phenomenon in which non-Westerners have so far participated only insofar as they are Westernised, and which was naturally unknown to the ancient Greeks, who had some excellent science but rarely thought of applying it in practice, or to the Romans, who came up with all sorts of important practical innovations without ever trying to explain them scientifically. It is entirely characteristic of the Romans that, without any known attempt to formulate a theory of infection, field surgeons cauterised both their instruments and wounds, thus easily outperforming their subsequent counterparts as late as the American Civil War. But normality is not to innovate at all, let alone to do so scientifically and in continuing fashion.

Things improve in the main text. Always at least fluently serviceable and often much better than that, Lendon’s prose takes us through clear explanations of tactics and vivid descriptions of famous fights, from classical Greece all the way to Julian’s campaign against formidable Sasanian Persia that ended with his death in battle in 363, and concluding with a mention of the Roman defeat of 378 at the hands of the Goths and other refugees driven west across the Danube by the Huns. In his episodic accounts over the span of almost a millennium, not counting anachronistic Homer, Lendon is not prevented by his literary orientation from clarifying any number of confusions. He also usefully confuses matters that have been clarified with false precision in the coffee-table books that abound on the subject, or even in works with scholarly pretensions. He recognises, for example, that we simply lack information on the battle array and consequent tactics of the Roman manipular legions of the earlier Republic, of which very much less is known than of the late Republican legions of Julius Caesar, let alone those of the Principate that are so abundantly documented by every species of physical evidence: intact portions of standardised fortresses, forts and outposts that allow the confident reconstruction of a great number of more ruined ruins; the systematically catalogued funerary inscriptions that record individual careers from which, in turn, unit nomenclatures and locations can be reconstructed; the discharge medallions of veterans; some actual registers and soldiers’ correspondence on papyrus which give us both organisational data and very personal perspectives on the lives of Roman soldiers; middens that tell us what was hunted, issued and eaten; the remains of contemporary weapons and armour as well as artillery munitions; the humble constructions and abandoned artefacts of the villages and towns that grew around legionary bases to provide whatever the imperial commissary did not, from better booze than official-issue unsweet wine, to companionship or sex, to esoteric cults and imported religions too exotic to be celebrated officially even by the almost infinitely tolerant pre-Christian Romans; the stamped bricks that attest to the deployment and construction activities of the legionaries, who were more combat engineers than heavy infantry, and were civil engineers too, as any number of surviving constructions testify, including soaring bridges, long aqueducts and elaborate theatres; and more still.

All this to recall why it is possible to do history without historians, or at least without having to rely on the narratives of ancient historians, whose frequently notable literary virtues (has anyone ever written as powerfully as Tacitus?) are only exceeded by their shortcomings as sources of evidence, even when cleaned up by the removal of impossibilities. It is much more dangerous to remove implausibilities when dealing with the Romans, because the new material evidence that keeps emerging as digging continues in many places – still only a fraction of the known Roman sites – perversely keeps overturning near certainties large and small, while confirming sometimes wildly implausible tales in inordinate detail, as in the case of the Roman victory at Masada, where enough was found to establish the veracity of the celebrated but universally disbelieved blow-by-blow account in Josephus.

The notes and bibliography tell us that Lendon attended to the extensive secondary literature, which he duly cites in the right places. But evidently he wanted to tell his own stories of Alexander, Caesar and other great men, and because there is much more physical evidence about things than about people, however famous, he necessarily has to rely on contemporary but hopelessly engagé sources such as Ammianus Marcellinus on Julian, or else the likes of Arrian of the second century CE on Alexander of Macedonia, and Plutarch on still earlier Greeks: both smart analysts, as they would be called these days, with no reason to mislead us, yet forced to invent or credit any prior account that fitted their narrative needs simply because they were writing several centuries later, in an age without archives of public documents. And, besides, they were writing to achieve literary, not historiographical recognition, which is why even when Arrian writes about a strictly contemporary Roman military operation – a deployment against threatening Alans – he recasts his account so he can use antique Greek terms that are seriously confusing in places, and calls the commander Xenophon. These are allowable affectations perhaps for some Greekling on the fringes of Roman society, but as it happens Arrian was himself in charge of that operation as governor of the important two-legion province of Cappadocia, and not coincidentally an experienced military officer. Yet instead of legions in all the detail he must have known and his very interesting self, Arrian gives us long-defunct phalanxes and long-dead Xenophon. One may (plausibly) deduce from this that in those days it was better to be an antiquarian than a historian – Hadrian’s interests certainly went that way, and he happened to be the emperor – but what suited Arrian’s brilliant career does not suit us, not at any rate if we do not wish to know what we can’t know, while striving to know what we can.