Friday, 18 August 2017

Marching Speeds

A man can walk four miles in an hour relatively easily. And yet, an army of foot soldiers marching (in the ancient world) would cover perhaps six miles in a whole day. Even horsemen would only go twelve.

There are exceptions, but the above are averages taken from Theodore Dodge’s excellent histories (check out his Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar biographies if you haven’t yet).

Why does it take so long to move an army, when a single man with staging posts (for fresh horses) could cover, theoretically at least, well over a hundred miles in a single day? Even a chap out for a walk could easily make 10-20 miles over the course of a day.

Various changeable circumstances can affect how fast an army can move. Weather, terrain, and supplies all have a serious impact (more on those below). But even when it’s nice and warm, the ground’s flat and roads are good, and there’s plenty of food and beer, armies are still, usually, horrendously slow.

Moving one person is easy. They get up on time, and wander off. If they reach a bridge, that’s fine. If they need to climb a little, that’s usually no problem.

An army is different. The whole army can’t set off at once, because a road might only be wide enough for six, or fewer, to march abreast. Even as the vanguard strolls off, most of the rest of the army will be taking down last night’s camp and eating the last of the cheese. The sheer volume of people slows the army’s progress.

The number of men and beasts (not just war horses, but donkeys and oxen and mules to carry supplies or pull wagons) can also ruin roads. What might be a nice journey for the vanguard could be a squelching quagmire for the middle or rearguard. Similarly, if the vanguard reaches difficulties (say a flood washes away the only bridge for miles and it needs repairing) that then slows everyone else as a queue forms.

Narrow passes in mountains or slender footbridges are no problem for one man, but they’re bottlenecks when you’ve got thousands. Not only that, they may well be impassable for wagons and difficult/impossible for horses. A route one man can take is not necessarily a route an army can take.

Then there’s pestilence. Leave aside that a small army of whores will be prising coin from men who could die tomorrow (pox was spread thus although certain diseases were different. Syphilis didn’t exist in medieval England, arriving in the Tudor period and only mutating in Elizabeth I’s reign into the disease it is today). Medieval hygiene could include eating in close proximity to latrines. The camp disease of dysentery would usually break out. Fouled wells or even just drinking uncontaminated water could lead to typhoid. Having so many men together (and a medieval army could outnumber most medieval cities’ populations) in such close proximity massively increased the chances of disease breaking out, and then spreading rapidly. For this reason, armies besieging a castle/city could suffer as much as those trapped on the inside.

Supplies were often problematic. Gathering sufficient before you start depended on a good harvest and organisational abilities. If your adversary knows you’re coming he’ll foul wells and ensure harvested crops are safe inside castle walls so you struggle to feed your army off the land. This means the foraging parties have to roam further afield (and they need protection so you need to send more men), again slowing an army down. One man can swipe a few apples and blackberries, but an army takes a lot of feeding (and the animals need food too).

Weather can have a substantial impact. Ordinary drizzle (almost the default setting of Britain) can soften roads which turn to sludge beneath a thousand marching feet. Heavier rain can destroy roads or bridges, or flood camps and drown people and horses. But hot weather has dangers too. Finding sufficient water becomes even harder, and may slow the pace of men and animals. Even worse, forest fires (as now) can spring up out of nowhere.

Most travelling in the ancient and medieval world, as you’d expect, was by land. However, sea journeys also could be delayed on account of an army. If you don’t have enough ships because they’re delayed due to bad weather or simply take time to arrive, then either you split an army in two and risk it being defeated in detail, or you have to wait. One man needs just one ship.

In books, both historical and fictional, it’s entirely legitimate to have individuals travel a lot faster than armies, for all sorts of reasons (not to mention the possibility of messages being sent by bird).

As an aside, the Persians had an interesting measure called the parasang. Unlike a mile, the parasang was a unit of distance measured not in length but time. One parasang was one day’s march. That’s quite a clever way of doing things, as two roads leading to the same place might have a very large number of miles to the north compared to the south, but if the south road leads through mountains the northern road might still be a quicker route.


PS the next few blogs will likely be book reviews of The Wonder Book of Aircraft, The Emperor’s Edge, and Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Review: King John, by Marc Morris

King John does not have the finest of reputations in English history, but is the opprobrium deserved or unkind?

This biography recounts the life (with a strong focus on adulthood) of perhaps the most persistently disliked of English kings.

The structure for the first 2/3 or so is unorthodox, in that it has alternating timelines, leading up to and after 1203 (the former, of course, comes to an end from which point the later timeline continues until John’s death). Although the cut-off points are chosen well and skilfully lead to some interesting juxtapositions, I probably would’ve preferred a more straightforward single timeline account.

John was one of four sons of Henry II (Henry, Richard and Geoffrey being the others) who embarked upon a great many squabbles, rebellions, and wars with/against Philip Augustus (the king of France, a wily fellow who benefited greatly from Henry II’s rank incompetence when it came to keeping his family singing from the same hymn sheet).

John was an interesting, and wretched, character. I found him despicable in personality, but less incompetent than imagined (indeed, he did have a few strokes of bad luck that substantially altered the course of events. That said, it’s possible to imagine Richard [his elder brother] reversing such misfortunes, and John was never accused of a surfeit of courage). His greatest skills were extortion and low cunning.

But it was this very wretchedness that brought about Magna Carta, which became touchstone against tyranny for centuries to come.

The writing style is easy to read, and there aren’t many difficult terms (where these occur, such as ‘prise’, they’re explained). If you don’t read much history I don’t think you’d have any problems with this as an introduction to 12th/13th century history.

This biography of King John is the second book I’ve read by Marc Morris, (the first, an Edward I biography, is reviewed here).

Those interested in the period may also find Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshal (reviewed here) of interest.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Julius Caesar and Genocide

Yes, it’s one of those cheerful blogs.

I was twittering away, conversing with a friend, when I happened to mention Julius Caesar once massacred almost half a million Germanian tribesmen.

And so the idea for this blog was born. Unlike almost every other figure from classical history, people do generally know a bit about Julius Caesar. Some of it is tosh. The ‘veni, vidi, vici’ quote isn’t from when he invaded Britain (and failed), it’s from when he crushed Pharnaces II, the ruler of Pontus. Similarly, he wasn’t born by Caesarian section (we know this because although Romans could practice it, the procedure always killed the mother and we know that Caesar’s mum survived birthing him).

Other bits of common knowledge are true. He did conquer Gaul (mostly. Gallia Narbonensis had been conquered some time earlier). He did cross the Rubicon and cause a cold war to become a hot one. And he was murdered in the Senate by some of his former friends.

Part of this history is written by Caesar himself. The Gallic War entirely, and the first quarter or so of The Civil War (the rest being written by a few contemporary authors). His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, also had reasons to embellish the propaganda around Julius Caesar’s conduct. After all, nobody wants to say their adoptive dad was a lunatic, do they?

But there are certain things about Caesar which are not common knowledge today. In his lifetime he acquired (and detested) the nickname the Queen of Bithynia. This was because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia (small kingdom in Asia Minor, if memory serves) and was so fond of the king he stayed on longer than planned.

A loathed nickname being expunged, mostly, from history is understandable when you become dictator for life and your adopted son becomes the first emperor of Rome. There is a more troubling act of Caesar’s that remains obscured from general knowledge, though.

He murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.

A Germanian tribe, reportedly 430,000 strong (even allowing for exaggeration, the number will be vast), was negotiating peacefully with the Romans, led by Caesar. Or so they thought. In the middle of negotiation, Caesar had them all slaughtered.

This was not an army, it was a tribe of men, women and children. And he butchered them, citing duplicity on their part as the justification. In his biography (simply entitled Caesar), TA Dodge used the term ‘holocaust’ to describe the act (the history pre-dates WWII by some decades).

This was not the first time such an action was attempted. Decades earlier, the Cimbri (a tribe seeking to settle peacefully on Roman territory if possible, and to migrate west by passing through Roman territory if not) was similarly attacked. Unfortunately for the Romans, who initiated the battle, the Cimbri won. This was repeated, farcically, several times. In one such battle, Arausio, partly due to mutual loathing of Roman leaders Caepio and Maximus, the Romans suffered a defeat to rank alongside Cannae. Eventually the Cimbri were defeated by Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle.

Roman belligerence towards barbarian tribes, therefore, was nothing new. Indeed, in Rome and Italy (by Livy), there’s an approving passage written of Roman action to kill a huge number of fighting age men of the enemy.

And yet this genocide of Caesar is little known. I do wonder whether, at the time, the reason was very different to that of his nickname becoming little known. It might just be that in the 1st century BC, wiping out a tribe of barbarians was seen as a good thing, but not significant enough to be worth remembering.

It’s tempting to think of the Romans only in terms of civilising influence (roads, rule of law, the Pax Romana, what have the Romans ever done for us? Etc). They weren’t above exterminating tribes of people who wanted peace. But it was deemed ok. Because the hundreds of thousands they murdered were savages.