Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Ancients Stuck at Home #n: 22-23 May, Virtual SoAC 02

(Surely one of the most flipped Ospreys of our period: Nick Sekunda on the army of Alexander) 

14 Months on, we have the prospect of lockdown being fully eased within a few months ... but for now, our 13 year journey following the Shows North team on the move is still stuck at home.

Last year's Virtual SoAC I was, of course, a response to this - the annual Conference I have supported from the start back on 1986 (and co organised in the 90s with Ian Russell Lowell) had to be cancelled, and that year's content (including my presentation on Khalid ibn al-Waleed) was delivered online.

You will be able to see the 'Sword of God' material in a forthcoming issue of Slingshot - but I should probably put a few slides up here to keep the information out there.

So, this year, we hope there will be 2 conferences ... in addition to our second online event over this last weekend, the 'face-to-face' conference, now at Madingley Hall, should be back in the Autumn.

And, assuming the feedback is positive, I imagine the plan is to go forward with 2 conferences a year: an online one in the Spring, and a residential one in the Autumn.


Saturday 22nd May, 4 til 6: 

Prof Michael Fredholm: The Early History of the Goths, from Berig to the Battle of Adrianople 378AD.

Dr Gareth C Sampson: Never Mind Mithridates - Lucullus, Pompey and the Armenian Empire.

Sunday 23rd May, 4 til 6:

Mark Fry: Sassanid Infantry - a re-evaluation 

Prof Nicholas Sekunda: The Army of Alexander - then and now (where “then" relates to the publication by Professor Sekunda in 1984 of the Osprey Men-at-arms book “The Army of Alexander the Great”)

The hot news from the conference is that Adrianople will be the BattleDay in 2022, so this all hangs together rather nicely.  Michael's talk on the Goths follows Simon MacDowall at SoAC 2019 and further enriches our understanding.

Gareth Sampson's talk took us East, to the last gasps of the Republic, and to Tigranes the Great, one of Rome's most resilient opponents.  It nicely set up Mark Fry's Sunday session on the successors to the Armenians and Parthians, the Sassanid Persians.

I was fascinated by this talk, as Mark attempted to understand, to reconstruct - and to some extent rehabilitate - the Sassanian heavy infantry ... regular, armoured archers ... heavy, mail-shirted swordsmen etc.



Some of the suggestions were quite convincing, and go some way to explain one of the points I had made in the Khalid talk last Autumn: the Arab sources are quite clear that Khalid's advantage against the Persians came from exploiting the mobility his cavalry gave him over a relatively ponderous and static enemy. 

This doesn't hang well with the traditional wargamerly perception of the Sassanids as a cavalry army.  However it falls out, large numbers of solid infantry were certainly employed against the Arabs - and Khalid's cavalry were able to defeat their wings and envelope the centre.  

So Mark's ideas certainly have some credibility with regard to the Arab wars. 

I was particularly fascinated by Nick Sekunda's thoughts on methodology.
Nick reflected on his training in history and archaeology and how he was taught to give equal value to the archaeological evidence as to the textual record - bemoaning how frequently the textual is given precedence, even if the result is nonsense.  As many of you know, with me, that's preaching to the converted (in my academic days, I switched from History to The History of Art for a similar reason ... to be able to give proper value to the material evidence - and so as to gain a stronger understanding of that specialised source material) ... 

And I think Sekunda's work, along with Duncan Head's, was part of a shift which took our impressions of the ancient world (then mostly understood through the texts of ancient writers) closer to the visual and archaeological record.  I think that still informs how we see the military cultures of the past today.
What was particularly interesting (arguably controversial) was Nick's assertion that evidence from monuments - in this case, particularly, say, the Alexander sarcophagus - was archaeological evidence ... pretty much the same way an excavated helmet was archaeological evidence.

I'm not sure this is the case (well I'm sure it isn't) - recovered sculptures, paintings, monuments etc. are very interesting, particularly where they are contemporary, or near contemporary, to the events/people they depict.  But they are still artist's impressions, they aren't the real thing.  In some ways they may be better (a Macedonian helmet on a sculpted figure is quite likely to be what the sculptor though most of the soldiers would wear - but an actual helmet that's been dug up might be any old random variant or 'one off' that just happens to have survived) ..

So artistic evidence isn't the same as archaeological evidence, however close to the events depicted (unless there are other reasons to explain that) ... 

Anyway, fascinating and a privelege to be taken through the steps used to reconstruct helmets, pikes, shield blazons and the like.  A classic work.
(slides from Nick's online talk)

The conference was 4 talks of an hour's duration including Q & A run over the 2 days, 4pm to 6pm.

It worked very smoothly and was easy going for the participants (say compared with the medieval warfare one I just ran for the Battlefields Trust, which was 5 sessions run on the same day - more rewarding, perhaps, in a number of ways, but you did have to commit to being with us all day*)

I'm looking forward to Shaw House for the BattleDay and to the next 'live' conference at Madingley Hall.

Great stuff.
*the again, we did get it done on the one day - so it's swings and roundabouts to some extent ... discuss *wink*

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