On the Kinds of Ancient History

From A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, a longish article on the varieties of ancient evidence. The modern world is resplendent with all kinds of evidence, but the further back in time you go, the less and less there is. There is a physical reason for this, of course: things decay over time. And despite the efforts of historians and archaeologists, this is likely to remain so.

In any case, the kinds of evidence are these:

  1. Literary Evidence: Long form written texts. We have these because effort was extended to make copies of them. What we have isn’t much (the entire Greek and Latin corpus fits in 523 volumes), and its unlikely to be added to. We can analyze it, but we can’t really improve upon it. There’s also epigraphy (words written on stone) and Papyrology (The Egyptians have a treasure trove of papyrus, because papyrus survives well in a desert climate, but these also have their difficulties.
  2. Representational Evidence: Pictures and art. Can give you lots of interesting ideas, but without strong literary evidence to attach it to; it becomes harder to interpret effectively, or even to attach to the right moment. It shows, but it does not speak.
  3. Archaelological Evidence: Stuff left behind. This is an exciting field, full of interesting info: but it also has its limitations. A quotation the author found worth putting in bold: “Most plagues, wars, famines, rulers, laws simply do not have archaeologically visible impacts, while social values, opinions, beliefs don’t leave archaeological evidence in any case.” That’s a really significant giveaway. A thing could happen, and be really important at the time, while leaving almost no trace of itself on the earth.
  4. Comparative Evidence: AKA, making bald-faced guesses based on what we know. All of which depend heavily on what assumptions you bring to the question. This is why philosophical trends in academia matter; they shape how we view our own past, and hence ourselves. This is best used with one or more of the other forms of evidence.

That’s it. That’s what we have. The Past is a foreign country and the ports of entry are few.

Pompey’s Counter-Insurgency

Quintus Curtius has a fine article on his web site about Pompey’s most impressive victory:

Every victory seems easy in retrospect, of course.  But the campaign against the pirates was successful for very specific reasons.  They are as follows:  (1) deployment of sufficient forces to deal with the threat; (2) assignment of specific sectors of operation to local commanders, with each one made responsible for what happened in his area; (3) relentless pursuit of fleeing pirates so that they could not rest or hide; (4) a policy of “paroling” captured pirates and allowing them to return to their homes provided that they swore to abandon crime; (5) execution of the worst offenders; and (6) the capture of the main pirate strongholds in Cilicia.

These principles translate well to the modern age:

  • Overwhelming Force – The insurgent must respect your strength, and eventually learn to fear attacking you.
  • Divide, Clear, and Hold – pick the areas where they are weakest. Secure these first. Then painstakingly expand into areas where they are stronger, and drive them out of these. Pompey didn’t try to do it all at once; he ground them slowly down. This is the only thing that has ever worked.
  • Mercy to the Masses, Punishment to the Criminals – As Sun Tzu reminds us, men with no possibility of escape will fight to the death. The impulse to treat all insurgents the same must be avoided. During the Chinese Civil War, the Communists made it a policy to release Nationalist enlisted men who surrendered, and only imprison or kill their officers. This made it hard for the Nationalists armies to maintain fighting morale. The United States Army used a similar policy to great effect against Aguinaldo and the Phillipine insurgents at the turn of the 20th century. Any rebel could surrender and be paroled; only those accused of specific crimes would be punished.
  • Co-ordination. The disadvantage of government forces is that they lack the complete freedom of movement the guerrilla has, being weight down by the need to defend territory and the weight of institutional impedimenta. But with shared responsibility and independent action, they can bring their strength to bear.
  • Attack Their Sanctuary. None of the above matters if the insurgents can constantly regroup safely. Successful insurgents almost always have safe areas where their enemies cannot or will not go (North Vietnam and Cambodia, Tribal Areas of Pakistan, etc.). All effort must be made not to allow this.  When insurgents have no sanctuary, and their supplies are cut off, their institutional weaknesses become fatal.

Myths of the Great Library

In History, the details are always hard to catch, yet always worth knowing. This long post at History for Atheists, worth absorbing in full, makes a number of discordant points about the Myth that the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian mob in 390 AD, thus setting science and technology back a thousand years. I will state them below in brief, and you may read the post in full.

  1. The Great Library of Alexandria was not the only Great Library of the Ancient World. It did not “contain all the wisdom of the ancient world”.
  2. The Great Library of Alexandria was a research institution, a Mouseion, devoted to the Nine Muses, which is to say, they were a product of Pagan religious inspiration, the worship of the gods.
  3. Consequently, most of the scholarship done at the Mouseion was focused on textual criticism and poetry, and not very much on what we moderns would call science.
  4. The Ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t really do science as we understand it today. Which is to say, their natural philosophy was largely inductive, not empirical, and they did not apply this philosophy to improving the technology of their culture.
  5. The Mouseion had almost certainly ceased to exist by 390 AD. A series of sackings of the city by Romans, beginning with Julius Caesar, greatly diminished the value of the place.
  6. What was destroyed in 390 AD was a daughter library, the Serapaeum. As with the Mouseion, the Serapaeum was first and foremost a pagan temple, devoted to the worship of the hybrid Greek-Egyptian God Serapis. It’s destruction in 390 was the result of a long series of hostilites between the pagan and Christian populations of the city. Which is to say, it was the result of a war between rival religious traditions, and not a war between religion and science. And according to primary sources, there may not even have been a library in the Serapaeum at the time.

Again, Read the Whole Thing (Hat Tip: Vox Populi)