Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Alexander the Great – What if he had lived?

One of the most fascinating stories from antiquity is the life of Alexander the Great, the man who conquered the world by age thirty. Alexander has to be considered one of greatest military commanders of all time and one of the most important personalities of the ancient world.

Unfortunately, the story of his life ends abruptly. He became ill in early June of 323 B.C. and died on either the tenth or eleventh of that month at age thirty-two. The cause of Alexander’s death has been debated throughout the centuries, even up to the present day. Was he poisoned, or was it an infection that killed him? The truth eludes us but the fact that Alexander was ill for ten days suggests that disease rather than poison was the culprit.

What would Alexander have accomplished if he had not died so young? We can only guess, but it makes an interesting topic for discussion nonetheless.

To try and imagine Alexander’s world after 323 B.C, I’m going to employ Arnold Toynbee, a well-known scholar of antiquity, to help us. Toynbee, known mostly for his Study of History, wrote many fine books about the ancient world including a favorite of mine called Some Problems in Greek History.

There is a chapter in the latter entitled “If Alexander the Great had lived on”, where Toynbee speculates about Alexander’s efforts and successes during the period after 323 B.C. It’s a long chapter, spanning some forty-five pages, and I will not attempt to re-tell his whole story, but I found the section on Alexander’s relationship with Rome particularly interesting.

At the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C, Rome was in the middle of the Second War with the Samnites, which would end in 304 B.C. Rome, in those early days, did not have control of central and southern Italy, much less the whole peninsula. There were strong neighbors allied against her and her future depended on guile and perseverance.

So we begin Toynbee’s narrative…

In the winter of 318/317 B.C. Samnium was threatening the whole Italian peninsula and since their failure at Caudine Forks in 320 B.C, the Romans sought a different strategy to use against their principle adversary. They reasoned that a move across the Apennines to the Adriatic and then south would allow them to seek allies along the way and outflank the Samnites. Rome succeeded in making allies of Frentani, Teanum Apulum, and Canusium by 318 and was gaining strength when Ptolemy, representing Alexander, landed in Tarentum. The Tarentine government was anxious to avenge the death of the king of Epirus and looked to Alexander as the agent of that purpose. Ptolemy toured the states of Peucetia and Apulia and offered their leaders an alliance with Alexander against Samnium as a preview to Alexander’s arrival the next season when he would crush the Samnites. Ptolemy also visited Teanum Apulum and Canusium urging them to think twice about an alliance with Rome, a minor power, when they could be allied with Macedon. Both cities abandoned their treaties with Rome in favor of the Greeks.

With his diplomatic mission completed in southeastern Italy, Ptolemy moved on to Rome with two advantages over the Romans: he was representing the conqueror of the world and Rome was still weak from her loss at the Caudine Forks. Ptolemy planned to offer an alliance that would offer Rome protection, but would the Romans see it as disguised servitude? Ptolemy offered a treaty similar to that of Porus, Alexander’s Indian ally -- an equal partnership – and the terms allowed Rome to retain all of its current territories. Alexander would not challenge the new Roman alliance with Frentani or another recent alliance with Neapolis, although he frowned on the latter as Roman hegemony against a Greek city. Once Samnium was overthrown, Rome could claim some of the resulting spoils including the Caudine Canton. Rome could also seek alliances with central Italian cantons, but in no case was she allowed to compel them to accept alliances with her. Alexander would also give Rome access to the Po valley with her rich agricultural potential.

Ptolemy now moved on to the more delicate part of the negotiations, namely what Rome must agree to in return for the benefits Alexander would provide them. Alexander wished to set limits to Rome’s territorial expansion. The Italian land east of the Apennines, including the major portion of Samnium, and all of Magna Graecia would be off limits. These territories would be organized into a territory of Tarentum. To mark the bounds of the new territory, Alexander would be planting Greek colonies at Maluentium, Luceria, and near Mount Vultur.

As to the Etruscan territories, Alexander would make treaties with them identical to those that had been negotiated with Rome.

And regarding Umbria and the northern territories of Italy, Alexander sought agreement with Rome on four points: first that the parties should agree as to the independence of the northern territories, second either party could sign treaties with any of the states in the north, third that any alliance made by either would count as one with both parties, and fourth the northern territories would not be asked to go to war with Samnium. That way they could protect the north from the Gauls should they choose to come down.

Ptolemy told the Romans they must except his proposal as is with no negotiation. If they refused or allied themselves with the Samnites, they would not be able to stop Alexander from continuing with his plans. Rome accepted Alexander’s offer without hesitation.

The next year Alexander landed at Tarentum, assembled his army and crushed the Samnites. He now controlled one half of the Italian Peninsula and could use it as a stepping stone to conquer Sicily and then Carthage.

This story did not happen, of course, but it could have. Toynbee teases us with a historical phantasy. One can imagine that Rome would eventually rise to the power she became once Alexander was out of the picture, after all the Italians were native to the peninsula and the Greeks were outsiders. The cultural bond between Italians would have eventually won the day.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hadrian's Wall - Guest Post

This article is a guest post by my friend Geoff Carter, an archaeologist who lives in England. Geoff does research in ancient wood structures and has written about the original wooden fortifications at Hadrian's Wall. I have a link to Geoff's blog on this page under My Blog List - Theoretical Structural Archaeology. Tap on the link below to see a BBC documentary where Geoff is featured.

Hadrian and the North South Divide

Britain is naturally divided by geography; the south is generally warmer, more fertile, and closer to the continent than the North.  Southern England had tin, and could control much of the trade in copper from the Irish Sea, so it was an important component in Prehistoric Northern Europe. The North itself is divided -- Scotland split between a highlands and lowlands.

The realpolitik in ancient times was how to stop those in the north from taking materials from their more prosperous southern neighbours.  These North-South dynamics were a recurrent theme of English history and both the North–South divide and Scottish independence are live political issues even today.

In the ancient world, politics was often conducted through warfare, and power was expressed through military engineering. Engineers changed geography and the shape of the landscape; heaped things up and dug things away, build roads, water courses, bridges, towns, and forts.  While what remains is stone, but most of the past was formed from earth, straw, and the key engineering component of the ancient world, wood.

Political Engineering

It was in wooden ships, built by Celtic shipwrights in Gaul that the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, first arrived in Southern England in 55-54 BC.  We know this because in Caesar’s account of his wars in Gaul we get an unprecedented insight into both military engineering and the mechanics of the imperial machine.  

I will use the word Celt here even though Caesar made clear he was dealing with the local aristocracy. In this context warfare was interaction between two ruling classes vying for ultimate control of land, its resources, and the people who worked it. ‘Romanization’ was a top down process.

Certainly, there was warfare, but this was driven by diplomacy and a political narrative. The Celtic peoples had long interacted with the Mediterranean world, and in many ways the Roman army was shaped by early unsuccessful encounters with them. For all concerned, warfare was a career and a business opportunity, so everybody knew the rules and what to expect. 

While Caesar did not stay, he established the political relationships that got Rome a foothold using the actuality or threat of a Roman intervention to destabilize existing regional politics.  Once an area came within range of Rome’s political and military interests, it’s leaders had two choices; cut a deal or fight. All of this on top of the traditional political and military pressures from other rivals beyond Roman control.  Invariably, this put the ruling elite between a rock a hard place. For perfectly honorable reasons they might resist and then end up with a worse deal, although not as bad if you make a deal and then broke it.  Punitive sanctions went as far as genocide, or you might have gotten away with enslavement. 

Once you were a client of the Rome, her army will ensure your security, in return for your assurance that it receive the necessary supplies, principally wheat, but also other material assistance and access to resources.  This sort of ‘taxation’ did not need micromanagement -- a treaty was made with the local political authority, so the Romans knew who to blame if obligations were not met. Beyond this, engineering made the Roman army self-sufficient in managing its security.

Rome in the North

When the Romans returned in 43 AD they had controlled the Atlantic Seaboard for ninety years, so Claudius was more properly prepared for a long campaign; not just an army, but a navy also, since control of the sea was key to taking and holding an Island. 

When Agricola made the first significant push into the north in the early 80s he had a naval presence on both coasts and even thought about an expedition to Ireland.  Then, after the near disaster of the Boudicca revolt, the south was secured, and Rome was on the offensive, initially in the west and then in the North. In a typically aggressive series of campaigns Agricola punched his way north culminating in a battle of Mons Graupius, where his auxiliary troops reportedly killed about a third of a thirty thousand man highlander force.The year was 84 A.D. and  it was a high water mark when the highlanders retreated back into their glens in the mountains or the Islands in the West, and reverted to an over the horizon threat.  Rather than pursuing them, the Romans chose to construct rough perimeter of timber forts and watch towers blocking off enemy territory. An opportunity and the strategic initiative had been lost due to external decisions and changes in military priorities of the Empire.  

At some point towards the end of the first century, the Romans withdrew the majority of their forces from Scotland to the territory of the Brigantes, who controlled Northern England. Their main base was set up at York and occupied by the twentieth legion. The Brigantes had long been loyal to Rome and provided a key buffer state for the Lands to the south.  We also presume that some political relations continued with former allies in Scotland, although everything between the campaigns of Agricola and the building of the wall 40 years later is very sketchy.

At this point Hadrian arrives, possibly in response to a revolt in the north involving the Brigantes, who may have been triggered by the death of Trajan.  Hadrian brought fresh troops, and re-established a ‘frontier’ in the North of Brigantes territory. After 80 years, the Romans understood that most of what they valued was in the South, so the north was no more than a security zone. 

What I have written so far is traditional scholarship, but I wish to change the story that emerges after looking at the ancient engineering.

Hadrian’s North-South Divide

The Wall was a  live frontier; so clearly nobody within striking range of the Roman Army was going to be openly hostile, but beyond them were still the people who were isolated.  Whatever the political and military circumstances that established the peace, splitting the country in two with a physical barrier probably came as a surprise to those beyond it.

The Roman Army was unlikely to face infantry in mass formation in open battle, and so the main threat probably came from concentrations fast moving mounted troops.  A physical barrier forced them to dismount and fight on the Roman terms, against gateways that allowed the Romans to counter attack and outflank their opponents.

Hadrian’s wall is a military engineering solution to the North-South Divide.  The line of forts and observation points had proved ineffective, but the Wall changes the geography.

How were the Romans able to spread themselves out across an eighty mile construction project without protection?

In the first season the bulk of the troops were engaged in creating a timber and earth wall with a ditch in front it which protected the work parties behind it.  Each of the forts being built was staged with a temporary camp to house the garrison and builders while work was on-going. Similarly, those guarding and building the Wall required accommodations. As part of the process, a construction trench was dug behind the wall for a road -- the spoil neatly piled to allow two wide verges on either side of the planned metalled carriageway. The skilled workers were concentrated in specialist groups working on the Wall starting in the East, while others started work on milecastles and forts.  Those digging the trench and laying the foundation were not as skilled as the crews working on the stone wall so their work was completed well ahead of time.

All appears to have gone well at first, but at some point, work appears to have virtually stopped. It is likely that warfare disrupted the construction process. Once the work was restarted again, the quality and quantity of the building was scaled back, the plan to build the road was abandoned, and extra forts were added.
So the wall was built in a war zone, as an army installation and a fortified frontier to contain the threat that had not been eliminated forty years earlier. Whatever the technical and in particular logistic achievements, the Wall did not work, and Hadrian’s successor moved the frontier North to Forth Isthmus, where forces could be concentrated on a shorter frontier.

Little remains of the wall to study, after centuries of robbing, and its systematic demolition by engineers in 1740’s in what turned out to be the final action on the frontier. On 16 April 1746, the Battle of Culloden, probably not that far from Mons Graupius, finally brought the highlands under central control.

There has been very little investigation of the scant traces of that remain of the extensive temporary works or of the builders and forces that guarded them. In the archaeology of these timber and earth structures lies the real key to understanding how the Wall was constructed.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hadrian’s Wall

In the past I’ve discussed many of Rome’s great engineering feats -- Aqua Marcia, Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine, and the siege works at Masada, to name a few. The Romans were the greatest engineers of antiquity because structure and organization were fundamental to their view of the world.

For this post, we turn to Hadrian’s Wall, that enigmatic barrier built across Northern Britain in the early 120s A.D. There are many holes in the story of the wall including the purpose of its construction -- but its existence can't be disputed as you can see from the photographs below.

The wall was constructed at the direction of emperor Hadrian, according to restored sandstone tablets in found in Jarrow England,  to “keep intact the empire” which had been imposed on him by “divine instruction”.

Hadrian traveled to Great Britain in 122 A.D. and may have visited the wall during the initial period of construction. The wall took seven years to build and it was completed in 128 A.D. Spanning a 73 mile distance from east of Newcastle through Carlisle and on to the coastline of the Stolway Firth, the wall is stone from the River Irthing east and earthen from the river west. The difference in construction materials reflects the availability of stone in the east and the lack of same in the other direction.

The map above shows the geographic position of the wall and my yellow line approximates the point where the stone wall ended and the earthen wall began.

Wall Detail:

The wall in the east was a stone structure constructed using concrete as the strengthening material. It was about eight feet wide and extended to a height of twelve to sixteen feet. The walkway along the top was four to five feet wide. West of the Irthing, where the wall was earthen, the structures were wood or stone.

A defensive ditch was located twenty-two feet north of the wall. V-shaped with the bottom squared out into a channel, its dimensions were thirty-five feet wide and ten feet deep. The ditch was omitted where the wall ran along precipitous rocks.

There were seventeen forts along the wall averaging about five miles between them. Seven were built astride the wall and six were attached to its southern side. The forts were of two sizes: two and a half acres, the size required to accommodate 500 men and 5 acres, the size required to accommodate 1000 men.

At regular intervals, approximating a mile, the Romans constructed milecastles with dimensions of about 70 x 60 feet and attached them to the wall. They were of a size to accommodate 100 men and had gates to the north and south.

Turrets were located between each milecastle at 1/3 and 2/3 of the distance between them. Each turret was about thirteen feet square internally and contained a staircase used to climb to the rampart on the top of the wall. There were no stairways on the wall except at forts, milecastles, and turrets.

A road ran behind the wall, passed through the east and west gates of the forts and also branched off to a road leading to the milecastles and a path to the turrets.

At varying points behind the wall sat a defined earthwork barrier called the Vallum. A ditch was dug thirty feet deep and seven feet wide at the flattened bottom. The contents of the ditch were used to create a mound on either side of it about six feet high and twenty feet across. The ditch and mounds were separated by berms of about twenty-four feet in width. The entire barrier of mound, berm, ditch, berm, and mound was about one hundred and twenty feet across.

Lastly, behind the Vallum sat a Roman road called the Standgate.

The wall was first mentioned by Dio writing in 230 A.D. He said “The tribes of the island crossed the wall which divides them and the Roman stations and were doing much damage…” Later he says, “the Maeatae live close to the Wall which bisects the island, and the Caledonians beyond them”.

Towards the end of the same century, Aelius Spartianus, one of the writers of the Historia Augusta, said of Hadrian: “he visited Britain and put many things straight there: he also was the first to build a Wall, eighty miles long, to divide the barbarians from the Romans”.

The purpose of the wall has been endlessly debated, which seems surprising. One would think it obvious that the goal was to keep the northern tribes from attacking territory controlled by the Empire, but there are those that have argued that the tribes didn’t pose enough of a threat to justify the enormous expense of building the structure. The true answer may be as simple as Hadrian employing his "defense before expansion" strategy or perhaps he simply decided to draw a line where the Empire in Britain would end. 

Still, it is clear that the wall was built as a defensive structure. Examine the following graphic, provided to me by Geoff Carter, which demonstrates how the wall was designed to facilitate a counterattack against invaders.