Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Crassus Among the Parthians1

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about Crassus the past few days. Crassus, the wealthy, vain Consul of Rome, who took command of a campaign against the Syrians.

It was long odds that Crassus would ever rise up to command Roman legions. After all, despite being generally successful in life, he courted controversy, being accused at one point even of deflowering one of the Vestals. Though lust was hardly the only wickedness in him. Plutarch says of him:

“[Some] say there was but that only vice of covetousness in Crassus, that drowned many other goodly virtues in him; for mine own opinion, methinks he could not be touched with that vice alone without others, since it grew so great as the note of that only did hide and cover all his other vices.”2

As I mentioned, it was highly unexpected that Crassus came to the office of Consul and to lead Roman forces against the Parthians in Syria. After all, his father was only censor of Rome and no doubt left him with only a modest fortune. By the end of his life, however, Crassus’ covetousness and acumen had left him with such great wealth that he didn’t even himself know its magnitude until he ordered it counted shortly before he left on Campaign.

Throughout his life Crassus cleaved himself to those in power. Indeed, he ended up a great booster and ally of Pompey, with whom he was made consul. He curried favor with the great people of Rome and used his access to them to increase not only his wealth, but his power as well.

But the thing that Crassus coveted most of all was the great honors that came to those who brought military victory to Rome. He yearned for a Triumph in honor of a great victory to cement his legacy. Again, from Plutarch:

“…being among his friends and familiars, he would give out such fond boasts of it as no young man could have made… [He], forgetting himself too much, had such fond conceits in his head, as he not only hoped after the conquest of Syria and of the Parthians, but flattered himself that the would should see all that Lucullus had done against King Tigranes and Pompey against King Mithridates, were but trifles…to what he intended.”

And so, he set off on his grand campaign, with little military experience to his name (he’d had a hand in quelling a slave uprising by a hot-headed Socialist firebrand called Spartacus), and nothing but his riches and connections to preserve him.

Finding himself in unfamiliar territory, Crassus enlisted the help of a local mercenary captain named Ariamnes, feeling that an expert guide would help him make his way safely through the unfamiliar territory of the Syrian campaign. Little did he know that Ariamnes was already in the employ of the Parthians. Ariamnes advised Crassus to make haste and rush towards the center of Parthian territory, since surely the enemy armies were in fast retreat in front of the might of Crassus’ legions.

This flattered Crassus’ vanities and notion of how the campaign was meant to play out, and so when Crassus’ commanders urged caution and suspicion he ignored them and marched the armies forward.

And so into the hot, howling Syrian desert Crassus marched his ten legions. Fifty thousand men in full armor, with weapons and supplies. The wind scraped at their faces, and the heat sapped their strength. Ariamnes, still stringing Crassus along by his vanities, lead him further and further into inhospitable territory. Saying to him always, “the Parthians are just ahead, we nearly have them”.

Until, one morning, Ariamnes was gone.

And the Parthians had arrived.

The Parthians arrayed themselves in loose formation and began to harrass the exhausted Romans. The Parthians fought from horseback, armed with powerful bows. Their mobility and long years of training in the saddle allowed them to pick at all parts of the Roman lines without the need even of ever surrounding them. They resupplied themselves from nearby towns and villages in waves, allowing them to wear down the already weary Romans for days at a time, nearly non-stop.

Crassus, out maneuvered by the Parthians, fell back on the one kind of strategy he knew. The rigid, disciplined strategy that had won against an army of rebellious slaves. He arrayed his men in formation, had them form themselves into a tortoise of shields, with javelins thrown occasionally from the rear, and attempted to march on the Parthian lines.

But there were no Parthian lines. Only a swirling stream of skilled horse archers and the hiss of incoming arrows.

In the scorching Syrian sun, with only small respites, the Parthians harried the Romans slowly to death. Their powerful arrows pinning legionnaire’s shields to their arms, the legs of the commanders to their horses.

Crassus continued to mount infantry charges and to refight the battle against Spartacus. His men died slowly, over days. Those not killed by arrows outright, succumbed to their wounds or were baked alive in their armor by the desert sun.

In the end, Crassus was overwhelmed. His troops stood at last on the crest of a narrow hill, and were taken from several sides by a last charge. Crassus was struck down, his troops routed. Tens of thousands of men were butchered. Some smaller number were taken captive and sold as slaves.

Crassus had no Triumph in Rome. His grand achievement ended with a river of blood in the Syrian sand, its wellspring the proud heart of an incompetent man who mistook adoration for honor, wealth for competence, and high office for unstoppable destiny.

1 I have taken liberties with the scholarship in the following piece. This is not a thesis, but a parable.

2 All quotes from Plutarch here are from Sir Thomas North’s translation.

A spirited defence (sic) of English spelling

William Pitt on Anglosphere Liberty

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter; all his force dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.” – William Pitt the Elder, 1763

I ran across this quote while reading Daniel Hannan’s book Inventing Freedom. The book has been extremely interesting, especially for its focus on the Anglosphere as a coherent cultural and political body. He focuses on the factors that make the Anglosphere countries alike, draws out the history of those unique qualities, and offsets them against continental Europe and other cultures to draw a compelling picture of a unified Anglophone history and way of life.

I definitely recommend the book to history and politics buffs alike (Hannan, being a British MEP, has a definite political position, but it’s well supported by the evidence provided and doesn’t come across as polemical). It’s an interesting history and a fair presentation of a perspective that doesn’t get much airing these days.

The Game I Wanted Instead of Ryse: Son of Rome

Ryse: Son of Rome wasn’t a terrible game. The gameplay was engaging and frictive. The co-op arena mode was pretty cool, even if too easy and poorly scaled. The graphics and set pieces were beautiful. But I can’t help but couch those compliments as damning with faint praise when I consider what it got wrong and the amazing game it could have been.

To start with, let me give an incomplete list of things Ryse: Son of Rome got wrong that particularly annoyed me:

  • If they meant Marius to be the actual, historical Gaius Marius, they fucked up literally every part of his life story. Literally.
  • If they meant otherwise, then Marius was a pretty significant dude in Roman history, and stealing his name for an unrelated character is a bit weird.
  • Damocles wasn’t Roman, but Greek.
  • Ditto Nemesis
  • Neither Barbarians nor British Celts sacked Rome during Nero’s reign, and Boudica’s rebellion never got out of the British Isles.1
  • Where the hell did Brythonic tribesmen get elephants?
  • Why have a ‘y’ in the name, when Rise: Son of Rome is a perfectly compelling title?
  • Come to think of it, why the colon? Why not make “rise” an imperative and have the infinitely better title Rise, Son of Rome? Seriously, who uses a horrid subtitle when they could use the noble comma of direct address?
  • You’re only calling it the testudo because you think “form the tortoise” sounds dumb.
  • S.P.Q.R referred to the Republic, not the Empire that followed it and over which Nero presided.
  • Nero was only thirty when he died, not the doddering old man the game portrayed him as.
  • They got everything about Boudica wrong except for her name. Boudica is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of the world. She’s also one of the most effective female military leaders the world has ever seen. To completely ignore her story and instead make her the servile daughter of a fictional king is a disgraceful decision on the part of the developers.2

Now some of you in the audience might object to me carping about the history portrayed in the game on the grounds that it’s “just a game” and that they need to take liberties for the sake of drama. I say fuck that noise. Given that the amount of research required to get the history right (or at least square it with their desired plot) could have been done in a long weekend, I think it would have been a reasonable request that they squeeze said research in during the years-long development process.

Besides, the Roman Republic and Empire were so drenched in drama and packed full of interesting characters, that it would take a hack or a charlatan not to find in them a half dozen stories better than the plot of Ryse: Unnecessary Subtitle. I mean seriously, you want Marius as a main character? Great! Tell the compelling story of the actual Gaius Marius’ rise to greatness, consulship, complacency, revival, and betrayal. And better yet, tell it through the eyes of his protege turned arch-rival Sulla. Or maybe show how both men eventually sacrificed everything to achieve their goals, both dying sick, burned out husks not long after they got it. Show how the war between these former allies shattered Rome and set the stage for the fall of the Republic.

Or, you know, just lazily slap together an anachronistic, anatopistic plot about a legionary out for revenge. I guess that works, too.

So the creators could have found a better plot for the game, but it’s that last bullet point up there that really drove home to me just what an incredible opportunity the developers missed. The betrayal of the Iceni by the Romans and Boudica’s subsequent exacting of bloody vengeance is an incredible story and would have made for one hell of a video game, certainly a game far better than the one they delivered. It’s one of the most compelling stories in history. A brief recap might be in order.

Boudica was the queen of a Brythonic tribe living in East Anglia called the Iceni. At the time of Nero’s rule, the Iceni had been subjects of the Roman Empire for over a century, having surrendered to Julius Caesar in 54 BCE. When Boudica’s husband Prasutagus died, he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and to his wife and daughters. It wasn’t unheard of at that time for client kings to leave their kingdoms to Rome if they had no heirs, or wanted to win favor for their people, or wanted to screw over political rivals, or any number of other reasons. But the accounts we have suggest Prasutagus intended the Kingdom to be run and ruled by Boudica and her daughters.

Prasutagus’ will was ignored. The Roman govervor, a man named Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, ordered the land occupied. The Iceni were enslaved. The local magistrate, a procurator by the name of Catus Decianus seized Boudica’s estate and all the holdings of the Iceni. Boudica was publically flogged while her daughters were raped in front of her.

And keep in mind the Iceni had been Roman allies for over a century at this point, so this wasn’t just a brutal invasion, but a betrayal as well.

None of this broke Boudica. When the Roman forces were pulled away from Icenian lands to wage war in Wales, Boudica gathered what remained of her army, rallied allied tribes in the region, and began one of the most successful anti-Roman uprisings the Empire ever saw. Before it was over, she’d sacked a number of major Roman towns, including London and Colchester. At Colchester, Boudica’s advanced forced the Roman survivors into the great temple of Jupiter. Boudica ordered the door barred from the outside and the temple put to the torch.

Next she marched on London and sacked it, too. She butchered the Roman civilian population, going so far as to stake their mutilated corpses up for public display. She then apparently turned west, perhaps to meet the main force of the Romans as they came back from Wales. Boudica’s troops, while numerous and effective gorilla fighters, lacked the cohesion and strategic discipline of the Roman legions. We don’t know exactly what caused her to ultimately lose, but sources suggest that it was some combination of Suetonius’ clever strategic placement of his legions at their final battle as well as spectators and the rebels’ own baggage train blocking their retreat. Suetonius, though easily cast as a villain, was a brilliant military leader and intentionally stationed his troops in close ranks in a narrow valley. The tight Roman formations easily held their own against the loosely grouped, long-sword-wielding Celts, who were better equipped to fighting in open spaces or in single combat.

The result was a complete route for the British forces. Boudica’s army was scattered, and the rebellion over. And while we don’t know for certain Boudica’s fate, most sources have her and her daughters killing themselves, rather than falling into Roman hands again.

Now doesn’t that sound like it could make a hell of a game? I mean, sure, maybe take minor liberties and let the player ultimately win in the end, but personally I like games that have the courage to tell tragic stories.

Let me play Boudica, cutting a bloody swath through Imperial Roman Britain. Let me play as a widow to a dead husband, mother to abused children, the vengeful leader of a bloodied people, herself beaten but not broken by the grasping and arrogant hand of Rome. The story comes to us already complete with villains and set pieces. Catus Decianus, the greedy, grubbing procurator who defied a Brythanic king’s will and stole his land from its rightful heirs. The brilliant, but entitled and arrogant governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who returns to ultimately crush the Icenic rebellion.

Let me play some of the great battles of the uprising. Let me lead early commando raids against small Roman contingents in the broads of East Anglia. Let me gather the local tribes and throw off the shackles of the legionaries that were left to hold the region so that the governor could subjugate other peoples on the opposite coast. Let me play through the great siege of Colchester, and have the decision of what to do when the Roman civilians, the complicit supporters of the regime that butchered my people and stole our lands, flee to the temple of their Gods. I mean, hell, that one choice if played well, would itself have infinitely more excitement, gravitas, moral tension, and dramatic satisfaction than the entirety of Ryse.

That’s the game I really wanted to play: Rise, Daughter of Britain. I didn’t want to be some growling, poorly-written centurian. I wanted to play the vengeful hand of a wronged people. I wanted to play Boudica. I didn’t want to fight for the Empire, I wanted to fight for the Icenic Rebel Alliance. And I wanted to fight as their queen.

1 Given that Boudica and Nero existing at the same time would be literally the only thing the game got right historically, I’m assuming all characters portrayed are meant to represent their actual historical personages. I consider this an act of charity, as it appears to maximize the historical accuracy of the game.

2 And no, Boudica didn’t wear a single leather strap over her breasts and flip around wielding a couple of fucked up falchions. We have descriptions of Boudica. She was a fucking a titan. She was a badass. She was infinitely cooler than some psychotic pixie with a belt over her tits. She was a brilliant leader, both civil and militarily, and lead from the front with sensible attire and suitable armor, and with a fucking spear in her hand. Read what Roman historian Cassius Dio had to say about Boudica:

…the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica[sic] a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women. This woman assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000, and then ascended a tribunal which had been constructed of earth in the Roman fashion. In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours[sic] over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire. She now grasped a spear to aid her in terrifying all beholders and spoke as follows:

“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery. Hence, although some among you may previously, through ignorance of which was better, have been deceived by the alluring promises of the Romans, yet now that you have tried both, you have learned how great a mistake you made in preferring an imported despotism to your ancestral mode of life, and you have come to realize how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery…”


Interesting comments on swords, scabbards, and blade-based Foley work.

A “History” of Taxation

Could stand to have a little more of the history, but all around a great video.

Robert J Avrech on Gun Control and the L. A. Riots

It takes us over an hour and a half to get home. Normally, this drive would take maybe twenty minutes.

But we have to circle round and double back countless times in order to avoid choked arteries, major intersections where madness reigns—traffic lights are ignored—and then there are unknown side streets that cause Karen to observe:

“We’ll never get out of there alive.”

Listening to the radio, we hear about the Rodney King verdict. So that’s the grievance du jour.

The fire department, we learn, is not being deployed because their men have come under intense gunfire.

We hear—and I have trouble believing this report—that the Los Angeles Police Department has been “pulled back for their own safety.”


I thought that was part of the job description.

Dopey me.

Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

H. L. Mencken on T. Roosevelt

“Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts. He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of the Napoleonic patter — a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. His instincts were always those of the property-owning Tory, not those of the romantic Liberal. Even when, for campaign purposes, he came to terms with the Liberals his thoughts always ranged far afield. When he tacked the trusts the thing that he had in his mind’s eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head. And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudices before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.” – H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy pp. 238-239. Emphasis in the original

“The officer who supervised the capture of [John] Brown was Robert E. Lee…Lee’s retreat from the decisive battle of Gettysburg would pass over the same road that Brown took to Harpers Ferry on the night of his attack. The lieutenant who demanded Brown’s surrender was J.E.B. Stuart, later Lee’s celebrated cavalry officer. Among the officers who supervised at Brown’s hanging was Thomas Jackson, soon to become the renowned ‘Stonewall.’ Among the soldiers at Brown’s execution was a dashing Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth.”

David S. Reynolds, as quoted by Christopher Hitchens in “John Brown: The Man Who Ended Slavery”

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.