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Full Version: How really \'different\' were the Romans?
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{This may, indeed have come up before - in which case I would certainly appreciate any links to old threads so I can assess the views made previously}

It derails threads to digress - so I thought I'd ask to keep the discussion separate.....

I've certainly been chided for using modern Confusedhock: /current phrasing, allusions or parallels - and that's just fine. I and others have also been disparaged from using any comparisons if we have military experience; which (see below) may be very short-sighted. I have also seen re-enactors/experimenters dismissed because they have no idea how things were actually done ~2,000 years ago.

I do therefore wonder, because it certainly shapes and often constricts the threads of many discussions, what people actually think...... :?

- There has been no appreciable evolution of humankind in those 2,000 years - in fact there is a good argument that we have devolved more in the last 50 years than evolved in the last 50,000! If I took a child today and sent them back in time to Rome - they would become Roman (and the obverse would be true as well) - there are simply science and technology shifts and therefore cultural experience changes

- Much more, particularly for this sub-forums specific field, I certainly do not find it specious to draw military parallels back to the Roman era - simply because our current military systems are absolutely based upon the Roman ones! When, in the 18thC/post-condotteri horse & musket times, professional nation armies were once more established - it was to the same Greek, Roman & Byzantine texts that we discuss that they looked for inspiration! It is no accident that a French Napoleonic Corps looks almost identical to a Roman Consular Army in construct. Our military structures today have a direct and causal link - and thus there are absolute parallels

- Lastly I offer this, for I had a thought earlier - language shifts. Ancient Greek (as I believe I am correct in saying) has many differences to modern Greek and thus is considered a 'dead language', as is, most definitely, Latin. How can we be sure, if a mere 2,000 years represents a gap that we cannot bridge because it's 'so different', that the language used in those ancient texts has anything like the meanings we ascribe today? Perhaps 'leading' to a Roman means something utterly different to what we use it for today...... Smile

- using a specific example that is close to my heart and which everyone will understand, especially as we talk numbers many times, and has changed in only a few decades - how many is a billion? :wink:
Quote:There has been no appreciable evolution of humankind in those 2,000 years - in fact there is a good argument that we have devolved more in the last 50 years than evolved in the last 50,000!

Right so the basics of evolutionary biology are also something you don't understand - we don't "devolve". There's a reason that term appears in racialist pamphlets and not in bio textbooks which discuss adaptivity and selection. Also, yes, our nutritional profiles are markedly different from those of the past...

To answer your question, which isn't a question given the literal mountains of info, yes we're rather different. That's the whole point of what Classicists do. That's why they don't just pick up a text and read it and make a judgement without employing a myriad of technical skillsets. Within the discipline there is this thing called "context".Tongue in cheek: Unless of course they're trying to become famous or secure more funding in which case "yes the Greeks Romans were just like us! totally the same! So relevant".

I've never got why people find these concepts so difficult to grasp. I think it's because most people inhabit a monolingual monocultural untravelled bubble. The world as it stands is massively varied, what makes you think the past wasn't? This...isn't a difficult concept.

P.S one of the easiest ways to get involved in the guts and nuts is through law and social organisation. Well, relatively easy, certainly easier than the traditional philological aspects and religion. I don't know much Roman law but for Greek there's a series of good books and articles by S.C Todd ("The Shape of Athenian Law" and McDowell.

I don't know Roman Law outside little bits for, say, free speech or where religion intersects so I won't recommend a textbook but Scheid's "La Religion des Romans" is a classic. It doesn't cite a lot but it's deliberately simple and aimed at non classicists hence lack of constant footnotes. It has a good "further reading" list. It's really good at highlighting how useless modern concepts can be.
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Quote:There has been no appreciable evolution of humankind in those 2,000 years - in fact there is a good argument that we have devolved more in the last 50 years than evolved in the last 50,000!

Right so the basics of evolutionary biology are also something you don't understand - we don't "devolve". There's a reason that term appears in racialist pamphlets and not in bio textbooks which discuss adaptivity and selection. Also, yes, our nutritional profiles are markedly different from those of the past...
.............

Thank you, but I unconditionally had no intention of making any racial references at all. I do rather object to being semi-accused of having even looked at such media. On the contrary I absolutely intend to draw no such trivial 'boundaries' when thinking of human beings.

Our nutritional profiles are different - so we are generally healthier, we live longer, we are, on average, somewhat taller. I may not be a trained classicist, but I thought I was fairly well read and interested - I don't see what that has to do with evolution - which in general is a fairly simple process (Darwinian), commonly expressed as 'variation and mutation, with most adapted (strongest (sic)) surviving'.

I also thought I understood 'context' - which is one of the reasons that there are not massive differences in the fundamentals - for it's the context that matters.

If that's wrong, please tell me - for I am equally happy to learn.
There is one major evolutionary "winnowing" separating us (meaning people largely of Western Eurasian/North African descent) from the Romans and that is the Black Death. It was a pandemic of such proportions that it undoubtedly changed the gene-pool of the areas affected to a considerable extent.
Well adaptation is not devolution...it's simply adapting. Yeah our nutritional profiles are massively different and that alone has massive implications for how different we are from them as a society.

Like I said the best route to grasping these differences is, well, firstly realising that there are large areas we're just not going to know about in enough detail. Beyond that, taking a step back and looking at things like social organisation, laws, religion and what not. If I've learnt anything from years of dealing with the Romans it is how strikingly different they are on so many levels from us and even from their contemporaries. Unfortunately a lot of this stuff gets lost in translation and general historical accounts but what can you do?

Now as for turning that stuff to the military I've honestly no idea. I don't know much about the ancient military stuff but the point is when making comparisons to moderns (the point of this thread) if you have to serious grounds for doing so. It's one thing to use ethnographic materials from other pre-industrial societies (which is valid but has caveats) and its another thing to draw false equivalences. You can't a priori postulate a similarity when making an interpretation but must first demonstrate how such a comparison is valid before extrapolating anything.
And Humans have evolved in the last 2000 years. It's called Microevolution - little changes that build up to bigger ones over time. We see it all the time in animals and for those who can recognize it, it's been happening in Humans too.
Why is biology even a factor in this debate. In every previous thread that posters have called shenanigans on Hygate's theories, the issues were never human physiology, but social and cultural changes. That's the issue that Mark always ignores, making believe that Europe, let alone the world, hasn't changed in 5,000 years. Because modern Britian is all about non-stop wars of conquest, slavery, and the butchering of ones enemies.

Mark Hygate wrote:

I assure you I am assuming nothing at all - except for a simple anthropological base assumption - that 'man' has not changed appreciably at all in over 5,000 years of recorded history - we are just the same animals as then. (Teasing aside - except perhaps to note that, overall, it is likely that we are currently de-evolving as a species in Darwinian terms for the first time).

From Wiki:
"Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present, that draws and builds upon knowledge from the social sciences and biological sciences, as well as the humanities and the natural sciences."

These things changed a bit in 5,000 years.
Quote:This may, indeed have come up before - in which case I would certainly appreciate any links to old threads

It's been touched on occasionally. This is one of the longer discussions:

Can We Think Like Romans?


Meanwhile, trying to move things on from the vexed field of genetics, this seems more the meat of the question here:


Quote:I certainly do not find it specious to draw military parallels back to the Roman era... Our military structures today have a direct and causal link - and thus there are absolute parallels

There are links and parallels, but are they direct and absolute? As a comparable example, we could look at three sculptures from different eras - say, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Henry Moore's Reclining Figure, and Richard Serra's Fulcrum and see them as entirely different. Yet clearly there are links and parallels between them - all are part of the western sculptural tradtion, and art historians can trace a clear evolution from one to the next.

But, equally, a Rhodian of the 3rd century BC looking at the the Victory and a Bishopsgate commuter (or even art historian) of the 21st century encountering the Serra would be having a very different experience. This is as much to do with the cultural context of the work as its appearance.

Generalising massively (again!), historians of the past tended to see the ancients (or at least those of the upper classes, whose writings survived) as being much like themselves. They may have lacked trousers, and had odd habits regarding chickens, but the Romans and the Athenians (less so the Spartans) were essentially people like us, and their political, military and cultural forms could be readily applied to our own societies.

Since the mid 20th century (approximately, and for obvious reasons), there's been a shift in the direction of historical understanding. We are now far more prone to accentuate the aspects of ancient societies that make them seem alien to us. In a popular application, this runs from Mary Beard on Roman slavery, to the depiction of Roman brutality in HBO's drama, to (in a more scholarly way) J.E. Lendon and Ross Cowan examining the different culture of warfare in the ancient world.

The Romans and other ancients did hold significantly different views to us, about a lot of things - life and death, the sanctity of life, the individual and the state, the structure of power, the purpose of war, the unity of mankind (or lack of it), and so on. All this is going to affect how they acted militarily. You might think things have swung too far towards this interpretation and away from the links and parallels approach - you could perhaps make that case. But these more recent views cannot be simply discounted, I think.
The Romans did not have platoons, they had centuries.

A century had more men than a platoon of most eras (but my pre-Peninsular war knowledge is limited, I admit); I was always under the impression that earlier armies worked as companies which is perhaps more equivalent (but that does not mean that an Optio was a Company Sergeant Major either).

The Roman army did not have non-commissioned officers; they didn't even have commissioned ones, not in the modern sense of the word or that implied by using it. They had professional, career soldiers and those in the army for political necessity for future careers who did a few years and moved on.
Quote: There has been no appreciable evolution of humankind in those 2,000 years - in fact there is a good argument that we have devolved more in the last 50 years than evolved in the last 50,000! If I took a child today and sent them back in time to Rome - they would become Roman....

Evolution is constant. That's why it's called "evolution".... except during the Scopes Monkey Trial. :-P

If I adopted a number of Russian children and raised them here in Maine, I can guarantee they would answer "ayuh" instead of "da." What does this have to do with Romans? Nothing. :whistle:


Quote:Our military structures today have a direct and causal link - and thus there are absolute parallels.

All military structures have military parallels because they are military units, as in 100 men, 1000 men, etc., just as we see the structure of the Yuan army... 100 men, 1000 men, which were led by professionals (which happened to be Alans). Therefore, the Roman army and the Yuan army had "absolute parallels." And they all had a trumpet or tuba guy, just like Gunga Din. Cool


Quote:How can we be sure, if a mere 2,000 years represents a gap that we cannot bridge because it's 'so different', that the language used in those ancient texts has anything like the meanings we ascribe today?

Language shifts? I have trouble understanding Chaucer, not to mention difficulty with Shakespeare. Good thing I didn't live in ancient Rome... or in Sintashta where they spoke Proto-Indo-European. :unsure:

Cheez whiz, Mark. You're talking about apples and oranges being the same thing.... only different. The Romans couldn't even understand their neighbors, lumping Goths, Alans, Sarmatians, Thracians, and Lord-Knows-Who-Else into a fantasy category called "Scythians." Today, we've evolved just enough to call the Chinese the Chinese and the Poles the Poles.

Maybe there's hope for Mankind yet! If we don't "devolve" back into monkeys. ;-)
Quote:The Romans did not have platoons, they had centuries.

A century had more men than a platoon of most eras (but my pre-Peninsular war knowledge is limited, I admit); I was always under the impression that earlier armies worked as companies which is perhaps more equivalent (but that does not mean that an Optio was a Company Sergeant Major either).

The Roman army did not have non-commissioned officers; they didn't even have commissioned ones, not in the modern sense of the word or that implied by using it. They had professional, career soldiers and those in the army for political necessity for future careers who did a few years and moved on.

An important point - but it's only a word. Strict numbers are, in many cases, not relevant.

If we have a Roman century broken down into 10 contubernia of 8 men with a 'command group' of 3, then that's fundamentally a similar structure to a 'classic' platoon of 3 sections of 8 men and a 'command' group of 3. The centurion can control the larger number of men, for they are fighting with each other.

Officers and NCO's are still 'officers' - and if we, it does not seem unreasonable, use 'officer' to describe a person placed in a position 'over' other men, then it will serve.

To answer your specific question - Napoleonic companies varied (often under-strength) between 50-200 and were broken down into 2-4 'platoons' (most commonly the former). Then, should someone be more comfortable with the 'modern' word, then translating century as 'platoon' and maniple as 'company' would, I believe, not be unreasonable. It would describe a structure that would make sense.
Thanks all for some of the other points - but my query is simple...

'Culture' (laws, religious practices, custom and practice) is a background, but admittedly very important, factor - as is nutrition.

But my point is - what are the fundamental differences between a human being 2,000 years ago and now? Does their body work in the same way? Are they capable of the same range of movements. or carrying weights, of wielding weapons? Is there some effect on maths, physics or the functioning of the brain that is different? Has the basic binary nature of brain function and the 'fight or flight' response changed?

If I gave an order to a Roman soldier or a modern soldier - is he expected to carry it out? It doesn't matter whether he's under the threat of death or of a fine and temporary imprisonment, I think he's still supposed to carry out the order.

'Culture'/'Nurture' may have changed, but not the base form. It may affect how the 'base' behaves in context - but it's all taught and experienced.

If, for some reason, 'we' changed - and adopted (as we would be taught by classicists) all the Roman laws, customs, et al - how would that affect actually what we can do or how things like orders are communicated (technology is just a medium)?

If we equip a group of re-enactors with everything we believe a Roman century would have - why could they not be trained to replicate anything we think a Roman century could do? :?
Physiologically, there is probably not much difference between the Romans and us, although dietary changes, a more sedentary life-style and advances in medical knowledge, allowing the survival of those formerly too sickly to live, will have had some impact. Thinking and attitude, though, have changed immeasurably as study of Roman history will demonstrate. From a military point of view, attitudes have changed, even in comparatively recent times. In this year of all years, when we remember the outbreak of the First World War, can we imagine a modern army (except, perhaps, the Chinese) being prepared to go over the top and be mown down in its thousands by machine-gun fire - or any officer of today ordering it?

Modern parallels can be useful in suggesting possibilities but they cannot do more than that. They can never be determinants and must always give way to contrary evidence from the past.
Quote:Are they capable of the same range of movements. or carrying weights, of wielding weapons?

I think I could suggest a practical answer to that. Some time ago, there was a debate on here regarding the possible site of Boudica's last battle (I'm sure some of you remember it!). One of the methods proposed to help locate the battle was an analysis of the water needs of a legion. The problem was, the study used a modern US army (I think) estimate of water intake for a soldier in the field.

You might think that a soldier would need the same amount of water today as in various periods of history - however, this was apparently not thought to be the case. I was reading an interesting article recently by Patrick Mercer (ex Tory MP, military man and novelist) about the British army in Afghanistan today and in the 19th century. He made the point that a modern infantryman carries a much greater load that a century ago, and a lot of that weight is water for personal consumption.

In the 19th century, the bulk of weight transported by an army was fodder for pack animals - the individual soldier, on the other hand, had to make do with a single canteen of water, which he filled himself whenever he could - something which today would be regarded as a cripplingly hazardous risk of dehydration.

This change in thinking on the water and supply needs of soldiers has drastically altered military planning and, by extension, the shape of military campaigns.

So, while human beings in general may not have changed all that much, the understanding of what humans are capable of doing has changed, and the demands placed upon individual soldiers has changed likewise. We might imagine, therefore, that a legionary of Caesar's Gallic campaigns would be quite a different physical specimen to the average infantryman of today's armies (just as conscripts of the first world war actually looked different in build and physique to young men today, as revealed by photos of enlistment parades...)
In reference to the physical differences and standards between the ancient Romans and modern infantry, I'd like to make this point.

According to Vegetius, the "ancient Roman" marching standard consisted of:
"Recruits were to be hardened so as to be able to march twenty miles in half a summer's day at ordinary step and twenty-four miles at quick step. It was the ancient regulation that practice marches of this distance must be made three times a month."(De Re Militari, Book 1)

He doesn't refer exactly to the time period he references but it most likely is during sometime during the Principate/Imperial period, when standing armies garrisoned regions and had nothing to do but prepare for war. Or maybe it was during the Republic and was the standard for field armies at war but during winter quarters. Who knows?

At first, reading that above passage sounds impressive. 24 miles in six hours is fast, right? But after taking into account the conversion of ancient units of measurements to modern versions, its far less so.

Let's discuss the quicker of the two marches. 24 Roman miles converts into 22 modern standard miles (Imperial). Vegetius specifically specifics summer, and since summer days are longer than the rest of the year, and that in ancient Rome daylight hours were divided equally into 12, it means that it wasn't six modern hours. So how many hours did "half the summer's day" mean? Rome is about 40 degree N. latitude so that means it has close to 16 hours of daylight during the summer solstice. So "half a summer's day" actually means about 8 hours of marching, not six.

So 22 miles divided by 8 hours equals 2.75 miles per hour. Which for anyone who has ever walked for time knows, isn't very fast at all. Hardly a quick step. Unless they took frequent lengthy breaks of course...

Now let's compare that to a modern day marching standard. I'll use the United States Marine Corps MCCRES Forced March test:
40 Kilometers (or 24.8 miles) in less than 8 hours, or a 3.1 mph march. But in actuality, its faster, as every hour a break is held for a few minutes. And to note that one second over 8 hours means the unit fails and must retake the test. (ie. they always finish way early) And not only infantry have to make this march, all headquarters non-infantry personnel (admin, supply, company clerks, etc.) also have to finish. I think only 3% of the total unit is allowed to fall out (USMC battalions run at about 1,000 personnel).

The modern speed and distance requirement for marching is greater than the ancient one. And this is the USMC, while tough as nails, is still a product of US culture, who aren't exactly known as being raised as foot mobile. When compared to say the militaries of the Brits or Aussies or many other nations, who are known to walk far more than the US do, I bet they can do far better.

I just think this is kind of interesting, especially since hardly anyone that reads that passage actually does the math to figure out what it really means.
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