Illness and Guesswork
Sorry about the delay in posting any new blog entries, but I’ve been ill. (It’s alright: nothing major!) That, plus the fact that I’m still desperately trying to catch up with writing after the need to take on ‘external’ work to pay the bills, hopefully explains why I haven’t been here for a short while.
(In case you’re interested, the attempt to re-take Africa in 468 has just failed and I’m about to start on the ensuing Civil War!)
Being ill has made me contemplate one factor which is rarely taken into consideration: how did the people of Late Antiquity deal with even minor ailments? I’ve recently been reading Spike Milligan’s ‘War Diaries’, a slightly over-done recounting of events which he took part in during the Second World War. One of the recurring themes of the books (there are five of them which deal specifically with wartime service) is how many men were deployed away from the parent unit, even during times when they were engaging the enemy. This could be anything from going back to locate desperately needed supplies, or men simply getting lost, to the more usual ‘sickness’, which almost always involved vomiting and diarrhoea. Strangely, Ammianus Marcellinus makes no mention of these difficulties in his ‘History’.
Such men were usually taken away for several days so that other members of the unit wouldn’t contract the disease, and then treated with antibiotics. In the pre-antibiotic period, when nobody knew what caused disease or how to treat it properly, some of these ailments, such as the ever-present ‘Delhi-Belly’ (or at least its Ancient equivalent), could easily have decimated units – or even armies! – in the run up to a battle.
Were battles refused because large numbers of men were running to and from the latrines and in no fit state to fight? When the fact that water supplies would have been an ever present problem in keeping an army on the move healthy, chasing after an army (for example Theodosius I and the Goths prior to 382) that has muddied and fouled the water supplies on its route (simply by using them and using the surrounding region as a toilet), was fraught with danger. Roman armies may have had the best logistics system in Ancient Europe, but disease must have been ever-present during such campaigns.
Disease is also one of the main reasons why I do not subscribe to the ‘count the units probably present at a battle’, ‘multiply this by the paper strength of a unit’, and ‘this will accurately calculate the number of men in a battle’ school of historical recreation. So many men will have been missing due to illness (however minor), due to being absent on other duties, or simply due to being killed earlier in the campaign(some people have no consideration!) that such concepts are clearly unworkable.
To my mind, the majority of the numbers given in both ancient and modern sources for battles in the ancient world are nothing more than guesswork, except possibly on a few, very odd occasions where the author has access to specific records/witnesses. But surely anybody of low rank will have had no idea of numbers: only generals and ‘quartermasters’ will have had any idea at all. Still, some people expect not only numbers, but apparently a list of unit names, their shield designs, the number of men each unit had on the day of the battle, their eye colour …
OK, so I’m being a little over-indulgent, but you know what I mean.
When different organisations in the modern world can’t even agree on the number of demonstrators present at events in modern cities, what chance does the ancient historian have? And yet to understand the reasons behind the “Fall of the West” such conjecture appears to be necessary.
The only question that then remains is of whether I am good at such work.
Your guess is as good as mine!