Sunday, March 21, 2010

AtF: Eyewitness Testimony

So before we begin, and before the alcohol du jour overwhelms me,* I figure it’s probably a good idea to point out what I’m doing with this little bit of the project.  As you’ll notice shortly, I’m continuing this week in my look at Caesar’s account of his invasions of Britain, placed side by side with Tysilio.  My goal here is two-fold.  First, my goal is to show that Caesar’s account is quite different from Tysilio.  That’s easily enough done.  The second bit, though, is somewhat harder.  I’m doing this to prove the point that Flinder’s Petrie’s arguments that Tysilio is a believable account are accurate.  See, if Cooper is going to build his argument off of Petrie’s, then Petrie’s arguments have to hold water.

I’ll cut to the chase.  They don’t.  But, of course, I can’t expect you to take my word for it.  Well, maybe I can.  I shouldn’t, though.  Which is why we’re storming the beaches with Caesar for the second Roman invasion of Britain tonight.

Although before I start that, I figure I’ll take a moment to point something out.  I was going to add this thought to a post I made last week, either my Texas BoE one or my last Breaking the Master Narrative.  I forget.  But I’ve realized there’s a strong distinction between good and bad history that is both obvious and obtuse at the same time.  So since I’m thinking about it now and Bill Cooper’s bilge definitely counts as part of the latter category, I’ll just throw this thought in to the post now before I forget forever.

Good history encourages.  Bad history discourages.  This is the basic thought.

Let’s take Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea for the moment.  When I read that book it caused me to realize there were massive gaps in my historical knowledge of the 15th and 16th Centuries.  That, in turn, caused me to want to learn more about the fall of Constantinople and the squabbles between Christian Europe and the Muslim world.  This initially lead me to pick up Crowley’s 1453, but it also ultimately lead me to pick up Charles Mann’s 1491, John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium (and, eventually, the entire three volume set of books.  I only have volume one at the moment, because I figured I’d wait until I’d read most of the way through the first book to get the rest), and Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World (oddly, I’d been thinking of getting it, anyway.  But after reading Crowley’s stuff, I was all, “Hell, yeah!” about The Fourth Part of the World).  Lester’s book, in turn, compelled me to pick up a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels and Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World.  It’s also made it pretty much inevitable that I’ll try to find some of Petrarch’s stuff.

I think of it like finding a good band.  You hear a song by Band X.  It’s so awesome that you buy the album that song is on.  If that album is also awesome you then see if there are any other albums that they put out.  Then you find out that Bands A, B, and C influenced Band X and Bands Y and Z were, in turn, influenced by them.  So that single band has, potentially, added five bands and all their albums to your music library.  And that’s awesome.  History works in exactly the same way.

I guess you have to love history like I do, though.  See, I picked up Empires of the Sea on a whim.  It just looked like a good book.  I, obviously, loved it.  So I decided to pick up 1453.  I loved that book, too.  But in order to fully appreciate 1453 and Empires of the Sea I realized that I had to understand the historical context of the books.  This, in turn, caused me to launch in to a study of the Byzantine Empire and the Age of Discovery.  The Byzantine Empire is a fairly obvious course of study, but the Age of Discovery bit came from my desire to learn what was happening concurrently with the events between the fall of Constantinople and the Battle of Lepanto.  I suppose my extant love of the Age of Sail helped immensely, too.

Bill Cooper, meanwhile, doesn’t set out to create a desire to learn more about history.  Gavin Menzies doesn’t really, either.  This is because learning more about history would destroy their hypotheses.  As such, the bad historian either compels a lack of interest in history or forces their audience to look only to the sources that support their otherwise unsupportable suppositions.  Hopefully I don’t have to explain why this happens and further.

Also, I hope that this random blog I write counts, in some small way, as “good history.”  I fully understand that it’s possible, perhaps likely, that no one out there really cares much about the history of the Byzantine Empire.  But I also hope that in writing about history I point people in the direction of things that cause a desire to learn more about the world that existed before us.

But that’s neither here nor there.  What we’re talking about is Caesar.

Tysilio indicates that Caesar’s second invasion of Britain was quick, brutal, and didn’t go so well for our favorite Roman general.

And in these days did Caesar build the castle of Odina, for fear that the men of Gaul might rise up against him a second time. And at the end of two years, Caesar came a second time to wreak vengeance upon the Britons for his defeat. And when Casswallon learned of it, he commanded that iron stakes, as stout as a man’s thigh, should be planted in the Thames where Caesar’s ships should come. And of a sudden they, the Romans, ran [their ships] upon the stakes and the ships were holed, drowning thousands of his men. And those who reached the banks were met by Casswallon and all the host of Lloegria. And Caesar fled to the shores of the Morani, from whence he arrived at the castle of Odina.

Now, there aren’t too many problems with this account.  You know, if you get past the fact that according to Caesar he attacked Britain the next year.  And there weren’t any iron spikes.  And Caesar didn’t retreat immediately after being manhandled by said iron spikes.  Here’s how it went in Caesar’s world:

All the ships reached Britain nearly at mid-day; nor was there seen a [single] enemy in that place, but, as Caesar afterwards found from some prisoners, though large bodies of troops had assembled there, yet being alarmed by the great number of our ships, more than eight hundred of which, including the ships of the preceding year, and those private vessels which each had built for his own convenience, had appeared at one time, they had quitted the coast and concealed themselves among the higher points.

This is what we would call an “uncontested landing.”  Further, Caesar didn’t actually attempt to navigate the Thames, which would come back to haunt him.  He records that he left ten cohorts and 300 horse at the open shore to guard the ships before taking the rest of his force inland to assault the Britons and, in theory, take the island.

After some initial successes he was forced to turn back.  This wasn’t because of any action on the part of the Britons, though.  It was because of the sea itself.

The next day, early in the morning, he sent both foot-soldiers and horse in three divisions on an expedition to pursue those who had fled. These having advanced a little way, when already the rear [of the enemy] was in sight, some horse came to Caesar from Quintus Atrius, to report that the preceding night, a very great storm having arisen, almost all the ships were dashed to pieces and cast upon the shore, because neither the anchors and cables could resist, nor could the sailors and pilots sustain the violence of the storm; and thus great damage was received by that collision of the ships.

This brought about orders to repair the ships, fortify the camp, and messages to be dispatched to the (still very much not dead) Labienus to build more ships on the continent.  Then he prepared to move inland again.

In these matters he employed about ten days, the labour of the soldiers being unremitting even during the hours of night. The ships having been brought up on shore and the camp strongly fortified, he left the same forces which he did before as a guard for the ships; he sets out in person for the same place that he had returned from. When he had come thither, greater forces of the Britons had already assembled at that place, the chief command and management of the war having been entrusted to Cassivellaunus, whose territories a river, which is called the Thames, separates from the maritime states at about eighty miles from the sea. At an earlier period perpetual wars had taken place between him and the other states; but, greatly alarmed by our arrival, the Britons had placed him over the whole war and the conduct of it.

Much later the idea of stakes in the River Thames did come up.  But it was an issue of Caesar’s armies attempting to ford the river, not the ships attempting to navigate it.

When he had arrived there, he perceives that numerous forces of the enemy were marshalled on the other bank of the river; the bank also was defended by sharp stakes fixed in front, and stakes of the same kind fixed under the water were covered by the river. These things being discovered from [some] prisoners and deserters, Caesar, sending forward the cavalry, ordered the legions to follow them immediately. But the soldiers advanced with such speed and such ardour, though they stood above the water by their heads only, that the enemy could not sustain the attack of the legions and of the horse, and quitted the banks, and committed themselves to flight.

So there’s more fighting.  And more fighting.  And, really, you don’t care about the fighting.  What we care about is this bit:

While these things are going forward in those places, Cassivellaunus sends messengers into Kent, which, we have observed above, is on the sea, over which districts four several kings reigned, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, and Segonax, and commands them to collect all their forces, and unexpectedly assail and storm the naval camp. When they had come to the camp, our men, after making a sally, slaying many of their men, and also capturing a distinguished leader named Lugotorix, brought back their own men in safety. Cassivellaunus, when this battle was reported to him, as so many losses had been sustained, and his territories laid waste, being alarmed most of all by the desertion of the states, sends ambassadors to Caesar [to treat] about a surrender through the mediation of Commius the Atrebatian. Caesar, since he had determined to pass the winter on the continent, on account of the sudden revolts of Gaul, and as much of the summer did not remain, and he perceived that even that could be easily protracted, demands hostages, and prescribes what tribute Britain should pay each year to the Roman people; he forbids and commands Cassivellaunus that he wage not war against Mandubratius or the Trinobantes.

So the point is this:  in Tysilio iron stakes sunk in the the Thames sunk a bunch of Caesar’s ships and forced Caesar to retreat immediately back to Gaul.  In Caesar’s account there were sunken ships, stakes in the Thames, and a return back to Gaul, but not in any way, shape, or form that remotely resembled the Tysilio account.

Our choice here, then, is to take Tysilio or Caesar as offering the more accurate rendition of Caesar’s campaigns against Britain.

As for me, I’ll take Caesar.  His account may be embellished and may be specifically designed to indicate his military prowess in the face of the enemy, but I’ll take Caesar’s account of a hard military campaign over a random paragraph devoted to iron spikes sunk in to the Thames any day of the week.  Especially if those iron spikes come from the same account that incorporates dragons, magicians, and prominently incorporates the as-not-yet founded city of London.

There’s a logical extent, too.  Let’s say that there were actually iron spikes driven in to the sandy bottom of the Thames.  Further, let’s say that Caesar did try to push up the river.  He had hundreds of ships.  It’s nearly impossible to conceive of a scenario where more than a few of the ships were actually sunk by iron spikes.

For one thing, it’s an issue of space and tactics.  The idea of Caesar sending a line of ships consisting of a large percentage of his fleet charging up the Thames is absurd, since the river simply isn’t wide enough.  The van would have been a few ships wide and as soon as something crazy happened there would have been a re-evaluation of tactics.

Physics, too, go against the Tysilio account.  It’s extremely difficult to sink a wooden ship.  Wood is, after all, buoyant.  It’s not like one of Caesar’s galleys would have hit an iron spike and immediately sunk.  It probably would have just stopped moving.  This would have given other ships time to come up and assist the hapless, spitted vessel.  Then, having realized that something was amiss, the fleet probably would have retreated and found a different way of assaulting the island of Britain.  Probably overland, like Caesar actually did.

Meanwhile, there’s a footnote that Cooper attached to the original Tysilio reference to Caesar’s supposed fort at Odina:

Caesar, significantly, doesn’t name this fort. Flinders Petrie (p. 5) rightly suggests that the name reveals the genuine though garbled nature of the British intelligence reports, for Caesar does state that he sent troops to Lisieux (Lexovii) on his return to Gaul, and that the name of the river, Olina, there (which again Caesar doesn’t give) suggests the origin of [G]odinae. Manley Pope (pp. 181-2) adds: “Odnea, Odna, Dodres. The latter points to the Tour d’Ordre; Turris Ordans, or Ordensis of Boulogne, said to have been built for a lighthouse by Caligula [it was the site where Caligula ordered his troops to gather seashells as plunder from Neptune - see Suetonius, p. 177]; and probably on the site of the fort, or rampart constructed by Caesar, when pressed by the Morini, in the year previous to the first invasion of Britain. In this history [i.e. the Welsh Chronicle] and in the account of Caesar’s invasions, as given by Nennius, Bede, Giraldus Cambrensis, and the author of the Flores Historiarum, the general circumstances of the narrative are the same, even to the names of Androgeus and Labienus. These accounts differ widely from that given by Caesar himself in his Commentaries, as to prove decisively that they were not of Roman but of British origin. The differences between the British and Roman narratives are such as might have been found between the Carthaginian and Roman histories of the Punic Wars, had the former ever appeared. In Caesar’s narrative of his second invasion, he has, if the British historians be correct, so connected the events of two distinct invasions, (by wholly omitting his having been defeated and forced to return to France, and induced by the treachery of some of the Britons, made a second attempt with more success,) as to make the whole seem to be the transactions of one and the same invasion.”

It’s fascinating, really.  I’d suspect Caesar didn’t mention a fortress at Odina because there wasn’t one.  It makes a whole hell of a lot more sense.  In general, attempting to bring up histories that mention things that happened well after Caesar and also don’t mention things that Caesar didn’t mention isn’t a good way of proving that Caesar was wrong, either.

There’s a level of massive denial of reality built in to that footnote, too.  Caesar’s Commentaries may not be entirely accurate, but they’re not as massively inaccurate as they would have to be for Tysilio to be believable.  In the end I suppose we’re reduced to a sort of he said, she said scenario.  But Caesar is, by far, the more credible witness.

And, of course, Cooper is not a reliable transmitter of Caesar’s version of the invasion of Britain, anyway.


*Tonight’s alcohol of choice is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  And there’s a bit of that Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball that I had with dinner swirling around in my system.  Now, I, like most people who drink bourbon, got in with Maker’s Mark.  As much as I love Maker’s, much like it’s hard to forget your first love.  But my move to single malt scotch has actually made it somewhat harder to drink Maker’s.  Bourbon is, quite simply, harder in general.  Maker’s is one of the hardest, with Booker’s as a strong second.  Ergo, I’ve moved primarily to Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, and Rowan’s Creek for my bourbon needs.  I do still like a good Maker’s now and then.  But I’m less likely to buy it by the fifth.


bluemillion said...

Don't drop off the Maker's! You should still visit the distillery sometime. Very cool. Maker's Mark Distillery is located just outside downtown Lebanon, Ky. and Kentucky Cooperage (bourbon barrel-making factory) is right on Main Street. Both give free tours. You can register to win a Heart of Kentucky Bourbon & Barrels Getaway free at Enter every day. No purchase is necessary. Have a great Bourbon Country experience!

ExPatMatt said...

Hey man,

Just wanted to let you know that I'm still around, reading the AtF series.

You're doing a great job.

Anonymous said...

I've also been reading the AtF series avidly. Because of you, I have picked up a copy of The Fourth Part of the World, with the other books you have been talking about soon to follow. You are writing true history because it opens the door to all these other books and sources that I hadn't known about.