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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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A Query for Classicists and Archaeologists
"Swords like those we sent you are useful," Aska said. "They are
made by the Romans, and are vastly better than any we have. With
one of those you might chop down as many saplings in a day as
would build a hut, and could destroy any wild beasts that may lurk
in your swamps. (G. A. Henty, Beric the Briton [1893])

The speaker is an Iceni chief bartering with some fen-dwellers in the wake of the defeat of AD 60/1. The swords were captured from the Romans earlier in the campaign, and are presumably standard-issue legionary weapons, which I think of as designed more for stabbing from between the serried shields of a Roman line than waving about or chopping down saplings, but which I'm willing to believe could have done any of these things (though for chopping I'd rather have a hatchet).

My question is this. Is it likely that a British chief of this era (putting all partisanship to one side, for Henty's officer class is nothing if not realist) would consider a standard legionary sword to be "vastly better" than anything Made in Britain? Was Roman sword-making technology noticeably superior to that of the British, speaking in terms of quality rather than their ability to churn the things out on a large scale?

My gut reaction is that Roman swords were not better quality, but that they would have a better standard.

Better standard as in "to a better design"?

(no subject) - wellinghall, 2013-03-17 05:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 05:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Roman swords weren't anything special, in fact their sword design was generally copied from that of the Celts they conquered, esp. in northern Italy and Spain. They weren't really mass produced either; one should imagine a few blacksmiths attached to each legion.

I can't say much about British weaponry. It would be better known if Claudius' arch had survived, but probably archaeologists know abut that kind of thing from their digging around in the dirt. They can't have been especially effective, however, since they only managed to kill about 200 Romans.

they only managed to kill about 200 Romans.

That seems a very low figure. Do you mean in that particular campaign, or throughout the Roman occupation? And by "they" do you mean British swords, or Britons in general? Also, I assume you're talking here about pitched battle? A lot more than 200 Romans died in Boudicca's campaign, but mostly in urban fighting, as far as I can see.

(no subject) - malkhos, 2013-03-17 03:46 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 03:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
I keep wanting to call them gladioli in the plural - I think the etymology is the same?

(no subject) - malkhos, 2013-03-17 03:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 04:04 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2013-03-17 05:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 05:22 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - wellinghall, 2013-03-17 05:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Was Roman sword-making technology noticeably superior to that of the British, speaking in terms of quality rather than their ability to churn the things out on a large scale?

I have very little information off the top of my head on Roman sword-making, although my immediate reaction to that quotation is deep skepticism. Would this article be of any use to you? It's not recent, but it is partly comparative and technical.

I shall have a look - thanks again!

I'd have thought that maybe standards of production or even the quality of the ore used was better if it came from a Roman source. Sure, Iron Age smiths are excellent at their craft (witness the Late Bronze Age Llyn Fawr sword) but you're only as good as your raw materials, and if you're able to pick and choose from sources across a vast Empire...

So saying, an Iron Age chief might want a Roman weapon because it looks Roman, and by carrying and using something Roman, it's saying something about his status and his alliances and his aspirations. These same people seem to have treasured mass produced junk like Samian Ware (oops! Many Romanists will HATE me for this!) over and above slightly shonky native Iron Age wares with their innovative individual 'La Tene' decoration. Or Roman bronzes over native Iron Age ones. The latter I find totally baffling - I'd prefer an Iron Age caldron to a Roman patera any time...

Ah, that's an excellent point regarding raw materials. So would the Romans in Britain at that time would have brought their swords with them, or imported them, rather than made them in situ?

What you say about the power of fashion sounds very plausible, but I don't think would have weighed much with this fictional Briton, who is intensely practical and unswayed by such fripperies. In real life, I'd also be suspecting him of overselling the Roman swords to the gullible fenland hick, but in this context I think we can assume that he is also honest and true - the very model of an ancient major general!

No Iron Age man is going to use a sword to chop down trees; he's got perfectly good axes for that. There were shedloads of bronze and iron axes!

The strange thing is that the fen-folk have asked specifically for hatchets just a couple of pages earlier! Being offered some rings and bracelets, they reply: "They are of no use, though they may please women. If you want to please men you should give them hatchets and weapons." It's after that that the multi-purpose gladiolus makes its appearance.

(no subject) - veronica_milvus, 2013-03-17 07:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 09:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
The (politically execrable) classicist Victor Davis Hanson made his reputation by showing that Greek warfare did not involve the destruction of large olive groves: much too difficult. This (apparently) revolutionized modern understanding of ancient warfare. So it may be that Henty is vaguely channeling 19th century beliefs about ancient warfare, though of course I don't know about saplings and Romans.

That's an interesting idea! Not too many olive groves in Norfolk, of course. They're probably thinking about making ways through the damp ground of the fens: willow and alder would be more the thing, I should think.

(It seems strange that one should want to destroy olive groves anyway, no matter how easy the job: they're hardly impenetrable terrain, are they? But I'll have to check your execrable guy out.)

(no subject) - swisstone, 2013-03-17 07:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 07:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2013-03-17 09:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-17 09:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2013-03-17 11:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-18 07:44 am (UTC)(Expand)
As best as I can make out, Roman swords did have a reputation (amongst the Romans) for being better than the La Tene swords employed by Gauls of Cisapline and Transalpine origins, and this is probably what Henty is reflecting. However, this seems to have been nothing to do with their ability to chop down trees (both Romans and Gauls used axes for that purpose, and would only employ swords in emergencies), but because it could be used as both a cutting and thrusting weapon in combat, where the Gallic sword, lacking a point, could only cut, leaving soldiers vulnerable (i.e. while a Gaul is raising his sword to strike, a Roman can thrust under his guard). Archaeological examination of La Tene swords suggests that this is not entirely fair on all examples.

I suspect quality of Roman swords would vary quite a bit, depending on the skill of the smith. The Romans clearly had ideas about where the best iron ores came from, but I suspect only a few rich and privileged Romans could have swords made from such ores. New swords would generally be made locally. There were sword-makers in the army, and most forts would have had manufacturing facilities in the local vicus, either military or civilian (there's evidence from Hadrian's Wall for these). In time of war, when large quantities of swords were needed, they could be demanded from local cities (in the run-up to the Jewish revolt of 132, cities in Judaea from whom weapons were demanded purposely churned out shoddy goods).

Also, whilst I doubt that in 60 the army would import new swords from outside, quite a few soldiers would be carrying sword of continental manufacture, perhaps having been in service before the war, or have had them passed on from others.

There's an article in Britannia for 1988 by Janet Lang that's worth consulting.

Edited at 2013-03-17 09:28 pm (UTC)

Thanks - that's really helpful. I shall chase up the Lang article. (Actually I don't need to chase it up, as sovay has kindly sent it me!)

Edited at 2013-03-17 09:34 pm (UTC)

uhhhhhhhh I'd have to do some more reading up because this is so completely not my time period or anything I've studied buuuuuuut I don't think the Iron Age tribes would've used swords as a widespread weapon? like, I think swords were prestige goods? and in any case they wouldn't have used swords to CHOP DOWN TREES or HUNT WILD ANIMALS.

so basically whatever book that is you're reading is, in my lowly opinion, full of crap.

The more I think about it, the more my Iceni chief looks like he's selling the fen-dwellers a pup - though that doesn't seem to be his character at all.

Apparently Henty thought that 6,500 words was a fair day's work. Occasionally it shows.

Not a Romanist by any means but I am rather fond of a nice bit of Samian. Romans were not great potters by any means. What was special about Samian was the fine red clay it was made of -- which was only found in one place. The relative rarity along with the unusual appearance and the neccessity of transporting the stuff was what made it a prestige ware.

However in Britain not all that looks like Samian is Samian. There was a similar clay to be found near Colchester where they churned out masses of ersatz Samian. I came across it digging in Colchester, it's not quite as fine and more orangey than the real thing. Once you've seen it you can identify it by sight -- which it how I came to be jumping up and down during an episode of Time Team shouting "That's not real bloody Samian!"

I didn't know about ersatz Samian - how interesting!