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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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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?
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I think books exemplifying Victorian imperialism (as Henty's do) are probably always racist, because racism is in the nature of the beast. You will search in vain in the pages of By Sheer Pluck: a Tale of the Ashanti War for a Conradian critique of the imperialist enterprise, let alone an Achebe-esque one. Having said that, I think Henty was far more interested in promoting manliness, self-reliance and adventurousness - the qualities that tomorrow's imperialists would need - than he was in preaching a gospel of white superiority. It may be that your racist fundamentalists are finessing him somewhat for their own purposes.