Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Its All Greek to Me: Herodotus in the Book of Mormon



I mentioned when I discussed Thucydides a little while back that I would move on to the rest of the Greek writings I had. I suppose my old college professors would be so proud I’m reading and reflecting on classic texts. What follows are some of the notes as I made connections and tried to assess the material. As usual, since this is a Mormon themed blog I will focus more on connections with the Book Mormon though I add connections with other writing projects as well. The post got very long so I split this into two parts with Herodotus today and likely Xenophon and Polybius next time.

Herodotus:
vii.9 And yet, I am told, these very Greeks are wont to wage wars against one another in the most foolish way, through sheer perversity and doltishness. For no sooner is war proclaimed than they search out the smoothest and fairest plain that is to be found in all the land, and there they assemble and fight; whence it comes to pass that even the conquerors depart with great loss.
This was a key passage that popped to me as a military historian. Military historian Victor David Hanson described what he called the Western Way of War, and one of the most important elements of that way is the concept of decisive battle between heavy infantry. The Greeks were farmers and part time soldiers with rather small armies. This created an incentive to fight the wars quickly by charging at each other. This preference for shock battle, according to Hanson, inspired what was a way of war that was superior to other cultures. The Persians, for example, scoffed at this way of war but when faced with heavy infantry in a narrow pass such as Thermopaylae, a few hundred Spartans (plus associated allies) could withstand what was recorded as a million man army. If I were teaching a class I would highlight the importance of primary sources at this point.

Associated with the Book of Mormon, I discuss the use of shock battle by Moroni, which is praised in the text and seems to produce victory in the war chapters. But many people fail to realize how incredibly bloody that kind of warfare is. Remember the phrase from the quote, “even the conqueror departs with great loss.” Which, now that I think about it would have been a good line to include. In discussing his tactics and reassessing his status as a hero, I couldn’t help but note that such a great man of God could perhaps have found a way to win without bloodshed.

vii. 127 On reaching Therma Xerxes halted his army, which encamped along the coast…stretching out as far as the rivers Lydias and Haliacmon…The rivers here mentioned were all of them sufficient to supply the troops, except the Cheidorus, which was drunk dry.
vii. 187 Such then was the amount of the entire host of Xerxes. As for the number of the women who prepared the bread, of the concubines, and the eunuchs, no one can give any sure account of it; nor can the baggage horses and other sumpter beasts, nor the Indian hounds which followed the army, be calculated, by reason of their multitude. Hence I am not at all surprise that the water of the rivers was found too scant for the army in some instances; rather it is a marvel to me how the provisions did not fail, when the numbers were so great…
viii. 115 [During the retreat of the Persian army] all along the line of march, in every country where they chanced to be, [Xerxes’] soldiers seized and devoured whatever food they could find belonging to the inhabitants; while, if no grain was to be found, they gathered the grass that grew in the fields, and stripped the trees, whether cultivated or wild, alike of their bark and of their leaves, and so fed themselves. They left nothing anywhere, so hard were they pressed by hunger. Plague too and dysentery attacked the troops while still upon their march, and greatly thinned their ranks. Many died; others fell sick and were left behind…
These are three quotes that tell a story about logistics. One of the most frequent criticisms is about the large numbers in the Book of Mormon. In fact, I mentioned this in my first post here at Wheat and Tares. But without getting into the details of caloric consumption, we can notice the outlines of his account, and how it holds up historically. I was struck while reading this that even the author “marveled” at the numbers he presented. He commented the armies were so big that the cities would have been ruined if they were forced to provide two meals instead of one of the passing army (vii. 120) and they drank the rivers dry. As soon as the army faced some catastrophe and had to retreat, they suddenly fell victim to hunger, and diseases from drinking dirty whatever, which is likely all they could find. This is a common pattern found in history, and in the Book of Mormon even.

I wrote a post a while ago that was inspired by the supposedly ridiculous logistical requirements of the final Nephite army. In particular, I’m struck with the similarity to the form that Herodotus took:

Moroni 9:16- And again, my son, there are many widows and their daughters who remain in Sherrizah; and that part of the provisions which the Lamanites did not carry away, behold, the army of Zenephi has carried away, and left them to wander whithersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die.

While the account is rather brief, in one of the most detailed letters we do see examples of logistical problems that led to combat over limited provisions and starving civilians. Of course, chapter 9 also mentions acts of cannibalism on both sides, so the assumption that they were living on a normal diet, and would need the normal amounts of food listed in such places as Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Supplying War, and even Aztec Warfare wouldn’t apply in this situation. On top of this, the prisoners taken by the Lamanites were only fed the flesh of their relatives. (Moroni 9:8) So what we have here could be the practical implications of excessive war and large armies in addition to spiritual decay.

Moreover, I’ve often compared the large numbers in the Book of Mormon to the Chinese War of the Eight Princes. Unsurprisingly, given the quotes from Herodotus and the verse from Mormon, a large army was tough to feed and eventually (particularly after military defeat) had trouble feeding itself. As I wrote in Decisive Battles in Chinese History:

The Princes of the Jin dynasty laid waste to the rival cities. The citizens in and around the capital city of Luoyang were almost continuously looted, raided, starved, eaten, conscripted and attacked by Chinese and barbarian forces until one of the largest cities of the 3rd century world and most prosperous regions was desolate. The city of Luoyang had an estimated 600,000 people, and the army may have had as many as 700,000 people at the start of the war. And even suggested peace plans and the heads of rival generals couldn’t stay the slaughter.

And contemporary Chinese historians recorded:

By the [end of the war] trouble and disturbances were very widespread….many suffered from hunger and poverty. People were sold [as slaves]. Vagrants became countless. In the [provinces around the capital] there was a plague of locusts…Virulent disease accompanied the famine. Also the people were murdered by bandits. There rivers were filled with floating corpses; bleached bones covered the fields…There was much cannibalism. Famine and pestilence came hand in hand.
Needless to say, I think there is a pattern in the behavior and supply of ancient armies, and the supposedly ridiculous numbers that would be impossible to feed actually sounds about right. Herodotus marveled at his own account, talked about rivers being drank dry in good times and water borne illness and eating bark in the bad. Back to his account:

viii. 15 The third day was now come, and the captains of the barbarians, ashamed that so small a number of ships should harass their feet, and afraid of the anger of Xerxes, instead of waiting for the others to begin the battle, weighed anchor themselves, and advanced against the Greeks about the hour of noon.
This point immediately recalled the various Chinese fleets that are often forgotten in history but was often the decisive factor in the life or death of a dynasty. The fleet with the biggest impact was that of the southern Song. The northern Song dynasty collapsed on the plains around their capital of Kaifeng. But the southern Song saved themselves for over thirty years in twelfth century because of their impressive navy. They had lost most of their northern territory and faced a massive invasion from the Jurchens, who aimed to finish the job. But the navy broke the pontoon bridge of the invading force, which severed the invading armies’ logistical connection, and this prevented them from retreating to the north side of the river. The eight-thousand-man naval force of the southern Song dynasty tied down a one-hundred-thousand-man army for a significant amount of time. A short time later, it faced another engagement. Despite being outnumbered six to one, the Song navy charged into the much larger force, secure in its superior training, and annihilated the opposing the fleet. The Mongols knew the power of a navy and the necessity of training. They reportedly mustered seventy thousand marines to help conquer Xingyang (a chapter in my book) and built five thousand warships to conquer southern Song.

The similarities between the smaller navies of the Greek and southern Song defeating larger forces because of training and motivation reinforces a methodological point for me. In Mormon studies but also comparative studies in academia there are fierce debates about how similar two items from different cultures and time periods really are. Some people are so narrow, and for lack of a better term, isolationist that they bristle at any comparison. With all due respect I’ve found that sound military principles translate pretty well across time and geography.

Though this approach is not without criticism and danger. It is extremely important not to decontextualize events and do what I call the chicken nugget approach, which I described in a review of a text on Subotai:
[The author’s last chapter] represented the most vivid example of the chicken nugget approach. This used modern army nomenclature, Napoleonic terms, German words, and modern terms interchangeably throughout the book. Some people may enjoy the liberal sprinkling of terms from a variety of eras, I find it distracting. Many of the terms are not precisely interchangeable with the activities of Subotai or carried unneeded connotations or associations. So the chicken nugget method seemed analytically imprecise at best.
At the same time, a judicious and extremely strict comparison of military principles across cultures is extremely useful. I already cited one example of a small but motivated navy defeating a larger one with less training between two cultures separated by thousands of miles and years. In another example I discussed the historical evidence of noise in battle and conclude that the account in Forest of Kings is likely wrong:
Based on the analysis of the chaotic and loud battlefield then, Schele and Freidel’s recreation of Mayan battle fails to take into account the impractical nature of trying to understand each other during this kind of physical stress on a chaotic battlefield.
I could also point to blood letting and ritual fasting, and talked about the use of omens Thucydides account. I definitely fall on the other side of the debate and find judicious and specific comparisons, such as between small and highly trained forces from different cultures and times very useful.

Conclusion:

I’ve enjoyed re reading these accounts, and for this one I even noticed the notes I first made 15 years ago! Herodotus described what some argue is the foundation of Western military history. He discussed cataloged enemy forces, discussed logistics, and a careful reading suggests that ridiculously big armies had ridiculous logistical requirements that often resulted in starving soldiers and civilians. Finally, I noticed that he reinforced a methodological point in dispute about how different cultures and time periods can still produce the same behavior or favorable comparisons.

When is the last time you read Herodotus? What is your favorite part? Is there anything you think I missed?

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