Book being read; back to Thucydides at the moment I’m afraid

New article out: Battle of Bannockburn, MW IV.3

There is an historical movement, one that I am technically part of, which mirrors the modern day worship of individualism. That is, as a culture in Britain we highlight the importance of the individual (most often ourselves) over the collective. This manifests in our worshipping and obsession over celebrity, taking out frustrations on cashiers who’s tills have broken because it affects MY day (!!), to voting in elections based on which policies benefit ‘me’ – rather than choosing the party that would benefit the country as a whole.

A simplified version of this last example comes in the loss of votes for the Liberal Democrats in recent elections. Much Lib Dem support came from students who now feel ‘betrayed’ by them when they ‘turned their backs’ on scrapping tuition fees once they joined the coalition. This individualism has caused the disgruntled and disillusioned to ignore what the Lib Dems actually did – namely force the Conservatives to increase the income threshold before tax to just under £10,000. This is something the Conservatives had always said they would never do. Now that is not to say that the Lib Dems did not remove their support for scrapping fees, but on the same token the increase in untaxed income (which it is being speculated may be raised again!) affected a vast amount more people, of a greater diversity, than free university education would have. Surely, when a party has to make concessions it makes sense to push for those policies that would help the most amount of people? But I digress; the point being is that we like to look no further than how we are affected, independent of anyone else, when making many decisions.

Within military history this has created a fascinating field of study that looks at the individual faces within the military machines in which they stood. What the individual went through, what would have motivated him, what his experiences would have been like, his psychology, etc. A historian colleague of mine, Joe Hall, has written a blog on just this topic regarding his disdain for the term ‘Roman War Machine’ because he too is driven by this love of individualism.

It was this drive for individualism that moved my research into the search for ‘universals’ – that is universal elements of human life. Examples of this would be sex, eating, defecation and so on, things which no matter what you are reading or exploring, all humans have these element to their lives, whether it is explicit or not. On the surface of it, this can seem quite pointless, but I noticed quickly that the only real universals are biological. Once you understand the role of universals you can begin to fill in gaps within the sources (something traditional historians hate). A simple example would be in Xenophon’s Anabasis; an army of c. 10,000 men march around the Persian Empire and into Anatolia for over two years – not once does anyone go to the toilet. So, do we assume that because the source neglects this universal element it must, therefore, not have happened? Of course not, that would be stupid and I am stupid person for suggesting it.

What then of eating or drinking? Same thing surely, humans must eat and drink to survive ergo we know they all have. The same is true of all biological functions – so what then of emotions? Have all humans experienced them? It would be strange to suggest otherwise. Did they react to them in the same way? We don’t even know if all modern people do, so what chance is there for the Ancient civilisations?

What of Fear? Fear is both an emotion and a biological survival reaction, has it always been the same? The biology tells that it must have. So what of trauma? The biology of combat trauma seems inextricably tied to the biology of fear processing – can we accept one without the other?

One of the great draw backs of individualism is that it assumes we are all different and that we are all unique. This underlying assumption, although correct in my opinion, disguises the universal commonalities that we do share. We are not the same as the ancient Greeks, it would be stupid to suggest otherwise, but have a look at this description from Homer’s Iliad and tell me that the manifestations of fear has changed in over 2500 years:

“The coward’s body turns from side to side. He lacks the fortitude to hold it still, sits on his feet and shifts from knee to knee. His heart thumps like thunder inside his ribs. He thinks of death. His teeth begin to chatter. ” Homer, Iliad, 13.279-284

It is this understanding of universal experiences that drives my own work of PTSD in the ancient world – a topic that I am giving a paper on in Aberystwyth in July at the International Ancient Warfare Conference.

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