How can we attempt to understand the experience of those involved in ancient battles, sieges and campaigns? What was the visual impact of seeing the massed ranks of the enemy approaching or the sky darkened with their arrows? How did it feel to be trapped in the press of bodies as phalanxes clashed shield to shield? What of the taste of dust on the march or the smell of split blood and entrails? What of the rumble of approaching cavalry, the clash of iron weapons and the screams of the dying? The assault on all five senses which must have occurred is the subject of this innovative book.
Sensory history is a new approach that attempts to understand the full spectrum of the experience of the participants in history. Conor Whately is the first to apply the discipline in a dedicated study of warfare in the classical world. He draws on literary, archaeological, reconstructive and comparative evidence to understand the human experience of the ancient battlefield in unprecedented depth.
The book explores its content through an introduction about the loss of Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg in 9AD before examining the Greek world through Cunaxa (401BC) and Issus (333BC); the Roman world through Cannae (216BC), Jerusalem (70AD) and Masada (72-74AD); and finally late antiquity through Strasbourg (357AD) and Edessa (544AD).
The stated aim is to assess the evidence for what the ancient battles and sieges would have looked, sounded, tasted, smelled and felt like to its participants. There is a lot of speculation as you’d expect, and some obvious inferences such as the smell of sweat or the foods consumed, but the book does offer some interesting insights.
The Battle of Cunaxa (401BC) talks about the feelings of reassurance the hoplite would have taken from the bumps from their colleague on the left as they advanced which re-enact its will of course recognise from their own advancing lines, but also the fear the right-hand members would feel seeing their vulnerable right flank exposed, hence the drift right and the corresponding feelings transmitted through the ranks. I think this adds more to the retelling than just stating that phalanxes drifted right.
Alexander’s choice of position for himself and his cavalry at the Battle of Issus (333BC) make a lot of sense with the aid of a side-scan radar of the battlefield (although it’s badly labelled and you have to work this out for yourself!) which makes evident just how much Alexander could and couldn’t see from horseback. His relatively advantageous position allowed him to view the whole Persian army and the position of Darius to time his charge to exploit the break in the enemy’s lines. The charge at the Persian Emperor, forcing him to retreat, was itself a very visual thing to inspire his men and intimidate the Persian troops. Simple things, but the focus on the physical experience certainly adds something to the retelling of familiar battles as the author searches for evidence of sensory input that will help explain the decisions and experiences of the commanders and their men.
Ashley Holt, The Hoplite Association