The Sword Of Mars

The humanist Poggio Bracciolini wrote a long letter to his friend Niccolo Niccoli in November of 1430.  The letter contained the following words:

Now surely our citizens ought to be persuaded by experience, the real teacher, that they have no gift for the art of war, since they have never seen a line of battle drawn up or a fort.  For what is more ridiculous than for a people to be in charge of a major war who have never performed the tiniest bit of warlike duty?  But in reality men who have never so much as seen the blade of a sword give orders from their safe retreat to the actual commanders in the war as to how forces should be deployed and attacks made, towns stormed, and the enemy driven back.  [Trans. by P.W. Gordan]

Poggio was trying to point out the absurdity of expecting men who had no military experience to be able to direct wars.  He was correct in this, of course; but he might have been even more correct if he had extended his admonition to say that those with no military experience should never be in a position to oblige their nations for war.  Someone sitting in a political assembly (e.g., a senate or parliament) should have a clear idea of what they are voting for, should they ever vote to enter a war.  They should have a basic understanding of what conflict is.  They should themselves have had some experience with the armed forces, for only in this way will they be able to grasp the meaning of armed struggle.

One can only imagine what Poggio would have thought of our current state of affairs.  I remember reading somewhere–I cannot remember where–that the current members of the US Congress have almost no collective military experience of any kind.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they did; but those days are long past.  Not only do they have no military experience, but they make sure that their sons and daughters stay as far away from the armed services as possible.  The children of President Reagan did not serve, as far as I am aware.  The children of President Bush (Bush I) did not serve in any meaningful capacity.  The children of President Clinton did not serve.  The children of President Obama did not serve, and neither did the children of President Trump.  And yet all of these emperors–for that is what they really are–blithely obliged their nation to extended conflicts in foreign lands, to wars that have no end and were never meant to have any end.

This is not all.  The children of these emperors–Bush I’s sons, Clinton’s daughter, and presumably at some point Obama’s daughters–still have the nerve to parade themselves before the public to build their “brands” for eventual elected office.  The hypocrisy and the arrogance would be breathtaking, were it not so routine.  How is it that we accept this?  Have we become so numb, so hypnotized with the allurements of pleasure, that we have forgotten the basic obligations of the statesman?

It was not always so.  During the days of the Roman republic, each elected consul was expected to have a lengthy period of military service under his belt before assuming the responsibilities of office.  He would have had a long track record of campaigning.  He would have lived in the field with his men.  He would have seen first-hand what war meant.  He would have grown accustomed to hardship, to entrenching fortifications, to seeing blood and death on a regular basis.  And this knowledge would have given him a keen appreciation for the sacrifices involved in committing the nation to war.  To further cement the ties of responsibility, each consul was assigned a province that became his personal obligation.  If something went wrong, he would be held accountable.  Compare this to the system in place now in the United States, where everyone in Congress has an opinion, but no one is responsible for anything.  These are men and women not only without courage, but individuals lacking in basic human decency.

I wish to say a few more words on this subject.  The fifth century Roman diplomat Priscus (c. 415–c. 425 A.D.) once had occasion to visit the court of Attila the Hun.  His account of this visit is highly readable, and can be found in the first volume of J.B. Bury’s History of the Later Roman Empire.  According to Priscus, Attila believed that he had been destined for military power because of the discovery of something he called the Sword of Mars.  According to this legend, a cowherd once saw one of his animals limping and bleeding.  When he retraced the steps of the animal as shown by the drops of blood that had been left on the ground, he discovered that the cow had stepped on an iron sword.  The cowherd brought the sword to Attila, who pronounced it the fabled Sword of Mars described by the Greek historian Herodotus (IV.62):

Every year a hundred and fifty wagon-loads of sticks are added to [a] pile, to make up for the constant settling caused by rains, and on top of it is planted an ancient iron sword, which serves for the image of Ares [Mars].  Annual sacrifices of horses and other cattle are made to this sword, which, indeed, claims a greater number of victims than any other of their gods.

Whether Attila really believed that the sword was the one described above, or whether he was just humoring local customs in a politically astute manner, the reader will have to decide for himself.  For my part I do not think it really matters what Attila believed.  The point is that he took warfare seriously, and was willing to symbolize its importance with the image of a sword.  There was a physical image that would be impressed on the minds of his people and himself.  It strikes me that we do not really do this now.  War now assumes a sanitary, abstract, and ethereal aspect to those who wage it; to them, it is never reduced to any concrete symbol.  Why not?  Would this kind of ritual drive home the seriousness of war?  Another sword-worshipping ceremony is described by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXXI.2).  In talking about the customs of the Alans (Halani), he says that they would drive a naked sword into the ground (gladius barbarico ritu humi figitur nudus) and perform rituals before it.  The sword took the place of an altar or temple.

All of these examples show that war was taken seriously by these ancient peoples.  It was not an abstraction cloaked in the sanctimonious, hypocritical speeches of parliamentarians.  By our definitions, these people may have been “crude” or “barbarous”; but at least their leaders never asked them to do things that they themselves had not done.  They rode with their men; they campaigned with their men; and they fought and suffered with their men.  Everyone knew what the rules were.  The leaders who made the decisions had a personal stake in the outcomes of their decisions.  And this made all the difference.  The Sword of Mars symbolized an explicit contract the leader had with his people:  he would have the power to wage war, but would accept this trust with the deadly seriousness that it deserved.  Reverence made war sacred; and being sacred, it could not be disrespected without consequences to the leader.


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