Ask any person about the most impressive weapon ever invented, and you’d get a range of responses, although I suspect many of them would center around NUCLEAR MISSILES.

Duh. Most powerful weapon ever!

I disagree. Nuclear arms are certainly the most stand-alone destructive thing we’ve ever invented, but their possession alone deters other powers that also possess them. They are more a tool for destroying the world than conquering it, and any idiot can be taught the sequences of buttons that need to be pushed to make them work.

To me, ‘impressive’ arms combine simplicity of make and use with the power of human ingenuity and will. They harness those qualities and characteristics that helped us advance from our pre-civilized state to successfully compete with far more naturally talented predators and hunt the massive Pleistocene animals, through the use of team-work and developed skills.

Take, for example, the weapon featured in my podcast logo: the Roman gladius.

Most folks have no idea what it was or why it was uniquely important. Ask them about ‘impressive’ weapons and not only will it miss their “off the top of the head” general list; it (or even a mental approximation of it) probably wouldn’t even pop up if they were asked specifically about impressive ancient and medieval weapons. In that sub-category, we have favorites from vague memories of fantasy/medieval movies, paintings, or maybe the odd Renaissance festival or two: the huge swords, axes, lances, and blunt destroyers wielded by knights, Vikings, and barbarians.

Looked at up close, the glades is unassuming: a short, broad-bladed and heavy sword. It’s ugly, thick, and decidedly inglorious. I mean, really, when you watch Braveheart and get a look at that crazy awesome claymore William Wallace is swinging around, would you trade that in for a gladius? Roman soldiers look cool and all, but what’s cooler than that giant sword and all of those sweeping, body and head-cleaving shots?

A lot, it turns out, to my mind.

The tribal, clan, and feudal cultures that produced weapons like the claymore have a romantic appeal to them. Huge swords are a thrill and rely on the skill and bravery of the individual heroic warrior: the Achilles or the dragon-slayer of our fantasy novels. Read Beowulf, for example, and you’ll observe that the best swords all have names that reflect the reputations of their smiths and their owners. Others fade into the background and the shadows cast by the kings and the chiefs. It’s a cool story to imagine living… if you’re the king or the chief, of course.

And what happens in those stories when the great king or chief falls? The Geats of Beowulf are doomed; the Greeks of the Iliad are helpless; The Scottish bid for independence (upon which Braveheart is very, very loosely based) founders for a decade. The grand weapons some of those ancient heroes carried were rare and very expensive to make. Even if men of equal valor and skill could be found to replace the heroes, their weapons could not be produced and deployed in numbers great enough to subdue hordes of enemies and safeguard a people.

Enter the Romans and their ugly and (comparatively) little weapon. The practicality of Roman imperial enterprise was remarkable and it increased in power and prestige by leaps and bounds when it mass-produced the gladius and the other accoutrements of the Roman legionary warrior for large-scale deployment. This became especially true when ambitious generals opened the ranks to volunteers from the poorest groups of society. These men were handed the gladius, a giant shield called the scutum, and drilled in marching and tight formations. Through these simple innovations, the Roman Legion (the basic infantry division of the time) became the most feared unit of at least half a millennia.

Advancing in a tight line, each Roman legionary covered a large part of himself with his shield and held his gladius low. Another section of his body was covered by the man to his right. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his brief and excellent breakdown of legionary combat titled Roman Warfare, details the brutal simplicity of the gladius: while Rome’s tribal enemies, reliant on the huge slashing weapons of their best warriors (who often towered over the grain-fed legionary), rushed forward and looked for the sweeping head shot, the legionaries stayed tight, pushed forward with their shields, and stabbed straight for the torso.

A stab in the guts doesn’t make for a great movie shot or a stirring campfire verse, but done with a heavy, brutal blade like the gladius, it drops your opponent, however brave, huge, and skilled he might be, and often fatally wounds him. The legionary could step over his man and push forward to the next unfortunate tribesman in the mass. The key to this, of course, is the teamwork of the legion itself, maintaining the integrity of its line. One on one and separate from his formation, a legionary was vulnerable to these heroes (as would be demonstrated in the massive ambush of the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9), but when allowed to deploy effectively, the Legion was utterly dominant for a very long period of time.

When one would be destroyed in a one-off disaster, the Roman military machine would learn from the situation that created the defeat, recruit new men, train them, and always return for ultimate triumph. Often the forces of the Romans in the field would be outnumbered by a degree of two, three, or even four to one by their tribal enemies, and with the basic elements of gladius, scutum, and discipline, produce overwhelming and decisive victories. For as long as the Roman ethos itself held, along with that discipline and attention to detail, this remained true. As discipline, tax money, Roman citizenship, and solidarity became diluted further and further, it is interesting to observe their military history evolve (devolve?) toward longer swords, specialized groups of heavy mounted horsemen, and… defeat. The legions the Goths destroyed at Adrianople bore very little resemblance indeed to the large, tight, gladius-and-scutum units of Rome’s great success.

For the gladius itself was a great metaphor for Rome’s military success: practical, produced en masse with basic skill, infinitely replaceable, and perfect for its function. Made not for great movie scenes, but great achievements, not for the highly specialized chief, but for the grunt, deployed not to conquer the hearts of campfire storytellers, but to conquer the known world and to hold it with discipline and resolve for centuries, bequeathing us civilization as we know it.

‘Impressive’ indeed.

History is alive.

When I was very young, my grandmother purchased an American Revolution coloring book for me, explaining some of the stories and expanding on the little I’d heard in my classroom. I had ignorantly colored in the impressive full-page image of a British soldier in black and yellow. Red, I was patiently corrected. They were called the “redcoats.” I wanted to know more about this stern and imposing man in the (red) uniform. He seemed very different from Ethan Allen’s men stealing up to Fort Ticonderoga on the following page. It was the facial expression: it personified discipline.

My parents got me some books and I read more about the British regulars and their ordered marches and devastating volleys. I lived near the site of the Battle of Monmouth and once, when I paused to look at a marker in the woods near the Jersey Shore, I read that I was standing in a place where they had marched in one of the attempts to intercept Washington. I looked around me and imagined the rows of coolly detached faces, heard the shouted orders and the heavy thuds of hundreds of feet marching in unison, saw the bright coats and white straps, even the silly hats of the grenadiers. I was with them.

My parents bought my sister and me a set of “Childcraft” book volumes. There were all sorts of topics: craft, projects, fairy tales, build-with-your-dad type things, art. I don’t even remember half of them. Practically the only book I opened more than a few times was the “Stories of Freedom” one, which contained accounts from all over world history about underdogs fighting oppression. I read the whole thing more times than I could count. Miltiades urging the Greeks to daring action at Marathon, the Zulus overwhelming the arrogant Victorian British in Africa, the Japanese samurai  holding off the full might of the Mongols (with a little help from the weather) in Kyushu—when the Germans , hair long from swearing off haircuts until they had avenged themselves against their Roman conquerors, leaped upon  the three legions of Varus at Teutoburg Forest, I saw the shocked faces of the legionaries unable to deploy properly, felt their fear as the much larger German barbarians overpowered them and made a mockery of their superior weapons and discipline. I heard the wild yells and the clang of large swords on the heavy Roman shields, and felt the rush of unexpected and total triumph. Fifteen years later, reading Tacitus and his account of the Roman revenge expedition under Germanicus, I remembered my Childcraft book as the Legionaries discovered the thousands of bleached bones of their former comrades. I was with them.

It’s been 18 years since the vivid memory I have of being in my high tower single room overlooking the Risley Hall courtyard at Cornell University, the hairs on the back of my neck rising. I was reading William of Tyre’s  “History of Deeds Done Overseas,” a magisterial primary source for the Crusades and something close to a miracle was happening in his record of the Siege of Antioch in 1098. The Crusaders, starving, diseased, and beleaguered without hope inside the city they had just taken, were rallying for one last charge—out the gate and into the teeth of the huge army of Turks waiting for them outside. Confident of his massive advantage in numbers and supplies, Kerbogha, the Turk commander, allowed the entire Crusader army to leave the safety of the walls and assemble, so it could be destroyed all at once and the costly siege ended. I could see the disbelief as the waves of Frankish knights, hardened by desperation, rode right over his packed and disorganized troops, shattering their lightly armored masses. The foolishness of Holy War and wearing the equivalent of an oven in the heat of the Middle eastern desert aside, I was caught up in hundreds of galloping hooves, foaming heavy war horses, hoarse and manic war cries of “Deus le vullllllt!!” the lung-shaking bash like a warehouse full of beef sides being hit with sledgehammers. Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, having inexplicably mortgaged his inheritance just to be here on the frontline, was choking on dust, gasping the last breaths of a failed enterprise, and then… victory.  I was with him.

For me, history was never JUST a record of mistakes to avoid repeating, although there are plenty of those and we need to be careful what we “learn” from them. History is also certainly not a list of “important” names and dates that we should remember for the purpose of respect and celebration.  While there’s something worthy in that idea, it makes the heroes of our past into gods—inhumanly awesome. We forget that history is made by people like us, our talents often balanced by our flaws and just as often outweighed by them. Washington missed home very much, and sometimes while he might have been spending time making great plans or great speeches to his men, he was writing to his wife asking wistfully about how the fireplace repair was coming along. His aristocratic rich man’s contempt for the grimy, barefoot soldiers we often celebrate was something he had to try hard to keep to himself.


No. 1776 sucked. If not for another near-miracle, in which Washington led those same barefoot soldiers on a desperation Christmas Eve surprise attack (featuring a night march through snow and ice in which the trail of the army was obvious from the bloody footprints), 1776 would most likely have been the death of our Revolution—the last bits of us mopped up by Spring 1777. The Declaration of Independence means nothing without those bloody footprints. They were the perfect symbol for a group of nobodies who refused to give up and the general who dug for his best self in refusing to give up on them.

For that’s what history truly is: the power of the human will, for good or bad, grinding out the 1776s, from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time—sometimes leading to dusty death (sorry, Macbeth, you had a good idea with those Norman knights) and sometimes leading to… something much of the world forgets even mattered (Ah, William, you lucky old bastard—I never liked you, but here I am mentioning you twice in one blog post, for after all, without YOUR Norman knights, rallied by you from a similar disordered retreat to the one Macbeth suffered, when you had the brass ones to take your helmet off and ride to the front, daring your men to snatch victory from defeat—there wouldn’t be an English language as we know it!).

History is sweat, yelling, idiocy, great plans, irrational obsessions, ideals, dumb persistence, inexplicable mistakes (how DID that tower door get left open at Constantinople in 1453? Really?), and “to dare, to dare again, and to go on daring!” to quote brilliant French Revolutionary/ruthless whack-job Georges Danton.  It is not just the province of cold statues, quiet museums, or old books. It is the story of great and terrible things, rising above the sea of mediocre and meaningless acts with which most of humankind fills their days, imperfectly and often haphazardly made, one moment at a time.

In one of those moments, it belonged to Miltiades; in another, to Crusaders. In some future moment, it could (briefly) belong to you or even me, supremely flawed as we are.. In its innumerable stories, we see how this was (and could be) true.

Hang with me while I tell a few of them.