I was recently listening to an interesting interview with John Romer on the latest volume in his series of ancient Egyptian history when he said something interesting. On enumerating some of the changes apparent in the transition from Old to Middle Kingdom he mentioned that Egyptian traders and explorers often found themselves deep south into Africa trading and searching ‘…not for the essential things, but just for the rituals of the court’.

I don’t want to read anything into Romer’s offhand comment and in fact highly recommend his books to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, but what he said serves as a useful springboard for considering this contrast between essential things and court ritual. I don’t think such a dichotomy existed in the minds of the ancients at all.

We treat what remnants of court ritual we still possess with an airy familiarity. There’s a sense of quaintness to it all. It didn’t take Charles I’s head being removed from his body for us to realise that he was not God’s anointed. Mallorian fictions aside, no one would link the health and hale of the land to its monarch. A barrister or a judge still possesses learning and status without wig, robe, and gavel.  In a real sense these symbols are, like what Romer’s Egyptians bought from south of the Sahara, non-essential.

But can we say the same for the items of ancient court ceremonies? I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, Diocletian’s movement towards an ‘asiatic’ style of court ceremony had a very practical, necessary, goal of protecting the ruler in an age when emperors were made with the edge of a sword. If the secret of empire in Tacitus’ time was that emperors may be made outside of Rome and without the acclamation of the senate then the crisis of the third century made it quite clear that a man wearing the purple is still just a man and dies as readily. By turning to non-essential items (purple robes, coronae etc) and behaving in an a particular manner, Diocletian and his successors were sending a clear message.

Clearly then this is one example of a disjunction between ancient and modern thinking. But it’s not that we’re more practical, just that what’s pragmatic for us expresses itself a little differently.

Listening to Romer, I couldn’t help but think of the bronze age Aegean (BAA). Egypt to Mycenae is not such a stretch: recent popularising treatments (like Eric Cline’s) take a broad areal approach and we know the regions existed as parts of a wider political network. Also, my grasp of Egyptian is terrible and so the BAA is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t have a good sense of court ritual from the BAA. We have striking monuments (such as the horns of power outside Knossos), vivid frescos and a sense of exotic items in the linear B tablets and the detritus of shipwrecks like the one off Uluburun. Occasionally we catch glimpses of titles of court and religious officials, and the reference to an initiation in Pylos, but the tablets contain nothing descriptive. Nonetheless, Gazing into the face of Schliemann’s “Agamemnon” we intimate that these people had a sense of pomp and ritual.

Contrary to our modern expectations, weaponry in the BAA existed in a place where practicality and the ritual mindset intersect. Let’s take the earliest swords, types A, B, and C in the Sandar typology: Often mislabelled rapiers, they were around a metre or so in length yet possessed  perilously small tangs.  It’s hard to see these things being used to great effect in a physical altercation. Scholars have sensibly assumed they possessed some ritual importance.

This is all the more clear in the case of the double axe. Slender and unwieldy, they do not compare with the decent examples of battle axes we have from Norway to the Punjab: Axes employed in war had to have small heads to maximise the speed at which they could be moved.

By any sensible heuristic, these items were not practical. So why invest precious resources in making them? Why feature them so prominently? The ancient world was one where civilisation hung from a precarious thread, as the eventual destruction of the BAA palatial complexes attests, there had to be a sensible reason. As you may have guessed, it’s because the court ritual element conferred its own pragmatic benefits.

Court ritual has a grammar of its own and surely the message would have been obvious to those trained in its language. A sword that is not a sword, or an axe that is not an axe, subtly reinforces the relationship between power and military might, while offhandedly advertising the kind of conspicuous consumption that could afford to use rare metals hours of skilled labour.

Sitting in his court, the king didn’t need his sword to be functional or useful: After all he had many men with sharp ones of their own.

On such fickle things rest the illusions of political systems. Incense and funny robes and fragile sword like objects may not seem to be essential or practical to us but clearly the ancients got some returns on their investments therein. Also, I daresay the population of the bronze age Aegean were happy to take part in pomp if it meant seeing real weapons a little less often.  

 

One thought on “Short Note: Utility in the ancient world

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