Sunday, April 30, 2006

Military prowess, the Punic wars, and the Burmese historical chronicle

Descriptions in histories of completely unrelated times and places sometimes match Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal (c. 1350-1600) perfectly. The historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s eloquent description of Punic Spain (c. 218-211 BC) could almost map directly to the Tai-Yunnan frontier during the early to mid Ming or Lower Burma during the Razadarit era. In Punic Spain were three ethnic groups: the Lusitanians, the Iberians, and the Celtiberians. Political fragmentation as well as local autonomy and political loyalty was a shared characteristic of these groups:

"All three peoples were tribal, but these tribes were far less coherent than their Gallic counterparts, and the focus for loyalty for most tribesmen was the town or city. Invariably fortified and usually set on a hilltop, most of these communities were small, little more than villages. A few on the southern coast, like Saguntum, had grown much larger, possessed a literate culture and were by this period hard to distinguish in prosperity from the Greek and Punic colonies in the region" (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 246).

The influence of leaders was based on military prowess:

"Various kings and chieftains appear in the narrative of the operations in Spain, but their power does not appear to have been fixed, depending instead on personal charisma and particularly on reputation as warriors and leaders of warriors. Strong leaders who had proved themselves in war, might control many settlements in both their own and many other tribes’ territories, the area loyal to them changing in size as their prestige, and that of rival leaders fluctuated"(Goldsworthy, 2000, 246-247).

Vulnerability to raiding and warfare was largely based on reputation and display of military prowess:

"Warfare, particularly raiding, was endemic throughout the Spanish Peninsula…the peoples of Spain habitually raided their neighbors...Tribes or towns perceived to be weak were mercilessly raided, every unsuccessful attack encouraging similar enterprises. A leader could only expect to command the loyalty of allied communities for as long as he was able to protect them from depredations. A reputation for military might, achieved primarily by aggressive campaigns against others combined with swift reprisals to avenge any attack, deterred raiding, but this was hard to maintain, and even a small defeat encouraged more raids" (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 247).

Reputation and display of military prowess is at the core of Burmese chronicle narrative. Goldsworthy essentially argues that in this pre-modern context, human agency via leadership in warfare was an important causative factor in historical events. Leadership made settlements less vulnerable to warfare, by creating an image in the minds of other leader members of the ruling elite. I don’t know exactly how you would go about proving this intellectual history (i.e. prove existence of this mentalite in the minds of the ruling elite). Seems pretty unfalsifiable to me, unless of course you were willing to accept the way the whole chronicle record of Burma is written, with its emphasis on military prowess, as proof. It’s nice to find a place where human agency (vs. deterministic structure) rises to the fore as a causative factor in historical events.


Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000) The Fall of Carthage: The Punic wars 265-146 BC, London:Cassell.