Warriors of History and Legend

Three new books examine the reputations of some legendary warrior groups – the Spartans, the Vikings and the Spanish conquistadors.

in a The Bronze Lie: Shattering the Myth of Spartan Warrior Supremacy (Osprey, $30), Myke Cole does pretty much what the subtitle says. Laconophile lovers, beware. Cole, a prolific writer of science fiction and a prior work on ancient military history, painstakingly examines the evidence from five centuries of Spartan warfare, from 739 BC to 207 BC, and concludes that they “were not super warriors, but reasonably qualified war stalkers.” For standards in their military culture that held them back.Overall, he reckons they have a battle record of 50 victories, 71 losses, and five draws.Not terrible, but dominant, more so than the Chicago Cubs than the New York Yankees.

Cole discovers the many persistent shortcomings of the Spartan approach to combat. They failed to detect their enemies and were remarkably poor at siege fortifications. They have also been slow to adapt tactically, because their strict conservative social culture, he says, has made them resistant to change. They made up for these shortcomings with good discipline and good organization.

Those who think people no longer care about history should consider the following: Cole says his intense skepticism of austere military prowess has led to death threats against him.

By contrast, the Vikings were just as fierce as their reputation, if the account even existed Men of Terror: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Battle of the Vikings (Westholme, $50) Nowhere near as accurate. Male William R. Short and Rainier A. Oscarson, two experts in Viking culture and martial arts, states that Norsemen, if they did not have a weapon on hand, trained to end combat in three ways: “strangulation, biting through the neck or windpipe, and breaking or dislocating the neck.” But they add that Vikings were rarely captured without their weapons, especially the swords they revered.

The Vikings were innovative fighters, exhibiting what the authors called an “improvisational nature.” They were also fairly high technology for their time – the centuries around AD 1000 – using swords that used advanced metallurgy. Their navy ships were able to sail closer to the wind than others, and were also so shallow that they could move high rivers and bays, enabling them to launch surprise attacks in unexpected places.

Fittingly, this book holds two surprises for me: First, I assumed the battle ax was heavy. In fact, it was lighter and sharper than a wood axe, because it was easier to chop meat than wood, and also because a heavy war ax would strain its bearer. The authors note that a two-handed swinging battle ax gave three times the destructive energy of the sword. Second, they say that, unlike the cartoons, the helmets of the Vikings may not have worn horns. This makes sense: in serious close combat, why give an opponent a key point to grab and twist?

Known by his name, Fernando Cervantes sets out to improve the reputation of the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors of Mexico and western South America in CONQUISTADORES: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (Viking, $35). It is undoubtedly a difficult task. Cervantes, a historian at the University of Bristol in England, admits that the invaders are now seen as “guilty brutal colonizers”. But he argues that the “sweeping caricature” is in part the result of a vigorous and ongoing propaganda campaign against the Spanish Habsburgs. He asks us to look beyond “unintended excesses” and “terrible brutality.” Hernán Cortes, the conquistador of the Aztecs of Mexico, is depicted as a politically skilled and tactically flexible leader. He noted that Cortes and other conquistadors were able to succeed as they did, because locals often viewed them as liberators helping to overthrow the cruel and exploitative regimes of the Aztecs and Incas in South America.

I came out unconvinced. In this work, Cervantes engages in a kind of sleight of hand, I think, by mentioning but never focusing on the enslavement of indigenous peoples. In the end, the conquistadors do not seem to me very different from the Vikings. They would go out to raid, enslave people, and steal whatever they could carry away, usually in the form of gold, silver, and precious stones. They quarreled with each other for those treasures as well as for land and power. In fact, Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of the Inca, was killed by other Spaniards in one of these conflicts. The main difference between the Vikings and the Spaniards seems to be that the Spaniards had a lasting influence, in part because the diseases of the Old World they brought with them devastated the peoples of the New World, who lacked immunity.

Putting these books together, I found myself wondering how, in a few centuries, future historians would write about the American mission in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. We went there in late 2001 full of valid answers – just as the conquistadors went to the New World. And like them, full of unparalleled military power, we have tried to use force to change a culture we have not yet understood. But then we left. Our recent chaotic exit from Kabul reminded me of a brutal streak in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. It was uttered not by a Spartan but by the leader of the Athenians, supposedly the most enlightened people. “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” he tells the inhabitants of a small besieged island. That was also, I think, the message President Biden sent last summer to the people of Afghanistan.

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