‘Fit for the task’: equipment sizes and the transmission of military lore, sixth to tenth centuries

Fit for the task: equipment sizes and the transmission of military lore, sixth to tenth centuries

By Timothy Dawson

Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 31 No. 1 (2007)

Abstract: The interpretation of the measurements given in Byzantine military manuals from the sixth to the tenth centuries has been a problematic matter. If the main conclusions of currently accepted scholarship are applied, an appearance is created of equipment much too large to be usable. When the measurements are compared to equipment which practical experience and comparable history show to be functional, it can be seen that as the middle Byzantine period progressed units of measurement were devalued. The sources also reveal the processes whereby military lore was transmitted, including accidental corruption and deliberate revision.


Introduction: Weapons are the hand-tools of butchery. But hand-tools they are, and as such there are only certain forms, and, more particularly, only certain sizes, that can be used effectively by the average man. The authors of Roman military manuals were mindful of this fact, and so, often made recommendations as to the characteristics of the troops’ armament. Sometimes those recommendations were quite vague, but elsewhere specific measurements are given. These measurements have posed a problem for modern readers, a problem with ramifications that go beyond the study of arms and armour.

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