La guerre est, sans conteste, le plus violemment spectaculaire dentre tous les phénomènes sociaux.
Since the nineteenth century, the study of medieval and pre-modern aristocratic festivals has enjoyed great success and involved a vast multitude of scholars from the most disparate fields: not only historians of art, theatre and dance; medieval and pre-modern literature scholars; historians of sports and games; specialists in heraldry, martial arts and armour; but also sociologists and historians of law, anthropologists, and human ethnologists. Nonetheless, even today the influence of the purely military component of this particular expression of the medieval and pre-modern aristocratic ethos has been misunderstood or undervalued in the study of theatre history. In recent years, a vast number of publications devoted to these issues have replaced the fundamental, but limited contributions of nineteenth and early twentieth century history. All the same, despite some fecund yet partial studies of a semi-interdisciplinary nature, these topics have actually never been subject to a comprehensive approach capable of giving shape to a convincing historiographical model. Chivalric fêtes, in other words, have for the most part been interpreted solely as events of a performative nature or in any case bound to court ceremony, with no deeper understanding of their inner relationship to the chivalric ideal and the military model implicit in it. The reasons are to be found in the fact that, from a historiographical perspective, military history has often been considered a secondary discipline. This prejudice is further reinforced by the fact that war manifests the highest expression of the organised exercise of violence. The protean nature of the concept of violence often translates into an omissive approach on the part of scholars, with many «understatements, and half-truths, a lot of embarrassed silence and other signs of shamefacedness» as Zygmunt Bauman writes. Historical studies have been conditioned by this bias, analysing specific case studies, but staying away from a comprehensive anthropological model which could have created a framework for taking into consideration the deeper motives behind outbursts of violence and its social, cultural, and artistic effects.
In commenting on several well-known examples of faux battles and mock sieges from the Roman, medieval, and pre-modern eras, this study has two main objectives. Firstly, to identify the similarities and the exchanges between these military events and some aspects of contemporary spectacles, but also to underline the continuity in the representation of war in the ancient world and analogous forms of military simulation in chivalric culture during the middle ages and the pre-modern world. Central to this is the contribution that military history can provide to the study of chivalric spectacles. One can observe how the simulation of battles and sieges acts as evidence of a more general «enduring antiquity» of the common principles of war, to quote Luigi Loreto. Within this tradition one can find the same ideological framework and military practices spanning centuries, assimilating strategic innovations and the evolution of military technology over time. Beyond the need to keep troops trained, these martial exhibitions continued to act as a manifestation of the power of generals, princes, and rulers, both ancient and modern. These lavish drills and parades - which included significant dramaturgical elements - achieved a full celebration of their military accomplishments, as well as intimidating present and future enemies and acting as a warning against internal revolts which might subvert the principle of sovereignty and the states public order. This aspect goes hand in hand with the psychological impact of the exhibition of military apparatus in the field and in siege warfare where splendour of armour and the demonstration of an armys technological supremacy were recognised to be crucial factors in conditioning the outcome of conflicts.
However, to fully understand the context within which such events find their meaning, one cannot only analyse the collective dimension of conflict: the need to train soldiers and glorify their leaders. One also must look at the individual nature of organised violence, denoted by the hero cult and the ideology of honour, both of which have always had close ties to western warfare. Hero cults have survived the passage of time, starting in Antiquity and reaching the beginning of modern times almost intact. It is a well-documented case of ideological resilience which survives religious prohibition and countless political, cultural, and technological upheavals occurring in medieval and pre-modern Europe. From this perspective, Isidore of Sevilles testimony (c. 560-636 CE) is particularly meaningful. The eighteenth volume of his famous Etymologiae, which will enjoy great success during the Middle Ages, is dedicated to the relationship between war and agonal games (De bello et ludis). Here Isidore explicitly collects the heritage of ancient thought in which war («bellum») is compared to the duel («duellum»):
Formerly a war was called a duel («duellum»), because there are two («duo») factions in combat, or because war makes one the victor, the other the defeated. Later, with one letter changed and another deleted, it becomes the word «bellum». Others think it is so called by antiphrasis - because it is horrid, whence the verse (Verg. Aen. 6, 86): “Wars («bella»), horrid wars” - for “lovely” («bellum») is the contrary of a very bad thing.
It should be noted that etymologies by antiphrasis, such as the one here deriving from Vergil, were common in the ancient world. Not coincidentally, in the encyclopedic treatise De verborum significatione, Sextus Pompeius Festus (second century CE), following Quintilianus example, uses the term ludus in an antiphrastic way, comparing it to a term coming from military vocabulary such as miles. Referring to an example by Lucius Aelius Stilo Praeconinus (c. 154-174 BCE) who identified by opposition the term miles (“soldier”) as deriving from mollitia (“softness”, “weakness”), Festus uses the same process of opposition to explain the etymology of ludus, intended as a serious activity, completely antithetical to the ordinary meaning of “play” or “game”.
The theoretical connection between the ancient dimension of Roman munera gladiatoria (“gladiatorial games”) and ludi and the medieval and pre-modern world of chivalric combats occurs most probably from definitions just like the one used by Isidore in this book. In fact, he assigns an excessively important role to a specific gladiatorial genre: that of equites, gladiators on horseback. He goes to the point of discussing them before all other much better known gladiatorial armaturae (types of gladiatorial combat), giving more attention and emphasis to this relatively obscure class of gladiators.
Significantly, Isidore establishes a direct relationship between equites and the military sphere. The fact is confirmed by the few epigraphic inscriptions that exist in this regard, which associate the equites to the hoplomachiae (military exhibitions in heavy armour) which took place in the arenas. This reference to the Roman army was not missed by the medieval author when he affirms that the entrance of these gladiators in the amphitheatre was preceded by the exhibition of military banners («praecedentibus prius signis militaribus»):
The equestrian game («De ludo equestri»). There are several kinds of gladiatorial games, of which the first is the equestrian game. In it, after military standards had first entered, two horsemen would come out, one from the east side and the other from the west, on white horses, bearing small gilded helmets and light weapons. In this way, with fierce perseverance, they would bravely enter combat, fighting until one of them should spring forward upon the death of the other, so that the one who fell would have defeat, the one who slew, glory. People armed like this used to fight for the sake of Mars Duellius.
Isidores is therefore a significant innovation, especially considering the capillary diffusion throughout Europe of the Etymologiae. Here we find an affinity perceived as “real” between late ancient arena games and medieval chivalric festivals. Starting with him, this interpretation of Roman gladiatorial munera provided an important theoretical precedent to Franco-Germanic chivalric games which took hold in feudal Europe between the eleventh and twelfth century. In other words, a phenomenon such as that of equestrian exhibitions, which had become an integral part of Roman Imperial cavalry thanks to the incorporation in its ranks of Celts and other barbarian populations, could be interpreted by medieval intellectuals as a “natural” evolution of ancient Roman gladiatorial games, in the specific meaning suggested by Isidore.
Thus, a dualistic vision of conflict emerges, in which there are only two champions, each representing one of the two sides in conflict, instead of a multitude of men. They constitute an anthropological model, that of the duellist, that shows many affinities with the hero. It is up to them to resolve the conflict in the name of the doctrine of bellum iustum piumque (“just and pious war”), aimed toward the restoration of justice and peace on earth thanks to the use of weapons. As Isidores work attests, in medieval thought the exemplary use of organised violence in war as ritualised in the duel is reflected in the agonal component of ancient games. Within this whole context, the heros affirmation of self usually manifests in the recognition of his deeds (and often in a precocious death in combat) - be he a valiant warrior, a gladiator, a duellist, or a knight - in a marked trans-historical symbolism. This entails the powerful individual affirmation of the subject, aimed at immortalising his name in spite of the ordinary course of his biological existence. Ultimately, however varied the contexts, an ideological continuity can be traced between ancient agonal games, duelling, war and chivalric games all the way to modern times. In looking at the Middle Ages in particular, one sees that deeds of arms, tournaments, and jousts held so ambiguous a status that it is difficult to say whether they fall into the category of duel, war, or aristocratic feast (fig. 1). Contemporaries were equally uncertain about the significance of the actions outside of a defining context, to the extent that during the second half of the fourteenth century, knights in opposing armies engaged in an emprise (“challenge”) at a tournament or joust might be simultaneously compaignons (“companions”), because of their common status of noble combatants, and ennemis (“foes”). Tournaments, regulated by unwritten droits darmes (“laws of arms”), were recorded and celebrated in contemporary chronicles and other literary outpourings as faits darmes (“deeds or feats of arms”), that signalled their importance as chevalerie (“knighthood”). The enactment of faits darmes at all sorts of aristocratic festivities (baptisms, weddings, victory or peace celebrations, religious feasts etc.) showed that they were the very essence of knighthood. Thus, tournaments were not simply replicas of warfare but “another form of warfare” besides “real” warfare, a cultural dimension conceived iuxta propria principia by and for an aristocratic audience.
It must be specified that this is the ideology of a military caste, one which did not always coincide with warfare on the field, since in both the ancient Greek and the medieval world, warfare usually manifested itself in the form of limited conflicts, sometimes improvised and predatory: more similar to guerrilla warfare than to war on a large scale, with a prevalence of ambushes, raids, and lootings of single urban centres or battles between opposing factions within the same community. In the same way the heroic inclination had to come to terms with the discipline and the strategic necessities in planning for conflict belonging to the state or imperial nature of Hellenistic and Roman armies, as well as to the national monarchies that formed in Europe between the fifteenth and sixteenth century. With the passing of the centuries this profound gap between the more common expressions of war and the aristocratic chivalric ethos will tend to deepen further. This is not only due to the professionalization of warfare - which had in fact already started in the Hellenistic and Roman world and which inspired pre-modern military Humanism - but also following the introduction of new military technologies such as the evolution of artillery, which came after the introduction of gunpowder, in the beginning of the modern age. This is the only explanation for the widespread prejudice against firearms belonging to Renaissance intellectuals, a prejudice which reflects an ancient paradigm which must be read in the key of the ideology of honour tied to the exaltation of the ἀρετή/virtus (“virtue”) of the noble warrior. The possibility that one might kill or be killed by concealed or unseen means implied the risk of being invisible and anonymous to posterity, further vitiated by the fact that stealth weapons had no honourable place in the martial valour of either victim or aggressor. Meanwhile, the more that weapons became long-range and stratagems covert, the less soldiers were even capable of recounting what had actually happened in the thick of battle, let alone of sustaining the heroic paradigm of individual combat between equals. On the one hand, chivalric literature became a pure fiction of battlefield experience, on the other, the soldier lost his individuality, becoming a cog in the vast machine of a professionalized army.
1. The representation of war in Antiquity and Late Antiquity
In a strictly military context, various sorts of equestrian and athletic games were widely recommended by Greek and Latin military authors to improve the morale of the troops and the skills of the combatants in the field. Everett L. Wheeler notes how after its institutionalization, the hoplomachia (fighting in heavy armour) was widely regarded as a kind of sport practised in Hellenistic games and festivals as attested in Sparta possibly from the first century BCE until the second or third century CE. Gladiatorial and circensian techniques in the Roman army are attested by various sources. Describing the testudo (“tortoise”) formation to shield soldiers from missiles employed in the capture of Heracleum by the troops of the consul Gaius Popilius Laenas during the third Macedonian War (169 BCE), Livy explicitly underscores the fact that this technique, originally conceived for the ludi circenses (“circus games”), went on to be used for martial purposes: «A party of Roman youths actually gained possession of the lowest part of the wall, by turning to the purposes of war, a kind of sport which they were accustomed to practise in the circus».
After the catastrophic rout of four legions defeated by German tribes at Arausio in 105 BCE - and in the same critical context as the military reform of Marius two years earlier - the gladiatorial techniques and combat skills of doctores gladiatorum (“gladiatorial trainers”) were openly used under the consulship of P. Rutilius Rufus for teaching the techniques of hand-to-hand combat to Roman legionaries. Most probably these same skills were continually employed even later. Sometimes these kinds of ludi militares (“military games”) were held for the glorification of Roman emperors. As noted by Katherine E. Welch, an elaborate passage in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae seems to suggest that Roman emperors could sponsor gladiatorial games even before a military campaign with the aim of preparing soldiers for real combat. On the other hand, the presence of many military amphitheatres - often actual legionary amphitheatres, not only in Rome (fig. 2) but throughout the provinces of the empire - attests to a practice widely diffused since the late Republican period. Originally conceived as simple structures in wood, and placed in the proximity of encampments or fortresses, they were probably used for military festivals (ludi castrenses) as well as for gladiatorial games. According to Welch, although some authors suggest that they were conceived likewise for military training, it is more likely practiced on the so-called campus (i.e. parade ground) though there is some evidence that weapons training also occurred in military amphitheatres. The gladiatorial techniques were anyway very similar to one of the most important if least known Roman drills: the armatura. Vegetius tells us that although this drill was once widely used by the Roman army, by his day (early fifth century CE) it had become a festive practice performed in the circus by special light troops specifically trained for the purpose, the so-called armaturae:
The armatura, which is displayed on festal days in the Circus, used to be learned not just by armaturae under the drillmaster [«campidoctor»] but by all ordinary soldiers alike in daily practice. For speed is acquired through bodily exercise itself, and also the skill to strike the enemy whilst covering oneself, especially in close-quarter sword fighting. What is more, they learn how to keep ranks and follow their ensign through such complicated evolutions in the mock-battle itself. No deviation arises among trained men, however great the confusion of numbers.
It is therefore entirely plausible that the aforementioned passage in which Livy mentions the testudo refers to the same practice. Vegetius notes that even if in his day the armatura survived only in parts («ex parte servatur»), its practice was still widely encouraged because its practitioners were counted among the best soldiers in the Roman army. Contemporary sources attest that Roman legionaries engaged in the armatura all over the Empire. It was sometimes compared with the so-called pyrricha militaris, an infantry drill performed with music (which Ammianus Marcellinus mentions in his life of the emperor Julian) (fig. 3) or the gladiatorial practice known as the prolusio which was also performed to musical accompaniment. The exact nature of the term armatura in all its various permutations - armatura pedestris (“infantry drill”); armatura equestris (“cavalry drill”), etc. - remains obscure, and the only reliable mention of an armatura equestris (or ἱππικὰ γυμνάσια) appears in Arrians Tactica, 34-43 (136 CE), describing some equestrian drills that were most likely conceived by the Cappadocian army to celebrate Hadrians vicennalia (the twentieth anniversary of the emperors reign). However, Arrians description, inspired by Xenophons Hipparchicus, is supported by numerous archaeological discoveries, dating from the first through the third century CE and from all over the Roman empire and especially its frontiers. Best known are several examples of very elaborate helmets with face-masks, which were worn by cavalry officers during the competitions that were held on the parade ground of the legionary campus. Manufactured with iron, bronze, or another alloy, and originally adorned with yellow plumes, they could be gilded and silvered and decorated with fabric, leather, and coloured glass (fig. 4). The chromatic effect created by the contrast between the officers face masks and the dark blue or red Cimmerian tunics of the horsemen, wearing tight trousers in the style of the Parthians and Armenians, must have been surprising. According to Arrian, these specialised sub-units of the Roman cavalry appeared in full sight of the presiding authorities seated on a raised viewing-stand (“tribunal”) wearing particularly elaborate parade armour, greaves, and shields, riding richly decorated horses. The two opposing parties, attackers and defenders, each armed with various kinds of tipped or blunt weapons and colourful standards, engaged, individually or collectively, in different manoeuvres. Scholars are split over whether these exhibitions were simple mythological retellings or were meant to simulate the manoeuvres of real battles, showing off the horsemanship and weapons skills of the riders. It is certain, however, that they presented a strong dramaturgical element, together with a marked antiquarian taste. This is attested by the fact that the face-masks which were found represented characters of both genders, which could be inspired by mythological figures such as Medusa or the Amazons, or by famous historical figures, as attested by the type with ἀναστολή (“cowlick”), a hairstyle, deriving from the iconography of Alexander the Great.One can hypothesise that all the elements alluded to here, which can be traced to the ἱππικὰ γυμνάσια of Hellenistic, Oriental or Barbarian origin, can have in some way constituted an important precedent for the armour and accoutrements of medieval and pre-modern knightly competitions. What is certain however, is that the origin of the drills of the mounted troops of the Carolingian army lies in the sequence of movements of the Celtic cavalry, the so-called toloutegon described by Arrian as integrating part of the equestrian exhibitions of the Roman Imperial cavalry. The chronicler Nithard (b. c. 800-d. 844-845 or 858-859), grandson of Charlemagne, observed that it was common to see Frankish army competitions where two units of mounted troops faced off with heavy spear shafts from which the metal tip had been removed (hastilia). Both units were trained in the difficult and risky move of rolling back and raising their shields (umbones) as cover, simulating a retreat just moments before crashing into the opposing unit, only to then counterattack. At this point the other unit would repeat the manoeuvre, pretending to retreat and then in turn counterattacking, in an exercise that would be repeated many times in a single day of training. These are the same manoeuvres, indicating a revolution, that came to give its name to the tournament, the very successful aristocratic martial game originating with the Franks which started in the eleventh century and became the emblem of European chivalric tradition itself. In fact, the term torneamentum, and rarer torneatio in Barbaric Latin, is derived from the Old French verb tornoïer (“to revolve”) from which tourneiment, tournoi, Italian torneamento, torneo, Spanish torneo, Middle High German turnei and later turnier. As is known, the principal technical innovation in the tournament, compared to previous corresponding equestrian exhibitions, was the coordinated use of the couched lance as deployed by mounted troops in the battlefields. Previously the lance had been employed as a javelin, thrown overarm, or as a spear to be used either overarm or underarm to thrust the opponent. An important improvement to balance on horseback and to the impact of medieval heavy cavalry was also due to the use of stirrups. Probably conceived by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and diffused by Avars, stirrups had gained widespread use thanks to the Byzantine army by the time of the Emperor Maurice. Aside from the tournament itself, further affinities between the Roman cavalry tradition and later chivalric practice can also be found in other equestrian exercises like that of whirling a lance at a target, which recurs in early tournaments as the quintain (tilting post).
It must be specified that beside the armatura, other Roman infantry and cavalry drills are partially known: the field training manoeuvres called «ambulatura», the «decursio» or «decursus» (fig. 5), as well as entire «simulacra pugnae» (“mock battles”), were all part of the tactical training of Roman troops, as Polybius and Livy, amongst others, attest. Philip Rance has underlined the important role that such sham mass engagements, which can be dated back at least to the third century BCE, played in the peacetime preparations of the Roman army. The «simulacra pugnae» described by Onasander (Strategicus 10, 4-6, 50s. CE) and later by the Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602 CE) were carefully devised by senior officers and scrupulously organized by their troops. These large-scale ground manoeuvres (for both infantry and cavalry) and naval operations (simulacra navalis pugnae) were again fought with blunted, sometimes double-weighted, weapons or wooden swords like those used by gladiators (rudes) and practice javelins tipped with buttons (praepilati). All in all, the simulacra undoubtedly constituted one of the more spectacular circumstances in which separate units or an entire army could simulate the effective conditions of the real battlefield, and among the most revealing examples is the four-day ground and naval manoeuvres conceived by Scipio after the conquest of Carthago Nova in Spain (210 BCE):
He himself spent the few days during which he had decided to remain at [New] Carthage in drilling his naval and land forces [«exercendis navalibus pedestribusque copiis»]. On the first day the legions would run under arms for four miles; on the second they were ordered to take care of their arms and clean them in front of their tents; on the third day with wooden foils they encountered each other after the manner of a regular battle and hurled missile weapons provided with a button at the end; on the fourth day they were given a rest; on the fifth they again ran quickly under arms [«in armis decursum est»]. [...] The oarsmen and marines, when the sea was calm, would sail out into open water and test the mobility of their ships in sham naval battles [«simulacris navalis pugnae»]. Such training outside the city by land and sea steeled both bodies and minds for war in the city.
Such laborious methods justified the later comment on the Roman army of Josephus writing about 75 CE, that «their drills are bloodless battles and their battles bloody drills». In this case once again, there is a prominent performative function beside the purely military training functionality, one which comes to light during periods of inactivity of imperial armies with the aim of recruiting forces and reinforcing soldier morale. Over the centuries similar training procedures evolved according to the changing requirements of warfare and the changing face of the enemy, gaining particular momentum in the Eastern Empire, as we know from the praise poured by George of Pisida on a sham fight organized by the Emperor Heraclius during his first campaign against the Sasanian Persians (622 CE). The imitation of a real battle was so accurate and realistic that the swords were even dipped in fake blood:
When they had been drawn up as enemies, they closed securely their respective ranks, and they appeared like the walls of armored ramparts. And then, when all the forces rushed together, sword and shield upon sword and shield everywhere pressed with violent blows. The simulation of battle displayed swords drenched with blood, and all the frightful spectacles and fear and confusion and murderous intent, but without bloodshed.
The boundaries between practical training methods, formal reviews of the troops, and mere martial performances conceived as part of religious or civic festivals or during the triumphs, were more blurred than one might expect. In addition, terms such naumachia (“naval battles”) or simulacrum pugnae (“sham battle”) are not unequivocal and often referred to very different forms of display. In other words, even in these ancient military drills and manoeuvres, as would be the case for medieval tournaments, there existed a sort of continuity between re-enacting the conditions of a real battle and the appearance of a competitive exhibition. Thus Appian (De bellis civilibus 3, 48) describes how Octavian was so delighted by the spectacle (θέα) of a mock battle held in 44 BCE by two legions that had deserted Antony, that he lavished the soldiers with gifts. Mock battles could take on a more performative dimension however, as in the feigned engagement held during one of Julius Caesars four triumphs of 46 BCE. The dramatic component of the event organised at the Circus Maximus is remarkable. According to Suetonius (Iul. 39, 3), after several venationes (“wild animal hunts”) the arena hosted clashes between two opposing forces, each formed by five hundred footmen, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalrymen. The staging of the event was openly theatrical, with the turning points of the Circus set up as full stage sets representing the enemy encampments. Theatrical performance also permeated triumphal processions closely connected to this type of military representations. The Romans were keen on maintaining this theatricality in peacetime as well as in war. In certain circumstances the celebratory function of the cavalry exercises prevailed, as in the equestrian game known as the lusus (or ludus) Troiae (or Troia) (the “Trojan game”). Halfway between the equestrian parade and the mock battle the lusus was reserved to young Roman noblemen. Described by Vergil (Aen. 5, 545-603), this ludus started in Rome under Sulla. In his commentaries on Vergil, Servius compares this ceremony to the ancient Pyrrhic dances, quoting Suetonius.From a strictly military perspective the desire of individual units for distinction within the army as a whole was expressed through their choice of clothing and military equipment. Indeed, modern scholars have often discussed legionary display in terms of similarity rather than plain uniformity. As Kate Gilliver has pointed out, despite the apparent homogeneity that historical sources or monuments like Trajans Column suggest, there was a constant search for variety in the appearance of different units within the Roman army. Thus, at least in the Republican era and in the early empire, we find a smooth continuity between parade and battle equipment. Furthermore, occasionally gladiatorial mass combats also assumed the form of naumachiae, accompanied by some pseudo-historical narrative, and these mock sea-battles were also fought by condemned criminals and prisoners of war (fig. 6). Nonetheless when Servius traces the origins of the naumachia to the period of the Punic Wars (beginning in 264 BCE), he asserts the exclusively military origins of these exercises: «Since the first Punic war the Romans started practicing naumachies after they showed the world that they could be dominant also in the naval war».
In other circumstances a gladiatorial mass engagement (the gregatim) could simulate mass infantry combat, as happened at the inauguration of the amphitheatre of Berytus, built by Herod Agrippa I (10 BCE-44 CE). Flavius Josephus, in what appears to us a somewhat tragic and involuntary irony, assimilates this «operation of war», in which all the prisoners - seven hundred gladiators per side - were all «destroyed at once» as «a recreation in peace» (τὸ πολέμου δ᾽ ἔργον γένηται τέρψις εἰρήνης). Furthermore, sham battles sometimes also included mock sieges aimed at re-enacting a victorious campaign of an emperor pars pro toto, with the conquest of a single town representing the capitulation of a nation. Thus the troops of the emperor Claudius stormed a replica of a British town on the Campus Martius and re-enacted the surrender of the British kings:
On the Campus Martius too he staged the storming and sacking of a town in an imitation of real warfare [«expugnationem direptionemque oppidi ad imaginem bellicam»], culminating in the surrender of the British kings, and he presided in his campaigning cloak.
Sometimes the mock engagements staged joint forces, amphibious assaults on a defended position, as in the aquatic display Titus mounted at the stagnum Augusti (“Augustus basin”) as part of the lavish celebrations held to inaugurate the Flavian Amphitheatre (80 CE):
[At the Stagnum Augusti] large numbers of individuals fought in single combat, whereas others competed against each other in groups in infantry and naval battles. For Titus had suddenly filled this same theatre with water, and he had brought in horses and bulls and other domesticated animals that had been taught to do in water everything that they could do on land. He also brought in people on ships; they engaged in a naval battle there representing the Corcyreans versus the Corinthians. Others gave a similar display outside the city in the grove of Gaius and Lucius, which Augustus had once excavated for this purpose. There, too, on the first day - once the lake in front of the images had been covered with a platform of planks and wooden stands had been erected around it - there was a gladiatorial display and a slaughter of wild beasts; on the second day there was a horse-race, and on the third day a naval battle involving three thousand men, followed by an infantry battle: the “Athenians” conquered the “Syracusans” (these being the designations the men fought under), landed on the island, and stormed and captured a wall that had been built around the monument.
It must be admitted that no explicit mention of sham or practice sieges in Roman legionary training has been ever found. Certain scholars, including Kenneth A. Steer, have hypothesised that the Scottish site at Burnswark was an area where the Roman army practiced siege operations. More recent studies have however contested this proposition, but it cannot be excluded that those activities might have been undertaken as training, especially considering the fact that the Romans put extraordinary care towards planning siege warfare, both tactically and technologically.
2. Medieval and Pre-Modern Martial Spectacles
If it is a game, it is too much, if it is a war it is not enough!
The concurrence of military training, competition, and display survived the fall of the Roman Empire, and devolved into a rich spectrum of medieval and pre-modern martial events as the apanage of an aristocratic (and sometimes burgherly) audience. The same chivalric impetus that resulted in grand tournaments and jousts also produced a multitude of more obscure chivalric festivals, such as the feat or deeds of arms, jousts of war, the tupineis, the bohort the tyrocinium, the pas darmes, the round table and its German variations (forest, gralsfest), the Spanish juego de cañas (“game of canes”) and morismas, the Catalan tradition of taulat and juntes de relló, the barrier, the carousel (“equestrian ballets”), as well as various naumachiae and mock sieges. These, in turn, complemented other types of ritualized training combat activity, often conceived as drills for the “popular” armies scattered across the continent throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, and related to various violent sports of a paramilitary nature, such as the Florentine calcio (“soccer”). Some of these sports were again ancient in origin, such as the sword dances no doubt descended from either Greek pyrrhic dances or from those ancestral pagan rituals in Northern Europe that celebrated the renewal of light and the rebirth of the earth. Other martial games, such as the ludi militari of the Italian urban militias, ritual battles called battagliole (or battaglie dei giovani or simply battaglie, guerra, pugna, etc.), sassaiole (“stone-fights”), bridge battles like the gioco del Ponte in Pisa, but also mock plunders (saccomanni and gualdane), were derived from or simulated outright the tactics of contemporary warfare. When these gory games spread to the towns and cities of central and northern Italy, civil and ecclesiastical authorities, wary of their risk to life and limb, reacted with a constant stream of prohibitions. Nonetheless, these battaglie (“battles”)and mock sieges became so common amongst the youth that the poet Teofilo Folengo noted, in 1517: «it is a common practice in every town that opposing teams of youngsters throw stones at each other». Undoubtedly, in their non-aristocratic component the battaglie also represented a sort of compensation of disputes between urban factions of Italian municipal society, especially in central and northern Italy. Not by chance such faux combats, generally coincided with the Carnival (carnisprivium), a time of temporary reversal of social and ethical norms.
The popular, ritualized violence that arose from contemporary war thus appears to have traversed nearly every social segment of European society, surviving into the seventeenth century. This composite and, above all, loose mosaic of para-military and semi-dramatic combats and games is of particular interest because some of these events were dramaturgic in conception and execution, albeit retaining, at least in principle, not only an intimidatory and feudlike component but also a clear martial component. It is also worth noting that these feigned battles co-existed with the most common forms of tournaments and jousts, of which they were sometimes historical precursors. Among the most intriguing examples of this tradition were the mock sieges (fig. 7). The memory of sieges and their often terrible consequences upon civilians had been a perennial theme since Antiquity not only in the visual and dramatic arts, but also in siege reports, military treatises, and memoirs. Generally speaking, the custom of building scaled-down castles and fortifications, with the aim of simulating sieges, often conducted with artillery, covered a broad spectrum of different cultural, religious, political, and military situations. Semi-dramatic sieges and mock naval battles were held to celebrate royal entries, triumphs, baptisms, and marriages, or to re-enact biblical episodes and historical events in Christian terms, as with the fifteenth century Mystère du siège dOrléans. They were also staged to commemorate the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, or between Christians and Moslems, as when the victory over the Turks at Belgrade or the siege of Granada were represented in Romes Piazza Navona (Carnival, 1457 and 1492), or the pugna umbratilis (sciomachy-fighting against ones own shadow) staged in the Jesuit theatre. Sham battles followed by assaults on faux castles also followed models provided in courtly literature or were inspired by allegorical constructs,such as the Castle of Loveor the virtues that battle vices in the renowned Middle English morality play The Castle of Perseverance (first half of the fifteenth century). Furthermore, the siege constantly recurred on the Renaissance and Baroque stage, in the Commedia dellArte, as well as in comic and tragic theatre, and in masques, the so-called opera-tournaments, and ballets.
Built of wood and earth, or from wood, plaster, and painted cardboard, the miniaturized castles used for these occasions were ephemeral, and sometimes appeared on pageant floats (fig. 8). Besieged castles and fortifications may have been represented on a still smaller scale in fireworks and table settings, fountains, automata, and military models themselves used in the military academies that began to emerge in the second half of the sixteenth century. Just as in Antiquity, the different types of faux sieges described below demonstrate the substantial permeability between the reasons for war and those for its representation between the late middle ages and early modern times. First, it had been relatively common since ancient times to hold parades, drill troops, and display siege trains outside the walls of a besieged town or fortress with the obvious purpose of frightening the inhabitants, as Sempronius Gracchus had already done at the siege of Certina in Spain (179 BCE). The concurrence between Deeds of Arms and warfare itself fed other festivities throughout medieval and early modern Europe, as attested, for instance, by the chivalric games held under the walls of the besieged town of Sens on 3 June 1420, during the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war, to honour the marriage of the English sovereign, Henry V to Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. In the sixteenth century, jousts were sometimes also held between besieged and besiegers, as at Mézières on October 1521, in the middle of the gory Italian Wars of 1521-26. According to Joachim Bumke, this practice was relatively frequent because it had been customary in ancient mass tournaments to create two safety zones known as fride (“zones of peace”), hamît (“barricades”), or litze (“cords”, “barriers”) that were used both to accommodate prisoners and protect knights. Often one of these areas was designated inside a city or castle while the other was set outside the walls in a camp. Thus, we often find in courtly literature expressions such as ceux du château (“the clan of the castle”) juxtaposed with ceaux du dehors (“the clan of outside”).
One of the first examples of a mock siege conceived for a specific military context is a tornerium in armis a batalea (literally “tourney with weapons of war”) fought in the stage-like Piazzetta of San Marco in Venice on 30 May 1458. This chivalric festival, together with an armilustro seu jostra (“joust”) held two days earlier, was promoted by the Paduan Council nominally to accompany the celebrations for the nomination of Pasquale Malipiero as Doge of Venice on 30 October 1457. There are multiple clues, however, that both spectacles actually celebrated the re-appointment of the renowned «condottiere» Bartolomeo Colleoni (1395-1475) as Captain General of the Republic of Venice. The tornerium, fought by seventy soldiers and officers of the Venetian army, simulated a fierce assault (pugna atrocissima) on a wooden ravelin (revelinum) with a little tower (rocheta) at its centre. After its capture, the besieged garrison inside the tower had to be rescued by an external force led by two other officers, in an engagement fought with untipped lances and blunted swords.
Robert III de La Marck (1491-1536), lord of Floranges and Marshal of France, who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pavia along with King Francis I, offers other revealing examples of the martial tradition of faux sieges. His own life testifies to the new type of aristocratic warrior, one who upheld the traditional values of medieval chivalry and complied with the new «métier» or «profession des armes». In his Mémoires, written in captivity in the castle of LÉcluse in Flanders, La Marck describes a series of chivalric spectacles held on behalf of Louis XII and Francis I respectively, strikingly using the same expressions and terminology to describe the chivalric performances as he does for real combat. This was not simply literary posturing, as the title he gave himself (Le Jeune Adventureaux, “The Young Adventurer”) in his memoirs might suggest, because Le Marck pursued the same ideal combination of arms and letters that Baldassarre Castiglione had commended in The Book of the Courtier describing the Duke of Angoulême (later Francis I). Among the knightly festivals narrated by La Marck, a series of mock sieges held in 1507 and 1509 assume particular importance, as the knight shared a passion for these events with the future king and they both whiled away the time playing siege games while at the Royal Castle of Amboise:
How the Sieur dAngoulesme and the Young Adventurer constructed small castles or «bastillons» and fought each other to the point that they often came to blows. How the Sieur dAngoulesme, the Young Adventurer and other young gentlemen made some «bastillons», and assaulted them in full armour and at the same time they defended these forts brandishing swords [...]. How [...] having become more adult they started to embrace the arms practising any sort of jousts and tournaments.
This was not a simple childish pastime, as is evident from the festes et esbattements (“pageants and martial games”) held in Milan many years later for the solemn entry of Louis XII (July 1509) after the victory over the Venetians at Agnadello (14th May 1509). La Marcks characterisation of the event as merveilleux desordre (“awesome disorder”) embodies to perfection the degree of violence these games entailed and their unpredictable consequences:
And among [other festivities] there was a «bastillon»in which there occurred awesome disorder because over forty gentlemen fell dead and others were wounded. Monsieur Chaumont dAmboise with three hundred men at arms and two hundred archers defended the «bastillon»; and the King and others nobles had it assailed; and this assault was conducted by a thousand men at arms who were driven back, and the «bastillon» was not conquered; and so much the better, for otherwise there would have been a massacre, given the presence of siege ladders and wood forks; and it took great efforts to separate them. And if the king had not personally intervened, a terrible mess would have ensued [«il y eut eu de grant follie»].
The event was part of the cultural euphoria that surrounded the conquests of the French king, who was regarded as «Père de la France» or «Père du peuple» (“Father of France” or “Father of the people”), and whose victories through siege warfare were lauded by an anonymous panegyrist.
Charles II dAmboise de Chaumont (1473-1511), Marshal of France and Governor of Paris and Milan, was among the knights that participated in the Milanese celebrations of 1509. His command of the cavalry had been decisive at Agnadello, a battle so bloody that one «saw only the sky and the bones of dead men», and who had organized a similar mock siege, called the bastion, in Milan two years earlier (June 1507). This pageant was regulated by juges de combats (“combat judges”) seated on a high scaffold, and entailed an assault on a miniature fortress that dAmboise and 100 noble men-at-arms defended against all comers («contre tous venans»). The 400 assailants included Louys de Brézé, Great Seneschal de Normandie, and Robert Stuart dAubigny at the head of a hundred Scottish combatants in the service of the French king. Although the sham fortification, endowed with two defensible towers with between 25 and 30 defendants as well as a ditch, were apparently built for the amusement of the king and noble ladies, and despite the use of non-lethal arms, such as padded canes, blunt swords, fork perches and a curious arsenal of mock weapons consisting of large barrels and syringes filled with water for drenching assailants and paper artillery, combat was particularly rough as the bastion - as Jean dAuton relates - «assailly moult rudement et deffendu a toute force» (“was very roughly attacked and strongly defended”). The battle, in which a Scottish soldier lost his life after being severely wounded by a blow of a defendants large club, was so fierce that the king was forced to intervene in person on the field multiple times in order to separate the two sides, as the royal archers were unable to execute his order.
As in many similar episodes, it is clear that the French attitude to war, particularly in the Italian wars, was still a «guerre de magnificence» rather than a «guerre commune» - a distinction the French herald firmly maintained in Le débat des hérauts darmes de France et dAngleterre composed between 1453 and 1461:
You know, Sire Herald, that I make a strong distinction between common war and war of magnificence. Because I say that a common war is a civil war or a conflict conducted against neighbours and relatives while a war of magnificence is a war in which princes with all their armies march to a distant and foreign country or fight to defend or extend the Catholic faith.
Between May 14th and 15th 1518, Leonardo da Vinci, who might have participated in the creation of Milans 1507 military exhibitions, realized a faux siege for the castle of Amboise in celebration of the dauphins baptism and the marriage of Lorenzo di Piero de Medici, nephew of Pope Leo X. The «bataglia del castello» (“battle of the castle”), to use the expression of Stazio Gadio, ambassador to the duke of Mantua, was inspired by the battle of Marignano. The wooden-framed castle, with painted cloths for walls, was built to scale so its defensive turrets were the height of a man on horseback. Several siege mortars placed on a rampart facing the castle were set off, with «baloni sgonfiati in aere» (“air-inflated balls”), which caused astonishment and wonder without causing any damage, while falconets responded from the fort, shooting rags and paper to ceremonially represent defensive fire. The highly festive dimension of the assault however did not exclude simulated combat between besieging and besieged, in the presence of king Francis I himself, fully armed and surrounded by a large battalion of footmen.
In general, it is difficult to establish a firm boundary between the different kinds of faux sieges because hybrids were always possible, but on the whole they did significantly resemble actual fortress warfare, a resemblance that scholars have underestimated. For instance, in Martha Pollaks survey of cities at war in early modern Europe (2010), sham sieges are marginalized parades of «theatrical choreography», performed «in a manner untenable in real-life siege, which was about spade and trench work carried out by the humblest soldiers». In addition to the already noted examples, the martial festival described in the Relazione duno spettacolo militare fatto in un prato del palazzo di Pitti (1606) further contradicts this claim (fig. 9). This impressive Florentine mock battle, halfway between a princely fête and a simulation of a real siege, was staged by the same author of the Relazione, the Florentine stage-designerGiulio Parigi (1571-1635). Renowned painter but also grand ducal «ingegnere e architetto» (“engineer and architect”), Parigi proved his talent not only as a prolific scenographer but also as a high-ranking military engineer. Near his home on Via Maggio in Florence he established an academy of design that was frequented by influential artists and stage designers such as Inigo Jones, Jacques Callot, and Joseph Furttenbach, among others, as well as illustrious exponents of the European nobility, who came there explicitly to learn the art of fortification, so highly esteemed among the other “mathematical” disciplines. The future Grand Duke Cosimo II de Medici, son of Ferdinando I, who attended Parigis academy of design, traced a model of a fortified square in a meadow at the rear of the Pitti Palace, in the area where the Bobolis amphitheatre was eventually constructed. Parigi was appointed to raise the elevation of the fort - conceived as a provisional structure - according to an ideal fortification model was quite common and that had already been depicted by him in the vault of the Stanza dellArchitettura Militare (“Military Architecture Room”), better known as the Stanzino delle Matematiche (“Mathematics Room”) created in 1599 by Filippo Pigafetta in the Uffizi Palace. Worth noting too is that the fort depicted in the Uffizi fresco is framed by Albrecht Dürers perspective machine, which was almost certainly included among the instruments for drawing in perspective that had been used to trace the plan of the provisional fort.
Soon after erecting a model of a Turkish fortress belonging to the Ottoman Sultan Selim called «Selina», the same Cosimo held a minor faux assault to practice the theoretical principles studied in Parigis academy. Afterwards, wishing «to give a bit of pleasure to his sons and to Madame [Christine] and to his people of Florence», the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de Medici appointed Silvio Piccolomini, «Maestro di Campo» and «Generale» (Quarter-Master general) of the grand duchy to arrange all the necessary preparations for a greater mock siege of the «Turkish» stronghold, which was to be defended by Filippo Rinuccini, «Sergente Maggiore» (“Field Officer”) of the Florentine army. The explicit aim of the young Cosimo was to stage an accurate imitation with blunt weapons of «gli ordini soliti a tenersi in simili espugnationi» (“the customary manoeuvres held in similar sieges”). Held on 25 August 1606, the «spettacolo militare» (“military fête”),fought by Parigi as «Ingegniere Generale» (“General Engineer”) and aided by his pupils, including Cosimo as «Generalissimo» (“Commander”) of the besiegers army, was a sort of manifesto for the siege warfare of the time, which included mounted arquebusiers, artillery and entrenchments, mantelets and sappers to dig mines for breaching the bastion, and all the other most relevant features of contemporary sieges. The use of firearms and artillery, as well as all the other features of coeval warfare, were openly reflected in these sorts of chivalric festivals, which represented a peculiar pre-modern juxtaposition of ancient aristocratic ideals with the innovations of a new model of warfare. Indeed, these sham battles point to the active role played by the aristocracy and chivalric institutions in the promotion of the modern form of military professionalism. Here there is a strict continuum between the neo-feudal credo of the political elites and their courtier ethos, genuinely inspired by the principles of humanist ideology and the achievements of the scientific and technological revolution of the Renaissance, as conveyed in the new political and social framework of centralised states.
As is evident from the Florentine faux siege of 1606, the transformation of the medieval miles into the courtier and the consequent central role assumed by military ideologies in the system of Italian provincial courts explain the genuine adhesion of even those elites not directly engaged in military professions to these precepts. Military humanism, which became established in the Italian peninsula between the second half of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century with the rediscovery of the theoretical principles of ancient warfare in their application to modern war, had given an ideological legitimacy to Renaissance armies from the start. The subsequent establishment of European national armies was on the other hand a sign of the subversion of the supremacy of the ancient over the modern, correlating with an ever increasing professionalization of military society. The need to create state armies from scratch and to establish a class of army officers fostered however the creation of military academies which, in turn, promoted a rich mutual exchange not only between the cutting-edge civil technologies and sciences of the period, but also between those and the techniques closely bound to the ancient chivalric and humanistic values in which warfare assumes highly ritualised and formalised values, to the point where in military academies the masters of arms were considered as important as dance teachers, as recorded by Sidney Anglo.
In the battlefield as well as in these semi-dramatic events, the military conduct of the knights was heavily conditioned by chivalric ethos and a persistent pursuit of glory and fame. It was the same desire for individual distinction in the thick of battle, the same search for visibility that derived from a long heroic tradition and which determined this intimate connection between real and simulated warfare. As Braden Friederer has noted, «the comparative safety of later medieval and Renaissance tournaments has probably been exaggerated by modern historians, and it is important to note that tournaments were still considered training for war in some parts of Europe until well into the seventeenth century», and only this explains the high number of casualties at these “festive” events.
These games continued even later, for example in the mock sieges organized in the late seventeenth century by General Franz Lefort on behalf of Tsar Peter the Great, a sovereign notoriously keen on military games. Not surprisingly, even in the mid-seventeenth century faux sieges were considered «assez ordinaires» (“rather frequent”) by the Jesuit Claude-François Ménestrier (1631-1705) and they were still the best occasions for noble protagonists to display «toutes les ruses» (“all the stratagems”) and «tous les artifices des veritables combats» (“all the artifices of real battles”) (fig. 10). They were the most desirable occasions in which to learn the art of war whilst entertaining an experienced and accomplished audience:
Among the drills and the public festivals, the mock battles and the faux sieges of sites, cities and castles are very common. In no other circumstance could skills and bravery be better displayed. They require all the stratagems and artifices of real combat, and one learns to win while entertaining the spectators.
After a cursory investigation spanning centuries and covering different aspects from ancient ludi, to the chivalric pageantries of the medieval tournaments and jousts, from sham battles to mock sieges, it is essential to reconnect to the main theses presented at the outset of the study. The wide-ranging expression of the manifestations of organised violence, both individual and collective, the constant exchanges between a more strictly festive and ludic dimension and a military one, took form through a rich sequence of martial exhibitions and celebrations from ancient times to the pre-modern era. The elusive boundary between war and cruel games, between the expression of the states collective violence and private individual or factional violence, showcases two sides which are connected, often linked by unseen threads to the world of contemporary performances. On one hand we find the necessity of generals and rules of the ostentation of the exercise of power, in order to guarantee their armies military efficiency. On the other, an ideology of honour emerges belonging to the medieval chivalric ethos, borrowing much from the hero ideology of ancient times. Up to the dawn of the modern age, this ideology has revealed itself able not only to challenge limits and bans imposed on the use of arms by secular and religious authorities, but also to integrate the most advanced technological innovations, which might have tainted its strength and corrupted its fierce vitality.
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