Tag Archives: history

The Mafia Gas Tax Skim

Didn’t the NY Mafia sort-of try this, I may have the details wrong but in the mid-late 70s they began operating “fake” gas stations. Something on the order of close to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes? Correct me please, it’s late and I’m too tired after work to be bothered googling


You’re very close, and the details are pretty interesting. There have been multiple rounds of this, the one you’re talking about was the late 70s early 80s. It popped back up around the turn of the millennium, with Russian mobsters.

The issue wasn’t fake gas stations, it was fake gas distributors. These are the companies that sell gas to the stations themselves. At the time, they were responsible for collecting any sales taxes on the gasoline. So, a real station would buy gas from the distributor. The distributor would keep the 9 cents a gallon, to hand over to the IRS and any relevant state revenue services.

In the mid-70s, some people in the distribution industry realized that there was a potential loophole. If the distributor that collected the tax money no longer existed or was bankrupt by the time tax collectors came for their payout, there was no money to take.

There were (at least) four geographic areas where this scam started gaining traction, Southern California, Southern Florida, Houston, and New York City. I don’t have firm numbers on how long this continued undetected. By the late 70s, a couple of The Families had learned about this, and muscled their way in. At that point, the Mafia started skimming off the stolen tax money, so for roughly five years, the Mafia was getting one cent for every gallon of gas sold in the Tri-State area. (I’ve seen some conflicting numbers for how much money was taken, though estimates put this at a billion dollars over the life of the skim, though I’m unsure if that was the Mafia’s cut, or if that was the total skim.)

So, it wasn’t a Mafia plan, so much as the Mafia sniffed out corruption (which they are very adept at), and then inserted themselves into the processes. (It’s also worth noting that the operations in SoCal, Florida, and Texas never came under Mafia control. Those remained independent operations.)

It’s a little unclear whether Mafia involvement accelerated the skim’s discovery. There were already criminal investigations going back into the 70s, trying to figure out where the money was going. At the same time, the Mafia brought their signature degree of violence, and lack of subtly.

By the mid-to-late 80s, this was mostly exposed, and shut down. There were changes to make this kind of skimming operation more difficult. As mentioned earlier, it didn’t completely prevent this kind of skim, and there was a brief resurgence twenty years ago, again in the Tri-State area, but it failed to take hold and remain undetected.

It is an interesting footnote and worth digging up. As I mentioned, the Mafia had a real knack for sniffing out corruption or graft and then inserting themselves into the process.


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Followup: Practical History

Thank you for breaking down the types of martial art schools. My brother and I attended the same school, but our focus made us take different classes with different instructors. I was being bullied and hit every day, so I took a lot of sel-defense and practical applications classes. I still learned katas, but they were secondary to my goal. My brother learned how to do beautiful katas, but he hated getting in a ring. Outlook and preparedness is everything, and something people overlook.

You’re illustrating something that I accidentally skimmed over; almost any martial art can be taught with a practical outlook. This isn’t just things like Muay Thai, where the application is obvious, it includes martial arts you wouldn’t expect, like Tai-Chi.

The key here is having an instructor who can teach you to apply what you’re learning in a real world context.

Karate is an easy example to dogpile on. Almost all practitioners you’ll find today will be recreational ones. You will find a great many who can’t apply what they know outside of the Dojo. Except, Karate wasn’t developed for self-defense, it was developed for guerrilla warfare.

Karate is not a Japanese martial art, it’s Okinawan. It’s easy to conflate these now, but this becomes a very important distinction when you look at Karate’s history. Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the Nineteenth Century, and the original Japanese invasion and vassalization of Okinawa dates back to the early Seventeenth Century. (I’m skimming over a lot of the history; if you’re interested, you should read up on this.)

Because of this, the Japanese were seen as an occupying force, and Karate was specifically adapted to kill Samurai. (Okay, I’m being a little reductive here, Karate technically dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, though, much of what we have today is a result of these adaptations.)

The modern incarnation, dating back to the Japanese vassalization of Okinawa, is designed to interdict and preempt entire segments of a Samurai’s combat training. Not all of this will be relevant today, and I wouldn’t recommend a low strike to prevent your opponent from cross-drawing a gun, but it will directly block an Iaido practitioner’s draw. (Note: I’m extending the definition of, “modern Karate” further back than normal. “Modern Karate,” usually starts with the founding of Shotokan in the mid-twentieth century,)

When we’re talking self-defense, Karate’s probably not going to be the right tool for the job, But, this is a martial art that was originally developed to kill people, and some of that can still be applied to interrupt and disable an assailant. The underlying combat philosophy of preventing your opponent from attacking with preemptive strikes has real applications. If you can understand how to bring this stuff into the real world, it’s viable. However, because it requires staying ahead of your opponent, you really need to know what you’re doing. That’s the weakness, this was designed to deal with foes who would act in very predictable patterns. If you don’t know what your opponent will do before they act, the value suffers.

That’s an example I’m personally familiar with, however, there are a lot stories like this, where a martial art started out as a method to kill or incapacitate your foes, and has gradually transitioned into something else. Again, if this stuff interests you, read up on it. Some martial arts have fascinating histories.


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Q&A: Time Travel

My character is a modern guy, an avid swordfighter and has had a bit of basic military training. He then time travels to the Ancient Rome and joins the Roman Imperial Army. How easily could he adapt, since he’s never fought in armour and with a shield before? Would his modern techniques cause issues of integration? Also, if his swordfighting skills aren’t set for killing as he learned it as an art form, would that be an issue too?

Ironically, any combat training he’s had will be among the least useful skills he takes back with him. Basic, modern, knowledge you take for granted is far more significant. Particularly anything technical. A basic grasp of chemistry, medicine, or even metallurgy could radically alter the course of history.

So let’s start with the sword fighting. HEMA practitioners do not fight using historical techniques; they use recreations. We have the training manuals but we don’t have access to the masters themselves. Meaning there’s a huge skill drop.

In martial arts, it’s extremely important to have a trained practitioner on hand while you’re learning. They can see the mistakes you make, and correct those as you go, so you do not train them in.

In the case of HEMA, because there were no living masters, any mistakes made by the people studying initially became baked into the martial art itself.

Training in mistakes is a serious issue, and is one that can haunt a martial artist. When your muscle memory tells you to do one thing, and you’re not supposed to, it’s very hard to break that behavior. This is something that could be a serious issue for your character, though, honestly, all of their training is going to be irrelevant.

HEMA seeks to recreate a fighting style that saw use in European warfare. The modern use is recreational (or educational, if you prefer), it’s not intended for actual battlefield usage.

If a HEMA practitioner is honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they would not stand a chance against actual soldiers from the timeframe they’re recreating. Their training just isn’t good enough to keep up with people who leaned this stuff to avoid death.

Beyond that, HEMA is still sampling from a specific timeframe. One which, for the most part, does not overlap with Imperial Rome. There are Roman Legion reenactments. It is possible your character did that. But, when you’re talking about “an avid sword fighter,” that’s either someone who follows either Italian or German school fencing. In either case, you’re talking about training with a weapon that won’t exist for, at least, another thousand years.

One thing your character may have in spades is a level of strategic skill that is uncommon or impossible to replicate historically. This is due two things, first, if they have a background in military history (even if it’s just as a hobbyist) they’ll have extensive knowledge over what’s been tried and worked, or hasn’t.

In some cases, they may even have a pretty good read on who their facing.

Another hobby that can pay dividends is strategy games. Now, there’s nothing new about the idea of wargaming. Chess is a wargame. But, the level of sophistication, and the variety of potential scenarios has increased dramatically over time. The war games today are far more instructive on commanding a large force than historical games would have been.

None of this matters if your character isn’t in a command position (and they probably wouldn’t), but it’s worth remembering.

Basic medical knowledge, the kind you passively pick up, living in the 21st century, has numerous, significant, advantages over someone living in the first century AD. For one thing, you know to disinfect a wound. You know you can use clear alchohol to do that. And you understand that if you don’t, the wound could become infected. You also probably know you could boil bandages to kill anything on them (even if we don’t do this today, because bandages are usually disposable), and that you should change the bandages out for clean fairly regularly. All of this to prevent bacterial infection, because that will kill you.

Your average Roman Legionnaire did not know this. Your average soldier in the mid-19th did not know this.

Modern wound care, something so basic, you’ve probably learned about this from entertainment, is an enormous technological advancement over what the characters in the past would know.

If your character has an actual medical background, (a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, even just a veterinarian), they have just become the most skilled medical practitioner in the world. The information they have is literally thousands of years more advanced than anyone else. This is far more valuable than their ability to swing a sword.

If your character has background in chemistry, buckle up. You can synthesize black powder using a mixture of carbon (so, charcoal will work), sulfur, and sodium nitrate (saltpeter). You’ll need to work a bit on getting higher quality metals, but that’s not much of an ask for a chemist. Congratulations, your time traveler just invented guns using reasonably available materials. They aren’t particularly good guns, but a bullet’s a bullet.

I’m also going to point out, for someone with a background in chemistry, this is one of the least disruptive things they can do.

If you took chemistry in high school, you probably made a potato battery. There’s a lot of ways you can generate electricity if you know it’s a thing, and want to do something with it. You can make liquid batteries that can be refilled. Now, if you’re living in the first century, this is a big, “so what?” You wouldn’t know what you could do with the stuff. For someone with a modern background? You know what you can do with electricity. It’s easy to think, oh lights, but, if you understand how the components are put together, you might be able to construct something like non-portable radios. Sure, you can’t actually talk through them, but that’s why things like Morse Code exist.

Metallurgy is another one that can get downright nuts. If your character knows how to make crucible steel, and understands basic, modern, forging techniques, they’re going to be able to make weapons that are without peer in the past. Sure, it’s not guns, but being able to take, even low quality, modern steel blades into combat against foes equipped with bronze and iron? That’s not going to end well for their enemies.

When you’re dealing with time travel, your character’s combat prowess is one of the least useful assets they have. Their weapons (if they brought any), are more significant, but your character’s technical knowledge is real advantage here.

I know I focused on it, but in many cases, it’s not even, really, the combat applications for skill sets. Their non-combat skills are immensely more valuable to the civilization they just landed in. Hell, even just a modern understanding of economics would be world changing for a merchant in the first century.

It’s easy to look at what you know, and think that this stuff is obvious, and everyone must have known this. Truth is, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The world we live in today, the knowledge we have today, is the product of millennia of advancement. Fold that over, send some of that information back, and everything changes.

Have fun.


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Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.


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Q&A: Arms and Armor

I was wondering if you would have any tips on good armor for my characters. I’m having a little trouble figuring out what would be the best option for combat. I’m also having trouble figuring out what weapons would work out the best too. Any help is much appreciated!!

There’s a similar answer to both of these, it’s contextual. “Good weapons” are ones that can kill your foes without killing you in the process. “Good armor” is gear that can protect you from your foes weapons without getting you killed in the process. Both are going to change significantly depending on the world your characters live in, and what they’re doing.

Here’s a quick example: If your character is a 17th century sailor, heavy armor is far more dangerous to your character than going unarmored. If they fall off the deck, they won’t be able to swim, and they will drown. (There’s a decent chance that they couldn’t swim anyway. Ironically, swimming was not a common skill among sailors in the 17th century.)

Their best options for weapons are short barrel firearms and swords. This is because they’re going to be engaging in very close quarters during boarding actions, where long muskets and polearms will get caught on the environment and can’t be used. When going ashore, they’d probably draw long muskets and breastplates from the ship’s armory (if it had one.)

In modern infantry warfare, those weapons would be suicide. Most modern combat happens at ranges where a smooth bore, black powder pistol simply can’t connect.

If your character is infantry in 11th century Europe, it’s probably going to be a cloth gambeson, and polearms, which won’t work for any of the examples above.

Picking the right weapon for the situation is all about understanding the kind of conflict your characters will be seeing, and the technology of the world they live in.

It’s easy to look back at history and the get the impression that nothing changed over long stretches. This is not true. Military technology has been a constant progression. This can be seen in the advancement of armor and weapons throughout history. The swords the Roman Legions used were fundamentally different from the swords wielded in the 18th century, and a smith from two thousand years earlier could not have replicated them.

This is before you consider specialized weapons like the estoc. Which was specifically designed as an anti-armor weapon against plate. Obviously, if your characters exist in a world where plate armor isn’t a thing, the estoc’s not going to be a real weapon. (Not just, “not a good one,” it probably won’t exist.) A shocking number of weapons originate in these kinds of “problem/solution” dynamics, and armor follows suit. The original term, “bullet proof,” referred to early modern armorers “proofing” their armor’s effectiveness by shooting it with a pistol. To demonstrate that the armor would hold up on the battlefield, where firearms had started coming into prominence.

So, weapons evolve to deal with armor, and the situations they’re used in. Armor evolves to deal with the weapons used against them. Sometimes, weapons have a technological surge, leading to new innovations that seriously change the nature of combat. Such as the development of bronze, iron, steel, and firearms. Each of these stages dramatically changed weapons and armor. Even within those fields, refinement of existing technologies kept things moving forward.

One excellent, and recent, example is World War I. The introduction of fully automatic weapons completely changed the face of warfare, and, in less than a year, brought an end to millennia of human combat doctrine. Fundamentally, the answer to your question changes completely when you move from 1900 to 1920.

The best I can offer is, consider the situations where they’ll need to use the weapons. Research any historical allegory for your world, and try to build it from there. It’s not perfect, but it might give you some ideas. For example, if you’re making your characters in the model of Scandinavian heroes, you might want to read up on Viking warfare. If it’s the Romans, then read up on the Roman Legions. There’s no harm in reading up on history and trying to learn from it. Even if things don’t match up 100%, you’ll learn things about how people looked at conflict, and how they responded to it.


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Q&A: Anachronism Stew

Could carrying multiple weapons at the hip be at all practical? My rogue knight, he’s paranoid so he carries a dagger, a tomahawk, a broadsword, and a scimitar on him at almost all times. Would this work in any way?

There’s a few questions here.

Multiple weapons is normal. That’s not even a paranoia thing. At the very least, a character would carry a primary weapon (maybe a spear or other polearm), and a sidearm (a sword, battle axe, or something similar.) They’d probably also carry a dagger. Historically these were a combination of eating implement, multipurpose tool, and emergency weapon. Depending on context, they may also carry a shield (which is, ultimately a weapon in its own right.)

A hatchet would end up in a kind odd state here. It’s reasonable for them to carry it as a tool. They probably wouldn’t use it in combat by choice, but if it’s the only thing you can reach, sure. This puts it in a similar class to the dagger, but carrying both would still make sense.

It’s also possible, depending on their culture, that they’d carry throwing weapons. Throwing axes or javelins are the two that come to mind. (Probably because you mentioned tomahawks.)

The term tomahawk throws me off a bit. The word is Algonquian. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind if your setting is a pseudo-medieval Europe. Trade off is, if you’re wanting a “New World Colonization,” theme, then yeah, a tomahawk would make sense. Though, at that point, your character would probably be carrying a musket as their primary, a pistol (or several), a saber, possibly a bow, a knife, and said tomahawk. Again, nothing wrong with this if you want to step into an early modern setting (think 17th century), it is an incredibly interesting era that’s undeserved in popular fantasy. So, feel free. Though, you might want to do some additional research before you jump in.

There’s another weapon nitpick: the broadsword and scimitar combo is weird. The scimitar is Middle Eastern. The broadsword is an anachronism. Unless you have a character who’s dual wielding, I’d recommend only bringing one dedicated sidearm. (The pistols example above is an anomaly. Some combatants carried multiple black powder pistols and would simply swap out weapons instead of reloading them in combat. This was a rarity, and fell out of practice as faster reload systems became prevalent.)

So, we have an anachronism stew here. We’ve got a European knight, who’s using a Persian weapon, and a Native American weapon. This is a little odd. (The word, Scimitar, entered English from either French or Italian.) You can bring all of this together, but it’s worth remembering that weapons, (and martial arts) aren’t universal. Historically, these had regional roots. Picking them indiscriminately can, at best, result in an anachronistic mess, and at worst can be downright offensive.

I’m not sure what you’re after with, “rogue knight.” I mean, is he supposed to be multi-classed, because the real world didn’t work like that. A knight spent most of his life training for combat. There wasn’t really time for him to go out and develop a side career as a thief.

Now, if your setting has militant orders who train for clandestine warfare, sneaking in and around, that’s an option. There’s no real world equivalent. Modern special forces were an evolution of the extreme lethality of 19th and 20th century combat, though it’s possible a fantasy setting may have militant orders that operate like this.

Another possibility is that your character wanders around, basically of their own accord. In that case, the term you’re looking for is Knight Errant.

A former knight who’d been excommunicated could also be described as rogue. I’m not at all sure how that works out, but I’m confidant your character would have cause to be a bit paranoid if that were the case. Particularly if there are religious inquisitions on the lose. Most of the time we think of the Spanish Inquisition (15th century), but the inquisitions date back to the 12th. Militant orders date to the 10th, so there’s some overlap here.

Putting this together, it is possible, you have an excommunicated knight who fled to The New World to avoid inquisitorial scrutiny. This could get close to the specific combination of weapons you’re looking at, but we’re realistically talking mid 17th century here. Of course, with a fantasy setting, things start to shuffle around a bit.

So, in answer to your final question, could this work? Yes, but that loadout is a little awkward. You may want to do some further research on the era you’re looking at, before you start tweaking the world.


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Q&A: Spartan Military

So how would a “spartan-esqe” military work? If you’ve already answered all of this, can you just link me to the article(s)? Thanks!

The very short answer is, it wouldn’t. Which may sound somewhat strange given the Spartans certainly enjoyed some success with their methods, so why am I saying it doesn’t work?

It’s more accurate to say the Spartans tried a lot of different things, some intentionally, and others accidentally. Some of those factors made them more effective, while others actually undermined their ability to operate and (to varying degrees) lead to their destruction.

The stuff that worked, has been adapted and, in many cases, become the norm. The stuff that doesn’t work gets picked up by people who don’t know what they’re doing and emulated, often with disastrous results.

It’s also worth remembering that it is impossible to separate the Spartan military from their society as a whole. In most societies, you can segregate their military out and examine it as a distinct entity. This isn’t possible with the Spartans.

The biggest advantage the Spartans enjoyed game from the concept of a professional soldier. This is something that should be familiar to any modern reader. You have soldiers who are, primarily, soldiers. You’re not fielding a military of craftsmen and other professions who you pressed into service, or who volunteered to form a militia when called for.

This is true of every modern military. However, for the Greeks it was unusual. The norm was for someone to have a domestic profession, but when called they would set their daily life aside and go to war.

Spartans would train for combat, and their entire culture revolved around preparing for war. When the time came, they were far better prepared to deal with the challenges and foes they faced.

On the whole, their abusive training methods, particularly against their children, were a net negative. They couched it as removing the weak, and strengthening their survivors, but that’s not really true. It did impair their ability to replace lost soldiers.

There’s a kind of sick irony here. Malnourishing kids (which the Spartans did) will permanently impair them. They’ll miss growth milestones, which you never really get back. So, the result will be smaller, weaker adults with cognitive impairment, and diminished immune systems. (This is a partial list, if you want to look it up, childhood malnutrition can result in a horrific list of symptoms.)

Starting at age 7, Spartans would take male children from their mothers and send them to be trained in Agelai (“herds,”) at the Agoge. The individuals in a herd would be overseen by older boys in their mid-teens, who would be responsible for their discipline and training. In turn those older boys would be disciplined by adults. The important takeaway is that there was brutality all around.

Children in the Agoge weren’t provisioned food. They were expected to forage for food from the surrounding farms, stealing what they needed. There were harsh penalties for getting caught, so the goal was to become an effective thief. This is where that malnutrition thing comes in, because no matter how skilled they became, it’s a safe bet these kids weren’t getting enough food.

The intent was to build up toughness. There’s a certain logic there, not logic that applies to reality, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s read a tryhard YA novel which takes Nietzsche’s, “that which does not kill me,” line a little too literally.

Take a similarly aggressive approach to training, but make sure your recruits (or kids) are well fed, and aren’t freezing to death in the night, and you’d see dramatically better results. (This also involves incentivizing the recruits, to get them actually committed to the training, but that’s another issue.)

Training is also one of the easiest, and most useful components to emulate. Ironically, looking at something like the Boy Scouts you get a similar result without damaging the participants. Scouts (who reach Star rank or higher) have a solid background in wilderness survival, orientation, and other skills with direct paramilitary application. I’d say, you don’t teach them combat skills, but then again the Marksmanship and Archery badges exist. It’s also where I got my medical training, some of my hand to hand training, and where I first learned to shoot. It’s also where I first learned the basics of Criminal Investigation. So, kids who come out of the BSA with an upper rank do end up with a surprising skill set, even if I tend to think of it as normal.

I’m singling out their training methods, perhaps unfairly, because it’s not the major reason their forces became irreplaceable.

The military forces we think of as Spartan, were the full citizens, called Homoioi (I’m told this roughly translates to “Equals,” or “Similars.”) A male Spartan Homoioi would be put through the training I’m mentioning above.

Spartans who failed in a wide varieties of ways were permanently removed from the Homoioi, and became Hypomieones (Inferiors). A Hypomieones, and their descendants, could not reascend to the Homoioi. Someone could be demoted for a wide range of transgressions, including insubordination, cowardice, showing fear in combat,  failing to be recruited by a communal mess hall at the conclusion of their training, or failure to pay dues to their mess. (These last two may sound trivial, but the Syssitias were a significant component of the way Spartan society was organized. It was, however, still a very easy way for a prospective Homoioi to be removed from their culture’s elite over a relatively minor social infraction.)

The Spartans also maintained a very strict victory or death outlook. According to Plutarch, their soldiers were told to “come back with your shield; or on it,” when leaving for war. (Worth noting that Plutarch lived four centuries after the Spartan collapse. So the exact phrasing may be apocryphal, though the philosophy was accurate to Spartan philosophy. By Plutarch’s time, Sparta had been reduced to what Josiah Ober has called, “an antiquarian theme-park,” where tourists from the Greek world would come to see recreations of classic Spartan training turned spectacle.) Something really important to understand, if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you need to actually survive those mistakes, and learn. The Spartans disagreed, if you survived a losing battle, and you could be blamed for cowardice, there was a pretty solid bet that anything you saw would be regarded as irrelevant. This kind of, “accept no failure” approach has a long term effect of crippling your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your character is soldier in 550BC, or 2017AD, they need to be able to learn from their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Modern social behavior among cops, soldiers, and even martial arts predisposes you to tell stories about, how someone you knew screwed up and got severely injured or died. You may not think about why, or how, but this does serve a very real purpose. It’s normalized to the point where this is borderline instinctive behavior, but, this is one very solid way that modern combatants learn from mistakes. If your social structure penalizes this severely, that’s not going to happen, and your military force will become insular and inflexible.

By the fifth century BC, the Spartan military did employ auxiliary units that were pulled from the Hypomieones, and other lower castes (including the Helots (serfs/slaves. Worth remembering that the Hypomieones who saw combat may not have undergone Spartan training, as it was entirely possible that their ancestor had been demoted.) This was more an act of necessity, as their military was getting into a place where there were no longer enough Homoioi to reliably field them exclusively.

Because of the way demotion worked, and the artificial attrition the Spartans applied to the children of citizens, battlefield losses were irreplaceable. Specifically, the infants of citizens would be examined at birth for any defect or weakness, and if they failed this they would be left to die of exposure.

There’s an application here that’s a little abstract. Having elite forces can be a major advantage in warfare. However, when the entirety of your forces are, “elite,” you’re going to have a hard time fielding enough people to actually fight. A modern comparison would be trying build an entire fighting force off of Special Forces and eliminating everyone else from the system. You would get some very effective combatants, but you wouldn’t be able to replace standing forces lost to attrition. Which was exactly one of the problems that late Sparta faced. Where battlefield victories with hundreds of Spartan casualties, set the stage for later conflicts where they couldn’t field enough soldiers to fight.

The other major advantage the Spartans had was an illusion. In the Hellenistic world, Spartan soldiers were seen as virtually invincible. Particularly during their early campaigns, the rigorous training applied against inexperienced combatants lead to the belief that Spartan warriors were an indomitable force. There’s plenty of surviving records of enemies routing at the sight of a Spartan advance.

To be clear, this reputation was earned. However, as the other Greek city-states became more familiar with Spartan tactics, they began to learn how to exploit them. In part, Spartan tactics were predictable, but deviated from normal Greek military doctrine, resulting in a decisive advantage against foes who were unfamiliar with their methods, but could be countered by an opponent who’d seen their approach to combat before. The end of the illusion was The Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, when the Spartans were dealt a crushing defeat by Theban forces lead by Epaminondas.

This particular illusion can be very potent psychological advantage for a military force. Particularly when you’re dealing with a small elite cadre that can be selectively deployed. Your foes never know where they may pop up, and will be on edge facing your conventional forces.

It’s also, somewhat apparent (from surviving reports), that the Spartans actually believed this illusion as well. From a military standpoint this is borderline suicidal. You want your enemy to fear your forces and think you’re invincible. You don’t want your own troops, or especially your leaders, to believe the same thing.

Sparta wanted soldiers who were absolutely loyal, with unlimited conviction. In the long run, they created an inflexible, unrelenting system that ultimately cannibalized themselves. There are a lot of lessons that can (and have) been taken from the Spartans, but those are peppered with cautionary examples of what not to do.


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Q&A: Vet Your Sources

I suggest you read The Templars and the Assassins: Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Very interesting read. A lot of what we know about the historical Assassins is slandar by their enemies. Also the characters of Assassin’s Creed are just as interesting as their historical counterparts. How Ubisoft took the legends of both orders and expanded them is amazing and a stroke of sheer brilliance.

When you’re conducting research: One of the first steps is to vet the author. Who are they? What’s their background? Once you understand that, you can make an intelligent assessment of what you’re reading.

For example, Wasserman is not a trained historian. In fact, as far as I can tell he doesn’t hold any formal degree. His area of expertise is mysticism and the occult. His own bio describes him as, “an admirer of the teachings of Aleister Crowley.” So, if you were researching modern American mysticism, he might be a decent point or reference. Detailed historical analysis? Not so much.

Another thing to consider, when writing non-fiction is that bold claims require strong evidence. In very general terms, claims don’t get much bolder than, “everything you know about this thing is wrong.”

Wasserman… doesn’t really do that. He collected a lot of interesting tidbits of trivia, though given the errors I found from skimming through the first few chapters, I wouldn’t trust any of it without first verifying in more credible sources.

Wasserman also appears to lack the ability to evaluate the quality of his evidence. This is a very important skill in academic literature, particularly when evaluating historical events. Not everything said or written is true, and as an academic, it falls on the author to evaluate the available evidence. This often involves looking at the larger context of contemporary events, the agendas of people involved, and the amount of surviving primary sources.

For example, confessions obtained under torture usually aren’t viewed as particularly credible. As we’ve said before, turns out when you apply enough force to someone, they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear, rather than actually coughing up the truth. Torture is a crude tool used to confirm your version of reality, and is not a functional investigative tool. And then Wasserman takes these confessions at face value, and tries to find some way to square them away with reality.

Yes, I am frustrated by Wasserman. He takes a fascinating part of history and injects it with confirmation bias so severe it would make a YouTube commenter blush. As a writer, there’s a real reason you should study history. Looking at why people, real people, took the actions they did can really help you understand how individuals think, and the options your characters have.

What Wasserman does very well is demonstrate how you can take real people and events, and distort them to fit your setting. (To be fair, it’s not an intentional demonstration.) This can be useful when you’re working off some “secret history of the world,” story, or when you’re writing an alt-history setting. If you want to write a story where the Assassins were secret defenders of an alien civilization that secretly founded western civilization, then Wasserman and Erich von Däniken are probably authors you should investigate closely. Also Assassin’s Creed, for the Dan Brown on mescaline vibe, and because that  is the plot for Assassin’s Creed. (Though, von Däniken is pretty good for that flavor of weirdness in general.)

But, hey, at least Wasserman managed to secure an endorsement from a Golden Dawn magus for the back cover. So, you know, he’s got that going for him.


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Which is more unbelievable masamune or the buster sword?

Well, given that Gorō Masamune was a 13th century Japanese sword smith, who’s name has become semi-synonymous with superlatively crafted blades?

I’m going with the historical figure. There’s some elements about his life that are, probably, hyperbolic, but I’m inclined to believe he did exist, and was an excellent smith. Otherwise his name wouldn’t have kept coming up among the best sword smiths Japan ever produced.

I don’t often say this, but he is literally legendary, as in actual legends have been written, and probably embellished, about him.

Incidentally, the swords he created carry his name, which creates a situation where there are (or were) real Masamune katanas. They have no direct relation to any of the fictional blades that also carry his name. But, it’s not a single weapon. It’s also probably worth stressing, the real blades were simply very well forged Katanas. The only unusual trait I’ve heard attributed to them is they had a singular reflective pattern.

In contrast the Buster Sword, and other comically oversized swords you’ll see in media would be basically unusable. I know Man-At-Arms Reforged made the Berserk Dragon-Slayer Greatsword recently. I want to say they also made a Buster Sword at one point, but I can’t find the video at the moment.


EDIT: I couldn’t find it, because it was before they added the Reforged to their name. The Buster Sword is here.

Also, if you’re curious, they did do Sepheroth’s Masamune, around the same time.

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can people reasonably fight in long skirts/dresses? in the story i’m creating everyone regardless of gender wears skirts/dresses/togas pretty exclusively, so I’m wondering about the history of fighting in that type of garment. would their thighs chafe? is long skirts or short skirts better? is there a history of fighting in that type of garment?

Yes. The Scottish with their kilts. The Greeks. The Romans.

You can fight in a skirt so long as it doesn’t restrict your movement. Mini-skirts, tight skirts, leather skirts, jeans skirts, any sort of stiff, heavy skirt that restricts full extension of the leg is a no-go. You don’t want to wear anything tight, be it on the upper or lower body. (Well, okay, you want a sports bra.) The same is true of dresses, you can fight in a dress so long as the dress doesn’t restrict freedom of movement. Sun dresses over spandex and club wear.

An example of a working leather skirt in fiction would be from Xena: Warrior Princess, which is based on historical designs (Roman, I think). You’ll notice the skirt is made out of loose leather straps hanging over the cloth portion. This allows greater freedom of movement and protects the important arteries in the thighs without restricting the legs.

You don’t want to fight in anything that really goes above the thigh or below the shins, because above the thigh can get too restrictive and below the shin is a tripping hazard. A full toga, one that goes all the way down to the feet is too much cloth. It’ll trip you. This is why you don’t see the full toga worn in Greece and Rome as combat wear. Instead, if you look up images, you’ll see a much shorter variation of a skirt.

Basically, go back through military history and go through the different kinds of armor styles. If you do pick an armor type, make sure you research the military history of the group in question. Many different kinds of dress wear have cultural implications along with simply being armor. Don’t take random bits, do a full overview of the culture in question.