Christos Giannopoulos answer to a reader regarding his illustration in Medieval Warfare I.3

Dear editor,

“Their conversion to Islam seems to have had an impact on their dress code, because they started covering themselves with several layers of cloth”. This statement, however, seems rather unlikely to me. The Quran mentions that humans have to “cover their nudeness”, but nowhere is it stated exactly to what extent. In normative Islam, besides the other widely varying Islamic views on matters such as these, men are believed to have to cover their body from their navel to their knees. Thus, a nude upper body, suggested in the text to be the custom of the pre-Islamic Berber men, shouldn’t be a problem, so I don’t see how their conversion to Islam should have resulted in a change to their way of dressing.
On the other hand, the rock carvings portraying Berber warriors might not show the complete picture. Maybe these were heroic depictions of their warriors, and thus the average warrior might have been much less nude than is often conceived. It is not unthinkable that a little more clothing was appropriate for the climate (cold winters or, in the desert, protection against the sun) in the mountainous areas in which the Berbers lived. Thus, isn’t it possible that clothing traditions have more to do with climate and other cultural factors than with belief in this case? Even the traditionally dressed Berber women today dress themselves in a certain way due to other cultural factors, like the henna tattoos, colourful clothing, head scarfs (which in the countryside are more a cultural habit than a religious ideological feature) and very Romanesque fibulae. Are there any Roman and Greek texts which describe the clothing of the Berbers/Libicoi from this time that might complement our fragmentary rock carved material of Berbers? And if so, what do they tell us?

Christos Giannopoulos answers:

Dear reader,

I have certainly taken the weather conditions in ancient North Africa and the cultural identity of the people in that region into consideration. However, these elements alone do not exclude any religious influence on the dress code of Berber warriors. In your question, you have highlighted specific details in my concisely described uniform research. In my caption I make a comment about “the pagan ancestors of the Berbers” and their “half naked appearance”, which is apparent in a variety of ancient artefacts and Greek and Roman literature. I think that there is a visual difference between the poorly dressed pre-Islamic nomads and some of their Muslim descendants, who, like the warrior of my illustration, were fully wrapped in cloth.

After my statement about the possible impact of Islam on the (Muslim converted) Berber’s dress code, I mention that the warrior’s clothing consists of a desert turban (or litham) and a large cloak (or haik) wrapped around his body, “both characteristic of the North African populations”. In addition, when I describe the Arab veteran in the background, I point out that his turban and cloak reflect “a North African dress code”. Of course, there is an obvious correlation between at least some garments and some geographical circumstances. Thus, my caption has indirectly agreed with your statement about the influence of climate and geography. In a more detailed description I would have the opportunity to highlight these aspects more fully, but the restricted space of a small caption prevented me from covering all aspects, and so I went for an implied statement of the influence of climate.

I personally believe that the outer appearance is a critical factor to gain acceptance and respect from certain groups, even in societies with tolerance towards individuality. For example, Berbers who became full Roman citizens (and their descendants) would not practise the lawyer’s profession in a Roman context wearing goat skins and a small loin cloth, and covered with body paint and henna tattoos. Similarly, a Muslim converted native Berber who wanted to gain respect from the ruling Muslim Arab military class of North Africa or to prove his respect for his religion would adjust his appearance accordingly.

Surely the transition period concerning the evolution of ethnic dress in a large area like North Africa is a matter of vast research and speculative debate, especially when there are such gaps in our body of evidence. We must always keep in mind that we are not eyewitnesses to medieval or ancient history. Thus, we need to interpret the echo of historical facts through available evidence. The caption and this text express my personal opinion based on the interpretation and understanding of the available evidence as well as that of contemporary studies – with every respect for objective opposition. However, I would like to add that there is a constant ‘primitive’ ancient Berber presence in the art and literature of Mediterranean civilizations, from the Bronze Age up until Late Antiquity. This is impossible to ignore, even taking oversimplification and propaganda into account.

The focus of my caption was the significant visual difference between the fully dressed Muslim Berber warrior I depicted and his half-naked or primitively dressed (pagan) ancestors.

The reconstructions of the pre-Islamic Berber dress code are based on a number of sources like mosaics, coins, statuettes, frescoes, relief carvings, clay dishes, gravestones and written descriptions. The average warrior (cavalryman or infantryman) is depicted as usually tattooed, very lightly dressed and ill-equipped. He usually wears a small loin cloth around his naked body (like Bronze Age Libyan warriors in New Kingdom Egyptian art), or short-sleeved (sometimes even sleeveless) baggy tunics. All Berbers seem to have shaved a large part of their heads before battle and they made extensive use of javelins, spears, slings and small shields. In the most complicated version of their traditional dress code, they wrapped around their shoulders a primitive ‘cloak’ of animal skin or hide or a length of rough cloth (hooded in late antiquity), and they used cork or leather sandals as typical footwear. These clothing elements may provide a form of protection against the weather conditions to an already battle-hardened warrior of shepherd origin, but there is a highly distinctive difference from the considerably larger-sized garments, long-sleeved tunics and robes, refined head-dresses, and even Arab military cotton trousers of the Muslim expansion period, which covers around 95 percent of the body.

If we make use of David Nicolle’s reconstruction of an early form of litham (face-covering head-dress) for a Saharan desert warrior (David Nicolle, Rome’s Enemies 5: The Desert Frontier (1991), page 25, figure A3), we can make the appearance of the Berber warrior more similar to that of his later era Muslim counterpart – at least from a long distance. However, this is not satisfying enough because the primitive image of a skin-clad, loin-clothed and bare-chested savage desert fighter persists. I believe more documentation for this reconstruction was needed, but it is not apparent. Thus, at this stage I must highlight Nicolle’s opinion on the subject: the length of the tunic and the cloak of the Berbers elongated during the Muslim Middle Ages, but the litham face veil is purely of African origin. Thus we have a mixture of Islamic influences and native elements. Of special interest is a variation of the Berber cloak, the hooded cotton burnous. The burnous is believed by some to be influenced by the Roman army hooded cloaks, but any lengthy cloak fastened around the wearer’s neck can provide a ‘hooded’ effect.

Ian Heath states that the “archaic” dress code persisted well into the Muslim era, but I believe this probably is reflecting the attitude of Berber warriors not converted to Islam. Even in a conservative Muslim army, half-naked warriors of Berber, Nubian or other origins were to be seen. But these were outmoded, primitive and lesser-origin auxiliaries, not “politically correct warriors” of the faith. To close this paragraph, I will add Ian Heath’s opinion on the dress code of Berbers of Muslim expansion, which he separates from the Moors (Ian Heath, Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066, 1980).The author states that the Berbers had an archaic (short tunic and rough cloak) “Moorish-like” appearance or sometimes a primitive and almost naked one as late as 711, but later they were Arabized, both in dress and weapons, and obtained turbans (unlike the face-covering litham head-dress, the classic turbans are considered an Asiatic borrowing).

The half-naked or almost naked appearance of a man is not really a “social problem”, as you say in your text, when it takes place in a military camp or in a slave camp. We might say that especially a naked prisoner-slave cannot hide any weapons. But when nudity at any level is examined in comparison with a traditionally bold expression of sexual desire between the two sexes (see the passages of Herodotus included below) there might be confrontation with religions who have different views on that issue. The overexposure of human flesh in public is a practice not welcomed in some religions with conservative moral values. For example, the Christians and Jews were opposed openly to the nudity that characterized sports activities and art of the Greco-Roman world.

Usually nudity as a concept was connected by member of these religions with older pagan ritual orgies and, of course, ritual prostitution. We need to remember that Herodotus mentioned such cases in the Berber world, although his information come from locals and is not always an eye-witness testimony.

I believe that we must strictly define our target group as the pre-Islamic ancient Berbers. The term “Berbers” is applied to all dark-skinned North African people, whether they lived in mountain villages or around rivers, lakes, or desert oases, or in the African steppeland or the coastal plains west of the Nile. They are known to ancient Greek and Roman writers as Moors or Maurusians or Mauri, nomads or Numidians, and of course Libyans, a very well known subdivision of them being the famous “lotus eaters” (Homer’s Lotophagi). They were distributed across the lands that roughly correspond to modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The term “Libya”, according to Herodotus, is applied sometimes (but thankfully not always) not only to the land west of Egypt, but also to the whole of North Africa; the southern parts of the continent were unknown. As Strabo (Geography, Book XVII.1-2) states: “This, then, is my account of Libya as a whole, but I must describe it in detail, beginning with its western, or more famous, parts. Here dwell a people whom the Greeks call Maurusians, and the Romans and the natives Mauri — a large and prosperous Libyan tribe, who live on the side of the strait opposite Iberia. Here also is the strait which is at the Pillars of Heracles, concerning which I have often spoken. On proceeding outside the strait at the Pillars, with Libya on the left, one comes to a mountain which the Greeks call Atlas and the barbarians Dyris”. Thus, Libya in such a case incorporates the “Black tribes” lands, Nubia and Aethiopia. Particularly one such tribe known as the “Western Aethiopians” had migrated, probably before the time of Herodotus, from Aethiopia to Berber Libya. Here is the relevant passage from Strabo’s Geography, Book XVII.3.5: “Above Maurusia, on the outside sea, lies the country of the western Aethiopians, as they are called, a country for the most part poorly settled. (…) And [Iphicrates] says that Bogus, the king of the Maurusians, when he went up against the western Aethiopians, sent down to his wife as gifts reeds like those of India, of which each joint held eight choenices, and also asparagus of similar size.” (Loeb translation)

These Aethiopeans had been described by Herodotus as almost naked, primitive “lizard and snake eaters”. Some readers with general historical interests connect them with a branch of the Berber world, perhaps having in mind a theory about mixture between the two people in some undefined period. I consider them just a perenthesis in the Berber universe, and I will leave them out of this discussion.

As far as my knowledge extends the Berbers never established any special dress code for dealing with cold weather besides the use of animal skins or rough cloaks. Polybius (Histories, Book III) states that the Numidian cavalrymen who followed Hannibal’s army in the invasion of Italy (Second Punic War) had to be provided with special clothing and footwear from Celto-Ligurian tribes in order to cross the mountain passes of the Alps. Another passage records that the “Nomads” obtained arms from killed Romans with the permission of Hannibal, their own armament being described as nothing more than short spears or javelins, even for their leaders back in Africa. Herodotus praises the climatic conditions of the Berber lands. He considers the Libyans (and by this term he means usually the North Africans in general, but here he speaks of the known Libyans) as the healthiest people in the whole known world because they live in a stable and balanced climatic zone, without unpredicted changes of weather and temperature. But again, the ‘Father of History’ never went any further than the eastern fringes of modern Libya. Strabo concludes the picture by describing the climate towards the Atlantic coast of North Africa (the Moroccan sector), an area with constant summer rains and winter droughts. How the natives were dressed in such a climate is described in the passages I have extracted from ancient sources, copied below.

Of much greater interest are the texts of Herodotus, especially from his Histories, Book IV, in which he makes extensive reports about the natives of coastal and inland North Africa, in general “the Libyans”:

168. “I will now provide a description of the Libyan tribes: starting from Egypt, first are the Adyrmachides who have much in common with the Egyptians but they are dressing like the rest of the Libyans. Their women wear a bronze bracelet on each leg and they keep their hair long. (…) It’s the only Libyan tribe (…) which forces all the girls who are about to get married to visit the king. When the king is fond of any of these girls, she leaves the palace without her virginity.”

170. “Next tribe to the west are the Asbystes. (…) They are distinguished among the Libyans, for they use four horse chariots.”

172. “Advancing westward, we meet the Nasamonians. (…) Every man of this tribe has plenty of women, and shares them with other men. (…) Regarding vows, they tend to swear by the most renowned for their integrity and value of their compatriots, and place hands over their graves. Regarding again the oracles, they pray and then sleep over the graves of their ancestors and analyze what dreams they saw. If two men want to make a serious agreement, they drink from each other’s hand and, if no liquid is available, get some sand and lick it.”

174. “Further inland and to the south, in the Libyan territory that is full of wild beasts, live the Garamantes who avoid any contact with people; they do not possess arms and they do not know how to defend themselves.”

175. “Along the coast to the west, neighbouring the Nasamones, are the Macae. These people cut their hair in the shape of a crest by shaving the sides of the head and leaving the hair in the middle untouched. In battle, they use shields of ostrich leather.”

176. “Next to them live the Gindanes. Their women tie leather straps around their ankles, equal to the exact number of their lovers so far. (…) She who has the most straps around her ankle is considered the most desirable among men.

180. “The people next to the Machlyans are the Auseans, both tribes living on the shores of Lake Tritonis and the River Triton defines their region’s borders. The Machlyans let their hair grow long at the back of their head, the Auseans at the front. Every year they perform a ceremony to honour the goddess Athena [Plato states in his Dialogues that the prototype of the Greek goddess Athena was the Libyan godess Neith] and during the ceremony girls divided in two groups attack each other using clubs and stones. They say that this is a ceremony established from ancient times and by performing it they honour the local goddess who is the equivalent of the Greek Athena. If some girl during the battle is injured and dies, this simply proves to them that she was not a virgin.”

190. “The nomadic Libyans, except the Nasamones, bury their dead just like the Greeks, but the Nasamones bury them in a sitting position, ensuring that the dead die seated, not lying down. Their homes are portable, made of dried reeds and daffodil, twisted together with strong ropes.”

191. “West of the River Triton and beyond the Auseans’ land, Libya is populated by people who live in regular houses and cultivate the land. First are the Maxyans, who let their hair grow long on the right side of the head and completely shave the left. They paint their bodies red and they claim that they are the descendants of the Trojans.”

193. “Leaving the land of the Maxyans, we meet the Zauekes, among whom the war chariots are driven by women.”

194. “Next to them are the Gyzantes, in whose country there is plenty of honey, a great part of which is produced by bees, but the most is created by a method invented by the locals. They usually paint their bodies red and they eat monkeys, which are numerous on the hills.”

Strabo’s Geography, Book XVII.7, describes Morocco: “Although the most of the country inhabited by the Maurusians [i.e. Moors] is so fertile, yet even to this time most of the people persist in living a nomadic life. But nevertheless they beautify their appearance by braiding their hair, growing beards, wearing golden ornaments, and also by cleaning their teeth and paring their nails. And only rarely can you see them touch one another in walking, for fear that the adornment of their hair may not remain intact. Their horsemen fight mostly with a javelin, using bridles made of rush, and riding bareback; but they also carry daggers. The foot-soldiers hold before them as shields the skins of elephants, and clothe themselves with the skins of lions, leopards, and bears, and sleep in them. I might almost say that these people, and the Masaesylians, who live next after them, and the Libyans in general, dress alike and are similar in all other respects, using horses that are small but swift, and so ready to obey that they are governed with a small rod. The horses wear collars made of wood or of hair, to which the rein is fastened, though some follow even without being led, like dogs. These people have small shields made of raw-hide, small spears with broad heads, wear ungirded tunics with wide borders, and, as I have said, use skins as mantles and shields. The Pharusians and Nigretes who live above these people near the western Aethiopians also use bows, like the Aethiopians; and they also use scythe-bearing chariots. The Pharusians mingle only rarely even with the Maurusians when passing through the desert, since they carry skins of water fastened beneath the bellies of their horses. Sometimes, however, they come even to Cirta, passing through certain marshy regions and over lakes. Some of them are said to live like Troglodytes, digging homes in the earth. And it is said that here too the summer rains are prevalent, but that in winter there is a drought, and that some of the barbarians in this part of the world use also the skins of snakes and fish both as wraps and as bed-covers. And the Maurusians are said by some to be the Indians who came thither with Heracles. Now a little before my time the kings of the house of Bogus and of Bocchus, who were friends of the Romans, possessed the country, but when these died Juba succeeded to the throne, Augustus Caesar having given him this in addition to his father’s empire. He was the son of the Juba who with Scipio waged war against the deified Caesar. Now Juba died lately, but his son Ptolemy, whose mother was the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, has succeeded to the throne.” (Loeb translation)

I also want to include one rather important reference from Diodorus Siculus, Histories, Book III.49: “Now to clarify these issues, it would be good to examine the Libyans who live close to Egypt and neighbouring regions. In places around Cyrene and foreshores and within the continent reside four Libyan tribes. The so-called Nasamones are resident in the parts to the south, the Auschises in the parts to the west, the Marmarids inhabit the strip between Egypt and Cyrene, going up the coast, while the Macae, who surpass their compatriots in population, have subdivided among themselves the lands around the (Large) Sirte. Among these Libyans are those farmers whose land can produce abundant fruit, and nomads who are taking care of animals and feed on them. And both groups have kings and their lives are not completely wild or different from that of civilized people. The third group, however, neither obeys a king nor even respects the concept of law, living by robbing, and rushing unexpectedly from the desert, it grabs the benefit and returns back again quickly. All these Libyans live like beasts, living constantly in the wilderness and engaging in occupations with wild enthusiasm. They have no connection with either civilized food or clothing, but cover their bodies with goatskins. The leaders do not have cities to dominate but towers near sources of water, which store the excess of their spoils. Each year, they force the people whom they have subjugated to swear obedience, and they take care of those who obey them as allies, and those who do not, they condemn to death and fight as bandits. Their weapons are proportional to the country and its lifestyle. Having lightweight bodies and living in a country that is mostly flat, they rush into battle with three spears and stones in a leather bag. They do not wear a helmet or a sword or any other weapon, but aim to excel in agility both in pursuit and in retreat. This is why they are expert in running and stone throwing, having developed, by training and habit, the qualities which nature gave them. Overall, compared with other races, they never keep law or faith, in any way.”

Finally, an ‘eye witness’ written source about the Moors is provided by the 6th century historian Procopius, who was council to the general Belisarius, in the African War of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian against the Vandals (Procopius, Book IV.11.26): “For most of them have no armour at all and those who have shields to hold before themselves have only small ones which are not well made and are not able to turn aside what strikes against them. And after they have thrown those two small spears, if they do not accomplish anything, they turn of their own accord to flight.” (Loeb translation)

Christos Giannopoulos

One thought on “Christos Giannopoulos answer to a reader regarding his illustration in Medieval Warfare I.3”

  • JF van Maldeghem
    JF van Maldeghem June 26, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Dear Mr Giannopoulos,
    I am a great admirer of your work ... any chance to get in touch with you for a project ? how can i reach you ?
    Many thanks in advance -

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