Diodorus also mentions these little sticks,
"The Lacedaemonians, under the inspiration of Tyrtaeus,
became so eager for battle that, when about to enter the conflict,
they wrote their names on little sticks which they fastened to their
arms, in order that, if they died, they would not be unidentified by
their kinsmen." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of
Book VIII, 27.2, Kindle location 8493).
Would not an illiterate army have done better to try to recognize a
fallen friend by his mauled face, or armor? The Romans inscribed the
soldier's name on his shield: "The name of each soldier was also written on
his shield, together with the number of the cohort and century to which he
belonged." (Flavius Vegetus Renatus, The Military Institutions of the
Romans, Kindle location 666). What was the use of this, if almost all these
people were illiterate?
When Persian ships threatened Greece, the sailors rowing at their oars included Ionian settlers in Asia Minor,
who spoke Greek. The Greeks appealed to these sailors:
"Meanwhile, Themistocles sailed along the coast, and wherever he saw
useful harbors and places of refuge for enemy ships, he cut conspicuous
inscriptions on such stones as he happened to find, or had stones set up
near these possible anchorages and watering places, calling on the Ionians,
to come over if possible to the Athenians, who were their ancestors, and
who were risking everything for their liberty; and if they could not do
that, to impede the barbarian army in battle and throw it into confusion."
(Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, 9, Plutarch's Lives).
If these military men were illiterate, why waste the expense of carving the
inscriptions? Herodotus tells the story:
"Themistocles however selected those ships of the
Athenians which sailed best, and went round to the springs of
drinking-water, cutting inscriptions on the stones there, which the
Ionians read when they came to Artemision on the following day.
These inscriptions ran thus: 'Ionians, ye act not rightly in making
expedition against the fathers of your race and endeavoring to
enslave Hellas. Best of all were it that ye should come and be on
our side; but if that may not be done by you, stand aside even now
from the combat against us and ask the Carians to do the same as ye.
If however neither of these two things is possible to be done, and
ye are bound down by too strong compulsion to be able to make
revolt, then in the action, when we engage battle, be purposely
slack, remember that ye are descended from us and that our quarrel
with the Barbarian took its rise at the first from you.'" (Herodotus,
the Histories, Book VIII, Chapter 22).
It seems unlikely they would have asked their Persian high commanders
to read these inscriptions for them.
Sparta was a militaristic communist state in southern Greece that vied
with Athens for dominance. Even the Spartan boys learned to read and write,
though likely just barely:
"The boys learned reading and writing, as much as they needed, but the rest of their training
was to make them take orders well, endure pain, and be victors in battle." (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 16, Plutarch's Lives).
The Spartan institutions were in part copied from those of Crete, which also
involved mandatory literacy instruction:
"The following are the principal of the laws of Crete,
which Ephorus has given in detail. . .The children are taught to
read, to chant songs taken from the laws, and some kinds of music."
(Strabo, Geography, Book X, Chapter IV, Section 20, p. 204).
The fighting men of Sicyon sallied out to battle with an 'S' emblazoned on their shields:
“But Pasimachus, the Lacedaemonian commander of horse,
at the head of a few horsemen, when he saw the Sicyonians hard
pressed, tied his horses to trees, took from the Sicyonians their
shields, and advanced with a volunteer force against the Argives.
The Argives, however, seeing the Sigmas upon the shields, did not
fear these opponents at all, thinking that they were Sicyonians.
Then, as the story goes, Pasimachus said: 'By the twin gods, Argives,
these Sigmas will deceive you,' and came to close quarters with them; and
fighting thus with a few against many he was slain, and likewise
others of his party.”
(Xenophon (2013-10-31). Hellenica, Book IV,
Chapter 4, Complete Works of Xenophon (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics)
(Kindle Locations 10863-10867). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.)
It might seem like an obvious, unimaginative thing for the men from Sicyon to put an 'S' on
their shield. Who is surprised to see a 'B' for 'Boston Red Sox' on a
sweat-shirt? However those in the Jesus Publishing Industry insist this was a meaningless squiggle
to the vast majority of them.
During the civil war in which the Roman republic expired, the
soldiers in Spain took sides and indicated their loyalty by
scrawling Pompey's name on their shields. Their commander, however,
who was for. . .whoever won, erased it, preferring to straddle the fence: "And when the soldiers
inscribed the name of Pompey on their shields he [Marcus Marcellus
Aeserninus] erased it so that he might by this act offer to the one
man the deeds done by the arms and to the other their reputed
ownership, and by laying claim to one thing or the other as done in
behalf of he victor and by referring the opposite to necessity or to
different persons he might continue safe." (Cassius Dio, Roman
History, Book 42, Chapter 15).
Another instance of shields bearing the commander's name: "Titius
underwent no punishment, being preserved for his father's sake and
because his soldiers carried the name of Sextus on their shields: he
did not, however, recompense his benefactor fairly, but
fought him to the last ditch and finally slew him, so that his name
is remembered among the most prominent of his kind." (Cassius Dio,
Roman History, Book 48, Chapter 30).
Cassius Dio thought it was an excellent idea for the soldiers to
inscribe their own names on their shields: "Julianus, assigned by
the emperor [Domitian] to take charge of the war, made many
excellent regulations, one being his command that the soldiers
should inscribe their own names and those of the centurions upon
their shields, in order that those of them who committed any
particular good or bad action might be more readily observed by
him." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 67, Chapter
10). Would this really have been such a great idea if the soldiery
Roman soldiers rallied around standards that
presented the unit number and the commander's name: "But one of the
large standards, that resemble sheets, with purple letters upon them
to distinguish the division and its commander, turned about and fell
from the bridge into the river." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book
40, Chapter 18). Realizing that, to illiterate people, letters and
numbers do not have the distinct and familiar appearance they
do to the literate, why use such a cumbersome and unavailing way of marking the
divisions? Wouldn't a sunburst or lightning-stroke have worked
better? Or maybe a stick figure. Funny thing, though, not only were these people
literate, they were beyond the stick figure phase.
Here we have a soldier writing on one of the standards, promoting
his commander as the emperor, as they used to do in this military
"His soldiers tore down and shattered the image of Nero
and called their general Caesar and Augustus. When he [Rufus] would
not heed them, one of the soldiers thereupon quickly inscribed
these words on one of his standards. He erased the terms, however,
and after a great deal of trouble brought the men to order and
persuaded them to subject the question to the senate and the
people." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 63, Chapter 25).
Last Will and Testament
Caesar's army was swept by a 'The Germans are Coming' scare, and the men
spent what they feared would be their last days on this earth putting their documents in order:
"Throughout the camp all the men were signing and sealing their wills."
(Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.39).
To be sure it was as possible in that day as in this for an illiterate
to make a legal signature. However it is difficult to envision the totally
illiterate Roman army of the modern Bible scholars' imagination embarking upon such a project.
Military wills were a no-frills project, lacking the detailed
property inventories of peace-time wills; as Cicero mentions in passing, ". .
.as if he was making his will in the ranks before a battle, without
balance or writing tables. . ." (Cicero, On Oratory, Book 1, Chapter LIII).
But these 'signed and sealed' wills were not casual oral instructions either.
Letter Writing Campaign
Plutarch describes a letter-writing campaign that the soldiers