Weighty matters

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

About seven years ago, I read G. R. Watson’s The Roman Soldier (originally published by Cornell University in 1969; I read a copy of the 1985 paperback reissue), a handbook summarizing what scholars in 1969 knew about life in the ancient Roman army.  One point Watson made that I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the book had to do with the field packs Roman soldiers wore.  Some scholars in Germany had tended to give very high estimates of the amount of weight that Roman soldiers had to carry, in some cases solemnly asserting that a legionary would march about all day with over a hundred pounds of equipment on his back.  Dismissing these estimates as a self-evident absurdity, Watson tries to figure out just how heavy the pack might have been (in the 1985 reissue, that discussion is on pages 62-66, continued in note 140 on pages 175-176.)  The best estimate he can come up with puts the average weight of the Roman soldier’s pack at 30 kilograms (66 pounds,)which happens to be identical to the standard for most modern armies. 

Watson’s evidence suggests that throughout history armies have tended to increase the amount of weight soldiers have to carry, until the kit becomes so heavy that the high command has no choice but to cut it down to something weighing about 30 kilograms.  I suppose that the obvious reason for this tendency is that many people are involved in deciding what it is essential that a soldier should carry in the field.  Each of those people has ideas about items that should be on that list, and each sees the addition of his or her favorite item as a victory.  When no one involved in decision-making at that level has to wear a full field pack on a regular basis, the decision makers have no immediate incentive to deny each other their little victories.     

I wonder if there might not be a second, less obvious reason for this tendency.  Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on a psychological experiment which indicates that people who are holding heavy objects tend to take matters more seriously than the same people do when they are not holding heavy objects.  If this tendency is and has long been general among all humans everywhere, then we would expect that people who are interested in human behavior would have noticed it.  Military commanders are interested in human behavior.  Perhaps, noticing the overlap between the category “people holding heavy objects” and the category “people showing seriousness,” commanders have formed the idea that they could induce ever greater seriousness in their subordinates by weighing them down with ever more heavily loaded field packs. 

If there’s anything to this speculation of mine, perhaps it is also part of the reason why there is so little protest against the spine-damagingly heavy backpacks that so many American children are forced to lug to and from school every day.  Of course, many people are involved in deciding what a student should learn and do in school, and that is an obvious reason why the collection of textbooks and other materials students must transport on their persons tend to grow so heavy. 

heavy backpackBut perhaps a belief that the weight of the physical burden one carries correlates directly with the seriousness of one’s attitude is also part of it.  We want children to take school seriously.  We have observed that people holding heavy objects tend to be serious.  If holding heavy objects translates into seriousness, maybe holding even heavier objects will translate into even more seriousness!  It will definitely translate into more back injuries, but isn’t that a small price to pay for keeping the wee ones doubled over for much of the day?

An unexpected visitor

Yesterday was the first day of school. I taught in the morning, Mrs Acilius had her classes in the afternoon.  We went in together on the 7:14 AM bus.  We have a little bath mat that Mrs Acilius’ assistance dog P—— uses to keep from sliding in the aisle of the bus.  When we take the bus to school, I keep the mat in my office so that Mrs Acilius doesn’t have to carry it with her everywhere she goes. 

At about 1 pm, I was doing paperwork at my desk.  A student appeared in the doorway of my office.  “Excuse me, sir, this cat was running around in the hallway.”  She was holding a little kitten.  “He’s bleeding rather badly.  I have to go to class.  Can you do something for him?”  I stood up and reached for the kitten.  She looked relieved and held him out to me.  Of course he scratched my hand.  I handed the kitten back to the student, then picked up P——‘s mat.  I held the mat out, the student set the kitten down in it.  As I wrapped him up, she rushed off to her class. 

So there I stood with an injured kitten.  What next?  I decided to take him to the nearest office and appeal for help.  My office is about equidistant from the Dean’s office and the Psychological Science department office.  I decided to take him to the Psychological Science office. 

That turned out to be a very good decision.  Their office assistant took the mat and set it on her desk.  Also in the room were the department’s administrative coordinator, a couple of undergrads, and the department chair.  They all gathered around the kitten in a circle.  The office assistant got a little jar, filled it with water,  and offered it to the kitten.  The chair got a little cardboard box and put the jar and the kitten in it.  The administrative coordinator had some dog food in her office for some reason; she put a couple of pieces of that in the box.  The chair then went to his office and retrieved some tuna left over from his lunch. 

The kitten was very badly hurt.  He sniffed the water and the tuna, but didn’t take any of either.  The student hadn’t been exaggerating when she said he was bleeding rather badly.  The end of his tail was missing and blood was streaming out of it; there were deep scratches on the front of his chest.  Someone I told about it this morning thought the kitten might have tangled with the hawk who circles the Quad; I’m sure that’s exactly what happened. 

Seeing how much attention he was getting in the Psych office, I decided it was time to get back to work.  So I excused myself and returned to my office.  A half hour later, a psychology professor whose first initial is H came to my office.  H—— told me that she had made a 4 PM vet appointment for the kitten.  She swore up and down that she wouldn’t be able to keep him.  “We already have two cats, and our place is so small- we can not have another cat.”  Oh, she said, she would keep him for a while after he was released from the vet, but he’d have to live in the bathroom to keep him away from her two rambunctious older cats. 

A few hours later, I was meeting with a student when Mrs Acilius came by my office.  As Mrs Acilius waited for the end of my meeting, H—— saw her.  H——- went up to Mrs Acilius and told her the whole story.  She’d already taken the kitten to the vet.  The vet had said the kitten was in shock from loss of blood and would need surgery to repair some mangled bones.  H—— had agreed to pay for the surgery and was going to take the kitten in afterward, but she repeated that she could not have another cat.  Apparently she went on and on about the sheer impossibility of taking another cat into her home. 

When Mrs Acilius and I were leaving for the day at 4:30 or so, she reported what H—— had told her.  I remarked that in my experience, swearing that you will not take in another cat is one of the stages in the process of adopting a cat.  She said she suspected that it would prove to be the case here.