April 16, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
In BattleBots, a television show based on robot combat, Faruq announces each competitor with poetic flair. His powerful voice and dominant presence animates the crowd and fans the flames of rivalry and competition. He riddles his introductions with puns which make them fun, silly, full of contemporary references, and also part of an ancient tradition. This acts as another reminder of how many ancient traditions still resonate today, especially in the combat realm.
First of all, fancy rhetoric often precedes battle. The Vikings, for example, had a tradition called flyting which is often referred to as ancient “rap-battle.” Beowulf provides an example of this when Beowulf answers Unferth’s challenge (the following translation is by Seamus Heaney).
Unferth says: “No matter, therefore, how you may have fared/ in every bout and battle until now,/ this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever/ outlasted an entire night against Grendel.”
Beowulf replies: “Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say/ about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer/ that was doing the talking.”
Rhetoric can also attend battles in more sophisticated ways, such as pre-battle negotiations. Many ancient battles have not only been documented by the winning side, but also focus on the leadership or the most famous soldiers. Think of the voices in The Iliad, or the rousing speeches of Thucydides’ History or by Shakespeare’s Henry V. Contemporary movies also demonstrate some of our westernized bias about war, such as Gladiator or Braveheart. Not until the 20th century do we find poets (such as Wilfred Owen) who write from the infantry’s perspective (although Henry V does give a nod in this direction). These documents often hold key cultural information. They give hints about what society deems noble, worthy, and heroic.
BattleBots, too, values a mix of witty banter (often provided by Faruq) and strategy. The bots are often armed in preparation for upcoming battles. They adjust according to their current opponent. The Oxford Very Short Introduction to Ancient Warfare by Harry Sidebottom examines some ancient equipment and his examination also applies to BattleBots.
First of all, he focuses on equipment and “its implications for fighting.” After viewing the statue of a Greek hoplite, Sidebottom draws the following conclusions based upon equipment: “The equipment is heavy, hot, and tiring. The helmet cuts down his vision and hearing. He carries nothing with which to fight at a distance. His battle will contain little manoeuvre (how well can he hear or see signals?), be fought hand to hand, and be short (before exhaustion sets in).” In other words, the equipment that one carries into battle will give a description of what type of battle that soldier expects to fight. Furthermore, Sidebottom continues: “The Macedonian phalanx’s key difference from a hoplite phalanx was its main weapon, the sarissa. Much scholarly effort has been devoted to the sarissa, with no end in sight. At least all agree that it was a long pike that was wielded with both hands. Its length allowed the spear-points of the first four or five ranks of the phalanx to project beyond the foremost men, as opposed to the two or three of a hoplite phalanx.”
BattleBots furnishes a quick and somewhat silly way for civilians to see this concept of equipment in practice. Robots are limited to a maximum weight of 250 pounds. Some bots, such as Texas Twister, include a mini-bot as a distraction or annoyance, while the main robot attacks. Other teams choose vertical spinners or horizontal spinners. Many opt for a flipper which can pick up and flip a bot in the air. Because of this, many bots are built low to the ground in hopes of protecting their underbelly and thus denying the flipper. Bronco, one of the crowd favorites, can flip bots twenty feet or more in the air, as demonstrated against Hydra. Some bots, like Duck and Captain Shrederator, prefer heavy armor and few weapons. This offers durability that larger bots, like HUGE and Cobalt, may not have. Unfortunately, BattleBots is scored according to aggression also, so while the durable bots may stay the whole round, they might not win the fight. Another fan favorite is the ability to throw flame. Gruff, for example, puts on a good show due to its large flame.
It is interesting to view BattleBots through the lens of westernized warfare, beginning with the Greeks and continuing all the way through to present day. Sometimes, the weapons and image hearken back to mythology, as seen in bots like Hydra, Valkyrie, and Minotaur, just to name a few. However, names often include puns from contemporary culture, like Slam-Mow, Axe-Backwards, GIGABYTE and HyperShock. Judges measure damage, agression, and control. Drivers discuss strategy and arm their bots to meet specific opponents. In short, BattleBots presents a unique lens with which to view cultural traditions that still circle around the idea of warfare.
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