Monday, 18 October 2010

Ancient Wargaming and Sacred Cows

I shall now attempt to extricate myself from the messy pits of ethical quagmire, and turn to things a bit more wargamer-ly, at least. Be warned, however, I may not be done with ethics yet.

To disappoint those of you who are expecting to know all that is in the new, soon to be much vaunted, Polemos: Imperial Rome rule set, I’m going to tackle a different meta-issue, raised by one of the loyal readers:

What is this thing called ancient wargaming?

As noted elsewhere, ancient wargaming runs from 3000 BC or so to 1500 AD, covers all parts of the world and usually comes in a handy bound book of a hundred pages or so, with add on supplements (often called ‘army lists’) for the avid collector of such things to buy. Each supplement will contain lists of possible armies a wargamer can lavish money, paint and time on, often in arcane language and making assertions about particular troops that the soldiers own dear mothers would hardly recognise.

The problem is that these then become key to the wargamer’s understanding of history.

Let us consider a case study. In Tacitus’ annals, 6:34-5, a battle between Parthians, Sarmatians, Iberians and Albanians is described:

Both sides having been drawn up in battle array, the Parthian leader expatiated on the empire of the East, and the renown of the Arsacids, in contrast to the despicable Iberian chief with his hireling soldiery. Pharasmanes reminded his people that they had been free from Parthian domination, and that the grander their aims, the more glory they would win if victorious, the more disgrace and peril they would incur if they turned their backs. He pointed, as he spoke, to his own menacing array, and to the Median bands with their golden embroidery; warriors, as he said, on one side, spoil on the other.

Among the Sarmatae the general's voice was not alone to be heard. They encouraged one another not to begin the battle with volleys of arrows; they must, they said, anticipate attack by a hand to hand charge. Then followed every variety of conflict. The Parthians, accustomed to pursue or fly with equal science, deployed their squadrons, and sought scope for their missiles. The Sarmatae, throwing aside their bows, which at a shorter range are effective, rushed on with pikes and swords. Sometimes, as in a cavalry-action, there would be alternate advances and retreats, then, again, close fighting, in which, breast to breast, with the clash of arms, they repulsed the foe or were themselves repulsed. And now the Albanians and Iberians seized, and hurled the Parthians from their steeds, and embarrassed their enemy with a double attack, pressed as they were by the cavalry on the heights and by the nearer blows of the infantry. Meanwhile Pharasmanes and Orodes, who, as they cheered on the brave and supported the wavering, were conspicuous to all, and so recognised each other, rushed to the combat with a shout, with javelins, and galloping chargers, Pharasmanes with the greater impetuosity, for he pierced his enemy's helmet at a stroke. But he could not repeat the blow, as he was hurried onwards by his horse, and the wounded man was protected by the bravest of his guards. A rumour that he was slain, which was believed by mistake, struck panic into the Parthians, and they yielded the victory.

As wargame rule writers, of course, this is valuable information. The most valuable bit of data is that Sarmatian bows were of shorter range than Parthian bows, and that, of course, can go straight into a set of wargame rules, with impeccable documentary evidence.

But hang on a moment. We need to recall a few things about this text. Firstly, that it was written, by Tacitus, in Rome, about 117 AD. This should raise a few alarm bells: Rome is a long way from Armenia; the events take place in 35 or 36 AD and Tacitus was not a particularly military man, still less well versed in the ways of Parthian and Sarmatian warmaking.

According to Rhiannon Ash (Phoenix, 1999, 55, 1-2, p114-135), Tacitus spends his time in this passage making the ethnotypes of the Parthians and Sarmatians extreme. He is hyping up the differences, in other words, to make the battle more dramatic. The Parthians are decadent easterners, a cavalry army that cannot deal with hand to hand fighting, while the Sarmatians, or more specifically their allies, the Armenians and Iberians, are described along the same lines as northern barbarians, tough and hairy, up for a scrap.

The comment about the bows, therefore, has more to do with justifying the ethnotype than describing the relative ranges of Parthian and Sarmatian weaponry. In fact the whole passage, Annales 31 – 37, appears to be more about justifying Tiberius’ foreign policy than about the battle. It seems unlikely that Tacitus either knew or cared about foreign bowmen and their abilities.

At this point, unfortunately, the aspiring wargame rule writer collapses into a foaming heap on his, or her, keyboard. They have just successfully argued away a piece of evidence that looked like it might provide a bit of interest. A way of distinguishing contemporary armies has vanished like the morning mist.

The real problem is, of course, that a lot of what we know about ancient history is like this. The more we analyse a text, the more it vanishes from around us. Contextualising, as above, removes the empirical evidence that we may crave and replaces it with a pile of ‘maybes’. This is not good for a wargames rule writer, nor a wargamer.

So what do we do? Over the last 40 years or so, a mystique has grown up around certain interpretations of ancient texts relating to war, and these interpretations have become normalised. This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it does mean that some things are now encoded in wargamer’s DNA, as it were. New approaches, new ideas need a lot of unlearning, particularly when it is not clear where the original interpretations have been grounded in evidence.

Part of what I’ve attempted to do in Polemos: Imperial Rome, and what I shall hope to do in Polemos: Polemous (if it ever goes anywhere at all) is to link my interpretations to the literature that we have, both classical texts and modern scholarship. This may be laborious and irritating to the person who emphasises ‘game’ in ‘wargame’, but at least it might allow some to refer back to the originals, rather than just relying on my interpretation of what, as we’ve seen, can be texts of highly dubious utility.

1 comment:

  1. Good discussion about the sources. Another consideration is that most people will be working with translations of the primary sources, which further filters and obscures the available information. Translations are not the same as the original text and can seriously alter how events are perceived by the reader.