Saturday, 19 March 2011

Update on the Greeks

Well, a warm welcome to all our new readers!

Some of you might recall that this blog was originally about my attempts to write some wargame rules in the Polemos series covering classical Greece. It has been a while since I said anything at all about that, so perhaps I should give an update, rather than continuing to worry about what wargaming means.

So, here goes.

Firstly, the good news is that I finished Herodotus, who finishes up as quite a good read. Certainly his account of Plataea is a lot clearer and more detailed than that of Marathon. Perhaps this is why Marathon is so popular with classical historians now. You can speculate an awful lot more with much less information.

So what did I learn from Herodotus?

The overall impressions is that the troops were not, really, terribly good. The Greeks were badly co-ordinated, not terribly well lead and landed up in a difficult situation which they had to fight their way out of. The Persians were probably rather worse. We’ve already done the ‘fighting quality’ thing with respect to Marathon, and the foot combat seems to be similar at Plataea – a long slog but with the Greeks winning.

The Persian cavalry had a mixed performance in my view. They were very useful on the grand tactical or semi-strategic level, seizing springs and intercepting the Greek supplies which forced the Greeks to redeploy which brought on the battle. In the battle, however, they were less useful. Herodotus describes them galloping up by squadrons to the Greek lines, loosing off their missiles and then turning away. This is the sort of ‘heavy skirmish’ style of battle, where they will exploit any chinks in the infantry formation by charging, but otherwise turn away. As the Greeks stood firm, the cavalry turned out to be fairly useless.

How about leadership and generalship?

Well, the Greeks did all right, obviously, considering that they won. We could argue that they were a bit lucky. Trying to stage a withdrawal in the face of an enemy with cavalry superiority was always going to be risky. Insubordination certainly didn’t help, and the Greeks essentially fought two separate battles, fighting their way through to ultimately sack the Persian camp.

On the other side, the Persians started with the advantages and lost. All they had to do really was maintain a force in being and the Greek alliance would probably have collapsed anyway. It had nearly done so in the winter, and the longer the campaign went on, the more likely it was that the Greeks were going to fall out again. However, a fleeting opportunity to win decisively presented itself and finished in disaster. The Persians only collapsed when Mardonius was killed however; the battle was not just a Greek hot knife cutting through Persian butter.

So, how do we rate this lot? Firstly, I don’t really see any grounds for altering my assessment of the Greek and Persian foot. The Greeks did have a hard, but winning fight on their hands. Persian cavalry is weak in face to face combat, but useful for working flanks and being highly annoying on supply lines. So we can rate them as not able to take hoplites on by charging, unless the hoplites are shaken, and also indulging in skirmishing most of the time. The main usefulness of the Persian cavalry was, as I’ve mentioned, on a strategic or grand tactical scale. Well handled, the Persian cavalry could have forced the Greeks into strategic retreat, although the ability to handle them well enough, given the communication limitations in an ancient battle, was probably very limited indeed.

The next interesting thing to consider is why, given the superiority of the Greeks on home territory, did they fail so badly in the offensive part of the Persian wars?
I suspect that the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we’ve already noted the problems of command in the Greeks. The Spartans thought they should be in charge, while the Athenian navy was the largest component. Eventually, the Athenians took over (and started to build an empire) while Sparta lost interest. Secondly, there is the logistical issue of transporting and supporting land troops in Asia Minor. The Athenian navy could transport, land and support a thousand or so hoplites, and these might get some assistance from allied Ionian cities. But the bottom line is that this size of force was insufficient to have an impact in the relatively large scale of Persia itself. The Persian empire lasted longer than Athens did as an independent state. Given the constraints of the time, the Athenians probably did a much as they could in picking up islands and cities.

This, of course, leads fairly simply on to the next bit of Greek wargaming history, when Sparta woke from her slumbers and war broke out. I’ve just started reading Thucydides, and so far it has been interesting, but got me wondering how it could work on the wargame battlefield. The fact is that the opening moves of the war were based around a land power fighting a naval power. The Athenians spent the first part of the war doing pretty well what the Royal Navy did in the 18th and 19th centuries – building up and defending strategically important bases. However, as the Royal Navy also found out, there is a limit to what you can do via raids and command of the sea. The ultimate power is a land army holding the ports that you need.

At the moment, instead of a conventional wargame, I’m feeling that some sort of campaign game might be better. But that would put me even further out into left field than I already am.

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