Saturday, 25 June 2011

One Way of Doing A Campaign: Fuzigore

The Backstory:

The old empire had fallen, but it had not fallen far. In corners of its old domain the factions held out. In Rasaec and in Yepmop the claimants to the throne of Emor eked out an existence of sorts. The old territories had broken away however, and the tribal lands had slumped back into their usual anarchy. Sutnop had returned to its old mix of civilization and despotism, while the unconquered might of Aihtrap maintained its military and cultural threat to the southlands. In the far north, Ainattirb, mist covered and mysterious continued without the firm stamp of Emor sandal with whatever awful rites were performed there.

In the centre, Emor itself and the Old Lands were reinvigorating. The imperial overstretch which had precipitated the civil wars and collapse of empire was a thing of the past, and an enthusiastic senate and reformed military, with the new young ruler, were starting to seek the reconquest of the rebel lands.

In his study in the Imperial Palace at Emor, the new emperor, Sutsugua, pondered. His grandfather’s will had read, in full: ‘Dear Son, there are no soldiers, there is no money. Best of luck.’ By dint of abandoning the outlands his father’s concentration on survival had paid off. He had built a bit of industry in Emor so the city could keep itself in carts and weapons. The political and military structures had been renewed. At his death, Emor had been ready to strike to reclaim the lands that were rightfully hers, who had been revelling in their freedom for two generations. Now, there was an army. Now there was money. The question was how to use them?

To the south, the Kingdom of Sutnop had reconstituted itself. As the old saying went ‘Sutnop always rises again.’ Further south still, Old Emor, in the shape of Yepmop, a pretender to the imperial throne held sway, influencing the lands of Gracia still further south. Striking south was an attractive option, but Sutnop had a large and effective army and, if backed by Yepmop, could be a very testing target.

Northwards, the tribal lands of Cillag were an easier target. Divided into three tribal areas, it might just be that each could be over-run in turn. The possibilities would then be either to turn on Ynareg, or to settle with the Rasaec break-aways. Sutsugua shifted in his seat. “Divide and conquer” his father had told him. He must find out how tightly the Cillag tribes bonded together.


Now, I’ve not gone completely mad (or at least, no madder than last time) but I thought I should put my money where my mouth is and describe a campaign. The above is the opening backstory of the said campaign, which is set in an imagined continent. So far, all I’ve got is a blob map of the countries and their relationship to each other, and the writing above. All the tools so far have been a pen, a piece of paper, a list of the Roman era armies I have, and a bit of imagination.

It was noted on one of the other solo-wargaming blogs recently, that it is all very well trying to set up a campaign like Tony Bath’s Hyporia, but actually it is an awful lot of work and you’ve forgotten why you did it when you’ve finished. I agree, and I’d go a little further, too, arguing that this is not, in fact, how Hyboria started. After all, the write ups in Battle and Military Modelling were under the title ‘The Campaign That Grew’. The most complex bits came along later.

Some sort of narrative campaigning is actually much easier. Of course, you can include or not whatever you like in terms of detail, and you can use whatever system you like to create incidents. In the above, so far, we are now at the point where I introduced a random element to determine the relations between the Cillag tribes. To do this I stole, I think, an idea on national diplomacy from an article in an old Lone Warrior, and I’ve got a table of the tribes. A D6 was then rolled and it turned out that two of the tribes were at war: T-sae and Ht-ous.

‘Bother,’ I thought. 'I’m going to have to paint some more Gauls.’

However, the narrative can continue:

“There is war, sire.”


“T-sae and Ht-ous, sire.”

“This may give us an opportunity. Who is winning?”

“There are threats and raids, sire. Not much else is happening. Maybe after planting they will fight.”

“We need to find their intentions. See to it.”


Firstly, a note on names. I am not good at names, plus I do need to keep track of the real world prototypes of the Fuzigore nations. In the above, the names are, more or less, the real world ones spelt backwards (as if you’ve not already worked that out). Stuart Asquith once wrote that it was really no good, for example, running a War of Spanish Succession campaign with a fortified city called Lille, because everyone would imagine that they had to besiege it. Changing the names, or making them less obviously historical can tackle this problem.

So, where now?

The next move is actually to focus in on one individual and his adventures in spying from Erom on Cillag. I’d always envisaged the campaign working on multiple levels. The accuracy of the information that Sutsugua will have depends on how well my hero, a junior wine merchant called Ocram, succeeds in his mission. But perhaps more of that some other time.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Postmodern wargaming?

Having waffled on a bit about the Greeks defining themselves as Greek via the Persian wars, and how that presents us with a problem because the Greek writers are the only major narrative source for the wars, I suppose it is time to get all postmodern. By this I mean: how can we actually know anything about ancient history?

Actually, the answer is not quite as bad as it could be. We do have a certain amount of information which does not derive from the Greeks, such as archaeology and other artefacts. So we are not wholly reliant on Greek sources for the Persians. To some extent, the documents and monuments of the Persians can counteract some of the inherent bias of the sources.

But can it really? I am whom I am, too, born and brought up in a certain culture, with a certain world view (which includes wargaming as a hobby) and an Anglo-American analytic educational and philosophical outlook. If you think that doesn’t matter, go and talk to a philosopher of education. Not only that, but I belong to a minority hobby which is also based in those traditions and, worse, requires some specific and concrete answers to certain unanswerable questions to function. These are questions which most classical historians and archaeologists would simply shrug off as impossible to respond to.

Another problem, I’m finding (as I’ve grumbled about before) is that wargamers are a fairly conservative lot. Much of our understanding of our periods of interest come from some fairly old and, it has to be said, dubious stock. Now, I’m not really out to do a disservice to the dead white male amateur historian, but why is it that wargamers rely so heavily on, say, Sir Charles Oman for medieval and early modern wargames. It isn’t that Oman is wrong, strictly speaking, but that his world view, understandings and interpretations were framed by his time, and probably would not survive in a modern academic forum.

Yet still Oman is relied upon. Why? My best guess is that there is not much else out there which actually fits the wargamer’s bill. We like the nice Victorian maps with the clear blocks of troops and the battle narratives, quoting original sources. But most modern, professional historians, even those who are military historians, do not write that sort of book. In fact, that sort of book, starting I suppose with ‘Decisive battles of the world’ and finishing somewhere about Hodge and Oman, simply don’t seem to be written any more. The major synthesis seems to be a thing of the past.

So, the upshot of this so far is that as a hobby, we rely on 100 year old interpretations of battles by retired military men, which we like because they tell us, clearly enough, what we want to know so we can get on with a game.

You might argue that rules writers are different. They, at least, surely must go back and try to work things out from first principles. I’d like to agree, but can’t find it in myself to do so. The other day I was flicking idly through my collection of army lists for ancient wargaming, and happened upon the Persian lists. Having now read Herodotus, I noted a pattern, with a sinking feeling. The list of troops was the same as that given by Herodotus for Xerxes’ expedition.

‘Great’, you might say, ‘original source!’

Yes. But. An original source which probably has little to do with the army, yet, because it is there, we take it a make it into a list which is then handed on down from one generation of rule writers to another. Unfortunately, the early authors were not textual critics and, like all of us, the later writers can be a bit lazy rely on what has gone before.

And, of course, this is where our post-modern trap bites. We cannot dismiss the source, because it is all we have. Nor can we accept it, because some of what Herodotus says is clearly bonkers. Furthermore, we have a conception of the Persian Empire which is formed by our culture and education, which likes to portray the other, the eastern as decadent, wealthy, tyrannous and generally not like us. So of course we want to accept the picture Herodotus paints. He, Herodotus, was a founder of our historiographical methods.

It goes beyond the Greeks, of course. Have you ever wondered, for example, why the Romans are always the good guys? Consider the Rosemary Sutcliffe novels, particularly Eagle of the Ninth (if you’ve not read it, do so now, then come back and finish the post). Who are the good guys? Of course, the picture is nuanced, but noble savages are also a good stock fiction character. Has anyone ever read a novel or seen a film where the (say) Celtic British are the heros, before King Arthur? I’m not sure I have. It is always the Romans point of view that wins, because they did the building and writing.

So, in terms of postmodern wargaming, are we really stuffed? Nearly, but not quite, I think. Once we recognise our ingrained prejudices we can work to overcome them. The Celtic British were not unthinking woad-covered thugs who provided a target for legionary pilum-practice, nor were the Persians as autocratic, rich and bad at fighting as we’d like to think. But we do have to dig a bit deeper to find out what really went on.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Books about Greeks

I’ve been reading a number of fairly interesting books recently, about the Persian Wars.

The first, ‘The Greek Wars: Why Persia Lost’ is by George Caukwell, and argues at academic length that the Persians lost the Greek wars because of their own mistakes. Although the author regards Herodotus as being mostly unreliable, he actually relies on him a fair bit. I think I’ve observed before that we don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to the Greek Wars.

About half way through, however, Caukwell comments on the end and aftermath of the Peloponnesian wars, and observes that in essence, Persia had won at that point. The Ionian Greek cities on the edge of Asia Minor were under her control, the Athenians and Spartans did pretty well what they were told and if they got uppity, a switch in funding would bring them down, as the Thebans proved to the Spartans.

However, the Persians are still regarded as losers, largely because of the innumerable satrapal rebellions there were in the empire which points, so the argument goes, to political instability. Here, I somewhat disagree. So far as I recall, no ancient empire lasted any length of time without revolts in the provinces. The Romans didn’t manage it, the Greeks certainly didn’t. I don’t know much about China, but I’d guess there were the occasional rebellions, and, to choose a different example, the Aztec empire spent a lot of its time swatting rebels.

So, I would argue that provincial revolts were not necessarily signs of weakness in the empire in which they occurred, but more to do with the necessarily decentralised nature of the polity. It is quite a long way from Susa to Sardis, and it is fairly likely that ambitious satraps reckoned that they had a chance, particularly if the King of King’s attention were elsewhere.

It seems to me that the empire was more an Aztec style tribute and acknowledgement of power state than one of secure political domination. The point is that the organisation of the Persian Empire was much looser than modern empires. Rebellion, even losing control of Egypt for 60 years, is not a sign of decline or inherent weakness, but of the natural state of affairs for most empires in the ancient world, most of the time.

I’ve also just finished ‘Attrition: Aspects of Command in the Peloponnesian Wars’ by Godfrey Hutchinson. This I got cheap at a show, and I’m slightly relieved by that. As a book is it reasonably good, but, overall, I’d say that it is largely a re-hash of Thucydides. It is none the less interesting, but the author is obviously restricted by what is written by the Greek historian, and so does not really expand much beyond retelling the stories. In other words, I found that it failed to penetrate much below the surface of the historical narrative and actually explain how command worked in the Greek armies of the war. That said, it is a light and fairly easy read and as an introduction to what Thucydides was about is a good sort of start.

The last book I’m going to wax lyrical about is ‘The Persian empire – A History’ by Lindsay Allen. This is a book to accompany the British Museum exhibition of a few years ago. It isn’t the catalogue, but an attempt to contextualise the Persian Empire in its own terms.

Now I have to say that this is a very good book. It is what I call ‘mid-range scholarly’ by which I mean that it isn’t a full blown scholarly work, but it is written for the general public (such as would go to exhibitions in the BM, of course) but has copious end-notes relating to where in the scholarly literature the basic reports and arguments can be found. The interested reader can follow up the references and delve into the literature.

I’ve not finished this one, but it has provided a much needed balance to the normal pictures given of Persian decadence, opulence and the vast resources supposed to be at the King of King’s command. I suppose that the overall view given of the Persian Empire is one of an empire which had got, fairly well, as big as it could have done. The King of Kings could not, for example, spend a large amount of time concentrating on one end of the empire, such as Greece. He had plenty of other things to do, like administrating the rest of territory. While the court was moveable, and indeed did move between four capitals, the key figure needed to be somewhere fairly central as accessible. This, it seems to me, was not Attica, so Xerxes fairly brief sojourn there should not be explained as cowardice of hubris, but as administrative necessity.

The other interesting thing to arise from these works is that the idea of ‘Greek’ came about from the experience of the Persian wars. As I’ve said before, I’m sure, the Greek cities scattered around the Mediterranean coasts were linguistically linked, and some were colonies, but before, say 500 BC there was not particular Greekness associated. This came about after the Persian wars, as Herodotus and others were writing the histories. The ability to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, became the difference between ‘east’ and ‘west’, Greek and barbarian, which was then taken over into the Roman empire and, through the writings rediscovered or recirculated during the European renaissance, became our view of the world. Very interesting, and slightly alarming when you come to think of it…

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Clashing Cultures

A while ago it was mentioned that warfare is about clashing cultures – Greek against Persian; Roman against Celt; Revolutionary France against everyone else, and so on. I suppose the question to ask now is ‘is this true?’

In certain, obvious respects, it is true. For example, the Greeks and Persians did not have much in common. The Greeks were civilised, freedom loving, democratic sea farers, the Persians were decadent, power mad, tyrannous and land based with huge territories built on fear and massive armies of untrained levies sent out to die for the King of Kings.

I imagine that those of you who have read this blog for a while will not be surprised when I say I don’t believe a word of the last paragraph. Indeed, one or two people have complained to me that the effect of reading this blog has been to make them doubt all the things that they thought they knew about ancient war and wargames. Well, so be it. Rome wasn’t burnt in a day, although it might account for the paucity of comment recently. Either that or I’m boring you, repeating myself or am so obviously right that the posts need no comment.

So, are wars about clashing cultures? Well, maybe some are. You could, for example, look at the American Civil War and argue that it was. The slave owning south fought against the equal north. The industrial north was against the agricultural south. And so on. Indeed, there is some truth in these pictures. But a closer look nuances the concept. The south was in fact richer than the north, and was rapidly industrialising. In the north, plenty of people were being impoverished by industry, a point which southern plantation owners were not slow to argue. Indeed, a case can be made that slaves in the south were in a better state than many free workers in the north, and the slaves’ situation was rapidly improving because of the need for more labour. As the slave trade had been banned, the only way to increase the bonded workforce was to improve the conditions and enable them to reproduce (the slave trade before 1800 or so had been mainly to replace slaves who had died because of overwork and poor treatment; the slaves in the Caribbean did not start to replace their own population until after emancipation).

So was the ACW about a culture clash? You tell me, but I’d be willing to suggest that at least some of the cause of the war can be found in the US Constitution and the muddle that the legislature created over the boundary between Federal and State law. That makes the war over something which was distinctly about the United States as an entity; that is, that war was within a culture, not between cultures.

Looking further back, perhaps we can see some clearer cut cultural clashes. The Greeks and the Persians is a good candidate. The Persians, after all, only emerged into the Mediterranean world after Darius conquered Lydia, and Persia thus gained access to the coastline of Asia Minor. This was in the late sixth century, and was followed by expeditions across the Bosporus aimed at conquering Thrace, Macedonia and ultimately, Greece. This much seems to be the case. Even if we don’t believe much of Herodotus, we can agree that this does seem to be the Persian strategy.

But the question arises whether the wars were about different cultures and, further, were they in fact won by the culturally more muscular side? The Greek historians certainly thought so. The Persians, they argued, lost because of hubris, because they thought they couldn’t lose, and because of their own mistakes. But more than that, they lost because the Greeks were fighting for freedom and the Persians were not. The test on the battlefield was passed and failed over the idea and meaning of freedom.

I’ve suggested before that the battles were not so one sided as the numbers recorded by Herodotus suggest. This does have implications for the ‘meaning’ of the wars and their victors and losers. Perhaps the Greeks won not because they had a better culture and ideology, but because the hoplite was better adjusted to the battlefield conditions than the Persian heavy infantry bowman. The Greeks may have agreed to fight to protect their way of life, their hearths and homes, but they won because they had a technological edge. Does this make the wars a test of culture or of equipment?

Now, I suspect that I’m starting to jump up and down on thin ice. There were cultural differences between the Greek cities that fought (and many of them preferred the medeize) and the Persians, and it was the Persians who invaded. But the cultural differences were not so great that, for example, the Persians decided to wipe the Greeks out totally. The atrocities which did eventually come were as a result of the wars, not part of the initial strategy. Conquest and overlordship were at stake, not the survival of Greece per se.

So, are wars bound up with cultural clashes? Some may well be. Ideological differences do influence decisions, and are part and parcel of how conflict arises. But cultures can and do mix. The Persian empire, after all, was heterogeneous and, if the Greeks had submitted they would have become another group within the empire, like the Lydians, Ionian Greeks, Medes, Assyrians and so on. And the Persians only had to be a bit lucky to win. The Greeks had to get lucky every time and, just they did. After all, before Plataea, the Greek alliance almost collapsed, several times. A bit more patience and a refusal to attack the Greek army would have put Mardonius in charge, in all probability.