One of the things I have learnt from my perusal of some of the philosophy of history is the influence of social scientists over historians, at least, historians of a certain outlook.
Social scientists, of course, study societies, and these societies might be modern ones, or they might be what is described as ‘primitive’, which might mean that these poor societies have to proceed without the advantages of mobile phones, Internet pornography or, of course, wargaming.
Now, I am not a sociologist, but what seems to happen is that the social scientists potter off into the jungle and observe, say, a society that looks at lot like an Iron Age one. They then go back to their desks and describe how the society works, and, in one way or another, model it. So there might be a model of the hierarchical relationships in the society, or the inter-clan ones, or something of that nature.
Historians then come along and read these, and thing something along the lines of “Oh yes, this must be how the Ancient Greeks (or Ancient Israelites, or Assyrians, or whoever) acted and thought.’ They then potter off to their desks and write about the ancient society behaving more or less in this manner, having, consciously or unconsciously, selected and interpreted their data to fit and, often, ignoring the careful caveats that the sociologists have put on their models.
One of the interesting things about this process is the evolution of what are called covering laws. The idea is that if something can be explained, it can be predicted. Therefore, if you have a sociological model of a society, you can predict how that society is going to react to, say, a new invention.
Historians, therefore, face a temptation to deduce covering laws, laws for all time and every place and society in the world, from social models. They might argue, for example, that a society which is stable and has a growing population is going to start fighting a war with someone, as the unlanded younger sons of the elite go in search of economic resources. The Macedonian expansion into Greece and Asia could be adduced as evidence, here, or the early Crusades, which, it can easily be argued, were nothing to do with religion, really, but more about an attempt to remove younger sons of the barony in Europe which were rapidly making some parts ungovernable.
Covering laws sometimes work. Somewhere in my library I have Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he argues that in all the major warfare since the sixteenth century, victory has gone to the side (usually an alliance) which has had the greatest financial resources. The side with the last dollar wins. This is, in my view, anyway, a covering law. It explains who wins a war involving multinational alliances. However, Kennedy is careful to describe the circumstances under which it applies – wars of alliances, wars where the manufacturing base of some members of the alliance cannot be attacked by the other side, and so on. Also, the law only applies in the long run.
Covering laws, however, sometimes do not work. Again, on my shelf I have a book called ‘Gunpowder God’ by H Beam Piper (published in the US as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen). The story is quite fun, and it is something a number of wargamers are aware of, especially if you want a sort of renaissance fantasy game. However, part of the plot is about whether a great man can change history, or whether history is in the grip of non-human forces such as economics. Covering laws or individuals rule?
Now, take wargame rules. In some sense, of course, wargamers subscribe to the covering law school of history. We take a particular period and assume that everything that happens within it are the results of overarching structures and society. We have an implicit model of how people behaved in battle situations, and write our rules to fit that.
Thus, we can, using a covering law, assume that everyone who fought in a battle between Sumer and Bosworth fought in pretty much the same, well defined, ways. At least, this is the assumption behind many mainstream rule sets. I am not wishing to criticise specific sets of wargame rules, but it strikes me as intrinsically unlikely that the assumption is valid. Romans had a different mind-set from Egyptians. They lived, worked, fought and died in different mental spaces.
Some rule sets, of course, attempt to overcome this problem by adding extra bits to model the specific attributes for a given historical people. Thus, you might find that Romans are better trained, or more steadfast, or whatever. The problem with covering laws is that these add-ons become complex and cumbersome. Often, it seems to me, the rule writer would be better off ditching the covering law and writing rules for a specific people and their enemies.
Of course, what applies over millennia also applies over centuries or decades. Societies change, as we know. The world of my youth no longer exists, except in my memory. Even that is a bit dubious, because I’m sure the sun shone all the time. But in order to wargame at all in a creative way, we have to have some sorts of covering laws, to allow, say, a barbarian army to face a Roman one. Different world views, yes, but they did meet in practice. Somehow we have to model this.
So we need a balance, a cut off, some caveats around our models and what we expect them to achieve. My Romans rule set is for the early Empire and late Republic. To be sure, it could be extended further, but I am not guaranteeing the results to be sensible if anyone does push the boundary. Similarly the Greek rules will be valid, hopefully, into the early Successor period. They might be able to go further, but do not expect Zama to work out as expected with them.