It would seem that I am back. I confess, my enforced silence over the last month has not been all due to eye problems, but a severe outbreak of Real Life has also contrived to drive me from the keyboard. Still, RL seems to be settling down into its more usual torpor, and I have nearly finished the treatment for the eye, so I think it is high time to get back into the saddle and ride off on further adventures in the weird world of wargames.
I have not, as you might imagine, actually done an awful lot of wargaming in the past month or so. I did finish off the wargame which was on table at the point of my eye giving up. The Persians won, in case you were interested, defeating the Thracian horde and occupying the port. They did not even need to burn it. I learnt a lot about my rule set from the game, mostly glaring bits that I had missed out.
Aside from that, I have attempted to regain my painting mojo, and did fifteen 6 mm Moorish cavalry figures. They are now awaiting basing, along with the other lot I did in, um, January. My only excuse is that I painted 151 ancient galleys between the two. But painting has not been going well this year.
The point of the title is, perhaps, a bit contentious. The argument behind it is that we cannot reconstruct the past. That is, we do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct the past. The mind set of, say, a first century AD Stoic is inaccessible to us. To read, say, the Letters of St Paul, about how his flock once were pagans asleep in their sins but now they have turned to the true Way is not, really, to give us any insight into what pagan worship was, nor what the people thought they were doing when they did ‘turn away’ from their sinful lives and put on Christ. We simply do not have access to the world view that might have made sense of this.
To put the same point another way, we know that units of the Roman army built altars and sacrificed on them to the gods. Exactly what they thought they were doing or achieving by this is obscure. We know that it happened; it is just that the world view is alien to us. There is a gap, so to speak, between the evidence of something occurring and an understanding of why it occurred.
Of course, we can use intelligent guess work. There is a certain amount of evidence of, for example, thank offerings for safe return of individuals from perilous journeys. It does not take an awful lot of imagination to suggest that perhaps the units were making offerings for similar sorts of things, or perhaps just general thanksgiving for getting through another year. Whatever the regime, the human soul will usually find a way of celebrating something, somehow.
However, we do need to be cautious. Ezra Pound once wrote a fragment of a poem in the style of Sappho:
What tends to happen is that the blanks are filled in by enthusiastic editors and translators:
Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me]
Too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely]
Gongyla [who has departed]
The bits in square brackets are the editorial insertions. They tell us nothing about Sappho, even assuming that the fragment came from her. They tell us a lot more (often, an awful lot more than we want to know) about the editor, the translator, and their times.
In part this is inevitable, but we need to be careful. The first annals of Alexander the ‘Great’ we have were written four hundred years or so after his death. Granted, Arrian may have had access to ancient sources. He certainly claimed to have done. But what can we really be certain of? After all, Paul’s letters were a lot more contemporary with his subject than Arrian’s Anabasis was to Alexander. As I mentioned, despite Paul’s letters, access to its world view is difficult, if not impossible.
The problem is, then, that we insert our own ideas and concepts into the ancient text. We can view Alexander as a great man, a glorious general leading an obscure, peripheral nation onto the world stage. In that sense we can project ideas of, say, Nelson and the British Empire back onto the ancient world. Here is a man who did everything, beat the odds and so on.
On the other hand, we can view alexander as a destructive force, exporting war to otherwise peaceful parts of the world, destroying nations and ways of life. He can be portrayed as a ruthless power-monger, and drunken, deluded despot. One modern view of Alexander has him as ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian.’
How true are these views? Did Alexander export destruction of Greek civilisation? Is the former view, that of a despotic destroyer, a child of our age of anti-imperialist suspicion? Is the view that he exported what later became known as Hellenism only important because the Romans made it part of the civilization of the western world? Of course, there is the possibility that the collapse of the view of classical civilisation as being the highest point of aim for society could also play a part in our turn against Alexander as a good thing.
This does affect us as wargamers. Firstly, there is an issue of epistemology in history. We do not know many of the things we would like to know about the military forces we put on the table. We have to approximate, make best use of the sources and, in short, guess. History was not written for us.
Secondly, our view of the past is inevitably shaped by both our zeitgeist and the historiography that we read. If we stick with early twentieth century history, we may well find a historiography that is approving of empire building. The second half of the century is probably the opposite view. Exporting civilisation becomes imperial colonialism. What Alexander did moves from a glorious campaign of bringing enlightenment to the masses to a despotic, nearly fascist, destruction of an alternate world.
Which should we wargame? Does it really matter?