Saturday 21 January 2017

Amateur Historians

The problem, as I have tried to state it, is something like this: historical wargamers, as wargamers, read the historical texts in a certain way, which is not the way that most historians read them. Thus, a wargamer reading a secondary text, assuming that that text is not a wargaming text, is unlikely to find the answer to the questions they would like answered.

The upshot of this is that wargamers, not being, in general, professional historians, will read texts, and generate answers to their questions, which might raise the eyebrows, somewhat at least, of a trained historian. As a wargamer, I want to know, for example, the effective range of a Greek bow.  A historian is more likely to want to know the social class of an Athenian bow wielder. To some extent, at least, the two will rarely meet.

As an example, I am currently reading ‘Democracy: A Lifer’ by Paul Cartledge (Oxford: OUP, 2016).  Cartledge is a bona fide classical historian, and does know a fair bit about classical warfare, given that a number of his works relate to it. But battles are not his real interest. The focus in Democracy is, naturally, the rise of Greek democracy, particularly in Athens (because that is where a lot of the evidence comes from). As it happens, a fair bit of Athenian democracy was related to the rise of the hoplite class, at least initially, and then to the requirement of the Athenian Empire (Delian League) for manpower for the trireme fleet. The need for large numbers of free men to man the triremes led to political power being, in part, relocated to the poorest citizens. If they withdrew their labour, the state was imperilled.

One of the problems with the discussion of Greek democracy, of course, is that our sources (Thucydides and Xenophon, mostly) were not keen on the idea of the masses (even the masses of citizens) having any say in affairs. Thus their accounts of Athenian 9and other) democracies are rather biased against it. So too, roughly, with Aristotle. People who come from the educated elite tend to rather look down on the uneducated masses.

Be that as it may, the issue is that Cartledge is not particularly interested in the details of Athenian fleets or the machinations of campaigns, alliances and international politics, at least in this book. That is not to say it is not a good book (it is good book) but to admit that the focus is not where most wargamers would want it to be.

That said, of course, most of the historical texts do not focus on what wargamers are interested in. While there is a reasonable amount of information around on some of the bigger battles, it is often not cast in a form the wargamer needs to answer their questions. As I noted before, a wargamer really wants answers in the form of ‘there were X thousand hoplites, Y hundred cavalry and Z thousand light troops present’. While this does happen, it is rarely the focus of either original historian of secondary work author.

Wargamers, thus, are forced to make their own interpretations of historical texts, and it is here that the incautious can make mistakes. It is very easy to read an ancient text as if we were reading a newspaper report. We can and, I suspect, often do, simply flip through the pages until we find something interesting, like an order of battle or an account of a skirmish, and ignore the rest. After all, as a wargamer, we want the armies and the battles. Give us the numbers and array, and we will be happy.

Unfortunately, textual interpretation is rarely that easy. The author almost certainly has some sort of agenda. We also forget that history, as a subject for academic study, was a nineteenth century invention. Prior to that, it was relatively rare for someone to questions the sources accuracy or consider the inherent bias of the author. A naïve reading of the text is often nearly as bad as no reading at all.

For a made up example, it is possible that an ancient author, opposed to the idea of democracy, would inflate the size of ‘democratic’ armies over oligarchic ones, and accuse the former of being undisciplined and hence lucky to win a battle over the latter. This has little or nothing to do with history, and a lot to do with ideology. If we do not read the rest of the author, we might land up considering that democratic armies were fairly useless but, as democratic, simply big enough to win.

We therefore land up, if we read a text with sufficient suspicion, presenting ourselves with, perhaps a range of possibilities. Within these we have to make decisions about army size, quality of generals, discipline, training and so on. The text might present us with a ball park, but only our interpretation can decide where within the field the historical army was to be found.

As another example, if you read Tacitus (and I hope you do) one of the things that frequently happens is that a Roman army on the frontier becomes lax and ill-disciplined because the general is more interested in a life of luxury or political scheming. A new general is sent out and makes the soldiers do dawn marches and plenty of battle practice (which they love) and then leads them, in the next campaigning season, into a successful, victorious, battle. Everyone is happy. The soldiers get pay and loot, the general kudos and promotion and so on. But this happens again and again in Tacitus, leading us to suspect that other motives are afoot in the writing, more to do with the politicians and generals Tacitus liked and disliked than any real difference in the efficiency of the army.

The upshot of this is, of course, that textual interpretation is tricky. I do not mean that we should not do it, or that we should leave the interpretation to the experts and rely on those who have material we need (largely because they tend to be Dead White Males of a previous age and outlook), but that we need a sufficient dose of caution in our interpretation, a dash of suspicion before we try to reconstruct what might have been going on.


  1. Yay for source criticism! Thanks for another thoughtful post that covers yet another of my bugbears. Regarding Tacitus, it's always worth remembering that he never observed anything he wrote in Germania firsthand. Tacitus is an object lesson in the need for context when reading primary sources. The same probably applies to many other classical historians.

    On the other hand, you can make a perfectly acceptable game from his works without understanding their context. I can imagine a campaign that you win by scoring enough points in given areas that Tacitus gives you a positive write-up. Campaign objectives would be political as much as strategic or tactical. Could be fun game with an emphasis on keeping on the right side of Tacitus' father-in-law Agricola.

    1. Oh yes, our sources are mostly sauce and not much meat, really. Mind you, the same may well apply more modern historians...

      I have suggested that a Roman general needs to be very careful to be successful, as if they fail they will be executed or exiled to a small island. On the other hand if they succeed too well they'll be executed for being a threat.....

    2. Agreed, there is little certainty even in histories of modern wars. The key, though, is acknowledging where you fill in the gaps. A good historian will give you a methodology that recognises the deficiencies in the data and shows why they interpret the facts the way they do. Should wargamers do that too? I'm undecided. For historical demo games, I would like to see fewer 'this game is a precise recreation of Cannae' style comments and more 'the data's not great but this is our interpretation of it' statements. On the other hand, for some gamers that is probably pretty much irrelevant, because the game is about rolling dice and talking shite with their mates. I suspect many games have some games where the former could apply and some where the latter is definitely the case.

      I love the idea of a campaign where the general has to succeed ... but not too well. It could make for an interesting balancing act.

    3. I guess there has to be a balance. If we have to make explicit all the assumptions we make for a game, we'll never get to moving any figures, so it won't be any sort of 'history' at all. However, acknowledging that history as a given is imaginary history might be a realistic option - along the lines of 'we think Hannibal did this, but he might have done that'.

      Most games, including mine, are not 'recreations' of anything. My 360 BC campaign is nothing like 360 BC Greek warfare. In a sense it was never supposed to be. At best I suppose it is a sort of "based on" thing, like when they massacre your favourite novel when turning it into a film.

      On the other hand, we like to base our games in some sort of history - men with pointy sticks and big shields, for example. Part of the interest, after all, is whether things on the table turn out like history at all. If Hannibal loses Cannae we need to come up with some reasons, even if they are 'he rolled 1's'.

    4. Yes, a bit of balance would be nice. I get fed up of hearing people claim that their games are accurate recreations of history. A simple acknowledgement that the game is rooted in history, but that assumptions have had to be made, would keep me calmer.

    5. I guess, as you said, a demonstration that the game is based on an interpretation of incomplete and flawed sources, but is our best guess would be a good thing, generally.

      An interesting question then might arise around historically possible but not actual conflicts - or at least, not recorded ones - Hoplite Greeks vs Indians?

    6. Is it not easier with counterfactual games because the basic assumptions are clearer? Or maybe my own desire for historicity is automatically lessened by the knowledge that the game is what-if and thus one step removed from reality already.

    7. I guess that both are the case. we have to make explicit assumptions for a counterfactual game (indeed, in history, this is the role of counterfactuals, really), and we obtain more of a distance, or at least, the knowledge that what is on the table is not history is explicit.

      Maybe then we can enjoy the game more, without having to give reasons for the failure of our 'model' of history. But logic and reasonableness still are required.

    8. Yes, that certainly sounds about right.