Saturday, 3 April 2021

Fields of Battle

Every once in a while I pick up a book that makes me think ‘Oh, I should wargame that.’


Evans, R. (2015). Fields of Battle: Retracing Ancient Battlefields. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.

as one such book. On the face of it, it is rather unprepossessing. The rear cover states that it discusses the Ionian Revolt, Marathon, Thermopylae, Ilerda, and the battles of Bedriacum and so it does. What, you might well ask, do we need another book on these battles for? And, perhaps, a bit more pointedly, Why did I buy it?

My loyal reader will know that I read a lot and that I am a cheapskate. I bought it because it was in last year’s Naval and Military Press sale, for only a very few pounds, and I got it along with Oman’s Medieval Warfare books. It has sat on my shelf (to be fair I did read the introduction) for a year or so before I got around to it, perhaps slightly provoked by a general level of dissatisfaction with the flow of my ancients rules, as noted before.

It is an interesting book and a fairly easy read. It is sort of along the lines of an academic work, but the details are hidden in the endnotes and the bibliography is not that long. It is a bit ‘back to the sources’ sort of thing, based on re-reading Herodotus, Caesar , and Tacitus. That, of course, is never a bad thing, but it does not really suggest anything new or groundbreaking is about to emerge.

Evans’ focus is, in fact, on logistics. The first two chapters focus on the expansion of the Persian Empire first into Asia Minor, the revolt of the Ionian cities being a response, perhaps, to the smack of firm government and, even more so, to the demands of the Empire for resources in men, money and material for Darius’ adventures further north. Next, of course, the Persians advanced into the Greek islands, culminating with landing on Euboea and on mainland Greece itself. The defeat at Marathon, Evans suggests, was not severe for the Persians, more a temporary check for a force that was at the edge of its supply chain across the sea.

Evans does assume that the reader has something of a grasp of the detail of the wars, the battles of which he discusses. The account of the Persian invasion of Greece stops before Plataea and Salamis, and it is assumed that you know what happened. Of course, there are plenty of books out there that tell you, but perhaps, given the interest of the book, supplying the remaining Persian army in Greece post-Salamis would have been an interesting theme.

There are some interesting items along the way. Evans, despite what he says about the endless speculation and theories relating to how Marathon was fought, adds his own, relating to the presence of Greek cavalry and light troops. He has an ingenious (or it sounds like one to me) solution to the explicit statement in Herodotus to the effect that the Athenians did not have either present. There is also an interesting discussion of why the Spartans, who did know about the possibility of being outflanked stayed at Thermopylae. It is also pleasing to me to see how much weight Evans gives to naval matters, discussing the battle of Lade (494 BC) and the action at Artemesium (480 BC) as well as activities on land.

There is a bit of sea work in the account of Ilerda and Massila as well. Now actually, in my dim and distant past as a globe-trotting scientist, I have sat at a cafe in Marseilles harbour, and very nice it was too. So I do know that it is by the sea and, in order to besiege it, the Caesarians had to blockade the port as well, which they duly did. Caesar himself was busy winning in Spain, the important point that Evans wants to make is that he beat the Pompeians without fighting a major action. He did this by exploiting their mistakes (they left their forces too far apart) and by attacking their logistics. Eventually, the Pompeians were forced to attempt to leave Ilerda and march for safety. As they were outnumbered in cavalry, they failed and were forced to negotiate a surrender. The capture of Hispania and of Massila freed Caesar to concentrate on Pompey himself in the east, with consequences we all know about.

Finally, Evans has a go at the Year of the Four Emperors, and the clashes between the assorted sides along the Po valley. Again, he assumes a degree of familiarity with the events, of which I have a vague grasp but no more than that. The first battle of Bedriacum was more of a skirmish, although it persuaded Emperor Otho to commit suicide. The second battle was a lot more interesting, fought at night between the Flavian army and that of Vitellius. The latter had omitted to create a chain of command, which led to a degree of confusion and, quite likely, to them losing the battle. Again, the activities of the fleet, at Ravenna, and declared for Vespasian was important, although the Vitellian fleet raiding southern Gaul had little impact. The field at Bedriacum was very cut up and rather exposed, which would make it an interesting one to model, with lots of drainage ditches.

So, a good book, but not without some grumbles. The maps are (as usual) inadequate and do not list all the places discussed in the text. There are quite a few typos, suggesting inadequate proofreading and the references to the plates (black and white photos) are often confusing or incorrect, again suggesting that no-one really checked before printing. Still, these are only grumbles.

Fields of Battle is, in fact, a companion volume to Fields of Death. I confess I do not like the title of the first work but, on the strength of the second volume, it is on order. In the meantime, I think I might need to paint some Greek cavalry for Marathon.


  1. Thanks for the review, very interesting. I am myself looking for a similar book related to late medieval battles. Do you know anyone with this topic? Thanks!

    1. Tricky question, and I think that the historiography of late medieval is a bit diverse. Oman is old, out of date, written from a particular perspective but gives a good idea of what happened - it is rather fundamental and a lot of later historiography rather forgets that.

      Aside from that, the more recent Ospreys for a given subject are usually good and well referenced, so you can start from there, but I think you'd need to be a bit more specific than 'late medieval'.