Saturday, 24 April 2021

Fields of Death

I have already mentioned that I am not keen on the title of this book, and nor do I find the front cover attractive, being a skull in a Greek helmet. It probably is not the author’s fault, however. I have run afoul of editors and publishers and their decisions before. Anyway, I have been reading ancients again:

Evans, R. (2013). Fields of Death: Retracing Ancient Battlefields. Barnsley: Pen & Sword.

This is the companion to Fields of Battle, which I wrote about a week or two ago. I would call it a sequel, except that it was published earlier.

In form it is similar to the other book. This time you get five different campaigns: Sybaris (510 BC), Syracuse (415-3 BC), Motya (397 BC), Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae (102-1 BC), and Alexandria (47 BC). It is not really a wargamer’s book. In fact, a review of it on Amazon makes it fairly clear that it does not do the standard sort of ‘battles’ take on things. Evans is more interested in the texts which give us our knowledge of the activities of the armies and how they are interpreted.

There are a number of key issues going on, in my judgment. Firstly, often the authors of our text do not know the land over which the campaigns are fought out. They tend to make things up, therefore, to help the narrative flow or to fudge over their ignorance (and, to be fair, the ignorance of their sources as well). Interpretations on these sorts of things matter.

Secondly, there are issues of who the author was writing for. If you have heard of the siege of Motya you are doing well in your reading of ancient sources. I had not heard of it and indeed, Evans’ conclusion is that it was a very minor action exaggerated by the sources to glorify Dionysius they tyrant of Syracuse, the dominant power in Sicily at the time. Evans observes that a lot of the account of the siege looks suspiciously like that of Alexander’s siege of Tyre – both were off the coast, for example. The author of the account of Motya, Diodorus, would have had access to accounts of Tyre, and wrote in Rome, while the other author who discusses Motya, Timaeus, was a Greek writing in Athens. Neither seem to have known much about the terrain around Motya, and both give Dionysius a siege train, which is unlikely as such engines only came about in the mid-fourth century; the Athenians at Syracuse did not possess such object less than twenty years before Motya.

The third point to consider is the nature of the texts themselves. A common trope within ancient authors is hubris followed by nemesis. Overconfident states, generals and armies get their comeuppance. Thus the Athenian siege of Syracuse is described, roughly, as madness. Overconfidence in taking out a potential ally of the Spartans lead to Athenian disaster from which they never really recovered, hence, due to manpower and money losses, let alone the loss of face, they lost the Peloponnesian war.

Similarly, the Germans at the turn of the first century BC also had some easy victories over Roman and other troops, but then became overconfident and were beaten by Marius. This is quite an interesting episode strategically, really, as it seems that the Germans really intended a two pronged attack on the Po Valley, from both east and west. The possibilities of this going wrong were immense, of course, and it duly did misfire. Marius was able to defeat each invasion in detail.

Perhaps the oddest set of actions describe are those of Caesar in Alexandria. The thing here is that most accounts focus on the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra. The modern mindset is very much obsessed by sex, and this is projected back onto the past. The actual fighting does not get that much of a look in in most accounts. Caesar’s position was a lot more parlous than the accounts (mostly written by the man himself, although the Alexandrian War was written by a supporter) suggest, and he needed a relief column commanded by Mithridates of Pergamum to get him out of the siege and defeat the Ptolmemites (or at least that faction not allied with Cleopatra), although the fighting seems to have been fairly desultory. The interest (or oddity) here is that Evans uses the relief of Kimberley and Mafeking as a comparison, arguing that they too were cavalry led relief operations (the railways not being usable, apparently – I am not well versed in the Boer War). Mithridates needed to gather some infantry along the way, incidentally. Josephus, in his account, emphasises the actions of Jewish infantry, although the more contemporary account hardly mentions them. It just shows that accounts should not be taken at face value.

Overall, another interesting book. Everyone seems to be trying to give accounts of their heroes in the mould of Alexander of Macedon. Mithridates and Antipater are both cast this way in the accounts of Alexandria. Who the hero was depended on the author. As I have mentioned before a problem with a wargamer’s reading of the text is that we look for things other than the actual meaning and use of the text by its author and original readers. As modern readers we want the numbers of troops, units, deployments and so on. We are never going to get them. Alternatively, of course, we would like extended sex scenes between Caesar and Cleopatra. For those we have to turn to Hollywood, I suppose (although Carry on Cleo might be the best option).

The other thing is, of course, what do I do with the book as a wargamer. I think, probably, that I might excavate my Marian Romans and the Gauls and Germans and give them a run out. And, of course, I will also need my Roman marching fort. For all the wargamer readings of the text, it does seem that the Marian Roman army did dig a lot of forts.


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