Wednesday 25 August 2010

Pondering Persians

I've been considering the ultimate foes of the Greeks, the Persian Empire.

They get a pretty bad press. Eastern Asiatic hordes, armies of a despotic regime, coming to conquer the plucky, outnumbered, democratic, free-thinking Greeks.

It is theme that is repeated quite often in Western literature (and, for that matter, politics). Consider, for example, The Lord of the Rings. Now, trespassing on Tolkein's classic might be risking an outcry, but the nasties come from the East. Similarly, with David Edding's Belgariad. The endless wastes of the East, and concomitant evil nasties are pretty well a fixture. The west is safe, homely, civilised.

Politically, of course, the east has been the 'other'. Ponder the anxiety in the west over the 'yellow peril' in the early 20th century. The image to the left (nicked from Wikipaedia) is an example, sent by the Kaiser to the Tsar at the turn of the century. The Archangel Michael is rallying the nations of Europe against the consuming fire of the east, complete with figure of Bhudda.

The east, while posing a threat, also represents the mystical, the decadent, and the amazing riches of strange cultures and their empires. It is exciting, interesting, dangerous, different.

Not all of this, of course, is the fault of the Greek historians, but it could perhaps be argued that they started it. The Persians, after all, did not leave much in the way of books of history to defend their reputation against the barbarian slurs.

So what can we do?

Not all literature which has come down to us so negative. The Bible, for example, is suprisingly positive about these eastern despots:

Isaiah 44:28: [The LORD] says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the Temple "Let its foundations be laid".

Isaiah then goes on to describe Cyrus (who of course, started the whole Persian "thing") as his annointed, which is pretty powerful stuff when it comes to ethnicity in the ancient world. And this is not an isolated example. In 2 Chronicles 36, Cyrus again is presented positively, returning the Israelites to Judah from exile in Babylon. Ezra too refers positively to Cyrus, as does Nehemiah to Artaxerxes (although the whole Ezra - Nehemiah - Chronicles complex is interrelated). Esther is also positive about the Empire, and Daniel also joins the party.

Even if we discount these documents as historical (which we probably shouldn't, at least, not in every detail), and claim they were written much later under the Hasmonian kings, Persia is still presented positively, not negatively.

Similarly, the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers - Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes came from Miletus on the coast of Anatolia, and Heraclites from Ephesus. Technically, then, all of them were Persian subjects (Thales only just, because he died in 546 BC, admittedly). For that matter, the magi in the Gospels came from the east, and were probably Persian sages, astonomers and philosophers.

So, what is the point of this ramble?

I think that we need to try and see, in wargaming terms, the Persians not as hordes of faceless Asiatic Greek fodder, but as capable and dangerous foes. To some extent our culture, and the relative lack of alternative historical documentation to that of the Greeks, works against us here. But the Persians managed a large empire for around 200 years (about 550 - 330 BC), and only fell to that chancer, Alexander. In fact, it could be argued that Alexander bought into the Persian culture and methods of empire, and became a Persian emperor, as opposed to a Greek one, much to the horror of his Greek officers.

So the Persians, I think, deserve some respect, not to have their troops dismissed as 'hordes'.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Holiday Reading

So, why no post last week?

I was away from the keyboard.

'Why did you not stay away?' I hear you cry. Yes, well, good question, let's move on.

Last week was spent, partially at least, reading essays in 'Hoplites: classical Greek battle experience', edited by V.D. Hansen (Routledge 1993).

What did I learn?

Hoplites used big shields, sharp spears and wore armour. They also looked after their dead - hence the mounds at Marathon and the fairly certain number of 192 Athenian casualties at that battle. I also found out that the spears had a spike on the butt, probably for the friendly purpose of stabbing those unfortunate enough to fall over in the battle press.

Exactly how useful is this stuff for writing rules, though? Aside from the ongoing discussion as to whether the rear 4 (of 8) ranks of the phalanx did shoving after contact or stood there stabbing at targets of opportunity, the overall message is that hoplite clashes were decided by slight factors - morale, what passed for training, esprit de corps, that sort of thing. All other factors being equal, a hoplite clash will go on for some time.

This raises interesting questions. Modern assessments suggest that a few minutes in hoplite armour with a big shield is quite enough, even without people trying to stab you. There must thus have been a system of relieving the front fighters, therefore. Which implies a structure and leadership within the phalanx.

So, ruleswise, a hoplite base will contain within itself the capability to continuse a fight for some time, rotating its men. As long as it doesn't fall into confusion, in which case it is in trouble, but while fighting an equal enemy to the front, it seems a little unlikely that this would happen.

Hoplite vs hoplite contests, therefore, have to be fairly even, and with a smallish chance of either side losing quickly.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

"From Marathon to Waterloo, in Order Categorical..."

Good old Gilbert and Sullivan, eh?

So, what have I learnt so far, a week into the project.

Firstly, there is a heck of a lot of literature out there.

Secondly, there is very little agreement between scholars over, well, anything, really.

Take the battle of Marathon (490 BC). In spite of the battlefield being located, subject to archaeological investigation and there being an account of the battle in the classical sources, practically everything about it is disputed. Even the facing of the armies.

Why would a professional Persian army fight with their backs to the sea? Yet that is the main weight of scholarly opinion. OK, maybe they didn't expect to lose, but we should give the Persians a bit of credit for some common sense. It also doesn't explain that if the Persian centre was turned in upon by the victorious Greek wings, how the next bit of the fighting took place by the Persian fleet, which was beyond the Persian right. It seems to work better if the Persians arranged themselves between the sea and the foothills - as in Grant's article in Military Modelling. Then they can run away to the fleet, not have to fight their way past victorious Greeks in order to have another fight when boarding their ships.

So in spite of all the literature I've uncovered, there is no real agreement on exactly how Marathon was fought. What, for example, was the Persian cavalry doing? Was it not there? Had it already embarked for the descent on Athens? Had it taken the coast road to Athens to force the Greeks to fight? Was it there but just milled around uselessly while the infantry slugged it out? All of these seem to have been suggested. In wargame rule writer's terms, its is a mess.

And then there is archery. The Persian arrow storm and the Greeks doubling through the 'beaten zone'. All sorts of explanations abound - weak bows, good armour, heavily armed infantrymen who rely on their formation for effect (or at least, keeping safe from those elusive Persian cavalry) running 200 meters to minimise the number of arrows hitting, and so on. Oh dear. Too little evidence and too many overactive imaginations to really make a decision as to what happened.

And yet, as wargamers, we demand modelling of this. Is it any wonder that rules writing is a somewhat thankless task?

Mind you, all this is nothing compared to the controversy over exactly how hoplites fought, but that is for another post.