Saturday 25 June 2016

SPQR or How to Write History

I have recently finished Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile: 2016), and very good it is too. I have not been a huge fan of Mary Beard over the years, finding her rather strident in terms of being an academic and in terms of media profile. Or perhaps I am just jealous: her blog and books get read, and she is presumably paid a lot more than I am, being a professor at Cambridge University.

Be that as it may, I did buy this book at my usual supermarket. That, at least, must tell us something about the author, as usually the only things you find there are ‘romances’ and chick lit. As it was cheap, the Estimable Mrs. P offered to buy it for me. I took it while I spent a week away, ‘sleeping with books’ (a small prize of internet kudos for anyone who can match where I was to that marketing slogan), and it became my bedtime reading. It is a fairly light and easy read.

The point is that the book is certainly popular history. Beard takes us from the mythical foundations of Rome to 212 AD, when all free people in the Roman Empire were made citizens. She discusses the texts we have, artefacts which have been discovered and the limits of what we can know, or guess, about Rome and the Romans. The book has plenty of illustrations, black and white in the text and some coloured plates in the middle. Not only that, but the plates and figures are referred to by the text, which is not something that is always the case with popular history.

The point about this book, as against a number of others that I have read, is that it lays a pointer as to where what we know stops and speculation starts. We have, for example, a number of texts about the foundations of Rome, but the question arises as to what these texts actually mean. Livy was not reporting from his own knowledge the earliest history of Rome. It was, perhaps, wishful thinking, or hope, or a ploy within the politics of his own time that he wrote what he wrote. We cannot, as it happens, know.

Berry is fairly dismissive of those who think that we can reconstruct early Rome from what we have. The problem is, in part, of course, that a lot of the earliest Rome is buried under the later Rome. This causes archaeological problems, in that we cannot get to the earliest deposits unless we go through valuable later ones, and anyway, if the earliest Rome was, as we now suspect, little more than a collections of mud and wood shacks, there may well not be any earliest deposits to find. Rome is quite a damp lace and wood tends not to last that long in such circumstances.

All this should give pause for thought to the enthusiastic wargamer and rule writer. We simply do not know anything about the earliest times of Rome, or anywhere else. What we do know, or think we know, are the musings and stories of later generations, the formation myth hearers, who thought to write them down for others to read. As such, of course, we have a fair few foundation myths in various bits of literature, and they usually contradict.

It is thus very difficult to believe that we can really wargame anything very much in an historical sense of the early period in Rome. The Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC, at which the Samnites trounced the Romans, was not really a battle at all, in Beard’s view. Somewhere between a shambles and a farce, the Romans were trapped without water and surrendered. How on earth could we wargame that and, even if we did, why would we bother?

A lot of the earliest history is like this. Was Rome really ‘sacked’ by the Gauls? If it was, what did this mean, in fact? After all, if Rome really was all but destroyed, it recovered remarkably quickly. This should at least give us pause for thought. If the history so confidently written and taught over subsequent centuries is, in fact, highly dubious, how can we even slightly claim to be undertaking historical wargaming with only the slenderest of ties to any sort of history at all.

As with Rome, so with everywhere else. No war is comprehensible by those who are involved in it, and none are so by those who work with or read the history of it. The early wars of Rome are unknowable to us. Even the later wars, those of the Empire, are largely a mystery. And let us not think that more recent wars are any the better. Because we have more documentation, we might think that what we are doing is better, more accurate, and more ‘historical’. But the chances are that we are simply blundering around failing to understand the most important points, because the participants and historians found them too blindingly obvious to report. Of course, we can triangulate using other documents, similar situations, analogies to other bits of history, but we cannot know and must find it hard to be ‘historical’.

All that said, of course, we should not keep trying. We can do better, bit by bit. We can learn, we can investigate, and we can get a slightly better grip on what was going on. But we do have to recognise that it is exactly that, only slightly better, and still quite likely to be very wrong. We, inevitably, project our own certainties and knowledge onto the past, even when we are simply playing a game. Our view of the past changes as our circumstances change. The certainties of Romulus and Remus have become the murky mists of mythic foundation stories, as we have moved from the certainties of Empire and Imperialism (and national particularism) to the fragments of postmodern political images.

And so a fine book and an easy to read popular history of Rome, which does not give too many hostages to fortune. I recommend it as a read and as a view of how to ‘do’ history. But I could have done without the colour photo of the author inside the back cover, I confess.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Anti-Realistic Wargaming

As I am sure many of you already know, in the general debates over philosophy these days, there is much about realism and anti-realism. Having been subjected, in the last few weeks, to endless stuff about this, I reckoned that there was a blog post about it. Furthermore, of course, misery loves company. So I thought that I would inflict it upon you, my reader.

First of all we need to have some idea about what a realist is, and then try to define what an anti-realist might be. This, however, is easier said than done. In the philosophy of religion, a realist is someone who believes that God actually exist. But that does not precisely mean that an anti-realist does not believe in God, just that they think that God is not an observable in the world and therefore we cannot speak of God.

By an odd quirk of the human mind, there is a very similar debate in philosophy of science. Here, the question is (or rather, the example usually is) whether electrons exist. A realist would say they do, point to the theories for them and the effects they have. An anti-realist might well counter by arguing that we cannot see electrons and so the ways we have of talking about them are merely conventional words with given meanings within the mathematical models we have to predict the world around us.

All of that said, of course, most people are realists, most of the time. Most people who believe in God believe in a real God. Indeed, we could argue that most people who do not believe in God do not believe in a real God, and, at risk of too many negatives, do not not believe in an anti-realist God.  Similarly, most people believe in electrons as actually existing, not, probably, as our descriptions of them, but as some sort of entity in the world. Even anti-realist philosophers of science, practically, believe in electrons somehow, or else they would refuse to use word processors to type out their arguments for the non-reality of the electron.

I have to admit here to being a realist, and to regarding anti-realism as being a bit bizarre. I can kind of understand where they are coming from, but, as a former jobbing physicist, do actually regard electrons as entities, albeit unobservable entities. I think I would also claim that most physicists would fall into the realist camp here as well. In fact, the subtleties of philosophy of science are ignored by most physicists.

With respect to wargaming, however, realism and its opponents rear their ugly heads. I am not talking here about historical accuracy, but in whether the effects we discuss are real effects. Let us presume that we can, within some knowable degree of freedom, reproduce a battle on the wargames table, and do it with some known degree of accuracy, however that might actually be measured. That established, our attention must turn to the rules, and what they are modelling.

Most obviously, of course, there are morale rules. Morale is one of those Cinderella rules in wargaming. We all know what it is and what it means, but we do not really have a good handle on it. Indeed, as I think I have mentioned before, DBA ignores morale except on a broad scale and some proponents of the rule set argue that morale is built into the combat outcome rules.

However you argue it, morale is, broadly speaking, an unobservable. I cannot go into a wargame shop and order a slice of morale, or deliver to the army their morale for the day. We can, of course, see its effects. Troops have fought bravely, or run away, as a result of their morale status. But morale is unobserved, all we see, like the electrons, is the effect of morale.

I could go further as a radical anti-realist, of course. A movement rule is not about how far or how fast units can move. It is about how fast the do move. ‘Movement’ is in fact something that is not fixed and thus, cannot be measured. We decide in writing the rules, how far our units are allowed to move. Further, the movement of a unit on the battlefield is not the same as the movement of the individuals, but all I can really measure is the latter, and then only by determining how far some point of the unit has moved, be that headquarters, colour party or one corner of a theoretical rectangle of men.

Thus, as an anti-realist, I can argue that movement rules, as well as morale rules, do not refer to anything real. We draw our nice orders of battle, sketch out the deployment of the units and place their equivalents on the wargame table, but this, and the motions in which we set them, do not refer to anything. The battle of Naseby was not the clash of neat squares of battalia as they are drawn on the famous map of the battle. Those clusters of musketeers around a central pike block might look good on table or map, but it is highly unlikely that the reality looked anything like that.

It is also unlikely that our rules reflect anything much in reality. Of course, we can argue that morale is important in battles, and everyone would concede that that is correct. But we cannot define morale easily. We can only see its effects. We cannot even, by my argument, define movement successfully. We can, again, only see the effects. The rules are mere instruments for obtaining some outcome. The mechanism has nothing to do with what might happen on a battlefield.

So, are the anti-realists right? As I hope I have suggested above, I fail to believe that they are, but I do think that they pose a question to us as wargamers. Even if we concede that our wargaming is historical, we then have to wonder if the rules we use have any relation to the real.  My example of morale is only one where the referent is not an entity in real life. I have tried to suggest that movement might be another, and I dare say that if I tried hard enough, I could find an argument for suggesting that combat rules do not refer either.

Whether this is a problem for us or not depends on taste, of course.