Saturday 25 May 2019

Roman Wars in Spain

It is usually a capital idea to start a project with a decent question in mind, preferably one which no-one has asked much before. Daniel Varga evidently did so in this work:

Varga, D., The Roman Wars in Spain (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015).

The question he had in mind was: why did it take the Romans 200 years or so to conquer Spain?

The book is, fairly clearly, a translation of Varga’s 2010 PhD thesis, with most of the intellectual scaffolding (read: the bits only interesting to academics) stripped out. Thus there are few in-text references (and those that remain can be a little ambiguous) but there is a fairly extensive bibliography of both ancient and secondary sources.

One of the things Varga sets out to do is to integrate recent archaeology (mostly published in Spanish and Portuguese, and thus not available to us broadly monoglot Anglo-Americans) with the ancient sources. Of course, both source and ground have their limitations, and a great deal of the detail of what happened is rather speculative, but the broad themes are clear.

The Romans never really intended to get heavily involved in Spain, but were drawn there, as every wargamer knows, but the Punic Wars. Spain, or at least the Carthaginian bits of it, had to be suppressed to prevent reinforcements reaching Hannibal in his rampage through Italy in the Second Punic War. Of course, the fact is that the Carthaginians were there in the first place because they lost the First Punic War and Sicily and needed somewhere else to expand to. The fact that the Carthaginian bit of Spain was mostly owned by the Barca family probably added a bit of extra spice to the proceedings.

Varga notes that the wars in Spain had a number of effects on Rome and the Roman army. It was the first major war the Romans fought where they needed more permanent forces in the field; the usual summer term of serving in the legions no longer cut the mustard. Thus the army had to change its terms of service and, ultimately, recruitment process and targets.

Another problem to face the Senate was how to control the armies. Service in the west was not all that popular. No-one was going to make a fortune from conquering a tribe in Spain while conquering kingdoms in the east could well lead to fame, fortune, power and, possibly, being stabbed. The Senate was unwilling to increase the number in the pool of possible commanders, because it did not wish to diffuse its own power, and so a sequence of more or less capable and willing commanders was dispatched.

The Roman command of the sea more or less meant that reinforcements and logistical support were available, but were subject to the vagaries of weather and political support for the commanders in Rome. This, of course, worked both ways. The commanders on the ground had to make decisions, often of peace or war, treaty or raid, without referring to the Senate. This had two consequences. Firstly, the Senate occasionally repudiated and refused to ratify treaties agreed on the ground and insisted on further attacks on tribes that presumably thought peace had come. Secondly, and more seriously from the point of view of Rome, commanders on the ground could start to make their troops loyal to themselves. This had grave consequences for the late republic in the first century BC, as we know.

So for Rome Hispania was, after the defeat of Carthage, a bit of a sideshow and not really somewhere any ambitious young man would really wish to be deployed to. Naturally, if you were told to go, you went, but extracting wealth from the natives could be a bit tricky, and more than one campaign was launched to try to capture gold mines.

Working to Rome’s advantage, as with other places like Germany and Britain (and Gaul, for that matter), was the political disunity of the native tribes. They, after all, had spent generations fighting each other and were only going to take advantage of the incomers to further their own political interests. The fact that this usually meant weakening the ‘Spanish’ response was neither here nor there: the tribe and its interests were key, and so no overall leader or response emerged to drive the Romans into the sea.

On the downside, Spain’s geography made life difficult. Mountain ranges and river valleys led themselves to ambushes. Spanish political centres tended to be on the tops of steep hills, making sieges tricky. The native knowledge of the land also exposed Roman armies to difficulty and defeat. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is ‘The Military Confrontation with Guerrilla Warfare’, which does sum up a fair bit of the content.

Varga does admit that the word guerrilla is a modern invention, and it does not do justice to the whole of the fighting in Spain. Spanish armies, which could be relatively heavy in cavalry (Varga says about 5:1 foot: cavalry) could and did stand up to the Romans in a straight fight. That they lost fairly often is no worse than any other tribal army of the time. That they not infrequently subsequently ambushed the pursuing Roman army, causing large scale casualties is probably a testament to knowledge of terrain and resilience, as well as Roman lack of caution.

There is a fair bit of other stuff in the book, although the narrative section is a bit light. Varga notes, for example, that the victors tended to pick up the loser’s equipment. Thus tribesmen became more like Romans in equipment, and vice-versa. Of course, we all know that the Roman gladius was based on Spanish models, but Varga suggests that this was a two-way process and Spain’s finest were perfectly happy to throw pila at people.

Overall, despite occasional lapses in the translation (I am sure Gaelic in the text should read Gallic, for example0 this is a very interesting book on a much-neglected subject. I got it because Alexander IV is going there and I wanted to find out who he might be facing. As with many other books, of course, I have discovered a whole new set of ideas for wargaming.

Saturday 18 May 2019

Disaster in the Desert

‘Where is my historian?’ Alexander demanded.

The crowd of officers parted, and the scribe cowered before him. ‘Have you recorded today’s events accurately?’

‘Yes, your majesty?’

‘Wrong move. Destroy that papyrus. Today never happened.’ Two guards took the man’s papers off him.

‘But my Lord…’


‘But honesty, your majesty.’

‘If you want to discuss ethics, you’ll need to go back to Athens.’ The man nodded. ‘It is that way; you had better start walking, and you can tell the Moors who capture you that it was because you were an honest man.’

Alexander turned away. A staff officer cleared his throat.


‘Um, well, sire. We do not seem to be in the port and able to embark on the fleet as planned, and I was wondering what you wish us to do about it?’

‘Wait until the infantry return and then we’ll break out. Probably at night.’

‘Um. Regrettably, sire, I am not sure that many of the infantry will be returning.’

‘What? Why not?’

‘Um, the bulk of them seem to have surrendered, sire.’

‘Nonsense. They are Macedonians. Macedonians do not surrender.’

‘Well, sire, once you, um, left the field, obviously thinking all was won, I'm afraid that they seem to have rather lost the will to continue and, have, well, as I said, surrendered.’


This was probably the most thorough test of the Polemos: Age of Alexander skirmish rules that I have ever undertaken. Alexander, having marched through bits of North Africa after his success at Carthage, had to fight his way to the coast to reunite his army with his fleet. In his way was a horde of Moors, backed up by a few Spanish.

The picture shows the initial dispositions.

The Moors are on the table. Two Spanish tribal foot bases and a heavy cavalry base, plus the Moorish elephant and general are in front of the port. The rest were distributed randomly down the sides – ten light cavalry and ten skirmisher foot. The Macedonians arrive in the top right-hand corner, with the objective of the port. Soldiers are Baccus, buildings are a mix of Irregular, Leven and, I think, Timecast.

I confess, when I looked at the set up I thought it would be a walk-over for Alexander IV. So, apparently, did he. His plan was to use the Companions and light cavalry to sweep the opposition away, while the infantry crossed the stream and ambled along the road to the embarkation point.

As I dare say you noticed from the initial discussion between Alexander and his officers, it all went a bit pear-shaped. Alexander and the cavalry went off on an offensive down the right (on the left of the photograph) and got bogged down with the Moorish lights. The infantry struggled across the stream and bogged down against Moorish light horse, having no real reply, certainly after the peltasts were hard hit. Unusually for me, I have a photograph of the middle of the battle, showing the Macedonian pikes in trouble.

The peltasts to the top left are routed, the head and left of the column are surrounded, and Alexander is on the other side of the battlefield.

Fortunately for the Macedonians, lunch intervened, and I decided that young Alex would attempt to return to help the infantry out. Unfortunately, the withdrawal of the Macedonian cavalry in the face of hostile skirmishing was a bit of a disaster, and led to the collapse of Alexander’s army.

The picture shows the rout of the Macedonian cavalry, having been surrounded (well, on three sides anyway) by assorted skirmishers. I have to admit that the dice throwing at this stage of the game by the Moors was very good, and by the Macedonians was at best average, and they did choose to roll ones when the skirmishers threw a five or six. The Spanish cavalry also got into the fray, routing one of the Macedonian light horse, and the Moorish light cavalry also dealt with the Macedonian elephant.

The Macedonians were not quite routed as an army, but bereft of cavalry the phalanx was unlikely to hold out much longer, so I decided that, experienced troops as the phalangites were by this stage, that they could probably negotiate a surrender.

So, a decisive win for the almost entirely light force. I did make a few adjustments to the rules, allowing skirmishing light horse to move two base depths towards or away from an enemy rather than the official one. This seemed to model the light horse dance away from their heavier brethren more realisticly, rather than the lights having to turn around, move away and then turn back. Maybe it did unbalance the heavy versus light confrontation a bit, although if Alexander had stuck with the cavalry nearer the infantry things would probably have gone better.

So, what is next? How does Alexander get out of this one?


‘Your majesty?’


‘His Highness the King of Esbain has graciously permitted you to remove yourself from his kingdom with no further interference if you leave your baggage and weapons here in the camp and go with all your men.’

‘That is preposterous. I cannot permit that….’

‘In that case, your majesty, he told me to tell you that you and all your men will die here. He is willing to loan you a rowing boat so you can send a message to your fleet to come and collect your men, and yourself. Otherwise, this camp will be besieged until hunger, thirst and the desert bring you to your senses, or you die.’

‘Oh. I suppose so. But I will return…’

‘Your majesty, his most serene highness asked me to tell you that you can only return if you claim but one javelin’s length of land, or as much more as you are taller than one.’

‘I’m getting annoyed now….’

‘Yes, your majesty. We have but  two amphorae of water left for the men and the horses.’

‘Very well. Send the rowing boat. Let us get out of here….’

‘As your majesty wishes.’

Saturday 11 May 2019

Abstracting Models

I am on record here as claiming that a wargame is a set of interacting models, and I think that this description has some truth to it. We have, after all, a load of scale models in the toy soldiers and terrain. We also have a set of wargame rules of some description or another which, I suggest, are another set of interacting models – models for movement, combat, morale, command and control and so on. These, of course, control the ‘on table’ activities of the scale models.

I think I observed a long time ago that, in fact, on the table, there are multiple scales. We might use, say, 15 mm toy soldiers and 10 mm buildings, while the ground scale might be one inch to a hundred yards (I am making these up). We cope with these scale changes with little apparent cognitive effort, except occasionally arguing that this unit is, or is not, in range because it looks right. I often find myself explaining to some of my students that visualisation makes both understanding and explaining something complex much easier, and I suspect the same might be the case in a wargame.

I have just been reading an article by Nancy Cartwright, who is an empirical philosopher of science whose main claim to fame seems to be a book called ‘How the Laws of Physics Lie’, which, however, I have not read.  The article is

Cartwright, N., 'Do the Laws of Physics State the Facts?', in Curd, M., Cover, J. A. and Pincock, C. (eds.), Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues (New York: W. E. Norton, 2013), 871 - 882.

I tend to think of Curd et al as the ‘Big Blue Book of Philosophy of Science’, and it is an interesting, if weighty, read. Cartwright’s article is reprinted in a section on ‘Laws of Nature’, and basically argues that laws of physics cannot state facts, because, for example, the gravitational law is never a pure law; there are always other bits added in to the real situation. The explanation of a phenomenon is by composition. Thus, in, say, atomic physics, we have a central Coulomb potential which gives an energy level, which is then split by angular momentum. These levels may then be split again by spin-orbit interaction. From our original single level, in the case of the carbon atom and its ground state (Cartwright’s example), we now have five fine structure levels.

Cartwright’s point, it seems to me, is that in real life we never have a single ground level energy state in carbon. It just does not exist. What we do have are five fine structure levels. The ‘laws’ of physics by which we account for them are not ‘real’, in the sense that they cannot be applied directly.

This is, of course, perfectly true, but coming at the issue from a modelling perspective might help a little. Models (such as the Coulomb law) are abstract. They are tools to help us think about the thing modelled. They extract the things we think are important and ignore the things which we believe are minor or irrelevant. This does not mean, incidentally, that the abstracted model is less rich than the original, it is just more tractable.

In physics, we make a model of the central force approximation to the carbon atom. We note with satisfaction that it reflects the gross structure of carbon. This is a first level approximation, and we realise that we can do a bit better, so we add in considerations of angular momentum and obtain three levels. This too reflects the real world, except that we observe (perhaps with a better instrument) the finer structure, which (as it happens) we can also account for. The laws of physics are not lying, particularly. We are simply employing different levels of approximation to obtain different results. Our model, for some purposes, could stop at the first level of approximation. We know there is fine structure, but we might also know that it gets washed out by environmental effects, such as the atom being in a plasma.

OK, you might say, looking at me as if I am turning into a mad professor, what has this to do with wargaming?

The point is surely similar. In a historical account of a battle, we have only the reactions of the participants to go by. ‘Monke’s foot surrendered’ is an outcome, but an outcome of what? We might not know the circumstances of the combat, the reasons why Monke’s men had decided to throw in the towel. We know, because we know a bit about battles generally, that usually factors such as being surrounded, running out of ammunition, not being committed to the cause and so on can result in the outcome we know about. And we can model these factors.

The point here is that we do model the factors, and we split them up into different parts which interact to form the whole. We model morale, and combat outcomes and so on. We add these up, moving the troops on the table to reflect them. We might note from the situation that Monke’s men are surrounded. A quick count up of the factors (part of the model) and a roll of the dice and the historical circumstances of the surrender are achieved. The models combine, in the same way, that gravitational and Coulomb forces can combine, to give an outcome. The abstraction of the models enables the obtaining of the final result.

Of course, in a wargame, there is also a narrative. Stuff happens because other stuff happened first. Monke’s men are surrounded because they crossed the river before the rest of the army was ready, for example. This is not as obviously the case in a carbon atom, as it just ‘is’ what it is. However, the models we apply give us the means by which we can talk about the various levels of structure in the atom, as the wargame rules and models give us a means to discuss the surrender of Monke’s foot. 

Saturday 4 May 2019

Science and Superstition

It is, I think, something of a common mistake among wargamers that the rest of human life does not matter to their tin men. Of course, in actually putting figures on the table and pushing them around, rolling dice and having a good experience, the rest of life does not make much difference. If, however, a wargamer can be persuaded to pull back just a little from the action, a richer context emerges for the battles, campaigns and wars which were undertaken. This might not affect directly how battles were fought, but it does impact indirectly.

One of the points made in this book:

Wilson, D., Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans (London: Robinson, 2017).

is that we should not consider the big thinkers in the age between the end of the medieval period and the French Revolution without at least an acknowledgement of the political, cultural and technical activities going on around them. In an age where the question most European people were asking ‘what must I do to be saved?’ the thinkers, as well as soldiers and diplomats, had metaphysical problems as well as the normal ones of moving around and eating.

Furthermore, technology did start to make a difference. The invention of the telescope, for example, must have had some sort of impact on the battlefield. Gunpowder too improved significantly across the era, as did methods of making artillery. McNeill, in last week’s book, has quite a lengthy section on why eighteenth-century French artillery improved so much and, hence, Napoleonic French artillery was streets ahead of the opposition, at least to start with.

Now it could be argued, and I guess probably has been argued, that such advances could and should have been made faster and better without the faith questions hanging around. Part of Wilson’s point is that yes, the church sometimes got things wrong and tried to stifle some ideas. The trial of Galileo is usually trumpeted at this point as the age of ignorance fighting a rearguard action against the enlightenment of science, of faith retreating against the onslaught of truth. As with all such stories, of course, the truth is a lot more complex than that, does not really impact of the Christian faith in the way that it is usually portrayed and possibly would not have happened at all if Galileo had not seemingly set out to irritate people who initially at least were on his side. The Church, while it was wedded to Aristotelian physics, we not quite the reactionary monolith that it is usually portrayed as.

Aristotelianism, of course, persisted post-Galileo. There were perfectly respectable Aristotelian scholars in the later seventeenth century, attempting to ‘fix’ the world view in the light of recent empirical data. In fact, they had a case. Galileo argues (and we all believe him) that a cannonball, once fired with a certain velocity at a certain angle, has a trajectory described by a parabola. It is the sort of thing done in A level applied mathematics papers. We can prove it nicely, given certain assumptions like a flat earth and a uniform gravitational field. The problem for Galileo is that, of course, the trajectory is not a parabola, as every gunner probably knew. The Aristotelian account worked as well. It was only when air resistance was added to the equations that the answer started to correlate with the experiment.

Mathematics, especially geometry, started to become more and more important. This fed into other areas of life. Thus the universe came to be regarded by some intellectuals as running mechanically, and this led to deism (although, as far as I can tell, all the deists actually denied deism). The world became something that ran on clockwork, and, eventually, so did armies and battles, at least in theory. The troops deployed in straight lines. They manned geometric fortifications. Siege engineers could predict the time table upon which the various stages of the siege would start and the day the fortress would fall. All of this seems to spring from a change in the view of the world in the intellectuals of the day. They were not living in ivory towers but in the real world of politics and wars (and disease, starvation, exploration, and so on).

Government power also increased. Communications improved, allowing control to be exerted at more of a distance. Coercion, in the form of armed force, became more common. The billeting of armies was separated from the civilian population and drill (again, with reference to McNeill, although Foucault makes the same point) creates a unit with loyalties to itself and its members, not the places where the members came from. Government thus became a calculation of how much tax could be extracted from the population to support standing armies which could be used to suppress dissent arising from the same rates of tax. A careful juggling act ensued, until, in France at least, the whole edifice came tumbling down with state bankruptcy.

An army, I have suggested, is a reflection of the culture from which it came. Eighteenth-century armies became more detached from the civilian population. Thus the French used Swiss and Irish troops, the English used Scottish and German. Armies were deeply political. The Glorious Revolution was sparked by James II’s attempt (at least, perceived attempt) to Catholicise the officers of the British standing army. That incident shows, at least, that monarchs, for all the ideology associated with monarchy, were not complete absolutists. Theories of government, like Locke’s and Hobbes’, might give more or less power to the centre, but practical monarchy relied on a degree of assent from nobility, gentry and the lower orders. The further an army was distanced from the population, the more suspicion it was treated with.

The early modern period was rife with conflict, both wars and ideological. The ‘victory’ of one side or another was not obvious to the participants and, often, the stories we tell about it are massively over-simplified. As Wilson observes, Newton spent far more time writing on occult ideas and theology (I think he was, in fact, vaguely heterodox) than he did about motion and mechanics or optics. To ignore the latter is to have less than half a picture of the man. To ignore intellectual activities is to have less than half a picture of the age.