Saturday, 25 July 2020

Otranto 1480

It is a fact well known among wargamers, particularly of the early modern persuasion, that the Ottoman Empire menaced Europe from roughly 1453 to 1683, that is from the fall of Constantinople to the failure of the Siege of Vienna.

Many wargamers will also have in mind the strategic problems encountered from both sides. The sheer distance involved in moving troops from Constantinople to Vienna, for example, leading to a significant lead time and hence a shorter campaigning season in south-eastern Europe. There is also the distance from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other – about 300 days sailing according to Braudel. Furthermore, and largely ignored by European commentators, is the fact that the Ottomans had to face both the Europeans in south east Europe, the Spanish and Italians in the Mediterranean, the Egyptians (until 1520 or so) and the Persians in the East, not to mention the Portuguese in East Africa, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

It is probably less well known that the Ottomans did in fact land in the obvious place, on the boot of Italy, in the late fifteenth century. This even is often ignored or relegated to, at best, a footnote. So far as I can tell, Oman’s History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages ignores it. Rhoades Murphy mentions it, although to be fair it is a little before the time frame of his book (Murphey, R., Ottoman Warfare 1500 - 1700 (London: UCL, 1999) p. 6).

The most extensive text-book discussion of the event I have found is in Thomas Arnold’s chapter in one of Black’s edited books (Black, J., ed. European Warfare 1453 - 1815 (London: Macmillan, 1999) p. 23-44), where it gets half a paragraph. Arnold argues that while the invasion was successful, it was contained by an Italian army using earthworks and withdrawn after the death of Sultan Mehmed II in 1481.

Nevertheless, as a wargamer with an idle (although rebased)Ottoman army and a number of options for the Italian Wars, an Ottoman invasion of Italy seemed like an interesting idea. I also have a renaissance galley fleet or two awaiting repair, restoration and rebasing which I have not persuaded myself to undertake as yet. Still, the question has been asked – what actually happened?

In my perusal of ResearchGate I ran across a highly appropriate article:

Giakoumis, K., 'The Ottoman Campaign to Otranto and Apulia (1480-1481)', in Güzel, H. C., Oğuz, C. C. and Karatay, O. (eds.), The Turks (Ankara, 2002), 3 (Ottomans), 279 - 309.

It is amazing what you can find if you look for it. Now, this is a scan (uploaded, as it happens in 2019) of the article, and it seems a page or two are missing, but it does give a lot of detail for the budding campaigner.

On 28th July 1480 the Ottoman army landed in Apulia and besieged the city of Otranto. Otranto is, of course, right on the boot bit of Italy, opposite the now Ottoman controlled Albanian coast. The Ottomans were, in fact, powerful enough to undertake both this operation and the siege of Rhodes at the same time. Not only that, but the Italian states were, inevitably, fighting among themselves in the north, and this included that army of King Ferdinand I of Naples.

The number of invaders is, of course, unknown and somewhat contested – 15,000 men in 100 ships is one suggestion from a chronicle. Other estimates range from under 10,000 to 18,000. Giakoumis suggests about 15,000 including oarsmen from the ships.

This force, whatever its size, besieged and captured Otranto by the 14th August 1480, captured some surrounding fortresses and raided widely, hitting Taranto and Brisindi. The commander, Gedik Ahmed Pasha left a garrison of 8,000 and returned to his base of Vlore to prepare to exploit the success in the next year.

Of course, Ferdinand I did react to the invasion, and recalled his army from the north on 2nd August. However, by the time they arrived near Otranto the city had fallen and the Italians only had 3,000 troops, so they were heavily outnumbered. Although appeals were sent to the rest of Europe for aid, no one seemed that interested in helping. The most significant response was by the Pope, who sent some money to Ferdinand, but also sent 50,000 ducats to the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvus to attack the northern borders of the Ottomans.

The absence of the Ottoman fleet enabled pirates to raid near Vlore, and the local population of Epiros and Albania incited by members of the Albanian nobility rebelled, threatening supplies line between Istanbul and Vlore. In spring 1481 Gedik Ahmed Pasha was forced to send some of the troops he had been gathering for Italy to suppress the rebels; they were defeated.

On 3rd May 1481 Mehmed II died, leading to a civil war in the empire between Bayezid and Jem, his sons. Gedik Ahmed Pasha left Albania on 1st June for Constantinople, having sided with Bayezid, and defeated Jem on 20th June. Bayezid appointed Suleyman Pasha as beylerbey of Rumelia, but Suleyman had plenty of problems on his plate with the rebellion of Epiros cutting communications with Otranto and Vlore having insufficient troops to garrison the place and protect the fleet.

In August 1481 the Neapolitans transported John Castriota and a small army to Albania where after a failed attempt he defeated an Ottoman force. Suleyman Pasha recognised that his fortresses at Himarre and Sopot were at serious risk of falling to the rebels, and would be used as posts to attack Ottoman costal shipping and Vlore. His attempt to relieve Himarre was ambushed and he was captured. Sopot and Himarre fell to the rebels and, without support, Otranto surrendered on 10th September 1481.

The Ottomans returned to Albania in 1482 and put down the rebels, but did not attempt to cross the Adriatic again. Italy had survived, but not really through its own force, more by encouraging rebellion on the opposite shore.

So, there you are an interesting idea for a battle or campaign. I am planning to have a go at it myself soon, so I will see how I get on. As a plus point, the Ottomans and Neapolitans do not seem to have fought at sea, so the galleys can remain a future rebasing project.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Two Book Challenge Part Two

As threatened, I have been thinking about two ‘essential’ books relating to the ancients period. This is, in some ways, a bit more challenging than early modern, as firstly, I have not been reading about the ancients period for as long and secondly, ‘ancients’ is even more difficult to define than early modern, in that ancients wargaming often incorporates medieval.

Not being one to duck a challenge, however, I have pondered long and hard (at least 15 seconds, you know, more than twice the attentions span of a goldfish or average Twitter user, apparently) and come up with a couple of candidates.

The first one is:

Goldsworthy, A. K., The Roman Army at War, 100 BC-AD 200 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

This is based on Goldsworthy’s PhD thesis and it does show. If you want a narrative account of Roman campaigns then this is not the work for you. If you want an account of how Roman legions (and their auxilia, etc) fought, then this might be right up your street, as it were.

After some introduction and a survey of the Roman army’s opponents (observing that little is really known about many of them) Goldsworthy examines three ‘levels’ of battle: that of the general, that of the unit and that of the individual. The idea that the main aim of the Roman army in a given province (which is being used in my Sarmatian Nation campaign – see the links to the right) is to squash rebellions immediately is expanded upon in a chapter on campaigns. In the chapter on the unit’s battle, missile fire, and cavalry against cavalry, cavalry against infantry and infantry against infantry actions are discussed.

I like this book. Goldsworthy positions it along the lines of Keegan’s Face of Battle, trying to see what happened in action, not look at overall results. There have, of course, been criticisms. The most accurate of these is that really Goldsworthy’s work is a synthesis of Josephus and Caesar. Other authors such as Tacitus get only a minor look in. This is true, admittedly, but the Caesar and Josephus were eyewitnesses while Tacitus was not (although his father in law Agricola was a commander).

Those of you who have seen Polemos:SPQR will realise the debt those rules owe to Goldsworthy’s work. The rules, self-consciously, aim to reproduce the general’s battle. Too many rules, it seems to me, try to force the wargamer to act at the level of army and unit commander and the rules become ponderous or confusing. I tried to make PM:SPQR work at the single, general’s level. Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it did give me a distinctive structure for the rules.

Enough self-praise. The second book almost made me abandon PM:SPQR as a bad job (shame it didn’t, I hear some critics cry). It was published shortly before PM:SPQR and might have given me some rethinking requirement, but my own rules were too far gone for that. It is, of course:

Sabin, P. A. G., Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).

If you are an ancients wargamer and you have not read this, then I suggest that you are missing out. It does what it says on the tin, provide instructions for refighting ancients battles (up until the end of the Roman Civil War in 48 BC, roughly) and plenty of information about how big the armies were, how they deployed and so on.

Now you may or may not like the rules – Sabin’s aim was more academic than just having a nice wargame, he was trying to see what range of outcomes might be available in the originals – but you cannot deny that the book is a mine of information. As it happens I have never tried the rules in the book, but if it had been published a little bit earlier I would probably have rethought the base strengths in PM:SPQR. I’m not sure how much difference it would have made, except that Sabin assesses veteran troops as worth nine new levies (as I recall).

If you look around the wargaming blogs you will see, from time to time, refights of famous battles using the Lost Battles system. It seems to work quite nicely, but I am not sure I have head room for another set of rules.

Anyway, time for some honourable mentions.

If you are serious about the classical world, you have to have this one:

Hornblower, S., Spawforth, A., eds. Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: OUP, 3rd ed, 2003).

This is not, of course, a wargamer’s book, but more or less everything you need to know about the classical world is contained therein. It is, I think, a very dangerous book. You pick it up to look something up, and before you know it two hours have passed and you are reading about the delicacies of salt mining in the ancient Middle East or the tin trade. If it does not have everything in it, it has most things us non-scholars of the classical world need. What it doesn’t have we probably don’t need.

Last up, we have:

Sabin, P., van Wees, H., Whitby, M., eds. The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, 2 vols (Cambridge: CUP, 2007).

The first volume covers Greece, the Hellenistic period and the rise of Rome (i.e. the Punic Wars); the second runs from the Late Republic to the Late Empire.

Each of the four sections has a similar structure – a chapter each on international relations, military forces, wars, battles, warfare and the state, the relation of the military and politics and war and society, each written by a specialist. Again, this is not so much narrative history as a structure for analysing the various aspects. As such, it may not be every wargamer’s  cup of tea, but it is interesting and, again, the serious classicist on ancients warfare probably shouldn’t be without it.

The last two of these volumes are, it has to be admitted, seriously expensive academic tomes, but a good watch kept on second hand and remainder book websites can turn up some gems. That, of course, and a supportive spouse….

Saturday, 11 July 2020

A Biggie

‘I need your help.’

‘You what?’

‘I need your help, and your men.’

‘The must have been very painful for you to say.’

Vodkaschnapps shrugged. ‘It is war, my friend. We have beaten the Romans in open battle, but now they are hiding like moles, and I need your help to dig them out.’

‘Do you mean you can’t?’

‘We could, but the Romans are tricky, we know that. They still have some cavalry who might try to interfere.’

‘So what are you suggesting?’

‘We will keep the Romans away and you storm the fort.’

‘So I get the difficult bit?’

‘I cannot do it. My men are not comfortable on the ground. You do it and keep the loot.’

‘Do I have a choice this time?’

‘Of course not.’


‘You want me to do what?’

‘Join us against the invaders.’

‘The invaders are also Sarmatians, of my race, my kin. Their leader is my kin. I cannot join with their enemy, Roman’

A coin clinked on the table, then another.

‘Your kin, your brother?’ Another coin, then another.

‘Well, more a sort of cousin, really. It is just a figure of speech we have.’

‘Then you’ll aid us against them?’

‘Well…’ Another coin. ‘Maybe.’

Three more coins landed on the table. ‘Can we turn your maybe into a yes, if this is your advance half?’

‘I will meet you on the field with my men, my friend.’


G. Inan Tonicus has resorted to bribery to raise some heavy cavalry against the Sarmatian invaders. It seems to him to be the only way he can face them on the field. After the last defeat (see the link on the right under ‘Sarmatian Nation’) the infantry have taken refuge in a marching fort while Tonicus has gone for reinforcements.

Vodkaschnapps has not been idle either. After finding the Romans in the fort, he has recruited the previously defeated Dacians to assault it while, as noted above, using his men to hold off the relieving forces.

This was one of my largest games to date, with four twenty base armies on the field: Roman, Dacian and two Sarmatian armies, on opposite sides. From this you may deduce that I have recently finished doubling the Sarmatians, and quite pleased with myself I am, even though I did nearly give up. Painting endless cataphracts seemed a mountain to climb, but I got there in the end.

The deal is that the Dacians will assault the marching fort, while five Sarmatian bases have to remain within a charge move to ensure the allies’ diligent attention to the task in hand. If the Sarmatians start to lose, the Dacians will withdraw one move from their positions and see what happens. If the Sarmatians lose then the Dacians will change sides.

Similarly, the Sarmatians the Romans have recruited will waver if the fort is penetrated and change sides if it falls. In this case ‘falls’ means the Dacians coming out the other side.

The picture shows the game a few moves in. To the left are the relieving Roman cavalry, on the Roman road. To the right are the mercenary Sarmatians. To the left and right of the marching fort are the barbarian Sarmatians, and beyond the fort are the Dacians, who are just about in position to assault the near gate. The figures are Baccus, the trees and fort are Irregular and the village in the distance I think is Timecast.

The assault on the fort was one of critical timing.

The Dacians approached covered by their light horse, which absorbed the fire of the bolt shooters. The latter were backed up by legionaries, so the picture shows the critical point of the assault – whether the Dacians or Romans would have the tempo to lead the assault first. As it turned out the Dacians did and won the combat against the bolt shooters, and then followed up into the supporting legionaries.

A few turns later the situation in the fort was critical for the Romans. Furthermore, the mercenary Sarmatians had ceased offensive operations.

The initial assault has driven deep into the fort, and the second assault is also over the walls. From here it went from bad to worse for the Romans, although they very nearly managed to stabilise the situation, albeit with some very shaken cohorts.  The secondary assault, however, made it to the other side of the fort and waved to their Sarmatian friends, causing the mercenary Sarmatians to change sides. At this point, I stopped the game as Roman morale had sunk to zero. The only remaining interest is whether Tonicus and his cavalry will get away.

The picture shows the final positions. The Dacians have blasted their way through the fort. The Roman cavalry has deployed against the flanking barbarian Sarmatians, but now the mercenaries to their rear have changed sides. The infantry in the fort has mainly evaporated.

The action did not go as I was expecting. A lot depended on who won the tempo at the initial storming of the marching fort. On the other hand, the Roman tempo points rolling was not good during the game, and nor were their combat dice. It was a fun battle, however, and the sight of Dacian hordes swarming over the palisade is one that will live with me for a while.


‘After that I think I can forgive you for resisting me.’

‘That is good of you; we just won you the battle!’


‘OK, allies. But the Romans will still kill us. Anyway, what about your brother?’

‘Here.’ Vodkaschnapps placed a jangling bag on the table. ‘This is his half of the Roman money he took to joining them.’

‘Doesn’t he want it?’

‘We… negotiated.’

‘What happens now? The Romans will come again.’

‘We have to decide, my friend. Do we pitch our tents here and await them, or go on to attack the main base hereabouts and try to get rid of them permanently.’


Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Wargamer Workout

Of late there has been a spate, for reasons I will not dwell on as everyone will know about them, of internet sensations concerning exercise and a workout. Internet exercise gurus have gritted their teeth and carried on through all the difficulties of late, including sprained wrists and cheesy smiles, to bring us fitness in the midst of gloom, doom and disaster.

Never being a blog to ignore the latest in cultural trends, I, therefore, present, in the hope of becoming an internet sensation and bagging my own YouTube channel and lucrative advertising deals, the Wargamer’s Workout.

Firstly, you have to look at your environment. You need enough space for your exercise. Many wargamers believe that about eight feet by four feet is enough, but you will have to make your own decisions depending on how much room you have. This, of course, can depend on factors beyond your control, such as spousal opinion, size of wargamer and other, less important factors such as availability of space in your dwelling. Think, as they say, big.

Next, you will need to get into some training. We will start with some weights. The idea here is to buy the biggest and heaviest wargame figures that you can find. An internet search , unfortunately, does not show any manufacturers who cast in iridium. I am sure there is a niche in the market there, and if anyone would like to start using these casting media, please let me know and I am sure I can let you have a licence on reasonable terms for using my idea.

Fifty-four-millimetre lead soldiers are probably the best you can manage for the moment, although of course you will have to refer to the quantity of space you have reserved for your exercise, above. If these are too big for you then you can use smaller figures, although of course, you will have to increase the quantity proportionally. Thus, for each fifty-four-millimetre figure you can lift (this is weight training, after all) you should have two twenty-eight millimetre figures, about three and a half fifteen-millimetre figures, five and a bit ten-millimetre figures and nine six-millimetre.

Once the figures are delivered, you will need to lift them, of course. A parcel of figures will, usually (depending on space allocation) need to be lifted up at least one flight of stairs. Taking a normal story of a house to be approximately three meters, and the weight of a parcel to be around a kilogram (say, one hundred figures) then lifting the parcel upstairs (from the ground where the postman has deposited the package) will burn a whacking three joules. Naturally, as more packages arrive you can keep increasing this activity. Spousal objection to the expenditure can be waved aside on the grounds that it is still cheaper than joining a gym.

For the really keen, the activity can be increased by lifting the package from the floor to a full stretch several times. This is often done in private by wargamers who take a ‘victory lap’ of their wargame space (see above) with new acquisitions anyway, before photographing the ‘loot’ and putting it on the internet to make other, less fit, wargamers jealous.

Next up is the activity of painting. Normally, we would not regard this as being exercise, but heck, if Tai Chi can get away with it because it calls for ‘muscle control’ then painting the boot buttons on the Imperial Guard must be in with a chance. Not only that but there is also the transport of assorted paints from the front door to the painting room, which counts as heavy lifting. After all, a bottle of Vajello acrylics is 17 ml, which equates roughly to 17 grams. Add a bit for the weight of the bottle (and because this is an exercise in exercise, not in mathematics) to make it 20 g, and you only need to order fifty to make up a kilogram and three more Joules in energy expended, which, by my calculations is about one eighty-thousandth of a chocolate bar.

Once all that energy has been expended on painting and basing your ‘weights’ (as you can come to call them for those cosy family chats about the credit card bill) you need to pay attention to using the figures on a table. The advice here is simple in theory, but a bit trickier to achieve in practice. Many wargamers are prone to a disease known, rather rudely, by others not so afflicted, as a “beer gut”. To counteract this, bending is often recommended, from the waist. Obviously, this is easily achievable over a wargame table, but being the fitness fanatic you now doubtless are, the further you bend the better. Therefore take a saw to the legs of your wargame table and make it lower, so you bend down further. This will increase the amount of bending, of course, but you do need to make sure that the legs of the table are, at least approximately, the same length.

You will, of course, have based your figures individually. This will lengthen the time you have to bend over and improve your suppleness as well as fine manipulation skills. The weight of the figures, of course, will also improve your muscles, particularly in the important bicep and triceps regions. Also, consider carefully your dice. Many are a bit lightweight but they can be improved by carefully boring out the centre and adding some lead. This will mean an increase in weight when rolling them and can be an important factor in the wargame workout, particularly in some sets of rules. Do not worry if your lead is slightly off centre, by the way: it is recommended that the insert is done via the one side of the die, so if you do not proceed too deeply, you will be able to proceed more quickly to the final exercise recommended in this workout.

The final exercise is the wargamer victory dance. This is done when the crucial die roll (see above) comes out as a six. The arms are raised in triumph, a cheer may be heard to emanate from the wargamer’s lips and a dancing movement is carried out, the vigour of which depends on the space available. This activity might be repeated several times during a particularly close game.

So there you have it. The wargamer’s workout and remember, you heard it here first.