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….

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