Wednesday 31 March 2021

The Ancient Economy

One of the things about modern life with added internet is that you can certainly buy books much faster than you can read them or, in my case, write about them. For reading, I do recommend speed reading courses, as long as they are not pop-psychology US-based extract money from credulous people by making them read books in reduced light (no, really) so their pupils open wider so they can see more of the page at a time (no, really). Mind you, I do teach a bit of speed reading from time to time, so I might be biased, although I do not charge a knight’s fee for the privilege.

Anyway, I have a bit of a book pile to write my way through before I forget about the contents, so here goes with the first one. As I am already a month or two ahead with the weekly blog posts, I shall do a few extras along the way, which no-one in their right mind will read but I shall feel better about having committed my thoughts about them to paper / word processor / blog.

The first book to write about is the eponymous one in the title:

Finley, M. I. (1979). The Ancient Economy. London: Book Club Associates.

I confess, for all my denial above, this one was not actually purchased off the internet. I was having a chat with a colleague (who happens to be a classical Greek archaeologist by training) and mentioned that I was reading this object, and had got to volume two:

Rostovtzeff, M. (1941). Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Clarendon.

My colleague fixed me with a beady eye and inquired if I had read Finley. I had to confess that I had not, whereupon she rose and, having just had a major operation on her ankle, rolled herself off on a neat trolley thing to the other room, rolled back, and presented me with the said tome. ‘You can keep it,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to reduce the number of books I’ve got and I don’t need it.’

Hence Professor Finley came into my life. I confess (again) that he sat on my shelf for a while, rather neglected, but, as is the way of things, when I was looking for something a bit more ancients related to read, I took him down and proceeded.

Now, I am not a classicist scholar, I just have an interest in ancients things, often related to wargaming. I do recognise, however, that there is a lot more to life than fighting battles, it is just that accessing said things, such as the life of a peasant, can be a bit difficult. The other thing, as I realised as I read on, is that the ancients had a very different view of the world than we do.

The book covers, roughly, ancient Greece, particularly Athens, as you would expect, and the Roman Empire. The sources are those you would expect, with the very occasional reference to economic matters mined from the standard sources, and the few bits which refer to something economic or productive given a bit more space.

The fact is that there was very little concept of ‘the economy’ in the ancient world. People grew stuff to survive, and if they had any left over, sold it to buy other stuff from local people who were, roughly speaking, doing the same thing. Governments taxed people and took what they could. Landowners obtained rent which they used to buy more land, or to live in happy excess (or miserable excess; as the modern Western world shows, more is not necessarily better) or, if they really had an awful lot, to buy political favours. This was often done by offering large loans. If the candidate then did not do what you wanted, you could call it in and bankrupt them.

A few, of course, rose to the top. Noted Greek politicians, despite democracy, were, on the whole, loaded, and could usually garner the required votes unless they really upset the people and were ostracised. The Romans, of course, played for keeps. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were all seriously wealthy people, but they had to keep going or someone, possibly one of the others, would stick a sword into them. Once they had a loyal army at their backs, conquest was required: the veterans needed land and there was not enough in Italy to satisfy the retirees who had given them so much political clout. Hence the expansion of Rome in the first century BC.

Things only marginally improved under the Empire. There was no idea about the investment of capital to improve returns, or of investment in industry and commerce to make things easier and/or more profitable. The slave economy, whereby if you need something you made someone else do it for you no matter how slowly or ineptly they managed it, rather stifled the requirement to innovate. There was not a lot of new technology and innovation around – the odd water mill and glass blowing excepted, the world was pretty well the way it was in the fourth century BC as in the fourth century AD.

You could argue that the Roman roads had an impact, and you would be right, but the roads were military installations, going where the army wanted them. Towns relied on their own hinterland for food and the quantity of inter-town, let alone provincial trade was very limited, except for the large cities like Athens and Rome which needed to import grain.

The footnotes in the book are rather (academically) hilarious, possibly indicating the origins of the book in lectures. Finley swipes other authors, often swingingly: ‘unpersuasive special pleading’ is just one example chosen at random.

Finally, of course, it all fell apart. The Roman Empire, at least in the west, did fall apart. The wargaming interest in this, I suppose, is the reason Finley puts forward: the Romans simply ran out of manpower and of money to pay an army of the size they needed to defend the frontiers. Perhaps that is an economist’s viewpoint; there might have been a few other factors around, but I suspect that it is, at heart, an unavoidable truth.

Saturday 27 March 2021

The Battle of Temeshvekovar

 ‘So, let me get this right. You want me to fight the Romans.’

‘Yes, my friend.’

‘Without any help from you and your men.’

‘This is a matter of deep regret, my friend, but we are otherwise occupied.’

‘By fighting your brother?’

‘Well, he is sort of my brother. But I have to fight him.’

‘Why? I mean, he is your brother, so you should be on the same side.’

‘Well, there is the matter of the money, my friend.’

‘What money?’

‘The money the Romans gave him for fighting us. Which I gave to you. He wants it back.’

‘But he gave it to you.’

‘Well, yes. The Romans want it back too, and somehow they found out you have it. Perhaps they asked him and he told them that I’d given it to you for beating them up last time. But they always come for revenge, anyway, the Romans.’

‘I told you before you invaded that they’d never lose ultimately.’

‘Well, we just have to continue beating them. You have a fine opportunity, my friend.’


Doubolwhiskos, leader of the Dacians, now has to face the might of Rome on his own. The Romans are staging a punitive expedition to his capital, Temeshvekovar, to teach the Dacians a lesson and to recover the money they gave to the other Sarmatian tribe which changed sides in the last battle (but has now changed back). According to the Romans, of course, they are now owed the money from both the Dacians and the second Sarmatian tribe. This is how you take over the world – the Romans could be compared with contemporary global internet companies….

Doubloswhiskos has had time to prepare and has decided on ambush in depth. I suspect that ambushing the Romans is really the only way that tribal foot are ever going to beat them, so it seemed like a fair idea. The set up is below.

In the far distant right-hand corner of the table, you can see Temeshvekovar, with three bases of crates full of Roman gold in it. On the near hill, Dubolwhiskos has deployed his light cavalry and a base of skirmishers, with archers and four bases of tribal foot in ambush. Further back, on the hill behind the stream, there are another four bases of tribal foot with four more in column in ambush behind the hill. Finally, there are two bases of tribal foot in from of Temsehvekovar itself.

The Romans deployed from march column, very slowly, and attempted to sweep the hill of its defenders with the cavalry while the auxilia deployed. This attempt was not wholly successful as the Dacian light horse resisted manfully, bringing the Roman cavalry to a partial halt, while the rest refused to charge up the hill. Dubloswhiskos moved the archers onto the top of the hill as to fill any attacking Romans full of shafts, and brought the ambushing tribesmen out of cover to peer down the hill at the Roman axuilia and look threatening.

It all went pear-shaped for the Romans. The auxilia were hit by the tribesmen from the top of the hill and the left was swept away, followed by the supporting Roman archers. Dubloswhiskos was even able to recall his tribal foot and reorganise them before the next wave of Romans appeared while the legionaries deployed. He also called up the rest of his foot from across the stream as it seemed that the main fight was going to be on the hill.

The picture shows the scene a few moves later. The auxilia have more or less vaporised and the remains are being shot to pieces by some good dice rolling by the Dacian archers. The rest of the Dacians are starting to appear at the stream. The Roman’s best chance seemed to be, again, the cavalry. The left wing (nearest the camera) are about to try their luck again up the hill at the Dacian lights, while the right cavalry is aiming to outflank the hill (and has nearly made it). The legion is also nearly in position to attack up the hill Dubloswhiskos’ men are coming under pressure.

The climax of the battle was, like the rest of it, a bit flaky. The Roman left-wing attacked up the hill and routed one of the Dacian light horse while damaging the other. The Dacian archers disposed of one of their opposing auxilia. The legionaries advanced on the Dacian tribal foot on the hill and started to force them back. Alas, on the Roman right the outflanking Roman cavalry incautiously strayed into charge range (albeit across the stream) of the Dacian foot. Charged they were, and, even across the stream, fluky Dacian dice rolling (and being taken in flank) led to them fleeing. At this point, Roman morale was at 1, the cumulative effects of the casualties among the auxiliaries. They were, therefore, forced to withdraw.

The figures, incidentally, are Baccus, the buildings Leven and old Baccus. The rules were Polemos: SPQR. I confess to having rather ambivalent feelings about these rules, which is OK because I wrote them. I had to look at the date of publication before I realised that I wrote them over a decade ago, and it would seem that my thinking has moved on a lot since then. While I still think that they model the Romans versus tribal armies interaction very well, I do admit that they do not flow quite as well as I would like. I don’t know why I felt that this time, as opposed to the last outing. I fancy an informal fast play version might be on the cards.


‘I told you you could beat them, my friend.’

‘Well, of course, we could beat them. I’d just rather not have had to try. Can’t they just go away and leave us in peace?’

‘That would not be the Roman way, my friend. Now, I must go and instruct my brother in the ways of modern warfare.’

Saturday 20 March 2021

Trench Fever

As my loyal reader will be painfully aware, this blog is always well ahead of the curve in wargaming fashion. As a trendsetter, of course, I have been banging on about the importance of sieges and siege warfare in the pre-rifled artillery era for years, largely to the indifference, amusement or occasional argument from anyone who was misguided enough to listen (or read) what I was saying.

Battles, therefore, are at the forefront of many, if not most wargamers minds. However, as with the Western Front in the First World War, things might be changing a little. The two, that is siege warfare and trench warfare, might, in fact, be part of the same phenomenon. You can regard the period from, say, 1915 to early 1918 as an extended siege, on a very large scale.

That is not quite the point here. What I am failing to say very clearly is that early modern sieges and First World War trench warfare have both been regarded as being fairly unwargamable in the not too distant past. This is not due to a lack of information – Duffy’s books are excellent and the quantity of stuff on the First World War is huge. WWI figures were a little in short supply, but the recent centenary has fixed that in toto, although I do recall Airfix had a load of figures decades ago.

I think the problem with both eras was simply the scale of the operations. A Marlborough age siege was big, particularly if you have the full set of outworks, lines of circumvallation and so on. Similarly, First World War battles were huge and an individual soldier’s contribution, or even his unit’s efforts, were a little marginal to the overall result. As noted, the time scales were also lengthy – months, in both cases, and the outcome was often decided by boring bits which wargamers tend to ignore, like disease, logistics and the weather. All in all, the decision to avoid sieges and trenches seems entirely rational.

Things change, however. The advent of 2014 heralded some wargame rules which could cope with the large scale, full-blooded slaughter of the Western Front. I am not sure that the period is for me, but the rules do seem to work and to give a reasonable account of the action along the way. And now the internet is alive, or at least one or two blogs I follow have mentioned it, with the advent of the Vauban Piquet based rules for siege wargames in the Age of Reason.

It is not my intention here to review the rules, largely because I do not possess them, or any others in the Piquet series. This is mostly due to parsimony rather than dislike, although the demonstrations of Piquet rules I have seen do seem to have rather a large quantity of clutter and ‘gismos’ on and around the table, which I dislike (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, I speak from ignorance). The cost is a bit prohibitive, and I take my hat off to those who have invested in the said rules.

Anyway, I am resisting the temptation to say ‘I told you so’ to all those wargamers who doubted the importance of sieges, and want to bang on about the importance thereof again, which I will do in a moment. In the meantime, to show my own commitment to the siege cause, I have been working on some trenches and gun emplacements.

What you can see here are five old resin Baccus trenches, which I finally got around to painting, five handmade trenches, made with plastic card and gabions from Perfect Six with four corners, and four gun emplacements, manned by four Baccus WSS siege guns. I could have plastered the front of the trenches and corners with polyfiller to represent piled-up earth, but a quick assessment of my modelling skills decided me against any such effort. Painting and glueing eighty gabions was quite enough for me.

I also know that the angles of the corners increased as the saps approached the outworks, to prevent the trenches being flanked. I decided that was a refinement that could wait until I had some experience with sieges, and when I had more gabions. You might also have noted that something is missing in the picture above, to whit, the target fortification. Have patience. I already have a castle and a set of town walls, and a star fort is in procurement.

I have also realised that a star fort, and the besiegers thereof, will need a large artillery park. I have therefore been reviewing my assets (Ooh, err, missus). I appear to have seven Heroics and Ros guns, with two gallopers, and thirteen naval guns from Langton (with some crew), and two guns, I suspect from Baccus, although crew might be a bit lacking. A star fort seems to need at least two guns per bastion, so I think I have sufficient artillery. Just.

That does raise interesting questions, of course, about the cost of the fortifications. Ships of the line were a large investment for the early modern state, at least in part because of the quantity of artillery they had on board. If you think about some of the early modern ships of 40 – 100 guns, it means that quantity of cannon per ship, which is a lot in the age before industrial standardisation. And the British and Dutch fleets had hundreds of vessels at some points.

It cannot have been that different with forts. Some of the material would have been local, and the labour to build the fort might have been procurable, but the number of man-hours was significant, I should think. Even forced labourers require feeding. Then magazines need filling and artillery mounting – naval gun mounts are more popular on forts because the cannon do not need moving about as much and the recoil can be absorbed by the fort structure itself, as it is on a fighting ship.

So, there you go. My contribution to wargaming sieges is underway. I might have to think of some rules soon, so I might have to reread Duffy. But that is a pleasure rather than a labour.

Saturday 13 March 2021

The Battle of Mount Grace


We have chased the Spanish out of Northallerton and are pursuing them towards your fort at Ellerbeck. I hope to meet you at the bridge where we can chase these invaders out of your country.

God Speed!

James VI, King of Scotland’


As the loyal reader may recall, the Armada Abbeys campaign has been going for quite a while, and I suspect it is nearing a resolution. A full recap of the story so far can be found on the page from the link to the right. The Scots have just beaten Don Carlos’ army at the battle of the Friarage and are in pursuit. The English are marching north from their camp at Thirsk towards their fort at Ellerbeck, near the ruins of Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian Charterhouse. The fort was established, you may recall, to control the junction of the Northallerton, Thirsk, Yarm and Stokesley roads, after a brisk light cavalry action. It actually interrupts communications between Don Carlos’ army to the west, and Don Pedro’s Spanish army which is currently based at Stokesley.

Don Carlos thus has a problem. He has to delay the Scots while fighting his way past the English fort and any reinforcements that might arrive. However, Don Pedro is on the march to cover his retreat, so all the armies are likely to meet at Mount Grace.

The picture shows operations a few moves into the game. The Spanish of Don Carlos have had four moves to start getting over the bridge and have come under artillery fire from the English in the fort. The rearguard of light horse, nearest the camera, skirmishers in the field and an infantry unit in the village are rather nervously watching the newly arrived Scots.

The English will approach from the road nearest the camera, while Don Pedro arrives along the road to the top right, which is also the escape route for Don Carlos. The buildings are mainly Leven with some Baccus hovels, and the bridge is Leven. The fort is Irregular’s Roman Marching Fort, which seems to turn up in a lot of my games. The Scots are Baccus, the English and Spanish are Irregular.

For a while I wondered if I had the balance of the game right. The Spanish rearguard held off James’ men for a while. The Scots musketeers, you might remember, have got quite a good reputation in this campaign, and I assaulted the village with them. Musketeers against pike is not great odds. The light horse and skirmishers also managed to hold off their foes. Meanwhile, the rest of Don Carlos’ men were moving past the fort with relatively little damage from the artillery or musketry. Don Carlos, it seemed, was going to get away.

The Scots, however, stuck to the task in hand and disposed of the Spanish rearguard, crossing the stream in numbers at the bridge and also attempting crossings further north. Don Carlos sent his gendarmes to block the Scottish cavalry getting astride the junction before his infantry got there. The main English and Spanish armies have arrived, Don Pedro’s men in battle array while the English have their Border horse on the right, the rest being on the road. The English in the fort have sallied out, in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Don Carlos’ infantry from getting away. However, to further delay them, Don Carlos has charged the pike with his demi-lancers and pushed them back.

It went a bit wrong for Don Carlos, then, and Don Pedro’s arrival did not really help that much. The English rearranged their pike and had another go at Don Carlos and his cavalry, holding them on the first turn of combat. The Spanish were then hit in flank by a base of Scots musketeers and destroyed. Don Carlos had to dice for his fate and also was lost. By this time his army had lost seven bases and the general, thus being minus nine (out of twelve) on the dice. A morale check gave them a withdraw status.

Don Pedro tried to deploy his cavalry to cover the retreat of Don Carlos’ infantry, but lost his light horse to a charge of Scots cavalry. By this time, however, most of Don Carlos’ men were in sight of safety, and it would take King James time to organise another attack. The English were about facing to deter assault from Don Pedro’s left, while their Borderers had disposed of the flanking Spanish skirmishers and were now engaging the left-wing musketeers, albeit without any success.

I decided to call the game at this point. Don Carlos’ remaining men can be seen at the top, just about withdrawing through Don Pedro’s army. The English and Scots infantry, and the English cavalry, are lagging a bit, and the English are having to redeploy their infantry anyway. Don Pedro’s army is close to the base line and can easily withdraw anyway, covered by the still extant cavalry from Don Pedro’s army.

The upshot of the game is, really, that Don Carlos’ army has ceased to exist, having lost five bases at Northallerton (I restored them for this game) and another seven here. The remnants will be combined with Don Pedro’s men and fall back to Stokesley.

Someone once commented that the problem with narrative campaigns was that they do not have an element of surprise. When I fought the cavalry battle at Mount Grace, I had no idea that the fort thus established would have such an influence on the course of the battle. The story of the campaign seems to have rather taken over.



I write to inquire as to the whereabouts of Don Carlos, my friend, who is missing after the battle, last seen bravely engaging pikemen. I would be glad to know his condition, if alive, and if he has gone to meet his maker, I should wish to receive his corpse for return to his family in Spain.


Don Pedro of Vina Soro

Saturday 6 March 2021

The GNW in an Afternoon – Part II

If the game had been fought as a multi-player event, I imagine that there would have been some non-aggression pacts, if not outright treaties and alliances. As it was, this all happened in my head. The initial view from Saxony was that the priority was to defeat the Poles and capture the cathedral, setting up Augustus the Strong to be crowned king. The Danes had little interest in conquering Saxony and wanted to set off for Sweden, so, while both sides deployed a home guard of three bases, a tacit non-aggression pact was entered into.

At the other end of the table, Charles XII, true to type, threw everything at the Russians. The Danes, he figured, were just too far away to bother about, and, having trounced the men in green, he would be able to get back across the river to trounce the redcoats. Peter the Tsar tried to hedge his bets and seemed unsure whether his target was Poland or Sweden. Seeing the eruption of blue-coats across the river, however, he pivoted most of his men to face this, banking on the Poles being too occupied with other matters to be a problem.

The picture shows the situations hotting up. The Danes and Poles have agreed to non-aggression, permitting the Polish cavalry, hitherto blocking the Danish advance, to redeploy across the river. Some Polish infantry too is on the move south (right in the picture). At the top, you can see the Swedish and Russian columns converging on the ford as the flank guards exchange shots. The Saxons are deploying against the Poles, while the Polish cavalry which was confronting the Russians is withdrawing and racing to aid their comrades. The Poles, incidentally, lost a base of incautious light cavalry to a Russian charge, but then the Russians swung north rather than follow the success up. In the foreground, you can see the Danish home guard and, to the right, a base of the Saxon equivalent.

The major clash in the west was between the Saxons and the Poles, or rather the latter’s cavalry. The picture shows roughly half-time. The Polish hussars have seen off a base of Saxon cavalry, and the rest of the available Polish cavalry is about to have a go at the rest of the Saxon mounted. You also get a nicer view of the cathedral at no extra charge, although the card is a bit shiny for the camera flash to do a good job.

To the east the confrontation between Russian and Swede was across the river and no good came of it, really, for either side.

The Swedes made a number of attempts (in accordance with their ‘attack at all costs’ philosophy) to cross the river, but only a few infantry, under the exacting eye of their king made it. They ploughed into the Russian foot and were repulsed, which would not have been so bad, except that Charles himself was a casualty. On the Russian left Peter redeployed his cavalry to meet the threat from the Swedish horse, counter charged them when they crossed, and routed them. On the other flank, the Swedish horse failed to cross the river and the home guard foot was having the worst of the firefight across the river.

To the west, the charges of the Polish horse destroyed the Saxons. In fact, it was not the hussars that did the main damage, but the conventional western cavalry that punched their way through the Saxon horse and then hit and swept away the infantry behind. The Saxons routed, while the Polish cavalry were scattered all over eastern Germany and western Poland.

Back east, the Danes were quietly working their way around behind the Swedes. Being general-less the Swedes only managed to detach a single cavalry base which charged the Danish cavalry uphill and beat the rightmost squadron, routing it and pursuing. The pursuing Russian cavalry from the clash at the ford got between the Danes and Sweden proper, and the Danish advance stalled (they had no tempo points to rectify matters). Meanwhile, the Poles, rallying most of their cavalry and letting the rest rush off to take Saxony, starting moving assets around the cathedral in case the Russians got any clever ideas. Peter did, and a clash between some Polish horse and Russian foot ensued, but it was indecisive and both sides pulled back. More Poles arrived and offered Peter a treaty, which he refused the first time, but realising that he could not assault the cathedral and hold the flank against the Swedes (leaderless but still a bit dangerous) he agreed and the war was over.

So, you ask, who won? I am not actually sure of the outcome of the real Great Northern War, but I suspect that my winner, Poland, did not come out on top. As it was, the Poles had 20 points, the Russians in a creditable second, had 8. The Danes, who had not managed an awful lot during the whole game, came third with minus 2. The Swedes had minus 6 while the Saxons were the clear losers with minus 27, which is what happens when your whole army routs and you have lost the general.

So, there you have it, an entire war in an afternoon, or, really, three mornings. I suppose in total the game took about three hours to play, and a great deal of fun was had. The decisions in a multi-side games are different and crowd in much faster than a two-sided affair. With only 12 or 14 bases each general had to decide what to leave behind for defence and what to use for attack. Both the Danes and, particularly, the Saxons, let their cavalry get too far ahead of their infantry supports, allowing the cavalry to be stalled or defeated in detail. The Swedes threw too much into the fray initially and attempted something which turned out to be too difficult: crossing the river in the face of the Russians. In Charles’ defense, the Danes did not turn out to be much of a threat. The Poles, of course, stood on the defensive and beat or staved off all comers.

Now, of course, I might be inspired to paint my Anglo-Dutch and Bavarian armies from decades ago and give the War of Spanish Succession a go. Maybe.