Saturday 25 November 2023

Roman Forts

I picked up out of casual interest, of course, an interesting paper last week. As the title suggests it is about Roman fortifications, this time in what is now Syria, Turkey, and northern Iraq.

Casana, J., Goodman, D., Ferwerda, C., ‘A wall or a road? A remote sensing-based investigation of fortifications on Rome's eastern frontier.’ Antiquity, 2023, 1-18.

The reference is a bit incomplete above, but the link should take you there. The paper is released under a common creative licence, so it is free (unlike a lot of academic journal stuff).

The paper, as the title suggests, is about finding a lot of Roman forts on the Empire’s eastern frontier. Or rather, to me, it undermines the idea of there being an eastern frontier in the first place. In the 1920s Jesuit French priest Father Antoine Poidebard conducted a series of ariel surveys over the region and detected a line of forts which he took to be along the military road set out under Diocletian. This, then, was Rome’s eastern frontier, erected to defend the Empire from the Persians and also from nomadic tribes.

Poidebard detected 116 fort structures, of various sizes from towers through small forts to larger ones of 100 meters square or more. The paper reports the results of a survey of the same region using declassified satellite imagery from the 1960s and 1970s, and they found a large number (396) of additional fortifications in the region. They also failed to find some of the originals, and suggest that increased agriculture and urban development have removed them from the archaeological record.

The structures, however, are not distributed along the frontier, but form a roughly east-west line along the desert margins, connecting Mosul on the Tigris River in the east to Aleppo in western Syria. This does not seem to be a defensive fortification system, nor one to protect a road. The authors hypothesise that the structures, while fortified, were, in fact, to provide secure resting places for merchants, messengers and military personnel travelling from east to west (and vice versa).

The paper suggests that the original survey suffered somewhat from bias, in that Poidebard hypothesised where the frontier road was and surveyed that bit, his results confirming the hypothesis. This is not to denigrate his achievement, of course, his was a pioneering study and ariel archaeology did not really get going in a methodical way until after World War Two. Nevertheless, the recent findings do suggest that a re-think of Roman frontiers might be needed. Such rethinks are not uncommon, of course. The nature and purpose of Hadrian’s Wall, for one, have been a matter of some puzzlement for decades. It does not seem to be a purely military installation either, but exactly what it was remains a little disputed. Similarly, I believe that Roman forts in Germany have been discovered far further east than it was thought the Romans ever penetrated. This too is a puzzle.

The authors suggest that the larger forts, at least, were constructed in the Third Century AD. Some of them, of course, were reused in medieval times but digging on the sites is rendered impossible for geopolitical reasons. Therefore good solid dating information is hard to come by, although the authors note that it is difficult at military sites anyway.

It seems possible that our picture of Roman frontiers, or at least some of them, have to change. The idea of legionaries looking out from behind walls at the unknown barbarian wasteland ahead of them, nervously fingering their pila, is clearly incorrect. I suspect that has been known for some time, but it is still the sort of trope we are fed by some parts of the media.

Instead, we have to consider the possibility that neither the Romans nor their neighbours really thought in terms of borders as we do. The frontier was, necessarily, porous. Merchants, at least, needed to cross them to bring luxury goods that the Empire did not produce, and export other things. Diplomats, similarly, needed to cross the frontier and all of these groups also needed places to stay along the way. In Britain the Romans erected mansios along the way, and these were sometimes accompanied by fortifications. Perhaps in Syria, where the population on the desert limit was low and water was in short supply, the staging posts were smaller and more concentrated in a fortified location.

Recent work, apparently, suggests that Roman forts were places of cultural exchange rather than confrontation. The authors suggest that these fortifications were places for travellers to rest, water themselves and their horses or camels, eat, and sleep. While they would have enabled the faster movement of troops to disputed zones within or beyond the fortified zone, their main function seems to have been to enable trade and communication between the Roman Empire and Persia.

As wargamers, of course, this is a bit frustrating. We like our ideas of legionaries marching out to pay the barbarians a lesson, be that in Syria, Germany, or Britain. The evidence, however, does not tend to support the view that cultural encounters were necessarily violent ones. While the military had a presence, they were, perhaps, more there as a sort of civil police rather than to impose the will of Rome on the locality. Unlike wargamers, the Romans were perhaps interested in trade rather than confrontation.

That does not mean that the Romans were unwilling to resort to force, of course. It does suggest that on the frontier there was less of a threat most of the time. It was only when tensions rose, locally or between the Empire and, say, Persia, that these installations became militarily useful, and they would have then secured the lines of communication for any army sent to and beyond the end of the road (as it were).

It is always possible, of course, that more discoveries will undermine even this theory. On the other hand, we do think that Magi from the East managed to arrive in Bethlehem reasonably quickly (within a year or two) from somewhere near Babylon. That does not suggest a heavily fortified and controlled frontier, even though it would make a better wargame.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Curlew Hills

‘Donal, Donal, wake up.’

‘What is the matter Dougal? It is still dark.’

‘I’m worried Donal.’

‘What about this time?’

‘Well, like, we fought a battle against the English right?’

‘Yes, and we captured Limerick.’

‘But then the Spanish who did the fighting went home.’

‘Can’t blame them for that, Dougal. The weather’s better in Spain.’

‘Yes, but now the English are advancing on Limerick.’

‘Well, we’re going to stop them, Dougal.’

‘But how. The Spanish took all their pointy sticks and bang sticks away with them’

‘Their pike and arquebuses, you mean. Yes, they did. But Dougal, we are going to fight the English the old way, by jumping out at them from bogs and woods. The old way, Dougal. The one you prefer, remember?’

‘Well, yes, Donal. But I’d prefer to be jumping out at them with bang-sticks rather than javelins.’


Those of you with very long memories might recall a sub-plot to the Armada Abbeys campaign which featured two cousins, Donal and Dougal, and an errant ship from the Armada unexpected beating the English in battle. If you are really bored, you can catch up using the Armada Abbeys Campaign link on the right.

Be that as it may, I was looking for a game to test out some more reconnaissance and ambush-type rules, and thought the Irish-English clashes might be interesting in this context. A quick look at Wesencraft’s With Pike and Musket refreshed my memory and I set on something that was akin to the Action in the Curlieu Hills from that book, slightly adjusted.

The aim of the English was to transport a siege gun across the board, while that of the Irish was to prevent that. The Spanish, having run out of wine, have sailed back to Spain, unwilling to drink Irish beer any longer. They also seem to have taken their arquebuses and pike with them, so our slightly hapless Irish pair are reverting to proper warfare.

Each side consisted of twelve bases. For the Irish, a spade was allocated for each base. Ace to 4 for the kern, 5-7 for bonnachts, 8-10 for gallowglass, and Jack and Queen for light cavalry. A king indicated two cards were drawn from the deck and troops were allocated according to their value, ignoring the suit.

The English were a standard army from my lists: 2 border horse, one demi-lancer, three shot, three pike, two bows and two polearms. They also had a siege gun to escort across the table, as noted.

For this sort of wargame, you need a fair bit of terrain. The original scenario had a variety of hills, bogs, and woods, and I sort of followed that and added bits as I could I landed up with a fair number of hiding places for the Irish although, not 52, so I was unsure if all of them would turn up.

The English would spot Irish hiding in terrain items at 3 base widths away, while those in open terrain, such as behind hills, would be spotted 6 base widths away.

The photograph shows the game a number of moves in. The English have deployed their border horse against some Irish light cavalry who jumped out from behind a hill (actually, a dip where the wood is) and also managed to deploy some infantry against some kern who were hiding behind the far right wood. As you can see the Irish horse has been driven back.

A few moves later things are starting to heat up. More Irish have appeared, but the English convoy is moving forward mostly unperturbed.

The Irish horse routing to the bottom right of the picture actually had a go at the siege gun but failed to make any impression, and have just been charged by the English demi-lancers who routed them with almost insulting ease. In the background you can see the English redcoats have driven back the kern – actually, they routed one base with which they managed to get into contact. On the left in the centre you can see the border horse; they are actually engaging a gallowglass base in the bog at the extreme left. Other Irish bases are converging on the pass, through which the English will have to move. Another couple of bases of English foot have been deployed against these, but the leading bonnacht base, together with the general, is beginning to appear to be a bit of a threat, especially as they are uphill of the convoy.

The crunch came when the bonnachts charged the lead English pike who had just deployed against them. Decent English tempo rolls meant that other foot and some borderers were lurking ominously. The Irish were, by this time, in a little difficulty, having lost two bases and had their morale slump to ‘waver’, which removes all the orders. Thus, only the bonnachts are moving under direct orders. Poor tempo rolling means that the rest of the Irish are admiring the bravery of their boys.

It nearly worked. The English pike, despite their initial support, were driven back, but the English had sufficient tempo to bring in the heavy mob and practically surround them, and their general, next bound. While the bonnachts fought bravely and nearly pulled off an astonishing victory, the odds wewre too great and they were recoiled. However, with bases in contact to the flank, that result became a lot worse and they routed, taking the general with them. At that point, Donal and Dougal called stumps. Although Irish morale was still OK-ish (withdraw), without a general there was little chance of coordinating any attacks at all.

It was a nice battle, and the mcguffin of the siege gun did its job. The English had to stick to it, and the Irish had to try to overrun it. A problem with these sorts of ambush games is that the attack is uncoordinated and the pressure on the defenders can be rather feeble, or at least not as intense as it could have been. On the other hand, the card system raises lots of questions in the mind of the solo wargamer and encourages the use of light troops for scouting places where the enemy might hide.

So, will Donal and Dougal survive? Will they make their peace with Queen Elizabeth or retreat back to their family home and pass their time eating roast chicken? Only time will tell...

Saturday 11 November 2023

The Scope of Wargame Ethics

Quite a long time ago I had a run of posts on the ethics of wargaming. I am not sure that I came to any useful conclusion, but the thought has returned to my head after a recent post on the Palouse Wargaming Journal. I do not wish to recount the content of the post (you can, and should, read it for yourself) but, in summary, it is about the Eastern Front in World War Two and whether, for example, a board wargame should incorporate elements of the Holocaust, diverting units to round up Jews, and other rear area activities like executing partisans, whole villages and anyone who got it the way.

The subsequent discussion is also interesting, and I will not try to summarise it here, either. In a sense there is no ethical question here: it is a matter of historical accuracy and whether we view the Wehrmacht as being ‘clean’ or not, that is, whether the German army was involved in the atrocities or ignorant of them, or simply decided that it was none of its business. That too is a historiographical minefield as, as the Cold War developed, interest grew in the means of German resistance to Soviet tactics, and some of the participants could get their memoirs out and also attempt to whitewash themselves and their army.

Even without these difficulties, which are real, and the problems that most accounts of the Eastern Front are from a German perspective, simply because the said Cold War denied Soviet archives to historians, there is a bit of a non-ethical (I think) scoping issue here, at least as far as wargaming goes. As a comment notes as wargamers were have the usual historian’s problem – what is to be included and what ignored. We cannot include everything; we are creating a model of a historical situation. Including everything would be recreating the original which is not something we really wish to do.

The scoping problem is then what do we include. At, say, a squad level this might not be too hard a problem. To the question of whether the average German soldier was a Nazi in 1941, 1942, or whenever, the answer is that in a skirmish-level game, the specific ideology of a given solider might not matter too much, except that they may be, I suppose, more or less motivated by the cause.

At the other end of the spectrum, a campaign covering the whole of the war, the syphoning off of units onto other duties might matter quite a lot, both in terms of numbers available at the front and also in terms of suppressing partisan activity and achieving the political goals of the highest levels of command. Whether this was palatable or not is not at issue here (it was not and is not) but whether it should be represented and, if so, how.

There are no simple answers, I suspect. Ignoring the rear areas problem (a nice euphemism for mass murder, I know) might mean that we are ignoring, or at the very least, downplaying the slaughter and mayhem the German invasion brought. On the other hand including these items could be glorifying the very same thing, which is also an unpalatable outcome.

To an extent, these issues are usually ruled offside by wargamers. We know they happened, and we believe them to have been very, very, wrong, but we do not want these facts to get in the way of a good game. There might also be some interest in trying to work out how these two deeply unpleasant regimes fought each other and why one of them won. There are tactical and strategic points of interest to be examined and assessed and, to do so we have to make some compromises and exclusions elsewhere.

The question arises, therefore, if we rule that the rear area murdering is out of scope, are we then really creating a historical wargame of the Eastern Front in World War Two? Are we not, in fact, queering the pitch even by calling it the ‘Eastern’ Front, given that that implies a German-centric point of view?

Again, the question returns to scoping and what we think we need to include and what to leave out in order to create a playable and believable game. There may also be the issue that we would rather not, as nice Western liberals of the Twenty-First Century, no engage in the mass murder, pillage, and rape that the armies engaged in. As I noted before all my wargame armies are well-behaved, pay cash upfront for their food and lodging, and never so much look at a local girl. I would like to wargame, not bog myself down in an ethical and historical quagmire.

Therefore, most wargamers would prefer, I suspect, to ignore the rear area mayhem. If any cognisance is taken of it, it is simply to reduce front-line strength by so many troops who were deployed to other duties (another nice euphemism, well done – ed). We simply rule such activities out of court, or at least out of our wargame.

One way of conceptualising ethical scope is to view it as a series of concentric circles. Innermost is ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Next are our broader families, neighbours, and communities. Then come other items of concern, such as nations, other people (those we do not know), those in far-flung places (relative to ourselves), and then other things such as animals, the environment, and such like. Part of the idea of considering our ethics and attitudes to to widen our ethical scope, to consider more of the items in the circles beyond the closest ones.

Possibly the original post and the questions it raises are related to this. As wargamers how far and how wide does our ethical scope go. We can retain a tight focus on the battle itself and ignore the political, social, and other ramifications of the conflict, or we can, perhaps over time, widen our ethical concerns for what these activities meant in the real world.

I am not sure there is a final answer to that. It might depend quite a lot on who we are and how we are engaging at the time. After all, as wargamers, we want wargames, not historiographical and ethical mazes to navigate.

Saturday 4 November 2023

The Bed Recapture

‘Good morning my dear.’

‘Now Ferdinand. Did you sleep well? You are up early for you.’

‘No. I was uncomfortable.’

‘Well, our bed is currently being transported back to Granada. I believe they are going to put it on display.’

‘On display? How dare they!’

‘Quite easily. They captured it from under your nose. Anyway, if you hurry you can intercept them at the Pass of Adutra.’

‘Ah, yes. I know that place. A very fine young lady came from there. She had a wonderful… um… singing voice. Yes, Voice. She was a base baritone.’

‘Remarkable indeed Ferdinand. I recall the young lady you mean. She could barely croak, but she did wear some low-cut dresses. I sent her away before she could catch pneumonia. Anyway, you should be able to lay an ambush for the Granadines at Adutra.’

‘I shall, I shall. They will ride straight into it.’

‘And then you can shut your trap, Ferdinand.’

‘No need to be like that, my dear. I’m trying my best.’


So, in order to get any marital action, Ferdinand needs to recapture his bed. Fortunately, Isabella has already discovered where the ox cart loaded with the bed is heading for, and is despatching Ferdinand to intercept it. Ferdinand still does not have his full heavy cavalry complement, but he does now outnumber the Granadans in jinites. He did not get his full army deployed last week, which I felt might have been a little unfair, so he gets to lie in wait for the bed-snaffling enemy this time.

The picture shows the situation after a few moves. Ferdinand, who does not really do subtlety, as you might have noticed, has his infantry astride the road and on the hills to each side, while the jinites are skirmishing forward to try to disrupt the enemy march column. His right-wing jinites are in combat and both sides have been a little disrupted. Still, the ox cart with its vital load is plodding along the road and should eventually turn up in Ferdinand’s hands.

A few moves later, and the Granada army is nearly deployed, while their left-wing jinites have forced the Castilians back a bit. On the other flank Ferdinand’s left has caused some damage to the remaining enemy lights, but their crossbowmen are now coming after them. Ferdinand is also starting to advance his infantry in the centre, concerned that his elements will be a bit far apart to support each other. The Granadine infantry is also pushing up, but they have suffered from insufficient tempo to get their heavier cavalry moving again.

The above picture shows the end of the game. The Granadine crossbowmen have forced Ferdiand’s left wing jinites back although they are still in action. However, this meant that those three bases of crossbowmen were not available to the centre. On the Granadine centre left you can see that a base of crossbows is forcing back (and has nearly broken) a base of Castilian shot. On the other hand, the Castilian foot, together with Ferdinand’s gendarmes have just destroyed the second base of Granadine spearmen. The first base can be seen routing in the centre of the picture. They have also accounted for the Granadine general. The ox cart is within reach of the Castilian foot now, as well. On the Castilian right the Granadine tempo drought has left the jinites lacking in orders and ability to reform, and one of the bases is looking a bit rocky.

At this point, however, due to losses, the Granadines were forced to make a morale check which they failed and got a withdraw result. Without a general to persuade them otherwise they withdrew, much to Ferdinand’s relief.

I think I am getting to grips with using the new ‘Castilian light’ army. Having exchanged to base of gendarmes for two of jinites they cannot just smash their way through their opponents as they used to. On the other hand, the light horse can cause considerable problems. In this scenario, the Granadines were forced to try to block the Castilian left-wing jinites from getting to the wagon by deploying three bases of crossbowmen, which meant that these were not available in the centre where their army was crushed. Ferdinand also managed to use his gendarmes and heavy infantry to good effect, administering the coup de grace with the former while the infantry backed them up – in fact, as the picture shows, the final Granadan spear base was practically surrounded when it was destroyed.

Perhaps the Granadines were always up against it in this scenario. They had to keep cohesion while seeing off a mobile enemy. On their left, they more or less succeeded, but not on their right, and they did not manage to get a coordinated defence by infantry and cavalry. A lack of tempo really did not help, granted, but they deployment from column into line also hampered things, as did a general lack of space.


‘Behold your conquering hero comes, Isabella.’

‘Oh, hello Ferdinand.’

‘Put the bed down lads. Carefully. Good. Now, dismiss!’

‘Ferdinand, why were you carried into the room by those poor soldiers?’

‘The Spartans were told to either return carrying their shields or carried on them, my dear. So I thought…’

‘So you returned carried on your bed, rather than carrying it?’

‘Rather a wheeze, don’t you think Issy?’

‘How far did they carry you?’

‘Oh, only from the waiting hall, my dear. I’m not that hard a taskmaster.’

‘Well, I suppose it is appropriate Ferdinand.’


‘You spend most of your time attempting to get young ladies into bed.’

‘I only have eyes for your loveliness, my dear. You know that.’

‘When you talk about this sort of thing, my dear, do you know how I know you are lying?’


‘Your lips are moving, my darling. Still, you did manage to recapture our bed, and so that is a good thing. Now, if you carry it into our chamber, we will investigate how much damage it has incurred during its journeys.’