The value of simulating ancient battles

What was battle really like in ancient times? For the most part, military historians tend to focus on the big picture: logistics, the movement and deployment of troops, an analysis of terrain, and so forth. Often, they would also discuss the kind of equipment used by the participants (especially important in discussions of Greek warfare) and the general ebb and flow of battle.

The experience of battle

In 1976, John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle was published. Keegan broke with tradition by examining historical conflicts from the ground up, offering the point of view of an individual soldier. Inspired by this book, Victor Davis Hanson later wrote The Western Way of War (1989), in which he sought to understand what ancient Greek battles might have been like for an individual hoplite on the field.

When Keegan wrote his book, he deliberately picked three case studies for which he felt enough evidence existed to piece together what the experience of battle must have been like: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. For the ancient world, much of the kind of evidence used by Keegan is not available. Ancient Greek hoplites did not write the personal kind of poems that some soldiers from the First World War wrote, nor do we have any letters that they sent back home. This is why Hanson’s book doesn’t include individual case studies, but instead offers a generalized treatment of what ‘battle’ – in a fairly abstract sense – might have been like for the archetypical hoplite (whoever that might be).

While The Western Way of War collects a considerable amount of evidence and is well written (though also quite manipulative, as I explained before), the end result is that the book ultimately present a view of the ancient hoplite’s battle experience that is so generic as to be virtually worthless. The Western Way of War would have been stronger if Hanson had focused on what it was like to fight and die at, for example, Sphacteria or Plataea.

However, there is not enough evidence to actually go into such detail. This lack of information has frustrated generations of modern commentators. In 1920, N. Whatley gave a lecture, ‘On the possibility of reconstructing Marathon and other ancient battles’ (published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1964 – progress in the humanities can be painfully slow). His use of Marathon in the title is not incidental: for all we know – or think to know – about the conflict, there is still quite a bit left uncertain (for recent books on Marathon, see my review article on UNRV; you can also check out this blog post of mine).

Simulating ancient battles

Indeed, on the very first page of the published version of Whatley’s lecture, he states that ‘I am afraid that the more I study the subject the more sceptical I become about the possibility of reconstructing the details of these battles and campaigns with any certainty and of discovering what was in the minds of the admirals and generals who conducted them.’ He is quick to add that one might nevertheless attempt to reconstruct a battle anyway, since the exercise alone would reveal something of what life was like in ancient times. I’d add that such attempts probably tell us more about the personal viewpoints of the creators of such reconstructions, but I won’t go into that again.

There is, of course, something else that you might do to gain a deeper understanding of what ancient battles might have been like, namely by simulating them. I have written before about how ancient warfare has been handled in a slew of (pseudo-)historical videogames (here’s the first part in that series), I wrote about some other types of games, and offered additional comments on wargames, including Warhammer: Ancient Battles and Rob Broom’s War & Conquest. Last year, while attending the International Ancient Warfare Conference in Aberystwyth, I also met Phil Sabin, author of the book Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World (2009).

During his talks, Phil Sabin emphasized that his models and rules were to be used for analytical purposes. The idea is that by fine-tuning a particular rule set, one should at some point be able to get a full understanding of what ancient battles were like and it should be possible to simulate virtually any ancient engagement. As such, a simulation can then be used as a unique source of information to gain insights into what ancient battles looked like, how they function, and where ancient writers might get have gotten things wrong. The simulation is regarded as an analytical tool, to verify or falsify the ancient sources.

To me, this seems like a slippery slope, and presumes – contrary to Whatley’s statements back in 1920 – that it is indeed possible to simulate an ancient battle, in all its intricate detail, on the surface of a table. Indeed, during the first International Ancient Warfare Conference that I attended, there was a presentation by a group of Spanish academics entitled ‘The role of the centurion in the Roman legion: a computer simulation of battle tactics.’ Despite the use of the computer, the systems remain virtually the same: whether simulated by a human on a table top or by a computer, the basic rule set doesn’t change much, except in the latter case there’s a lot more parameters you can have the machine take into consideration.

An educational tool

The thing where these simulations break down for me is in the claim that they can be used for historical analysis. In the case of the Spanish presentation, it was said that the rules were fine-tuned until the computer finally produced a simulation that was in keeping with the descriptions found in ancient sources, such as Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (update: but see comments, below). The same applies to the rules created by Sabin in his Lost Battles: the rules are fine-tuned so that the outcome of a battle is similar to what we see in the ancient source. In other words, the simulations are based on circular reasoning.

The value of simulations – regardless of medium – lies not in their use as an analytical tool, but rather, as Roel Konijnendijk, myself, and others pointed out during one of Phil Sabin’s presentations, in their didactic use. Simulations, both more abstract (wargames) and less asbtract (via computer), can be used in class rooms to give students an idea of what ancient battles might have been like, what kinds of problems ancient generals might have run into, what effects terrain might have had on ancient armies, and so forth.

As such, simulations can also be used as a fun way for a general audience to learn about ancient warfare and, by extension, other aspects of the ancient world. After all, you don’t have to limit your simulation (or game, which we can consider a more abstract form of simulation) to just ancient warfare. You can create rule sets – like Phil Sabin has indeed done – to emulate political power struggles or, indeed, ancient trade or colonization. Such simulations have limited or perhaps no analytical use, but in Whatley’s words, expressed nearly a century ago, ‘the mere fact of playing about with such problems must, I suppose, increase our familiarity with – and ultimately, perhaps, our knowledge of – ancient life’ (pp. 119–120).


Update: Phil Sabin responded via Facebook (by way of the Society of Ancients), and I will include his reply below: 

Josho’s comments about ‘circular reasoning’ miss two key elements of my approach. First, the same model is used across three dozen battles, so comparative analysis becomes possible, highlighting the outliers in the widely varying modern reconstructions. Second, the fact that players have dynamic choices raises questions which are often missed in more conventional analyses (such as why Hannibal squeezed most of his cavalry onto the river flank at Cannae if the other flank was as open as some reconstructions claim).

I don’t claim that my approach offers more than marginal extra insights beyond those possible from more conventional sources. However, it is important to recognise that conventional battle scholarship by authors like Hammond is just as vulnerable to criticism, because it consists largely of one-off ‘simulations’ through static battle maps embodying guesswork about which ancient source to trust. It is scarcely surprising that different scholars’ reconstructions differ as much as they do (for example regarding the details of the battle of the Hydaspes).

I think this does raise a good point about the ability to compare different reconstructions proposed by modern commentators (Phil Sabin’s ‘comparative analysis’). Even if no hard answers can be given, you can still play through someone else’s reconstruction and check if it makes any sense at all (numbers, disposition, terrain). As regards the second point, I agree that simulating a battle (or anything else) can provide insights into some aspects (see also my closing remarks, above); in that sense, simulation is more akin to an abstracted from of reenactment. One of the fun things we did at the conference last year was play a game that simulated the Second Punic War and gave an idea of the kind of political and military considerations people might have had to make back then; as I said, that’s valuable from an educational point of view. 

I certainly agree that conventional approaches to reconstructions of battlefields are not necessarily better. We’ve used the static battlefield map approach in issues of Ancient Warfare and they’re certainly open to criticism. Often, a lot of details are simply not available to offer such maps. It’s for that reason that I avoided using battle maps (as well as detailed descriptions of battles) entirely in Henchmen of Ares, as I felt that the necessary information just wasn’t there, even for the Persian Wars.

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