Ancient warfare in Aberystwyth, 2015

As you’ve perhaps already heard, I spent a very enjoyable five days last week in Aberystwyth, Wales, where I attended this year’s International Ancient Warfare Conference. The conference was, for the third year in a row, organized by its founder, the eminent Geoff Lee. You may remember that I also took part in the conference last year. I enjoyed last year’s conference tremendously and this year’s was no different.

The International Ancient Warfare Conference is characterized first and foremost by its atmosphere: because it’s focused on a very specific topic, everyone who takes part – both speakers as well as those who just come to listen – shares a common ground unlike what you see at most other conferences, where people with a wide variety of interests congregate. Discussions also continue happily in the pub after the day’s program has finished, and become possibly even more interesting – though perhaps at times less serious – once the beer starts flowing freely.

Day 1: the Roman Republic

The first day of the conference, Monday 29 June, was devoted to the Roman Republic. There were two parallel sessions, so I could not attend all of the lectures that I wished (in particular, I regret being unable to attend the lectures by Alberto Pérez Rubio). What follows is thus necessarily incomplete.

In any case, in the Drwm, the first lecture was by Dr Aimee Schofield (University of Leicester), who discusses the phenomenon of treachery during sieges based on a discussion of Aeneas Tacticus Poliorcetica. One of the interesting things about the text is that Aeneas is clearly worried about the threats posed by traitors within a walled city, leading to some contradictory advice at times.

After a short break, there were two more papers. Lizzie Pearson (University of Manchester) spoke about the tumultus (an emergency military levy) of 225. Pearson focused on a discussion of the census figures for the years around 225 and compared Polybius with Orosius. Dr Eugeny Teutelbaum, from Kazan (Russia), spoke about Polybius and challenged the opinion that his descriptions on battles did not allow for a reconstruction of warfare from the point of view of the individual soldier.

After lunch, I moved to the Council Chamber. There, Sara Perley (Australian National University, Cranberra) discussed the use of counterintelligence in the mid-Republican Roman army. Most scholars believe that counterintelligence was of little importance in this period, but Perley challenges this view. Ben Greet next gave a very interesting lecture on the religious function of the Aquila and standards. The final lecture was by Dr Yasmina Benferhat (University of Lorraine), who talked about bridges and the control of rivers during the Roman Civil War of 69/70, with a heavy emphasis on Tacitus.

Day 2: a day with Philip Sabin

Tuesday was entirely devoted to Prof. Philip Sabin and his work. You are probably familiar with his book Lost Battles (2007), which offers rules on how to replay gamified versions – I wouldn’t really call them ‘simulations’ as such – of ancient battles. He first gave a talk in the Drwm about ‘novel methods of reconstructing ancient warfare’, with a particular emphasis on his own rulesets. Of particular interest was the fact that it’s very difficult for even an established academic such as himself to secure funding for his game-related projects.

After a brief break, we all went up to the Council Chamber, where we were grouped into pairs and got to play Sabin’s game Phalanx, which offers very simple rules for replaying generic hoplite battles. Each player had a small camp and was given three turns to deploy their units on the board (which was divided into hexes). There were no dice involved in deciding the outcome of a battle: if you managed to touch an enemy hoplite unit with three units’ worth of your own pieces, you could declare an attack and remove the counter from the board. (I was not very successful, as I lost my first two games and only managed to secure a draw in the third!)

After lunch, Prof. Sabin discussed a few more of his games in detail in the Drwm. We then again went up to the Council Chamber, where everyone was divided into two large groups, which each played a game of Prof. Sabin’s design set during the Second Punic War. Each group was divided into three parties: Carthaginians, Romans, and neutral forces, and you had to talk amongst yourselves to plan out your moves and to convince the neutrals to join your cause. I was on the Carthaginian side of the game, playing the Phoenicians, with Ancient Warfare stalwart Owen Rees in control of the Barcids. We gave a pretty good show, I think, and would have probably taken Rome if the game had continued for another turn or two!

Day 3: Late Antiquity and Total War

The third day was devoted first to Late Antiquity. Michael Stawper (King’s College London) talked about the high command of the Roman army in ca. AD 350. Dr Jeroen Wijnendaele (University College Cork) gave a lecture on Aëtius. (Dr Wijnendaele also wrote the first accessible book in Dutch on the Late Roman Empire, which you might want to check out if you can read the language.)

After a short break, Jan van der Crabben, founder of the Ancient History Encyclopedia and a designer for the Creative Assembly, talked about the difficulties involved in designing historical wargames. He was very frank about the fact that CA is primarily in the business of selling games rather than focusing on historical accuracy, but it was clear from his talk that whenever they do deviate from history, they usually do so for either gameplay or commercial reasons. He also gave a demonstration in the Council Chamber of Total War: Arena, about which I will blog tomorrow.

In the afternoon, Stuart McCann (University of Nottingham) spoke about the Praefecti Praetorio Vacantes, who served a vital role when it came to the logistics of the Roman army of the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Dr Alexander Sarantis (Aberystwyth University) gave a very interesting lecture on the role of fortifications in the Late Roman Empire. Dr James Thorne closed off the day with a keynote speech on the ‘grand strategy’ of the (Early) Roman Empire.

Day 4: Greek warfare

The fourth and final day of the conference was entirely devoted to ancient Greek warfare. Classicist Tine Scheijnen (Ghent University) gave a paper on heroism in epic Greek poetry, with a particular emphasis on Quintus of Smyrna (third century AD). Dr Jason Crowley (Metropolitan University Manchester) gave the second keynote speech of the conference on hoplite combat, and placed particular emphasis on the psychology of hoplite warfare, and the sociological context for fighting in formation, which I found especially interesting.

After lunch, there was a panel of originally four papers centred on ‘fundamental questions of Greek warfare’. I chaired the panel, but the original idea came from Owen Rees. (Unfortunately, Cezary Kucewicz had been taken ill and couldn’t join us in Aberystwyth: his paper on the hoplite reform had been eagerly anticipated by all.) Roel Konijnendijk (UCL), who will soon defend his PhD thesis (good luck, Roel!), talked about the reluctance of Greek hoplites to do any training. Owen, who is soon starting his PhD at Manchester under the auspices of Dr Crowley, talked about how our choice of Greek battles influence our understanding of Greek warfare. The final paper was my own, and I already wrote about it earlier.

After the conference was over, we hurried to the train station. Among those who travelled back toward London with Roel, Owen, and myself was Philip Sabin. The train journey from Aberystwyth to London takes about four or five hours, and so Prof. Sabin offered to have us play one of the more complex games that he talked about on Tuesday, which certainly helped make the journey pass more quickly!

All in all, this was another enjoyable and stimulating conference; long may it continue! Once again, I would like to thank Geoff Lee for organizing one of the greatest conferences that anyone can attend.

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