Book Review: Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World

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by Philip Sabin

London/New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. Pp. xxi, 298. Illus., append., notes, biblio. $36.95. ISBN:0826430155

What actually happened when ancient armies clashed?  Among numerous unknowns, for example, how did Roman legionaries armed with heavy shields and 18-inch swords overcome Macedonian phalangites armed with 16-foot pikes?  For centuries, military historians, classical scholars, and famous generals have been trying to puzzle out the answers.  John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1983) pointed the way toward a deeper behavioral understanding of pre-modern combat, and Victor Davis Hanson's The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (1989) and subsequent works, applied first-hand experience of modern soldiers (and historical re-enactors) to provide some important clues.

For many years, wargamers have argued that the best way to understand a battle is to play it, or even better, to design a game about it.  A professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London, Philip Sabin is one of the few who has actually practiced what so many of us have preached.  He developed a simple, but very deep, chess-like wargame to help his students understand the dynamics of ancient battles.  The result became a book, Lost Battles, perhaps the most comprehensive and elaborate "Designer's Notes" ever written for a wargame.

The book is supported by extensive game boards and counter sets for 35 ancient battles using the popular Windows freeware wargame utility, Cyberboard, available online at www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/ws/staff/ps-lostbattles.html. 

Lost Battles is a rather difficult, rambling book, full of brilliant insights and ground-breaking analysis.  The book is lavishly illustrated with color diagrams, which must have given Sabin's editors massive heart attacks.  Publishers hate to spend that kind of money!

Modern scholarship has often been harsh toward the Greek and Roman authors whose work has survived, such as Diodorus, Plutarch, Polybius, Suetonius, and Herodotus. They exaggerate the numbers, describing impossibly huge armies.  They put artificial speeches into the mouths of their characters, for dramatic effect.  They are infuriatingly uninterested in technical details that we would love to know more about.  Sabin starts from the idea that we are never going to know more about these battles than we can eke out of the ancient sources, and in a few cases from study of the modern terrain (in many cases, we don't even know exactly where most ancient battles were fought, and even when we do, the topography has often changed dramatically after 2000 years of farming, deforestation, war, erosion, and bulldozing).

Hard-core wargamers will probably want to start by reading Appendix 1, the game rules for Sabin's quasi-miniatures based system.  The period covered by the book extends from Greek and Persian War of the 5th century BC to the Roman Civil War ( Pharsalus , 48 BC).  The famous battles like Marathon (490 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Cannae (216 BC), and Zama  (202 BC) are here, along with obscure fights like Nemea (394 BC), Paraitacene (317 BC), and Bibracte (58 BC).

Lost Battles is an important contribution to our understanding of ancient land combat. Any wargamer with an interest in ancients will want to own a copy.

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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