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Monday, March 30, 2015

Wargaming Ancients

ANCIENTS by Ivan Withers.
1.         What's "Ancients" ?
"Ancients" is the name given by wargamers (and others) to the entire period of history before the invention of gunpowder.[1] If one considers recorded history to have started about 3,000 BC, it spans some four thousand years. Wargamers who call themselves "Ancients" therefore have a very wide choice of periods, peoples and cultures.
The earliest known organised warriors are those of the Sumerians, originating in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. As time rolled by, such peoples as the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Trojans, the Han, the Romans, the Mayans, the Saxons, the Vikings and many others appeared.  The list of possible armies and weapons to discover is huge.
2.         Where Do I Start ?
Choosing a period to start may therefore seem a bit daunting.  However, somewhere you may have seen some friends playing a game, or perhaps you already have an idea about which particular army interests you enough to start. If you are still a bit doubtful, how about the Romans? Mind you, even having narrowed your choice down to this one particular people, there is still a pretty wide choice. The Romans started out as an obscure Latin village ruled by a foreign king and they provided troops for an imitation-early-Greek-type phalanx. After they kicked out their Etruscan overlords, they evolved into a Republic, which lasted for some hundreds of years before they put a king (sorry, Caesar) back in charge.  During this span of time they had at least three quite different organisations and armies. Not quite at random, let's settle on the Romans at  the time of Tiberius; that's say roughly 10 AD to about 35 AD. This period of Roman history is the best documented.  The information for the Roman Army a this time can therefore be found quite easily.
3. Starting With Romans.
Airfix Romans
For reasons of expense, it would probably be better to start with plastic figures when it comes to purchasing your first troops. I started with Airfix Romans, but I have seen some very nice Italian figures in hobby shops. Let me hasten to add that although many wargamers decry plastics for various imperfections, remember YOU ARE JUST STARTING. If you find that Ancients are not for you, then you have not sunk weeks or months of pocket money into scrap metal! If you later want to expand with metal figures, there is a huge range from several suppliers. If you want to stick with Romans, then metal Romans are available. If instead you want to build up a different army, you will not feel tied by a large capital outlay to the army you made your first choice.
4.Playing With the "Toy Soldiers".
Playing with "Ancients" need not just involve the figure you buy straight out of the packet, either. When you feel confident you can try conversions; i.e., making changes to the figures to look quite different. Again there are many books and magazines which can help you.  Some of your fellow club-mates even make their own moulds to cast their own figures.
5.By What Rules Shall I Play?
However you play, whatever you play, there must always be Rules. Rules for fighting Ancient Wargames come in many different varieties, simple or complex, cheap or expensive.  Again your choice will be governed by local conditions.  What rules do your prospective opponents use? What is available locally in shops?
The WRG (short for Wargames Research Group) in England provide rules for Ancients (among others) which are used in many parts of the world.  All rules have their advantages and drawbacks. The WRG set (currently in its 7th Edition) makes a game seem to take a long time, and the complexity can be a bit daunting to a beginner. However, the choice is entirely up to you. WRG Rules are used not only in small clubs, but in competitions between Clubs.
Greek Hoplite
Most Ancient wargamers have tried one of the many different "Greek" armies, but aside from finding they have a reasonable chance of winning competition battles, they may know very little about the warrior himself. "Greek" meant speaking one of the Greek dialects, and probably believing in some at least of the array of Greek gods and goddesses, etc. A typical Greek warrior came from one of the hundreds of Greek cities ("polis") around the Eastern Mediterranean. Usually, these "cities" would be struggling to reach our modern estimation of a small town.
Greek cities in the ancient world were very often at war with some other city or cities, due to a bewildering number of causes. One particular "polis" might be at war because of traditional alliances and enemies, and that war could be as short as a week, or as long as a generation. In the longer wars, the friends and enemies could change many times.
The typical Greek warrior was most often a small farmer.  There was no standing army.  His city would in effect call out a levy, and our warrior would leave his livelihood for weeks or even months, leaving his family to fend for themselves. He provided his own war-gear, or panoply. Since metal was relatively scarce and hence expensive, his panoply would be as expensive to him as buying a car is to us - and with a similar wide choice  of results and efficiency.
Greek Hoplite Phalanx
The backbone of any Greek army was the phalanx, and any self-respecting Greek warrior would try to be fit to join it. His principle defence was a large circular shield, about a metre in diameter. This was called the "hoplon", and hence the man who carried it was a "hoplite".  It usually had some brightly coloured motif painted on it, and had a strap for slinging and a handle for carrying into battle. Sometimes a sort of canvas apron would be hung under it to offer some protection for his legs.
The hoplite's principal weapon was a spear, varying in length and type over the centuries.  At the time of the wars with Persia, it would have been between say 1.5 and 2 metres long, with a large leaf-shaped blade.  Quite a number also had a butt-spike, which could prove handy if the spear was broken in use. Most hoplites wore a short sword or dagger for in-fighting, and this was carried hanging from a sash across the opposite shoulder, later to become the baldric. One favoured style of short sword at the type of Alexander and probably for some time previously was the kopis. This heavy sword has been described as "capable of shearing off a man's wrist".
Hoplite Helmets
Different styles of helmet prevailed, according to the different areas of origin of the hoplite and different historical periods. Often it seems very much a matter of personal choice, although the various cities would favour one style more than another. Armour was expensive and difficult to obtain and maintain.  Hence the spolas was quite popular, a sort of jerkin made from stiffened layers of canvas. Apparently this was a quite reasonable defence against slashes, as was the boiled leather cuirass. Patterns of studs helped the defence too. Metal or stiffened leather plates could be sewn on as added reinforcement. (The shoulder protection survives to this day as epaulettes).
It appears that, at least in the earlier periods, hoplites often went into battle naked, or wearing only a loin cloth, perhaps. At least this would help them run more fleetly than pursuers after they'd dropped their shields and spears! For below-the-waist security, the well-dressed hoplite often wore a frontal protection made up of leather strips. This idea was the forerunner of the Later Roman Pteruges. Greaves were like light-weight bronze shin-pads. The existing contemporary art isn't clear whether they were thin bronze shapes which sprung over the shin, or heavier protection more like today's cricketers' pads.
With all this aggressive individuality, how was it that the Greek fighting machine was so successful? Against all probability, these aggressive individualists had developed into the most effective team-players the world had seen up until that time. Provided they set up their formation in time (which later turned out to be a BIG proviso), then the only formation of anywhere near the same numbers which could defeat them was a similar phalanx. As long as the phalanx kept its formation, it could only be beaten by a similar formation unless greatly outnumbered. Alexander simply gave his virtually unstoppable phalanx longer spears which out-reached even the Greeks spears, at the price of even further rigidity. But Alex realised the weakness and supported the flanks with more flexible bodies of troops. Nevertheless, the Romans beat the phalanx because of the inherent flexibility of the legion. They effectively trimmed away the cohesion and exposed the vulnerable flanks.
This same idea of the pike-armed phalanx came to light briefly centuries later, when the Swiss army had its day in the limelight during the Renaissance. It failed eventually because of its rigidity, and the new weapon of gunpowder.
The backbone of any Greek army was the phalanx, and any self-respecting Greek warrior would try to be fit enough to join it. Not everyone was able to afford the complete and expensive hoplite panoply. The more poorly equipped Greeks were usually classed as "Peltast", named after the lighter, smaller shield they carried.
The peltasts principal armament was two, possibly three javelins, varying in length and type over the centuries. At the time of the wars with Persia, it was between 1 and 1.5 metres long, with a relatively small blade. The javelin would be launched at the enemy, and the last one would be kept for close contact fighting. There has been some dispute about how the javelin was actually thrown. It seems possible that two cords were wound around the shaft; when the javelin was thrown, the cords caused the javelin to spin, giving a sort of gyroscopic stability and hence, presumably, increased accuracy and possibly even a slight increase in range. Aside from javelin and light shield,  the rest was pretty much up to the individual. Most peltasts wore a short sword or dagger for in-fighting, and this was carried thrust through or hanging from their belt.
The hoplites rather naturally looked down upon the poorly equipped peltasts as inferiors both socially and in battle usefullness. It came as a horrible shock during the wars between Sparta and the Hellenic League when a group of peltasts slaughtered a unit of so-called invincible Spartan hoplites.  The hoplites had become rigid and very stylised in their movement; the Spartans found to their horror that, on the right sort of terrain, the peltast was far superior in manoeuvrability and could dodge the heavier hoplite's superior weaponry and training.

[1] What  happened to the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages? (Ed.)

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