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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Hans Delbruck’s “Warfare in Antiquity”

November 25th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

You can probably make a strong case that modern historical research was born in nineteenth century Germany. Certainly modern classical history was. In a world where most historians were content to simply repeat whatever the earliest or most notable sources were, Germany was producing scholars committed not simply to working out the contradictions between sources, but to making sure that accounts of what happened gelled with geography and common sense.

The first edition of Hans Delbruck’s History of the Art of War was published in 1900. The author was already over fifty years old with a distinguished career behind him. Delbruck considered his historical analysis to be scientific, in the best modern sense of the term. Critical analysis based purely on language and philology had to be joined by powers of observation.

I want to focus on the first volume of the four volume set, on ancient warfare, because this is the period I know best and love most.

Having already studied Napoleonic Warfare, Delbruck came to the conclusion that much of what we read in ancient sources is unreliable. Frederick William III’s account of Auerstadt had him opposing a French army three times its actual size. Fortunately the king was able to be corrected on his numbers at a later date. How much less reliable are the numbers given us in Herodotus or Arrian, when there are no other materials to correct errors? And many centuries removed?

The army of Xerxes led into Greece is given by Herodots as numbering exactly 4,200,000 men, including the trains. And army corps of 30,000 men covers, in the German march order, some 14 miles, without its supply train. The march column of the Persians would therefore have been 2,000 miles long, and when the head of the column was arriving in Thermopylae, the end of the column might have been just marching out of Susa, on the far side of the Tigris.

The introductory chapter on army strengths is pretty much gospel now. Though you can certainly quibble with some of Delbruck’s final conclusions, it is now widely accepted that most of the ancients were mistaken (Herodotus) or lying (Caesar) when they discussed the size of the opposing armies.

His other major accomplishment, vis a vis popular understandings of the classical period, was the total dismissal of the Hellenistic military machine of being worthy of study. After dealing with the Greco-Persian Wars, Alexander and Hannibal, he jumps straight to Caesar with no comment on how the Successors to Alexander’s empire fought their wars. In his opinion, this group made no innovations, and in fact was a step back from the lessons of the great conqueror. So, it has nothing of value for the reader.

Most subsequent military histories of the period follow this pattern. Richard Gabriel’s The Great Battles of Antiquity, for example, covers all that Delbruck does, plus China, Japan and Assyria. But the Diadochi are nowhere to be seen except for a discussion of Pyrrhus’s venture into Italy. I think the emphasis on innovation misses how much of Hellenistic warfare was based on adaptation, but this would have taken Delbruck into a cultural study he was probably not planning.

In spite of his influence, Delbruck was swimming against a tide that still dominates popular understandings of the period, including games. “Civilized” Mediterranean nations like the Greeks or Romans are given pricey units that limit their numbers so you can have the feeling of fighting against the barbaric Persian or Gallic hordes, even if those numbers are simply not viable. Delbruck devotes an appendix to the military importance of the elephant and concludes that it’s largely a dud weapon – a status reflected in few games or movies.

What is striking is that so few games with historical bases even engage with the historiography. This is probably too much to ask from a light history game like, say, Caesar IV or Age of Empires. But even games with serious historical underpinnings like Pax Romana or many wargames simply present what they have without even attaching thoughts on the hows and whys of chosen abstractions. None of this has to be “in your face”, and so long as game designers claim that they are targeting intelligent games with an interest in this sort of thing, they can easily present this material in a manual or online documentation.

The best example of this, and entirely apropos for Delbruck, is the I-Magic/GMT Great Battles series. GMT is a board game maker, and one of the very best. Their Great Battles board game system is pretty complicated and was simplified even for the computer version to remove some bookkeeping and uncertainty in the general activation system. The documentation for the PC series was outstanding. The Great Battles of Caesar includes “Delbruck variants” for some of the battles, and both Caesar and Hannibal have multiple versions of some battles to reflect historiographic disagreement. The manuals confronted the disputes over unit configurations head on and battle descriptions were clear on what was a guess and what was almost certain.

The rise of DVD extras has made this sort of thing normal for movies. If you rent HBO’s Deadwood or Rome or, God help you, Stone’s Alexander, there is inevitably a director or advisor commentary on how the work of fiction reflects the historical knowledge we have. To my knowledge, people who make historical fiction, be it games or movies, have an interest in history and are well aware of the concessions they have to make to their audience. So why not get this out in the open?


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