Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World

Posted on July 11, 2012 by Tommy McGuire
Labels: books, random, goodreads

Philip Sabin's idea is that a relatively unexplored way of studying ancient battles, about which little is known other than sparse and unreliable historical commentary, is via war games, or "conflict simulations". His approach is to assume that the major set-piece battles in the Mediterranean area from 500BCE to about 50BCE are roughly comparable, using a sufficiently broad brush. As a result, the same set of gaming rules can be applied to all of the battles with suitable scaling factors to adjust for battle sizes and appropriate specialized rules for the small number of differing unit types. Sabin makes a good case that his assumptions and the resulting set of rules that he provides are valid, as does the overall structure: if he is wildly wrong about some aspect of his assumptions in order to make one battle work out, then other battles will be perturbed in obvious ways.

Sabin then presents a number of scenarios, describing battles throughout the Mediterranean and the 500-year period, such as Cannae and Marathon. These scenarios allow others to re-fight the battles with alternate tactics or modified resources and provide insight into open questions on each battle, such as the number of various troops on either side. Sabin's rules and scenarios are simplified enough to appeal to non-gamers, yet seemingly detailed enough to allow at least historical stratagems.

The one weakness I can see in that Sabin is careful to set up his scenarios such that the historical outcome is the most likely; the historical victors have advantages that may or may not represent the reality of the situation. As a reviewer on Amazon points out, Procrustes lurks somewhere in this vicinity.

I do agree somewhat with another reviewer on Amazon, who gave the book one star because it did not present much analysis of the battles based on game playing experience. Ideally, this book would be supplemented with a sequel that does exactly that: present the results of simulating the battles as described and with modifications, specifically to cast light on the unknowns of the historical commentary.

The book is well-written, the case well-argued, and it did provide just the right vacation antidote to my usual math and programming texts.

Update: Steve O'Leary posted a good review of Lost Battles on the lostbattles Yahoo group back in 2008.

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