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Archive for the category “Roman History”

And now for something completely different…

It amazes me sometimes the weird crap that comes to my mind. I wrote this down several months ago and ran across it just this morning. If I remember, I was mowing the yard when I thought it up. Here’s the Beach Boys singing about the fall of the Roman Empire:

Bar-bar-iaaaan, don’t take my laaaand
Bar-bar-iaaaan, don’t take my laaaand
You got me runnin’ and a-goin’,
Screamin’ and a-fleein’, barbarian

Fled back to France
Lookin’ for Ro-mans
Saw barbarians and I thought I wet my pants, barbarians


Saw Visigoths
Saw Saxon mobs
Saw Ostrogoths and I knew that all was lost, barbarians


I really worry about how my brain works sometimes.

Game Review–Total War: Rome II


Total War: Rome II is the very first computer game I’ve ever pre-ordered. I’ve been stoked about the game ever since Creative Assembly first announced they were working on it a couple years ago (the tingly feelings I got from watching game-play and development videos over the past ten months could almost qualify said videos as pornography). I’ve been a frequenter of the Total War series since the original Rome: Total War, and followed it from there to Medieval II: Total War, Empire: Total War, Napoleon: Total Warand Total War: Shogun II. Each Total War title that I’ve played has been an amazing, well-put-together game that I would recommend to anyone interested in computer war-gaming. Thankfully, Rome II is no exception.

scrumMy initial assumption about Rome II was that it would be Rome I with better graphics, new campaign and battle features, and naval combat (which would have made for a bitchin’ game, don’t get me wrong). It’s not, however, and I’m still weighing the pros and cons of this development. Rome I and it’s successor, Medieval II were straightforward war games on both the battlefield and campaign maps. While it helped to have a solid grasp of ancient and medieval warfare as well as combat and tactics, players could still get away with simple, cussed brute force. The campaign map was similarly simple: if one city had a food shortage, build them a better irrigation system, if your citizens were grumpy, build a theater.

Rome II, however, really went out of their way to improve not only the realism, but the combat strategy as well. The most noticeable difference in the battle maps is that terrain is a much higher factor all around. Whereas in previous games, combat units could hide in the woods or in the brush only when stationary, in TWR2 an important part of the strategy is to use woods, hills, buildings, and other blind spots as cover for laying ambushes or moving troops around covertly. Plus, the enemy AI does a decent job of using terrain to its advantage, causing players to have to send scouts over the next hill and watch their flanks at all times. It really is a game of move and counter-move that kept me on my toes better than any Total War game before it. My copy of Sun Tzu came in handy frequently.

2013-09-04_00008I learned fairly quickly that city planning and campaign management in Rome II requires more research and evaluation than previous Total War titles. Where in Rome I, players could pretty well build whatever they could afford in terms of facilities in their towns and cities (and I seldom had trouble with money in the game), in II each city has a limited number of ‘slots’ for different types of buildings. Thankfully, these facilities effect other cities the player controls throughout the province. Thus if Rome has an Auxiliary Barracks and a Temple of Jupiter, all of the troops trained in the Italia province receive the bonuses from the Barracks, while the other cities receive the same bonuses from the temple. But there’s a balance to be had: some facilities come with penalties to food production or citizen happiness throughout the province. Thus additional food production and happiness must be attained via additional facility construction.

One feature that continues to trouble me is that armies must be built around a general and fleets must be built around an admiral, but factions are limited in their number of generals and admirals based on the number of territories they control. While having small numbers of large armies was fairly accurate for how the Hellenic, African, and early Roman Republic militaries were organized, it doesn’t at all reflect how the barbarian tribes were organized, nor indeed the later Republic and Empire. Barbarians typically used large numbers of small raiding parties to confound their enemies—thus the Romans had to supplement their Legions with small bands of auxiliary troops to counter this problem. Too, in past games, I got used to building reinforcement columns to send to relieve my frontier armies, which I can’t do as effectively now. While I’ve gotten used to adjusting for this oversight, it’s an adjustment I don’t really feel like I should have to make, from a logistical standpoint.

crashMy favorite feature, and the one I’ve been most stoked about since I heard it announced, is the addition of naval combat units. Admittedly, however, this took a while to get used to compared to the ground tactics. The analogy I use to contrast the ground versus water combat is a football game versus a basketball or soccer game. Like in a football game, much of the planing for the ground battles—things like picking terrain and battle formation—are decided before the lines smash into each other. Taking and holding ground are key parts of the battle. Circumstances in water combat, however, are more fluid, if you’ll forgive the pun. Like basketball or soccer players, ships have to be constantly moving around and vying for position or risk becoming sitting ducks. It was a tricky dynamic to get used to and one I’m still trying to master.

I find it awesome as well that the game allows land and sea battles to occur on the same battlefield. Shipboard marines can reinforce land armies by beaching their ships and joining the fray, while shore-based artillery can give fire support to their navies. Cites can be stormed by fleet troops in D-Day-like scenarios, where soldiers storm the beach and walls while under fire from defenders.

beachIn terms of historical accuracy, it’s not the best I’ve seen, but it’s more authentic than the original. I played the Europa Barbarorum total-conversion mod for the first Rome: Total War for a while, and I feel like Creative Assembly payed close attention to it and mods like it for going out of their way to capture a more authentic feel to the game. I like that they used traditional Greek hoplites and other heavy infantry for the Hellenic factions, rather than just giving them all generic pike-men with Greek or Macedonian helmets. While each Hellenic faction gets pike phalanxes—as was the standard way to fight following Alexander’s popularization of the tactic—they also have a wider range of spear, sword, and skirmisher infantry. I appreciate, too, that independent territories are no longer just static conquest fodder for playable factions: each counts as it’s own minor faction, representing a city-state or barbarian tribe. Thus players have to balance out wars, trade, and alliances with each minor faction independently in their rise to empire.

pikesThere were a few minor issues, historically, that bugged me. Firstly, two very important cities were left off the campaign map: Corinth and Byzantium. Corinth was quite clearly sacrificed because the Peloponnesian Peninsula only had room for one city, and the fans of 300 would have thrown a crying, swearing hissy-fit and boycotted the game had CA not included Sparta. (Despite that Corinth was the most powerful independent city-state in Greece and the final obstacle in Rome’s conquest of Hellas, while Sparta hadn’t been politically or militarily significant for almost 150 years.) Byzantium’s absence still baffles me, considering it was eventually the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Secondly, one graphics feature CA has been guilty of that I’d really hoped they’d do away with is color-coordination for individual factions. Not even the Romans color-coordinated their uniforms, yet all of the units’ outfits in all of the factions in Rome I, Medieval II, and Shogun II have identical colors in their soldiers’ uniforms. Considering that the units have tags over their heads in each of these games for players to click on to select the unit, I don’t feel like a uniform color coordination is necessary and I was rather hoping CA would do away with it for Rome II. While on the whole the coloration doesn’t bother me as much as it did in previous games, I can’t bring myself to play the Suebii, a German faction, because they all wear purple and gold.

ughAs far as the technical details go, the graphics are impressive, even though my mediocre graphics card doesn’t handle the higher settings. I like that you can minimize the interface on the battle maps, offering a more cinematic experience than in the early Total War games. The interface on the campaign map is fairly streamlined as well, which is nice. I’ve not tried the online campaign or battles, so I can’t really comment on those (but part of the reason I game is so I don’t have to deal with people).

So, am I going to forsake the previous Total War titles and only play Rome II from now on? Honestly, probably not. Rome I and Medieval II in particular offered a straightforwardness in their campaigns and battles that none of the other titles really achieved. Yes, it helped to have solid understanding of direct and indirect battle tactics as well as economics and logistics, etc in order to be effective in battle, on campaign, or on the throne, but they weren’t as necessary in those earlier games. When I wanted to, I could shut down that part of my thought process and just enjoy stomping Carthage into the dust or chasing the Germans back across the Rhine. I could take my hands off the keyboard in the middle of battle, zoom in close and just watch the Gaul battle lines collapse before Caesar’s legions. I can’t do that in Rome II because I’m too busy maneuvering my units around and watching the nearby forests and hills for ambushes. This doesn’t make either game in any way inferior to the other, play-wise, each just offers a different fix. When I want to think more, I play Rome II, when I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around, I play Rome I or Medieval II.

phalanx(All screen captures taken directly from game play.)

Book Review: Roman Conquests, Macedonia and Greece

Using a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, several weeks ago I ordered Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, published in 2009. I finished reading Friday afternoon and decided to type up a quick review for the blog and for anyone interested in the history. Doctor Matyszak ranks among my favorite contemporary historians on Ancient Greece and Rome (perhaps second only to Adrian Goldsworthy) and is author of such texts as Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. I’ve long been curious about the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia if for no other reason than that these are so often glossed over in comparison to other Roman conquests like Carthage, Gaul, and Britannia. While I’ve read bits and pieces of these campaigns in Plutarch and Livy, as well as modern historians such as Goldsworthy, this is the first volume I’ve encountered that dealt specifically and solely with the wars against Macedon and the more classical Greek city-states.


Image courtesy Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War

One trait I genuinely appreciate in Matyszak’s writing, in this book as well as his previous texts I’ve read, is that he has a very effective style of narration. It has the feel of someone telling a story, rather than some formal, academic style. He writes like someone who wants to create interest in his topic, rather than some academic who is writing strictly for an academic audience. The language is relaxed and accessible, making it easy to follow for folks outside the history field. In addition, Doctor Matyszak isn’t afraid to make light of the historical figures, cultures, or fighting styles with occasional pithy comments, observations, and comparisons. More than once he calls out various generals and statesmen on both sides of the conflict for treachery, miscommunications, bad decisions, or plain incompetence. He early on refers to Greek politics as a “snake pit” and gives constant examples throughout the book to reinforce the analogy. Indeed, the deliciously underhanded infighting amongst the many factions involved in this conflict was likely my favorite aspect of the book. Back-biting political f***ery at it’s finest.

In terms of scholarship, I greatly appreciate Doctor Matyszak’s fairly neutral stance on the right and wrong of these Roman conquests. At no point does he attempt to justify the battles, death, and conquest in terms of pro- or anti-imperialist sentiment as so many scholars have done since Edward Gibbon. Nor does Matyszak attempt to impose the framework of modern, Judeo-Christian morality upon a people who existed before Christianity. When he does explain possible reasons for the brutal actions of the Romans or Macedonians, he does so on their terms. Yes, the Romans were a brutal people. But it was a brutal reality in which they existed. Yes, the took slaves. Yes, they murdered surrendering soldiers. Yes, they burned cities and killed innocents. But guess what: so did everyone else for thousands of years before them.

If I have any issue with Macedonia and Greece—and this is entirely a personal preference—I’d have liked to see more maps. The text does include seven maps of the areas of interest within Macedon and Greece at the beginning, as well as a section of full-color visuals in the center. But when reading and researching military campaigns, I prefer to have visuals spread throughout the text, especially maps of the terrain and diagrams of significant battles. Additionally, I’d have liked somewhat more detailed descriptions of some of the battles that Matyszak glossed over in his efforts to focus on the politics and the effects of these battles. But, again, this is more of a preference than an actual objection.

All in all, I found Doctor Matyszak’s book to be well written and well researched. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient or military history.

“The Original Imperial Stormtroopers”

Let's rock!

Something I found from an old project. I took this screen capture from the Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War.

Ancient Rome remains my favorite area of study. I have twenty-odd books about the Republic and Empire, both seasons of HBO’s Rome, and five computer strategy games that allow players to build and expand the Roman Empire as they see fit–demonstrating that Rome can be built in a day, or even with just a few clicks of a mouse button. There are so many facets of the people and their history that I find fascinating on many levels. From the early days of the SPQR to the fall of the Western Empire, I continue to regularly study and enjoy the Romans and the stamp they left on three continents.

Years ago, I got to house-sit for my aunt and uncle, with their ginormous entertainment system, during a week when the History Channel was having a week-long series of specials on the Romans. That was a good week for me. I missed the special they did on the Roman navy, unfortunately, but got to see some neat programs about Roman daily life and their numerous marvels of engineering. I particularly loved the specials they had on the Colosseum and the Pantheon. I didn’t care as much for the special on Roman vice–the fact that the Romans may have invented condoms was kind of interesting, but I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about what a bunch of dirty old men some of the emperors were.

But I think the program I enjoyed the most was the special they did on Trajan’s armies during the Dacian Wars. I believe the term the narrator used was the ‘original Imperial Stormtroopers’–which, as a long-time Star Wars fan, tickled me to no end. The legionaries are just fun to study, all around. He kept calling them boots, grunts, and squaddies, which, for me, helped paint a picture of the legionaries as just regular fighting-men, rather than the soulless, ethnocentric butchers that twentieth-century anti-imperialist scholarship tends to portray them as. The program drew other effective comparisons, equating the extensive legionary training with that of the British Special Forces.

I recall one discrepancy from that video that bothered me for several years, however. At one point the narrator stated that the average height of legionaries in Trajan’s army was close to six-feet tall. This baffled me because I remembered from high school history classes that the Romans were a relatively short people. I’d assumed initially that my high school text book was wrong and moved on. A couple years later, I had the opportunity to finally sit down and read Caesar’s Commentaries and was given pause by Julius’s comment that the Gauls called the Romans ‘pigmy soldiers.’ Naturally, I wasn’t dense enough to assume that the Gauls were so monstrously tall that six-feet is ‘pigmy’ to them. Eventually, I figured out that by Trajan’s time a large percentage of the legionaries were Gauls. Thus it made sense that they’d be at least as tall as the Dacian warriors they were fighting.

Contrary to what Edward Gibbon would have readers think, the late-era legionaries were about as bad of dudes as Roman soldiers had ever been, even up to the eventual fall of the Western Empire. (Though that’s hardly the worst of Gibbon’s crimes against history. Eddy-boy needs a good, hard kick to the stones for some of the misinformation he popularized.) And, to be fair, the literary evidence from the late Empire suggests high levels of sloppy barbarism in the frontier legions. The physical evidence, however, suggests differently. Modern archeological excavations, such as camp layouts, equipment remains, and quartermaster records indicate that the legions of the late Empire were just as disciplined, well-trained, and well-equipped as those of Augustus’s time. So, what makes up for the disparity between the literary and archeological evidence? Modern scholars such as Adrian Goldsworthy point out that, while most educated noblemen from Caesar’s era spent time in the legions as officers, by the later days of the Empire, the disconnect between civilians and the military was so great that it was extremely rare for those of the aristocracy to have ever even seen an army camp. Thus to the chroniclers of the late era, knowing virtually nothing of military life and service, these dirty, long-haired, bearded legionaries on the frontiers must have appeared as a devolution from the splendid, polished legions described in the histories from the height of the Empire.

Were the Roman legionaries the baddest warriors in history? Who the hell knows? I think you could make a good argument that they are. But I think good arguments could also be made for the Vikings or the Teutonic Knights or the Cossacks or the Spartans or the Mongols or the Apache. The argument isn’t ‘who would win in a fight between X versus Y?’ but ‘what did X and Y do with the hand history dealt them?’ The Roman legionaries took the hand they were given and used it to conquer the entire world from the Scottish Lowlands in the north to Numidia in the south and from Spain in the west to Syria in the east.

I’d say that counts for a lot.

Recommended reading:
Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, by Caius Julius Caesar
Legionary: the Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak
In the Name of Rome: the Men Who Won the Roman Empire, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Rome at War: Caesar and his Legacy, by Kate Gilliver, Adrian Goldsworthy, and Michael Whitby
Roman Warfare, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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