Am I Blogging Now?

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River Andal, Part 3

Hi folks! Hey, sorry I’ve been so neglectful of the blog here lately. Part of it is due to a recent freelance editing job I did for a friend of a friend the past several weeks, for which I even had to skip a weekend update for the Heroines Blog. Anyway, I’m back to writing for myself for the time being and can hopefully get more posted to this blog and continue my story of the River Andel.

Here’s part three of the story, continued from parts 1 and 2.


“Six feet high, but has dirt packed against the inside high enough for the fuckers to kneel behind the palisade and bloody pick us off at their leisure,” Brenal informed Major Kanel, drawing a map in the dirt. “I also saw a handful of two- and three-pounders mounted on swivels along the wall and a half-dozen howitzers facing the river. Past that there’re two more lines of defense. The first is a ring of seven sandbagged artillery emplacements, with two to three falconets per battery. Two of those emplacements overlook the entryway facing the forest, easily within grapeshot range—that’s four falconets they can fire one at a time at whomever comes through the gate.”

“Shit,” Kanel grimaced, glaring down at the diagram. “So anyone through the door ends up shredded meat. You said something about one more line of defense?”

“Their encampment is at the top of the hill where all of their tents and all twelve mortars are housed,” she continued. “It’s surrounded by a partial palisade, open on four sides with paths running down to the batteries and main wall.”

“So the only option we’re going to have is a night attack,” the major mused, scratching at his four-day beard and scowling. “Fuck, I hate night attacks—too many factors we can’t control.”

“You estimated three hundred defenders?” a fusilier corporal asked from nearby.

“More than enough to cover all of the cannon in shifts over the course of the night,” Brenal nodded. “They’re alert but not edgy,” she went on. “I suspect they’ve been told to expect an attack, but don’t know that we’re this close.”

“And a night attack should help keep it that way,” Kanel agreed. “Still, I don’t like the idea of sending your grenadiers headlong into four barrels of grape.”

“Scout chief Ina suggested that since the walls are only six feet, it should be easy for our men to boost each other up and over,” Brenal told the major.

“You know, the stupidly obvious solutions have always been my favorite,” Kanel admitted, eliciting a few chuckles among the gathered officers and noncoms. “Alright, here’s what we’ll do,” the major decided. “Captain Bartz and I will take the voltiguers and most of the line infantry and launch a feint against that east entrance to try and draw their attention that way. Lieutenant,” he addressed Brenal, “you take your grenadiers and Sergeant Ashe’s fifty fusiliers and go over that southern wall. Make those two batteries overlooking the gateway your primary targets. Once you’ve taken those out, the rest of us will storm the gates and join you. We’ll take the high ground and capture the camp and mortars as a group. Questions?”

No one had any.

“Good,” he continued. “We’ll let the men rest up for a couple hours, then move on the hill come sundown.”

* * *

“…and clearly he’s the most pompous, dumb-fuck king who ever lived,” Ina was telling a group of soldiers gathered about as Brenal sat down with them, around a half-hour to sundown. “Lady Aress stands there, mud and blood splattered in her copper hair and across her legionary armor—some of that blood from two of the king’s sons and several of his elite guards. Her husband, General Garran, stands before the throne in his officer’s cuirass. And this dimwit king has the gall to tell the general to send the Lady away, that ‘surrender talks are no place for a simple woman.’” The others started laughing, partly at Ina’s imitation of the arrogant king’s earnest-but-stupid voice and facial expressions, but mostly at the thought of someone finding the legendary Lady General Aress to be a simple woman.

Brenal had to admit that Ina was a very talented storyteller. Her facial expressions added as much to her tale as her tone. She adopted a regal and competent expression for Lady Aress, a stern and annoyed expression for General Garran, and an arrogant and obtuse expression for the king.

“So General Garran, being the smooth bastard he was, takes it in stride, aye,” the scout continued. “He looks down at the fat little fuck and says, ‘I agree. It’s a good thing there’s nothing simple about my wife.’ And the king looks completely shocked, like he can’t believe some lowly general would talk down to him.” Her imitation of the king’s shock and indignation sent the group into another uproar. “So the king sputters for a moment, then says, ‘have they no sense of protocol and decency in your nation? I demand that you send the woman away so we can conduct our business like civilized people.’ The general stares the king down for another moment, then says ‘all of your sons are dead and my men have slain or captured every soldier in your army. You have no room to make demands.’ The little king sputters again, then sneers at General Garran. ‘I’m going to lodge a complaint with your senate,’ the little wanker shouts. ‘I refuse to be bullied by some common, barbarian thug.’” Brenal smiled and the others laughed at the little woman’s arm-waggling imitation of the king’s angry tirade.
Ina continued, “‘I agree,’ Lady Aress told the king before General Garran could reply. ‘It’s a good thing there’s nothing common about my husband.’” The lieutenant chuckled and the others burst out laughing at her punchline. “The general somehow manages not to laugh,” Ina ended her story. “He just gives his wife this look as if to say ‘thanks a hell of a lot, dear.’” They continued to laugh through her imitation of the general’s amused/annoyed look.

“Excellent story,” a private applauded. “You almost sound like you were there for the conversation.”

“Don’t be silly, aye,” Ina chided sassily. “I was home, taking care o’ their kids, obviously.” That got a few more chuckles.

A young man in voltiguer uniform stretched as he stood. Brenal thought she remembered his name being Tannis. “I wish we had someone like General Aress fighting beside us tonight,” the infantryman commented.

“Din’ need her, lad,” Grenadier Sergeant Koss told him, grinning between his grizzled mutton-chops. “Ye obviously ain’t seen Lieutenant Brenal inna scrap. She’s better tha’ any half-mystical heroine what’s been dead three-hundred years.”

A chorus of “hear-hears” broke among the grenadiers and some of the veteran infantrymen. Brenal found herself glad she’d outgrown blushing at others’ praise.

“Really?” the skirmisher asked, looking over at the one-eyed, battle-worn, and probably rather unheroic-looking Lieutenant Brenal Derron. The expression on the young man’s face suggested he couldn’t tell if they were putting him on or not.

“Aye!” another Highlander put in. “Storming those bloody entrenchments at Annamore, the lieutenant took a focking grenade to the face, blowing her on her ass, like. To her whoreson pretty face,” he repeated. “And she gets right back up, bleeding out the right side her face—eye, ear, and nostril—just like nothin’s happened. Pulls that bastard sword of hers and leads the Thirty-Second rest of the way up the focking mountain. All the while, our buglers are blowing retreat.”

“Really?” Tannis asked Brenal, looking awed.

“More or less,” Brenal shrugged as she got to her feet. “They exaggerate, of course. I didn’t hear the withdrawal blown because my hearing was blasted all to hell, and these bastards are too dumb not to follow me,” she admitted. A few laughs and a couple cheers followed her comment. “But keep in mind one doesn’t make officer in a Highland infantry regiment by being meek and complacent,” she continued, patting the young man’s shoulder as she passed.

The hero worship in the young man’s eyes was hard to miss.

Thanks for reading, folks! Any comments and feedback are most welcome. Continued in part 4.


River Andal, Part 2

Continued from part 1. This second scene zooms to Lieutenant Brenal’s sister Lana, who is a dragoon sergeant for Legion XII.


“Colonel Vitzroy decided what?” Sergeant Lana Derron nearly shouted, staring at the dispatch rider in disbelief.

“To fucking pull the heavy cavalry,” the dispatcher shrugged helplessly. “With the enemy horse obliterated, he’s pulled out his detachment of cuirassiers and ordered Major Orban’s lancers out as well. He says the heavies are of no use against the infantry column, so he’s not going to risk losing them. Orban’s pissed enough to chew boot leather, but his promotion is on the line, so no way in hell will he go against his commanding officer.”

Lieutenant Oxwell scowled and Captain Yarb slammed his fist against his desk. “That’s bullshit and Vitzroy knows it,” Yarb shouted to no one in particular.

“Vitzy’s a rear-echelon motherfucker,” Lana scoffed, “too fucking poncy to get his uniform muddy. And he’s too afraid of the dark to spend a night without his mistress.”

“This isn’t good,” Yarb muttered, glaring at the maps on his desk. “At this rate they’ll be able to reinforce Tor Andal in two to three days—well ahead of Legion XIX.”

Indeed, this wasn’t good, Lana agreed silently. Though Legion XII had ousted the Separatists from their western holdings, with the infantry tied up occupying the local towns, cities, and fortresses, only their thirteen hundred cavalry were available to harry the column of eleven thousand enemy combatants retreating east toward Tor Andal. Pulling back the cuirassiers and lancers cut the pursuing cavalry to barely eight hundred.

Allowing the column to escape intact would nearly double the number of defenders that Legion XIX would face in their assault on Tor Andal. The thought made Lana grimace in frustration, knowing that her sister and the XXXII Highlanders were currently attached to Legion Nineteen.

“Have Major Orban and his advance force left camp then?” Yarb asked the dispatch rider.

“Yes sir,” the rider answered, “but the main column is still mounting up.”

“Have their supply wagons left as well?”

“They were being loaded last I looked, sir.”

Yarb seemed to consider for a long moment. “Private,” he ordered the dispatcher, “catch up with Major Orban and let him know that I’m commandeering his supplies. Food, fresh horses, spare pistols and ammunition, cuirassier and lancer helmets, even the spare lances and armor: I’m taking all of it.”

“Yes sir.” The rider saluted and hurried from the command tent.

“Lieutenant Oxwell,” the cavalry captain ordered next, “take about two hundred and fifty of our dragoons from this camp and ride to Lieutenant Dorn’s hussar camp and let him know about Vitzy’s change of plan. Ride ahead with Dorn’s company and harass the enemy rearguard as planned, and assure him that I’ll be coming along in his wake with all the spare equipment I can gather, so he’ll have a means to fall back and resupply.”

“Right away, Captain,” Oxwell answered, saluting.

Yarb held up one finger to keep the corporal from leaving just yet. “Sergeant,” the captain said next, turning to Lana, “take a hundred dragoons and try to get ahead of the enemy column. Get up front and harry their advance as best you can. Kill their scouts, ambush foragers and infantry screens, at night sneak close to the camp and snipe their sentries. Try to make as big a fucking nuisance of yourself as possible. Take any supplies you’ll need before you leave, because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to regroup with the wagons.”

“Yes sir,” she saluted grimly. It was a suicide mission, and they both knew it. But they also knew that it had to be done if they had any chance at slowing the enemy column.

“I’ll secure the supplies and have the remaining twenty dragoons escort the wagons, while I catch up with Lieutenant Dorn’s group,” Yarb informed them.

“We’ve got our assignments, dismissed.”

Mustering her dragoons and gathering supplies went quickly and without incident. Lana strapped on her leather brigantine over her dark green dragoon uniform as she checked over her supplies one last time. Over the brigantine she pulled her grey, winter cavalry coat. Over the coat she strapped her sabre and arming belt. Trained to fight both mounted and unmounted, dragoons were primarily skirmisher cavalry, but could flank an enemy formation or hold a fortification if need be. Their arms included a cavalry sabre, carbine, and pistol. Needing to travel light and quickly, Lana had ordered her detachment to pack only their food, ammunition, and bandages, leaving their tents, bedrolls, spare uniforms, and other nonessentials behind.

As she strapped on her black-plumed, black-leather dragoon helmet, Lana thought once again about her twin, Brenal. Colonel Vitzroy’s laziness was about to make Lana’s job a dozen-fold more difficult—and if her dragoons failed their mission, Brenal and Legion XIX’s mission could become nigh impossible.
If anything happens to Brenal, Lana vowed as she mounted her horse, I will personally break Colonel Vitzy’s arms and legs and fuck his mistress to death in front of him.

Continued in part 3.

River Andal, Part 1

Hi folks! Dang, it’s been a while since last I posted here. Definitely need to fix that. I gave up computer games for Lent in effort to force myself to get more writing done, with mixed results. While it’s allowed me to get more work done on the Heroines Blog, I haven’t had the chance to do much with Am I Blogging Now, for which I apologize.

Another project I’ve been working on is a short war story called “Six Miles Up the River Andal.” It takes place in the same world as my First Empress stories, but eighteen hundred years later, with an assumed Napoleonic-Era technology and cultural level. My two immortal characters, Zahnia and Luka (Queen Viarraluca), are still alive and kicking ass, necks deep in war, politics, and intrigue. I’ve decided to post the story to my blog in 8–9 parts to see what kind of response I get from readers. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or criticism. Thanks and take care, folks! (The battle scenes are fairly brutal and I don’t bother to censor the profanity: reader discretion advised.)


The Northern Separatist War essentially amounted to a bunch of near-sighted monarchs declaring war on the Tollesian Empire for the right to declare war on each other. Arrogantly so, considering this was about the only right the Emperor denied them. Being so far from the core provinces, the northern protectorates were kept on a much longer leash than regions closer to the capitol. Had they simply declared independence instead of war, the Empire might have even granted them their desire. Evidently the Separatist leaders didn’t consider that possibility.
from An Illustrated History of Warfare on the Northern Continents, by Zahnia, the Chronicler
* * *

It was common geographical knowledge that the only way to invade the city of Tor Andal from the south was to sail up the great Andal River. Densely wooded, unnavigable fenlands covered most of the region between Tor Andal and the Tornis Sea. With no roadways through the fens, invading armies had to sail upriver six miles, or march a hundred miles to the west or two hundred miles to the east-by-southeast to circumnavigate the fens. Thankfully, the Andal River was deep and over a quarter-mile across, easily traversable by large sailing ships.

Grenadier Lieutenant Brenal Derron of the XXXII Highland Infantry of the Tollesian Empire adjusted her scarf against the light, misty snowfall as her company crept through the trees along the east bank of the murky river. Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, the war galleys of Empress Viarraluca I, founder of the Tollesian Empire, had sailed up this very river to attack the allied cities of the renegade Gannic warlord, King Antorix. Today Tollesian warships would once again sail the River Andal to deal with another threat to the stability of their empire.

Tor Andal was one of the last bastions of an uprising of sixteen northern kingdoms that had declared independence from and war upon the great Empire of Tollesia six years past. The separatist coalition had announced their defection by murdering the Emperor’s middle son and his entourage during the prince’s visit to the northern protectorates. Before word of the defection had even reached the Imperial capital at Kel Fimmaril, separatist guerillas ambushed and routed the two Tollesian legions and their auxiliaries stationed in their provinces, sending both legions retreating to friendly territory. From there the separatists rounded up and imprisoned every alleged Tollesian sympathizer they could get their hands on and threatened or invaded neighboring kingdoms who stayed loyal to the Empire.

Brenal had graduated from the Legion Officer’s Academy at Gillar barely a month before the war broke out. Trained as a grenadier infantrywoman, she’d been sent north with her company as part of the Thirty-Second Highlanders to aid Legions XIX and XXIV in their opening retaliation against the separatists. For six years they’d waged a brutal, ugly war through the mountains and forests of the northern empire, sacking cities and battling army regulars as well as guerilla fighters. Brenal had fought on the front lines of every battle the Thirty-Second was involved in, holding and storming entrenchments, attacking and defending cities, and skirmishing with enemy combatants in all types of weather. Almost a year previous, Brenal had lost her right eye and part of the hearing in her right ear to an enemy grenade. The damage to her inner ear was only sufficient to occasionally confuse her directional hearing, but the loss of her right eye had forced her to learn to shoot a musket left-handed.

Sergeant Lana, Brenal’s twin sister, had meanwhile been assigned to a dragoon company with Legion XII and sent north a year later in effort to open up a new front against then western-most of the defecting kingdoms. Though the sisters exchanged letters when conditions allowed, they’d not actually seen each other during that entire six years.

As a woman in a grenadier infantry unit, Brenal was something of an anomaly. The Legions of the Tollesian Empire were originally founded by possibly the greatest warrior queen who ever lived and had possessed enough competent women generals and officers over the centuries that not only did women soldiers make up nearly ten percent of the army, there were harsh penalties in place for rape and other mistreatment of that ten percent. Even so, the majority of these women were stationed in cavalry, skirmisher, artillery, and other support units. For Brenal to be on the front lines at all was an amazing feat, let alone lieutenant in a decorated highland grenadier company.

“Scouts returning, Lieutenant,” a sentry reported, jogging up and saluting.

“Thank you, Private,” Brenal saluted in return. “Akins, pass word for Major Kanel,” she ordered one of her grenadiers as she turned and strode quickly to the front of their column.

Their column was a detachment of around six hundred battle-hardened infantry from Legion XIX, including four hundred fusiliers of the line, a hundred and twenty voltiguer elite skirmishers, and Brenal’s company of seventy-two Highland grenadiers. Their mission was to capture or destroy Tor Andel’s first line of defense: a battery of mortars atop a fortified hillock next to the River Andel. The hill was around two miles downstream from the city and since the advent of sinew-powered artillery had been a favorite location for Tor Andel’s defenders to use when harassing incoming ships. While the dozen mortars atop the hillock probably couldn’t destroy the Tollesian fleet, they had potential to cause enough damage to force the Legions to pull off their attack.

Tallish and dark-haired, Brenal tightened her layered, woolen coat against the chill as she made her way through the winter-dead brush. Her coat was standard-issue slate grey and damned-near bulletproof. Beneath she wore her lieutenant’s cuirass, slightly more ornate than the standard heavy infantryman’s, but made from the same high-grade Tollesian steel. Beneath the armor she wore her Highland infantry uniform: navy-blue coat with red-and-blue tartan kilt. Her head kept safe from the cold by a plain wool scarf and dark blue tam. While the other members of the Thirty-Second were clad nearly identically, the infantrymen from Legion XIX differed in that they wore wool pants and a tri-corner hat instead of kilt and tam, and the voltiguers usually wore a hard-leather jerkin or quilted jack rather than steel cuirass.

Though armament differed, all of the infantry carried similar kit and equipment: rations, bedroll, tent, canteen, mess tin, knife, hatchet, flint and steel, and sapping/entrenching spade. The grenadiers’ standard armament included a pistol, frontline musket and bayonet, and two short-fuse grenades, though some carried a hanger or other small sword for close combat. Fusiliers also carried musket and bayonet, but might opt for a pistol or hanger for their sidearm. As the voltiguers were primarily skirmishers, they carried a long-range rifle without bayonet.

Infantry officers usually carried a sword as well. Sabres were standard issue, but many officers carried rapiers, basket-hilt broadswords, or even long-swords. Brenal outdid these by carrying the bastard sword given to her by her mentor and benefactress, Lady Ellona.

“All of the trees?” a fusilier sergeant was asking as Brenal arrived.

“Aye, eighty to ninety yards in any direction from the base of the hill,” Ina, their scouting chief confirmed. Ina was a tiny woman, easily mistaken for a child, but from Brenal’s observations, she made up for her lack of stature in intelligence, insight, and all-around wiliness.

“You’re saying that there’s no cover then?” Brenal asked, crouching near the tiny, dark-haired woman.

“Virtually none, Lieutenant,” one of the other scouts informed her. “They cut down every bloody tree to build a palisade around the base of the hill. There’s one entrance facing the river and one facing the forest. Looks like they blasted the stumps out as best they could, too.”

Meaning their infantry would be exposed to cannon fire well before they could get into musket range.

“In a way I’m surprised someone didn’t think of it sooner,” Brenal commented. “The palisade gives them additional defensive cover, while minimizing the entrances funnels us into concentrated musket and cannon fire.” She rubbed her eyes briefly. “It’s amazing how much bloody harder this gets when they follow a few smart defensive precautions. How high is their palisade?”

“Six, less than six and a half feet, Lt,” Ina answered.

“Show me,” Brenal ordered the tiny scout.

“Aye, Lieutenant,” Ina nodded. Brenal stood and followed her into the fens, once again amazed at how quickly the tiny woman moved through the brambly foliage. Dressed in a long—for her—coat, Ina had a quick, confident walk that barely made a noise or left a track across the partially-frozen, squishy fenland. As well as her kit, she carried a spyglass, two pistols, and a short sword.

“So I think I’ve figured out why you were so familiar when we first met a week back,” Ina commented as they crept through the fens. “You’re one of Lady Ellona’s wards, aye?”

“I am,” the young lieutenant nodded, stepping over a deadfall, “along with my twin sister and younger brother.” Lady Ellona was the slightly infamous head of the First Empress Merchant Company—the largest merchant company in the Tollesian Empire—and was an advisor to the Emperor himself. “Her ladyship hired mother as an attendant and chambermaid after our noble father squandered his inheritance on cards, ale, and prostitutes and subsequently died from the clap. Our lady adopted us as her wards when mother died saving her from an assassin’s bullet. How do you know Lady Ellona?”

“She’s me oldest living friend, aye,” Ina informed her. “I’ve been abroad the past twelve years, but I correspond with her ladyship regular-like. She insists she’s not much of a teacher, but I’ve yet to meet one of her ‘students’ who doesn’t have the same confident stride and air of competence what you have. That, and ya didn’t have that sword when we met first. He was a bit hard to miss. You know his history?”

Brenal drew the bastard sword from her shoulder scabbard. “I know it’s almost three hundred years old,” she confirmed. “According to my lady’s family’s tradition, it belonged to Ryla, the folk heroine who saved the kingdom of Pren.”

“Aye, he did indeed,” Ina confirmed. “May I see the bugger?” she asked, holding her hands out. Brenal shrugged and set the heirloom sword in the scout’s hands. “There you are, ya wily bastard,” Ina laughed, looking the sword over, the blade alone being as tall as she was. “Come out of retirement to fight beside another smart colleen, aye? Good on you; you always did have an eye for the ladies.” She turned and handed the sword back up to Brenal. “Thanks, Lieutenant, seeing the old bugger’s in action again does me more good than you know. He’s a good lad—take care of him, aye?”

Putting the blade away, Brenal thought she caught a nostalgic tear in the tiny Ina’s eye. “I promise,” was all she could think to say.

Ina nodded and patted the lieutenant’s elbow. “Let’s take a look at that hill,” she motioned, leading the way.

Continued in part 2.

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.)

Across the Peloponnese


A while back, mostly for the heck of it, I was browsing just to see what kinds of modifications people had designed for games that I own. One of the best-looking I found was a Peloponnesian War mod for Battle for Middle-Earth II, of all games. I downloaded what they had and was really impressed with what they’d done, but I was disappointed at how little they’d done. Only the Spartans had been completed as a playable team. It was a beautiful mod, but it never made it to Beta because of apparent personnel conflicts with the designers. I remember laughing while reading the comments on the mod and seeing the debates about Sparta versus Athens. The most hilarious part was that the Spartan supporters, on the whole, were clearly the less educated and had the most misspellings and the poorest grammar, while the Athens side, again, on the whole, were clearly the more literate and articulate. While I’m sure it was a case of morons who thought 300 was an awesome movie versus people who actually study history, it was kind of a refreshing metaphor for the two main cities in the conflict itself.

But the fact that the debate was going on at all amused me to no end.

I always root for Athens when I read Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. I mean, I know that [Spoiler Alert] Athens loses in the end, but I dislike everything the Spartans stood for and tend only to root for them when against Darius (much the way I only root for the Jets when they play the Patriots). And I agree with many historians that Athens could likely have prevailed had they not gotten spanked so badly in that ill-advised siege against Syracuse. (F***ing Alcibiades. I hope when the rat-bastard got to Hades, his punishment was an eternity being beaten with a bicycle chain by Pericles. I don’t care that bicycles didn’t exist back then.) I’ve studied the aftermath of the war and know a bit about the Spartan misrule of Greece following the fall of Athens’s empire. Makes it easy to root for Philip of Macedon when he takes over a couple generations later.

Recently, my excitement about the upcoming release of Total War: Rome II has been tempered somewhat by the announcement that they’re releasing Sparta as a playable faction in one of the DLC. My trouble is that since, historically speaking, Sparta hadn’t been a power-player for over 200 years leading up to the rise of the SPQR, releasing Sparta as a faction is a bald-faced attempt to pander to the masses of wankers who think they know everything about Ancient Greece just because they watched 300 once for every Spartan.

As I discussed in a previous post, when studying Ancient Greece, it’s important to keep in mind that the Greeks didn’t have a concept of “good versus evil”—at least not as we think of it. Our concept of “good and evil” is a modern evolution of the Judeo-Christian concepts of moral correctness. It continues to surprise me how many people don’t get that these concepts are newer and less universal than they realize. During Ancient Greek times, Christianity didn’t exist and Judaism was only practiced by this little, backwater kingdom bordering on Ancient Phoenicia. (I’m always amazed at how many people ignore the time frame on this.)

The closest the Greeks had to a concept of “good versus evil” was actually much closer to “order versus chaos.” Orderliness, civilization, intellectualism—Greek-ness (Hellenism)—were all valued as “good” by the Greeks, while disorderliness, brutishness, emotionalism—barbarism—were all considered “bad” (not necessarily “evil”). What intrigues me is that one of the key cultural conflicts between the Spartans and Athenians was their respective definitions of the concept of “order.” The Spartans saw order as being achieved through military might and physical prowess. To them, the Athenians were of the foppish persuasion, pursuing frivolous intellectual activities. Meanwhile, the Athenians saw order as being achieved through intellectual pursuits, such as law and philosophy. To them, the Spartans were brutes and thugs—the jocks of the ancient world, really—a city of meat-heads with a lot of muscle and a certain predatory cunning, but no real ability to rationalize.

Honestly, I agree with the Athenians.

If one takes the time to pick apart the battle of Thermopylae, it’s not hard to realize that Sparta’s presence in the fight was fairly unnecessary. Firstly, there were more than just Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans present. According to Herodotus, there were well over 5,000 Greeks present at the battle (though other sources suggest a higher number. And even on the third day when they discovered they’d been outflanked and most of the army retreated, around 1,100 soldiers from Thespiae and Thebes stayed to defend the pass to the death.

Secondly, a smaller army using a bottleneck to stop a larger army was hardly a new and original tactic even in Leonidas’s day. The Greeks had been clogging their mountain passes with spearmen for centuries, and I rather doubt they were the first to try it. Additionally, I doubt that Persia had never encountered such a tactic before. I don’t have the extensive research that other historians have, but I suspect that the true problem lay in the fact that the Persians were used to unclogging bottlenecks by raining curtains of arrow fire upon the defenders. Against eastern spearmen, this would have worked perfectly, as they generally had no armor and only weak shields. Because the Greek hoplites had heavy shields and as good of armor as existed at the time, the arrows were thus rendered useless. I posit that any group of hoplites could have held that pass against the Persian army.

I think it’s also important to realize that the entire defense could have come crashing down much sooner had it not been for the intervention of Themistocles and the Athenian navy. Had the Persians managed to move their navy behind the Greek lines to disembark troops, they could have surrounded the defenders and overwhelmed them on the first day. Had Themistocles (who was far more BAMF in his way than Leonidas could have hoped to be) and his fleet not held the Persians off for those three days, there would have been no Athens, no Sparta, and no Greece. Democracy would have suffered sudden-infant-death syndrome and the foundation of western culture and history would never have come to be.

So anyway, rant over. Go Athens.


Further reading:
The Histories, by Herodotus
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill

Battle scenes, part 1.2: Defense of Kel Fimmaril, the soldiers

Dress up that line.

Hoplites standing at rest. One of the troubles with using computer game screen captures is that all of the hoplites look identical.

When writing the battle for Kel Fimmaril, I used Ancient Greek technology and tactics similar to those used during the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. As with armies of the time, the infantry makes up the largest percentage—often as much as 80% of the army. These infantry are generally supported by cavalry and lighter, ranged soldiers. For this battle, Queen Viarraluca’s army has around 2,500 soldiers: 1,800 hoplites, less than 200 archers, 400 skirmishers and slingers, and less than 100 assorted cavalry. The attacking army comes from the city-state of Andivel and its client cities. The invaders have over 4,000 soldiers total, but have a similar breakdown of light versus heavy troops—albeit sans cavalry.

As in most Ancient Greek warfare, both sides in my conflict use hoplites for their mainline infantry. A hoplite was a heavy foot-soldier who fought using a large, round shield known as an aspis or  hoplon and a 7′–9′ spear called the dory. They also carried a short sword as a backup weapon: generally a xiphos (a short, stabbing sword) or kopis (a curved, slashing sword similar to the Spanish falcata). Contrary to what we see in movies like 300, hoplites of the time period did not fight bare-chested, but wore leather, linen, or bronze armor. (I mean helmets, capes, and leather briefs? How the hell will that protect from enough Persian arrows to blot out the sun?) Other than some of the poorer, yeomen hoplites, it was rare for them not to have at least a simple set of leather armor. (Trust me that Leonidas and his company were not poor, yeoman hoplites.) Both sides fight in a phalanx, the attackers stacking their formation eight men deep, while the defenders have to stack 5–6 men deep to match the enemy’s length.

Both sides also have access to ranged infantry such as archers, skirmishers, and slingers. Most archers during Ancient Greece used fairly rudimentary short bows, more effective for hunting than combat. Their range and armor penetration was fairly mediocre, something I try to play upon throughout the battle scene. As it was, arrows were more likely to cause injuries than fatalities even against unarmored opponents. Thus both sides of the conflict tend to prefer skirmishers, or light infantry armed with javelins and either a short spear or sword. Like hoplites, skirmishers came in different weights depending on how much gear they carried. Lighter ones like Kel Fimmaril uses bore just a small shield and maybe a helmet for protection. Heavier ones like those used by the attackers from Andivel might have a larger shield and armor of leather or linen and might be used to reinforce the hoplite formation once they’d expended all their javelins. In addition, the defenders of Kel Fimmaril employ slingers against the soldiers of Andivel. As use of slings was more common among the island city-states of the ancient Mediterranean than of the mainland, it seemed fitting to have Queen Viarra’s army employ slingers in the field. Slings are something of an underrated weapon in historical studies. True, they were a simple weapon that could be difficult to master, but they were often employed to devastating effect against heavy infantry. A skilled slinger could propel a small rock at speeds which man-propelled projectiles would not surpass until the invention of the crossbow. The attackers from the city of Andivel learn this the hard way during the beach storming.

One of the other benefits the defenders of Kel Fimmaril have over the attackers is access to cavalry. As cavalry was particularly difficult to transport over water, most city-states just opted not to bring horses along when attacking an island nation. Bear in mind, however, that cavalry during the time period—especially Greek cavalry—wasn’t especially heavy. A tightly packed formation of heavy infantry was more than sufficient to stop a cavalry charge, even if the charge came against their flanks or rear. Horse was instead used against archers and light infantry in loose formation, or for keeping the opponent’s cavalry off of friendly archers and light infantry. It wasn’t uncommon in ancient battles for the cavalry not to see any action until one side routed the other. If their side won, they’d be employed in running down fleeing enemy soldiers. If their side lost, they’d be employed in covering the retreat by hitting the enemy flanks if they broke ranks to pursue.

The following excerpt is from the defenders’ cavalry charge part way through the battle. Captain Vola, the cavalry commander, divides her horsemen into two units and hides them in the trees on opposite sides of the battlefield. At her signal, each cavalry unit charges from the trees to attack the enemy’s skirmishers.

Cavalryman Atten spurred his horse out from the tree line at Captain Vola’s trumpeted signal. He followed his captain as they and the forty-six other heavy and medium horsemen charged toward the formation of enemy skirmishers. The skirmishers turned and ran as they saw the oncoming horsemen. You’ll just die tired, Atten told his foes silently as his unit thundered toward the battlefield.

As always, Vola led the cavalry charge. Atten rode behind and to her right, lowering his lance as they approached the enemy skirmishers. He aimed the weapon at a retreating back as he closed on a doomed skirmisher. When the spearhead was just inches from the man’s back, Atten gave it a quick push for extra momentum, piercing the skirmisher’s linen armor and breaking the weapon off as the man collapsed. The cavalryman whipped the spear back around, pointing the bronze spike on the lower end forward.

Ahead of him, he could see that Captain Vola had kept her spear intact, slaying one running soldier and knocking down another. Atten threw his broken spear into another skirmisher, then drew his sword, swinging it at retreating heads as he pressed deeper into the disintegrating enemy formation. As he was at the front of the cavalry squadron, his horse was more likely to knock men out of the way than to trample them, but this tended to knock them off balance to be run down by other horsemen.

Moments later the horsemen emerged out the other side of the retreating formation. Atten followed his captain as she veered left, circling out and away from the battle. He looked back at the routing skirmishers, estimating that they’d killed or wounded close to half of the sorry bastards.

Once again, screen captures courtesy Europa Barbarorum, a total-conversion mod for Rome: Total War.

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.

Misrepresented History

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I had someone ask me what it felt like, since I’d turned 30, to know that I’ve officially lived longer than the majority of people from the middle ages. I this struck me as funny since technically I did that when I turned two years old. The statistic that 30 was the average age prior to the Renaissance is probably the most misrepresented stat ever. Technically speaking, the statistic is true, but what it doesn’t take into account is the massive infant mortality rate during ancient times through the middle ages. When as much as two-thirds of a population dies before they get to be even two years old, it tends to skew the bell curve significantly. Just do a quick Google search on any number of medieval or ancient historical figures. Charlemagne and Augustus Caesar lived into their seventies, Alexander the Great died in his thirties, and every text ever written about him assures us that he died young.

A lot of people don’t seem to catch on to that discrepancy.

A better example is the belief that vikings had horns on their helmets. (Because that was such a practical accessory.) I’m not sure where the misrepresentation originated, but I know that it was popularized by Wagnerian operas. (Not that I place any of the blame on Wagner.) And movie producers of the twentieth century grabbed onto this idea and ran with it. I recall one god-awful b/w movie where the viking men get captured by some sorcerer and the viking women have to go rescue them. Not only did the vikes have the lame, horned helms, they were played by a bunch of pretty boys with no facial or chest hair. (I want to say that I saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys riff on it.) The trouble was that horns, antlers, wings, etc were a stupid addition to a helmet—useless accessories that would have given their foe leverage to knock off or pull off their helmet. I once made the argument that the most aesthetically accurate portrayal of the vikings might actually be the Riders of Rohan in Two Towers. (A friend of mine argued 13th Warrior, but I haven’t seen it to know if he was being sarcastic or not.)

Another historical misrepresentation that bugs me here in the States is the assumption that the way the Redcoats fought during the American Revolution was obsolete way to fight, that the Brits essentially lost due to incompetence and tactical sterility. The example I think of is Bill Cosby’s standup bit about the coin toss at the beginning of every war, where the colonials win the toss and tell the Brits that they have to “wear bright red and march in a straight line.” What our history courses in this country don’t seem to cover is the fact that the British took over almost half the world using these same tactics, and continued to do so long after their defeat by the colonies. Their formations and command structure were based directly on those perfected by the Romans and then applied to mass-fire situations. And it worked amazingly well, turning battalions of men into walls of concentrated musket fire.

Or the myth that Christopher Columbus had to convince the King and Queen of Spain that the world was round in order to get funding for his expedition to the new world. I remember in grade school being taught that prior to Columbus’s day, pretty much everyone believed the world was flat. This is really kind of a stupid belief because the Earth’s spherical nature gets proven every time a ship sails over the horizon. Ancient and Medieval people may not have been as advanced in some ways as those of Columbus’s time, but they weren’t so stupid as to have not noticed. The discrepancy was actually over how big the world was, not over how it was shaped. The model Columbus was going off of actually measured the world at significantly smaller than it’s actual size. I’ve done research on peoples from many eras of history from many parts of the world; the only ones who I know for certain actually believed the world was flat was Medieval Christian Europe.

One of the things that interests me most about historical studies is how fluid our understanding of it is. New discoveries are constantly being made that change our perceptions of the past. New evidence pops up to discredit long-held beliefs—or to revive beliefs that had long been considered disproven.

Anyway, here is a Youtube video someone showed me while I was working on this that covers a couple of these pet peeves and then some:

Recommended Reading:
Patriots: the Men who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth

“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

Picking at Movies’ Nits

I used to take great offense to the many film and television productions that don’t stay faithful to their source material–such as books or historical events/people or even previous film renditions of the screenplay. For a long time I was one of those people who felt the need to nitpick every movie I watch that’s based on something else–and to a degree, I think I took a certain amount of pride in being in a position to make such criticisms. Verily, it was like I saw it as my duty to find and point out every time a movie deviated from its source. While I like to think I’ve freed myself from that kind of negativity, even now I occasionally catch myself unconsciously picking nits and have to remind myself to just enjoy the !@#$ing movie.

The Lord of the Rings movies might be the first set of films where their deviations from the source material didn’t really bother me. I felt like, for the most part, Peter Jackson’s omissions were surgical–cutting out a lot of dead weight that would have slowed the pace of the film–and, again for the most part, his additions to the film helped bring out a better understanding of the characters and situation. I felt, for example, that enlarging Arwen’s part in the flick helped gave her character depth and relatability.* (I mean, in the books, she’s just kind of… present–I think she has one line of dialogue in the entire trilogy.) Similarly, the omission of scenes like Tom Bombadil’s forest and the Barrow Downs and Gan-Bury-Gan’s tribe really broke the pace of the story in Tolkien’s books, and I felt, both then and now, that removing them from the films was justifiable.

I believe it was seeing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that did most change of attitude toward accuracy in movies. I went in to the theater expecting it to have little in common with Douglas Adams’s wacky sci-fi series–and thus found myself pleasantly surprised at what they did get right. While Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox was a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t overly bothered by the many deviations from Adams’s original vision of the story. I thought Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Arthur Dent was hilariously effective, and Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman were awesome as body actor and voice of Marvin the Robot. Plus, this was my first experience with Zooey Deschanel, who is delightful in everything she does. And I wasn’t particularly bothered by the scenes the directors added, as I felt they kept with the overall spirit of the story (and largely were additions Douglas Adams made when he wrote the screenplay).

From a standpoint of events and chronology, HBO’s Rome was only moderately historically accurate. As a lover of Caesar’s Commentaries and an avid reader of Adrian Goldsworthy’s studies, it wasn’t hard to go through and spot the historical deviations. I’m sure this would have bugged me years ago. I mean Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus were rival centurions briefly mentioned in the Commentaries, but the film makes Pullo a legionary, subordinate to Vorenus and makes both of them key figures in the cataclysmic events leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, almost nothing is known about Octavian’s mother, Atia, but in the film she’s a key character and a central, moving force to the events surrounding the civil war, Caesar’s assassination, and Octavian’s rise to Emperor of Rome. But what it lacks in accuracy, I feel it more than makes up for in brutal honesty. It tells tales of people from all levels of Roman society and the dirty, violent reality they lived in. And I feel does so with respect for the characters and their culture and time period. And, unlike many film representations of the ancient Romans, doesn’t carry a bunch of heavy-handed, anti-imperialist undertones.

I’ve discovered that, in general, I tend to enjoy movies better since my change of attitude. I’m sure I enjoyed Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator much more than than I would have had I seen them a few years previous. When The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, I thought it was delightful and very well done–despite several of my colleagues’ arguments to the contrary. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, was immeasurably better than the novel Far Side of the World, a god-awful story by the otherwise incredible Patrick O’Brien. I’m one of few people who read the novel Jurassic Park before seeing the film, but find that I don’t like Spielberg’s vision any less than Crichton’s. I haven’t completely forgiven George Lucas, but I think I tend to be less hard on the Star Wars prequels than I used to be. And, now that I think of it, Disney’s animated films are seldom faithful to the stories, novels, fairytales, and folklore they’re based on, but on the whole I enjoy those as well.

This isn’t to say that I’ll tolerate just any such change to a story. There are plenty of films that I’ll likely never see again because of how they deviated from an original storyline. The first movie that comes to mind is the 2004 movie Troy (or Brad Pitt and the Giant Toga Party, as I once heard it called). And while I haven’t seen 300 in it’s entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want to see the rest as it’ll just make me mad. The Fantastic Four movies were hardly accurate to the source comics, though that’s hardly the only thing that makes them bad movies.

I feel like so long as the production treats the source with respect and makes the change for reasons beyond making it appeal to modern audiences, it’s a change that I can rationalize. And, honestly, if someone is that bothered by deviations from historical fact, they should probably never read Shakespeare’s many wildly inaccurate historical plays.

*The only issue I had with the way they added Arwen to the LotR films was that they had her replace Glorfindel–easily the most badass of the surviving elves. I mean, dude rode a Balrog down a cliffside in the Silmarillion; I’d like to see Orlando Bloom top that!

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