Book Review: Lost Battles

Lost Battles: Reconstructing The Great Clashes Of The Ancient World, by Philip Sabin

This book is not the sort of book one would expect from looking at its title, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. As a frequent reader of ancient history [1], a fair amount of it being ancient military history, I expected that this book would include a wide variety of clashes and how they would be reconstructed with textual or archaeological discoveries in recent years. In stark contrast to this, the book’s contents are rather narrowly focused on Greco-Roman history, and the only battles with non-Western ancient military powers are those who are fighting either the Greeks or Romans. Nor are the battles included any more ancient than the beginning of the Persian Wars, which means that there are no examples of ancient battles in China at all or battles of the Levant like Meddigo or Qadesh or Qarqar. This is admittedly a disappointment, as it would not have been difficult to provide an accurate title for a book like this, which would have been: Contentious Battles: Modeling The Great Clashes Of The Greco-Roman World. At least then the readers would have realized that these battles were not lost, but merely that the truth about them had been lost in the fog of centuries of conflict by historians over sources, some of them mere summaries of other, now lost, sources, and that the scope of the battles was limited to explorations of the Western Way of War, with special attention given to the importance of human factors like unit cohesion, leadership, and the power of veteran heavy infantry.

The contents of this book are striking and very worth reading, even if they were not what I expected when starting the book. The first part of the book introduces the computational model that the author uses in order to test out various theories of the size and composition of armies based on their historical performance, by using a turn-based structure and checking it against historical performance. This includes a discussion of the sources for ancient Greek and Roman history (the author is particularly fond of Polybius, it should be noted), comments on the armies and the types of soldiers that they were composed of (heavy and light infantry and cavalry, along with special units like Roman legions and African and Indian elephants), their movement and how it can be modeled, as well as fighting, the importance of generals in command, and a case study of the battle of Cannae to show the model in operation. The second part of the book consists of an examination of the battles, divided by period: Athens and Sparta, the Age of Xenophon, Alexander the Great, the Successors, Carthage and Rome, Hannibal and Scipio, Rome Moves East, and Julius Caesar. After this there is a conclusion about the importance of human factors and the worth of dynamic modeling in helping to settle armchair debates about ancient battles, along with various appendices about the rules, using the models, a dictionary of the battles included in the book, and a glossary of terms.

For those who enjoy the modeling of battles on the computer and the possibility of testing various assumptions to see if one can mimic the course of battles as they are described by ancient historians, and for those who want to have at least some basic knowledge of the conditions of a variety of battles, some of them well known (Platea, Issus, Cannae, Zama, Pharsalus, for example) and some of them exceedingly obscure (Paraitacene, Sentinum, Ilipa, and Bibracte, for example), this book will have much to offer. Despite the fact that readers can quibble about the fact that the reconstruction spoken of is in a virtual sense and not a literal one, and the fact that the scope of the battles chosen is perhaps more narrow than a truly global perspective would provide, the book is a worthwhile one nonetheless. Of particular importance for military historians and students of game theory and computer modeling is the fact that a fairly straightforward set of assumptions can provide a robust test of assumptions of unit size given the known skill of leaders and the accounts of the battle within history, including the length of battles and the generals involved. Vitally important among those assumptions is the relative worthlessness of large amounts of levy troops and the reality that armies in the ancient world did not give battle under ordinary circumstances unless they believed they had a chance of victory, which places constraints on the difference between fighting power of the two sides, and also that armies often faced tactical dilemmas that involved risk and uncertainty and trade-offs, all of which makes the battles of ancient history worth studying today, even with the vast difference in technology between those times and our own, for contemporary warfare also consists of tactical dilemmas and the importance of unit cohesion, training, and moral courage.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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