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Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based on a citizens’ militia, possibly hope to run an empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed by its framers? Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?

In the first two novels of his Rome trilogy, author Robert Harris re-tells the life of Cicero so as to be easily relatable to the modern reader. Besides making the subject matter not just digestible, but delicious, he illustrates the link between our modern republican governments and the ancient model upon which they were based. Following a six-year wait (the book was published in 2009), he completes the series with Dictator. With this third book, I sense him speaking much more directly to modern politics.

Take, for example, the leading quote. I immediately put down the book when I read it, because I felt it worth some further thought. Later, I discovered that this passage is not only used by the book’s publisher to advertise the work, but it is also frequently quoted in reviews. It’s phrasing (obviously) can refer, also, to the American Constitution and pretty much anyone reading will immediately grasp the analogy. One’s mind would be forgive for immediately applying the quote debate over the U.S. Constitution circa 2019.

The meaning of such a phrase to Cicero, however, isn’t the same as to the reader. The reference to militia and standing armies returns to the title of the first novel, Imperium. The checks and balances which made up the government of Rome were designed to prevent concentrating power (imperium) in a single individual, or allowing those in power to retain it over a long period of time. Elections were held annually and the most powerful position, that of consul, could only be re-sought after 10 years out of office. Likewise, military command was by appointment of the Senate and also would expire annually (subject to renewal). This prevented the permanent, centralized “deep state” that, nevertheless, seemed to becoming a necessity when governing an expansive empire.

Putting the above quote back into the context of the novel, it is preceded by “And so we drifted towards calamity. At times, Cicero was shrewd enough to see it.” This leads to the above quotation, supposedly spoken by Cicero to Tiro. The author’s voice then continues.

And then at other times [Cicero] would dismiss such apocalyptic talk as excessively gloomy and argue that the republic had endured all manner of disaster in the past – invasions, revolutions, civil wars – and had always somehow survived them: why should this time be any different?

This may be one of the strongest arguments against overreacting to today’s events. We have passed through times that must have seemed at least as serious as our current situation. I would imagine that the turmoil of 50 years ago felt similarly divisive to Americans. In terms of actual civil unrest, actual incidents of violence, it was demonstrably worse. Yet here we stand, stronger and more prosperous than ever. Is it our hubris that insists that we are unique? In this, we’re usually wrong.

Of course, Cicero was (assuming he did, in fact, “dismiss such apocalyptic talk”) wrong. Caesar did cast aside centuries of tradition to seize power. Rome fought a Civil War that saw Romans killing their fellow Romans. A good chunk of the Senate died in those wars and the Senate that replaced them was hardly the Republican institution which Cicero defended. Caesar was assassinated. Cicero, on the orders of the government, was killed by soldiers outside his home.

Even still, the Roman Empire went on for another 500 years after Caesar’s dictatorship. In those centuries, the Empire continued to expand and to grow in both wealth and strength. Change isn’t always good, but it also isn’t always bad. It is inevitable. Even if the end result of today’s machinations is a major restructuring of the whole of Western Civilization, that still may not count as an “apocalypse.”

That the novel Dictator happens to be more provocative along these lines in a large part due to its subject matter. For much of this book, Cicero is out of power. As a result, the narrative is less about his political maneuverings and more about his political philosophy. Even after the death of Caesar, when Cicero was the de facto ruler of Rome (by virtue of being a senior ex-consul), we see him as much being swept along by events as making them happen. Even his position of power, his imperium if you will, derives more through luck than from desire – he is the last man standing. Pompey, Crassus, Catiline, Clodius, Cato, and Caesar are all dead. The two consuls are away leading the SPQR legions (as it happens, never to return) and other senior military men are in distant provinces.

Cicero spent the last part of his life committing his thoughts to writing. He attempted to translate Greek thought into Latin and to preserve his own philosophies for the ages. In a further attempt to extend his life’s work beyond his own time, he archived his letters to his friends. Wikipedia quotes Polish historian Tadeusz Zieliński on the importance of Cicero’s letters to Western Europe’s appreciation of classical civilizations. Would there have been an enlightenment, an American revolution, without Cicero to guide us?

“[T]he Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity.”

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

Let us step back from the speculative and return our attention to the imaginative. I looked at the strategic/operational treatment of the Roman Civil War in an earlier post and now want to consider the operational/tactical level. I refer to these in combination because the subject matter cries out for some higher-level, unifying context for the handful of great battles between Caesar and the defenders of the Republic. Both of the games I played here have a operational piece in addition to allowing one-off play of individual battles.

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Rome versus Rome.

In Great Battles of Caesar, each battle can be played as a stand-alone scenario in whatever order the player desires. Great Battles‘ campaign game has the player, as Caesar, choosing where to move after each victory against some computer-executed responses. Overall victory comes through eliminating all of the Pompeian armies. There isn’t any interaction between battles – the details of your results in an earlier battle don’t alter the setup for subsequent encounters. Really, its just a matter of picking a non-historical order for the scenarios.

For myself, I tried to follow the historical course of the war. I first took Caesar to Spain before heading east. The result was it had me fight the Battle of Munda, Caesar’s end-of-war, post-victory mop up. Putting that battle up front really doesn’t make any sense, nor is there any strategy to ordering the battles. The only real variety that can come from the campaign game is when, as shown below, you are unable to reach a province containing an enemy army. In that case, a “turn” simply goes by without a battle. There’s not much point to it all.

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The interface is ancient but the concept works well enough. I move my army from Rome to Asia Minor.

Within each battle, however, I continue to warm to the way that the Roman armies are simulated in this old series. Is it the scale – the size of the formation which units represent and the length of a battle (number of turns)? It is the command and control – particularly the requirements to use group movement and to balance movement and morale? It really makes me wish I could somehow force the Great Battles board game combat tables and rules into the Field of Glory engine. That 1990s UI begins to weigh on you after a few fights.

I did have a couple of crashes as I fought against Pompey’s armies. It is hard to pin them down, but I have a guess. While I turned animations off in the options, there are still some animations that play during combat. One of them is the animation that occurs when a unit uses its missile capability as a precursor for an infantry attack. I suspect that when the AI has Roman legions and is using both the pila and the group move, these incidental animations can becomes significant enough to cause whatever crash I’ve been seeing in Great Battles of Caesar.

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The Roman far right at Thapsus. Those elephants aren’t so tough.

I leave this game with the screenshot from the Battle of Thapsus and do so for a couple of reasons. Again, it illustrates relationship between game units and the armies’ formations. This relationship feels more like a try at the historical order of battle and less like a miniatures’ take. I’ll also note a historical detail, which is actually implement above. At Thapsus, Caesar found himself at considerable disadvantage (3:1?) when it came to the relative balance of mounted units. To mitigate, Caesar mixed infantry into his Cavalry wing. His gambit was successful. He had his infantry use their pila like pikes rather than spears and his wings were able to hold, bringing him victory. In Field of Glory II, each wing is two “stands” of cavalry.

This screenshot also shows, although not particularly clearly, the brittleness of the Senatorial elephants. Caesar’s army was able to disrupt the opponent’s elephants with volleys of arrows, causing them to panic and rampage among their own troops. Great Battles of Caesar demonstrates both effects in action and shows them to work. Compare and contrast with the elephants in Field of Glory, which are nigh on indestructible.

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On to Africa. The last three stages in the Caesar campaign portray the Civil war.

The campaign in Field of Glory II is considerably more than a “Load Scenario” UI. The structure has you start with a core army which you must husband through the seven battles in the campaign. You get some reinforcements along the way, but are also required to bleed off some of your army to “garrison” your victory locations. The underlying system has considerable flexibility. In FoG2, for example, it is possible to create a branching campaign (although that wasn’t done in this case) and potentially much, much more. Of course, scripting a complex campaign is a lot of work that might not, at the end of it all, make the campaign any more fun. In any case, this campaign is a linear series of randomly-generated battles whereby the strength and quality of one’s army depends on the earlier results.

One little feature I appreciated in the FoG2 campaign system is what happens when you lose. Losing a battle one time takes you to a second chance to fight it with that portion of your army that managed to survive the first attempt. If you lose a second time, the game prompts you to go back to an earlier stage, before you lost. It’s really no different than working your way back through your own save games, attempting to figure out where you’ve gone wrong. Still, the fact that I’m guided though my attempts at redemption feels better than when I have to do it myself.

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The historical Thapsus. Those elephants are like ancient tanks.

The biggest drawback when playing the campaign scenarios is that they ARE randomly generated and DO depend on previous results. Because of this, you get a battle that is somewhat similar to the historical fight, but not exactly like it. In many ways, this takes the soul out of refighting Caesar’s war.

Alternatively, you can just fight single scenarios in the same way that Great Battles of Caesar allows. The hand-designed scenario makes Field of Glory look a little better. No longer are you fielding armies that somewhat-resemble the historical forces – an actual effort has been made to reproduce the historical order of battle. Even still, the line-up in Great Battles of Caesar felt a little more authentic. Part of the problem may be that Field of Glory is more generic and therefore more flexible. There’s nothing that says a unit has to represent a cohort (or 2 or 5 or 10), so you try to optimize the number of units relative to the capabilities of the engine and the AI. The screenshot above looks considerably more like Roman legions arrayed for battle than the campaign’s auto-scenarios, and yet… compare it to the setup for Great Battles (with just under twice the unit count), and it might feel like you didn’t have quite enough stands of infantry to go around.

I’m picking a little bit too much on what may be some minor points. Field of Glory II does plenty of things better than Great Battles of Caesar, including not crashing. It’s just that I want it to do everything better.

When fighting the war against Caesar, the forces of Pompey and his Senate allies felt they had a decisive advantage. Even after evacuating Italy, they retained a superiority in naval forces. With their resultant control of the Mediterranean, they assumed that Caesar’s legions would be hemmed in while their own could move about at will. Caesar proved them wrong. Despite an insufficient transport fleet and a deficit in warships, he was able to outmaneuver Pompey’s forces to land in Greece and then ultimately defeat him at Pharsalus.

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Chaos in a rain storm. It may not look it, but I’m about to take the lead.

If I felt that land battles were underrepresented in computer gaming, the situation for naval battles is even worse. If (besides Mare Nostrvm) there’s been another computer game covering tactical sea battles in the ancient world, I’m not aware of it.

Mare Nostrvm has a three-scenario campaign to represent the Roman Civil War. It begins with a battle taking place shortly after Pharsalus where a Caesarian fleet defeated Pompey’s forces off the coast of Illyricum, The “campaign” is a simple unlocking series of scenarios, ending with the decisive Battle of Actium (Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony).

When I first got out Mare Nostrvm, I was having quite a bit of trouble. Taking control of this Pompeian fleet, I continued to struggle, at least initially. It took me a glance at the Slitherine forums and a run through the manual to get a grip. The biggest thing I was missing was that the speed of the boat is always determined by the plotted distance. I had been plotting ramming attacks by placing the “ram” icon (the spikey ball in the above screenshot) in the hex where I wanted the attack to take place. Because attacks are usually made against a nearby boat, that typically meant two or three hexes away. However, plotting a short move means that the ship moves slowly during its execution (see green lines, above). To achieve ramming speed, it is necessary to plot your move through and beyond your target hex so as to maximize your damage when you hit. Referring to the above, see the yellow, orange, and red lines which plot an attack on the “cut off” red (Caesarean) ship just to the left of center.

Beyond that, I had trouble (still do, for that matter) anticipating the movements of the enemy ships as I plot my own moves. Guessing where an enemy is going to be after I move one or two hexes seems to befuddle me. Embarrassingly, I’m often getting even the direction of the enemy’s move wrong (i.e. I fail to distinguish front from back). It’s something that gets better the longer one spends in the game and could be immensely improved by some board-game-like planning to carefully determine the results of moves. Assuming this is the right way to play the game, I could sure do with some in-game tools to help visualize movement while plotting turns. I don’t want to be poking my fingers on my screen.

Speaking of forums, strategies, and poking fingers, I did read some of the chatter on the Slitherine forums regarding the future state of the game. Several posters complained that the game was too easy, which shamed me into trying to improve my own skills. To me, the challenge level of the AI seems decent. I suspect it can re-plot movement between turns as a way to make up for its lack of more complex strategic thought, but that might just be my own incompetence talking.

There were also complaints about the lack of developer activity from the game. Shortly after release, there was talk about adding a scenario editor and other improvements. From about a year ago, the posts have been primarily wondering if the game is dead. Mare Nostrvm came out of a barely-more-than-one-man development effort. Given its limitations, its a very good (not to mention the only) product. I don’t think one can fairly complain that it was left “unfinished,” even if you do long for more features or expansions. This may just be a signal that the model – the tiny, independent developer making niche wargaming products – is not a viable one. It would be a shame, because this is the kind of game computer-wargaming needs more of.

We obviously need more options. My look through the clearly historically-rich setting of late-Republic Rome, I have played only two examples of tactical land combat and one of them is quite a bit out-of-date. For balance, I’ll throw in one more, also quite a bit out-of-date. Back in the interval after Great Battles of Caesar called it quits but before Field of Glory made its run, there was a independently-made, free-download option.

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As my army closes on the Pompeian forces, his skirmishers retreat.

Hoplites is described as a card-based version of GMT’s SPQR. SPQR (1992) is one of the Great Battles of History boardgames. It was the sequel to Great Battles of Alexander and is (at least to some extent) the board game which became, in its computer incarnation, Great Battles of Hannibal. But Hoplites, as even the title will indicate, is not limited to the early Roman Republic. It ranges from ancient Israel through the Tokugawa shogunate, tossing in a few high-fantasy armies for good measure. I don’t know what went through the mind of its creator, but I do remember thoughts I had around that time. Most (if not all) efforts to create a decent, historically-accurate tactical wargame (particularly focusing on the pre-gunpowder battles) required an AI that could competently control the armies. Even if you have some innovative ideas about command and control or combat resolution, you’ve first got to create an engine that can handle hex-and-counter battlefield manipulation. Unless…

What if you can just get rid of the hexes and counters? This actually kills two centurions with one pilum (sorry, that was awful). The linear deployment of armies was necessary to maintain force cohesion, meaning a 2-dimensional board is already presenting a dimension too many relative to how a battle was actually fought. Forces lined up facing each other, often extending their lines so as to match the enemy’s deployment. Just because a game player can figure out how to whirl units around an enemy flank via complex and innovative use of the movement points doesn’t mean he should. Repositioning or even just turning a unit in the thick of battle would have been quite a challenge on the ancient battlefield. Therefore, a board without hexes, without movement, in many ways distills a battle down to its most basic, functional components.

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A solid wall of legionary cohorts breaks through the enemy line, smashing the disordered rear.

That said, Hoplites in no way replaces a Great Battles or a Field of Glory II. Most critically, there is no way to recreate a historical fight. The variability in the game is the “armies.” In the above screenshots, I’ve used a Julius Caesar army against a generic Roman Republic army (given the commander, it is about 100 years out of date). The armies are then brought into contact one unit (card) at a time, the order determine by a combination of player choice and luck-of-the-draw from the army deck. It simulates, reasonably enough, difficulties of command and the fog of war. There is really no way, though, to capture the historical feel of a battle nor to try out strategies appropriate to that historical setup. For example, in many of these battles I tried to take advantage of Caesar’s superior quality, but numerically inferior, force by engaging in some form of oblique attack. Despite what seems to be a reasonable representation of the main line and flanking forces, I see no way to mimic these kinds of tactical maneuvers.

So many years later, Hoplites remains a decent little program. Besides that, its price is right. Its free, it runs without crashing, and it does at least as well with ancient tactical combat as most of what’s out there.

So what else is out there? I’ll make a few honorable mentions. There are obvious far more than three tactical games covering this era of ancient Rome. Although I’m surprised nobody has yet gotten it exactly right, I can’t say that nobody has made the effort. Tin Soldiers, which briefly seemed like a good attempt to fill this gap, is now completely eclipsed by Field of Glory II. Tiller’s heirs at HPS have a product that covers the Civil War, but I can’t see laying out the money to get it. Playing the Punic Wars did not leave me wanting more. The package has a nice set of battles modeled in considerable detail, but I just don’t want to play it.

I’ve disparaged Total War a bit when talking at the strategic level, and so I’ll hold of smacking it around again at the tactical level. If nothing else, I’ve yet to spring for Rome 2. From its genesis, Total War has always seemed to march in the wrong direction and so I’ve been in no hurry to pay for the new version of Rome. One of these days, I’ll find it cheap enough and probably pick it up. We should remember, while we’re at it, that Rome: Total War came to us as a reaction to any number of RTS titles. Perhaps one of the more tactics-oriented was Celtic Kings (a Caesar in Gaul title, which I have played) and its sequels (which I have not). Still, there are any number of RTS titles (starting with the original Age of Empires) covering this era. It’s just that there are next to none that I can think of that have a good, historical model of Roman legion combat.

While on this topic, I’ll make one last comment. I also moved along though S2:E2 of Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. It is difficult to stomach. Again, I have to wonder why they bothered putting together a show in a “documentary” style only to make it so inaccurate. The overall arc of historic is pretty much correct, but the details are immensely sloppy. For example, the office of consul is described as a single position rather than the two-man office that was so critical to the Republic. Caesar’s assignment in Gaul is portrayed as a punishment rather than the choice posting that Caesar maneuvered himself into. I could go on, but what’s the point.

I feel similarly about the series.