History in a novel: The Battle of Actium

Actium is the second battle that my young protagonist had as a final examination in my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy . He had to imagine he was fighting in Antony’s place. Antony and Octavian had faced off before, and as a peace offering, Antony had to marry Octavian’s sister. He did, but then abandoned her for Cleopatra, so this time there was war. For some reason that I do not understand, Antony and Cleopatra took their forces to the south side of the Gulf of Ambracia, although there was a small force on the north side. Then, for another reason I do not understand, when Octavian’s forces arrived, almost a year passed during which Antony did very little. During this time, his forces degenerated, either through a lack of adequate supply, or possibly disease struck. At the same time, Antony seemed to have spent too much time being drunk. The Egyptian fleet was bottled up inside the Gulf, which was in effect a large harbour, and outside, Octavian was blockading him with a much larger fleet. There was much discussion as to what were the appropriate tactics, and rather than engage in a land battle, Antony elected to fight at sea. Part of this decision may have arisen from an argument with Cleopatra. In my opinion, the optimal strategy would have been to take the most strategic positions when it became apparent that Octavian was on his way, and to engage Octavian in a land battle as soon as possible after Octavian’s forces landed. Antony had Caesar’s legions, the most battle-hardened in the Roman army. Further, Antony may have learned that Marcus Agrippa was with the fleet. Agrippa was by far the greatest commander on Octavian’s side. However, for the purposes of the story, my protagonist had to fight at sea.

Accordingly, on September 2, 31 BC, the Egyptian fleet put to sea to engage Octavian. Octavian seriously outnumbered Antony, and had small and very agile ships, while the Egyptian fleet were far more massive, and had plated hulls. Sinking a ship in those days was achieved mainly by ramming, while boarding was a lesser means, but the only means of capturing a ship. Neither side could manage either method. Octavian’s ships could not do much to the plated hulls of the Egyptian fleet, and boarding was not practical because the bigger ships had far more soldiers on them. The Egyptians could not ram Octavian’s ships, except by accident because they could not catch them. Accordingly, both sides sailed around, yelling insults, throwing spears, and not doing much damage. Cleopatra fled, and the besotted Antony set out after her, apparently desirous of trying to make up for an argument of the previous night. His abandoned troops then more or less gave up. Why fight for a commander who flees?

So, how should my young protagonist answer? This is a question of strategy, and the first rule of strategy is, you have to say, “We are here,” and if you know, “and they are there.” In other words the young strategist has to accept what has happened, although for the purposes of the exercise, while he had to fight on September 2, he was allowed to prepare for a naval battle.

My protagonist dealt with this problem this way. The first problem was that the characteristics of both fleets were known, and each side would know that following standard procedures, neither side could do much to the other. Therefore, the answer must involve finding a way to do more damage to the other ships. Because the Egyptian ships were much bigger, and much higher, I had my protagonist resort to “Greek Fire”. Actually, I could be accused of error here, because the official “Greek fire” was not developed until several centuries later, nevertheless incendiary devices involving petroleum and sulphur had been used by Greeks over 400 years before Actium, and I had my protagonist describe what he was going to do as mixing pitch and sulphur, and having it able to be set alight, after which it would be propelled onto the enemy ship. Not exactly what later became called “Greek Fire”, but I think it should still have worked.

You might ask, why bother imagining a different result in an ancient battle? The purpose of all this was to build up my protagonist as someone with ability to use logic, and to take advice. Claudius (the stutterer) had advised my protagonist that it would please Tiberius to use something Timothy had taught him, and had also advised him to try to think up new ways of fighting. Pleasing Tiberius was imperative for my protagonist. Finally, my protagonist had to show that he appreciated military situations and could do something unusual. I suppose also it was fun to imagine what could have happened, although it is most likely that all Antony really had to do to win was to drink a lot less, concentrate on his immediate problems, and keep Cleopatra in perspective.

History in a novel: The Battle of Pharsalus

In my previous post, I discussed the problem of the training of a Roman officer, which occupied part of the plot of my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy. The critical training involved teaching by a General sent by Tiberius, and at first, Scaevola (my protagonist) studied previous battles and was challenged what to do in imaginary battles. In these, he started off getting most of what he did wrong, but he gradually improved. At the end, he had two exercises to prove to the General that he had learned something. This naturally creates something of a problem for the writer, because effectively the writer has to show he has learned something, and there are a number of critics out there. Nevertheless, the plot requires Scaevola develop into a skilled military strategist, so something had to be done. The question was, what?

 The first problem the General set was for Scaevola to “fight” in place of Pompey against Caesar at Pharsalus. Historically, Pompey lost. Scaevola immediately wanted to change history at Dyrrachium, but that was ruled out of order because it involved no real strategy, although the General conceded that was the right thing to do. What happened at Dyrrachium was that Caesar attacked Pompey in a fortified position, they battled for some length of time, and eventually Caesar had to give up and withdraw. Pompey let them go. This, in my opinion, was clearly a mistake because the strength of Pompey was cavalry, and the cavalry had done nothing from within a fortified position. Of course we do not know what really happened, but to me it is incomprehensible that Pompey would not seize the opportunity. There is nothing more difficult for a tired retreating army than to be attacked by fresh troops that outnumber you, and can move far faster. Caesar had some cavalry, but his main strength lay in the veteran heavy infantry.

 Anyway, Pompey eventually chased, and met Caesar at Pharsalus. Pompey took the advantage of terrain by occupying a hill, but Caesar refused to fight, and instead faced him with his left flank protected by a river/swamp. What should you do? Pompey still greatly outnumbers Caesar in infantry, although they are not of such high quality. Cavalry preferred to attack around the right flank so they can use the horse to guide the lance, assuming the cavalrymen were right-handed. What should Scaevola do?

 What Pompey did was to march out and send cavalry and light foot around to the left. His heavy infantry did well, with numbers making up for quality, but Caesar had kept two cohorts at the back, hidden. When Pompey’s cavalry came around Caesar’s right flank and began to engage, these two cohorts peppered the cavalry with pilii, and the cavalry turned and fled, trampling the light foot.  Caesar now came around the flank and attacked Pompey’s men from the side, and they turned and ran. This shows the value of Caesar’s strategy. Simply being where he was provoked Pompey into what was a weak deployment, while the two hidden cohorts were placed to take advantage of what was likely to happen. Excellent work by Caesar, but that does not answer the question.

 So what did I have Scaevola do? Simply march out diagonally to the left, and if Caesar stayed where he was, wheel and face him then advance. Now the river/swamp is behind Caesar, and he has two flanks. With greater numbers, Pompey can broaden his line, and either Caesar matches or he does not. If he does, because he is outnumbered his line is weaker, and can be attacked through the centre; if he does not, then heavy infantry can attack either flank. The cavalry is deployed once the battle suggests a good spot. Would that work? As my General said, battles are won through a lot more than strategy, and Caesar now has to do something, and should have done something once it is clear Pompey is not obliging. However, whether it would have changed the outcome is not important. The point was to show that my protagonist was learning. Whether the reader thinks he is learning properly remains to be seen. What do you think Pompey should have done?

History in a novel: The Battle of Issus

In my previous post, I mentioned the difficulty of getting some historical information for the setting of a novel. The problem is somewhat greater when the background includes ancient battles. In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist has to study earlier battles before he can become an officer in the Roman army, and one such battle is the Battle of Issus. What would my protagonist learn from this? First, what happened? Here we have a problem, because while the accounts are clear and include a lot of detail, they were written by the victors, and the Macedonians would not have been the first  (nor the last!) to exaggerate the nature of their victory. Leaving that aside, what my protagonist would have been told in his lesson goes something like this.

Alexander had captured Issus and had marched around the Gulf of Iskanderun and headed south. Darius had brought an army alleged to be about 600,000 men, while Alexander possibly had as few as 20,000 men. While I am far from convinced that these figures are at all accurate there is little doubt that the Persians greatly outnumbered the Macedonians, and that is sufficient for the lesson my protagonist was receiving. Darius had crossed a mountain pass and retaken Issus, then he marched south where there was a narrow coastal strip between sea and mountain. Alexander rushed to meet him. Strategically, Darius had made a huge mistake because the width of the strip could be filled nicely by Alexander’s men, while most of Darius’ army could not engage. So the first lesson was the value of terrain. Had Darius remained on the central plain, he would have been in a much better position.

As Alexander approached the Pinarus river, Darius sent 50,000 troops across to Alexander’s side to hold up Alexander while Darius fortified the northern bank. This worked, and eventually these Persian troops retreated back across the river. What I find interesting is that Alexander did nothing about this advanced force, but rather he waited and when they retreated, as far as we can tell, he let them go unchallenged. Why? In my view, because he did not want Darius to accidentally drift into his best strategy, given that Darius was where he was. At the battle itself, Darius’ men held fortified positions to stop the Macedonian phalanxes, Darius sent some light infantry and cavalry to the left flank and sent his main cavalry to the right flank. Alexander attacked through his right flank with infantry and cavalry, Darius’ men fled, Alexander pursued, and now there was a hole between Alexander’s cavalry and the rest of his army. Darius tried sending infantry into this hole, but he was too slow and the Macedonian phalanxes held. Meanwhile, Darius’ cavalry on the right flank crossed the river, and Parmenio allowed (or could not prevent) a modest withdrawal that put a bend in the Macedonian line. What actually happened? Most say the Persian cavalry was making progress, but I suggest Parmenio ordered this. Why? Because it makes a longer front that is at an angle to the cavalry. If the cavalry goes forward, its room narrows as it cannot move right because the sea occupies that space. At the same time, the cavalry cannot ride directly at the Macedonian line, again because the sea removes depth. They are trying to get around the Macedonians, but they have to slide past and their front becomes progressively narrowed while their own personal flanks are exposed as they become increasingly congested. Cavalry works best when it is mobile, and it is not suitable for a slugging match in a congested space. Further, the bend leaves a point, and if this is reinforced, it is like an arrow ready to plunge into the enemy. Eventually, Darius decided his left flank was in trouble when Alexander returned and attacked the flank of the men he had deployed into that hole, and he fled. Commentators invariably say that at this point the cavalry had to turn around and Parmenio cut them to pieces, but I think that could have happened anyway, and it might have been the cause of Darius fleeing.

So, what does this teach my protagonist? First, Darius should make up his mind whether his strategy will be defensive or aggressive. If the former, he should keep his cavalry out of the right flank and plug that side with infantry. Over two thirds of his infantry were not doing anything, so he could easily spare them. Let the Greeks attempt to cross the river. If the latter, then once over with 50,000 men, he should let them slug it out with the Macedonians for an hour or so, then send forward a further 50,000 to replace them. The river is a defensive asset but an aggressive problem. If he wishes to be aggressive, he should cross that river while he can. If the accounts are true, he could do that for up to twelve switches, if the 50,000 includes cavalry. Alexander’s troops could not fight continuously for that long. This tactic works best if it had been practised. As it happens, that is also standard Roman procedure, and the Roman troops were so well drilled the substitution would be no problem.

If he defended, he should have kept his cavalry for his left flank. He would know that Alexander would attempt to cross the river, and a mix of cavalry and infantry that heavily outnumbered Alexander should have given Alexander at least a severe problem. So, the lessons I hoped to get into my protagonist here were simple. Pick a strategy that might work and throw everything behind it so that it should work. Pick a strategy that favours your numbers. Darius fled when over two-thirds of his massive army had not even seen a Macedonian. Pick a strategy that favours the terrain. Make sure the reserves are placed so that if something develops, they are ready to take advantage of it. I think these are sensible things to learn, so even if what I am writing seems a little academic, I think it at least has some air of realism.

Roman officer training (1)

In my previous posts I outlined the problems associated with getting the character of Caligulae right. However, there were other historical problems for my ebook novel Athene’s Prophecy, and one was to try to make the military aspects of my protagonist look authentic. The Roman army had an unusual way of choosing its leaders: they tended to start near the top! My protagonist, Gaius Claudius Scaevola, being a Claudian, would start as Tribunis Laticlavius. That was the tribune of the first cohort, which was twice the size of any other cohort and tended to comprise mainly the most experienced soldiers, and hence this tribune was effectively second to the Legio Legatus. The reason why this occurred was that in the Republic, the overall General in a campaign would pay for all the equipment and all the soldier’s pay out of his own pocket, but of course he would also expect his senior officers to at least pay for their own equipment and contribute to the pay of the men under him. Senior officers therefore came from the upper class, however there was then the issue of competence. Some of Rome’s biggest losses came from sheer incompetent officers. Following Marius, however, most senior officers seem to have had some personal instruction.

Exactly how they were trained is sometimes unclear, but the young soldier would have had some training. We know at least some studied historical campaigns and they would have been around the military. My solution to this problem was first to have young Scaevola receiving advice from and training with an old Centurion, mainly in the use of arms, and then, on Tiberius’ orders, having to study under one of Tiberius’ Generals.

The study would involve strategy, and specifically, how to gain advantage by initial marching, and as the battle proceeded, how to eliminate at least some basic mistakes. That leaves the question, how do I know what would be taught? One answer is, of course, I do not, but there is help available. Lessons would have focused on previous battles, and fortunately there is a lot of information available on some of the major ones, particularly those of Alexander. The second source was a book written by one of Napoleon’s Generals on this topic (The art of war, Baron de Jomini). Now you may think that this would involve aspects that were too modern, and indeed this General noted that you would not line your troops up as the Romans lined up their legions because the then “modern” cannon would shred them. Nevertheless there is a lot that probably remained the same. One of the more advanced marching maneuvers involved part of the line pulling back to create a point and an angled front as the battle proceeds. This gives the opposition quite a problem, and as it happens, particularly with ancient cavalry. An examination of the Battle of Issus shows that the Greek left flank folded back while the centre held. Most commentators say that Darius’ cavalry was making progress, and implying that the Greeks were in trouble there. My opinion is that Parmenio did this on purpose, and this is borne out a little later when the Persian cavalry got cut to pieces. Everyone says this is because Alexander did brilliant things on the right flank, and I would not deny Alexander was a great General, nevertheless I think in part he was a very fortunate man to have someone as capable as Parmenio holding the other flank.