Tuesday 15 May 2018

Salammbo: The First Wargame

Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô is an 1862 work of historical fiction, set in Carthage between the Punic Wars.  There are scenes of a temple raid that reads a little like something out of Howards Conan the Barbarian saga, or a Dungeons & Dragons game, scenes of strange exotic ritual centred on the titular priestess of Tanit and vicereal bloodletting, battlefield carnage and baroque siege tactics.  It's very nearly only the use of familiar place-names from Old Earth and lack of overt supernatural special effects that prevent it from being, perhaps, the first fantasy novel.

Also of interest is a brief paragraph that seems to describe a wargame being played in preparation for battle:

"The four chiefs met together every evening in Matho’s tent, and squatting round a shield, attentively moved backwards and forwards the little wooden figures invented by Pyrrhus for the representation of manouvres. Spendius would demonstrate Hamilcar’s resources, and with oaths by all the gods entreat that the opportunity should not be wasted. Matho would walk about angry and gesticulating. The war against Carthage was his own personal affair; he was indignant that the others should interfere in it without being willing to obey him. Autaritus would divine his speech from his countenance and applaud. Narr’ Havas would elevate his chin to mark his disdain; there was not a measure he did not consider fatal; and he had ceased to smile. Sighs would escape him as though he were thrusting back sorrow for an impossible dream, despair for an abortive enterprise."
Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô 1862


While the origins of Chess go back to 6th Century India, Georg Leopold von Reisswitz's Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame formulated in 1812 for King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, is recognised as the first modern wargame, insofar as it attempts to imaginatively simulate warfare,  including practical manoeuvres rather than rely on abstract grid-based tactics as Chess.

The passage in Flaubert's Salammbô appears to be an account of Kriegspiel by a Frenchman some 8 years prior to the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent popularising of von Reisswits Kriegspiel on the international stage. There is some irony in this, as Flauberts house was occupied by the Prussians during the conflict, which presumably had been suggested by military simulation, but I can find no particular evidence of Flaubert's interest in Prussian military matters before this unfortunate turn of events in his letters or biographies to explain the appearance of such a wargame in his novel.

Flauberts imaginary Kriegspiel was not intended to be contemporary, but is rather projected back to The Mercenary War in Carthage, between 240 BC – 238 BC.  Flauberts main historical source for Salammbô was Polybius' Histories (circa 150 BC) specifically Book I, ch. 65–88. It makes no mention of a game being played. Any archeological evidence Flaubert may have drawn upon in order to have Matho, Spendius, Narr'Havas and Autaritus studying strategy and practicing tactical manoeuvres also seems elusive, perhaps the figurines overlooked by archeologists as toys or religious fetishes, or were non-representational, beads or other such items, or simply all destroyed by the Romans when Carthage fell. Certainly Flauberts evocative image of men hunched around a shield suggests a certain level of improvised tabletop action.

Druilette | Salammbô 

Flauberts text plainly attributes the invention of the game to a certain Pyrrhus of Epirus (318–272 BC) the Greek King and General from who we derive the idiom Phyrric victory - that is a victory in which the losses for the victor are greater than the losses of the vanquished. This allusion might certainly explain the despondency of Flauberts game-playing mercenary generals. Unfortunately Pyrrhus writings - treatises on military matters, presumably including his wargaming rules and memoirs are lost to history. However Aelius Donatus (circa. 400AD - 600 years after Carthage fell) observes in his fragmentary, partially reconstructed and incomplete Commentary on the Roman playwright Terence, that Pyrrhus "invented a sort of game, like that of Chess, to represent the different ways of making attacks, and drawing up armies in battles" (according to Symons, Universal History,  1738 - I cannot find a translation of Donatus Commentaries, perhaps a passing Classics scholar might shine a light here), and it may be that Flaubert is following Donatus himself, or other later sources that draw on him in his description of The Pyrrhus Game being played out in Matho’s tent, predating the emergence of Chess in India by some 800 years.

But unless there is a full set of rules buried in Donatus Commentaries, what The Pyrrhus Game was actually like, how Chess-like (abstract) or Kriegspiel-like (simulationist) it was, and if it even existed at all, is anyones guess.


  1. Fascinating post and very educational; I had never heard of Salammbo before. I'm going to check it out on Project Gutenberg today.

    I'd also like to read that graphic novel by Druilette (love the little tactical diagrams), but sadly my knowledge of the French language is non-existent.

    Every time I see the name 'Salammbo', however, it brings to mind a certain Chaos Warrior with two axes. Do you think that's where the name comes from?

    The history of Chess is fascinating. I started getting back into Chess a month ago (I've started playing it weekly with my wife and sons). I was amazed to learn that before the 'Queen' there was an 'Amazon', who was just like a Queen, but with the powers of a Knight as well! Apparently in Medieval Europe there was some experimentation with these pieces but eventually the 'Queen' won out through popular consent, as the 'Amazon' was considered too overpowered!

    1. Yes, I think GWs Slambo is a reference to Druillette, although Salammbo is a female, I think that might have been lost in translation, there's too much coincidence with the look of Chaos Warriors, Druliettes work, and also the whole Red Redemption thing.

    2. I have learned that an English translation of Druillette's Salammbo is to be released in November of this year:


      I do not know if this is the first time this has happened or not.

    3. I'm not an expert on the publishing history of Druillet's Salammbo, certainly some of the earlier parts - Salammbo I, and Salammbo II - appeared in English in Heavy Metal magazine, but I don't have all those to check against Salammbo L'Integral to see how they complete they are with not sure if any of Salambo III: Matho was ever published in English before.

      On the matter of editions, compare the awesome psychedelic art nouveau inspired hand lettering on "The Black Throne" from the original french edition of Lone Sloane to the vomit inducing insult of Titans English translation, I'd rather stick to looking at the pictures and reading a tatty Penguin edition of Salammbo, and guessing at Druilets intent than looking at stuff like that. Even the 70s Heavy Metal translation while not quite in keeping with the tone of at least has the decency to try to be cool, and the main body-text is stunning.

      Hmm. Probably worthy of a full blogpost by itself!

  2. Fascinating post, even by your standards, Zhu. It should be published in a history of gaming.

    I think the passage from Donatus that you're looking for is in his commentary on Terence's "Eunuch". In it, Donatus writes: "Pyrrhus autem peritissimus strategematum fuit primusque quemadmodum ea disciplina per calculos in tabula traderetur ostendit."

    My rusty Latin and I translate this as: "Moreover, Pyrrhus was the most skilled in generalship and was the first to show how that discipline could be taught by moves of pieces on a board."

    The really critical term in this phrase is "calculos". This is the plural accusative form of "calculus", the Latin for little stones or pebbles ("calculus" is the diminutive form of "calx", the word for stone). Calculus is a word that could mean a lot of different things: gravel, a voting stone, a counter for reckoning (hence "calculus" in our mathematics) or pieces for a game of draughts ("ludus latrunculorum" or the game of bandits). Since "ludus latrunculorum" was played on a board ("tabula"), I think that Donatus is invoking calculus as a game rather than as a method of mathematical calculation. This is a pretty well established usage... for instance Cicero spoke of "calculum reducere" (taking back a move). So that's why I translated "calculos" as "moves of pieces on a table". You could also perhaps simply say "game pieces".

    A couple more things: if Donatus is speaking of Pyrrhus as the first (primus) to use this technique of teaching generalship, it implies that the practice was well-known afterwards and certainly by Donatus' time. But a caution: the ancients loved to ascribe current practices to famous people from the past. Therefore, it's certainly possible that Pyrrhus really did invent Kriegspiel. He was, as they say in Toronto, a smart cunt. But it's also possible that it's just another Roman origin-fable, like ascribing the foundation of Rome to heroes of the Trojan War.

    (Well, there goes my morning!)

    1. That's brilliant Matthew. Thank you for digging that out. The latin lesson is really interesting. It does make me wonder if an alternative reading might be 'mathematical tables' - perhaps some kind of ancient Greek spreadsheet, might also be inferred. Hope it was an enjoyable morning at least. Ahh, the benefits of a proper education!

      It is fascinating, even if Donatus is mythologising Pyrrhus as the instigator of Kriegspiel, he still may be referring to the idea 200 years or so before Chess is considered to have emerged. Makes me wonder if the text of Donatus Commentary is authentically dated or if it, perhaps, comes down to us through redacted sources who have inserted this proto-Chess origin myth for their own purposes.

    2. Very happy to contribute!

      I thought about that alternate reading for "calculos" too - whether in the Donatus quote it could mean something like the tables we use in games like Warhammer or Battle Masters. But after doing some research, I think it is too much of a stretch. "Per calculos" has to be read together with "in tabula". And although both words have many meanings, when heard together they would almost certainly connote to a Roman ear the idea of a game. Indeed, "Tabula" (board, tablet or table) is frequently used to mean a game for a board or a game itself. For more on this, see the hilariously erudite article Roman Board Games II by R.G. Austin in Greece & Rome, Vol. 4, Number 11 (1935).

      If Donatus wanted to suggest "tables of calculation", I think he would have had to delve into more technical language, or at least pluralized "in tabula", because when in the plural, tabla begins to mean something more like "a book of accounts".

      It's also interesting to note what Donatus does *not* say. He doesn't mention dice ("aleae"). He doesn't even explicitly say that it is a game ("ludus"). As I've already said, mentioning a board and playing-pieces strongly suggests a game, but it is possible that what Donatus means is that Pyrrhus was the first to plan and teach strategy by moving pieces representing units on a board - sort of like the images (in Game of Thrones, for example) of rulers moving carved pieces representing armies of a scale map.

      In any case, back to your point about how early this all was: Yes! It's remarkable. If you read that article by Austin, you will get a sense of the sophistication of Roman boardgames (some were played with dice, some were more like checkers). And if you read Book Two of Ovid's Art of Love, you get his advice to always let your girlfriend win when playing these games (he says, "make your calculus die"). I'm not sure that advice has aged well.

    3. Excellent stuff. Thanks for clarifying the reasoning between 'tabulated caluculations' and 'table with counters', makes sense (by the way Battle Masters has no tables, it uses a dicepool mechanic for combat resolution).

      Also thanks for pointing to R.G. Austins essays. He mentions the strategy game Latrones or Petteia and it could be imagined how such a game would teach tactical thinking - sacrifice, defensive moves, etc. in the abstract, rather than through simulation. Latrones has no dice, but I'd assume Donatus would have mentioned the game by name if that is what he meant.

      Without getting too far into the semantics, my understanding is that 'game' applies as much to serious wargaming (planning and strategy of military manoeuvres) of moving pieces around as it does to hobby wargaming for 'fun'.

      I haven't seen it but I assume Game of Thrones is something like a Plotting Table in a WW2 Ops Room, which were state-of-the-art methods of command and control, and I assume these would have been used for mock battles and simulations in training exercises prior to action.

      Another interesting note from R.G.Austin is Becq de Fouquieres Jeax des Anciens of 1869 - 7 years after Flauberts Salammbo - Flaubert being something of a trendsetter in those days, perhaps it carries some influence. Unfortunately my French is even worse than my Latin.

      Incidentally, Ovids advice has quite an ironic edge as for some reason Mrs Zhu has inherited from her mother and grandmother before her an uncanny ability to win at Merelles and be quite frankly terrible losers in any other game.

    4. There are several instances of "pieces on a map" in Game of Thrones. There is one particular fortress of note (Dragonstone) that has an entire "map room" in it, with a huge purpose-built tabletop representation of the entire continent. It's so big and so sturdy that the characters put their goblets of wine on it, make love on it (occasionally) and plan major strategic moves based on available intelligence, with wooden pieces representing ships, armies and castles. I have to confess I paid little attention to what the characters actually did with the pieces while I was watching the TV show, but they weren't playing simulation games for sure, more just deciding where to move their armies in order to best achieve their strategic goals, in light of the positions of enemy forces around the continent. As Dragonstone itself is on a small, rocky island, most of the strategy in the early part of the story concerned naval maneuvers.

      The other prominent example of a "wargaming" table setup is a far more portable, temporary arrangement, used by an army on the march. One of the several self-appointed kings of the realm leads a war against a rival noble family and in his tent he lays out a cloth map of the continent, with very nicely-carved pieces representing the heraldic symbols of the different noble families who are engaging in the war -- his own, his allies, his enemies, and their allies. The pieces are so nicely carved they look like they were purpose-made for an expensive chess set. These are mostly used to represent the general position and size of armies in a particular area of the continent (like a smaller scale version of the Dragonstone arrangement), rather than a tactical, battlefield simulation game.

  3. Another great post Zhu. I’d say I’d go and read this book but I know it’ll just sit on the ever increasing pile.....

    1. Cheers Maurice! Can't beat a proper bit of 19th century literature.