In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m an egghead. I've gotten to the age where I’d rather read Xenophon than George R. R. Martin, because to me history is more gripping than the best of make-believe. I'm not into fiction anymore because it can't be even half as strange as real life. For good reason -- if it was no one would believe it.
So a few years back I when podcasting was coming into its own I went exploring in iTunes to see what I could find on history topics. Not mamby-pamby bullshit history, the real stuff. I wanted deep history, hundreds if not thousands of years old and with a deep level of detail. By luck I stumbled across a podcast covering ancient warfare released by some crowd called Karwansary Publishing. There were already a few available episodes to listen to and they were weren’t short, but given my extended commute it took just a couple of days to run through all of them. They were good. In fact they were really good. The delivery wasn’t slicky, but the content, the level of knowledge and attention to the broader aspects of the subject matter really impressed me. This was a few guys on Skype just riffing on the topic of the day in detail, but they still managed to stay layman-accessible. I could follow, and I was learning. This was material I hadn’t heard in any of the history courses I had taken in college or from courses on disk. To top it off the guys sounded like they were having a good time doing it.
So after looting their supply podcast episodes (and finding little else in podcast format that scratched the itch) I decided to take the plunge and go for a subscription of the magazine that the podcast purported to be a part of, Ancient Warfare Magazine published by Karwansary Publishers out of the Netherlands. The trial subscription plan was inexpensive enough ($22US for three issues currently . . . I believe it was a bit less at the time) and would give me a chance to have a good look around before putting too much money on the line. I jumped, and three weeks later the first issue arrived in my mailbox, all crispy and clean inside a white envelope. What a fine read it turned out to be.
Anyone who hasn’t read much ancient history may be surprised to find out just how little material survives to describe major events let alone minor ones. Many famous battles of the era have just one source of contemporary information, and the more practical aspects of war – how troops moved, how they supplied, communicated, even how they lined up to meet the enemy are often completely lost to time. The Iliad, a narrative of ancient warfare written four or five hundred years after the war it describes was fought is considered an important source on armor and weaponry not because its provenance is airtight (imagine an oral tradition of the Thirty Years War being committed to paper only today) but because its descriptions of weapon use and the wounds that resulted are largely the only material we have describing warfare in the era. So what remains to historians today is to interpret this limited written material, consider any archaeological evidence that may be found, and then recreate and simulate as best as humanly possible to draw conclusions about how men fought in the past.
This is what Ancient Warfare Magazine is about. Articles on specific battles are common, but generally they’re in support of broader themes for a particular issue such as “naval tactics” or “elite units.” I’ve often opened a new issue's envelope (and now its pdf file – more on that in a minute), looked at the cover to find a teaser for iron age battle standards and thought “who cares about battle flags?” A few minutes of reading reveals that the subject is far more interesting than I had anticipated, often providing insight into current warfare and military culture. For indeed in spite of the passage of time and the very different environment posed by the modern battlefield, a remarkable amount of the human aspects of conflict hasn’t changed. That binds us to history. A Centurion frustrated with his men’s performance would grab his company’s standard, throw it into the enemy and then dare his men to preserve their honor by retrieving it. Any modern Drill Sergeant would smile at that story and for good reason – these are traditions passed from one soldier to the next down through history for thousands of years. This is our heritage.
And this is the kind of material Ancient Warfare delves into, providing insight into the nitty gritty details as well as the grand events. What appears at first to be a quick look at a secondary subject is often far more enlightening than I anticipate, and it's a rare issue that I don't read cover to cover.
Given the narrow field of writers specializing in the subject it’s not surprising to find the names at the end of Ancient Warfare's articles matching the authors of books on my shelf. Many come from parts of the world far from my own, but the English and editing never reveals that -- the writing is immaculate and stays on subject. Well edited text and quality illustrations (both original materials for the magazine and some impressive illustrations of historic artifacts) belie the small-town nature of the magazine.
And until recently the price did as well. Purchasing copies individually at retails costs $60US per year for six issues, while subscribing lowers the total to $46. (Note -- the price varies outside the EU due to exchange rates and lately the Euro has taken a beating. That has brought the price down for the rest of us. The prices shown here are based upon their website and the cover of their most recent issue.) Given the esoteric nature of the content and the quality of the materials presented this isn’t a terrible price, but there’s some pretty impressive books by the same authors that can fit inside that price range, so it was becoming a tough decision about whether to continue my subscription. I love the magazine, but I love the books it sits next to on my nightstand as well. So I wrote an email to the publisher explaining my dilemma, anticipating a lovely boiler plate response with "tough shit" written between the lines.
Well either Karwansary Publishing loves its customers or is too small to spend time creating boiler plate responses. The editor of the magazine returned my message in short order, asking me if €17.95 per year was a more palatable charge. Ancient Warfare had just begun distributing via PDF, and if I was okay with electronic delivery the price would plummet. This would get me six issues for $23. The Euro had just had a very bad day, so I jumped to lock in the price. Sixty pages of fine history for less than the price of a comic book.
So now my mags arrive two weeks earlier and don’t take up any space in the house. I read on my laptop in bed in the evening and on my Kindle when I'm out, and it’s resulted in a curious change in my reading. In the past I would open the paper magazine to the table of contents and look to see what article jumped out first, often skipping from one article to the next and dog-earring the bottom of each page when I had finished reading it. Over time I’d bop around until the magazine was used up, but it wasn't uncommon to have a couple of magazines in a half-read state sitting on my current-read pile next to the bed. But now they come in PDF format and that dog-ear trick isn’t available. My new strategy has been to read the magazine front to back, not skipping pages, and renaming the file at the end of each read to indicate the page I left off on. This systematic digestion of the material has been beneficial – each magazine is laid out as it is for a reason and in my desire to hit the most interesting parts I had been missing that. The PDF version has actually added to my enjoyment a bit and has certainly kept things more organized and easy to find. My holy goal is to have all my reading material available electronically and I greatly prefer Kindle because I can utilize text-to-speech with a super-simple interface (a feature that opens vast amounts of time to commuters such as myself as well as the vision-impaired slice of the market) but Karwansaray has no plans to pursue that. Given the heavy use of maps and other illustrations Kindle text-to-speech would certainly not be a perfect venue for Ancient Warfare, but with four kids and all the scheduling aspects that come with them it would be nice to get a first pass on the material in audio instead of text. A minor compromise.
Now it’s very likely that not everyone reading this is interested in Ancient Warfare. Fear not – Medieval Warfare Magazine is available as well! This is a new arrival and I’ve received a few issues in the mail already, the first two as teasers to get me interested. I’ve subscribed to “MW” in PDF format too but to date I’ve only received paper copies. I’m expecting this to change for the next issue.
What becomes immediately apparent when reading Medieval Warfare is that the amount of contemporary source material feels positively vast in comparison to Ancient Warfare. Names and dates abound and political and personal details are available for a nuanced reveal of this much more recent period of history. The locations of battles are better known and many physical structures still stand, so archaeological material is more available to support the written accounts. As with Ancient Warfare the articles are detailed, but they're accessible, with good notes inlined instead of footnoted which I personally prefer. Each article is followed by a “Further Reading” section that recommends additional material on the subjects. In my experience Amazon.com hasn’t been terribly effective at giving me recommendations based upon my search results (particularly with ancient materials) so these Further Reading sections give me great places to start my search.
As do the reviews at the end of the magazine. They review books; they review models and miniatures; they review . . . oh my! What have we here? They review wargames! In fact they need people to review wargames! Here’s your opportunity boys and girls. If you’re a pre-gunpowder player you might just earn a free issue or two by submitting reviews to the publishers. I haven’t purchased any wargames in these eras recently (correction – I haven’t purchased any that have actually cleared their P500 and printed) but given the broad swath of history now covered you may just see me published on glossy paper. I’ll be sure to crow about it when it occurs.
It should be pretty obvious at this point that I’ve been very pleased with the magazine and intend to continue subscribing as long as they continue to publish. If it had been lackluster I wouldn’t be writing this. But with luck I’ll be able get some witnesses to help me, because on occasions when I’ve sent games to other FortressAt members I’ve used my Ancient Warfare back issues as padding in the package. I’ve received very positive feedback from the recipients, often better than for the game they protected and often the praise has started with the phrase “I didn’t even know this thing existed.” With any luck some of those members will put in a few good words in response to this article, because material such as this, well done and well presented, particularly on such a specialized topic is hard to find. If you enjoy history this may be a fine choice for your upcoming Christmas list.