When I was in university, many of my profs would strongly emphasize that the whole of extant works from the classical period would fit on a single shelf about six feet high and four feet wide. This would include everyone, Greeks and Romans, from the great historians like Livy and Tacitus to the hacks like Vegetius and various other writers of the late Empire. It would include the encyclopediac writers like Strabo and Pliny, the biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius and the philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Marcus Aurelius. It would include all the plays, all the poems and all the satires. It would even include Apicius' cookbook.
In other words, very, very little. It is a small enough collection that a diligent reader can comfortably read the whole lexicon in the time it takes to complete a four year degree in Classical history. It is small enough that a dedicated scholar can become so familiar as to recognize virtually any passage the moment it is spoken.
As such, most of what is written about the Greek and Roman period is speculation based upon the speculation of earlier sources, who themselves are speculating upon writers who speculated upon the original sources, in a tradition going back two thousand years. Every time new work on the original material comes out, it usually represents an insight which is nine parts personal creativity, ninety parts the copied personal creativity of other persons, and one part original source material.
But that's really okay, because the original source material is, as well, merely conjectures largely written by people who were not present at the events they describe. We read Livy, who writes about things happening centuries before his own time, which he has based upon hearsay and tradition and quite probably blatant lies, the historical tradition between the 3rd century and Livy's own time (he lived as BCE became AD) being fairly catch-as-catch-can.
Take, for example, the Battle of Cannae, 216 BCE, during which Hannibal slaughtered the Roman Army. If you compile all the bits and pieces surrounding the event that were written before the year 400 AD, it will take you all of five, perhaps ten minutes, to read the words. But since that time, so much has been written conjecturing the events at Cannae that you can easily spend ten years reading through the mass of source material on the subject. So if it seems that a modern author presents a viewpoint as though they have recently built a time machine in order to gather their information, it helps to remember that two thousand years of amassed writing is essentially a time machine in itself.
With this introduction, I want to draw the gentle reader's attention to this interview with Robert O'Connell, author of The Ghosts of Cannae. By clicking the link in the center of the page, the fifty-minute podcast is available to all.
And I'd like to refer now to the part beginning at 6:45 minutes into the podcast, where the interviewer asks O'Connell about what fighting was like, and O'Connell answers,
"One of the most prevalent misconceptions about combat, especially the sort of, you know, we get from movies, is that it was continuous. You have this sense that these armies come together and they fight and they fight, and they're hacking away and they're hacking away, and our hours past, and people die, yada yada yada. It really can't be like that. It could never have been like that ... Put yourself in that position. Try to fight somebody with a sword when your life is on the line for even five minutes and what you find is that you're more exhausted at the end of those five minutes than you've ever been in your life."
In classic D&D terms, five minutes is a mere five rounds. I play with the rule that rounds equal 12 seconds ... but five minutes is still no more than fifteen rounds. O'Connell suggests that long battles, therefore, would break up with the contestants on either side backing away, catcalling and taunting while resting up for the next melee. That in effect a battle going on all day would include many hours of both sides not fighting at all. My imagination thinks of men sweating, sitting on stones or the ground, pouring water over their heads to cool down - assuming they have the water to waste - then tiredly lifting themselves to steadily advance again, the two armies flowing and ebbing over the landscape, moving steadily this way or that, looking for opportunities to flank the other.
For all I know all battles, right up to the present day, operate like this. I can't be certain, as I've never been in an actual battle, and certainly have never had the opportunity to observe one like a football game, an analogy O'Connell makes later in the interview.
But I'm curious how this would play out in D&D, if the rule were created to force the reality. There had been a discussion months ago about the exhaustion effected by travelling through the wilderness causing damage, and I made the exhaustion connection there with combat ... but upon further thought (the Cannae interview was last Friday) I came up with a completely different solution.
Suppose that each combat round, or possibly every three combat rounds (depending on the length of round), a -1 "to hit" modifier was applied to all attacks, regardless of success. Swinging the weapon is still an effort, though it is hitting with the weapon that causes the shock to go up one's arm. Perhaps you could say -1 per successful hit and -1 per three misses. It's a real bookkeeping mess, and it wouldn't be popular with players, but imagine the effect it would have on combat when after six or seven rounds the players and their opponents were all attacking with compounded minuses to hit. How long would players keep at it? Would they stop when it no longer became possible to hit at all, or would they begin to realize when their odds were shortened to 3 in 20 or 2 in 20 that it was time to back off?
The balance, of course, is that for every round of not fighting (or every three rounds, or every ten rounds - the number is up to the house), a negative modifier is dropped. Eventually the participants regain their strength and resolve, and go at it again.
It could very seriously change the face of a mass D&D combat, particularly when you consider how this creates the importance of keeping some participants IN RESERVE. So that, when the front fighters begin to weaken, the rear can defend their retreat ... particularly in situations where five or six player characters are fighting fifty or sixty goblins. God, what a disaster that could prove to be!