Thread Rating:
  • 0 Vote(s) - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Ancient warfare 'terrifying'?
Interesting article on the terror of ancient warfare, and an interpretation of Polybius.
Richard Campbell
Legio XX - Alexandria, Virginia
RAT member #6?
Wow. That's some severe quoting with conclusions sprinkled in to make a new article with a nice blanket statement at the end. ;-)

Jasper Oorthuys
Webmaster & Editor, Ancient Warfare magazine
I saw this on the Facebook, along with the sequel post. Fantastic articles!

John F.
Well, I think I'll have to agree with it. The idea of "protracted battling it out," does seem Hollywoodish. So does the idea of an individual (hero?) taking the fore, picking a singular enemy, and then hacking him to the ground. One thing I'm aware of: my armor weighs-a-lot (as opposed to the aluminum armor of Lancelot); and after five minutes, my sword becomes wickedly heavy. It goes from 3 pounds to 30 pounds, first as single-handed, then two-handed, and finally to sprained wrists. Ancient warfare was exhausting and terrifying (unless you were incredibly strong and dense).
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
All infantry warfare is exhausting. If you think the arms and armor the Romans or others carried was heavy you should try kitting up in what modern soldiers are forced to carry in combat. Double, sometimes triple the weight. Yet they do it just like the Romans because they train with the arms and armor, and they wear it all the time, until the wearer barely notices the weight, accept for when they do extremely strenuous work. 

According to many historical accounts, single combat among leaders of infantry units, be it centurions or tribunes, was common enough. Only the common ranker soldiers were forbidden to leave the line for such purposes. The gaudy, shiny, crested outfits worn by officers obviously attracted the wrong attention from enemy, they would definitely have been targeted for attack by an enemy. Killing them would not only remove an important leader in the front line, but claiming their bodies, even stripping it of arms in front of everyone, would demoralize the others, possibly causing them to rout.

I think the article mentioned in the OP misses out on how hard it actually was to kill or wound someone wearing armor, carrying a large shield, who possessed even a basic skill in attack and defense. In the HEMA video used to demonstrate how easily a kill is made, neither wear any armor, only one has a small buckler. And most of all, neither face death as a result of a mistake. When one makes a successful attack, they break momentarily and start again. Obviously this will cause them to fight more aggressively then if their lives were on the line. You can see the same thing when watching reenactors fight in equipment common to Romans. Like this:

Notice how aggressively they all attack? Because there are no repercussions, no one faces death or serious bodily harm, there is no risk. No reason to fear, as its just a game. Quite different in real life. 

Fighting would be harsh, lulls would be needed to rest, reorganize, redress the rank and files. Men identified previously as the aggressive "killers" would need to be placed in positions to allow them to kill (the front ranks), the more timid in the middle or rear. 

The low number of deaths, pre-rout, from many ancient battles suggests that some would be wounded (hands, faces, legs), a very few killed, but those numbers would still be low (5-10% casualties max) until one side fighting lost its morale, succumbed to fear, and broke ranks and ran.
I enjoyed the post, even in its abbreviated form, and agree with pretty much everything you say, Bryan. Regarding how difficult it is to kill someone wearing armor, who has even just basic fighting skills, is it not true that basically every body that we have that can be identified as having been killed in ancient/medieval combat, has suffered multiple wounds before the suspected killing blow was delivered? I know that I recently saw a doc on Richard III, and that was definitely the case once again for him.
Here is a very good paper about ancient wounds:

Simon James: The point of the sword: what Roman-era weapons could do to bodies – and why they often didn’t

I wrote a post about this subject about a year and half ago, you can read it here.

Killing someone isn't easy. Often, the best targets to kill or incapacitate quickly, the brain, the spinal cord, the great blood bearing vessels of the neck, the heart, the kidneys, the descending aorta, even the femoral, are usually either protected by a rather efficient piece of armor, or are protected by the warrior's stance and angle, shield (to block or parry away strikes), and hand weapon (to parry). 

Contrary to the popular idea of Roman close combat, the Roman blocks the wild swing of a sword with his trusty scutum, ducks low, stab under into the vitals, slaying the barbarian, and then repeating as necessary, the reality is that only the most poorly trained type of warrior would be killed in such a manner. Just like in any other form of fighting, boxing, karate, fencing, when fighting with sword or spear and shield, you do not purposely open up your own vitals to an attack when striking at the enemy, you still defend them as best as possible. 

So what does this mean? The most likely wounds suffered in close combat of the sort in the ancient period would be cuts and thrusts to the limbs or face, neither of which usually kill quickly. Not to say its not painful, having the tendons of the hand cut through, or the hamstring severed, would most likely force a warrior to quit the fight, but should they survive the day and prevent infection they can still live a long life, even possibly fight again some day later. 

But that all changes if the person is either unable to leave the fighting line, or if there is no safe ground for wounded men to go to outside the threat of the enemy (such as during a rout). Should a wounded man fall in front of the enemy, either slipping or from weakness from a wound, then more attacks can be given, to throat, thorax, known arteries, to finish the person off, rather quickly. Easier done as the fallen man poses little threat, so more accurate and deadly blows can be done without risk of a return attack. During a rout, the winning side chases down the losing side, the first to die will be those that don't move fast enough to get away. These are the enemy walking wounded. Again, easy kills, multiple wounds to the victim. 

Quick kills are certainly possible. Thrusts to the throat, to the unprotected upper chest, attacks to the brain, can often incapacitate almost instantly. Look at poor Crastinus, Caesar's primipilus who literally ate the blade of a gladius at Pharsalus, thrust through his open mouth till the blade exited the back of his skull. Such a thrust would sever the brain stem, killing him instantly, Crastinus would have been dead before his body dropped. But these high reward attacks are rare. As I've said, they are high risk to the attacker to overly expose themselves (a no no for a non-suicidal soldier), or they are too well protected to risk. 

Just because a soldier is fighting in a battleline in a pitched battle does not change the dynamics of fencing. The only new variable to consider is group dynamics. This means while attacking an enemy, you could rely on the assistance of your shield mates to your left and right. But the enemy can as well. Now you have to consider not just the enemy directly in front of you, but those diagonally to you, who can strike at you should you get funnel vision on the target to your front. Especially the enemy to your front right, who will have a more open attack to your unshielded right side. Ignore this person at your peril. But a trained warrior would know this, so they would be even on more of a guard, because they acknowledge that their are even more threats in a pitched battle versus a duel. Add in the continuing threat of missiles during the fight (not only the Romans had javelins given to their line infantry), and it means another factor that a warrior must consider, another thing to defend against. 

Possible considerations of a soldier trying to survive a pitched battle:
- Defend against missiles during the approach and during the fight
- Defend against the man in front of you.
- Defend against the men to your front right and left. 
- Beware the small wounds, because they can lead to bigger ones, and death.
- Whatever you do, don't go to the ground. Keep your footing or you will die almost instantly should you fall in front of the enemy.
- Keep up with those to your left and right. If you get too far ahead, you will be surrounded, encircled, and killed quickly.
- Be on guard for your mates retreating, it will signal a collapse of morale. You don't want to be the only one left during a rout after all your mates ran off.  

Some utterly brave warriors (and quite possibly foolish or suicidal) can go into battle and disregard all of the above in the hopes of the glory of victory and the very real thrill of the kill. Drugs or alcohol can be used as fuel for this sort of fighting. Hot, passionate, emotional. Depending on the warrior culture, there could be many of these types, or only a few. There will always be some though, and used properly (stuck in the front lines, supervised and controlled by effective small unit leaders) they can do a lot of good work in a fight. Poorly led and they are too uncontrollable. This sort are usually an utter disaster in non-battle environments, as they do not take well to structure and discipline. 

The next group, probably the most proficient, are well trained, capable warriors, who can contain their fear while addressing the above can still effectively fight, by fighting smart. They will use their knowledge of martial arts to create openings to attack, while protecting themselves as best as possible. To them, combat is about calculated risks, risk vs. reward. Cold, calculating, rationale. These are the sorts that most armies want to have, though not everyone possesses the right personality for this sort of thing. Mindset is the most important aspect, experience, and the right upbringing. 

And then there are the normal people, I'd say these make up about the majority of all warriors throughout history, including semi or fully professional soldiers like the Romans. They need to be put under hard discipline. Cajoled to fight, through spirited addresses, motivated through promises of rewards or fear of punishment for slacking. These sorts will fight when they have to, when they are being observed, while the rest of the time they will shirk their duties. They turn posturing into an art form, making the appearance of fighting, while not actually doing it, all in the hopes of saving their own skin. They will not risk all to achieve victory, they only fight when there is little to no threat against themselves. They must be closely supervised and even then they will do no more than the bare minimum to avoid punishment. Doubtful that they would do well serving in the front ranks, as they would be too hesitant to fight. Sadly, since they greatly outnumber the other sorts of warriors, they will be forced to use this type in a fight.
There is an account of a battle in one of the civil wars with Romans fighting Romans. The narrator (I don't remember who it was) says that it was very unusual in that it was so quiet. Nobody was shouting war-cries because they knew they wouldn't overawe each other. There would be a clash, with only the arms making noise. They would fight a while and then, almost as if by agreement, break it off and step back for a breather, then resume. This went on until one side finally broke.
Pecunia non olet
Off the top of my head, that's the battle of Mutina, 43 BC between the forces of Marcus Antonius, Octavian and various others. Source would then probably be either Plutarch or Appian.

Jasper Oorthuys
Webmaster & Editor, Ancient Warfare magazine
Quote:There is an account of a battle in one of the civil wars with Romans fighting Romans. The narrator (I don't remember who it was) says that it was very unusual in that it was so quiet. Nobody was shouting war-cries because they knew they wouldn't overawe each other. There would be a clash, with only the arms making noise. They would fight a while and then, almost as if by agreement, break it off and step back for a breather, then resume. This went on until one side finally broke.
Quote:Off the top of my head, that's the battle of Mutina, 43 BC between the forces of Marcus Antonius, Octavian and various others. Source would then probably be either Plutarch or Appian.

Battle of Forum Gallorum, 43 BC:

Thus urged on by animosity and ambition they assailed each other, considering this their own affair rather than that of their generals. Being veterans they raised no battle-cry, since they could not expect to terrify each other, nor in the engagement did they utter a sound, either as victors or vanquished. As there could be neither flanking nor charging amid marshes and ditches, they met together in close order, and since neither could dislodge the other they locked together with their swords as in a wrestling match. No blow missed its mark. There were wounds and slaughter but no cries, only groans; and when one fell he was instantly borne away and another took his place. They needed neither admonition nor encouragement, since experience made each one his own general. When they were overcome by fatigue they drew apart from each other for a brief space to take breath, as in gymnastic games, and then rushed again to the encounter. Amazement took possession of the new levies who had come up, as they beheld such deeds done with such precision and in such silence.

All put forth superhuman exertions, and the praetorians of Octavian perished to the last man. Those of the Martians who were under Carsuleius got the better of those opposed to them, who gave way, not in disgraceful rout, but little by little. Those under Pansa were likewise in difficulties, but they held out with equal bravery on both sides until Pansa was wounded in the side by a javelin and carried off the field to Bononia. Then his soldiers retired, at first step by step, but afterwards they turned and hurried as if in flight. When the new levies saw this they fled in disorder, and with loud cries, to their camp, which the quaestor, Torquatus, had put in readiness for them while the battle was in progress, apprehending that it might be needed. The new levies crowded into it confusedly although they were Italians, as well as the Martians; so much more does training contribute to bravery than race; but the Martians for fear of shame did not enter into the camp, but ranged themselves near it. Although fatigued they were still furious and ready to fight to the bitter end if anybody should attack them. Antony refrained from attacking the Martians as being a troublesome business, but he fell upon the new levies and made a great slaughter.

Appian B.C. III. 68-69

At least I was close. ;-)

Jasper Oorthuys
Webmaster & Editor, Ancient Warfare magazine

Possibly Related Threads...
Thread Author Replies Views Last Post
  Ancient Warfare XI-2: On the cusp of empire! Praefectusclassis 3 1,259 05-17-2017, 07:13 PM
Last Post: Gunthamund Hasding
  Ancient Warfare X.6 - The Year of the Four Emperors Praefectusclassis 0 868 01-12-2017, 09:28 AM
Last Post: Praefectusclassis
  Old/new editor at Ancient Warfare magazine Praefectusclassis 6 2,167 12-08-2016, 09:38 AM
Last Post: Praefectusclassis

Forum Jump: