Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘Roman’


Swords Were Items of Regular Dress

The sword enjoyed another important advantage over bow or spear: it could and did become an item of regular dress. Scabbard, hilt and belt provided eye-catching fields for decorative display, connoting taste, wealth and above all the personal autonomy, courage, or sanction of higher authority openly to wear a lethal weapon. It was a warning, challenge or threat, symbolizing status, rank, or profession as a fighting man. Here we move beyond mere functional considerations to the symbolic value and meaning of the sword. Highly prized material objects of great physical and symbolic power, swords were widely selected for religious offerings in ancient Europe (a key reason we now have so many in our museums). In particular, they were deposited in watery places, inspiring the legend of Excalibur. It is hardly surprising, then, that the sword was also widely used as a metaphor in antiquity, not least by the warlike Romans themselves.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Time is the Most Neglected Dimension

Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.

The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 223-24

Standard Battle Array of Ancient Armies

Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, p. 222

Emphasis mine.

Quality and Resilience Determined Victory in Ancient Battles

Victory in ancient battle did not go to the ‘big battalions’, as the processes of combat were very different to the mutually devastating firepower duels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [C.E.]. Fatalities from missile fire or mêlée seem to have been remarkably light until one force turned tail and exposed itself to one-sided slaughter. When victorious armies did suffer significant losses, these were usually concentrated in parts of their force that had given way before the eventual triumph. Hence, raw numbers were much less important than fighting spirit and a fearsome reputation, as good troops could stand firm even against great odds and could sometimes panic less-resolute adversaries into flight even before physical combat was joined. By far the most important variable in the model is troop quality, to reflect this psychological factor and also to show how good troops like Spartan hoplites and Roman legionaries could use their superiority in drill and discipline to achieve tactical advantage.

…Although combat did not involve heavy mutual fatalities, it does seem to have revolved around shorter-term attritional mechanisms such as wounds, exhaustion, psychological strain and ammunition depletion, so the distinction between fresh troops and those who have become ‘spent’ becomes a key means of tracking the progressive loss of resilience.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 221-22

An All-Around Mounted Warrior

The 6th-century [C.E. Byzantine] soldier was in fact much more than a cavalryman: he had become an all-around mounted warrior. With his bow he could skirmish at a distance, but he was also heavily armoured and well equipped for close mounted combat. When a steady force was needed to hold ground, he was quite happy to dismount and fight as a heavy infantryman. On many occasions Belisarius took only cavalrymen with him, and when Narses needed steady infantry, he dismounted his cavalry.

Simon MacDowall, Late Roman Cavalryman: 236-565 AD, p. 24

Roman Worldview

Like the Chinese, the Romans divided the world into civilisation and the lands beyond its sway, and while they sometimes of necessity resorted to diplomacy (in their dealings with the Armenians and other old-established kingdoms, for example), they did so for reasons of expediency alone, not as one state treating with its equivalent. There was, indeed, no reason for them to do so….

John Keegan, A History of Warfare, pp. 278-79

For Byzantines, Strategy Was All-Important

The Byzantines’ attitude to warfare was different from that of many of their undisciplined nomadic enemies, and from the haphazard attitude to military engagements shown by some western medieval European armies. Strategy was all-important. To win a war by diplomacy or failing that, skirmishes and raids, was preferable to engaging in a pitched battle.

Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, p. 27

Ideology Of Monarchy

…The Roman Empire had a well-formulated ideology and institutions of monarchy, and by the late Empire this was an absolute monarchy. Emperors could not always do just what they wanted to do, of course, but the system operated as though the imperial will were all-powerful; no constitutitional mechanism existed to frustrate or modify it. In any premodern absolute monarchy, effective limitations were set by primitive communications networks and by the small size of the civil service, which frequently made it impossible to implement the royal will even when it was accepted as law. The ideology of absolute monarchy was developed out of a Roman law, based on Hellenistic and Oriental traditions, that held that the people had surrendered the natural powers to the monarch and could never revoke the surrender.

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, pp. 104-105

Hunnic Bow and Mongolian Release

The Byzantine horsed archer was an expert, capable of loosing arrows from either side of the horse while at full gallop, either shooting a fleeing opponent, or defending himself by a ‘Parthian’ shot over the horse’s rearquarters if he himself was fleeing. The method used was a full draw to the right ear which imparted greater poundage to the arrow. The penetrative quality of Roman equipment used at the battle of Callinicum was due to the adoption of the Hunnic bow and the Mongolian release. The Mongolian release, which uses a thumb lock, is faster, whereas the Mediterranean release, using the fingers to draw, is slower and with an oriental bow the fingers would be crushed. Procopius says the bow used by the Persians at Callinicum was much weaker and the arrows unable to pierce armour, even though the rate of delivery was greater.

Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, p. 22

Emphasis mine.

Romans Made War As Much Business As Art

That the Romans clearly understood the source of their strength is readily understood from one of the introductory sentences of Vegetius: “We see that the Roman people have conquered the world by nothing other than drill in arms, camp discipline, and experience in campaigning.” The Gauls surpassed them in numbers, the Germans in height, the Spaniards in strength, the Carthaginians in craftiness and resources, the Greeks in the sharpness of their wits, yet the Romans were able to beat them all because of the thorough and rigorous training they gave their recruits, their meticulous attention to the smallest details, and the business-like manner in which they provided materials of war. Results that the Greeks achieved by inspiration, the Romans gained by labored effort. They made war as much a business as an art.

Eugene S. McCartney, Warfare by Land and Sea, p. 93

Emphasis mine.