The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Encounter and Pre-set Battles

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Didrachm of Philip V of Macedon, decisive loser of the Battle of Cynoscephalae

A pre-set battle is one in which the two sides set up and effectively agree to have a battle. An encounter battle is one where the two sides stumble into each other. By definition, an encounter battle is more disorganised and chaotic; victory usually goes to the side that can best deal with the chaos. Experienced and trained troops and quick-thinking commanders cope better.

Perhaps the best example of an encounter battle is the Battle of Cynoscephalae (197 BC). Roman forces marched from Thebes towards Pherae in Greece, searching for the Macedonian forces under Philip V. The two armies met near Pherae, where Philip’s troops were defeated in a cavalry skirmish. Both sides then marched away and dispersed in search of food. Having to search for food is something that happened quite often. We’ll look at this in the chapter on logistics. It was hilly terrain, and each side quickly lost track of the location of the other.

The next part reads like a poorly-written sit-com. Neither side was aware of the location of the other, and made camp on opposite sides of a series of small rocky hills called the Kynoskephelai. Naturally, they remained unware of the presence of each other. In the morning, both sides sent out cavalry to scout. These ran into each other, and a skirmish started. The Roman cavalry were struggling when reinforcements arrived. Both sides hastily deployed for battle; phalanx against legion. The legions were a more flexible organisation, and won a decisive victory.

In general, encounter battles take place when there is a failure of scouting, and usually when both sides are making for a strategic position. The classic modern example of an encounter battle is the Battle of Gettysburg (1863).

Pre-set battles, sometimes called pitched battles, are more typical. This is when both sides are well aware of the presence of the other and have time to prepare for the encounter. Generally, each side has the opportunity to simply leave the battlefield and decline to fight. Unless the other side has a big advantage in cavalry or has blocked retreat routes, it’s difficult to force battle on an army trying to avoid it, as Hannibal discovered in Italy when the Romans under Fabius refused set-piece battles but wore Hannibal’s strength down by attrition.

It was even possible to refuse a set-piece battle on the actual battlefield. Caesar describes arraying his troops several days in a row and the enemy doing the same. Skirmishers would skirmish; cavalry would harass. Then both armies would march back to camp. Sometimes because the omens weren’t good, sometimes because the generals weren’t confident enough to risk full battle. And sometimes because Caesar was being sneaky. He lulled the enemy into a false sense of security by arraying for several days but not seeking to engage. Then one day as the enemy was starting to disperse as usual, he marched his army forward very swiftly and caught the enemy in disorder.

The pre-set battle allows each general to see – depending on the terrain – the other army, and respond accordingly. Of course, there is still the aspect referred to by the Duke of Wellington; being able to see what is happening on the other side of the hill.

Perhaps the classic example of a pre-set battle is the Battle of Cannae (216 BC), between the Roman Republic under Paullus and Varo, and the Carthaginians under Hannibal. The Romans had around 80,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, the Carthaginians around 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. The battle site was the flat river plain running by the river Aufidus and near the village of Cannae. The Carthaginians wanted the level ground to use their cavalry to best advantage, and the Romans wanted the narrow field between the river and village to take full advantage of their powerful infantry.

The Romans planned to break through the Carthaginian centre, and so deployed their heavy infantry in a deep formation with cavalry on each flank. Hannibal planned to envelope the Romans and trap them in an encirclement. Therefore, he deployed his troops with a weak centre and reinforced flanks, and infantry behind his main line. The Carthaginian cavalry defeated the Roman cavalry and drove them off. Meanwhile, the Roman legions pushed the Carthaginian centre, to be held by the second line; the Carthaginian flank infantry came in on the sides; the Carthaginian cavalry returned and closed on the rear of the Romans.

And that was the end of the Roman force.

Encounter battles are largely decided by the quality of the troops involved. The quality of the army commander is largely irrelevant during the course of the battle. An encounter battle is complete chaos, and the only relevance an army commander has in how well he has prepared his forces.

The skill of the army commander is much more significant in a pre-set battle. He (usually) has the time and information to come up with a coherent plan, deploy troops accordingly, and instruct the component parts of his army what they are expected to do.

Of course, once battle is joined, command and control is an uncertain business, largely because of the difficulty of seeing exactly what is going on and getting changed instructions to different elements of the army.


Discuss this Article


David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.