The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Introduction

By David Flin

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

The Death of Aemilius Paulus by John Trumbull

You know that scene from the film Gladiator, where the Roman troops break ranks and rush forward in a charge? (The whole point of the discipline and the shields was to present an impenetrable barrier to attackers. Breaking ranks like that puts the soldiers in a one-on-one situation, with open flanks and rear.)

Or that still from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, where Robin Hood is firing a flaming arrow? (If the flame is going to do anything, he’ll burn his hand and his bow. That’s not what a fire arrow looks like.)

Or that scene from Spartacus where gladiators drag burning logs into the Roman soldiers? (Seriously? You try it sometime.)

Or the use of a wedge formation in 300 by the Spartans as a defence against cavalry? (When cavalry attack, they aim for unshielded sides – like the entire left flank of the wedge, or corners of a formation – like that which is right at the front. No-one in the formation benefits from an overlapping shield. It’s a stupid formation.)

Or any number of battle scenes where the lead character doesn’t wear a helmet so the audience can see who he is? Or films where the characters weild enormous weapons?

They’re all nonsense, of course. Oh, they can make for great cinema, but they bear no resemblance to how things were actually done.

Fiction books – and even books that claim to be historically accurate – are often no better. In The White Company, Conan Doyle has a longbow arrow punching straight through a shield at a range of 50 yards and the Dothraki in Martin’s Game of Thrones don't wear armour at all. You also routinely see depictions of a city under siege, where there is no hinterland to the city, such as Peter Jackson’s depiction of Minas Tirith.

Which, give these inaccuracies are common in so much popular and well regarded fiction, leads one to the first question. Does it matter?

Is there a case that a work of fiction doesn’t need to be accurate? Well, when you get it wrong, it’s hard to maintain internal consistency. And, as we will get to see throughout the course of this explanation, it’s no harder to get it right than it is to get it wrong.

And, of course, there will be at least some readers who understand these things. And the smaller your audience, the larger the section of that audience who do know about ancient warfare. Outrageous errors of the type mentioned above will demonstrate to those readers that the book probably isn’t worth bothering with. What Peter Jackson can get away with in a film seen by hundreds of millions of people, an Author writing 'What if Norway won at Stamford Bridge?' to a niche audience of military history fans, can't.

These lead to a second question: Does it matter?

The military reflects the society from which it is drawn. I’ll be going into this in more detail in the book, but for now, it’s enough to know that it is the case. If things are to be internally consistent, one needs to have a basic idea of what the situation is.

Furthermore, knowing how the military is going to be structured will give us an idea how conflict with another military play out. Everything links together, and if you understand the links, it all makes sense.

Or, if you rely on things like Game of Thrones, it doesn’t make sense.

This leads to a third question: Does it matter?

Quite honestly, getting things right, especially in alternate history where stuff is being changed, should be a goal in its own right. If people spot things that are obviously wrong, the willing suspension of disbelief will be lost. Plausibility is key, and if the reader sees a whole load of stuff they know is nonsense – arrows piercing plate armour at long range (thank you, Peter Jackson and Helm’s Deep), for example – they’ll not take the story seriously.

I’ve said it before many times. Real historical events can be incredibly bizarre, because they are not bound by plausibility. Fiction is more constrained. If you write a story in which a central character is within five feet of an artillery shell when it explodes and survives, you’ll have readers doubting the story. “What’s he made out of? Plot Invulnerability?” No-one will believe it in fiction. The fact that I am typing this demonstrates that it can happen in real life.

The way to be plausible is to know how things work. And nowhere is it more self-evident that large numbers of writers don’t understand the basics is when it comes to ancient warfare.

I’m defining ancient warfare here as pre-gunpowder. I’ll be using post-gunpowder examples where they illustrate a point, but in essence, this is looking at pre-gunpowder periods. Gunpowder is one of the three step-changes in military operations (the other two being railroads, which revolutionised logistics, and radio, which revolutionised command and control).

I’ll be following this introduction with a few articles giving brief summaries of how things worked historically. I’ll cover how different militaries are structured, how they operate, and expose some of the myths that Hollywood and bad fiction have put before us.

The plan for the book is:

Chapter 1: Military reflects society.

Chapter 2: Training.

Chapter 3: Types of fighting.

Chapter 4: Strategy, Operations, Tactics.

Chapter 5: Logistics.

Chapter 6: Logistics. Again.

Chapter 7: Communications

Chapter 8: Weapons vs Armour.

Chapter 9: Sieges

Chapter 10: Weapon myths.

The Military reflects Society

It is self-evident that military forces are drawn from the societies they are from. In the case of things like the late Roman army, the society that many soldiers were drawn from was not the society that the army was fighting for, but that brought about its own issues.

“All military forces are much the same?”

While that might be a common view, one held by anti-war protestors and military recruiters alike, it’s not even close to being true. There is no platonic ideal of a military that applies from the Roman Empire to the Mongolian hordes, however much people try to draw similarities between them.

Different societies result in different structures and different organisations. Armies can be recruited and organised in different ways, following different principles. None of these can be regarded as objectively “the best”. Different tasks are best suited for different structures.

One thing is true: trying to fit people from one type of society into a military structure that isn’t suitable just leads to problems. Just ask the Late West Roman Empire.

The easiest way to explain and demonstrate is to use a few examples.

The typical European feudal set-up involves a king (by whatever title they are known as), who will have his own retinue, along with a bunch of nobles who support him. In theory they support him, anyway. History is replete with examples of nobles who suddenly decide not to support their king. These nobles may have under-nobles.

When it comes to gathering an army, the king calls upon his nobles to supply forces, and he goes at the head with his personal retinue. The nobles will call on their peasants (by whatever name they are known) and their retinue to form their part of the King’s Army.

Obviously, things can get more complicated than that, but in principle, that is how it works. In the coming articles, we'll look in detail at a prime example of this setup in the Saxons, and then we’ll look at some variations from this principle, such as the Romans, Mongols, Vikings, and others.


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