The Fundamentals of Ancient Battle

There are some basic concepts that are almost universal across all ancient battles, and certainly across the period of the 3rd through the 2nd centuries BC that we’re examining. In order to properly understand the breakdowns of the battles that follow, it’s important to understand these fundamentals. Any officer, commissioned or non-commissioned, will have learned these basics in academy, and most wargamers pick them up as they simulate battles and see them play out on the table top. But for those of you who are neither wargamers, nor prior service members, we’ll review them here. Please keep in mind this is grossly oversimplified, and deliberately so, as I’m trying to convey basic ideas to the reader as efficiently and simply as possible.

Before we launch into this, I want to make sure readers understand the terms “rank” and “file,” as they’ll be used frequently. Most readers are probably familiar with the terms, but just to be sure, files refer to lines of soldiers arranged front-to-back of a formation. Ranks refers to the lines from side to side. So a single line of 16 men standing one behind the other would be a single file with 16 ranks. A line of the same men standing shoulder to shoulder would be 16 files and only one rank.

The battle line, frontage and flanking maneuvers

Ancient battles usually revolved around battle lines. A battle line is exactly what it sounds like – a bunch of soldiers or warriors all lined up, more or less shoulder to shoulder, usually laterally, providing as much “frontage,” or left to right distance, as possible.

More frontage is good, because this increases the chance of an “envelopment” or preferably a “double-envelopment.” An envelopment occurs when a battle line overlaps the enemy’s, allowing your line to curl around it and attack your opponent’s line from both the front and the side, which is commonly called the “flank” by both modern militaries and military historians. This envelopment, and the striking of the enemy’s battle line from the flank, is commonly called “outflanking” or “turning a flank.” A double-envelopment occurs when your line overlaps the enemy on both flanks, allowing you to curl in around both sides of the enemy line at once, as the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca did at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.

Troop types – heavy infantry, light infantry and cavalry

Battle lines are almost always composed of “heavy infantry.” This term is used to mean different things, sometimes referring to the weight of the soldiers’ weapons and armor, and sometimes referring to the tightness of their formation. A Greek or Hellenistic (Hellenistic refers to the cultural descendants of the Greeks, such as the Macedonians and the successors of Alexander the Great) phalanx, a Roman legion, a Celtic warband, a line of Persian levy spearmen, are all examples of heavy infantry in a battle line. The heavy infantryman’s primary job was close or “shock” combat, fighting with hand weapons like swords or spears, toe to toe with the enemy.

The battle lines would line up facing one another, and then close to clash together. The opposing forces usually had one of three goals:

•To break through the enemy line, causing it to collapse

•To outflank the enemy line and attack the enemy from two directions at once.

•To get units behind the enemy’s battle line, said to be in the enemy’s rear or “backfield,” and attack the enemy units from the rear.

The benefits of flanking and rear attacks are plain. If you only have to worry about the enemy in front of you, you can focus your full attention on that enemy. This is why battle lines are so strong everywhere but the flanks. If you have a friendly soldier to either side of you, your flanks are covered, and all you have to do is deal with the enemy straight ahead. If you have a shield, you only have to cover your front, and all your attacks will be in one direction. If you have an enemy on your front and your flank, you’re in trouble. Now, you have to fight in two directions at once. You move your shield to defend against a spear thrust coming from the enemy in front of you, and the enemy to your flank has an open shot at your ribs. You shift your shield to cover your ribs, and the enemy in front of you puts his sword through your face. Being attacked from the rear is a veritable death sentence, since you can’t defend at all, and turning to face the enemy to your rear necessarily exposes your rear to the enemy who was previously to your front. In this instance, the only hope you have is your armor.

So covering the flanks, and therefore the rear, of the battle line was critical. Many generals used terrain, anchoring the flanks of their battle lines on marsh, or mountains, or deep rivers. The idea was that the enemy couldn’t turn a flank, because he couldn’t pass the terrain to do it. But, assuming that terrain wasn’t available, ancient generals usually stationed troops on the flanks who had the double role of both protecting their battle line from envelopment, and also turning the enemy battle line’s flank if they could.

This job was most often performed by cavalry, whose speed made them ideally suited for the task. Let’s say you defeat your enemy’s flank guard and now have an opportunity to get into their backfield to attack their units from the rear. You want to be able to get there as quickly as possible, to put your enemy in the pinch where they are attacked from both front and rear before they can do the same to you. Mounted troops are ideal for this work. Because they are the fastest troops on the field, they can also take the lead in running down “routing” troops. Routing troops are running away with no effort to keep fighting, as opposed to “retreating,” which means you are leaving the battle in good order, fighting as you go.

Another troop type was commonly seen in ancient battles – light infantry, sometimes referred to as “skirmishers.” These troops usually fought in dispersed order. Think of a cloud of gnats or a school of minnows. This formation is very different from the shoulder-to-shoulder ordered ranks of the heavy infantry described above. Skirmishers were usually lightly armored, and in many cases had no armor at all. They were often armed with missile weapons, such as the javelin, the sling or the bow. Heavy infantry moved more slowly, both on account of their equipment and because of their need to keep in formation or else risk the flank and rear attacks I just described. More often than not, heavy infantry had no missile weapons of their own, which made them vulnerable to skirmishers, who could run up, shower them with missile fire, then run away before the heavy infantry could charge them. Not all light infantry were skirmishers, and not all heavy infantry lacked missile weapons (most notably, the Roman legionary), but the distinction between heavy and light infantry and their respective shock and missile delivery roles was the general rule on ancient battlefields.

Of course, skirmishers were vulnerable to cavalry, who could easily catch them, and often were armed with missiles themselves (usually javelins), but if the cavalry stopped to fight hand to hand with skirmishers, they in turn would be vulnerable to being charged by the heavy infantry.

Skirmishers usually deployed out in front of the battle line, and their main role was to “soften up” the enemy battle line with missile fire, causing wounds, deaths and damage to equipment that would impair the enemy’s ability to fight in the close combat to come when the battle lines clashed. When that clash appeared imminent, the skirmishers would “retire” either by rushing back through the ranks of the heavy infantry (who would open to admit them), or rushing around the flanks of their own battle line to get out of the way.

Unit cohesion and morale

Two more things to note here: “cohesion,” the ability for military formations to stay in formation even when they’re moving and fighting, is critical to this sort of combat. Since each soldier in a formation protects the flanks of the soldiers next to them, if the cohesion of a battle line fails, individual soldiers suddenly become susceptible to flank and rear attacks. Keeping cohesion was a constant challenge when you consider that most ancient formations consisted of thousands of people. Everything, from marching straight ahead, to backing up, to inclining or “wheeling” or something as simple as opening up enough to let the retiring skirmishers through risked the spread of disorder, creating gaps in the line as some soldiers marched more slowly than others, or stumbled, or bumped into the men around them. This disorder could lead to exposure to flank and rear attacks, and sow confusion in the ranks. And it was all complicated by the lack of advanced communications technology such as radio or loudspeakers, and with many of the soldiers wearing helmets that made it hard to hear. Relaying commands that might help control disorder was very difficult. Ancient battles were, at their heart, attempts to control chaos. The legion and the phalanx, like all military formations, were an effort to provide this control, ordering soldiers for mutual defense, to make the best use of their particular equipment, and to instill the heart and discipline necessary to keep it together in the midst of the nightmare of battle.

For both legions and phalanxes, constant drill was the best way to ensure that cohesion was maintained. This is still true in militaries today. In the chaos of a fight, where seconds become critical, this ability to act instantly can be the difference between life and death.

Confusion in the ranks lowered morale, which is the pivotal element in ancient battles. The vast majority of casualties in any ancient battle did not occur during the fighting, but during the rout, when one side’s nerve broke and they abandoned any semblance of cohesion for a full-scale flight, with every man for himself, trying to escape with his life.

Bringing the enemy to this panic point was the primary goal of most ancient generals. Many factors play into morale: training, unit pride and esprit de corps, quality of equipment, physical health, rest and food, the inspiration of leaders and the belief in a just cause. In tight formations and on battlefields where communication was spotty and difficult and with most of the soldiery deeply superstitious, panic was a constant risk. The sight of one unit fleeing might indicate a tiny setback in one limited portion of the battlefield, or it might mean the defeat of the entire army, and it was up to the individual soldier to judge, moment to moment, whether it was worth it to stay in the fight or to look to his own life. Every single battle examined in this book eventually ends when the level of panic overwhelms the discipline of one side, and they finally turn to rout, and the carnage of the pursuit begins.

Even today, the critical importance of standing firm in the face of the enemy is underscored by Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the system of law that governs military members in the United States. Anyone who “… quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service” may be punished under the article.

The penalty, in time of war, is death.

1 thought on “The Fundamentals of Ancient Battle

  1. Pingback: The Fundamentals of Ancient Battle – faujibratsden

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