Roman Legionary 509 BC to 170 AD

The Gallic sack of Rome can be best described as a catalyst for Rome. Although the arrival of the Gauls can possibly be credited with a few developments in its own right, most notably the use of the heavy javelin, its biggest impact was in accelerating a number of existing trends in Roman society. This included bringing the community, and particularly the local clans, together into a single, cohesive whole and unifying them all under the banner of Rome. Although this process was well under way previously, the Gallic sack seems to have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the archaic way of life, and particularly the clan-based approach to war, was no longer a viable option. In the aftermath of the sack, Rome did everything she could to increase her manpower and develop a military model to protect against further attacks. This included incorporating new peoples into her citizen body (and military ranks) via the creation of new tribes and municpia, along with the full-time reversion to the consular tribunate and eventually the creation of the consulship.

Rome’s increased internal unity and cohesion also allowed a more concerted approach to land acquisition and ownership, generally exploited through the creation of ager publicus, which gradually developed into a territorial empire. Evidently initiated to satiate the Romans’ increased appetite for land, but tempered by the desire to maintain her manpower reserves and control both the territory and those occupying it (in contrast to previous practice), Rome very quickly carved out a massive Central Italian empire during the course of the fourth century BC. This led the city into increased conflicts with a number of Italian peoples, including the other Latin communities and tribes, as her aggressive and expansionist policies started to impact upon them. This ultimately resulted in a series of wars against the Latins, Samnites, Etruscans and Greeks of Magna Graecia in the second half of the fourth century BC, which further shaped Rome’s military and imperial designs.

The fourth century BC also saw the introduction of some new military equipment in the Roman army, which seems to have come from two different sources. The first source was local, and was perhaps a result of an increasing number of urban, and probably ‘middle class’, men engaging in warfare under the banners of the consular tribunes, and later consuls. These men, although by no means poor (arguably analogous with the zeugitae or ‘hoplite-class’ in Greece), were not from the wealthiest segments of society either and also had very little previous connection to warfare. As a result, we can probably link to these soldiers the increasing use of simple but functional helmets, like the increasingly popular montefortino type, and a general ‘democratization’ of military equipment across the board. Associated with this is the use of a new type of heavy javelin, which makes it appearance in Central Italy at this time. Prior to this time, javelins are rather hard to identify in the archaeological record. Although spears had most likely been thrown for centuries, if not millennia, in Italy, for the most part they were of the ‘multi-purpose’ variety – spears which could be used as either a thrusting weapon or a thrown one. During the course of the fourth century BC, however, there is increasing evidence for purpose-designed heavy javelins being used throughout Italy – a development which may be associated with the growing number of Gauls in the peninsula. Although by no means unique to the Gauls, the type of heavy javelin which appears in the fourth century BC in Italy is very close to the type of weapon favoured by those living in the modern-day regions of southern Austria and southern France, just the other side of the Alps. It is therefore probable that this military development arrived with the Gallic tribesmen in Italy and was slowly adopted by the Italic peoples.

The fourth century BC marked a major turning point in Rome’s relationship with the Latins. All of the developments of the previous century, including the rise of more cohesive polities/communities, the decline of the region’s mobile clans/gentes, the increased importance of land and agriculture and the arrival of the Gauls, served to break apart any regional unity which had previously existed and created new, more localized divisions. Rome and the Latins still shared a culture and a language, but they no longer shared a single vision for regional security. Rome, in the north, found herself increasingly in opposition to the communities in the south of Latium, who seem to have viewed the Samnites (and perhaps Rome herself) as a far greater threat than the Gauls. Each community in Latium seems to have developed its own distinct identity, which led to an increasingly fractured and factionalized region and ultimately resulted in a final war between Rome and those Latin communities who felt most threatened by her rise to power, generally those located in the southern half of the region. Rome’s victory over these communities, and the resultant settlement of 338 BC, allowed for a reinterpretation of the relationships in Latium which took into account the changing political situation. Rome emerged as the undisputed master of Central Italy and had at her disposal a huge reserve of manpower through the creation of a number of municpia as well as a series of alliances.

This situation changed the Roman army forever. First, it gave Rome a reserve of men which allowed the city to compete with the major Hellenistic powers around the Mediterranean. Without the settlement of 338 BC, Rome would have probably never defeated the Samnites in the final decades of the fourth century BC, let alone a force like that led by Pyrrhus in the early third century BC. The creation of so many new citizens, albeit most of them without voting rights, gave Rome the resources to fight in major conflicts and to come back from defeats time and again. Second, the fourth century BC and the rise of cohesive polities in Latium, most notably at Rome itself, allowed greater strategic vision and planning. With more cohesive communities came the ability and motivation to invest in military infrastructure – roads, colonies and navies. This type of expenditure would have been unthinkable under the more flexible model of the fifth century BC, where Rome’s leaders and Roman warfare seems to have had only an ephemeral connection to the city. But with the rise of a Roman nobility, which maintained links to the community for generations, and an increasing realization by the community that warfare could benefit everyone and not just the soldiers involved – generally through the creation and use of ager publicus – war became a community endeavour. Finally, the settlement of 338 BC and Rome’s conquest of Central Italy created a situation where continued conquest and warfare was almost unavoidable. While the principle of ‘defensive imperialism’ as the main cause of Rome’s expansion has been rightly criticised by scholars such as W.V. Harris and Nathan Rosenstein, Rome’s new position in Central Italy did make conflict likely. Rome’s involvement in Campania had already drawn her into conflict with the Samnites and this would continue for another fifty years. Rome was also increasingly involved with the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, which would ultimately lead to the arrival of Pyrrhus. So while Rome might not have been an entirely reluctant and defensive conqueror, the city also had quite a few new borders and interests to protect.

The late fourth and third centuries BC saw Rome’s armies and envoys venturing further and further afield, for increasingly diverse reasons and interests, the core themes of integration and a developing civic identity are still evident and arguably still driving much of Rome’s military expansion and development.

Rome’s wars during this period, from the mid-fourth century to the mid-third century BC, have been the subject of intense study and debate – particularly during the past fifty years. Beginning with Rome’s great conflict with the Samnites (most notably the Second Samnite War or The Great Samnite War), and followed by Rome’s war against Pyrrhus and the first conflict with the Carthaginians, the city’s foreign interactions during this period were influenced heavily by her new alliance structures and her purported desire to defend the interests of her allies against foreign enemies. Rome’s histories for this period are therefore often framed in terms of a ‘defensive imperialism’, where Rome is portrayed as the reluctant conqueror – being dragged into war after war by her allies, arguably against her will or in pursuit of a greater strategic security. These wars are therefore seen as iura bella (‘just wars’), or defensive wars, although once Rome became involved in a conflict, however reluctantly, the city pursued it to the end – throwing the entirety of her resources into it. It was this dedication to warfare on the part of the Romans, the ability and determination to return to the battlefield time and again after defeats to Pyrrhus or to build a fleet from scratch in order to engage with the Carthaginians, which is often thought to be the secret to their success in this period. That, and an increasingly evolved army which learned from and adapted to each enemy it fought. Or at least this is what the Romans later claimed.

This simple motif of Rome as the reluctant conqueror has rightly been challenged in recent decades, with W.V. Harris and more recently Nathan Rosenstein both presenting the case for Rome being anything but an unwilling or unenthusiastic participant when it came to war.1 Warfare formed an important part of elite identity going back to the early Iron Age, and Rome’s aristocracy – although increasingly sophisticated and urban – retained a strong martial character throughout the Republican period. However, the tension between the Roman elite’s desire to engage in warfare for personal reasons and the evident awkwardness and unpreparedness which seems to have marked the city’s approach in the aftermath of this warfare has generally defied a single explanation. Rome’s apparently ad hoc approach to empire in the middle Republic suggests that a grand strategy was lacking during this period. But at the core of Rome’s foreign interactions, underpinning her reaction and response to the requests of her allies and driving the ambitions of her elite, were a set of cultural principles with their origins back in the Archaic period. As a result, although this period clearly represents a new stage and period in Roman warfare and the development of empire, it also needs to be understood as a continuation of previous practices and the result of the same forces which led to Rome’s consolidation and her domination over the Latins. The present chapter will endeavour to lay out some of these principles (although a full treatment would require an entire volume – indeed perhaps several! – on its own).

Our understanding of the development of the Roman army as a fighting body, and as a social and cultural institution, has also been revised in recent years. The nature and characteristics of the Roman army during this period have been a subject of interest since the time of Livy, as this period marks the first time that the surviving literary accounts offer anything which resembles a real description of battlefield tactics and organization (Livy 8.8, discussed in detail later, being the most obvious example). This period is therefore generally recognized as the point of origin for not only Rome’s territorial empire, but also the Roman army which won it – the so-called manipular legion – although what made the Roman army so different during this period is sometimes hard to determine. Rome’s historians all held that the Roman army, at its core, had remained remarkably stable and static during the Republic. The Servian Constitution, supposedly set out in the late Regal period, created the wealth and age-based framework whereby Rome’s population was divided up, equipped and organized into a civic militia. While many superficial details changed during the following centuries (most notably the equipment), and sometimes quite quickly, the core principles which underpinned the army were thought to have remained roughly the same. What made the army so successful was therefore thought to be the way in which it changed its superficial aspects – its equipment, formation and tactics – in response to different enemies and situations. And as Rome faced off against more and stronger opponents during the late fourth and third centuries BC, these enemies were thought to have shaped the Roman army – like a whetstone on a sword edge – into the supreme fighting force which ultimately conquered the entirety of the Mediterranean world. However, this development narrative has been slowly revised as the major changes which are evident in Roman society during the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BC have also been applied to the army, and as military change is more clearly understood. It was once thought, based on military models produced during the Enlightenment, that armies acted rationally and could change their tactics and equipment as easily as one might change a set of clothing. However, an increasing body of sociological and anthropological work has revealed that these types of superficial changes are subject to the same social and cultural rules which govern other aspects of society – and indeed these rules are arguably more important in the sphere of warfare. Military changes very rarely occur in response to the simple arrival of a new technology or approach, but are instead dictated by a range of principles which actually favour conservatism over innovation. The emergence of the manipular legion of the fourth century BC, although most likely a response to new stimuli, was therefore also probably part of a much longer sequence of development in Rome.


In early republican days, each legionary was expected to provide his own uniform, equipment and personal weapons, and to replace them when they were worn out, damaged or lost. After the consul Marius’ reforms, the State provided uniforms, arms and equipment to conscripts.

The tunic and personal legionary equipment remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years. By Augustan times, the legionary wore a woolen tunic made of two pieces of cloth sewn together, with openings for the head and arms, and with short sleeves. It came to just above the knees at the front, a little lower at the back. The military tunic was shorter than that worn by civilians. In cold weather, it was not unusual for two tunics to be worn, one over the other. Sometimes more than two were worn—Augustus wore up to four tunics at a time in winter months.

With no examples surviving to the present day, the color of the legionary tunic has always been hotly debated. Many historians believe that it was a red berry color and that this was common to legions and guard units. Some authors argue that legionary tunics were white. Vitruvius, Rome’s chief architect during the early decades of the empire, wrote that, of all the natural colors used in dying fabrics and for painting, red and yellow were by far the easiest and cheapest to obtain.

Second-century Roman general Arrian described the tunics worn by cavalry during exercises as predominantly a red berry color, or, in some cases, an orange-brown color—a product of red. He also described multicolored cavalry exercise tunics. But no tunic described by Arrian was white or natural in color. Red was also the color of unit banners, and of legates’ ensigns and cloaks.

Tacitus, in describing Vitellius’ entry into Rome in July AD 69, noted that marching ahead of the standards in Vitellius’ procession were “the camp-prefects, the tribunes, and the highest-ranked centurions, in white robes.” These were the loose ceremonial robes worn by officers when they took part in religious processions. That Tacitus specifically notes they were white indicates that he was differentiating these garments from the non-white tunics worn by the military.

The one color that legionaries and auxiliaries were least likely to wear was blue. This color, not unnaturally, was associated by Romans with the sea. Pompey the Great’s son Sextus Pompeius believed he had a special association with Neptune, god of the sea, and in the 40s to 30s BC, when admiral of Rome’s fleets in the western Mediterranean, he wore a blue cloak to honor Neptune. After Sextus rebelled and was defeated by Marcus Agrippa’s fleets, Octavian granted Agrippa the right to use a blue banner. Apart from the men of the 30th Ulpia Legion, whose emblems related to Neptune, if any of Rome’s military wore blue in the imperial era, it would have been her sailors and/or marines.

Whatever the weather, and irrespective of the fact that auxiliaries in the Roman army, both infantry and cavalry, wore breeches, Roman legionaries did not begin wearing pants, which were for centuries considered foreign, until the second century. Some scholars suggest that legionaries wore nothing beneath their tunics, others suggest they wore a form of loin cloth, which was common among civilians.

Over his tunic the legionary could wear a subarmalis, a sleeveless padded vest, and over that a cuirass—an armored vest. Because of their body armor, legionaries were classified as “heavy infantry.” Early legionary armor took the form of a sleeveless leather jerkin on to which were sown small ringlets of iron mail. Legionaries and most auxiliaries continued to wear the mail cuirass for many centuries; there was no concept of superseding military hardware as there is today.

Early in the first century a new form of armor began to enter service, the lorica segmentata, made up of solid metal segments joined by bronze hinges and held together by leather straps, covering torso and shoulders. This segmented legionary armor was the forerunner of the armor worn by mounted knights in the Middle Ages. By AD 75, a simplified version of the segmented infantry armor was in widespread use. Called today the Newstead type, because an example was found in modern times at Newstead in Scotland, it stayed in service for the next 300 years.

On his head, the legionary wore a conical helmet of bronze or iron. There were a number of variations on the evolving “jockey cap” design, but most had the common features of hinged cheek flaps of metal, tied together under the chin, a horizontal projection at the rear to protect the back of the neck, like a fireman’s helmet, and a small brow ridge at the front.

First- and second-century legionary helmets unearthed in modern times have revealed occasional traces of felt inside, suggesting a lining. In the fourth century, the Roman officer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of “the cap which one of us wore under his helmet.” This cap was probably made of felt, for Ammianus described how he and two rank and file soldiers with him used the cap “in the manner of a sponge” to soak up water from a well to quench their thirst in the Mesopotamian desert. By the end of the fourth century, legionaries were wearing “Pamonian leather caps” beneath their helmets, which, said Vegetius, “were formerly introduced by the ancients to a different design,” indicating the caps beneath helmets had been in common use for a long time.

After a legion had been wiped out in AD 86 by the lethally efficient falx, the curved, double-handed Dacian sword, which had sliced through helmets of unfortunate Roman troops, legion helmets had cruciform reinforcing strips added over the crown to provide better protection. It was not uncommon for owners of helmets to inscribe their initials on the inside or on the cheek flap. A legionary helmet unearthed at Colchester in Britain had three sets of initials stamped inside it, indicating that helmets passed from owner to owner. In Syria in AD 54, lax legionaries of the 6th Ferrata and 10th Fretensis legions sold their helmets while still in service.

During republican times, Rome’s heavy-armored troops, the hastati, wore eagle feathers on their helmets to make themselves seem taller to their enemies. By the time of Julius Caesar, this had become a crest of horsehair on the top of legionary helmets. These crests were worn in battle until the early part of the first century, before being relegated to parade use. The color of the crest is debatable. Some archaeological discoveries suggest they were dyed yellow. Arrian, governor of Cappadocia in the reign of Hadrian, described yellow helmet crests on the thousands of Roman cavalrymen under his command. The feathers of the republican hastati were sometimes purple, sometimes black, which possibly evolved into purple or black legionary helmet crests.

The helmet was the only item of equipment a legionary was permitted to remove while digging trenches and building fortifications. Helmets were slung around the neck while on the march. The legionary also wore a neck scarf, tied at the throat, originally to prevent his armor from chafing his neck. The scarf became fashionable, with auxiliary units quickly adopting them, too. It is possible that different units used different colored scarves. On his feet the legionary wore heavy-duty hobnailed leather sandals called caligulae, which left his toes exposed. At his waist he wore the cingulum, an apron of four to six metal strands which by the fourth century was no longer used.


The imperial legionary’s first-use weapon was the javelin, the pilum, of which he would carry two or three, the shorter 5 feet (152 centimeters) in length, the longer, 7 feet (213 centimeters). Primarily thrown, javelins were weighted at the business end and, from Marius’ day, were designed to bend once they struck, to prevent the enemy from throwing them back. “At present they are seldom used by us,” said Vegetius at the end of the fourth century, “but are the principal weapon of the barbarian heavy-armed foot.” By Vegetius’ day, a lighter spear, with less penetrating power, was used by Roman troops.

The legionary carried a short sword, the gladius, its blade 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, double-edged, and with a sharp point for effective jabbing. Spanish steel was preferred, leading to the gladius becoming known as “the Spanish sword.” It was kept in a scabbard, which was worn on the legionary’s right side, in contrast to officers, who wore it on the left.

By the fourth century, the gladius had been replaced by a longer sword similar to the spatha carried by auxiliary cavalry from Augustus’ time. The legionary was also equipped with a short dagger, the pugio, worn in a scabbard on the left hip, which was still being carried into the fifth century. Sword and dagger scabbards were frequently highly decorated with silver, gold, jet and ceramic inlay, even precious stones.

The legionary shield, the scutum, was curved and elongated. Polybius described the legionary shield as convex in shape, with straight sides, 4 feet (121 centimeters) long and 2½ feet (75 centimeters) across. The thickness at the rim was a palm’s breadth. It consisted of two layers of wood fastened together with bull’s hide glue. The outer surface was covered with canvas and then with smooth calf-skin, glued in place. The edges of the shield were rimmed with iron strips, as a protection against sword blows and wear and tear. The center of the shield was fixed with an iron or bronze boss, to which the handle was attached on the reverse side. The boss could deflect the blows of swords, javelins and stones.

On to the leather surface of the shield was painted the emblem of the legion to which the owner belonged. Vegetius, writing at the end of the fourth century, said that “every cohort had its shields painted in a manner peculiar to itself.” While Vegetius was talking in the past tense, several examples suggest that each cohort of the Praetorian Guard may have used different thunderbolt emblems on their shields. The shield was always carried on the left arm in battle, with a strap over the arm taking much of the weight. On the march, it was protected from the elements with a leather cover, and slung over the legionary’s left shoulder. By the third century, the legionary shield had become oval, and much less convex.

The Long Turkish War – Ottoman

The inconclusive, unpredictable, and expensive nature of large campaigns, low-level border conflicts and raids (kleinkrieg) gained importance and became the essential part of the battle environment and lifestyle of the Ottoman-Habsburg frontier after the long reign of Süleyman. This situation was exaggerated by frontier populations, which consisted of thousands of mercenaries who sought employment through war. Within certain limits both sides tolerated these raids and conflicts within. Occasionally, events spiraled out of control, however, provoking large campaigns. The Long War (Langekrieg) of 1593 to 1606 was a good example of this type of escalation. In 1592, the governor of Bosnia, Telli Hasan Pasha, increased the level of raids and began to conduct medium-sized attacks against specific targets by using his provincial units only, although he probably had the tacit support of some high-ranking government officials. Initially, he achieved a series of successes but suffered a decisive defeat near Sisak in which nearly all his army was wiped out and he himself was killed. The new Grand Vizier, Koca Sinan Pasha, used this incident as well as a popular mood inclined toward war to break the long peace.

The ambitious Sinan Pasha began the war eagerly but did not show the same enthusiasm during the actual start of the military campaign. The army mobilization was very slow and haphazard after long decades of inaction on the western frontier and from the repercussions of the draining and tiring Iranian campaign. Consequently, the campaign season of 1593 was wasted, and real combat activity only began in 1594 when the Ottomans easily captured Raab (Yanik) and Papa. However, a joint revolt and defection of the Danubean principalities of Wallachia, Moldovia, and Transylvania negated these gains and put the army in the very difficult position of facing two fronts at the same time. Moreover, the revolt threatened the security of the Danube River communications, which was essential for the supply of the army. The Wallachian campaign of 1595 to suppress the revolt ended with a humiliating defeat and huge loss of life. In the meantime, Habsburg forces captured the strategic fortress of Gran (Estergon).

The ever-resourceful Ottoman government immediately reacted to the consequences of these disasters, which had damaged especially the morale and motivation of the standing army corps. A new campaign was organized, and the reluctant sultan, Mehmed III, was persuaded to lead the expeditionary force in person. The presence of the sultan gave a big boost to army morale, and it advanced to the main objective, the modern fortress of Eger (Eğri), in good order. The Ottomans demonstrated their pragmatism and receptivity once again by applying the same effective siege artillery tactics that their Habsburg enemies had used against Estergon, and Egğri capitulated on October 12, 1596.

After the successful resolution of the siege, the Ottoman army had to face the relief force. Initially the Ottoman high command underestimated the danger and sent only the vanguard to deal with them. After the defeat and retreat of the vanguard, however, it decided to advance and attack the enemy with the entire army. The Habsburg army was deployed mainly in well-fortified defensive wagenburgen formations and it controlled all the passes in the swampy region of Mezökeresztes (Haçova). Even though captured prisoners had revealed the enemy strength and intentions two days before, the Ottoman high command insisted on an offensive strategy after spending only a single day passing through the swamps and thereafter deploying immediately into combat formation. The entire Ottoman first line joined the assault on October 26. The daring Ottoman plan failed, the assaulting units were stopped by massive firepower, and were then routed by Habsburg counterattacks. Fortunately, the Habsburg units gave up pursuit to loot the Ottoman camp. The day was saved at the very last moment with the daring counterattack of auxiliary units and cavalry against the Habsburg flanks and rear. As the disorganized and looting Habsburg soldiers panicked, the retreating Ottoman units immediately turned around and joined the auxiliary units. The Habsburg army suffered huge casualties in the following mayhem, and the Tatars decimated the remainder during the pursuit.

The Ottoman high command ended the campaign and returned to winter quarters instead of exploiting the advantage gained by these two victories. The reason was understandable considering the command elements of the army in this campaign. Except for a few operational level commanders, none of the military or civilian members of the high command (including the sultan) had the knowledge, experience, or courage to lead the army forward. This failure is contrasted by the strong performance of the standing army corps and provincial units, which executed their combat tasks properly and in some cases better than in previous campaigns. The Habsburg side also had the same leadership problems as well as other structural problems, such as mercenaries and the conflicting interests of regional magnates. The outcome of this mutually inarticulate strategic vision was to drag the war out into a series of seasonal campaigns launched against each others’ fortresses.

The Long War continued on for 10 more years, during which both armies, the Habsburgs especially, avoided large-scale battles. Because of the unpredictability of the outcome of pitched battles, both sides focused more on smaller battles revolving around key fortresses. After the disastrous year of 1598 in which Yanik was lost and the Ottoman army suffered numerous difficulties caused by harsh weather, the balance began to tip to the advantage of the Ottomans. Repeated attempts by the Habsburgs to capture Buda (Budin), the capital of Ottoman Hungary, failed whereas the Ottomans captured the mighty fortress of Kanisza (Kanije) and managed to keep it against all odds. The rebellious Danubean principalities, likewise, could not withstand the sheer weight of the war and one by one gave up. An unexpected revolt of the Transylvanians against the Habsburgs effectively wiped out the remaining chances of Habsburg success, while the Ottomans reconquered strategic Estergon. Once again, however, the Ottomans were unable to exploit their success effectively. This time it had nothing to do with the government or the strategic direction of the war but, rather, because of the collapse of the eastern frontier defensive system against a new Safavid offensive and the immediate security threat of renewed popular revolts (Celali). The Long War concluded with the Zsitvatorok peace agreement of 1606, which itself was the outcome of mutual exhaustion and other urgent issues.

Even though the Ottoman government failed to achieve a complete victory in the Long War it still gained considerable advantage by retaining such critical territorial conquests as Kanije and Eğri. This forced the Habsburgs to spend large amounts of money and time to build up a new defensive line against the Ottomans. Another advantage occurred with the influx of large numbers of western mercenaries, who introduced new weapon systems, tactics, and techniques into the Ottoman military. The Ottoman military benefited greatly from these new innovations, thanks to its receptivity and pragmatism. For the first time in Ottoman history, the government enlisted groups of mercenaries who had deserted from the Habsburg camp. The most well-known example involved the desertion of a French mercenary unit in the Papa fortress to the Ottoman side on August 1600. Afterwards, they served on various campaigns during the Long War, and some of them continued to serve well after the end of war. Even though this was extraordinary and not representative of a generalized trend, it demonstrates that the Ottoman government of the seventeenth century was far from being the reactionary and conservative organ that is still a commonly held conviction about its identity today.

Moreover, the length and difficulty of the war forced the Ottoman military to the limits of its capabilities and drastically transformed it. In order to meet the requirements of war, the Ottoman government had to reorganize the empire’s financial system and to recruit or mobilize all available manpower. The obvious outcome of the financial reorganization and enlargement of eligible population groups to the privileged Askeri class not only changed the face of the military but also had a huge impact on Ottoman society as a whole. Moreover, the increased need for musketeers further weakened the traditional military classes, especially the Sipahis and other cavalry corps.

From every aspect, the Ottoman military ended the war with a completely different army. Instead of mounted archers in loose formations, the army employed infantry with firearms in deep formations of several rows of men. Instead of a regionally based provincial army, a salary-based standing army supported by provincial mercenaries became the dominant military organization. Moreover, that army was becoming highly evolved as an institution that had formalized ranks, corps of specialists, training, and battlefield flexibility. Therefore, it can be safely said that the classical period of the Ottoman military effectively ended with the signing of the Zsitvatorok agreement on November 11, 1606.

Anglo-Saxon England and Welsh Armed Forces Against the Vikings


The core of an army in Anglo-Saxon England was the king’s military household, whose members served their lord in return for reward, by the seventh century increasingly given as landholdings. Nobles and royal officers had their own households, which could be summoned to the army. Young warriors served a form of apprenticeship in these households before they married and settled on their lands. In another parallel development with Francia, changes occurred in the methods of raising armies in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. At the time when the Viking “Great Army” appeared in England there may have been a problem with increasing amounts of land being donated to the Church, both by kings and by aristocratic families. In the late seventh century Bede had claimed that this was diminishing the amount of land providing warriors in Northumbria. It may be that ecclesiastical land was held by the family in perpetuity, rather than being dependent on good service to the king. Alternatively, many earlier landholdings were also held in perpetuity, but the granting of them by charter, which made them “bookland,” enabled a lord to bequeath it to a person or persons of his choice rather than being compelled to divide it amongst his inheritors.

Charters of late eighth-century Mercia and Kent make it clear that there were three common obligations to the king: fortress work, bridge work, and military service. Church lands were obliged to provide labor services such as repair of fortifications and bridges, even if they were exempt from military service. Whether any were totally exempt is unclear. Kings like Offa of Mercia began to specify in their charters that Church lands were not exempt from military service, in order to maintain their military manpower. Offa used the obligations to create a network of forts and probably the Dyke on the frontier with Wales as well. By the ninth century these charter practices had spread to Wessex. It seems that it was around the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries that kings began to specify the amount of military service required from a given amount of land: for instance, a Mercian charter of 801 says the owner of a thirty-hide estate should provide five men to the army, in other words one man per six hides, or more likely the owner and five men, one man per five hides. The five-hide unit is referred to in early eleventh-century tracts on social status as a designation of thegnhood. It also appears frequently in the listed military service requirements in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the variations it records in military obligation between shires tell us that this was not a universal standard throughout England. Notably, the five-hide shires largely correspond with those of Wessex and western Mercia. Given these variations, it seems unlikely that the obligations of Edward the Elder’s time were identical to those of Edward the Confessor’s, even if there was considerable continuity.

Many of the Wessex charters purporting to be ninth-century are forgeries. However, the reference made in many of these to two decimations of land by King Æthelwulf in 845 and 855 may have a basis in truth, as the ASC and Asser’s Life of Alfred also refer to the 855 decimation. The object was to provide a tenth of his lands to the Church, but probably also to give lands to thegns, who were the mainstay of his army. He, Alfred and Edward the Elder almost certainly built upon the one man per five hide requirement when they reorganized the military defenses and forces of Wessex and Mercia. Both Asser and Hincmar of Reims say that Church lands were exempt from military service in Æthelwulf’s kingdom. It is likely that the increasing Viking threat brought about some of these changes in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. When they overran most of Northumbria, East Anglia, and a large part of Mercia, and almost defeated Wessex as well, the Vikings gave the impetus for even more far-reaching reforms by Alfred of Wessex. The basis was the construction of a series of burhs, so that no one lived more than a day’s journey from one. Each had an administrative district that was to provide its garrison and maintain its defenses. The Burghal Hidage, a document which dates from the reign of Alfred’s son Edward the Elder, indicates that each hide was responsible for defending and maintaining approximately 4 feet of wall. This appears to correspond well to the length of many of the known burh ramparts and their districts. In all likelihood the system, which Edward and his sister Æthelflæd extended into Mercia as they reconquered land from the Danes, was little changed from that instituted by Alfred after his victory at Edington (878).

Alfred also wished to have an army available at all times. According to the ASC: “The king had divided his army into two, so that there was always half at home and half out, except for those men who had to hold the burhs.” The entry is made under 894, but the reform, if it was more than a temporary arrangement, was presumably carried out before this and after Edington. It is more likely to mean a division of the army into three, rather than the two parts normally envisaged, in which case a man liable to service would spend a third of the year on his land, a third garrisoning the burh of his district and a third with the field army. As Guy Halsall points out, apart from making a reasonable demand on the thegn’s time, this would enable the assembly of the field army straight from the burhs, rather than from innumerable individual landholdings. This would save time and mean that the men of each district were already familiar with each other and had probably trained together in preparation for field service. The ASC entry of 917 mentions burhs as assembly points for armies. While garrisoning the burhs men could also carry out fortress and bridge work. Both the ASC and Asser mention on several occasions that these men rode horses. This is additional evidence that these men were a select levy (fyrd). The levy of one man per hide of the Burghal Hidage must have been something else, perhaps called up in situations of imminent danger. Alternatively, they functioned as a “support force” for the real warriors, sequestered on the basis of the burghal system. Each man was supposed to provide twenty shillings for two months’ maintenance in the event that he was called up: this was presumbly the payment raised from the five hides for the support of the warrior (the ‘man’), perhaps on the basis of one per hide. Æthelstan’s Grately law-code states that “each man” should have two mounted men per plow (sylh). The latter would have been a heavy burden, even if the sylh referred to is equivalent to the Kentish sulung of the Domesday Book, which was two hides, rather than a single hide or even less. Again it may refer to the support for the “man” (warrior), who needed to be mobile to keep up with the army. Æthelstan needed to respond to threats further afield and more often than any of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Even the warriors who remained “at home” might be called upon to fight if their lands were threatened. The Vikings were a mobile enemy who could strike at various points along the coast with little warning. In late 893 three ealdormen, Æthelred of Mercia, Æthelhelm of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth of Somerset, raised the garrisons and the “king’s thegns who were at home near the burhs” to attack a Viking army encamped at Buttington by the River Severn. The problem is that the terminology used by those who wrote our records is rarely precise enough to tell us exactly who was being called up to fight—for instance, the other folc who joined the garrison of London to defend it in 895 need not be read as “common folk,” but as men required to do service as soldiers who were not “on duty” at the time, or as commoners who aided in various capacities other than combat. London appears not to have been included in the Burghal Hidage, perhaps because it was on the boundary between former kingdoms. Despite the problems and uncertainties, we can be sure that it was the wealthier men who were expected to serve as warriors. Thus the military system required the service of a large proportion of the male population of England, but the fighting was (preferably) done by a minority. As in the case cited in Germany above, when “support troops” did encounter the enemy they were not up to the task. For instance, ceorls working on a fortification proved totally incapable of defending it against the Vikings in 893.

Whatever the exact functioning of the system, what we do know of it does not suggest a mass peasant levy. There are no signs of exemption for harvesting periods and the like, which suggests that the levy was not primarily made up of those who labored on the farms. The need to cultivate the land cannot have been the primary reason for leaving some of the men subject to the levy at home for half the year, as this would still have seriously depleted the agricultural labor force when it was most needed. The idea was presumably that some thegns remained at home to keep order and ensure that normal farming activities could be maintained without internal disorder or external attack. At the same time the system ideally provided a fighting force that was sufficiently large as a field army, but not so large that it could not be provisioned for any length of time.

Alfred’s (or Edward the Elder’s) reforms represent an attempt to exact military service from a wide class of landowners. As in the case of the contemporary Franks, in the burhs and on campaign the troops are likely to have been commanded by officers of the royal household. The reform therefore represents a significant shift from a system in which the king was largely dependent on the highest nobility, who were summoned by him and then turned up with their households and any other men they chose to bring, which they then commanded. We know that there was some opposition to Alfred’s reforms: in the 870s there had been some who preferred to submit to the Danes, and there must have been many landowners who were displeased with the measures he took after Edington. It was presumably the scale of the threat to Wessex that enabled Alfred to carry out his reforms, which may have involved seizure of Church property as well.

Alfred’s reforms did not make the king less dependent on the nobility, but created a greater bond between many of them and his court. Those who served the household directly were provided for and in return would have owed service. Others may have been granted land in return for service. All this increased the status of the king. However, as Richard Abels made clear in his work on lordship and military obligation, many nobles were “sub-contracted” to raise fyrdmen in districts where they, and not the sheriff or other exactor of royal service, had jurisdiction. One such was the Bishop of Worcester, who held one hundred of three hundred hides at Oswaldslow in this way “by a constitution of ancient times” when the Domesday Bookwas compiled. Elsewhere abbots and other churchmen, as well as thegns, had similar rights, if generally over less lands and inhabitants.

There were thus two groups of fyrdmen: those who held their land of the king by book-right and had rights of jurisdiction by royal favor, and those who held land as a loan from another lord or under his seignory. The first category of fyrdman was heavily punished for not attending a summons by the king, usually with loss of his possessions. Although the word fyrdwiteappears in the Laws of Ine, it is not clear what this means, and no reference to it as a fine for failure to perform fyrd service (or as a commutation of it) imposed by the king occurs before Cnut’s time. Thereafter the term appears only rarely, suggesting that its use was infrequent. The second category of fyrdmen was not directly the king’s concern: all that concerned him was that the lord who was obliged to provide a certain number of men per hide fulfilled this provision one way or another. Abels emphasized that the situation in Worcestershire may not have been typical of England as a whole, but there are indications that it was similar to some other shires, if not necessarily the majority. There would have been important consequences of such a system—firstly, many of the king’s most important lieutenants would have had to command their own contingents in the battle line and could not have stayed close to the king, and secondly, a considerable number of those provided by lords with their own jurisdictions may have been mercenaries, paid for to make up the quota for their hides, but not necessarily levies of the hides. Such commands would also have perpetuated the existence of regional contingents that had a distinct identity and perhaps ancient privileges as to position in the battle line. John of Salisbury claimed that the men of Kent held the right to strike the first blow, and the men of London the right to protect the king.

The “men of London” may in fact have been the housecarls. This group of warriors has attracted a great deal of attention, without any certainty as to who they actually were and how they served the king. They have been seen as a form of military brotherhood like the Jomsvikings (in any case of doubtful historicity) or as an early standing army. Alternatively, it has been suggested that there was little difference between them and other thegns. There is no doubt that the term “housecarl” is of Scandinavian origin, and that Cnut’s conquest altered the nature of the king’s household. Even in Domesday Book sixteen of the eighteen thegns recorded as landowning housecarls had Scandinavian names, but this does not necessarily mean that that a new type of guard corps was imported wholesale to help Cnut maintain his rule over a conquered land. The question may simply be one of a change in terminology, as we know that previous English kings maintained royal thegns, for which “huskarl” may have been a translation. Domesday Book may similarly have used “housecarl” simply as a synonym for royal thegn. Like Cnut, his predecessors as king had sometimes had to use their followings to enforce their rule, and some of these were Scandinavians, at least at the courts of Edgar and Æthelred II. If not quite to the same extent as in heroic poetry such as The Battle of Maldon, chroniclers such as Asser probably gave a somewhat idealized view of the relations between Anglo-Saxon kings such as Alfred and their followings, representing them in terms of gift exchange rather than the hiring of soldiers. The import of men from “outside” had advantages, as they had no link to vested interests in the kingdom.

Housecarls, perhaps like the royal thegns before them, appear to have had a special relationship with the king and his immediate entourage. For instance, the “housecarls of her son the king” protected Queen Emma in 1035, and they were used to impose taxes by King Harthacnut in Worcestershire in 1041. As such they were provided with high-quality equipment, would have been well trained and must have lived within close proximity of the court. In this sense they were an elite and may have received a royal stipend, but their status need not have differed significantly from earlier royal household thegns who served as soldiers.

The Welsh

Despite the great outpouring of material that stresses supposedly pan-Celtic traits in warfare, religion and culture generally, it is debatable whether the remaining Celtic-speaking regions of the Viking Era—Ireland, the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms, Strathclyde, Wales, and Brittany—had much more in common with each other than they did with their Germanic neighbors, except their linguistic affinity. The evidence for military organization in all these regions in the early Middle Ages is sparse, but there is enough to show that there were many similarities with Frankish and English kingdoms.

The military household of the Welsh kings was the teulu, rendered familia in Latin, like the households of their English and later Norman neighbors. In early sources such as the Triadsand the Gododdin, we also find gosgordd: if not the same as the teulu, it may have been the household generally as opposed to the personal bodyguard. Here the term teulu will be used to mean “household.” As in the case of other early medieval households, the size of the teulu must have varied. Literary references sometimes give numbers in the hundreds, while the Brut says that Gruffudd ap Llywelyn lost 140 men of his teulu in 1047, clearly not all of them. However, even if this was not an exaggeration, it must be noted that he was a ruler of exceptional power (in Wales) at this time. Earlier sources give lower numbers—for instance, the ASC mentions that Brocmail of Powys fled the field at Chester with his fifty men. At Mynydd Carn in 1081 Trahaearn ap Caradog was killed alongside twenty-five of his teulu when many had already died in the battle, which indicates a similar strength.

Like the households of other Viking Age rulers, the teulu could include men of all ages and social rank, including leading nobles, with the probable exception of unfree bondmen. The members had horses, although their equipment may have varied according to wealth, and many had “squires,” such as the daryanogyon (shield-bearers) who attended uchelwyr, the aristocracy. These positions became offices, and were certainly of pre-Norman period origin. The teulu could also include foreigners, hostages from the households of other nobles or rivals, and, like the Frankish households, sons of nobles sent to receive training. Gruffudd ap Cynan seems to have employed an exceptional number of Irishmen, but it is not certain that these were thought of as teulu members: for instance, they are probably the “pirates” blamed for excessive ravaging in the Life of St. Gwynllyw.

The person responsible for mustering the teulu was the penteulu (head of the teulu), who was supposed to accompany the king at all times except when sent on a specific errand. Naturally, the office of penteulu had great prestige and the laws list many privileges, including a larger dwelling than others and a share of the proceeds from judicial proceedings paid to the king. Other members were appointed subordinate commanders of the llu, the military levy, should it be summoned. The teulu maintained the tradition of the comitatus, and Welsh poetry reflects the same traditions as Old English “heroic” poetry—it was supposed to stand by its lord to the last, as indeed Trahaearn’s seems to have done at Mynydd Carn. On the other hand the Triads describe the two war-bands which abandoned their leaders on the eve of battle as earning everlasting infamy. Since the teulu was also supposed to follow its lord even if he rebelled, this gave any lord the power to mount a rebellion, with consequent disruptive effects on Welsh society. A Welsh ruler had to secure the support of his nobles (uchelwyr)—as elsewhere in Europe, whatever the laws said about a king’s rights to summon his nobles and their followings, their support had to be earned. Many Welsh rulers ran into trouble while trying to impose their will on their subject lords. In 984 Einion ab Owain of Deheubarth was killed trying to do so.

As noted, the usual word for the general levy was llu, but a variety of other terms were used for “army,” such as byddin. Usually the levy was drawn only from certain districts, but Gruffudd ap Llywelyn may have been able to assemble a host from the whole of Wales at the height of his power, if this is what John of Worcester meant by “his whole realm.” Numbers are almost impossible to assess. Historia Gruffudd vab kenan gives figures that appear realistic, the highest being in the hundreds. Davies estimates his army as something under 1,000 in 1075, as he is said to have had 160 men of Gwynedd and numerous foreigners (perhaps 500), especially Irish and Danes, and suggests that the rival armies at Mynydd Carn were each over 1,000 men. Earlier, at the height of his power in 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn had enough men to trouble the English and to force Edward to assemble the host of all England.

Although Wales was never unified, it did undergo a process of reduction of the number of kingdoms in the early medieval period, as happened everywhere in Europe. Several scholars have found evidence of a change in military organization around the beginning of the Viking Period: for instance, the abandonment of some political centers, including hill-forts. In poetry of this period there are hints that free men (eillion) were being called up for service. In the laws supposedly codifed by Hywel Dda (d. 950) freemen have to attend musters and pay duties. Not all the codes imposed this duty on free men, and while some spoke of a “levy of the land,” this must in practice have been selective, as in Anglo-Saxon England. Presumably the king called up those he needed. The Brutiau claim that Maredudd ap Bleddyn gathered “about four hundred kinsmen and comrades and a teulu of theirs” for a campaign in 1118. The same source makes one of the very rare references to a general levy (of Meirionnydd) in 1110, which may even have included bondmen. With the exception of one referred to in the Life of St. Cadog (a fifth-century saint), all general levies are recorded as meeting with defeat. Bondmen had certain duties to construct encampments for the king’s men and to provide pack-horses (and supplies?), but it is unclear whether they were expected to fight or not.

In Wales mercenaries (alltud—“aliens”) were certainly used in many armies. Apart from the Irish mentioned above, John of Worcester mentions Viking mercenaries employed by Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in his attack on England in 1055. The laws also mention the billeting of armed foreigners on the local populace.

There is little evidence that Church lands were exempt from military service in Wales. There are hints that the early medieval clas church functioned in a similar way to the Church in Ireland, its senior men maintaining retinues and providing military service. Given the amount of land owned by the Church and the limited resources available to any ruler, exempting it would have made the raising of forces almost impossible. Most claims to exemption are made in later saints’ lives and many of these are dubious.

Medieval Armor And Weapons




Cold Steel Arms: Axe heads, maces, morningstars

The armor worn in France throughout the medieval period was directly derived from that worn in the Migrations Period by the leaders of Germanic war bands, and its basic structure, which included a shield, helmet, and coat, changed little between ca. A. D. 100 and 1150. In the early period, the shield (Lat. scutum, OFr. escu) was normally constructed of wood covered with leather and reinforced with strips of bronze or iron centered on a hemispherical metal boss that covered the grip. Down to ca. 1000, the shield was usually ovoid or round and about three feet in diameter. A round shield of similar construction continued to be used by infantry into the 15th century, but a longer and narrower shield of Byzantine origin, shaped like an elongated almond, was introduced in the 11th century for use by heavy cavalry and predominated from ca. 1050 to 1150. The normal type of helmet (MHG helm, OFr. helme, MidFr. heaume) in the period before 1150 took the form of a more or less convex cone, most commonly constructed from four or more triangular sections of metal or some other hard material bound by iron bands. It was usually supplied with a nasal bar and until ca. 750 with hinged cheek plates as well.

The coat was almost always made of mail (OFr. maille), a mesh of interlocking iron rings of uniform size. The names most commonly given to the mail coat in the period before ca. 1300 were derived from the Old Germanic word *brunaz ‘bright’: Lat. brunia, OFr. brunie or bro(i)gne. Down to ca. 800, no protection for the neck was generally worn, but in the 9th century it became customary to wear a mail hood with attached shoulder cape over or partially under the mail coat and under the helm. This caped hood was apparently known as the halsbergen ‘neck guard’ in Frankish and by a derivative word variously spelled halberc, halbert, (h)auberc, etc. in Old French. This word (in English in the form “hauberk”) has been applied since at least the 17th century to the mail coat or brogne itself, but this was an error of the antiquarians, and historically it had designated only the caped hood as long as the latter was still in use—that is, until the 14th century. The hood proper, which was often attached directly to the brogne, was called the coiffe, and from the 12th century onward the brogne with attached coiffe was called an haubergonne.

Helmets and mail coats were expensive, and before ca. 800 they were worn only by kings, nobles, and their most distinguished companions-in-arms. In the 9th century, however, they came to be distributed to the ordinary members of royal and noble military retinues, newly named vassals, and from ca. 950 they were to be characteristic of knights, who were always expected to appear for battle in the most complete and up-to-date armor.

The period 1150–1220 saw the first major changes in the form of armor used in France since the Frankish conquest. Most of these changes were in the direction of increased protection for the body, already begun with the adoption of the long shield. In the late 12th century, the sleeves of the brogne were extended from the elbows to the wrists and finally acquired attached mittens. Mail leggings, or chausses, though occasionally worn earlier, similarly came into general use among knights ca. 1150 and were worn to ca. 1350. Also ca. 1150 began the custom of wearing a surcoat (OFr. surcote, cote a armer)—a loose, generally sleeveless cloth coat probably borrowed from the Muslims— over the coat of mail. The surcoat was universally adopted by ca. 1210 and worn thereafter until ca. 1410. Throughout this period, it was commonly emblazoned with its wearer’s heraldic “arms,” but these new ensigns were primarily displayed on the shield— which between 1150 and 1200 also lost its traditional boss, between 1150 and 1220 was made progressively shorter and wider, and between 1200 and 1250 was given an increasingly triangular shape through the leveling of its upper edge.

Although the traditional conical helm continued in use until ca. 1280, several new forms emerged in this period that were destined to supersede it. The most important were the flat-topped “great” helm, which between 1180 and 1220 evolved to enclose the whole head in a cylinder of steel pierced only by slits for seeing and holes for breathing, and the close-fitting hemispherical bascinet, which emerged ca. 1220. The great helm survived with little further structural change from 1220 to 1400, and from ca. 1300 its apex was often provided with a distinctive heraldic “crest” (cimier) of wood or boiled leather, worn primarily in the tournaments to which, by 1380, the helm was restricted. The bascinet was at first worn under the helm and over the coif of the mail hood, but from ca. 1260 the hood was increasingly replaced with a mail curtain (the camail or aventail) suspended from the outside of the bascinet, and the bascinet thus augmented gradually replaced the clumsy great helm as the principal defense for the head in real warfare. In consequence, the bascinet became steadily larger and more pointed, and acquired in the last decade of the 13th century a movable “visor” (vissere) to protect the face.

The eight decades between ca. 1250 and ca. 1330 witnessed a major change in the history of European armor, stimulated in large part by the development of weapons capable of piercing mail: the gradual introduction of pieces of plate (at first of whalebone, horn, and boiled leather, as well as of the iron and steel that ultimately prevailed) to cover an ever larger part of the mail. By 1330, every part of the body of a knight was normally protected by one or several plates, including a poncholike “coat of plates” concealed by the surcoat. By 1410, the various pieces of plate, including a breastplate and backplate instead of the earlier coat of plates, were all connected by straps and rivets in an articulated suit, or “harness,” of polished steel. After ca. 1425, this “white” armor was usually worn without a surcoat or any other covering.

The adoption of elements of plate to protect the body steadily reduced the importance of the shield, which between 1250 and 1350 diminished steadily in size until it was only about 16 inches in height. Even this diminished shield was finally abandoned between 1380 and 1400. A new form of shield called the targe, of similar size and structure but roughly rectangular in outline, concave rather than convex, often deeply fluted and cusped, and provided with a notch, or bouche, for the lance, was introduced in the same two decades, but it was used primarily in tournaments, and knights of the 15th century seem to have done without any shield in battle.

The only offensive weapons commonly borne by the Frankish warriors who seized power in Gaul in the 5th century were the lance, or framea, of sharpened ash; the barbed javelin, or ango; and the throwing ax, or frankisca. The lance or spear, whose more expansive form, equipped with an iron head, was destined to displace the sharpened form and survived with little basic change until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond—for many centuries the only weapon generally available to ignoble as well as noble warriors.

Kings and the leaders of war bands also carried swords, usually of the long, straight, double-edged type called in Latin spatha, first developed by the Celts of Gaul ca. 400 B. C. and later borrowed by Germans and Romans. As the Old French use of espee for “sword” suggests, the spatha (whose blade was ca. 30 inches long) was ancestral to most of the later forms of sword developed in western Europe, of which some thirty-three types and subtypes have been recognized by scholars, four of them antedating A. D. 600. Around 600, the Frankish king and nobles temporarily abandoned both spatha and frankisca in favor of a machete-like single-edged sword called a saxo, whose 18inch blade permitted it to be used for stabbing and even throwing as well as slashing; but under Viking influence the spatha, which the Scandinavians had continued to use and develop, was reintroduced into Frankish lands and quickly became the principal weapon not only of the rulers and nobles but of the rank-and-file members of the new heavy-cavalry units ancestral to the knights of the 10th and later centuries.

Lesser weapons were also employed by knights after 1050. Special forms of ax, hammer (bec), mace, club, and flail were introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries to supplement the sword, but it was only after 1300 that these were both fully developed and commonly used. Most knights and squires also carried a stiff dagger on their sword belt after ca. 1350. All of the knightly weapons were used by the nonknightly combatants who could acquire them, but among the base-born infantrymen a number of weapons scorned by the knightly class were also employed. The simple bow, despised by most Germanic tribes outside of Scandinavia, was little used in France outside of Normandy before the 14th century, when six mounted archers were included in the “lance,” or standard tactical unit of the royal army. The crossbow, or arbaleste, was reintroduced into France ca. 950 and was commonly used thereafter to ca. 1550, primarily by special infantry units placed from ca. 1200 to 1534 under the overall authority of a grand master of the crossbowmen (arbalest[r]iers). After ca. 1350, the bow and crossbow were supplemented on occasion by a primitive handgun. In addition to these projectile weapons, the infantryman of the 14th and 15th centuries had at his disposal new forms of polearm, which were in essence lances with special forms of head.



Playing a major role in medieval warfare, artillery evolved parallel to the art of fortification. Although Roger Bacon introduced gunpowder to the West ca. 1260 and the English used cannon at Crécy in 1346, it took a further century of experimentation before cannon supplanted trébuchet (i. e., tension) artillery. Improvement of explosives, projectiles, and guns was impeded by the difficulties in obtaining adequate amounts of matériel and equipment. But by 1400 cannon had come into regular use, and the final campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War made their superiority unmistakable. Either protecting sappers or breaching walls themselves, they became an indispensable tool in sieges. In response, defense tactics and military architecture changed rapidly after 1450. Governments were compelled to modernize fortifications, and every town was driven to acquire artillery for its own defense.

Following French use of artillery at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453), where cannon were shown to be useful on the field as well as in siege warfare, the Valois monarchy led the way in the perfection of technology, in the development of an institutional infrastructure, and in the exploitation of the full potential of the new arms. Gaspard Bureau, maître de l’artillerie for Charles VII, formed a permanent force of cannoniers that grew steadily thereafter. Limited range, inadequate rates of fire, and immobility limited reliance on artillery for the remainder of the 15th century, and cannon remained auxiliary to cavalry and infantry in the army of Louis XI. Only the triumphs of Charles VIII, who made dramatic use of artillery in Brittany and in the Italian campaign of 1494, removed all doubt that only armies with adequate artillery could hope to prevail in modern warfare.


The Ethiopian Army At Adowa




Vicinity Map

Like many tribal societies, the ethnic groups of Ethiopia put a strong emphasis on martial ability. Boys were trained from early childhood in the use of the sword, spear and shield. Every man yearned to own a gun, not just for what it would do for him on the battlefield, but also for hunting. The Italians faced an Ethiopian army larger and more organized than in all of its recent history. Menelik had centralized and streamlined the taxation system, bringing in more goods to the central government. This allowed Menelik to keep a larger standing army, and support a huge temporary army at need. Most taxes were in kind – food or labour that went directly to support the soldiers. Menelik also ordered an extensive geographical survey in order to increase revenue, and to identify land that could be given to soldiers as a reward. His government also enjoyed the revenue from customs duties on ever-increasing international trade.

Mobilization and logistics

While the emperor maintained only a relatively small standing army, the entire countryside could be mobilized when a Negus ordered a kitet, or call to arms. This was made by proclamations in marketplaces and other gathering spots, and large negarit war drums were beaten to alert outlying farms. One even acted as a platform for the messenger, who stood on an upturned drum and read the proclamation while a slave held his lance and robe next to him as symbols of his rank. While the king was not always in full control of his territory, `beating the kitet’ was generally effective; it usually summoned men to fight against a common enemy, and always offered a chance for plunder and prestige.

The Ethiopian army on the march looked more like a migration. Many warriors brought their families along, and wives and children would cook and gather provisions and firewood. During the march there were no stops until a camp was found for the night. The wealthier warriors had servants to carry their equipment and mules or horses to ride. All these extra people and animals had to be fed, increasing the need to keep mobile. While some food was carried by the men themselves or on muleback, the army was expected to live off the land, and foragers spread out over a large area. The central highlands of Ethiopia are green and filled with game, so as long as an army kept moving it could feed itself, and, being relatively unburdened, it could move quickly. If it stopped for long, however, it would soon starve; this was a major problem if the army had to besiege a fortification, or – as in the run-up to Adowa – wait for an enemy to make the first move. Menelik realized that the large force he was assembling might run into difficulties of supply, especially considering that some regions he planned to march through were suffering from famine, so he ordered depots of food to be placed at regular intervals along the lines of march.

This allowed Menelik to wait out the Italians on a couple of occasions. This need for strategic speed affected how the Ethiopians made war. They avoided long conflicts in favour of big showdown battles in which they could destroy the enemy army and force favourable terms from the enemy commander. Drawn-out campaigns could prove counterproductive, since the army would have to ravage the very land they sought to conquer, forcing the inhabitants to flee. During Menelik’s long wait before Adowa the area was picked clean of food and most of the trees were chopped down for firewood. Shortages of ammunition, and the often fragile coalitions among the leaders, also encouraged quick campaigns.

To aid the advance, teams of workmen moved ahead of the main army clearing the way of trees and stones and searching out the best passes through the mountains. The Negus Negasti kept a group that outsiders called the `Royal Engineers’, but while some were undoubtedly skilled at complex operations such as building bridges, most were simply labourers.


Ethiopians favoured a half-moon formation in order to outflank and envelop an enemy, although extreme terrain often made this impossible. Despite having a general plan, warriors fought more or less as individuals, advancing and retreating as they saw fit. Chiefs only had a loose control over their men, and never kept them in close formation except for the final charge, when everyone bunched together and hurried to be the first to reach the foe. Considering the lethal effectiveness of late 19th-century rifles, this loose mode of fighting was actually in advance of its day. The Ethiopian tendency was to get in close to ensure a good shot, although rushing en masse when the enemy appeared weak did lead to great losses. The Italian army, especially the ascari, showed good discipline under fire, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Ethiopians; the majority of these tended to be suffered during the final rush. When charging, the Ethiopians used various battle cries depending on their origin: the Oromo shouted `Slay! Slay!’, while warriors from Gojjam cried `God pardon us, Christ!’, and those from Shewa rallied to the call `Together! Together!’

The Ethiopians had no formal medical corps. Healers trained in traditional medicine followed the army, but were too few to care adequately for the huge numbers of casualties. Still, traditional healers did the best they could at setting limbs and cleaning out wounds. One method for sanitizing gunshot wounds was to pour melted butter mixed with the local herb fetho (lapidum sativum) into the wound. In battle the warriors’ families cared for the wounded, collected guns from the fallen to distribute to poorly armed warriors, and fetched water for those fighting. This last detail was important; at Adowa, Itegue Taitu had at least 10,000 women bringing water to the warriors, while the Italians suffered from thirst throughout the day.

The Ethiopians lacked uniforms; common warriors wore their everyday clothing – generally a white, cream, or brown length of cotton called a shamma that was wound around the body in various ways. Chiefs and higher nobility wore a variety of colourful garments, including the lembd, a ceremonial item vaguely resembling the cope or dalmatic of Christian churchmen (see `Plate Commentaries’, below). If a man had slain a lion during his career, his formal clothing could be embellished with the lion’s mane.


Despite Western preconceptions, and the employment of antique firearms by the poorest warriors, the majority of Ethiopians were armed with large-calibre, breech-loading, mostly single-shot rifles no more than 30 years old since they had first appeared in Western armies. It is estimated that Menelik’s army may have had as many as 100,000 of such weapons in 1896. Until the collapse of diplomatic relations he had been able to purchase large numbers of rifles from the Italians, and also from the Russians, French and British. After Italian sources dried up Menelik strove to increase his other imports, and a key figure in this trade was Ras Mekonnen of Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia with trade links to the Red Sea. Individual chiefs also stockpiled arms, and issued them to their best warriors in times of need.

The types used by the Ethiopians included the elderly British 1866/67 Snider – an 1856 Enfield muzzle-loader converted into a single-shot breechloader. Used on the British Magdala expedition of 1867-68 against the Emperor Tewodros II, it had a massive 14.6mm calibre and a hinged breech action. However, the Ethiopians also had considerable numbers of the superior 1871 Martini-Henry – the classic British single-shot, lever-action, falling-block weapon of the colonial wars, firing 11.43mm bullets.

The French 1866 Chassepot was another second-generation breechloader, a bolt-action, single-shot weapon taking 11mm paper and card cartridges; but again, the Ethiopians also had larger numbers of more modern 1871 Le Gras rifles, in which the Chassepot’s paper cartridges were replaced with 11mm brass rounds. Menelik’s warriors even had some 1886 Lebel 8mm bolt-action magazine rifles; with eight cartridges in the tubular magazine below the barrel, one in the cradle behind the chamber and one `up the spout’, these took ten rounds. The Lebel’s smaller-bore, smokeless-powder ammunition was the most advanced in the world (all the other types took black-powder rounds, which produced a giveaway cloud of white smoke and fouled the chamber fairly quickly with continuous firing).

The Peabody-Martini was an 1870 Swiss modification of an 1862 Peabody design from the United States. Widely manufactured across Europe, it had a single-shot, falling-block action in various calibres from 10.41mm to 11.43 mm. Probably the single most common rifle in Ethiopian use was the `rolling-block’ Remington, another American design very widely built under licence in the 1860s-80s, in calibres up to 12.7mm (.50 calibre). The Winchester 1866 was a lever-action 11.18mm calibre weapon with a tubular magazine taking 12 rounds; several later models used a box magazine. The Russians had supplied the Ethiopians with a fair number of US-designed, Russian-made Berdan 1864 and 1870 rifles; both were single-shot 10.75mm weapons, the 1864 model with a hinged `trapdoor’ breech and the 1870 with a bolt action. Sources also mention German Mausers, most likely the 11mm single-shot, bolt-action 1871 model. The Ethiopians also had some examples of the Austrian 1878 Kropatschek, an 11mm bolt-action repeater with an eight-round tubular magazine.

This wide variety of rifles and calibres inevitably created local shortages of ammunition. Menelik instituted a quartermaster system, and individual leaders may have helped supply individuals who were short of cartridges, but in general each man was expected to supply his own (and probably `collected his brass’ for artisan reloading). Cartridges were so valuable they were often used as currency; being hoarded, they tended to be older than was ideal, but Menelik and other leaders strove to purchase as much new ammunition as possible, and it appears that his forces at Adowa were well supplied. Still, out of habit the Ethiopian soldier conserved his ammunition, preferring to get up close before firing. Wylde noted they `made good practice at up to about 400-600 yards, and at a short distance they are as good shots as any men in Africa, the Transvaal Boers not excepted, as they never throw away a cartridge if they can help it and never shoot in a hurry’.

Traditional weapons

Despite the wide availability of firearms, many Ethiopians still went into battle with more traditional weapons. The shotel was the favoured type of sword, a heavy steel weapon curved like a scimitar, but with the sharpened edge usually on the inside of the curve so that the warrior could stab around the edge of an opponent’s shield. It was carried slung on the right side, so that the left (shield) arm had a full range of movement. Steel-headed spears were pretty much universal among men and boys for defending their flocks from wild animals; generally about 6ft long with a leaf-shaped head, they could be thrown, but were more often used for thrusting. Small shields completed an Ethiopian warrior’s kit. Styles varied among the tribes, but the most common was a circular, conical shield made of hide and covered on the front with coloured cloth such as velvet. Many were decorated and strengthened with strips of brass, tin or more valuable metals; a shield was an easy way for a warrior to show off his wealth and status, and many were quite elaborate.

Cavalry was common in the Ethiopian lowlands, and the horsemen of the Oromo were especially renowned. Horses were useful and acted as a status symbol, so every warrior wanted one. The Ethiopian horse is smaller than its European counterpart and can negotiate terrain that would stop a European steed. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain and dense thickets of thorn-bushes often meant that battles had to be fought on foot. Weaponry for cavalrymen was identical to that for footsoldiers.


The Ethiopians had 42 guns at Adowa. It is unclear what types of cannon were used, but sources agree that they were a mix of older guns bought or captured from various sources. They included Krupps, and mountain guns captured from the Egyptians when they tried to take Ethiopian territory in 1875 and 1876, or left behind when the Egyptian garrison evacuated Harar in 1885. One source describes the artillery as `of all calibres and systems’. There was a chronic shortage of shells, and thus crews had little chance to practise. While the Ethiopians were capable of bombarding a fort, as at Mekele, they had difficulty in manoeuvring guns and laying down accurate fire in broken terrain against a moving enemy; Italian eyewitnesses said that the Ethiopian artillery made a poor performance at Adowa.

More effective were the several automatic cannon that Menelik brought to Adowa. A detailed listing is unavailable, but Maxim weapons are mentioned, and perhaps six were 37mm Hotchkiss pieces. Produced by an American company from 1875, these were later licence-built in Europe, particularly France. Early versions were multi-barrel revolvers, fired by turning a crank like a Gatling gun; later models had a single barrel and were fed by a belt. These later-model `pom-poms’ fired both solid and explosive rounds, and were superior in range and accuracy to the Italian artillery.

Roman Auxilia


Warrior auxiliary cohort of Batavia , the second half of the 1st century AD.



Batavian auxiliary cavalry – Pablo Outeiral


The Roman Auxilia constituted the standing non-citizen corps of the Imperial Roman army during the Principate era (30 BC–284 AD), alongside the citizen legions. By the 2nd century, the Auxilia contained the same number of infantry as the legions and in addition provided almost all of the Roman army’s cavalry and more specialised troops, especially light cavalry and archers. The auxilia thus represented three-fifths of Rome’s regular land forces at that time. These soldiers were mainly recruited from the peregrini, i.e. free provincial subjects of the Roman Empire who did not hold Roman citizenship and constituted the vast majority of the empire’s population. The Auxilia also included some Roman citizens, and in times of great need, even freed slaves and barbarians from beyond the Empire’s borders. This was in contrast to the legions, which admitted Roman citizens only.

Roman auxiliary units developed from the varied contingents of non-Italian troops, especially cavalry, that the Roman Republic used in increasing numbers to support its legions after 200 BC. The Julio-Claudian period (30 BC–68 AD) saw the transformation of these motley temporary levies into a standing corps of regiments with standardised structure, equipment and conditions of service. By the end of this period, there were no significant differences between legionaries and most auxiliaries in terms of training, or thus combat capability.

At the start of Augustus’ sole rule (30 BC), the original core auxiliary units in the West were composed of warlike tribesmen from the Gallic provinces (especially Gallia Belgica, which then included the regions later separated to form the provinces Germania Inferior and Germania Superior), and from the Illyrian provinces (Dalmatia and Illyricum). By 19 BC, the Cantabrian and Asturian Wars were concluded, leading to the annexation of northern Hispania and Lusitania. Judging by the names of attested auxiliary regiments, these parts of the Iberian peninsula soon became a major source of recruits. Then the Danubian regions were annexed: Raetia (annexed 15 BC), Noricum (16 BC), Pannonia (9 BC) and Moesia (6 AD), becoming, with Illyricum, the Principate’s most important source of auxiliary recruits for its entire duration. In the East, where the Syrians already provided the bulk of the Roman army’s archers, Augustus annexed Galatia (25 BC) and Judaea: the former, a region in central Anatolia with a Celtic-speaking people, became an important source of recruits. In N. Africa, Egypt, Cyrene, and Numidia (25 BC) were added to the empire. Numidia (modern day Eastern Algeria) was home to the Mauri, the ancestors of today’s Berber people. Their light cavalry (equites Maurorum) was highly prized and had alternately fought and assisted the Romans for well over two centuries: they now started to be recruited into the regular auxilia. Even more Mauri units were formed after the annexation of Mauretania (NW Algeria, Morocco), the rest of the Berber homeland, in 44 AD by emperor Claudius. Additionally, independent auxiliary units were often the only Roman military force present in the inermes provinciae, or unarmed provinces, such as Mauretania.

Recruitment was thus heavy throughout the Augustan period, with a steady increase in the number of units formed. By 23 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus records that there were roughly the same numbers of auxiliaries in service as there were legionaries. Since at this time there were 25 legions of 5,000 men each, the auxilia thus amounted to 125,000 men.


The Batavi were accounted indisputably not merely as the best riders and swimmers of the army, but also as the model of true soldiers. In this case certainly the good pay of the bodyguard, as well as the privilege of the nobles to serve as officers, considerably confirmed their loyalty to the Empire.

The Batavians, according to Tacitus, were the most noble and brave of all the Germans. The Chatti, of whom they formed a portion, were a pre-eminently warlike race. “Others go to battle,” says the historian, “these go to war.” Their bodies were more hardy, their minds more vigorous, than those of other tribes. In times of war their young men cut neither hair nor beard till they had slain an enemy.

On the field of battle, in the midst of carnage and plunder, they, for the first time, bared their faces. The cowardly and sluggish, only, remained unshorn. They wore an iron ring upon their necks until they had performed the same achievement, a symbol that they then threw away, as the emblem of sloth. The Batavians were always spoken of by the Romans with entire respect. They conquered the Belgians, they forced the free Frisians to pay tribute, but they called the Batavi their friends. The tax-gatherer never invaded their island. Honorable alliance united them with the Romans.

“The barbarians thought the Romans would not be able to cross this [the River Medway] without a bridge, and as a result had pitched camp in a rather careless fashion on the opposite bank. Aulus Plautius, however, sent across some Celts who were practised in swimming with ease fully armed across even the fastest of rivers. These fell unexpectedly on the enemy”.

Cassius Dio ‘ The History of Rome’.

One of the Batavians most renowned skills was the method they employed to cross wide bodies of water en-masse, such as the Ems during Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany and the Po in the civil wars of A.D.69 where several foot soldiers would swim alongside a single cavalry soldier and his horse, presumably keeping their weapons above water by using the horse as a kind of living raft. Their tactics have been identified in use under Aulus Plautius during the Battle of the Medway in AD43 and also under the governor G. Suetonius Paulinus. The auxiliary troops who crossed the Menai Straits onto the Isle of Anglesey to destroy the Druid stronghold there were in all likelihood Batavian units. It is thought that in the army of Plautius there were eight Batavian units, each five hundred strong.

The historian Cornelius Tacitus (c.55-c.120) refers to the Batavians;

“He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.”

Cornelius Tacitus ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’..

”Depositis omnis sarcinis lectissimos auxiliarium quibus nota vada et patrius nandi usus, quo simul seque et arma et equos regunt, ita repente inmisit, ut obstupefacti hostes, qui classem, qui navis, qui mare expectabant, nihil arduum aut invictum crediderint sic ad bellum venientibus”.

”After dropping all baggage he quickly sent the most elite of the auxiliaries, who were familiar with shallows and traditionally used to swimming in such a manner that they kept control over arms and horses, to the effect that the flabbergasted barbarians, who expected a fleet, who expected a ship across the sea believed that nothing was hard or insurmountable to those who went to war in this fashion”.

Tacitus ‘Agricola’ 18.4

Vegetius gives us some insight as to how the Batavians achieved such a feat:

“Expediti vero equites fasces de cannis aridis vel facere consueverunt, super quos loricas et arma, ne udentur, inponunt; ipsi equique natando transeunt colligatosque secum fasces pertrahunt loris”.

“Battle ready horsemen though have been accustomed to make bundles from dry reeds or, on these they put the body armours and weapons, in order that they do not get wet; they themselves and their horses cross by swimming and they draw the packed bundles along with them with leather straps”.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris 3.7

Dio Cassius Comments upon Hadrian and the rigorous training that he insisted his troops be tutored in. In one passage he refers to the Batavians (Presumably the emperor’s personal horse guards) and their river-crossing abilities.

“So excellently, indeed, had his soldiery been trained that the cavalry of the Batavians, as they were called, swam the Ister with their arms. Seeing all this, the barbarians stood in terror of the Romans, they employed Hadrian as an arbitrator of their differences”.

(Dio Cassius Liber LXIX 9.6)

The implication is that the Batavians possessed a unique skill. However, there is a gravestone of a certain Soranus, a Syrian trooper in a Batavian milliary cohort, again, possibly the emperor’s personal horseguard. Soranus’ epitaph records that in AD118 he, before the Emperor Hadrian, swam the Danube and performed the following feats..

CIL 03, 03676 (AE 1958, 0151).

Ille ego Pannoniis quondam notissimus orisinter mille viros fortis primusq(ue) BatavosHadriano potui qui iudice vasta profundiaequora Danuvii cunctis transnare sub armisemissumq(ue) arcu dum pendet in aere telumac redit ex alia fixi fregique sagittaquem neque Romanus potuit nec barbarus unquamnon iaculo miles non arcu vincere Parthushic situs hic memori saxo mea facta sacravividerit an ne aliquis post me mea facta sequ[a]turexemplo mihi sum primus qui talia gessi

“I am the man who, once very well known to the ranks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among one thousand Batavians, was able, with Hadrian as judge, to swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I fired an arrow, and while it quivered still in the air and was falling back, with a second arrow I hit and broke it. No Roman or foreigner has ever managed to better this feat, no soldier with a javelin, no Parthian with a bow. Here I lie, here I have immortalised my deeds on an ever-mindful stone which will see if anyone after me will rival my deeds. I set a precedent for myself in being the first to achieve such feats”.

The Batavians were a notable addition to the forces of the Roman army from the reign of Caesar, until the reign of Romulus Augustulus. They played an important role in the successes of – and supplementation to – the Legions of the Roman army. Our Batavian unit honours these men and perpetuates their fine tradition.

The Assyrian Military-Religious Ethos


Assyrian soldier in combat with Kushite tribesman during campaign in Egypt, 7th century BC.


The Neo-Assyrian Empire was arguably the world’s first superpower, straddling the Middle East at its height in the 7th century. In addition to a strong, well organized central government, the Assyrians were highly innovative in their approach to warfare. Beginning with Tiglath-Pilaser III, the Assyrians began to build a military whose capabilities would arguably not be matched until Roman times. The army used forward bases, an efficient command structure, and an impressive logistics system to launch campaigns against rebellious vassals and external threats many thousands of miles apart, and often at the same time. Manpower was replenished by resettling conquered populations. The Assyrians were also broke new ground in developing a combined arms approach: while in the past cavalry had been rather neglected in the Middle East civilizations except for the chariot age, but the Assyrians made a strong cavalry arm a priority, launching campaigns against their Indo-Iranian neighbors to the north and the east to capture horses. Assyrian cavalry included lancers who wore helmets and lamellar cuirasses as well as horse archers. Infantry types were numerous and included large contingents of missile troops, archers and slingers. The Assyrians developed a strong tradition of siegecraft, although it was still costly, which meant that only the most strategically important cities would be assaulted. Assyrian siege works are still visible today at Lachish, Israel.


The Assyrians’ new religious, political, and military ideology had taken shape during the long centuries when they fought for survival, and it then became the foundational ethos for their empire’s relentless conquests. Its two fundamental tenets were the waging of holy war and the exaction of tribute through terror.

The Neo-Assyrians were convinced that their god demanded the constant expansion of his worship through military conquest. Essentially, their army belonged to Assur, and all who did not accept Assur’s supremacy were, by that fact alone, enemies of Assur’s people. Ritual humiliation of a defeated city’s gods was therefore a regular feature of conquest. Statues of conquered gods would be carried off to the Neo-Assyrian capital, where they would remain as hostages at the court of Assur. Meanwhile, an image of Assur himself-usually represented as a sun disk with the head and shoulders of an archer-would be installed in the defeated city, and the conquered people would be required to worship him. Although conquered peoples did not have to abandon their previous gods altogether, they were made to feel their gods’ inferiority. The Assyrians were therefore strict henotheists, meaning that they acknowledged the existence of other gods but believed that one god should be the supreme deity of all peoples.

For the Neo-Assyrians, “receiving tribute” meant the taking of plunder. Rather than defeating their foes once and imposing formal obligations, the Assyrians raided even their vanquished foes each year. This strategy kept the Neo-Assyrian military machine primed for battle, but it did little to inspire loyalty among subject peoples, who often felt that they had nothing to lose through rebellion. Moreover, annual invasions toughened the forces of the Neo-Assyrians’ subjects. To counter them, imperial battle tactics became notoriously savage-even by the standards of ancient warfare, which regarded the mutilation of prisoners, systematic rape, and mass deportations as commonplace. Neo-Assyrian artwork and inscriptions often celebrate the butchering and torture of their enemies. Smiling archers are shown shooting fleeing enemies in the back while remorseless soldiers impale captives on stakes.

The Neo-Assyrian army was not a seasonal army of part-time warriors or peasant conscripts, but rather a massive standing force of more than 100,000 soldiers. Because the Assyrians had mastered iron-smelting techniques on a large scale, they could equip their fighting men with high-quality steel weapons that overwhelmed opponents still reliant on bronze. The organization of this army also contributed to its success. At its core were heavily armed and armored shock troops, equipped with a variety of thrusting weapons and bearing tall shields for protection. They were the main force for crushing enemy infantry in the field and for routing the inhabitants of an enemy city once inside. To harass enemy infantry and break up their formations, the Assyrians deployed light skirmishers with slings and javelins, and they combined archery and chariotry as never before. They also developed the first true cavalry force in the West, with individual warriors mounted on armored steeds, wielding bows and arrows or heavy lances. They even trained a highly skilled corps of combat engineers to undermine city walls and to build catapults, siege engines, battering rams, and battle towers.

The Legacy of Neo-Assyrian Power

The successors of Sargon II continued these military policies while devoting great energy to promoting an Assyrian cultural legacy. Sargon’s immediate successor Sennacherib (sen-AH-sher-ib, 704-681 B. C. E.) rebuilt the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, fortifying it with a double wall for a circuit of nine miles. He constructed an enormous palace there, raised on a giant platform decorated with marble, ivory, and exotic woods; and he ordered the construction of a massive irrigation system, including an aqueduct that carried fresh water to the city from thirty miles away. His son rebuilt the conquered city of Babylon along similar lines, and was also a patron of the arts and sciences. His grandson Assurbanipal (ah-sur-BAHN-en-pahl, r. 669-627 B. C. E.) was perhaps the greatest of all the Neo-Assyrian kings. For a time, he ruled the entire delta region of northern Egypt. He also enacted a series of internal reforms, seeking ways to govern his empire more peacefully.

By Neo-Assyrian standards, Assurbanipal was an enlightened ruler, and one to whom we owe a tremendous debt. Like Sargon II before him, he had a strong sense of the rich traditions of Mesopotamian history and laid claim to it. But he did this much more systematically: he ordered the construction of a magnificent library at the great capital of Nineveh, where all the cultural monuments of Mesopotamian literature were to be copied and preserved. This library also served as an archive for the correspondence and official acts of the king. Fortunately, this trove of documentation has survived. Our knowledge of history, not to mention all modern editions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, derive from the library at Nineveh.

When Assurbanipal died in 627 B. C. E., the Neo- Assyrian Empire appeared to be at its zenith. Its borders were secure, the realm was largely at peace with its neighbors, its kings had adorned their capitals with magnificent artwork, and the hanging gardens of Babylon were already famous: these were artificial slopes whose cascading flowers and trees were fed by irrigation systems that pumped water uphill, an amazing marriage of engineering and horticulture. The collapse of this empire is therefore all the more dramatic for its suddenness. Within fifteen years of Assurbanipal’s reign, Nineveh lay in ruins. An alliance had formed between the Indo-European Medes of Iran and the Chaldeans, a Semitic people who controlled the southern half of Babylonia. By 605 B. C. E., the Chaldeans had occupied Babylon and destroyed the last remnants of Neo-Assyrian power on the upper Euphrates, becoming the predominant imperial power in Mesopotamia and the Levant. In 586 B. C. E., they captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and deported the population of Judea to Babylon. Meanwhile, the Medes retired to the Iranian Plateau to extend their suzerainty there.

Switzerland WWII – Military Deterrence

WWII Swiss M°18/40 Rifleman.


Physical map of Switzerland.

Prior to 1940 the Swiss military publicly relied on its well-advertised capacity to muster in arms over 10 percent of the population in well-prepared border positions, to defend its internationally guaranteed neutrality against all comers. But in reality, since the rise of nation-states the military safety of tiny Switzerland has depended on the willingness of a neighboring power to rush its army into Switzerland to help block another neighboring power from using Switzerland for its own ends. Thus in World War I the Swiss held off the Germans by the prospect that they would call in the French, and held off the French by the prospect that they would call in the Germans. When World War II began, the Swiss feared Germany exclusively. But they hoped that France, and even Italy, would know enough and be potent enough to help safeguard their own Swiss flanks. When France fell and Italy joined Germany, Switzerland was quite unexpectedly thrown back on its own military resources.

At most these military resources could make Germany’s price of conquest too heavy to pay. And that depended on the extent to which Switzerland could maximize the value of its three military assets: Alpine terrain, the Gotthard and Simplon tunnels, and the Swiss soldier’s historic bloody-mindedness. But exploiting Alpine terrain to the maximum essentially meant sacrificing half the country and more than two-thirds of the population. Holding hostage the tunnels and the country’s infrastructure meant destroying the Swiss people’s livelihood. Making the most of the Swiss soldier’s penchant to fight to the death meant firing up the population’s martial spirit, which many influential Swiss believed was already provoking Germany.

On various occasions Germany’s Wehrmacht estimated that defeating the Swiss army would take three to six days—about as long as it had taken to defeat the Belgian army—and require nine to twelve divisions, including four armored. The reason for this confidence was that the Swiss army had not changed since World War I. A modern force could easily negate its trenches and machine guns spread out along the northern plateau. But the German High Command added one qualification: The Swiss army must not be allowed to retreat in good order southward into the Alps. Once ensconced in the mountain valleys, the Swiss would be nearly impossible to dig out.

For its part, the Swiss army reached the same conclusions, which led it to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the northern plateau into the southern Alpine valleys. While the military logic of this national redoubt was self-evident, its political logic was much less so. After all, redeploying meant abandoning at least two-thirds of the population, including the families of the soldiers, to Nazi occupation. On the other hand, if the army remained deployed on the plateau it would be defeated anyway, and the whole country occupied. But while no Swiss wanted to leave the country’s major cities open to occupation, no German wanted to see the Swiss army holed up in the Alps, cutting off the vital Simplon and Gotthard tunnels to the Mediterranean and threatening guerrilla warfare. Thus the Swiss adopted a military strategy that threatened to accept grievous losses in order to deter the enemy. But of course most deterrence strategies aim to avoid being put to the ultimate test. Military deterrence is usually a shield for and an adjunct to other policies that mean to avoid war. This was the case in Switzerland.


The illusion that the Great War had ended wars faded more quickly in Switzerland than elsewhere. As we will see, Adolf Hitler was much less a mystery to the Swiss, especially to the German-speaking majority, than to other nations. Nor was the idea of rearmament as shocking to the Swiss as to other Europeans and to Americans. In addition, while other countries were cursed with bad leadership during the 1930s, the Swiss drew some unusually good cards, including Rudolf Minger, who became head of the Federal Military Department in 1930. In the first two years after Hitler came to power, Minger raised the defense budget from about 95 million francs to about 130 million. In 1935 he went beyond the budget process, directly to the public, proposing an issue of defense bonds worth 235 million francs and campaigning for direct purchase by the public. The Swiss people responded by buying 335 million francs’ worth of the bonds. By 1939 another 171 million was added. By referendum, the Swiss agreed to lengthen military retraining and to extend the age of military obligation for the lower ranks to sixty. So, on the eve of World War II, a nation of 4.2 million people stood ready to field an army of 440,000 men backed by a corps of 150,000 armed volunteers over sixty or under eighteen years of age, and another 600,000 civilian auxiliaries.

By the outbreak of war, new weapons were beginning to come into service. But, like most other armies that had not guessed the character of modern, mechanized warfare, the Swiss had not bought wisely. The Swiss, like most everyone else, envisaged a replay of World War I.

The combined air corps and anti-aircraft corps had bought fifty excellent German ME 109 air superiority fighters. But because the General Staff was blind to the use of aircraft to support ground operations, Switzerland had bought no bombers and no ground attack aircraft, like the Stuka. As for anti-aircraft artillery, the Swiss had four Vickers and four Schneider 75 mm guns, plus thirty-four modern Oerlikon 20 mm weapons. The mission of the combined air and anti-aircraft forces was to protect Swiss airspace and Swiss airfields, but if the ME 109s had tried to fight for air superiority, they would have been swept from the skies by sheer numbers. More likely, they would have been destroyed before ever leaving their undefended airfields. Forty-two AA guns were obviously insufficient for defending airfields or anything else.

Moreover, the ground forces were not equipped for modern warfare. Each battalion had only one infantry cannon that could be used against tanks, plus just two grenade launchers. Obviously, the idea of armored warfare had not crossed Swiss planners’ minds. The war for which they had planned would have consisted of shooting oncoming infantry from border trenches. To that end there were sixteen thousand machine guns, four hundred French 75-mm field guns, entirely horse-drawn, and only fifteen 120-mm guns. In addition, there were various small caliber mountain guns. The only motorization for the infantry came from commandeered civilian vehicles (a maximum of 15,000 taken away from the civilian economy) plus 50,000 horses taken away from agriculture. Pictures from that time show rows of machine guns hitched to a variety of taxicabs and family sedans, smartly lined up. The Swiss cavalry rode horses.

The strength of the army lay in its 440,000 men, organized in six infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, and a half-dozen brigades, and in the good, deep fortifications and trenches the Swiss had built along the borders. About one-fifth of the army would occupy these positions, while the rest would wait close behind the German and French borders ready to rush to wherever the attacker might be. The earthworks would absorb the enemy’s artillery fire, the defenders’ machine guns would take their toll, and the main army field divisions’ counterattacks, including those by the horse cavalry, would keep the enemy out of the country—until help could arrive.

The first news of the German campaign in Poland showed all this to be a pipe dream. The German armored spearheads had sliced through the kind of army that Switzerland had. The intellectual process by which the Swiss adapted to their new circumstances is of more than historical interest.

On August 30, 1939, the Swiss parliament activated the wartime post of “general” and entrusted it to Henri Guisan. The new general instantly complained that there was no plan for operations. But no strictly operational plan could fit the Swiss army for the circumstances in which events were plunging it. Guisan’s first response was to pull the army back from the strictly artificial border fortifications to ones resting on terrain features.

Contrary to the belief of those who do not look at maps, Switzerland has only its back to the Alps. The roof of Europe shields Switzerland only from the south and the east—that is, from Italy and substantially from Austria as well. From the west—that is, from France—Switzerland is moderately accessible through the Rhône valley and across the hills of the Jura. But the north and northeast of Switzerland, bordering on Germany, are open, rolling plateaus crossed by gentle rivers and lakes. Three-fourths of the Swiss people are located in these accessible regions, as well as the preponderance of their industry and agriculture. This non-Alpine Swiss terrain is better for defensive tactics than northern France—but it is also pretty good tank country. By contrast, the steep valleys of the Alps are natural fortresses. Of course, only one-fourth of the Swiss people live there. In sum, Switzerland’s terrain can be useful for defense, but only to the extent that the defenders can exploit it under any given technological conditions and against a given kind of opponent.

A glance at the map of Switzerland shows that a nearly straight line of rivers and lakes roughly parallels the northern border, from the Rhine at Sargans in the east, following the Wallensee, Linth, Zurich Lake, and Limmat almost to the Gempen plateau above the Rhine near Basel in the northwest. Guisan ordered most of the army to pull back behind these waters and dig in, while keeping the border troops in place. But this new plan left some 20 percent of the country open to occupation, including Basel and Schaffhausen, and put the biggest city, Zurich, right on the front line. It also meant that the costly border positions would henceforth be useful only to slow the enemy a bit.

The general’s arrangements for help from France would turn out worse. Conventional wisdom had it that the only strategic choice facing Swiss military commanders was whether to deploy the preponderance of forces in the north (against Germany) or in the west (against France). Like most of his countrymen, Guisan never had any doubt that the threat came from Germany. But the country’s formal neutrality, as well as the presence of high-ranking officers who would have been happier if the threat had come from the other direction, obliged Guisan to act formally as if he were dispassionate about his basic strategic choice. Hence he had to plan with the French in secrecy. Guisan was personally acquainted with top French officers such as Gamelin, Georges, and De Lattre, with whom he had toured the Maginot Line. As go-betweens he used Major Samuel Gonard, who had studied at the Ecole de Guerre in Paris and who traveled there often as a civilian lawyer, as well as Major Samuel Barbey, a novelist who also had good connections in the French army.

The result was an informal but nevertheless written agreement by which the French army would provide artillery fire support to the northwest end of the Swiss army position on the Gempen plateau, and move its own troops there directly to back up the Swiss. The Swiss actually improved roads leading onto the plateau and built revetments for heavy artillery for the French army’s eventual use, effectively linking the Maginot Line to the Swiss fortifications. In addition, elements of the French 7th (later the 45th) Army corps would cross the border near Geneva and move northeast. For the sake of symmetry in case of discovery, Guisan began secret exploratory talks with Germany through Major Hans Berly, who had good contacts in the Wehrmacht. But these never resulted in concrete plans.

Joint planning with France turned out to be a source of trouble rather than help because France itself fell quickly to the German onslaught, and the records of the Swiss negotiations fell into German hands—among a carload of government documents abandoned by the French and recovered by the Germans at Charité Sur Loire on June 16, 1940. The Swiss worried that Germany would use their breach as a legal reason for disregarding their neutrality. But they need not have worried. If Germany had wanted to invade, a jury-rigged pretext such as the staged border incident with Poland in August 1939 would have been enough. More worrisome was Switzerland’s basic military predicament.

By April 1940 the fall of Norway and Denmark showed that German armies could move just as efficiently across water and against Western armies as they had against Poland. No sooner had Germany’s attack on France begun on May 10, 1940, than the mismatch between the German and Swiss armies became glaring. In Belgium, en route to France, the Germans opened the way for their mobile forces with parachute troops and saboteurs. German paratroopers could drop onto Swiss fortresses bereft of air cover or air defense as easily as they had on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, mistakenly assumed impregnable. Coordinated ground attacks would then overwhelm them. Could the Germans punch through the new Swiss army position on the Sargans-based line? Without antitank weapons, Swiss infantry positions couldn’t prevent breaches. And if Swiss troops behaved like other armies, they would panic once the formidable German columns came near. In fact, as France was falling, tens of thousands of Swiss civilians piled mattresses atop their cars and headed for the mountains, pro-Nazi groups were strutting, and no prominent politician could be found to rally the country. In sum, no army can fight without means or hope.