Radar – The Soviet Union WWII Part I

British Army. GL mark II, 5m gun laying, receiver British Army. GL mark II, 5m gun laying, receiver. The set had three dipoles: one at right and left for direction by swinging the whole assembly; a third that moved vertically for height determination. Although classified as “gun laying,” it had little or no blind-fire capability. Deployed 1940. Produced by the Soviets as SON 2.

Whoever wishes to learn how governments fail in the duties of protecting their peoples from disaster should study the history of the Soviet Union; whoever wishes to learn how competent engineers can best be thwarted in their efforts to provide weapons vital for defense should study the history of Soviet radar. It is always the case, that in large projects those close to the details are vexed by the confusion and mismanagement they perceive in their leaders and, above all, in the administrative machinery that attempts to carry out their leaders’ instructions. Such was the case in all radar development in the Second World War, but those who toiled in the laboratories of Britain, America, Germany and Japan and who suffered in this way little knew that their work places were ruled by reason and benevolence when compared with their counterparts in Muscovy. 

There was every reason to believe that the Soviets might have surpassed the west in this new craft. They began first with high-level support, had the influential interest of academician A F Joffe, had a brilliant young electrical engineer and veritable model of the new Soviet man, Pavel Oshchepkov, and a radio engineer who had proved himself with decimeter waves, Yu K Korovin, as enthusiastic leaders, and had obtained financial support in 1934 of 300 000 roubles, which dwarfed that provided by any other power. The initial work pointed toward the development of a Freya and a Würzburg, but by 1940 the resulting radar designs were poor, inferior to the Japanese, and left Russia dependent on Britain and America for much of her needs during the war. 

To understand the history of this place and period one must learn the identities of the contending bureaucratic agencies, and in order to keep this cast of characters straight it is best to know them by their identifying abbreviations.

GAU The Main Artillery Administration, an engineering service of the Red Army concerned with the design of weapons.

PVO The Air Defense Forces, the service to which Oshchepkov was assigned and that had the responsibility for the employment of AA troops; they had interests in weapons design.                                

SKB (also KB-UPVO). A special construction office within the PVO to produce radar, opened in 1933 with Oshchepkov in charge.                                                                    

VNOS The Aerial Observation, Warning and Communication units of the PVO, which were to be the immediate users of radar.                                                

VTU The Military Technical Administration, a part of Red Army headquarters.                                                  

LFTI (also LIPT). The Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute, Joffe’s organization, which included D A Rozhanski until his death in 1936.                                                               

LEFI Leningrad Electro-physical Institute, a GAU laboratory, led by A A Chernishev.                                                        

QRL (also TsRL) The Central Radio Laboratory, another GAU laboratory, led by D N Rumyanysev.                

NII-9 Scientific Research Institute 9, another GAU laboratory that absorbed LEFI in fall 1935. The renowned radio engineer Professor M A Bonch-Bruevich became its director after the purges and attracted good men. Unfortunately, he died in March 1940.                      

UFTI The Ukrainian Physical-Technical Institute, a laboratory organized by Rozhanski and where research in magnetrons was conducted. Later directed by A A Slutskin.                                                                           

NKTP The Research Sector of the Commissariat for Heavy Industry, the supervisory organization for both LIPT and UFTI.                                                                        

NIIIS-KA Scientific Research Institute of Communication Engineers of the Red Army, a group with its own program for the development of signals equipment.                                                                               

VEI All-Union Electrical Institute, a competent research organization with a laboratory for ultra-short waves led by Professor B A Vvedenskiy.                                                                            

SRI (also NII-RP). Scientific Research Institute of the Radio Industry headed by A B Stepushkin.                    

The Academy of Sciences (mercifully seldom referred to by initials). An organization consulted at the highest levels that concerned itself with all manner of scientific and engineering problems relevant to the Soviet state. 

NKVD The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the secret police, the name of whose chief, Lavrenty P Beria, carried terror to millions. 

At this point one might well let the reader form in his mind the kind of radar that was to come from the machinations of these agencies, all of which participated, and his construction would probably be close to the mark. Yet the poor Soviet product resulted as much from the purges that Stalin initiated in 1937 as from clumsy, bickering agencies which knew how to use the NKVD for their bureaucratic ends and to take care of a few personal matters along the way. Fear concentrates thought but on survival, not on the subtle intricacies of electronic circuits. This no doubt lies behind the marked deterioration in design encountered in the second stage of Soviet radar development. Important parts of this story will remain unknown to us. 

The PVO had responsibility for early warning and had sponsored the early work on the radio screen Rapid that was done at LEFI until that group was absorbed into the Television Institute, the combination becoming NII-9. Despite the objections from many that Rapid gave precious little data of value about intruding aircraft, PVO had LEFI build under the supervision of B K Shembel a model suitable for army deployment, which had its first tests in July 1934. 

The GUA also wanted radio AA gun-laying equipment and had been sufficiently impressed with the experiments QRL had conducted in January 1934 with a 50 cm set that they wished the idea exploited, and NII-9 undertook the task of providing a suitable prototype. The work was started under Shembel. By early fall 1936 NII-9 had produced an experimental continuous-wave twin-dish set, Storm, which operated on 18 cm using early magnetrons from UFTI that gave about 6 W of continuous wave power. The detection range was only 10 km, and the directional accuracy only 4°, neither adequate. The range problem was a compound of magnetrons with too little power and frequency stability and a noisy receiver that also picked up too much of the primary transmitter signal. Shembel devised a solution for the direction problem analogous to lobe switching and presaging mono-pulse radar. He used four dishes, one a transmitter and the other three paired off in horizontal and vertical coordinates. The first trials failed, and he was unable to bring the concept to fruition before being separated from NII-9 in 1937. 

Victorious NIIIS-KA also continued the GUA gun-laying project, replacing NII-9 with UFTI. The principal deficiency of Storm had been the use of continuous rather than pulsed waves. Bonch-Bruevich had held the project to continuous waves, despite having used pulsed waves in early ionosphere studies; he even terminated pulse work at NII-9 when he became director in 1935. UFTI turned their efforts to a new, pulsed wave 64 cm design called Zenith. It combined every bad feature one could reasonably imagine in one set. It reported the coordinates of range, azimuth and elevation only every 17 s, making it useless for directing an AA gun, and had a dead zone extending out to 6 km, the result of the receiver being unable to recover from the transmitter pulse, although it could observe aircraft to 25 km. A pulse length of 10 to 20 µs gave correspondingly bad range accuracy. Work continued and by the middle of 1940 the range had been extended to 30 km, but the equipment had such a catalogue of ills that it was given up. The technical reasons for failure are not apparent. It would appear that the designers were unable to master the techniques of microwave electronics and thereby profit from the magnetron that N F Alekseev and D D Malairov had invented. 

The purges had at least made one agency responsible for radar, NIIIS-KA, but in the process had removed good engineers from the laboratories and the most supportive top military commanders. Soviet radar entered World War II a low priority project with equipment inferior to all the major powers. Yet it need not have been so. The early start with high-level support, capable engineers and the cavity magnetron could easily have made the Soviet Union the leader in radar. 

The reader must consider these simplified attempts at recounting relevant events in Stalin’s state with suspicion. The material available is limited and was written before the collapse of communism opened secret files and by men not indifferent to what history would record.

As already discussed, Soviet radar development suffered from lack of interest in the high command, confusion as to its mission and the dispatch of excellent radar engineers to the Gulag during the purges of the late 1930s. That anything at all came out is remarkable. Because of or in spite of these extraordinary circumstances there occurred what must be one of the most baffling incidents in the history of radar. In April 1940 when the cavity magnetron was Britain’s most precious military secret, when it traveled under armed guard, when its use was discussed at cabinet level, when it was described as the most valuable cargo ever to arrive in America, when the United States was preparing to open a special laboratory just to exploit its properties, when all these circumstances applied, two Soviet engineers published a complete description of it in the open scientific literature.

During 1936 and 1937 N F Alekseev and D D Malairov produced a series of cavity magnetrons as part of a project for building an anti-aircraft (AA) gun-laying radar at Scientific Research Institute 9 (NII-9) from proposals by its director, radio-eminence Mikhail Alexandrovich Bonch-Bruyevich. The magnetrons were discarded in favor of a pulsed transmitter that used very-high-frequency triodes that worked on 64 cm, had 12 kW peak power, was called Zenith and was abandoned in 1940. 

One can presume and little other evidence is at hand that the lack of success of magnetrons in this work, for whatever reason, taken together with Professor Joffe’s long-standing opposition to microwaves for radar allowed the publication of the paper. Irrespective of the reasons, the paper is a complete disclosure of the elements of the cavity magnetron. One does not even need to know Russian. It suffices to see the tables giving wavelengths and powers and to think a bit about the drawings of the characteristic electrode shapes. That the drawings showed water-cooled anodes tells one a lot. It was all there. There is a report of the independent invention of the klystron at NII-9 by N D Devyatkov during those same years, but even less was made of it than the magnetron. It was quickly followed by a reflex klystron.

The skepticism that had met Oshchepkov’s Rapid soon hardened into hostility to radio location generally in the form of a report in 1935 by the Red Army Chief of Signals, which asserted on the basis of studies by his own NIIIS-KA that radio location was unrealistic and a waste of time. M N Tukhachevskii, Chief of Ordnance, had been impressed with the possibilities of the new technique, even if it was not satisfactory at the moment, and decided in favor of retaining the infant radar program after a rousing fight. It was, as those familiar with the ways of bureaucracies will recognize, not the end but only the beginning. Life was becoming complicated and dangerous. 

In 1937 Army Commander A I Sedyakin conducted a large air defense exercise using conventional acoustical and optical methods that had a most unsuccessful outcome. He became acquainted with the new radio-location methods during discussions with General M M Lobanov of the GAU, who convinced him of the need to pursue this kind of work. This happy state of affairs came to a quick end in June 1937 when the purge swept military and technical ranks. Both Tukhachevskii and Sedyakin were quickly eliminated, and the NIIIS-KA instigated investigations of NII-9 and SKB with the resulting arrest of NII-9’s chief and the dismissal of Shembel. Bonch-Bruevich, who had attracted Lenin’s favor for his early radio work and who stood highest in electronic prestige, appealed directly to Central Committee Member Andrei A Zhdanov, who used Party influence to preserve the activities of NII-9. SKB was cleaned out and Oshchepkov, along with other radio engineers, went to the Gulag for ten years; he survived, thanks in no small part to academician Joffe, who sent him food packages and letters. 

NIIIS-KA stepped into this to absorb NII-9 and SKB, and once the hated radar project was theirs their attitude changed; they completed the transformation of Rapid into an army prototype called RUS-1 (Rhubarb). It had a truck-mounted transmitter and two truck-mounted receivers that were normally placed about 40 km from the transmitter. These sets, of which only 44 were manufactured in 1940 and 1941, were technically not significantly advanced over the way Oshchepkov had left them and proved to be of little value. 

Following completion of the design of RUS-1, LFTI set about building a pulsed air-warning radar, RUS-2 (Redoubt). It was bi-static equipment of 50 kW working on the 4 m band; transmitter and receiver were mounted on separate trucks having Yagi antennas that tracked one another in direction, although they had to be located about 1000 m apart, the obvious result of not having solved the common-antenna problem. The experimental set started in 1936 was not completed until late 1939, just in time for it to be tried in the Russo-Finnish War where it was successful enough for ten sets to be ordered on a crash basis. RUS-1 failed the same test completely. RUS-2 provides an exception to the general rule for design of meter-wave air-warning sets of the time in using Yagis rather than dipole arrays backed by conducting screens, the directional antenna immediately and instinctively adopted by others. 


Radar – The Soviet Union WWII Part II

In 1938 the first Soviet Pulsed Radar station was tested. In the end of 1939 the development and the test the RUS-2 were concluded. With It aircraft could be located up to 120 kms with a maximum height up to 7 kms.”Redoubt” = mobile station.

When the Luftwaffe opened the Great Patriotic War by destroying a substantial fraction of Stalin’s air force, it was unhindered by Soviet radar. There was only one kind of radar in use when the conflict began: RUS-2, the pulse-type air-warning equipment working on 4 m. That statement discounts completely the few units of the radio screen, RUS-1, the production version of Oshchepkov’s Rapid of 1934, for which the war found no use; yet despite its complete failure during the Finnish War of 1939-1940, 13 RUS-1 sets were manufactured in 1941. RUS-2 proved of value as an air-warning set but suffered from the need to have transmitter and receiver separated by about a kilometer, the antennas of which had to move synchronously. There were six sets in existence when war broke out, but they had no effect on events. The Scientific Research Institute of the Radio Industry (SRI) had devised how to use a common antenna before the war began and had incorporated it into the modification, RUS-2S, but production had not yet begun. 

The radar groups in Leningrad (LFTI, NII-9) and Kharkov (UFTI) soon found their principal problem was evacuation to the east, both of development laboratories and production plants, a process that removed five months of any useful activity. The death in March 1940 of Professor M A Bonch-Bruyevich, who had taken over the leadership of NII-9 after the purges added to the turmoil with which that group had had to deal. The production of only 53 RUS-2S sets during 1942 tells the story more eloquently with numbers than is possible with words. 

The Soviet dismissal of radar at the beginning of the war was not reflected in their other attitudes concerning AA defense. Large cities had hundreds of guns, although their accuracy was poor [4]; the fighter squadrons were based at all-weather fields, much superior to the usual Soviet bases. Moscow was the best defended city in the world and, despite its proximity to the ground fighting, did not suffer serious damage from bombing. Besieged Leningrad suffered in every possible way, but it too put up a very strong air defense. Not surprisingly, the first effective Soviet use of radar was in augmenting the defenses of Moscow and Leningrad. 

An experimental station at Toksovo near Leningrad, used before the war by the Physico-technical Institute (LIPT), assumed immediate tactical functions and was manned by members of its technical staff. Its equipment was RUS-2 but with more power for greater range. Transmitter and receiver were mounted on separate 20 m steel towers; antenna movement allowed a 270° sector of observation. Operation was turned over to military personnel once they had been trained. 

The Research Institute of the Red Army (NIIIS KA), which had overall responsibility for radar, built in the first months of the war a large station for the Moscow air defense, which also used the RUS-2 principle. Specifications differ enough from those of other air-warning sets to be of interest: pulse duration 5060 µs, which allowed a receiver pass-band of only 40 kHz and a repetition rate 50 Hz. It mimicked CH in more than pulse rate, for it too used special demountable vacuum-pumped transmitter tubes; they were designated type IG-8 and made by the Svetlana tube plant. 

Leningrad received numerous air attacks, generally by formations of about 100 aircraft. In 1942 there were 38 such bombings, all of which were stoutly resisted. Radar’s performance opened the eyes of theretofore uninterested military leaders, as 20 000 targets were picked up that year. Attacking squadrons showed up on oscilloscope screens in plenty of time to alarm the city and scramble fighters. On a small scale the air defense of Leningrad was similar to the Battle of Britain, and by the end of 1942 the radar men did not have to beg for attention even though they had to beg for production. RUS-2 and RUS-2S gained reputations as simple, reliable pieces of equipment if only they could have given height information.

The poor showing of early Soviet gun-laying radars did not eliminate this type from the minds of designers, and NII-9 organized an experimental battalion-sized AA unit in October 1941, employed in the defense of Moscow while trying out its new equipment. Initially the battalion had four 75 mm, six 105 mm (German guns obtained during the time of the non-aggression pact) and six 37 mm automatic guns. A team of engineers headed by M L Sliozberg worked directly with the unit. They introduced some experimental sets, Sleep, B-2 and B-3 that worked on 15 cm using cavity magnetrons. The possession of the cavity magnetron, viewed in Britain and America as the ultimate microwave transmitter and the basis for uncounted radar successes in the coming years, seemed to hold no advantages for the Soviets. They were unable to produce a transmitter or local oscillator with sufficiently stable frequency to allow the construction of a heterodyne receiver, which was presumably attempted without a crystaldiode mixer. These gun-laying sets were failures and soon disappeared from the experimental battalion’s gun positions. 

The arrival of British GL mark IIs produced much more interest than the experimental microwave sets. It was not much of a gun-laying set, to be sure, but it was a robust, reliable and well-engineered piece that found use for searchlights, fighter direction and even air warning. The British technicians who had been sent to instruct the Russians, and who had been led to believe that radar was unknown to the recipients, encountered personnel who mastered the equipment rapidly despite a significant language barrier. Sliozberg’s people soon made a copy of it, called SON-2. It proved the favorite Soviet radar, but British imports of GL mark II (generally called SON-2) overwhelmed native production, which produced only 124 during the entire war. 

Later Britain sent 44 microwave GL mark IIIs and America sent 25 SCR-268s, 15 SCR-545s and 49 of the superb SCR-584. A copy of GL mark III appeared as Neptune, and the 584 was copied after the war as SON-4. 

In the summer and fall of 1941 Stalin’s gigantic army and air force suffered a defeat coupled with losses of men and material of magnitude unparalleled in history, but as Hitler’s forces stood before Moscow, everything changed in an almost miraculous manner: (1) Japan was suddenly found to be completely occupied with America and Britain, thereby freeing many fresh Siberian divisions to board trains headed west; (2) the Russian people, who may have been originally indifferent to the downfall of the communist state, had come to realize that the war was against them, not just Stalin; (3) Hitler had also conveniently declared war on the United States, which was to prove a serious distraction for the Nazi state; (4) a Wehrmacht without winter clothing or equipment had been assailed by a winter as deadly as the enemy. In January 1942 Germany found herself in total war, a discomfort theretofore left to her adversaries. Only then did German total mobilization begin. 

During the intoxicating summer of 1941 radar had been, if anything, even less important to the Germans than the Russians. The new weapon, so important in the west, was ignored in the east. The Luftwaffe dominated the air and found little need for equipment in short supply and required for the defense of the Reich against Bomber Command. There had been use of Freya sets before the surprise attack of 22 June to ensure that no Soviet observation planes discovered the large assembly of forces, but few of the clumsy Freyas followed the Blitzkrieg. 

The Soviet air force had to make its recovery in the face of German air superiority, but its slow progress called for correspondingly increased vigilance by the Luftwaffe. A measure of Russian progress can be found in the extent of German radar deployment. As Leningrad became besieged, the air struggle there became more advanced, and Luftwaffe Signals set up Freyas on the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremann, located to the west of Estonia, to protect German shipping from air raids. A Freya unit covering the south approaches of Leningrad found movement of the set in the terrible winter retreat of January 1942 so difficult that it had to be destroyed. 

In 1941 radar was closely associated with strategic bombing, and its use with and against tactical ground forces lay a few years in the future. The steady growth of Soviet power came from factories beyond the range of German bombers, and the railway network continued to distribute supplies and troops, hindered but not brought to collapse by air raids. The four-engine bomber that General Walter Wever had favored to attack these resources was absent and not going to appear. 

An early German use of radar came from an unexpected quarter-partisan warfare. When it became clear that Germany was the enemy of all those Soviet peoples that did not have some ethnic status that made them acceptable to the Nazis, partisan groups began to make no small amount of trouble behind the German lines. Made up of soldiers cut off but not taken prisoner and civilians escaping and fighting SS terror, these groups were organized and maintained by the Soviet command. Night flying served as the means of bringing vital supplies and officers to these units and the carrying out of information and wounded. Soon an elaborate air transport was established at night. Combating these infiltrating flights proved difficult, in great part because of the primitive Russian equipment used. The most important aircraft was a biplane, paradoxically designated the U-2. Flying slow and low and necessarily observing strict radio silence it was difficult to detect. Radar was obviously called for, and it came as railway radar trains, but an effective counter to the U-2 was never found. 

Russia’s notoriously muddy roads made movement by rail essential for heavy equipment a Freya required 28 horses for movement by typical road and radar trains were the obvious answer, first placed in service in October 1942. They were portable fighter control units that consisted of a Freya for early warning and two Würzburg giants, one to track the enemy and the other to track the interceptor so the controller could bring the two together. Some trains made good use of searchlights. It was the system called Himmelbett in the west. As the air situation deteriorated for the Luftwaffe, the radar trains became more numerous and more important. In 1943 a radar train in the Orel-Bryansk sector took credit for bringing down about 30 planes. 

 (The first radar trains may have been placed in service somewhat earlier in France during the summer of 1942. By that time the activities of the underground were beginning to be troublesome, and light aircraft transported agents and supplies between the continent and England. Finding the resistance personnel was more important than bringing down the airplanes, so railway-mounted equipment that could be moved to suspected places of operation in order to observe where they landed was an obvious answer. It is reported to have led to several arrests.) 

Growing Soviet air power began forcing the Luftwaffe to bomb at night, and their efforts had grown to such an extent that the Soviets began organizing night fighter units in late 1943. These units were not particularly effective because they lacked both airborne and ground radar capable of bringing about interception. 

The absence of strategic bombing in the east meant there was no centralized air defense, so radar use on both sides tended to take on local character and ingenuity. A German bomber group at Shitomir (near Kiev) used two Freyas for night bombing Russian concentrations at locations beyond artillery range. One Freya directed a bomber by radio so as to follow an arc of constant radius while the second controlled the release of bombs. The attacks were not only complete surprises but remarkably accurate.

By the time of the great tank-air battle at Kursk during 511 July 1943 the Soviet air force was something that had to be dealt with, and the Germans assigned five of the nine then existent radar trains to the sector. The Wehrmacht lost decisively. The wreckage of hundreds of aircraft and tanks littered the field, but one Freya was credited with saving Fliegerkorps VIII from complete destruction.

Any Soviet use of radar at Kursk has escaped mention in the sources available. Indeed, Soviet use of radar in general was hardly noticed by the Luftwaffe until 1944 and never reached the stage where countermeasures were employed. They seem to have thought all of the enemy’s radar was of British or American manufacture and been unaware that any of the Russian equipment was of indigenous manufacture. 

German radar found ever wider use on the Eastern Front as ever more equipment became available and the pressure of Soviet air power increased and not just Soviet. The oil fields of Rumania received a generous allotment of AA and fighter units and with them came Freyas and Würzburgs for Flak and fighter control. Their effectiveness is attested by the heavy losses of the American bombers that attacked Ploesti. The saving or at least preventing the capture of the extensive radar deployment in Rumania became a matter of serious concern when Russian forces secured that nation in August and September 1944. 

Such was radar in the east. Compared with the use in the west and at sea it was small indeed, being a mere perturbation on the cataclysmic battles that were fought there. Germany’s deployment was, until near the end, trivial when measured against the air defense system facing the Allies. Russia used it first only in defense of her two largest cities, to what effect it is difficult to say. In the east huge ground forces struggled with air power restricted to army support. It was not until the appearance of remarkably accurate 10 cm equipment, such as SCR-584, that radar showed real value for this kind of warfare. In the hands of ingenious officers the equipment could be of benefit, especially to local fighter squadrons, but these contributions were never decisive. The actions in the deserts of North Africa are apt illustrations of this. Given this tactical background it is difficult to fault the Soviet command for not giving radar a greater priority. Were it not for their demonstrated capacity for confused and self-destructive administration, one might be tempted to attribute wisdom to the Soviet leaders for the low priority given radar. But whether from wisdom or folly, there is little reason to fault the result. The critical industrial strengths required for the manufacture and operation of radar were put to better purpose in communication equipment vital to mobile ground warfare. 

The quality of Soviet radar development before and during the war must be evaluated by what was accomplished against what was attempted. Here is a bewildering confusion of competence at its highest and lowest. Soviet engineers invented the cavity magnetron, a device for which praise in Britain and America exceeds that for any comparable device. That not being enough they invented the klystron independently of the Varians and Hansen. But their attempts at putting them to use failed, owing to an inability to master the lesser arts of microwaves, and resulted in an especially bad gun-laying set that was never produced. The klystron does not seem to have entered a serious Soviet radar design. In meter-wave equipment the advantage of an early entrance was lost. Postwar design started from Allied and captured German sets.

Renaissance Warfare I

As more centralized governments developed during the Later Middle Ages (1000-1500), significant changes took place in the way armies were raised. This included the more extensive use of mercenaries and led to the development of Europe’s professional armies.

While members of the nobility continued to fight primarily as the result of social and feudal obligations, other soldiers increasingly fought for pay. Although in theory some vassals in the later Middle Ages were obliged to serve their lord annually for up to 40 days in the field, if they had the financial ability they would often pay someone to serve in their stead. The limited service requirements of feudal obligations could also cause severe problems concerning a lord’s ability to sustain prolonged warfare. Once a vassal’s required service was over, he could theoretically withdraw if alternative arrangements had not been made. Thus, in addition to calling up their vassals, wealthier lords and kings often employed mercenaries. Successful use of mercenaries was usually dependent on their morale, as they were prone to flee when battles went poorly or pay was tardy. Finally, cities sometimes recruited armies from local populations or, if recruitment efforts were unsuccessful, raised armies through conscription.

Once an army was raised, the issue of logistics was paramount. Supply was so important that it often determined the makeup and size of armies. Among the most important members of an army’s leadership was the marshal, whose duties included marshaling, or gathering, the forces; organizing the army’s heavy weapons; and providing for the army’s constant provisioning. While all soldiers were responsible for providing their personal arms and armor, the leadership was obliged to provide weapons beyond the pocketbook of the common soldier, such as siege engines. Moreover, although soldiers would bring an initial supply of rations for themselves, the army’s leadership was responsible for plotting a route that allowed for resupply. This was done by maintaining supply chains, purchasing supplies from local populations, or, more often than not, foraging (plundering). Whatever the mean of provisioning, food and drink were a constant worry and often in short supply.

Medieval European armies were normally arranged in three sections (battles or battalions) that included a vanguard, a main body, and a rear guard. The vanguard was the forward division of the army, usually comprised of archers and other soldiers who wielded long-range weapons. Their purpose was to inflict as much damage as possible on an opposing army before the main bodies, composed of infantry and armored cavalry, clashed. The main body comprised the bulk of the army’s forces, and its performance was usually crucial to the army’s success. The rear guard was usually comprised of less heavily armored and more agile cavalry, often mounted sergeants who could move quickly around the battlefield and chase down fleeing enemy soldiers. It also guarded the main force’s rear as well as the army’s supplies and camp followers (noncombatants who accompanied the army). Each section deployed in either a linear or block formation depending on the situation on the battlefield. While a block formation could better withstand cavalry charges, a linear formation allowed nearly the entire army to take part in a battle.

The importance of the mounted knight in medieval armies was foundational to Europe’s social order. The prohibitive cost of proper arms, armor, and horses limited knighthood primarily to the landed feudal class. The typical knight was generally much more effective on the battlefield than the common infantryman, as he was not only better equipped but also better trained. Knights were usually placed in command of the cavalry (many of whom were less well-armed sergeants from lower social classes), which was used primarily to overrun enemy positions and break up enemy formations. If the cavalry charge was successful, infantry was positioned to exploit any break in the enemy line.

The infantry was composed of pikemen, archers, crossbowmen, swordsmen, and others who fought on foot and were usually joined by knights and other cavalry who had lost their horses. While some infantry were experienced warriors, many were poorly trained and only sporadically went into combat under the leadership of their local lords. Pikemen defended against enemy cavalry by pointing a concentrated number of pikes (long spears) in the direction of an onrushing cavalry charge, while archers could fill the sky with arrows to devastate the ranks of their approaching opponents. After several volleys, the archers could step aside to allow the cavalry and other infantry to engage their then weakened opponents. When the main bodies of two armies clashed on the battlefield, infantrymen armed with swords, battle-axes, and similar weapons provided screening for the cavalry and were essential for hand-to-hand combat. As the battlefield became chaotic, communication was usually limited to audible commands (sometimes produced by musical instruments), messengers, or visual signals that included the use of banners, standards, or flags.

The development of effective siege warfare was necessitated by the common use of defensive walls to protect medieval cities. Many cities also contained a keep, or elevated fortification, for additional protection in case the walls were breached by an enemy. Medieval strategists understood that the most effective way for an army to overcome defensive walls was simply to knock them down and rush through any openings. This was less risky than maneuvers that involved scaling ladders while fending off the attacks of defenders who benefited from their elevated position. Consequently, a variety of powerful siege engines that included the mangonel, the ballista, and the trebuchet were used to launch heavy projectiles at resisting cities and batter their defenses. Additionally, attacking armies used siege towers to position soldiers on a level equal to those defending a city wall, while forces on the ground would also employ battering rams to knock down gates or sappers to undermine walls.

Archers also played an important role in siege warfare. Talented marksmen could wreak havoc on the opposing armies of both sides. The skill and range of archers defending a city’s walls determined the placement of the attacking army’s camp, as it was important to make sure that the attackers were out of range of arrows. In the case of those who used the powerful English longbow rather than the more common short bow, archers had a much higher rate of fire and effective range, which made them especially valuable for use in siege warfare and by the vanguard on the battlefield.

Technological developments also aided armies defending cities or castles under siege. Concentric castles were developed during the period of the crusades, as were architectural improvements, such as the round tower, to make walls stronger and more defensible. Deeper wells allowed better access to water during lengthy sieges, and small openings in the wall for defending archers provided them protected positions. Attackers were also repelled from city walls with boiling oil or water as well as molten lead. Yet the most revolutionary changes in tactics, strategy, equipment, and organization emerged with the introduction of gunpowder to European battlefields in the fourteenth century. Powerful cannon tipped siege warfare in favor of the attacking army, while hand cannon and other firearms made the armor of knights obsolete. This led to the diminished importance of the mounted nobility, which contributed to the rise of full-time professional armies in the early modern period.

Renaissance Fortifications

The walls of Nicosia (1567) are a typical example of Italian Renaissance military architecture that survives to this day.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, fortifications had to be completely reconsidered as a result of developments in artillery. During the Middle Ages, well-stocked fortresses with a source of potable water stood a fairly good chance of resisting siege warfare. Such assaults usually began in the spring or early summer, and hostile troops returned home at the onset of cold weather if success did not appear imminent. Because repeated artillery bombardment of medieval structures often yielded rapid results, warfare continued year-round by the latter 15th century. Even though winter might be approaching, military commanders persisted in barrages of artillery as long as supplies were available for their troops, certain that they could break the siege in a few more days or weeks. A new type of defensive fortification was needed, and it was designed in Italy.

Early Renaissance

Medieval fortified structures consisted of high walls and towers with slot windows, constructed of brick or stone. These buildings were designed to withstand a long siege by hostile forces. The only ways to capture such a fortification were (1) to roll a wooden siege tower against the wall and climb over, but such towers were quite flammable and could be threatened by fiery objects catapulted over the wall; (2) to batter down part of the wall, under an assault of arrows, hot pitch, and other weapons hailing down from above; and (3) to tunnel under the foundation, a process that could take a very long time. Conventional towers and high walls were no match for artillery bombardment, which could be accomplished from a distance with no threat to the invading army. In addition, the walls and towers of medieval fortifications were not equipped for the placement and utilization of heavy defensive artillery. During the 15th century, European towns began to construct low, thick walls against their main defensive walls, permitting pieces of artillery to be rolled along the top and positioned as needed. The outer walls were often sloped outwardly or slightly rounded to deflect projectiles at unpredictable angles back toward the enemy. Bulwarks, usually U-shaped formations of earth, timber, and stone, were built to protect the main gate and to provide defensive artillery posts. In both central and northern Europe, many towns constructed gun towers whose sole purpose was the deployment of defensive artillery. These structures had guns at several levels, but usually lighter, lower caliber weapons than those used on the walls. Heavier weapons would have created unbearable noise and smoke in the small rooms in which they were discharged. In several conventional medieval towers, the roof was removed and a gun platform install.

Later Renaissance

Near the close of the 15th century, Italian architects and engineers invented a new type of defensive trace, improving upon the bulwark design. In the “Italian trace” [trace italienne -Star fort] triangle-shaped bastions with thick, outward-sloping sides were pointed out from the main defensive wall, with their top at the same level as the wall. At Civitavecchia, a port near Rome used by the papal navy, the city walls were fortified with bastions in 1520-the first example of bastions completely circling a defensive wall. Bastions solved several problems of the bulwark system, especially with bastions joined to the wall and not placed a short distance away, where troops could be cut off by enemy troops. The most important improvement was the elimination of the blind spot caused by round towers and bulwarks; gunners had a complete sweep of enemy soldiers in the ditches below. Development of the bastion design in Italy was a direct response to the 1494 invasion by the troops of Charles VIII and the superior artillery of France at that time, and to continued threats from the Turks. Bastion-dominated fortifications were constructed along the Mediterranean coast to create a line of defense against naval attacks. Several such fortifications were built in northern Europe, beginning with Antwerp in 1544. In some instances fortifications were not feasible, for reasons such as very hilly terrain or opposition from estate owners reluctant to lose property, and in some regions military threat was not extreme enough to warrant the effort of constructing new fortifications. In such cases, an existing fortress might be renovated and strengthened to create a citadel. Municipalities often opposed construction of citadels, which symbolized tyranny, because they were imposed on defeated cities by warlords. Citadels proved to be an effective means, however, for providing a protective enclosure during enemy attacks. By the mid-16th century, the expense of fortifications was exorbitant. Henry VIII, for example, was spending more than one-quarter of his entire income on such structures, and the kingdom of Naples was expending more than half.


After countless unsuccessful experiments, lethal accidents and ineffective trials, firearms research and techniques gradually improved, and chroniclers report many types of guns—mainly used in siege warfare—with numerous names such as veuglaire, pot-de-fer, bombard, vasii, petara and so on. In the second half of the 14th century, firearms became more efficient, and it seemed obvious that cannons were the weapons of the future. Venice successfully utilized cannons against Genoa in 1378. During the Hussite war from 1415 to 1436, the Czech Hussite rebels employed firearms in combination with a mobile tactic of armored carts (wagenburg) enabling them to defeat German knights. Firearms contributed to the end of the Hundred Years’ War and allowed the French king Charles VII to defeat the English in Auray in 1385, Rouen in 1418 and Orleans in 1429. Normandy was reconquered in 1449 and Guyenne in 1451. Finally, the battle of Chatillon in 1453 was won by the French artillery. This marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War; the English, divided by the Wars of the Roses, were driven out of France, keeping only Calais. The same year saw the Turks taking Constantinople, which provoked consternation, agitation and excitement in the whole Christian world.

In that siege and seizure of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, cannon and gunpowder achieved spectacular success. To breach the city walls, the Turks utilized heavy cannons which, if we believe the chronicler Critobulos of Imbros, shot projectiles weighing about 500 kg. Even if this is exaggerated, big cannons certainly did exist by that time and were more common in the East than in the West, doubtless because the mighty potentates of the East could better afford them. Such monsters included the Ghent bombard, called “Dulle Griet”; the large cannon “Mons Berg” which is today in Edinburgh; and the Great Gun of Mohammed II, exhibited today in London. The latter, cast in 1464 by Sultan Munir Ali, weighed 18 tons and could shoot a 300 kg stone ball to a range of one kilometer.

A certain number of technical improvements took place in the 15th century. One major step was the amelioration of powder quality. Invented about 1425, corned powder involved mixing saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur into a soggy paste, then sieving and drying it, so that each individual grain or corn contained the same and correct proportion of ingredients. The process obviated the need for mixing in the field. It also resulted in more efficient combustion, thus improving safety, power, range and accuracy.

Another important step was the development of foundries, allowing cannons to be cast in one piece in iron and bronze (copper alloyed with tin). In spite of its expense, casting was the best method to produce practical and resilient weapons with lighter weight and higher muzzle velocity. In about 1460, guns were fitted with trunnions. These were cast on both sides of the barrel and made sufficiently strong to carry the weight and bear the shock of discharge, and permit the piece to rest on a two-wheeled wooden carriage. Trunnions and wheeled mounting not only made for easier transportation and better maneuverability but also allowed the gunners to raise and lower the barrels of their pieces.

One major improvement was the introduction in about 1418 of a very efficient projectile: the solid iron shot. Coming into use gradually, the solid iron cannonball could destroy medieval crenellation, ram castle-gates, and collapse towers and masonry walls. It broke through roofs, made its way through several stories and crushed to pieces all it fell upon. One single well-aimed projectile could mow down a whole row of soldiers or cut down a splendid armored knight.

About 1460, mortars were invented. A mortar is a specific kind of gun whose projectile is shot with a high, curved trajectory, between 45° and 75°, called plunging fire. Allowing gunners to lob projectiles over high walls and reach concealed objectives or targets protected behind fortifications, mortars were particularly useful in sieges. In the Middle Ages they were characterized by a short and fat bore and two big trunnions. They rested on massive timber-framed carriages without wheels, which helped them withstand the shock of firing; the recoil force was passed directly to the ground by means of the carriage. Owing to such ameliorations, artillery progressively gained dominance, particularly in siege warfare.

Individual guns, essentially scaled down artillery pieces fitted with handles for the firer, appeared after the middle of the 14th century. Various models of portable small arms were developed, such as the clopi or scopette, bombardelle, baton-de-feu, handgun, and firestick, to mention just a few.

In purely military terms, these early handguns were more of a hindrance than an asset on the battlefield, for they were expensive to produce, inaccurate, heavy, and time-consuming to load; during loading the firer was virtually defenseless. However, even as rudimentary weapons with poor range, they were effective in their way, as much for attackers as for soldiers defending a fortress.

The harquebus was a portable gun fitted with a hook that absorbed the recoil force when firing from a battlement. It was generally operated by two men, one aiming and the other igniting the propelling charge. This weapon evolved in the Renaissance to become the matchlock musket in which the fire mechanism consisted of a pivoting S-shaped arm. The upper part of the arm gripped a length of rope impregnated with a combustible substance and kept alight at one end, called the match. The lower end of the arm served as a trigger: When pressed it brought the glowing tip of the match into contact with a small quantity of gunpowder, which lay in a horizontal pan fixed beneath a small vent in the side of the barrel at its breech. When this priming ignited, its flash passed through the vent and ignited the main charge in the barrel, expelling the spherical lead bullet.

The wheel lock pistol was a small harquebus taking its name from the city Pistoia in Tuscany where the weapon was first built in the 15th century. The wheel lock system, working on the principle of a modern cigarette lighter, was reliable and easy to handle, especially for a combatant on horseback. But its mechanism was complicated and therefore expensive, and so its use was reserved for wealthy civilian hunters, rich soldiers and certain mounted troops.

Portable cannons, handguns, harquebuses and pistols were muzzle-loading and shot projectiles that could easily penetrate any armor. Because of the power of firearms, traditional Middle Age weaponry become obsolete; gradually, lances, shields and armor for both men and horses were abandoned.

The destructive power of gunpowder allowed the use of mines in siege warfare. The role of artillery and small firearms become progressively larger; the new weapons changed the nature of naval and siege warfare and transformed the physiognomy of the battlefield. This change was not a sudden revolution, however, but a slow process. Many years elapsed before firearms became widespread, and many traditional medieval weapons were still used in the 16th century.

One factor militating against artillery’s advancement in the 15th century was the amount of expensive material necessary to equip an army. Cannons and powder were very costly items and also demanded a retinue of expensive attendant specialists for design, transport and operation. Consequently firearms had to be produced in peacetime, and since the Middle Ages had rudimentary ideas of economics and fiscal science, only a few kings, dukes and high prelates possessed the financial resources to build, purchase, transport, maintain and use such expensive equipment in numbers that would have an appreciable impression in war.

Conflicts with firearms became an economic business involving qualified personnel backed up by traders, financiers and bankers as well as the creation of comprehensive industrial structures. The development of firearms meant the gradual end of feudalism. Firearms also brought about a change in the mentality of combat because they created a physical and mental distance between warriors. Traditional mounted knights, fighting each other at close range within the rules of a certain code, were progressively replaced by professional infantrymen who were anonymous targets for one another, while local rebellious castles collapsed under royal artillery’s fire. Expensive artillery helped to hasten the process by which central authority was restored.


The collapse of the monetary economy in Western Europe following the fall of Rome left just two areas where gold coin was still used in the 10th century: southern Italy and southern Spain (al-Andalus). Ready gold drew mercenaries to wars in those regions as carrion creatures draw near dead flesh. Also able to pay in coin for military specialists and hardened veterans was the Byzantine Empire, along with the Muslim states it opposed and fought for several centuries. The rise of mercenaries in Western Europe in the 11th century as a money economy resumed disturbed the social order and was received with wrath and dismay by the clergy and service nobility. Early forms of monetary service did not necessarily involve straight wages. They included fief money and scutage. But by the end of the 13th century paid military service was the norm in Europe. This meant that local bonds were forming in many places and a concomitant sense of “foreignness” attached to long-service soldiers. Mercenaries were valued for their military expertise but now feared and increasingly despised for their perceived moral indifference to the causes for which they fought. Ex-mercenary bands (routiers, Free Companies) were commonplace in France in the 12th century and a social and economic scourge wherever they moved during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Their main weapon was the crossbow, on land and at sea. In the galley wars of the Mediterranean many Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian crossbowmen hired out as specialist marine archers. Much of the Reconquista in Spain was fueled by the mercenary impulse and concomitant necessity for armies to live off the land. The hard methods and cruel attitudes learned by Iberians while fighting Moors were then applied in the Americas by quasi-mercenary conquistadores. Mercenaries- “condottieri,” or foreign “contractors”-also played a major part in the wars of the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

French “gen d’armes” and Swiss pikemen and halberdiers fought for Lorraine at Nancy (1477). By the start of the 15th century Swiss companies hired out with official Cantonal approval or as free bands who elected their officers and went to Italy to fight as condottieri. With the end of the wars of the Swiss Confederation against France and Burgundy, Swiss soldiers of fortune formed a company known as “das torechte Leben” (roughly, “the mad life”) and fought for pay under a Banner displaying a town idiot and a pig. Within four years of Nancy some 6,000 Swiss were hired by Louis XI. In 1497, Charles VIII (“The Affable”) of France engaged 100 Swiss halberdiers as his personal bodyguard (“Garde de Cent Suisses”). In either form, the Swiss became the major mercenary people of Europe into the 16th century. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisses” (“no money, no Swiss”) was a baleful maxim echoed by many sovereigns and generals. Mercenaries of all regional origins filled out the armies of Charles V, and those of his son, Philip II, as well as their enemies during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. By that time Swiss mercenaries who still used pikes (and many did) were largely employed to guard the artillery or trenches or supplies. Similarly, by the late 16th century German Landsknechte were still hired for battle as shock troops but they were considered undisciplined and perfectly useless in a siege.

In Poland in the 15th century most mercenaries were Bohemians who fought under the flag of St. George, which had a red cross on a white background. When Bohemian units found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield they usually agreed that one side would adopt a white cross on a red background while their countrymen on the other side used the standard red-on-white flag of St. George. In the Polish-Prussian and Teutonic Knights campaigns of the mid-15th century the Brethren-by this point too few to do all their own fighting-hired German, English, Scots, and Irish mercenaries to fill out their armies. During the “War of the Cities” (1454-1466) German mercenaries were critical to the victory of the Teutonic Knights at Chojnice (September 18, 1454). When the Order ran out of money, however, Bohemian soldiers-for-hire who held the key fortress and Teutonic capital of Marienburg for the Knights sold it to a besieging Polish army and departed, well paid and unscathed by even a token fight.


From the end of the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302), the Italians tried to decide for themselves what government they wanted, resulting in conflict between the Ghibellines-who supported Imperial rule-and the Guelfs-who supported papal rule. The Guelfs were successful in the first decade of the fourteenth century, ironically at much the same time the papacy moved to Avignon in 1308. Suddenly freed from either Imperial or papal influence, the large number of sovereign states in northern and central Italy began to try to exert control over their neighbors. Florence, Milan, and Venice, and to a lesser extent Lucca, Siena, Mantua, and Genoa, all profited from the early-fourteenth-century military situation by exerting their independence. But this independence came at a price. The inhabitants of the north Italian city-states had enough wealth to be able to pay for others to fight for them and they frequently employed soldiers, condottieri in their language (from the condotte, the contract hiring these soldiers) and mercenaries in ours. Indeed, the immense wealth of the Italian city-states in the late Middle Ages meant that the number of native soldiers was lower than elsewhere in Europe at the same time, but it meant the cost of waging war was much higher.

One might think that having to add the pay for condottieri to the normal costs of war would have limited the numbers of military conflicts in late medieval Italy. But that was not the case and, in what was an incredibly bellicose time, Italy was one of the most fought over regions in Europe. Most of these wars were small, with one city’s mercenary forces facing another’s, but they were very frequent. They gave employment to a large number of condottieri, who in turn fought the wars, which in turn employed the condottieri. An obvious self-perpetuating circle developed. It was fueled by a number of factors: the wealth of northern Italy; the greed of wealthier Italians to acquire more wealth by occupying neighboring cities and lands (or to keep these cities from competing by incorporating their economies); their unwillingness themselves to fight the wars; and the availability of a large number of men who were not only willing to do so, but who saw regular employment in their mercenary companies as a means to comfort, wealth, and often titles and offices. In 1416, one condottierie, Braccio da Montone, became lord of Perugia, while a short time later two others, condottieri sons of the condottiere Muccio Attendolo Sforza, Alessandro and Francesco, became the Master of Pesaro and Duke of Milan, respectively. Other condottieri became governors of Urbino, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara during the fifteenth century.

Venice and Genoa continued to be the greatest rivals among the northern Italian city-states. Both believed the Mediterranean to be theirs, and they refused to share it with anyone, including Naples and Aragon, nor, of course, with each other. This became a military issue at the end of the fifteenth century. The common practice was a monopoly trading contract. Venice’s monopoly with the crusader states ceased when the crusaders were forced from the Middle East in 1291, although they were able to sustain their trade with the victorious Muslim powers. And Venice’s contract with Constantinople was abandoned with the fall of the Latin Kingdom in 1261, only to be replaced by a similar contract with Genoa that would last till the city’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Frequently during the late Middle Ages, this rivalry turned to warfare, fought primarily on the sea, as was fitting for two naval powers. Venice almost always won these engagements, most notably the War of Chioggia (1376-1381), and there seems little doubt that such defeats led to a weakening of the political independence and economic strength of Genoa. Although Venice never actually conquered Genoa, nor does it appear that the Venetian rulers considered this to be in their city’s interest, other principalities did target the once powerful city-state. Florence held Genoa for a period of three years (1353-1356), and Naples, Aragon, and Milan vied for control in the fifteenth century. Seeking defensive assistance, the Republic of Genoa sought alliance with the Kingdom of France, and it is in this context that their most prominent military feature is set, the Genoese mercenary. During the Hundred Years War, Genoa supplied France with naval and, more famously, crossbowmen mercenaries, the latter ironically provided by a city whose experience in land warfare was rather thin.

Before the fifteenth century, the Republic of Venice had also rarely participated in land campaigns-except for leading the forces of the Second Crusade in their attack of Constantinople in 1204. Seeing the sea not only as a provider of economic security but also as defense for the city, Venetian doges and other city officials had rarely pursued campaigns against their neighbors. However, in 1404- 1405, a Venetian army, once again almost entirely mercenaries, attacked to the west and captured Vicenza, Verona, and Padua. In 1411-1412 and again in 1418-1420, they attacked to the northeast, against Hungary, and captured Dalmatia, Fruili, and Istria. So far it had been easy-simply pay for enough condottieri to fight the wars, and reap the profits of conquest. But in 1424 Venice ran into two Italian city-states that had the same military philosophy they did, and both were as wealthy: Milan and Florence. The result was thirty years of protracted warfare.

The strategy of all three of these city-states during this conflict was to employ more and more mercenaries. At the start, the Venetian army numbered 10,000-12,000; by 1432 this figure had grown to 18,000; and by 1439 it was 25,000, although it declined to 20,000 during the 1440s and 1450s. The other two city-states kept pace. At almost any time after 1430 more than 50,000 soldiers were fighting in northern Italy. The economy and society of the whole region were damaged, with little gain by any of the protagonists during the war. At its end, a negotiated settlement, Venice gained little, but it also lost very little. The city went back to war in 1478-1479, the Pazzi War, and again in 1482-1484, the War of Ferrara. The Florentines and Milanese participated in both as well.

After the acquisition of Vicenza, Verona, and Padua in 1405 Venice shared a land frontier with Milan. From that time forward Milan was the greatest threat to Venice and her allies, and to practically any other city-state, town, or village in northern Italy. Milan also shared a land frontier with Florence, and if Milanese armies were not fighting Venetian armies, they were fighting Florentine armies, sometimes taking on both at the same time.

Their animosity predates the later Middle Ages, but it intensified with the wealth and ability of both sides to hire condottieri. This led to wars with Florence in 1351-1354 and 1390-1402, and with Florence and Venice (in league together) in 1423-1454, 1478-1479, and 1482-1484. In those rare times when not at war with Florence or Venice, Milanese armies often turned on other neighboring towns, for example, capturing Pavia and Monza among other places.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Milan’s bellicosity is the rise to power of its condottiere ruler, Francesco Sforza, in 1450. Sforza had been one of Milan’s condottieri captains for a number of years, following in the footsteps of his father, Muccio, who had been in the city-state’s employ off and on since about 1400. Both had performed diligently, successfully, and, at least for condottieri, loyally, and they had become wealthy because of it. Francesco had even married the illegitimate daughter of the reigning Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. But during the most recent wars, after he had assumed the lordship of Pavia, and in the wake of Filippo’s death in 1447, the Milanese decided not to renew Francesco’s contract. In response, the condottiere used his army to besiege the city, which capitulated in less than a year. Within a very short time, Francesco Sforza had insinuated himself into all facets of Milanese rule; his brother even became the city’s archbishop in 1454, and his descendants continued to hold power in the sixteenth century.

Genoa, Venice, and Milan all fought extensively throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but Florence played the most active role in Italian warfare of the later Middle Ages. A republican city-state, although in the fifteenth century controlled almost exclusively by the Medici family, Florence had been deeply involved in the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts of the thirteenth century, serving as the center of the Guelf party. But though the Guelfs were successful this did not bring peace to Florence and when, in 1301, they split into two parties-the blacks and the whites-the fighting continued until 1307. Before this feud was even concluded, however, the Florentine army, numbering 7,000, mostly condottieri, attacked Pistoia, capturing the city in 1307. In 1315 in league with Naples, Florentine forces attempted to take Pisa, but were defeated. In 1325, they were again defeated while trying to take Pisa and Lucca. Between 1351 and 1354 they fought the Milanese. From 1376 to 1378 they fought against papal forces hired at and drawn from Rome in what was known as the War of the Eight Saints, but the Florentines lost more than they gained. Forming the League of Bologna with Bologna, Padua, Ferrara, and other northern Italian cities, they warred against Milan from 1390 to 1402. While they were initially successful against the Milanese, Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, was eventually able to bring Pisa, Lucca, and Venice onto his city’s side, and once again Florence was defeated. In 1406 Florence annexed Pisa without armed resistance. But war broke out with Milan again in 1423 lasting until 1454; Florence would ally with Venice in 1425, and with the papacy in 1440. Battles were lost on the Serchio in 1450 and at Imola in 1434, but won at Anghiara in 1440. Finally, after the Peace of Lodi was signed in 1454 ending the conflict, a league was formed between Florence, Venice, and Milan that lasted for 25 years. But, after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempted murder of his brother, Lorenzo-Pope Sixtus IV was complicit in the affair-war broke out in 1478 with the papacy and lasted until the death of Sixtus in 1484. In addition, interspersed with these external wars were numerous rebellions within Florence itself. In 1345 a revolt broke out at the announcement of the bankruptcy of the Bardi and Peruzzi banking firms; in 1368 the dyers revolted; in 1378 there was the Ciompi Revolt; and in 1382 the popolo grasso revolt. None of these were extensive or successful, but they did disrupt social, economic, and political life in the city until permanently put to rest by the rise to power of the Medicis.

Why Florence continued to wage so many wars in the face of so many defeats and revolts is simple to understand. Again one must see the role of the condottieri in Florentine military strategy; as long as the governors of the city-state were willing to pay for military activity and as long as there were soldiers willing to take this pay, wars would continue until the wealth of the town ran out. In Renaissance Florence this did not happen. Take, for example, the employment of perhaps the most famous condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood. Coming south in 1361, during one of the lulls in fighting in the Hundred Years War, the Englishman Hawkwood joined the White Company, a unit of condottieri already fighting in Italy. In 1364, while in the pay of Pisa, the White Company had its first encounter with Florence when, unable to effectively besiege the city, they sacked and pillaged its rich suburbs. In 1375, now under the leadership of Hawkwood, the White Company made an agreement with the Florentines not to attack them, only to discover later that year, now in the pay of the papacy, that they were required to fight in the Florentine-controlled Romagna. Hawkwood decided that he was not actually attacking Florence, and the White Company conquered Faenza in 1376 and Cesena in 1377. However, perhaps because the papacy ordered the massacres of the people of both towns, a short time later Hawkwood and his condottieri left their papal employment. They did not stay unemployed for long, however; Florence hired them almost immediately, and for the next seventeen years, John Hawkwood and the White Company fought diligently, although not always successfully, for the city. All of the company’s condottieri became quite wealthy, but Hawkwood especially prospered. He was granted three castles outside the city, a house in Florence, a life pension of 2,000 florins, a pension for his wife, Donnina Visconti, payable after his death, and dowries for his three daughters, above his contracted pay. Florentines, it seems, loved to lavish their wealth on those whom they employed to carry out their wars, whether they were successful or not.

In comparison to the north, the south of Italy was positively peaceful. Much of this came from the fact that there were only two powers in southern Italy. The Papal States, with Rome as their capital, did not have the prosperity of the northern city-states, and in fact for most of the later Middle Ages they were, essentially, bankrupt. But economic problems were not the only matter that disrupted Roman life. From 1308 to 1378 there was no pope in Rome and from then until 1417 the Roman pontiff was one of two (and sometimes three) popes sitting on the papal throne at the same time. But even after 1417 the papacy was weak, kept that way by a Roman populace not willing to see a theocracy return to power. Perhaps this is the reason why the Papal States suffered so many insurrections. In 1347 Cola di Rienzo defeated the Roman nobles and was named Tribune by the Roman people. He governed until those same people overthrew and executed him in 1354. In 1434 the Columna family established a republican government in the Papal States, forcing the ruling pope, Eugenius IV, to flee to Florence. He did not return and reestablish his government until 1343. Finally, in 1453, a plot to put another republican government in place was halted only by the general dislike for its leader, Stefano Porcaro, who was executed for treason.

One might think that such political and economic turmoil would not breed much military confidence, yet it did not seem to keep the governors of the Papal States from hiring mercenaries, making alliances with other Italian states, or pursuing an active military role, especially in the central parts of Italy. Usually small papal armies were pitted against much larger northern city-state forces, yet often these small numbers carried the day, perhaps not winning many battles, but often winning the wars, certainly as much because of the Papal States alliances as its military prowess. This meant that despite all the obvious upheaval in the Papal States during the later Middle Ages, at the beginning of the 1490s it was much larger and more powerful than it had ever been previously.

Bibliography Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984. France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. Lepage, Jean-Denis G. G. Medieval Armies and Weapons in Western Europe: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2005. Nicholson, Helen. Medieval Warfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Nicolle, David. French Medieval Armies, 1000-1300. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 1991.

Renaissance Warfare II

Warfare in Renaissance Italy

At the conclusion of the fifteenth century, Italy remained divided. There were four kingdoms: Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, and Naples; many republics such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Lucca, Siena, San Marino, Ragusa (in Dalmatia); small principalities, Piombino, Monaco; and the duchies of Savoy, Modena, Mantua, Milan, Ferrara, Massa, Carrara, and Urbino. Parts of Italy were under foreign rule. The Habsburgs controlled the Trentino, Upper Adige, Gorizia, and Trieste. Sardinia belonged to the kingdom of Aragon. Many Italian states, however, held territories outside of the peninsula. The duke of Savoy possessed the Italian region of Piedmont and the French-speaking Duchy of Savoy along with the counties of Geneva and Nice. Venice owned Crete, Cyprus, Dalmatia, and many Greek islands. The Banco di San Giorgio, the privately owned bank of the republic of Genoa, possessed the kingdom of Corsica. Italian princes also held titles and fiefdoms in neighboring states. Indeed, the duke of Savoy could also claim that he was heir and a descendant of the crusader kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem. All of this confusion often remained a source of contention in Italian politics.

The Muslims became the greatest threat to security when the Arabs occupied Sicily in the ninth century. Later Muslim attempts to conquer central Italy failed as a result of papal resistance. Although the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily removed the immediate threat. Muslim ships raided the Italian coast until the 1820s.

This conflict with Islam resulted in substantial Italian participation in the Cru- sades. The Crusader military orders such as the Templars and the Order of Saint John were populated by a great number of Italian knights. Italian merchants, too, established their own warehouses and agencies in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Thanks to the Crusades, Venice and Genoa increased their influence as well. They expanded their colonies, their revenues, and their importance to the Crusader kingdoms. Their wealth exceeded that of many European kingdoms.

The fall of the Crusader kingdoms, the Turkish conquests, and the fall of Constantinople by 1453 led to two significant consequences: the increasing influence of Byzantine and Greek culture in Italian society, and the growing Turkish threat to Italian territorial possessions in the Mediterranean. The conflict between Italians and Muslims was complex. For centuries Italians and Muslims were trading partners. So the wars between the Turks and Venetians therefore consisted of a combination of bloody campaigns, privateering, commerce, and maritime war lasting more than 350 years.

Despite a common enemy, common commercial and financial interests, a common language, and a common culture, Italian politics remained disparate and divisive. For much of the fifteenth century the states spent their time fighting each other over disputed territorial rights. Although they referred to themselves as Florentines, Lombards, Venetians, Genoese, or Neapolitans, when relating themselves to outsiders, such as Muslims, French, Germans, and other Europeans, they self- identified as “Italians.”

The Organization of Renaissance Armies

The lack of significant external threats led to the reduction in size of Italian armies. The cost of maintaining standing armies or employing their citizenry in permanent militias was too expensive and reduced the productivity of the population. Italian city-states, duchies, and principalities preferred to employ professional armies when needed, as they were extremely costly to hire. Larger states, such as the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States possessed a limited permanent force, but the remainder of the Italian states had little more than city guards, or small garrisons. Nevertheless, Italian Renaissance armies, when organized, were divided into infantry and cavalry. Artillery was in its infancy and remained a severely limited in application. Cavalry was composed of heavy or armored cavalry, genti d’arme (men at arms), and light cavalry. Since the Middle Ages, genti d’arme were divided into “lances” composed of a “lance chief”—or corporal—a rider, and a boy. They were mounted on a warhorse, a charger, and a jade respectively. The single knight with his squire was known as lancia spezzata— literally “brokenspear,” or anspessade.

Infantry was divided into banners. Every banner was composed of a captain, two corporals, two boys, ten crossbowmen, nine palvesai, soldiers carrying the great medieval Italian shields called palvesi, and a servant for the captain. Generally the ratio of cavalry to infantry was one to ten. There was no organized artillery by the end of the fifteenth century, as it was relatively new to European armies.

An Evolution in Military Affairs, or the So-Called “Military Revolution”

Artillery was in its infancy during the fifteenth century, but in the early days of the sixteenth century, a quick and impressive development began. The Battle of Ravenna in 1512 marked the first decisive employment of cannons as field artillery. Soon infantry and cavalry realized the power of artillery and proceeded to alter their tactics to avoid or at least to reduce the damage. Moreover, the increasing power of artillery demonstrated the weakness of medieval castles and led to a trans- formation of military architecture. The traditional castle wall was vertical and tall and could be smashed by cannon-fired balls. In response, the new Italian-styled fortress appeared. Its walls were lower and oblique instead of perpendicular to the ground. The walls resisted cannonballs better, as their energy could also be diverted by the obliquity of the wall itself. Then, the pentagonal design was determined as best for a fortress, and each angle of the pentagon was reinforced by another smaller pentagon, called a bastion. It appeared as the main defensive work and was protected by many external defensive works, intended to break and scatter the enemy’s attack. The fifteenth-century Florentine walls in Volterra have many bastion elements, but the first Italian-styled fortress was at Civitavecchia, the harbor for the papal fleet, forty miles north of Rome. It was erected by Giuliano da Sangallo in 1519, but recent studies suggest that Sangallo exploited an older draft by Michelangelo.

The classical scheme of the Italian-styled fortress often referred to as the trace italienne was established in the second half of the sixteenth century. Its elegant efficiency was recognized by all powers. European sovereigns called upon Italian military architects to build these new fortresses in their countries. Antwerp, Parma, Vienna, Györ, Karlovac, Ersekujvar, Breda, Ostend, S’Hertogenbosch, Lyon, Char- leville, La Valletta, and Amiens all exhibited the style and ability of Giuliano da Sangallo, Francesco Paciotti, Pompeo Targone, Gerolamo Martini, and many other military architects, who disseminated a style and a culture to the entire Continent. The pentagonal style was further developed by Vauban and soon reached America, too, where many fortresses and military buildings were built on a pentagonal scheme.

This evolution in military architecture—generally known as “the Military Revolution”—meant order and uniformity. A revolution also occurred in uniforms and weapons. Venetian infantrymen shipping on galleys for the 1571 naval campaign were all dressed in the same way; and papal troops shown in two 1583 frescoes are dressed in yellow and red, or in white and red, depending on the company to which they belonged. Likewise, papal admiral Marcantonio Colonna, in 1571, ordered his captains to provide all their soldiers with “merion in the modern style, great velveted flasks for the powder, as fine as possible, and all with well ammunitioned match arquebuses . . . ” Of course, uniformity remained a dream, especially when compared with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century styles, but it was a first step.

Although a revolution in artillery and fortifications remained a significant aspect of the military revolution, captains faced the problem of increasing firepower. The Swiss went to battle in squared formations, but it proved to be unsatisfactory against artillery. Similarly, portable weapons could not fire and be reloaded fast enough, and it soon became apparent that armies needed a mixture of pike and firearms. The increasing range and effectiveness of firearms made speed on the field more important. It was clear that the more a captain could have a fast fire–armed maneuvering mass, the better the result in battle. Machiavelli examined this issue; he was as bad a military theorist as he was a formidable political theorist. He suggested the use of two men on horseback: a rider and a scoppiettiere—a “hand- gunner”—on the same horse. It was the first kind of mounted infantry in the modern era. Giovanni de’Medici, the brave Florentine captain known as Giovanni of the Black Band, adopted this system. Another contemporary Florentine captain, Pietro Strozzi, who reduced the men on horseback to only one, developed the same system. He fought against Florence and Spain, then he passed to the French flag at the end of the Italian Wars. When in France, he organized a unit based upon his previous experience. It was composed of firearmed riders, considered mounted infantrymen, referred to as dragoons.

The Swiss

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano.

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.


For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai (1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten (1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful crossbows and longbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armor for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate armor presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy (1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armored horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.

A full suit of Italian plate armour circa 1450.

Renaissance armor was not just a means of protection, but also a work of art. Some armor, like the suit shown here, had simple borders cut into the metal. Other pieces displayed elaborate images of saints or ancient heroes. The most expensive armor included designs in silver or gold.

Development of Armor.

Arms and armor changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armor and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.

The most popular form of armor during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armorers began making plate armor out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armor protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armor expanded to cover more and more of the body.

By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of overlapping steel plates. A full suit of armor might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armor could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armor than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.

Armor changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armor would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armorers responded by making their armor harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armor, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armor became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armor had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

Tournaments called for special armor. Since participants did not have to carry the armor’s weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armor that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armor. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.

Most armor, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armor was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armor were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.

Development of Arms.

Renaissance weapons fell into three basic categories: edged weapons, staff weapons, and projectile weapons. Edged weapons included swords and daggers. Renaissance swords often had thin, stiff blades to pierce the gaps between the plates in a suit of armor. The blades were usually straight and had two sharpened edges, although some swords featured curved or single-edged blades. Large swords swung with two hands were common among foot soldiers in Germany and Switzerland.

A staff weapon, a pole with a steel head, was used to cut, stab, or strike an opponent. Heavily armored mounted knights favored the lance, a wooden shaft 10 to 12 feet long with a steel tip. Foot soldiers, especially in Switzerland, often used the halberd, a 5- to 7-foot shaft with a head that had both a cutting edge and a point for stabbing.

Projectile weapons were designed to hurl objects at great speeds. The simplest of these, the sling, threw stones or lead pellets. Most archers in the 1300s and 1400s used the longbow. Both it and the mechanical crossbow could shoot arrows capable of penetrating plate armor at certain ranges. In the 1500s, firearms gradually took the place of bows.

The first pistols, called “hand cannons,” appeared in the early 1300s. They were little more than a barrel with a handle, or stock. The barrel had a chamber, or breech, that held shot and powder. The soldier loaded powder into the open end of the barrel (the muzzle) and packed it tight with a rod. The bullet went in after the powder. The gunner touched a lighted fuse to a small hole in the barrel to ignite the powder and fire the shot.

Over the next few hundred years, various improvements made firearms more reliable and easier to fire. The most important development was the invention of firing mechanisms, known as locks, in the 1400s. The simplest kind was the matchlock. It had an arm that held the lighted fuse. Pulling a trigger turned the arm, touching the fuse to the powder. Even easier to use was the wheel lock, which removed the need for a fuse. It ignited the powder by striking a spark from a piece of iron pyrite when the trigger was pulled. A variation of this, the flintlock, relied on flint to produce a spark.

Heavy cannons, or artillery, appeared about the same time as firearms. Artillery pieces were loaded and fired in much the same way as firearms, but they fired much larger stones and iron balls. The biggest artillery pieces were used for castle sieges. The largest gun ever built could hurl a 300-pound stone ball up to two miles. However, siege cannons weighed thousands of pounds and could not be moved easily. By the late 1400s, field artillery had been developed that could be mounted on wheels and transported. Cannons also became common aboard ships. Like armor, many cannons were highly decorated with designs or the owners’ coats of arms.

An Invention of No Ordinary Character

Richard J. Gatling was seeking business. In the meticulous penmanship of a man born to a land-owning Southern family, he began a letter to President Abraham Lincoln.

It was February 18, 1864, late in the American Civil War and an extraordinary period in the evolution of firearms: dawn in the age of the machine gun and yet a time when officers still roamed battlefields with swords. At forty-five, Gatling was a medical-school graduate who had never practiced medicine, opting instead to turn his stern father’s sideline as an inventor into a career. For twenty years he had mainly designed agricultural devices. Dr. Gatling, as he liked to be called, came from a North Carolina family that owned as many as twenty slaves. But he had moved north to Indiana for business and marriage, and when the war began in 1861 he did not align himself with the secessionists who formed the Confederacy. He knew men on both sides. Far from his place of birth and away from the battlefields, he had taken to viewing the contents of the caskets returning to the railroad depot in Indianapolis. Inside were the remains of Union soldiers, many felled by trauma but most by infection or disease. Seeing these gruesome sights, Gatling shifted attention from farm devices to firearms, and to the ambition of designing a rapid-fire weapon, a pursuit that since the fourteenth century had attracted and eluded gunsmiths around the world. “I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead,” he wrote. “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.”

Gatling did not fit any caricature of an arms profiteer. By the available accounts, he carried himself as a neat and finely dressed gentleman. He was kindhearted to his family and associates, soft-spoken at home, and self-conscious enough that he wore a beard to hide the smallpox scars that peppered his face. He made for a curious figure: an earnest and competitive showboat when promoting his weapon, but restrained and modest on the subject of himself. He was, his son-in-law said, “an exception to the rule that no man is great to his valet.” One interviewer noted that he professed to feel “that if he could invent a gun which would do the work of 100 men, the other ninety and nine could remain at home and be saved to the country.” He repeated this point throughout his life, explaining a sentiment that he insisted rose from seeing firsthand the ruined remains of young men lost in a fratricidal war. His records make clear that he was driven by profits. He never ceased claiming that compassion urged him on at the start.

Gatling was neither a military nor a social visionary. But he was a gifted tinkerer and an unrelenting salesman, and he found good help. His plans proceeded swiftly. Though there is no record of his having prior experience with weapon design, by late 1862, after viewing rival guns, drawing on his knowledge of agricultural machinery, and enlisting the mechanical assistance of Otis Frink, a local machinist, he had received a patent for a prototype he called the “battery gun.” “The object of this invention,” he told the U.S. Patent Office, “is to obtain a simple, compact, durable, and efficient firearm for war purposes, to be used either in attack or defence, one that is light when compared with ordinary field artillery, that is easily transported, that may be rapidly fired, and that can be operated by few men.”

Gatling’s battery gun, while imperfect in its early forms, was a breakthrough in a field that had frustrated everyone who had tried before. Since medieval times, the pursuit of a single weapon that could mass musket fire had confounded generations of military-minded gunsmiths and engineers. Gunsmiths had long ago learned to place barrels side by side on frames to create firearms capable of discharging projectiles in rapid succession. These unwieldy devices, known as volley guns, were capable in theory of blasting a hole in a line of advancing soldiers. They had limitations in practice, among them slow reload times and difficulties in adjusting fire toward moving targets and their flanks. Ammunition was a problem, too, as was the poor state of metallurgy, although this did not discourage everyone, and the lethal possibilities of a machine that could concentrate gunfire attracted would-be inventors of many stripes. One of the few highly detailed accounts of the early models suggests an inauspicious start. In 1835, Giuseppe Fieschi, a Corsican, rented an apartment on Boulevard du Temple in Paris. In a room overlooking the street he secretly constructed a frame of thick oak posts and attached twenty-five rifle barrels, all in a space of roughly a meter square. Each barrel was packed with multiple musket balls and a heavy charge of powder, then aligned to aim together at a point on the street below. Fieschi waited. On July 28, his intended victim appeared: King Louis-Philippe. Fieschi fired his makeshift device, and a volley flew from the apartment window and slammed into the king’s entourage. In the technical sense, the “infernal machine,” as his device came to be known in Europe, was both a success and a failure. It had a terrible effect. A piece of lead grazed Louis-Philippe’s skull, just above his face, and others cut down his company, killing eighteen people. But an examination of the gun later suggested that while it worked well enough as a tool for assassination or terror, it was hardly ready for the battlefield. Four barrels had failed to fire. Four others had ruptured. Two of these had exploded, scattering lead inside the assassin’s rented room and gravely injuring Fieschi, who was captured and saved from his injuries by the French authorities, to be executed later by guillotine.

Several hundred years of near stagnation in rapid-fire design, coupled with such mishaps, did not make machine guns an attractive idea to investors or customers alike. There was reason as well for potential purchasers to suspect nonsense in the claims of the movement’s dreamers, whose folly preceded Fieschi. In 1718, James Puckle, of London, had received an English patent for a rapid-fire flintlock that he proposed to manufacture in two forms: one for firing round balls at Christians, and another for firing square blocks at Muslims. The weapon, he wrote, was for “defending King George, Your country and Lawes, to defending yourselves and Protestant cause.” Puckle was nearly two centuries ahead of the machine-gun age. His proposal to subject Muslims to what he expected to be the crueler effects of square projectiles in some ways foreshadowed the punishing ways.

The Frankish Way of War

The kingdoms and peoples of Europe and North Africa just before the East Roman Emperor Justinian began his reconquest of the West.

On Foot or Horse?

It is generally accepted that (unlike the eastern Germanic tribes such as the Goths and Vandals), the Franks, Alamanni, Burgundians and other western Germans fought primarily on foot rather than on horseback. Although there is some truth to this, it is an oversimplification.

Many of the eastern Germans who lived for a while on the steppes of modern Ukraine would have had the space and pasture needed to raise and maintain good horse herds. These factors remained when some, such as the Ostrogoths, followed the Huns into the Hungarian Plain in the early fifth century. The open spaces where they lived would also have made horse-mounted mobility very important – almost essential. The western tribes who lived in relatively contained spaces in the forested and hilly lands on the east bank of the Rhine would have had less motivation or ability to develop cavalry armies.

That some Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians fought on horseback when they had suitable opportunities is indisputable. Various Frankish graves contain horse furniture and spurs while in some cases horses were interred nearby. Gregory of Tours’ account of Clovis’ son Theuderic fighting the Thuringians includes the detail that the Thuringians dug pits to disrupt the Frankish horsemen. The Franks of the sixth century – with the wealth of their conquests and the varied terrain of most of France at their disposal – would have had the opportunity to raise and maintain a substantial number of good cavalry mounts.

If an increasing number of Frankish, Alamanni and Burgundian warriors may have had the means to mount up in the first decades of the sixth century, they were still perfectly happy to fight on foot just as their ancestors had done. It may still have been their preferred way of fighting. Against the Thuringians a significant mounted force may have given the Franks an edge. Against the Ostrogoths and Romans in Italy – where every good solider was primarily a cavalryman – this would not have been the case.

In the centuries that followed, the Frankish warriors evolved into the finest cavalry of Western Europe – becoming the chivalry of medieval France. Most evidence suggests that this transition did not really start to take hold until the eighth century – well beyond the scope of this book. The evolution from tribal warriors on the Rhine to the rulers of France did, however, naturally transform the way the Franks fought. As they absorbed the last elements of the Roman army in northern Gaul along with the Alan and Sarmatian laeti, they would have found recruits who were more familiar with mounted warfare than their tribal ancestors. With all of Gaul at their disposal, along with the captured treasures of the Alamanni, Burgundians and Visigoths, the Franks of the sixth century would have had the wealth and land to equip their warriors with good weapons, armour and horses.

Frankish Weapons and Tactics

The Romans had no equivalent to the aggressive infantry tactics of the Franks. Sixth century Roman infantry were second-rate troops, more suitable for garrison duties rather than standing firm in line of battle. When they were deployed in battle, the Roman infantry usually had to be stiffened by dismounted cavalry as they were at Casilinum and in several other battles against the Goths. In such circumstances it would have made sense for the Franks, Alamanni and Burgundians to fight on foot to capitalize on the one advantage they had over the Romans rather than meeting them on terms in which the Romans had come to excel.

The modern historian Bernard Bachrach has postulated that the descriptions of Frankish tactics by Roman historians were distorted by the lenses through which they observed the events of their day. The offensive use of infantry would have been so surprising to them that they ignored everything else and concentrated their descriptions on the Frankish foot warriors. He has a point but probably overstates it. This is what the contemporary writers Procopius and Agathias have to say of the Frankish fighting methods:

Under the leadership of Theudibert [the Franks] marched into Italy. They had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot-soldiers having neither bows nor spears. Each man carried a sword, a shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men. (Procopius)

A great throng of Germans came up and opened an attack by hurling their axes they slew many. (Procopius)

The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapon except the double-edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin and also in hand to hand combat, the greater part of the angon is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the socket of the spear. some points are turned back, bent like hooks and turned toward the handle. (Agathias)

In battle the Frank throws the angon. If it hits an enemy the spear is caught in the man and neither can the wounded man nor anyone else draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon hits a shield it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield. Nor can it be cut off by a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron. When the Frank sees this situation he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear, pulling down so [his enemy] falls, his head and chest left unprotected. The unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust with another spear. (Agathias)

Although Procopius says that the Franks did not carry spears, Agathias says that angons (javelins with long iron heads) were their primary weapons. The accounts are not entirely inconsistent. A charge by men on foot was proceeded with a volley of heavy throwing weapons – axes and/or javelins. This disrupted the enemy formation and the ability of the individual enemy warrior to defend himself. Then the Franks closed in for the kill. Such weapons and tactics would have been familiar to the ancient Romans if not their sixth century descendants.

These descriptions are perfectly consistent with the weapons and equipment found by archaeologists in Frankish graves. Many examples of relatively small, curved axe heads have been found, as have a number of long javelin shafts with conical armour-piercing heads which have small barbs at the base. The prominent iron shield bosses found in many Frankish graves would have been perfect for the warrior to punch into his opponent as he followed up the missile volley to finish his enemy off with a handheld weapon such as a short sword or a conventional spear.

A number of relatively conventional spearheads have also been found in Frankish graves which support Agathias’ statement that the Frank might finish off his opponent with a spear, contradicting Procopius who said that the Franks did not carry them. Archaeological evidence shows that a throwing axe (francisca) along with a short sword with a single edge (scramasax), were almost universal amongst Frankish warriors. Graves containing angon heads and long double-edged swords are almost always high-status warriors. A reasonable conclusion is that the best warriors, fighting in the front ranks, carried angons, franciscae and good swords, while lesser men may only have been armed with franciscae and short swords. This assumption helps to reconcile the apparently contradictory descriptions of Procopius and Agathias.

The sixth century descriptions of Frankish fighting methods are consistent with what Sidonius Apollinaris’ had to say of them in the previous century. Volleys of axes and spears preceded a charge into close combat with fast-running young men whirling their shields, anxious to be the first to reach the enemy.

Both Procopius and Agathias say that the Franks did not use bows, slings, or other longer-range missile weapons. When seen through the eyes of sixth century Romans whose mounted troopers were bow-armed and a substantial proportion of their infantry were too, this may well have seemed the case. Arrowheads and light javelin heads have been found in Frankish graves and an analysis of Alamannic graves shows that poorer men may have been archers while richer men tended to fight hand-tohand. It may be that such men would have fought to defend their home territory but were left behind on a major external expedition. In previous times the Franks and Alamanni were not averse to using missile weapons when it suited the terrain or their situation. At any time a number of men may have used bows in battle. Against the masses of bow-armed Romans in sixth century Italy it would have been even more pointless to bother with light missile weapons than attempting to meet the well-trained Roman cavalry on horseback.

So, what can we conclude from this?

The likelihood is that, after their conquest of Gaul, the Franks had a high proportion of good warriors who owned horses and could fight on horseback if the situation demanded it. Most, or all of them, could also fight effectively on foot in hand-to-hand combat and may even have preferred to do so – especially against enemies who had better cavalry. The Goths and Romans often dismounted to form a defensive line but the Franks also took the offensive when on foot. Indeed they seemed to prefer offensive tactics. Their throwing weapons and shields with prominent bosses seem most suited to a relatively loose attack formation which left enough room for each man to throw his axe or spear and punch forward with his shield as he charged into combat. When needed they could also call on men with bows to support them.

The Battle of Casilinum [Capua], AD 554.

At the Battle of Vouillé Gregory of Tours characterized the Visigoths `fighting at a distance’, while the Franks `tried to come to close combat’. This may be nothing more than a disparaging comment to contrast Visigothic cowardice with Frankish bravery. On the other hand, `fighting at a distance’ could describe hit-and-run tactics appropriate for men on horseback armed with javelins as well as spears. The Franks, armed and equipped with hand-to-hand weapons and very short-range missiles, would naturally have preferred `to come to close combat’ without bothering with preliminaries which would place them at a disadvantage. At Casilinum the Alamanni and Franks decided that their best option was to make a headlong charge on foot. They succeeded in piercing the Roman line but against an enemy with combined arms – foot, horse and archers – they were surrounded and cut to pieces. At Vouillé this tactic worked although we do not know how or why.

The headlong charge of the Franks came to be seen by the Romans as a characteristic of their way of warfare for centuries. A later sixth century Roman military manual (the Strategikon) has this to say of them:

The fair-haired races place great value on freedom. They are bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace. They calmly despise death as they fight violently in hand to hand combat. They are undisciplined in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards.

Describing how Roman troopers were trained to use lances in a charge, learning from the Germans but maintaining better discipline, the Strategikon has this to say:

They (the front ranks) lean forward, cover their heads with their shields, hold their lances high as their shoulders in the manner of the fair-haired races. Protected by their shields they ride in good order, not too fast but at a trot, to avoid having the impetus of the charge breaking up their ranks before coming to blows with the enemy, which is a real risk.

Of course, these are generic descriptions of Germanic tactics and are not specific to the Franks. The Germanic Vandals, for example, fought exclusively on horseback by the sixth century and apparently had no tactic other than to charge into close combat. By the time the Strategikon was written, the Vandals were no more and the Ostrogoths had been defeated. The most important Germanic peoples, with whom the East Romans still had to deal with, were the Lombards and, of course, the Franks. The Lombards certainly had a sizeable force of mounted lancers. Many of them had fought for the Romans against the Ostrogoths and Franks. As the Strategikon was written at about the same time the Lombards were moving into Italy, it is more than possible that the description of the `fairhaired race’s’ tactical methods would have been influenced more by the Lombards than by the Franks.

In the years that followed, the East Romans came to call all Germans `Franks’, regardless of their origin. They were still renowned for their ferocious charge and increasingly it was on horseback. In the later medieval period, French armies were noted for the prowess of their mounted men at arms which often swept all before them.

Agathias wrote that the Franks did not wear armour and went into battle half-naked. This can be nothing more than a Greco-Roman stereotype of savage barbarians. From the time of Childeric in the mid fifth century, the Franks had access to Roman armouries and they also had talented smiths. Even if every man might not have been fully kitted out with helmet and body armour, the majority of a war leader’s comitatus of full-time retainers surely would have been. Graves of many high-status warriors contain helmets and some also have body armour. That lesser men were not buried with them does not necessarily mean they did not have access to armour. For a relatively poorer man such valuable items of equipment would likely have been passed on to his sons rather than being interred with him.

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior I

The Peloponnesian War ended in 404 and closed out the fifth century with a surprise attack. Lysander, the Spartan, tricked the Athenians at Aegospotami, by attacking their vessels at a regular hour and then calling off his fleet. Once this had become an established procedure, the Athenians dropped their guard after the Spartans dispersed. Then, when most of the Athenians had scattered according to their usual pattern, he returned, attacked and slew the rest, and captured all their vessels. The fourth century was thus ushered in with the defeat of the Athenian Empire and a Spartan hegemony that took its place and lasted until the Battle of Leuctra in 371. Sparta found itself engulfed in the so-called Corinthian war from 395 until 387 against a coalition of four allied states: Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos, which were initially backed by Persia. Then the Boeotian or Theban war broke out in 378 as the result of a revolt in Thebes against Sparta; the war would last six years.

There was obviously no shortage of warfare in the fourth century, and all sides continued to fight with hoplites, but the conditions of military life were slowly changing. Gone was the era of short military campaigns that took place only during the summer after the harvest. Cities were now attacked by night, fighting took place year-round, and atrocities were committed against civilians. The prolongation of campaigns and a change in tactics set the stage for the professionalisation of Greek armies. Whereas hoplite warfare had not necessarily called for very elaborate training, the use of missiles and the tactics of staging ambushes required training at a higher technical level. When light-armed troops were utilised everything depended upon movement. Rapid changes of position, sudden strikes, speedy retreats and ambushes were all operations that needed to be carefully prepared with accurate intelligence. Because such operations had to be well directed and executed with speed and determination, it could mean training one’s own troops or hiring well-trained mercenaries.

The change from militiamen to paid fighters meant a change from amateurs to professional soldiers. Foreign mercenaries were expensive and could not usually be hired in large numbers, but citizens could be recruited and trained to perform the same specialised functions provided by foreign, light-armed mercenaries. Athens’ overseas expeditions in the fourth century were all carried out by mercenaries.

Light-Armed Troops and Peltasts

An increasingly important role was played by light-armed troops in the fourth century, and they became a significant factor in the conduct and the outcome of battles. Although hoplites mattered most in set battle on a large scale, war on land now had a place for other arms and other methods than those of the hoplite phalanx. Smaller tactical units gave a new manoeuvrability that had been impossible in traditional hoplite lines. These new troops became effective in gaining tactical advantage, usually through a sudden, surprise assault. Small striking forces became especially important in fifth-column operations.

There were several types of light troops, the most common being archers, slingers and peltast-javelin men.8 The peltasts became the most effective of the light-armed troops. Peltasts were a sort of mean between the extremes of heavy and light-armed men. They had all the mobility of light-armed troops, and yet sufficient offensive and defensive armour to cope, with a fair amount of success, with small bodies of hoplite troops (i.e. those not in set-piece battles). Using peltasts would increase the ability of Greek armies to stage surprise attacks and ambushes. The name peltast comes from the fact that they were armed with a pelte (Thracian shield). In place of a dagger, they might also carry a kind of scimitar, a curved sabre known as a machaira, which could be used to deal slashing blows. Peltasts were not much help in stopping a hoplite force head on; their main use was to protect the flanks of an advancing hoplite army against attacks from the light-armed troops of the enemy. The majority of Greek states had an organised body of light-armed troops. Athens was an exception until this was changed by commanders such as Iphicrates and Chabrias.

Although their weapons might seem simple, these light troops were specialist soldiers. Their way of fighting entailed a higher degree of specialisation than the relatively straightforward, spear-and-shield techniques of hoplites fighting in formation. The accurate use of missile weapons was a skill acquired and maintained only by regular and constant practice. For this reason, light-armed troops tended to be professionals. At first, they were foreign mercenaries recruited in Thrace, Crete and Rhodes; later, they were natives recruited locally from city-states. Athens was the first to transform some of the poorer citizens into light troops.

The Athenian general Iphicrates is credited by two ancient sources – Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos – with reforming the equipment of his hoplites. These military reforms have long been the subject of scholarly debate, but what is clear is that they were much better equipped to stage ambushes. Iphicrates did away with the large hoplite shield – the aspis – and replaced it with the smaller pelta. He also lengthened the sword (xiphous) and the spear (doratos). Of course, there were peltasts in use long before this time in other regions of Greece, but now the reform was coming to Athens.

The defeat of the Athenian hoplites by light-armed cavalry and peltasts at Spartolus, the successful defence by Acarnanian slingers of Stratus against Peloponnesian hoplites, or the destruction of Ambraciot hoplites by Amphilochian light-armed, not only reinforced the lessons learned from the experience in Aetolia and Sphacteria but also carried them still further. From the last phases of the Peloponnesian war and, continuing into the fourth century, armies began to contain significantly higher numbers of specialised troops than Classical ones had fielded. This included the growth of a corps of archers, the addition of light-armed troops, the rise of mercenary troops recruited largely from abroad, and the development of cavalry.

Generalisations about mercenary service can be misleading. It is commonly assumed that mercenary soldiers did not become a significant factor of Greek social and political history before the fourth century. In fact, however, Greek mercenary soldiers had been serving in armies of southeast Mediterranean powers since the Archaic Age. The reasons for soldiers becoming mercenaries and their terms of service vary. In Crete, for example, one would cite demographic developments and military traditions as well as socio-economic crisis. Another accusation that dogged military operations was that the systematic use of mercenaries encouraged a selfish inertness at home, a dangerous licentiousness in the free companies abroad, and that it diverted the energies of the ablest citizens from patriotic objects to the baser pursuit of plunder and military fame. The fact is, however, that soldiers did not take up this line of work because it was so lucrative. Service in places such as Persia and Egypt might be lucrative, but service in Greece proper was not. Soldiers in the fourth century accepted military service knowing that there was no money in it for them unless they looted, stole or won booty.

Hoplite Armour and Hamippoi

Another military innovation that occurred in the fourth century was the lightening of the hoplite panoply. Some hoplites were still sporting extensive metal armour in the mid-fourth century, but the overall trend of the Classical period seems to have been a progressive lightening of hoplite armour. This made hoplites more mobile and thus better able to cope with the challenges of difficult terrain, enemy skirmishers and ambushes. Lighter panoplies were also cheaper. Konrad Kinzel suggests that this enabled more citizens to equip themselves as hoplites and enjoy the attendant political status that went with this type of fighting. But were these troops really hoplites any more? Nick Sekunda also describes the shift in the use of armour plate in the late fifth century. He seems to think that armour all but disappeared as the Spartans were depicted wearing only a pilos helmet and tunic, no cuirass, greaves, etc. and Boeotian hoplites were all but naked. Does this indicate a change in battlefield tactics? The availability of materials? And were these soldiers still considered ‘hoplites’, i.e. heavy infantry? It certainly contributed to them being more mobile and able to counter attacks by light-armed soldiers.

Another military innovation of the fourth century was the introduction of hamippoi, a type of light-infantry corps that ran behind cavalrymen. The hamippoi were trained to fight alongside the cavalrymen. They would go into battle holding on to the tails and manes of the cavalry horses. Hamippoi were particularly useful in a straight cavalry fight, where they would hack at the enemy horsemen. One of their signature manoeuvres was to slip underneath the enemy horse and rip its belly open with a dagger. This certainly suggests that service in the hamippoi was not for the faint-hearted. In his pamphlet On the Duties of the Hipparch, Xenophon recommends that the Athenians raise a corps of such men from among the exiles and other foreigners in Athens, who had special reason to be bitter against the enemy. Xenophon saw their value as being able to deliver a surprise as he points out that they could be hidden among and behind taller mounted troops.

Hamippoi were first mentioned serving in the forces of the Syracusan tyrant Gelon, where his 2,000 cavalry were accompanied by an equal number of hippodromoi psiloi or psiloi who run alongside the cavalry. Hamippoi are found in the Boeotian army during the Peloponnesian war. When the Spartan army was reorganised some time after the Battle of Mantinea in 418, the 600 skiritai were not folded into the ranks of the morai but were converted into the hamippoi and fought alongside the 600 cavalry.

In short, as the fifth century progressed into the fourth, the trend was to lighten the armour of the hoplites and add soldiers from the lower classes, who could perform various new duties that required greater speed and manoeuvrability. This made ambushing more difficult and less likely if each side had mobile troops that could improvise.

The Generals in the Fourth Century

The need to develop specialised, light-armed troops encouraged the rise of professional generalship in the fourth century. The proper handling of such troops required something more than amateur leadership. Fourth-century generals had to recruit different types of soldiers, who used different types of weapons and tactics. W. K. Pritchett dedicates a chapter of the second volume of his comprehensive work, The Greek State at War, to this new breed of general. Their careers were made possible by the changing political and military circumstances, and new operating conditions dictated some new fighting techniques. The military commanders in the late fifth and early fourth centuries had to conduct military operations more and more independently, relying on their own skill and talent. They developed increasingly strong ties with their army rather than just their polis. The independence of fourth-century commanders was a function of long-term service abroad and of operating independently of their home authorities. How much freedom they enjoyed in the field can probably never be precisely determined, but those who were elected or appointed to office by the larger city-states seem to have discharged their functions with as much loyalty as similar officials in the fifth century.

Another motivation for the increased use of novel techniques and stratagems was that fourth-century military forces were sent out without being provided with money. The generals were expected to raise funds by plunder, by contributions from allies or even by foreign service. They and their troops seem to have had unlimited permission to plunder the enemy’s country. In the fifth century, mercenaries had been dismissed when the state lacked funds, but conditions had greatly changed in the fourth century. A great number of the stratagems that are collected in Polyaenus and assigned to Athenian generals of the fourth century have to do with the raising of money to pay their troops. Six of the stratagems preserved in Polyaenus on Jason of Pherae, for example, deal with means for securing funds.

Even with these new troops, staging an ambush was no easier to accomplish in the fourth century than it was in the fifth. Naturally, it was best done with soldiers who were trained by their leaders in the skills needed for such operations. This is where the light-armed troops, especially peltasts, excelled. Light-armed troops, unlike hoplites, were trained to be highly responsive and flexible. They had to be able to close with the enemy and kill quickly. Light infantrymen could be used to destroy the enemy on his own ground, make the best of initiative, stealth and surprise, infiltration, ambush and night operations. Iphicrates trained his light-armed troops by staging fake ambushes, fake assaults, fake panics and fake desertions so his men would be ready if the real thing happened. Light infantrymen were not tacticians; they could not respond mechanically to a set of conditions on a battlefield with a pre-determined action like a phalanx. Whoever led the ambush had to know how to use initiative, understand intent, take independent action, analyse the field of operations, collect intelligence and make rapid decisions. Initiative meant bold action and often involved risks. Initiative by the tactical leader may have been independent of what higher commanders wanted done to the enemy. The men such leaders worked with were soldiers trained to fend for themselves through hardship and risk in hostile, uncompromising terrain. Such operations built a greater degree of teamwork and skill than other types of infantry formations as a result of the stress put on adaptability, close-combat skills and independent action.

Fourth-Century Ambush

Greek literature in the fourth century contains much more information on ambush than its fifth-century counterpart. Even didactic works such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, while wholly removed from the context of real events, give lessons about commanding a Greek army. The ambush against the forces of Gadatas42 is a classic use of clandestine communications and the laying of an ambush among a cluster of small villages. We can also see a classic deception operation, where soldiers are arrayed along with the baggage train and the women to make their force seem larger than it is. Any enemy attack would have to make a wider circuit around them and thereby thin out their own lines.

We cannot always be sure of the dates or even the historicity of certain stratagems, but they all seem to describe generic situations that crop up again and again. One of the most common ways to stage an ambush, for example, was to attack an army on the march. Polyaenus gives an undated example of the detection of such an ambush. While leading his army, Tissamenus saw many birds flying above a particular place, but not settling on the ground, and he concluded that they shrank from settling because they feared men lying in ambush. After investigating the spot, he attacked and cut down the Ionians who were waiting in ambush. This is a much repeated story, with several Roman commanders using the same tactic.

Another piece of good advice was to be ready for an ambush whether you were expecting one or not. Polyaenus tells a story about Arxilaidas the Laconian who, around 370/69, was about to travel a suspicious road with his army. Pretending he had advance intelligence which he did not, he ordered them to advance prepared for battle because the enemy lay in ambush. But by chance a large ambush was discovered. He attacked first and easily killed all those in ambush, outsmarting them by his advance preparations.

Playing on the known habits of barbarian tribes was another common practice. Polyaenus relates several stratagems used by Clerachus against the Thracians, which presumably date from a time just prior to his entering the service of Cyrus. All illustrate the frequency of Thracian nocturnal attacks. This practice, according to Polyaenus, enabled Clearchus the Spartan to set an ambush for one of the local Thracian tribes, the Thrynians. He withdrew a little distance with a number of soldiers, and ordered them to hit their shields, as was the Thracian habit, putting all the Greeks in camp on alert. When the Thracians attacked, they expected to find everything in camp peaceful and quiet, but the Greeks were ready for them and they were beaten off with severe losses. When the Thracians sent envoys to negotiate a peace, Clearchus had the bodies of a few dead Thracians cut up and strung from trees. When the envoys asked about the meaning of the spectacle, they were told that a meal for Clearchus was being prepared! Such antics as these caused people to question the ethical aspects of Clearchus’ conduct, but his military qualities are beyond dispute. He displayed great military insight in critical situations and this meant using whatever tactics worked.

The instances of surprise attacks, night marches and ambushes gathered in this chapter show how common ambushes had become in Greek warfare. This included not only light-armed troops but also hoplites being used for manoeuvres off the regular battlefield. Against hoplites, the function of peltasts was so often harassment, and the night was the most advantageous time. Isocrates equated peltasts with pirates.

Pursuing a fleeing army was a tactic that also became more common because of the mobility of light-armed troops. Plutarch tells us that the Spartans thought it ignoble for the Greeks to kill men who were fleeing, and adds that this policy made enemies more inclined to run away than fight. The practical reason for doing this, however, was not a lack of morality but rather a tactic to avoid the kind of thing that happened after the Battle of Haliartus in 395. The Thebans pursued the Spartans into the hills, where the Spartans immediately turned on them and attacked back with javelins and stones. They killed more than 200 Thebans. Practicality played a bigger part in Greek military policy than moralising.

The shock over the effectiveness of these new soldiers and their new tactics became apparent when a detachment of peltasts won a brilliant victory over Spartan soldiers at Lechaeum in 394. The commanders Callias and Iphicrates, looking down from the walls of Corinth, could see an approaching mora of Spartan soldiers. The Spartans were not numerous and were not accompanied by any light-armed or cavalry. The Athenans commanders determined that it would be safe to stage an ambush with their own peltasts. They could aim their javelins at the Spartans’ unshielded side when they passed. Callias stationed his hoplites in the ambush not far from the city walls, while Iphicrates led the peltasts in an attack, knowing if they lost they could retreat more quickly. The Spartan commander ordered a group of the youngest soldiers to pursue the assailants, but when they did so they caught no one, since they were hoplites pursuing peltasts at a distance of a javelin’s cast. Besides, Iphicrates had given orders to the peltasts to retire before the hoplites got near them. Then, when the Spartans were returning from their pursuit, out of formation because each man had pursued as swiftly as he could, Iphicrates’ troops turned around and not only did those in front again hurl javelins at the Spartans but others on the flank also ran and attacked them on their unprotected side.

Having lost many of their best men, with their returning cavalry’s support, the Spartans again attempted to pursue the peltasts. Yet when the peltasts gave way, the cavalry bungled the attack by not pursuing the enemy at full speed but, rather, kept an even pace with the hoplites in both their attack and their retreat. Finally, not knowing what to do, the Spartans gathered together on a small hill about two stades distant from the sea and about sixteen or seventeen stades from Lechaeum. When the Spartans in Lechaeum realised what was happening, they got into boats and sailed alongside the shore until they were opposite the hill. The men on the hill were now at a loss as to what to do; they were suffering dreadfully, and dying, while unable to harm the enemy in any way, and in addition they now saw the Athenian hoplites coming at them. At this point they gave way and fled, some throwing themselves into the sea, while a few made it to safety to Lechaeum with the cavalry. The total dead from all the skirmishes and the flight was enormous; the Spartans had lost half their number in a skirmish with Iphicrates’ peltasts.

Iphicrates, the ambusher, had to beware of ambushes himself. Polyaenus reports that the Spartan harmost (military governor) set an ambush that caught Iphicrates off-guard while he was marching towards the city of Sicyon in 391. Iphicrates immediately retreated by a different, short, trackless route. He selected his strongest troops, fell on the ambushers suddenly and killed them all. He admitted that he made a mistake by not reconnoitring the area, but he exploited his prompt suspicion of an ambush well by quickly attacking the ambushers.

Iphicrates won several successes in the Corinthian war, such as the recapture of Sidous, Krommyon and Oinoe from the Spartans. Several scholars have seen the similarities in the tactics used by Iphicrates’ peltasts and those that the Aetolians had used against Demosthenes, or that Demosthenes in turn used against the Spartans on Sphacteria. The success of Iphicrates was a suggestive sign of the future which might be in store for the professional peltast. The fact that they could defeat the Spartans boosted their ego and was a blow against Spartan prestige. As Parke describes it:

This success of the peltasts … was sufficient to make Iphicrates’ name forever as a general. Moreover it conferred on this type of light-armed troops a reputation for deadliness in battle which they had never before enjoyed in popular estimation. To this new esteem may be attributed the frequent appearance of peltasts in all armies, especially in the Athenian, during the next half-century. Henceforth, they become the typical form of light-armed troops and superseded the less-clearly specified, earlier varieties.

Ambushing, at what some commentators consider ‘inappropriate times’, now became a habit. Of course, what other time than ‘inappropriate’ could an ambush be? Several surprise attacks are attributed to Iphicrates by Frontinus. In one, Iphicrates attacked a Spartan camp at an hour when both armies were accustomed to forage for food and wood.

Another ambush on which Xenophon provides fairly detailed information took place in 388 in the Hellespontine region. The Spartans sent Anaxibius to Abydos as harmost (military governor) to relieve Dercylidas. He immediately took the offensive against the Athenians and their allies. The Athenians feared Anaxibius would find a way to weaken their position, and sent Iphicrates with eight ships and 1,200 peltasts to the Hellespont. First the two commanders just sent raiding parties against each other, using irregulars. Then Iphicrates crossed over by night to the most deserted portion of the territory of Abydos, and set an ambush in the mountains. He ordered his fleet to sail northwards along the Chersonese in order to deceive Anaxibius into believing they had left the area. Anaxibius suspected nothing and marched back to Abydos, but made his march in a rather careless fashion. Iphicrates’ men in the ambush waited until the vanguard of hoplites from Abydos had reached the plain, and at the moment when the rearguard consisting of Anaxibius’ Spartans started coming down from the mountains they sprang the ambush and rushed to attack the rearguard. Anaxibius’ army formed a very long and narrow column and it was practically impossible for his other troops to hasten uphill to the aid of the rearguard. He stayed where he was and fought to the death with twelve other Spartans. The rest of the Spartans fell in flight. Only 150 hoplites from the vanguard still managed to get away but only because they had been in the front of the column and were nearer to Abydos. This makes the probable percentage of losses in the middle of the column somewhere between that of the totally destroyed rearguard and the twenty-five per cent of the vanguard. Iphicrates went back to the Chersonese with a successful operation behind him. This carefully planned ambush, and indeed Iphicrates’ victory, have been compared to a successful guerrilla operation. With the defeat and death of Anaxibius, the danger for Athens of Sparta getting supremacy in the Hellespont was over. Iphicrates continued to operate against the Spartans in these parts until the Peace of Antalcidas, after which he entered the service of the Thracian kings. When Iphicrates left for the Hellespont in 388, Chabrias succeeded him as commander of the peltasts in Corinth. Because he had served under Thrasyboulus in the Hellespontine region, he was probably trained in the use of peltasts.

The Age of Light-Armed Greek Warrior II

Route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.

Xenophon and the Anabasis

The Greeks also came to realise that hoplite warfare, although well adapted to the peculiar circumstances of fighting within their own country, was not capable by itself of facing circumstances of warfare outside Greece, or even in the lesser-known parts of Greece itself. One of the few mercenary armies about whose composition we have exact information is Xenophon’s Ten Thousand. Xenophon’s Anabasis provides an unparalleled wealth of information on Greek mercenary service overseas in the fourth century, and how mixed continents of Greek hoplites and peltasts worked together. The tactics and fighting methods of the peltasts in the service of Athens and Sparta differed in no way from those of the peltasts on the march of the Ten Thousand.

The Peloponnesian war had produced large numbers of exiles who were forced to hire out as mercenaries, and ten thousand such soldiers found themselves recruited by Cyrus in his bid for the throne of his brother Artaxerxes. Many of Cyrus’ troops had a background in non-traditional combat. Non-hoplites including peltasts, archers, slingers and cavalry made up almost a fifth of Xenophon’s army. Xenophon’s men developed a great proficiency at night marching, and the light-armed enabled them to set up ambushes and pursue a fleeing enemy. On the defensive side, the use of light-armed and peltasts allowed Xenophon’s army to safeguard its routes and protect against ambushes set for them.

Because Xenophon and his men were travelling through unknown territory, one use of ambush was to capture intelligence assets: ‘When the enemy was giving us trouble, we set an ambush. It allowed us for one thing to catch our breath, but besides, we killed a number of them, and we took special pains to get some prisoners for this very purpose – of being able to employ them as guides, men who knew the country.’

We see the intelligence gathering structure of the Ten Thousand very clearly in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After having quartered their troops in local villages, Democrates of Temnus was sent with a body of troops during the night to the mountains. The Greeks had heard that late-arriving stragglers had seen fires, suggesting a Persian presence. Democrates was sent because he had the reputation of having made accurate reports in many similar situations. Intelligence gatherers need to be brave, able to act alone without panicking and be accurate in their assessments. Indeed, Democrates is described as being able to discern what ‘facts were facts’ and what ‘fictions were fictions’.

When Democrates returned, he reported that he had not seen fires, but rather he had captured an intelligence asset – a man with a Persian bow and quiver, and a battle axe of the sort that Amazons carry. When this man was interrogated about where he came from, he replied that he was a Persian and was on his way to the camp of Tiribazus to get provisions. They asked him for information about the size of Tiribazus’ force and for what purpose it had been gathered. The prisoner replied that Tiribazus had his own forces plus Chalybian and Taochian mercenaries, and that he himself had made his preparations with the idea of taking a position at the next mountain pass, which had the only road through which the Greeks could be attacked. Once the generals heard this information, they decided to bring their troops together in one camp. They left a garrison behind under the command of Sophaenetus the Stymphalian and set out at once using the captured asset as a guide. As soon as they crossed the mountains, the peltasts pushed ahead of the hoplites and charged the enemy camp. The Persians were taken by surprise and simply fled. Some were killed, and twenty horsemen were captured as was Tiribazus’ tent with its silver-footed couches, drinking cups and his staff. Once the hoplites heard what had happened, they thought it better to go back to their own camp before it could be set upon by the Persians. They sounded the recall trumpet and went home.

We also see this type of operation when light troops set an ambush and captured ‘some of the stealing rascals who are following us’. From these fellows they learned about passages through the mountains. Knowing the geography was of crucial importance since attacking the Greeks in ravines or when crossing over bridges was a common Persian tactic.

Xenophon planned an operation that depended on taking the enemy by surprise. The mercenaries were faced with an enemy holding a mountain pass. Since the bulk of the mountain was apparently undefended, Xenophon suggested a night attack on an unoccupied section of it as a diversionary tactic. He goes on to say that in his opinion such a tactic would be perfectly feasible, since they would be neither overseen nor overheard.

When faced again with the difficulty that a pass was occupied, this time by the Chalybians, the Greeks mounted a night operation. Xenophon proposed that the mountain tops dominating the pass should be occupied by a separate detachment, which they did at night using hoplites and light-armed. The following day when the Chalybians marched up the road to the pass, the Greeks on the mountain top attacked them by surprise. Most of the Chalybians were blocking the road, but part of them turned to fight the Greeks higher up. The Greek hoplites and light-armed defeated their adversaries and gave chase. Meanwhile, the peltasts, who acted as shock troops, rushed towards the Chalybians in the pass. Normally in this type of ambush, hand-to-hand fighting would ensue, but when the Chalybians saw that their men in the mountains had been defeated they fled, leaving the pass free for the Greeks.

Not only was setting ambushes useful, but the mere faking of an ambush could be effective. As the Greek army descended to Trapezus, a Greek city in Colchian territory on the Black Sea, they were afraid of being pursued by the tribe of the Drilai. They pretended to set an ambush. Ten Cretan archers, commanded by a Mysian, attracted the attention of the enemy by flashing bronze peltai in the sun. The Drilai, thinking this was an ambush, kept at a safe distance. When the Greek army had gotten far enough away, the Mysian received the signal to run with his men at full speed to join them. Although the Mysian himself was wounded running down the road, his companions, who had sought cover in the wood bordering the road, carried him with them. The Cretan archers kept shooting at the enemy from a safe distance and thus reached the safety of the Greek camp.

After a voyage along the coast, the Greeks arrived at Heraclea, a Greek city on the border with Bithynia. Here the army split up. The Arcadians sailed straight to the Greek port of Calpe, disembarked at night and advanced against some Bithynian villages about thirty stadia inland. The Thracian Bithynians were completely taken by surprise and a large number of people were captured along with their cattle. It should be noted that these raids were done by hoplites with Thracian peltasts on the defensive.

While the Greeks were crossing to Europe, they enlisted with Seuthes, king of the Odrysian Thracians. Seuthes had been operating in the territory of the Thynians with a comparatively small army consisting of peltasts and horsemen. He feared a night attack from them, but with the Greek mercenaries he felt he could launch a surprise attack on them instead. At Xenophon’s request, the hoplites marched at the head during the night, followed by the peltasts. Seuthes brought up the rear with his horsemen, instead of riding in front. At daybreak, Seuthes and his horsemen rode out ahead to reconnoitre; he wanted to stop any wayfarers from warning the villagers. The rest of the Greeks waited, and followed the tracks of his horses. Since they found no footsteps in the snow on the mountains, they assumed they were not being tracked. Seuthes launched his surprise attack on the villages over the mountains. The initial surprise attack was successful. The Thynians, however, after being driven from their village, returned at night and attacked the Greeks. They threw javelins inside the houses, tried to break off the points of the Greeks’ spears with clubs, and set the wooden houses on fire. At dawn, the reassembled troops of Seuthes and Xenophon advanced back to the mountains. As the Thynians begged for mercy, it was left to Xenophon to decide whether or not he wished to take revenge on the Thynians for their night attack.

On a number of occasions the decision was made to capture a position by craft rather than by a pitched battle. Xenophon records a jocular exchange where the Spartans are accused of being trained as thieves from childhood, and they in turn accused the Athenians of being thieves of public funds. If the comparison of military trickery to stealing reveals any moral qualms on the part of officers of the Ten Thousand about using such tactics, it never prevented them from using them.

Most of the rules of ambush and surprise remained the same in the fourth century. Weather could still thwart even the best night operation. Such was the case in a night operation planned by Thrasyboulus in 403. He set out with seventy followers from Thebes and occupied the fort at Phyle, a fortress with a commanding position. The Thirty Tyrants set out from Athens to retake the fort, bringing with them 3,000 hoplites and the cavalry. The weather was fine when they set out, but heavy snow fall fell during the night. Thrasyboulos saw it as a direct intervention of the gods on his behalf. The subsequent Athenian retreat was impeded by the snow, and descending from their rocky fortress the exiles inflicted further losses on their opponents, and they captured a large part of the baggage.

Night Marches and Assaults

Night marches and surprise attacks continued to be common in the fourth century. Indeed, it was said that once the Arcadians decided to march somewhere, nothing could prevent them – not nightfall nor storms, nor distance nor even mountains. In 390, an important military event occurred when Iphicrates invaded the territory of Phlius. He set an ambush while plundering the territory with a few followers. The men from the city came out against him in an unguarded way, but he killed so many of them that the Phliasians, who had previously rejected having Spartans within their walls, sent for the Spartans and put the city and the citadel under their protection. Thus a previously democratic Phlius that had displayed both political and military dissidence towards Sparta in the late 390s now remained loyal to Sparta for the rest of the Corinthian war.

In 378, the Thebans, afraid that they would be the only ones at war with Sparta, hatched a plot. Pelopidas set up an ambush as a deception in order to deceive the Spartans into attacking the Athenians. He and Gorgias chose Sphodrias, a Spartan, who was a good soldier but had weak judgement and was full of senseless ambition. They sent to him one of their friends who was a merchant with money, and planted the idea that he should seize Piraeus, attacking it unexpectedly when the Athenians were off their guard. It was set up as a night attack. Sphodrias was persuaded, took his soldiers and invaded Attica by night. Sphodrias underestimated the distance and by dawn found he was only at Eleusis. There, the hearts of his soldiers failed them and his design was exposed. Plutarch says they saw light streaming from certain sanctuaries at Eleusis and were filled with ‘shuddering fear’. Having lost the advantage of surprise, they turned back and abandoning the attack ravaged the countryside a little, then retired ingloriously to Thespiae. This once again illustrates the necessity of using brave men for night missions.

Surprise can be deadly even when it is not planned. In 378, both the Athenians and the Spartans were operating with a contingent of peltasts in their service. The Spartan Cleombrotus marched with his troops to Plataea, taking a different route from the one through Eleutherae, which the Athenian Chabrias was guarding with his peltasts. In the Cithaeron mountains, Cleombrotus’ vanguard, made up of peltasts, came upon a contingent of 150 of Chabrias’ peltasts. The latter were taken completely by surprise and nearly all of them were killed.

Using peltasts is not a silver bullet, nor does it give one a monopoly over the use of surprise. Once a surprise attack is used, your enemies copy your tactics. In the spring of 376, Cleombrotus marched again with an army to Boeotia. Once again his peltasts went ahead to occupy the tops of the Cithaeron mountains overlooking the road. This time, however, the area had already been occupied by the Thebans and the Athenians, who were more alert than Chabrias’ peltasts had been two years before. When Cleombrotus’ peltasts reached the top of the mountains and were at close quarters with the enemy, the latter emerged from the ambush and killed about forty fleeing peltasts. Because of this disaster, Cleombrotus believed it was impossible to enter Boeotia, and therefore turned back without having effected his purpose.

Aeneas Tacticus reports a particularly deadly ambush in 376, in which failure to learn from one set of ambushes caused another set. The Triballi, a tribe from the area of mid-Danubian Thrace, made an inroad into the country of the Abderites and set ambushes, then started raiding the country around the city. The Abderites held them in contempt because of previous successful operations against them and made a hasty attack from the city with great force and eagerness. But the Triballi drew them into the ambushes. On that particular occasion, it is said that more men perished in a shorter time than had ever been the case, at least from a single city of similar size. The others, not having learned of the destruction of their compatriots who went out first, rushed to the rescue, cheering each other on, but fell into the same ambushes until the city was bereft of men.

Xenophon reports a night march with a double layer of secrecy in 371, during the truce brokered by Jason of Pherae after the Battle of Leuctra. When news had been brought of the truce between Sparta and Thebes, the polemarchs announced to their men that they should all be packed up after dinner because they intended to set out during the night in order to ascend Mt Cithaeron at dawn. Right after the men finished dinner, however, and before they could take any rest, the polemarch ordered them to set out, and as soon as it was dusk they led them away, taking the road through Creusis, because they were relying more on secrecy than on the truce. They proceeded with very great difficulty because they were withdrawing at night, in fear, and by a hard road, but arrived at Aegosthena in the territory of Megara.

In 370, relations between Orchomenus and Mantineia were strained. Sparta supported Orchomenus and dispatched Polytropus as general to Arcadia with 1,000 citizen hoplites and 500 Argive and Boeotian refugees. Agesilaus waited for Polytropus to join him with his mercenaries. The Arcadians marched against them and Polytropus fought off the attackers but perished in the fight. Diodorus estimated the number dead at 200. If horsemen from Phlius had not arrived just in time to stop the Mantineans from pursuing them, many of the mercenaries would also have been killed. Agesilaus thought the mercenaries would not join him now that they had been defeated, so he marched on Mantinea without them. Armies were sometimes easily surprised even by their own allies. A few days later, after a night movement, the horsemen from Phlius and the mercenaries who had slipped past Mantinea appeared in the Spartan camp early in the morning, causing great confusion at first because the Spartans thought they were the enemy.

In 370, the Thebans invaded Laconia. They crossed the Eurotas river by Amyclae and after four days the Thebans and Eleians advanced in full force along with the cavalry from the Phocians, Thessalians and Locrians who were serving in this expedition. Although the Spartan cavalry formed against them, they were very few in number. To help counter this imbalance, however, the Spartans had set an ambush with about 300 of the younger hoplites, which they hid in the Temple of the Sons of Tyndareus (The Dioscuri). When the Spartan cavalry charged, these men too sprang their attack and forced the enemy back. Eventually, the Thebans decided not to make another assault on the city, so departed on the road to Helos and then Gytheium, where the Spartans had their dockyards. The ambush gave the Spartans enough of an edge to achieve their objective of saving the city.

Night operations became a necessity in 366 during the Theban invasion of Phlius. The Phliasians survived by buying supplies from the Corinthians. But they had to provide a military escort for those who had to pass through enemy lines to get the supplies. While Chares was in Phlius, they asked him to convey their non-combatants (proxenoi) into Pellene. Having left the men at Pellene, they then went to the market, made their purchases and loaded up as many of the animals as they could, and departed by night trying in this way to avoid ambush by the enemy. Xenophon praises their endurance and patience, and admires them for pulling off this dangerous night operation to bring supplies to their hard-pressed city.

Another night attack in 362 is related by several ancient historians. Two groups of Arcadians came to blows, each side sent for outside help. The Tegeans called in the Thebans under Epaminondas, and the Mantineans sought help from both Athens and Sparta. Epaminondas was advancing with his army not far from Mantinea when he learned from local inhabitants that the entire Spartan force was plundering the territory of Tegea. Supposing that Sparta was stripped of soldiers, Epaminondas planned a night attack and set out towards the city. He ordered his troops to take their supper at an early hour, and a little after nightfall led them out straight to Sparta.

The Spartan king Agesilaus, however, anticipating the cunning of Epaminondas (Diodorus) or being informed by a deserter (Polybius), made preparations for a defence. He sent out some Cretan runners and got word to the men he had left behind that the Boeotians would shortly appear in Sparta to sack the city. They should not fear because he himself would come as quickly as possible with his army to bring aid to them. According to Diodorus, Epaminondas set out at night and took the city (Sparta) at daybreak. Polybius says he took the city by surprise. Epaminondas was disappointed in his hope, but after breakfasting on the banks of the Eurotas and refreshing his troops after their hard march he continued on to Mantinea, which would be left without defenders because the Spartans had run home to defend their city. He once again organised a night march and reached Mantinea about midday and found it undefended.

This is an interesting story because Diodorus and Polybius have Epaminondas shown attacking at night. This is in contrast to Polyaenus, where Epaminondas is portrayed as cultivating a reputation for never attacking before sunrise. It is thus difficult to appraise the historical value of the stratagem, because the only attested example in the historians of Epaminondas’ activity by night in the Peloponnesus is his march to Sparta.

Assaults and Escapes from Walled Cities

Assaults and escapes from walled cities were already an important part of warfare at the end of the Peloponnesian war. There are numerous examples of deceptions and tricks, in particular in the assaults on cities, where peltasts were used to great advantage. Much activity, therefore, was expended in the fourth century assaulting cities, or gaining access by stealth.

Storming towns at night was often a successful tactic. In 408, King Agis of Sparta was in Decelea with his army when he learned that the best Athenian troops were engaged in an expedition with Alcibiades. He led his army on a moonless night to Athens with 28,000 infantry, one-half of whom were picked hoplites and the rest were light-armed troops. There were also attached to his army some 1,200 cavalry, of whom the Boeotians furnished 900 and the rest had been sent with him by the Peloponnesians. As he drew near the city, he came upon the outposts before they were aware of him and easily dispersed them because they were taken by surprise. He slew a few and pursued the rest within the walls.

In 405, Diodorus claims Dionysius of Syracuse covered a distance of 400 stades and arrived at the gates of Achradine in the middle of the night with 100 cavalry and 600 infantry. Finding the gate closed, he piled upon it reeds brought from the marshes and burned the gates. His troops entered the town and captured the cavalry trying to defend the city. They were gathered in the marketplace, surrounded and cut down. Then Dionysius rode through the city slaughtering anyone who resisted.

Later in 404, Dionysius of Syracuse treated with humanity the exiles who returned, wishing to encourage the rest to return to their native land too. To the Campanians, he awarded the gifts that were due and then dispatched them from the city, having regard to their fickleness. These made their way to Entella and persuaded the men of the city to receive them as fellow inhabitants, then they fell upon them at night, slew the men of military age, married the wives of the men with whom they had broken faith and possessed themselves of the city.

From the same book of Diodorus we have an example of gates being opened by treachery in 395 at Heraclea. Medius, the lord of Larissa in Thessaly, was at war with Lycophron, tyrant of Pherae. After getting reinforcements of Boeotians and Argives, Medius seized Pharsalus where there was a garrison of Spartans; he sold the inhabitants as booty. After this, the Boeotians and Argives parted company with Medius. They seized Heraclea in Trachis, and on being let in at night within the walls by sympathisers they put to the sword the Spartans whom they seized, but they allowed the other Peloponnesian allies to leave with their possessions, no doubt in an attempt to weaken the Spartan alliance.

Plutarch, in his Life of Pelopidas, reports a plot from 379 when Thebes was garrisoned by the Spartans, to open city gates and stage a surprise attack. The Theban exiles took twelve men disguised as hunters, in short cloaks and leading hunting dogs. They entered the city at different points during the day. The weather changed to wind and snow. They made their way to the house of Charon, where they were changing into their armour when a messenger came from the polemarchs summoning Charon. At first, they thought they had been discovered. While the storm continued, a messenger from the Athenians brought a letter with details of the plot to Archias (the polemarch?). Instead of reading it, Archias, who was drunk, put it under his pillow and went to sleep. When the time came for the attack, the exiles went out in two bands, one under Pelopidas and one under Charon. They broke into various houses and killed leaders, raided shops for arms and at the break of day had control of the city without ever having engaged the 1,500-man garrison. Even Plutarch says that it was not easy to name a case where such a small number of men, so destitute, have overcome enemies so numerous and powerful. The subsequent political change was momentous. This is a clear of example of ambush as a force multiplier.

Mercenary service in Sicily found its high point under tyrants such as Dionysius of Syracuse. We see him using them during the siege of the Siceli at Tauromenium. Dionysius took advantage of the winter storms when the area about the acropolis was filled with snow. He discovered that the Siceli were careless in their guard of the acropolis because of its strength and the unusual height of the wall, so he advanced on a moonless and stormy night against the highest sectors. After many difficulties, both because of the obstacles offered by the crags and because of the great depth of the snow, he occupied one peak, although his face was frosted and his vision impaired by the cold. Still he was able to break through to the other side and lead his army into the city. The attempt, however, still did not work. The Siceli stormed out against him and pushed out the troops of Dionysius. Dionysius himself was struck on the corselet in the flight, sent scrambling and barely escaped being taken alive. Since the Siceli pressed upon them from superior ground, more than 600 of Dionysius’ troops were slain and most of them lost their complete armour, while Dionysius himself saved only his corselet. After this disorder, the Acragantini and Messenians banished the partisans of Dionysius, asserted their freedom and renounced their alliance with the tyrant.

Diodorus reports that in 397, when Dionysius was besieging the Motyans, he made it a practice to sound the trumpet towards evening for the recall of his troops and break off the siege. So once he had accustomed the Motyans to this practice, the combatants on both sides retired as usual. He dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the élite troops, who waited until nightfall then placed ladders against the fallen houses. Using these to mount the walls, they seized an advantageous spot, where they admitted Dionysius’ troops. When the Motyans realised what was taking place, they rushed with all eagerness to the rescue, but they were too late. They fought fiercely but, in the end, the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by the weight of their numbers.

In Rhegium in 393, the Carthaginians fled into the city after a loss of more than 800 men, while Dionysius withdrew for the time being to Syracuse; but after a few days he manned 100 triremes and set out against the Rhegians. Arriving unexpectedly by night before the city, he put fire to the gates and set ladders against the walls.

At Corinth in 392, Praxitas, the commander of a Spartan mora garrisoned at Sicyon, entered the long walls that connected Corinth to its port at Lechaeum, through a gate opened by the two Corinthian defectors, and he established a palisaded camp as they waited for reinforcements. On the second day, the Argives arrived in full strength along with the mercenaries under Iphicrates. Although outnumbered, the Spartans fought bravely, and then followed their victory with the taking of Lechaeum.

From Egypt in 362/1 we have the story of a night escape from a city. Having lost many men in their attack on the walls, the Egyptians then began to surround the city with a wall and a ditch, shutting in Agesilaus and his men. As the work was rapidly nearing completion by reason of the large number of workers, and the provisions in the city were exhausted, Tachos despaired of his safety, but Agesilaus, encouraging the men and attacking the enemy at night, unexpectedly succeeded in bringing all the men out safely.

Similarly, Diodorus reports an attack on the walls of Syracuse in 356/5. Nypsius, the commander of the mercenaries, wishing to renew the battle and retrieve the defeat with his army, which had been marshalled, during the night unexpectedly attacked the wall that had been constructed. And, finding that the guards had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor, he placed the ladders that had been constructed in case they were needed against the wall. The bravest of the mercenaries climbed on the wall with these, slaughtered the guards and opened the gates.

Another unsuccessful assault on a siege wall occurred in 357/6. Dionysius plied his mercenaries with strong wine and sent them on a dash against the siege wall around the acropolis. The attack was unexpected, and the barbarians, with great boldness and loud tumult, began to tear down the cross-wall and attack the Syracusans, so that no one dared to stand on the defensive, except the mercenaries of Dion, who first noticed the disturbance and came to the rescue.

Warfare in the Fourth Century

Despite the anecdotal form of many of our sources, we can see that warfare had changed in the fourth century. As G. T. Griffith pointed out many decades ago, it is not easy to imagine a time when soldiers were not a special class of men who made fighting their profession. The Greeks of the fifth century had no need for professional soldiers. The payment of a wage to fighting men ran contrary to the ideology of the citizen-soldier, i.e. hoplites. They were recruited from a class of men who could arm themselves and fight at their own expense. When Greek cities went to war, every man did what he could. As wars increased in number and intensity, however, the professionalisation of warfare followed. Thucydides writes that before the Peloponnesian war the Athenians devoted their bodies to their country. Later, patriotic enthusiasm would decrease and fighting was left to professional soldiers who received wages.

The use of public finance to pay soldiers transformed warfare by making it possible to mobilise more manpower for longer periods of time and so wage war on land and at sea with an intensity and persistence that had not been feasible in earlier generations. Military service became less and less remunerative especially because of the steep increase in the cost of living in the fourth century. From then on, wages had to be complemented with booty.

Athens had used mercenaries during the greater part of the fourth century and used them more freely than any other Greek city-state. Yet the Greeks were conscious of the incompatibility of their autonomy and the presence of foreign troops in a polis.

The rise of Hellenistic monarchies, combined with a large supply of mercenary soldiers available, meant that professionals and the techniques of war that they could bring with them would be many and varied. Battle became much more costly as the spirit of competition gave way to the desire for complete destruction. Wars were now made up of raids, commando attacks and guerrilla warfare whose heroes were peltasts and these techniques came to rival open combat.

There were always those who waxed poetic about the ‘fair and open battle’ of the past. Xenophon, in the Cyropaedia, has a character urge an attack upon a small and vulnerable group of enemy soldiers. Cyrus overruled him and said it would be better to wait for them all to assemble. If less than half of them are defeated, they will say the Greeks attacked because they feared to face the great mass of the enemy. If they do not feel defeated, there will be another battle. But is this really the Greek attitude towards fair play in war or a just nostalgic remembrance of times past when hoplite armies gathered their full forces on a plain, almost as if by appointment? Or, one might ask, what happened when the Greeks were faced with opponents who did not recognise the ‘rules of the game’? As the Athenians expanded their empire overseas, they found themselves fighting more frequently, in unfamiliar terrain as longer conflicts replaced seasonal and occasional clashes. Professionalism spurred on by the increase in scale, occurrence and duration of conflicts rendered operations more technical. Diversity of terrain favoured a new emphasis on cavalry and light infantry. It became necessary to co-ordinate different types of armed contingents and this made battles more complex than the head-on collisions of phalanxes. Mercenaries with professional skills, often recruited from non-Greeks, supplemented or replaced citizen levies. Generals did not just lead a charge; they had to out-think as well as out-fight the enemy.

Using light-armed troops and mercenaries for ambush was one of the strategies the Greeks adopted. As Griffith points out: ‘The mercenaries of the fourth century became standardised to a type, the type evolved by Iphicrates, i.e. the Iphicratean peltast.’ He believed they became so widespread that actual Thracians were driven from the market. There appears to be no mention by ancient authors of Thracian peltasts in the seventy years before Alexander. Griffith suggests that their disappearance was due to the improved Greek peltast.

Thus, when new circumstances arose, they demanded new experiments from the inventiveness of the Greeks. The Greeks had learned to make an efficient army suitable for service in other lands. Hoplites had to be supported by good light-armed troops and, if possible, by cavalry. The first half of the fourth century developed the military art along these lines, and the Greek hoplite force, in conjunction with these new groups using the tactics of surprise, speed and ambush, became one of the most effective military forces.

Fourth-century authors speak of deception, surprise and ambush constantly. It is clear from the works of Aeneas Tacticus that ambush was always considered a dangerous possibility. Aeneas assumes that ambushes will be a danger, and he recommends that defenders set their own ambushes. He tells a cautionary tale about how some officials used the citizens’ desire to ambush the enemy to bring in mercenaries and take over the city. He even recommends that defenders attack the invaders when they are drunk or when they are preparing dinner. He gives examples of disinformation leaked successfully to the enemy and anecdotes about tricks used to capture cities. He gives detailed instructions on how an army should sally from a town when enemy troops were in the surrounding area. He instructs that hoplites should leave town in separate formations in marching order since, if unordered groups leave in succession, there was a danger that each group would fall into an enemy ambush. Aeneas recommends that to avoid ambushes the available horsemen and light-armed precede the hoplites in order to reconnoitre and occupy the dominating positions in the area, so that the hoplites can be informed of the enemy’s movements in good time and hence avoid unexpected disasters.

Xenophon gives exactly the same advice about troop order. Both Aeneas and Xenophon were generals with extensive field experience. They were basing their advice on practice. It is not difficult to find examples. We see this when Agesilaus’ horsemen, during his campaign in Asia Minor, were riding to a hill in order to survey the terrain and they unexpectedly came upon Persian horsemen. With the order by which the horsemen and peltasts marched ahead followed by the hoplites, it is obvious that the peltasts and horsemen were always the first to engage with the enemy. Another example of this marching order can be seen in Xenophon’s Anabasis. His troops are in the territory of the Thracian enemies; in front of them are the Bithynians. He sends horsemen ahead and orders the peltasts to the hill tops and ridges. The practice at the end of the fifth century seems to have been the same as the fourth century, when Aeneas Tacticus was writing (c.360–350). Xenophon and Aeneas Tacticus have so much in common that classicist David Whitehead plausibly suggests that the two men knew each other and spoke together. The Greeks in Xenophon’s day considered deceiving enemies normal behaviour. Certainly, surprise attacks and ambush came under this heading. The Greeks were still using animal metaphors for ambush as they had in the Iliad. When Xenophon talks about men who deceive the enemy, he compares it to using decoy birds to lure birds into an ambush.

Fourth-century commanders such as Agesilaus became admired by later writers. Most of Frontinus’ examples are Roman, but among the Greeks he mentions one Spartan figure prominently. Of the twenty-one stratagems he cites, nine are attributed to Agesilaus. Polyaenus goes even further. For him Agesilaus was the central character and his thirty-three exempla extend over his entire career as a general.

Scholars like to point out that light-armed troops did not play a decisive part in any battle on Greek soil, except in two cases during the Peloponnesian war where hoplites were caught on ground unsuited to their formation and their tactics. This misses the point, however, that having light-armed troops made it easier to set up ambushes, spring surprise attacks at night or dawn and fall upon hoplites when they least expected it and were ill-prepared. The fact that hoplites themselves were lightening their armour suggests that they saw the changing conditions of warfare as the fifth century progressed.

Whatever sneering may have been done against light-armed troops before or during the Peloponnesian war, it soon became clear to commanders of Greek armies serving abroad in the fourth century that they could not reply solely upon heavily armed hoplite troops. Hoplites need the support of effective bodies of men whose armour rendered them more mobile. The demand for various types of light-armed soldiers had become greater as the Peloponnesian war progressed, and in the fourth century this need got greater as Greeks fought overseas against native troops skilled in these ways of fighting. Archers, javelin men, slingers and, above all, peltasts were found to be necessary. The predominance of a solely hoplite army was gone. The fourth-century Greek army had been remade as a co-operative effort by trained hoplites, peltasts and cavalry, many of them mercenaries and all obedient to a general.

G. B. Grundy was correct when he warned against reading into the fourth century a wholescale racial decay, physical and intellectual, and perhaps we might add moral because of the types of warfare used. Many writers believe the fourth century saw a ‘change in the ethos of warfare’, i.e. a moral decay. What we are seeing rather are military changes that reflect the reality of warfare in an age of overseas warfare, increased professionalism in the armies, the development of new fighting techniques, the development of a new leadership and the ability of the Greeks to divorce themselves from the hoplite paradigm. These were all brought changes to Greek warfare, but we can discuss them without suggesting that their world had become degenerate.

The idea that cleverness in warfare is ‘a luxury’ may be an opinion held by armchair historians, but not by generals in the field. Such attitudes are often attributed to great commanders such as Agesilaus and Alexander, but the fact remains that these commanders were expert military tricksters. Moralisers could continue to claim that victory by guile was no victory at all, but when an ambush killed all its targets the dead were very much defeated. A pass taken, information gained, an enemy surprised and defeated were all good things for both the general and the men in the field.