Intensity and Duration of fighting in Ancient & Medieval Battles

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,650
Westmorland
Welllll, it may not be all that straightforward. It *does* seem that the Roman style was more resiliant, not needing to be rigid or on good ground free of obstacles, etc. And 3 feet of space per man (not *between* men) isn't all that great a gap, and no reason to think that a barbarian force would be much tighter. Elbow room is even more important with long spears and swords, axes, etc., than for men with short swords.
As I understand it, one of the things that distinguished a Roman army from a barbarian one (or at least a Celtic or Germanic one) was the focus on training and unit cohesion rather than personal glory. Celtic warriors represented the top slice of secular society whereas jobbing Roman soldiers dd not. Swords and other armaments were only really available for the richest.

As such, individual prowess had a higher cachet amongst barbarian groups. That would tend to count against ordered companies and serried ranks and one is tempted to think more of irregular 'hit and run' tactics of the sort employed much later by the hopelessly outnumbered English army at the battle of Solway Moss in 1542. The English light horsemen (or 'prickers', as they were known) were a scratch force raised from the local border families. They had little or no unit cohesion and would have banded around whichever individual family heads were out with them. Had the enormous Scottish army been drawn in in proper battle array, the English would have lost in about ten minutes, but as it was the English were able to harry the Scottish vanguard as it was trying to form up after getting across the Esk fords. The main part of the Scottish army was stretched out further behind, struggling through the bogs and mires of the Moss itself.

Terrain seems to have been key in medieval battles, presumably because, as at Solway Moss, it could provide a powerful advantage. The English didn't need to engage with the Scots on a long front and slog it out, row facing row. All that had to do was 'prick' (as they called it) - charge, pull back immediately and then charge again. It wasn't about inflicting vast numbers of casualties. It was about causing disarray and confusion. As soon as the English had broken that relatively small part of the Scottish army that had made it over the fords but hadn't properly got itself together, the battle was won.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,262
Italy, Lago Maggiore
The medieval context regarding battles is also not that simple and easy to describe. Middle Ages were a long period and they saw all the possible [even improbable, think to Crusaders] armies around the knwon world.

The first great difference is: "state organized" or not? The Roman Empire, in its Eastern part, kept on having a decent, stable and organized Army also during a part of the Middle Ages [substantially still in VII century CE the "Byzantine", they said "Roman", Army was the late Roman Army]. The central Middle Ages [from VIII to XI century CE] saw a Byzantine Army composed by trained and organized soldiers who, anyway, went in good part back to the fields during peace time [it was the period of the "Themata", to make it simple].

In Western Europe the mentioned Crusades can be a great example of how they gathered wide armies and of how these armies moved and fought: disorder and mess were the rules ... logistics was terrible and it wasn't rare that these gigantic armies plundered the lands through wich they marched [during the first Crusade the Byzantine escorted the Crusaders to avoid this ... and in occasion of the siege of Nicea, after its fall on June 19th 1097CE, the Eastern Romans escorted the Crusaders even during the raid in the conquered city!].

So, we have first of all to wonder when we are taking into consideration how they fought. The presence of a stable state army made things well more "regular" and infantry troops more "professional" [at least better trained and with quite standard equipment, even if usually poor].
 
Mar 2016
72
Germany
The time whole battles lasted was quite different from battle to battle, depending on the composition of armies and troops (moral, training, equipment), the location and a lot of other factors. The phases of active melee combat in the battles must have been much shorter than an hour. I think more in the 10 to 20 minutes range, as the weight of armor and/or shields, the heat of the body and the corporal exhaustion from movement and use of weapons must have been considerable. Then the lines perhaps departed a bit and rested for some times.

Sometimes even longer pauses would have happened. There is a description by Cassius Dio of the second battle of Bedriacum (69 AD) , which allegedly lasted the whole night, of pauses to eat (and surely drink!) something, with enemies (both Romans) even sharing stuff.

The Romans surely tried to make battles short, with pila salvos and then intense sword and shield play, to rout enemies asap. I did not read a lot about removing front units and bringing fresh soldiers, except for the Romans. In a lot of battles with densely packed lines, like phalanxes of hoplites or pikemen, or shieldwalls, it seems nearly impossible to change soldiers. The Romans could only do it because of their open formations which had much more space between single soldiers (4 cubits according to Polybius, so about 6 feet). The Romans in the mid to late republican time used the big oval shield and the rather long sword (called gladius Hispaniensis) which was used for thrust and cut; they needed some space for fighting. Through the gaps new soldiers could pass. Seemingly in later times (at least since the early empire, perhaps even since the start of the 1st c. BC) the Romans used closer formations and changing units seems to have disappeared.
 
Last edited:

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,257
Sydney
from the end of the Roman legions to Louis XIV establishing an integral supply system , armies had a big problem with feeding themselves
keeping 5000 men static was having them starve , they had to move or meet at a pre-ordained time and place for a quick battle

often some would arrive after the battle , or luckily , during the stoush
the speed of movement was often dependent on the pace of oxen and cattle providing food on the hoof
troops would spread around , looking for forage like locusts
if the campaign lasted too long lords would simply go home to mind their business and /or protect their lands
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,997
MD, USA
As I understand it, one of the things that distinguished a Roman army from a barbarian one (or at least a Celtic or Germanic one) was the focus on training and unit cohesion rather than personal glory. Celtic warriors represented the top slice of secular society whereas jobbing Roman soldiers dd not. Swords and other armaments were only really available for the richest.

As such, individual prowess had a higher cachet amongst barbarian groups. That would tend to count against ordered companies and serried ranks and one is tempted to think more of irregular 'hit and run' tactics...
Sure, to a certain extent. Training and organization was the huge main difference between Rome and most of her opponents. BUT even Celts knew about formations and tactics, and it is clear from numerous accounts that Roman soldiers were subject to harsh discipline largely to keep them from haring off to seek personal glory, and keep them in their formations long enough to strike cohesively. We shouldn't think of a Roman legion as looking like the Victorian British "thin red line", robotically moving as one man--I tend to think of them more like Zulus, a buzzing mass of highly aggressive psychotic armored knife-fighters, just waiting to be turned loose in a savage rampage of death.

For all the talk about using guerilla warfare against the Romans, it was actually the Romans who were generally far better equipped to carry that out. Romans operated from contained secure bases and had plenty of trained mobile troops for hit-and-run raids. Locals always had homes, farms, and families that were highly vulnerable. Hiding in a swamp or forest is great until your food runs out, and all you can do is peek out at the smoldering ruins that used to be your home and loved ones. Plus the Romans weren't all that finicky about reprisals, even if they weren't sure who was actually responsible for the trouble, they'd just kill and burn until the trouble stopped.

I *will* have to read up on the Solway Moss campaign! Sounds fascinating, and it's an era with a lot of action that doesn't get much press.

Matthew
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,650
Westmorland
Sure, to a certain extent. Training and organization was the huge main difference between Rome and most of her opponents. BUT even Celts knew about formations and tactics, and it is clear from numerous accounts that Roman soldiers were subject to harsh discipline largely to keep them from haring off to seek personal glory, and keep them in their formations long enough to strike cohesively.
I didn't know that - how interesting.

We shouldn't think of a Roman legion as looking like the Victorian British "thin red line", robotically moving as one man--I tend to think of them more like Zulus, a buzzing mass of highly aggressive psychotic armored knife-fighters, just waiting to be turned loose in a savage rampage of death.
Fair enough - I always assumed they were a bit like the thin red line. Do we have any contemporaneous accounts of the legions or auxiliaries going in? Tacitus' Agricola always makes it sound like a jolly day out crossed with the doing of one's solemn duty. Although I seem to recall that he mentions a junior officer who got killed at Mons Graupius after getting a bit over-excited. That perhaps seems to tally with your point?

For all the talk about using guerilla warfare against the Romans, it was actually the Romans who were generally far better equipped to carry that out. Romans operated from contained secure bases and had plenty of trained mobile troops for hit-and-run raids.
Yes indeed. Elton and Co are clear on the efficacy of enormous looting and burning raids. Insofar as the northern British frontier is concerned, that didn't stop until 1603.

Hiding in a swamp or forest is great until your food runs out, and all you can do is peek out at the smoldering ruins that used to be your home and loved ones.
Interestingly, later accounts of trouble on the Anglo-Scottish border touch on this very point. Raiding and looting was so bad that most Border homes were essentially built to be disposable. It didn't matter if your house got burned as you could throw another one up in a day or so. There was a growing reliance on pastoralism, as if you got enough notice of a raid, you could take livestock with you. Even the Armstrongs couldn't burn pasture.

Fastnesses like Tarras Moss were treacherous and when times were really bad, folk could hide out in them for months.

I do often feel that this later period provides a good analogy for what it might have been like in Roman time s if here was trouble on the line, although for the most part, it looks as though things were usually much more settled.

Plus the Romans weren't all that finicky about reprisals, even if they weren't sure who was actually responsible for the trouble, they'd just kill and burn until the trouble stopped.
That's undoubtedly a powerful tool. Henry VIII liked to do much the same thing.

I *will* have to read up on the Solway Moss campaign! Sounds fascinating, and it's an era with a lot of action that doesn't get much press.
Indeed! If you can get hold of it, check out the memoirs of Sir Robert Carey, who had the unenviable job of trying to police the border in his capacity as a Warden. Great stuff!
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,997
MD, USA
Fair enough - I always assumed they were a bit like the thin red line. Do we have any contemporaneous accounts of the legions or auxiliaries going in? Tacitus' Agricola always makes it sound like a jolly day out crossed with the doing of one's solemn duty. Although I seem to recall that he mentions a junior officer who got killed at Mons Graupius after getting a bit over-excited. That perhaps seems to tally with your point?
Oh, I should have mentioned--Jon Lendon's "Soldiers and Ghosts" was a real eye-opener, for me, on that subject. He sums up all the little anecdotes that are already pretty well-known, but when you string them all together it really changes your outlook! Caesar's 2 centurions having their Gaul-killing competition; Titus Vespasianus repeatedly saying, "Oh, look, bad guys! Let's get 'em!" and charging off alone, without armor; an impromptu night raid on the wall of Jerusalem by some bored legionaries; 2nd Cremona (ye, gods...); many other bits. Plus that classic scene from Trajan's Column of auxiliaries going into battle carrying severed heads in their teeth, by the hair, I SO want to do that.

Don't get me wrong, it doesn't take a lot of drill practice to have troops that will fall neatly into line and hold their formation and positions pretty well! Heck, that was all part of impressing people, too. But the savagery inside those nice lines, just itching to explode...

Indeed! If you can get hold of it, check out the memoirs of Sir Robert Carey, who had the unenviable job of trying to police the border in his capacity as a Warden. Great stuff!
Super, thanks!

Matthew
 

Dreamhunter

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
7,486
Malaysia
I'm no military historian, but aren't we forgetting about the importance of morale? As I understand it, Hollywood notions of cavalry crashing into lines of pikemen was extremely rare in practice. The whole point of a cavalry charge was to panic the enemy into breaking and running. If they didn't, there wasn't much you could do about it.
Sounds kind of reasonable. It's like, 'Oh, darn it, I guess not,' would be a quite common feeling.
 
Nov 2008
1,417
England
Good point - I shall dust that off.

I'm inclined to think that many medieval battles would have been pretty modest affairs. Warbands were small and I recall that the definition of an Anglo-Saxon army may only have been about 30 men? I don't doubt that some battles were massive, but in general terms, shouldn't we be thinking more in terms of the first battle scene in Highlander rather than the enormous punch-up at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers?

Do we not also have to allow for a certain amount of artistic licence in accounts of these battles?
Like you I`m inclined to believe most of the battles fought at this time in Britain were modest clashes. There well may, however, have been a few which were quite large, and I`m thinking of Brunaburh as the prime example. Now Halsall in the magazine Miniature Wargames, back in the 1980s, had a try at reconstructing the battle of Degsastan AD 603. He made an educated guess at the size of the forces, actually quite large, giving the Picts and Scots a number of 5000 men and giving the English a rather smaller force of 3,200 warriors. It was obviously a theoretical exercise, as Halsall made clear, and the numbers of fighting men at that clash may well have been smaller.

Concerning artistic licence. What are we to make of Bede`s statement that King Penda of the Mercians invaded Northumbria during the Winwaed campaign with thirty legions? Did the venerable one mean legions in the Roman sense, in which case the numbers would have been large, or were these legions just retinues gathered round the banners of various sub-kings allied to Penda? I`m inclined to believe the latter.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,257
Sydney
The maximum number was probably related to the number of fit fighting age men which could be assembled in a week march

the Gauls raised a relief army to the siege of Alesia of about 70.000 ( ? ) that was huge
but they had a higher population density