Intensity and Duration of fighting in Ancient & Medieval Battles

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,950
Australia
The Gauls were very experienced in disciplined formation fighting. They served for centuries as hoplite mercenaries in the armies of the Greek tyrants in southern Italy and the Aegean.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,950
Australia
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.
"Legion" is a modern English word. Bede wrote in Latin. We need to know which term Bede actually used. Even if he specifically used the term legiō it was just the best word he could think of to describe an Anglo-Saxon warband. It is folly to try and equate it with Roman formations. It is pretty obvious that the Romans would not have had a specific word to describe an Anglo-Saxon warband.

When you are taught translation, you are also taught to take context into account. A proper translator would never have used the term "legion" to translate Bede's work because it has a specific connotation that is misleading in this context. He/she would have either used a suitable English term such as "warband", or adopted an Anglo-Saxon term such as "fyrd".
 
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Dreamhunter

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
7,486
Malaysia
The Gauls were very experienced in disciplined formation fighting. They served for centuries as hoplite mercenaries in the armies of the Greek tyrants in southern Italy and the Aegean.
So they weren't exactly amateurs when Julius Caesar marched against them.
 

Duke Valentino

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,329
Australia
No, the Gauls were a warlike people, and had a very structured society based on having the military elite on the top of the "hierarchy" of society, so-to-speak. They weren't a pushover. Caesar's use of logistics and control of supply that was afforded to him via his genius and the Roman army itself was the main factor for his victories in Gaul, in my opinion.
 
Mar 2018
870
UK
No, the Gauls were a warlike people, and had a very structured society based on having the military elite on the top of the "hierarchy" of society, so-to-speak. They weren't a pushover. Caesar's use of logistics and control of supply that was afforded to him via his genius and the Roman army itself was the main factor for his victories in Gaul, in my opinion.
And, when push came to shove; Caesar's men, his officer, his generals and himself were simply better at battling than his opponents.
 
Mar 2018
870
UK
The consensus here seems to be that battles lines were not rigid, but flexible. This allowed small sections to fight "intensely" within close weapon range very briefly, before then pulling back somewhat outside of weapon range. It was this extra distance that made it possible for melee fights to last hours and for reinforcements to be (sometimes) fed through or for men to be (sometimes) rotated. So battle lines were not rectangles smoothly bashing into each other, more like two snakes slithering parallel to each other and occasionally colliding.

This has also changed how I think about one important thing: flanking. While the psychological impact of flanking on a rank-and-file soldier who has a limited view of the battle field must be large, I was also surprised that it had such a devastating impact on all but the most disciplined units. Obviously, the poor chap at the corner of the flanked formation has to fight in several directions at once, but everyone else ought to be in a fairly normal situation. They might be upset and confused at what they can't quite see or hear, but that is not a unique battlefield situation. But I know see how this picture of some guy being flanked at the corner of a rigid formation is too simplistic.

I'm beginning to think that one of the key advantages of flanking is toprevent the enemy formation from being able to chose the intensity of the fighting. It's virtually impossible for a flanked soldier to take a few steps back to have a breather from the enemy in front, when their comrades on the side are busy fighting, without bumping into their own mates. Being forced to fight at someone else's tempo would be physically exhausting very quickly, and the psychological impact of not being able to take a step back even larger. In this picture, the impact of flanking is not so much forcing the enemy to fight in two directions at once (very few individuals would have to), but rather preventing the formation from having its natural internal movement and rhythm, thereby putting it into a high stress situation (physically and mentally).
 
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Oct 2018
1,736
Sydney
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...



Super, thanks!

Matthew
This story ties in well with both this point and your earlier one about Roman hit-and-run tactics.

Ammianus 16.11.8-10: 'At that same time the savages who had established their homes on our side of the Rhine, were alarmed by the approach of our armies, and some of them skilfully blocked the roads (which are difficult and naturally of heavy grades) by barricades of felled trees of huge size; others, taking possession of the islands which are scattered in numbers along the course of the Rhine, with wild and mournful cries heaped insults upon the Romans and Caesar. Whereupon he was inflamed with a mighty outburst of anger, and in order to catch some of them, asked Barbatio for seven of the ships which he had got ready for building bridges with the intention of crossing the river. but Barbatio burned them all, in order that he might be unable to give any help. Finally, Julian, learning from the report of some scouts just captured, that now in the heat of summer the river could be forded, with words of encouragement sent the light-armed auxiliaries with Bainobaudes, tribune of the Cornuti, to perform a memorable feat, if fortune would favour them; and they, now wading through the shallows, now swimming on their shields, which they put under them like canoes, came to a neighbouring island and landing there they butchered everyone they found, men and women alike, without distinction of age, like so many sheep. Then, finding some empty boats, they rowed on in these, unsteady as they were, and raided a large number of such places; and when they were sated with slaughter, loaded down with a wealth of booty (a part of which they lost through the force of the current) they all came back safe and sound. And the rest of the Germans, on learning of this, abandoned the islands as an unsafe refuge and carried off into the interior their families, their grain, and their rude treasures.'
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,650
Westmorland
There well may, however, have been a few which were quite large, and I`m thinking of Brunaburh as the prime example.
I agree. Brunanburh does seem to have stood out in terms of size and carnage.

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.
Me too. There is mention of Penda's sub-kings, so I'm tempted to think that each sub-king attended with his own warband. If we allow 50-100 per warband, thirty warbands could have amounted to 1,500-3,000 top notch fighting men. A formidable force, albeit one that appears to have been weakened when the Gwynedd men legged it/ peeled off for home before Oswiu could catch up with Penda (depending on which scholar you believe).

That said, even if we are right, we don't know whether the thirty legions meant 'thirty sub-kings owing direct allegiance to Penda' or 'thirty sub-kings including clients of those sub-kings who owed only indirect allegiance to Penda.' In the former case, we might expect that, for example, the king of a big polity such as Gwynedd might have turned up with all of his clients too, making the overall numbers much larger. But I suppose that eearly medieval logistics would have made it hard enough to move a force of 1,500 up to the Firth of Forth and back, let alone anything bigger.