Intensity and Duration of fighting in Ancient & Medieval Battles

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,160
Sydney
I've been in a few bar fight ,
being flanked means your ass is toast and it's time to make a swift movement backward and let the next sucker deal with it
if there was a line of guys the result would be like a zipper giving way
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,708
A bit of perspective on this... Quite often the best troops (elite units) were kept back and only engaged to either obtain a decisive advantage (e.g. break the ennemy line) or stop an ennemy penetration... (e.g Napoleon's old guard)... The thinking was that the elite was too valuable to be subjected to needless casualties early on... Also a set back of the elite would often send the whole army running...
More often the best warriors were sent in first starting with warbands and then chariots up to the appearance of heavy infantry but it is true if that didn't happen most of the time they were held in reserve. I can't think of any organized system which sent in the best warriors haphazardly in some random way.

The leader's retinue was often the reserve such as it was but having actual tactical reserves to be deployed at the right moment usually only occurred when two relatively well-organized forces were fighting because these battles had the potential to last longer than the typical skirmish that more often characterized most fights in human history.

The prevalence of cavalry on battlefields made holding a reserve more practical as holding back the best infantry as a reserve was rarely practical as by the time they were useful the battle was already decided. Cavalry reserve could make a much quicker and decisive impact and that also flattered the ideals of a warrior elite where the best/richest warriors could swoop in and conclude a battle. Not that infantry were never used as reserves even in the era of melee battles (vs more modern gun armed soldiers) but it was comparatively rare. Hannibal vs Scipio, Varangian Guard, some battles between Greeks- probably more that aren't well documented but by and large not committing a large group of the best soldiers into the initial fight only made sense when the fighters were all relatively close in ability.
 
Mar 2018
837
UK
holding back the best infantry as a reserve was rarely practical as by the time they were useful the battle was already decided.
I mean, the Romans during the manipular legions held back the best infantry in the third line. It can't have been that impractical.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
I mean, the Romans during the manipular legions held back the best infantry in the third line. It can't have been that impractical.
I'm not sure I'd say the triarii were the *best*--they were the oldest and most experienced, but presumably they were considered to be past their prime for hand-to-hand combat. What they were good for was staying power, hence their position in the rear.

It does seem a little unusual that the Romans had their youngest and least experienced troops in the first line, but I guess they figured their youthful energy and aggression was worth it. After all, modern armies have no qualms about putting fresh green troops in the front lines, while older ones get promoted to other tasks.

Matthew
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,635
Westmorland
It does seem a little unusual that the Romans had their youngest and least experienced troops in the first line, but I guess they figured their youthful energy and aggression was worth it. After all, modern armies have no qualms about putting fresh green troops in the front lines, while older ones get promoted to other tasks.
I suspect this was also about morale too. It's harder for inexperienced troops to turn and bolt when the old sweats have not bolted and are standing right behind them.

The pike sergeants of the age of horse and musket filled much the same role.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
I suspect this was also about morale too. It's harder for inexperienced troops to turn and bolt when the old sweats have not bolted and are standing right behind them.

The pike sergeants of the age of horse and musket filled much the same role.
Yes, very much the same function as Greek file closers. With the difference that the triarii could open up to *allow* the first two lines to retreat behind them, then the whole army could pull back in good order. Which means that the Romans actually prepared to lose a battle without the usual highly destructive rout!

Matthew
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,708
I mean, the Romans during the manipular legions held back the best infantry in the third line. It can't have been that impractical.
Triarii weren't the best infantry and I wouldn't necessarily think of them as a reserve how it is usually used today but since they were regularly held back from battle and only committed if the fight was going badly they could be a partial reserve. Reserves in the full sense would be committed to battle where needed- not necessarily to hold the enemy off as a last resort but to deliver the crushing blow, hold in a particular place in the line, etc.

Romans were fairly unique in the way they fought so far as we know since not many other cultures have their military systems so well recorded and even lots of mystery in what the Romans did.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,635
Westmorland
Which means that the Romans actually prepared to lose a battle without the usual highly destructive rout!
Makes sense. Presumaby most casualties would be inflicted in the turkey shoot which followed one side breaking and running? If you had a plan to get out in good order, you can live to fight another day.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,181
Italy, Lago Maggiore
When the Romans left the phalanx [the early Roman army was based on that formation as well], overall because of irregular terrain and new enemies in Central Italy, they planned a different formation [the manipular legion] and they thought to a different way to fight. First of all they organized the ranks no more about census, but about age and experience. Before of the regular infantry [the core of the legion] they put ranks of "velites" [substantially a mobile light infantry] with the purpose to annoy the enemies, using slings, jewel ... they had to make it difficult to the opponents to follow the moves of the Roman heavy infantry. Once their disturbing action ended they run behind the maniples.

The proper maniples had composed by hastati [who begun the battle], the principes and the triarii. Cavalry was on the sides.

Livius, in Ab Urbe Condita, described how the manipual legion fought. It was something progressive: if the hastati were winning the other ranks advanced, if they were losing they went back to join the principes. In the meanwhile, in case things were getting worse, the triarii built a kind of wall of spears to cover the possible final withdrawal. The Latins had even a proverbial expression which meant to be in bad conditions [really bad conditions] : "Res ad Triarios rediit " - "To be reduced to the triarii".