What makes hordes of yelling barbarians terrifying even to trained soldiers?

Sep 2013
1,082
Tokyo
I don't think it's the yell its self.

Other factors combine. The physical look of the barbarian to the Roman... Tall and painted. The outlandish armour. The strange unkown language. The different symbols. The numbers.

These won't fight like Greeks or Italics. It will be wave after wave of burly savages. If I'm taken prisoner... I'll not be enslaved or ransomed back. I might be eaten, or given to some dark god.... My head dangling from some champions belt or saddle. Quite overwhelming when your brain is confronted with something dangerous and new.

You'll notice after several major victories the celts hold no terror to the Romans at all. In fact they become something of a joke to the Romans and it's the German and Eastern people that become truly terrorfying. Again because they are unfamiliar and different.
 
Jan 2014
125
Virginia
barbarians

What isn't scary about about barbarians. I do a lot of historical fiction writing, especially about the Roman army. Here is an excert if you are interested.

I stood on the front line facing the enemy. I could hear the general speaking to us.
"Easy boys. Easy." He would say up and down the ranks.
I heard the barbarian battle cry. It was bloodcurdling. They wore practically nothing but shorts, and they had long hair tied back and paint marks on their tunicless chests. I turned to Marcus on my left. He looked frightened and hid behind his shield as best he could.
" Hey,Marcus,I got your back." I told him. He smiled greatfuly.
"Thanks Aelius. Good luck."
"Good luck to you too."
The barbarians surged forwards.
"Ready," The general said. "Steady,....hold your ranks...."
The barbarians came like a battering ram. They pushed against our ranks. Next to me, Marcus tripped just as a barbarian lunged forwards. I thrust my sword between him and the barbarian's Axe. They can break ranks, but they can't break friendships.

I hoped you liked that. I may post the story in parts on my blog.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,386
The Roman armies, for example, were well trained, highly disciplined units, accustomed to certain "rules of war". To be confronted by a screaming hoard of dishevelled maniacs with painted faces was un-nerving, something that they hadn't encountered before. Their generals expected the enemy to play by the same rules as the Romans, but the barbarians didn't. This sowed the seeds of confusion in the minds of the generals, and quickly spread down the chain of command until, despite all of their discipline, the troops turned and ran.
This sort of thing is often said about the Romans, but please realise that men trained and experienced to this peak of mental sturdiness isn't automatic, and certainly wasn't in their day. We have Roman legionaries running away after a night ambush on their camp by Spartacus and his original unruly band on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. We have Marius finally being woken from his slumber, having nodded off under a tree, leaving his army leaderless and on the point of a total rout. We have experienced Roman legionaries refusing to board ships for Britain more than once, based on superstition and rumour of terrible things across the Channel, or reduced in morale because of a thunderstorm i n Germania, again a mix of discomfort and superstition. We have an ancestor of Augustus taking an augury before a naval battle, which indicated a poor result he didn't like. he kicked the birds off the ship in scorn and promptly lost the battle.

In fact, the extent of discipline among Roman legionaries varied enormously, dependent on many factors including the danger of the area they were posted in, the level of military activity, the character of the legionary commanders, and policies of the Roman state. Consider these extracts...

The provincials were accustomed to live with the soldiers, and enjoyed association with them; in fact, many civilians were bound to the soldiers by ties of friendship and marriage, and the soldiers from their long service had come to love their old familiar camps as their very hearths and homes
Histories (Tactitus)
(Regarding Syrian legions)

So by long unfamiliarity with fighting the Roman soldier was reduced to a cowardly condition. For as to all the arts of life, so especially to the business of war, is sloth fatal. It is of the greatest importance for soldiers to experience the ups and downs of fortune, and to take strenuous exercise in the open. The most demoralised of all, however, were the Syrian soldiers, mutinous, disobedient,seldom with their units, straying in front of their prescribed posts, roving about like scouts, tipsy from one noon to the next, unused to carrying even their arms.
Letter to Lucius Verus (Fronto)
 
Apr 2013
1,041
St. Augustine
I have read of the "Rebel Yell" that the Confederate Infantry would use. Granted they were trained and organized as opposed to the Barbarian Hordes, but I'm really amused why Union soldiers would be terrified of this tactic well in fact more dangerous things were taking place like bullets were being fired.
I don't think Union soldiers were terrified by the rebel yell.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,386
Some were. Imagine yourself a young lad recently called to the colours. Away from the farmstead for the first time in your life, given a rifle, a modicum of training, finding out that the reality of the march was different to your ambiguous expectations, and then, one morning, the whole army lines up against the Confederacy across the way. Imagine the mood - some men calm and detemined, others nervous, many simply doing clumsily what they are ordered to do. The reality that this was war and killing was going to break out shortly must be obvious. What will will happen next? You wait... wait... why does nothing happen?.... Some horses gallop by.... NCO's shout orders to form up and officers make short speeches to remain courageous and not to give Johnny Reb any quarter.... Why are we here? Why is this happening to me?

Then comes the rebel yell and hordes of men in grey, sjky blue, and butternut rush foward with bayonets as fusliades of rifle and cannon fire create a crecescendo of of noise and havoc.

Don't know about you, but most people would find that scary.
 

kbear

Ad Honorem
Sep 2010
6,431
this topic reminds me of that scene in braveheart where the scots are painted blue and they run screaming at the english--after they moon them:)they looked pretty scary!
 
Apr 2013
1,041
St. Augustine
Some were...

Then comes the rebel yell and hordes of men in grey, sjky blue, and butternut rush foward with bayonets as fusliades of rifle and cannon fire create a crecescendo of of noise and havoc.

Don't know about you, but most people would find that scary.
Of course some were. And the experience of battle itself is obviously frightening. But the so called "rebel yell" terrifying (that was the term used in the post we're talking about, terrifying) Federal soldiers in general? Nonsense. As the record indicates. Indeed, from very early on the Midwestern Federal soldiers had the bulge on the rebels and came to think of themselves as unwhippable. Hardly the attitude of terrified soldiers.
 

jackydee

Ad Honorem
Jan 2013
4,569
Brigadoon
I think it's all about displaying aggressiveness:maybe an aggressive person is automatically perceived as a threat by our brain, regardless who he is, triggering "fear" as a defensive mechanism.
Mabye this is why I'm more scared by a fat, p###ed off hooligan armed with a metal bar than a soldier fully equipped with a bulletproof vest,grenades and automatic weapons.
Combat by itself is terrifying. I would guess that facing an opponent that does not appear to be terrified by screaming war cries increases that terror.
I agree with this. Fighting is not just about tactics but also nerve. Unless you yourself have a great deal of nerve or confidence then it can be intimidating to fight someone who appears to be up for the battle. Even in street fights today confidence is a big issue. Someone who appears not to be intimidated usually has a reason not to be intimidated. Of course this is not always the case.
 

Yôḥānān

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
3,913
Portugal
I've read on the Battle of Allia and apparently a major cause of defeat was the fact that the Gauls were yelling out terrifying war screams that played a major role in breaking the Roman Phalanx.



However this was before the Marian reforms and was at a time when the Romans were farmer-soldiers so this did not surprise me.



However I also read years after the Marian reforms, when the Roman Legions were confronted with the Gauls and other "Barbarians" there are descriptions of Roman soldiers shaking in fear at the initial phases of the battle when the Barbarians were yelling out their fierce war cries.



In some cases Roman Legions were paralyzed according to various stuff on the internet that they cannot move or maintain ranks.



I am curious what makes hordes of screaming Barbarians so scary to even train soldiers like the Romans? Modern military standards would consider the thoughts of fearing an enemy force simply because it screams and yells so much as a mark of poor discipline!


Its not just Ancient Warfare. I have read of the "Rebel Yell" that the Confederate Infantry would use. Granted they were trained and organized as opposed to the Barbarian Hordes, but I'm really amused why Union soldiers would be terrified of this tactic well in fact more dangerous things were taking place like bullets were being fired.

So what make warscreams so scary that they could lower morale and even make entire units collapse?

There were probably other factors besides the yells. Because the Romans did not loose all the battles against yelling Barbarians nor did other armies at other times.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,386
Of course some were. And the experience of battle itself is obviously frightening. But the so called "rebel yell" terrifying (that was the term used in the post we're talking about, terrifying) Federal soldiers in general? Nonsense. As the record indicates. Indeed, from very early on the Midwestern Federal soldiers had the bulge on the rebels and came to think of themselves as unwhippable. Hardly the attitude of terrified soldiers.
As a whole perhaps, although you're quoting a generalisation as a specific quality attributed to all, which is using period evidence to reinforce an assumption. When dealing with masses of humanity, you have to allow for the 'bell curve'. Sure, given the high morale of the Union troops involved there must have been a great deal of confidence in battle, but we cannot presume that every Union soldier felt so. We know how stress affected their leaders for instance. However, the attitude of soldiers who remained in the line and survived is not the same as those staring wide eyed as the enemy rush to meet them. In point of fact, what testimony do we have from deserters?

The Rebel yell however was not entirely a means of frightening the enemy alone - it was also a morale boost to those taking part in it. In any case, noise is one means we use to intimdate the enemy. Note how football crowds chant slogans aggressively when on the point of rioting, or that many human individual confrontations begin with posturing and threats. It can work too - most of us aren't particularly aggressive in nature and a sudden outburst of threatening noise can make us back off.

A few weeks ago I was accosted by a christian missionary handing out leaflets. I get bothered by thise idiots quite often, and seeing him bound across the street with a big grin made me see red. I yelled at him "How many times do you have have to be told? NO!". Having lost my temper, my demeanour was too aggressive for his sensibilities, and yes, he backed off real quick.

After all, they say the best way to fend off a bear attack is to wave your arms and make a loud shouting noise.