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Ancient Armor and Battle Tactics, Research Paper Example

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Any effort to pursue the campaigns and battles and to understand ancient Western military tactics and general strategy would be fraught with difficulties without a basic understanding of the Imperial military forces. As an organization, it was unacceptable to become a rigid structure incapable of change and adopting new ideas – a serious fault often found in most other military organizations. The reason for this is just that Rome was hardly ever peaceful: somewhere along the great stretch of frontiers, there were hostile elements got watched and engaged. In some areas, the pax Romana may have extended over several generations, but such was the diversity of the enemy that tacticians were always concerned with methods of dealing with new threats[1]. The military was always in a state of constant changenot for the best. On occasions, a decline set in and softness and negligence became widespread, so that strong leaders forced to re-forge the rusty weapons, bring in new blood and develop fresh ideas.

In the middle of the first century AD, the military of Rome was still pursuing a policy of aggression and attack[2]. The idea of a limited frontier with a highly organized defensive vicinity was yet in the future. It was a convinced body preferring always to engage in open combat, rather than to take up strong positions of defense. The training and discipline, the superb equipment, high morale and innate sense of destiny made it superior to any Celtic force, even with ten times the number of men[3]. It is basically the difference between the professional and the amateur. The Britons were no mean fighters, but they casted in the heroic mould, not far removed from Homer’s warriors of ancient Troy[4]. To the Celts, according to Neil Grant, fighting was a necessary ingredient of manhood and initiation into it decided by individual combat[5]. Two chosen warriors like Hector and Achilles, who fought it out while both armies watched, like the enthusiastic and highly strung football supporters of today, sometimes decided tribal disputes. Where the two armies differed so much, is that, once the battle engaged, the Britons committed to a prearranged course of action. Richard A. Gabriel suggests that the Romans, in strike contrast, trained to change their tactics by disengaging units, moving them about, altering the balance of strength in the front line and developing intricate maneuvers, feinting here, pressing there or enveloping a flank[6]. They had tactical drill books and a highly organized signaling system[7]. The troops disciplined and trained to obey instantly and move into new positions. Thus, the Roman officers could control the course of a battle; they never allowed becoming a set piece, which could only develop into a slogging match. This is why repeatedly the Romans engaged a barbarian horde many times their number and carved it into separated parts, which they could annihilate with skilled precision[8].

However, the Britons had their successes too, not by attempting open pitched battles, for they soon discovered they had an edge on the Romans when it came to guerilla tactics on their own terrain. As Graham Webster points out, in thick woodlands, the Romans were deprived of the use of their cavalry to search out the enemy and rout small groups[9]. In their own forests and marshes, which the Britons knew so well, they could take the Romans by surprise, create havoc and casualties, then melt away and vanish as suddenly as they had appeared[10]. When they pursued these tactics, the Britons were successful. In the difficult country west of the Severn, they frustrated Roman attempts to control and caused such heavy losses that in AD 54 the Roman government under Nero thought seriously of giving up Britain altogether[11]. Had the Britons persisted with these tactics, they might have achieved their aim of forcing Rome to withdraw from the Province. They kept hoping, however, that sheer Wright of numbers could cower and crush the small Roman forces – only to fail catastrophically[12].

Before considering strategy tactics in detail, it is essential to give a brief review of the organization of the military. At that time, the main fighting strength rested with the legions. As Edward Luttwak suggests, originally, it was a citizen military and one still had to be a Roman citizen to join, with the officers grades largely recruited from Italy[13]. However, by the middle of the first century AD it had become the practice to recruit tough barbarians from the frontier areas to fill the ranks, enrolling them as citizens when they took the oath, even though they could hardly speak a word of Latin. All Roman units organized on a milliary or quingenary basis, i.e., 1,000 or 500 strong, although the actual number established at a somewhat lower figure[14].

Thus, one has to think of the legion as ten cohorts, nine of which were quingeni and one milliarius, which was the first cohort of handpicked, seasoned men, the core of the legion. Each of the nine normal cohorts consisted of six centuries of 80 men, led by a centurion, but the first had five double centuries commanded by centurions of senior rank[15]. The chief centurion was the primus pilus, a much-coveted position, which raised the holder automatically into equestrian status after a year in this position; thereafter-lucrative positions were open to him in the higher ranks of the military and in the Imperial civil service[16]. A simplified view of the internal arrangements of the legion would truly be misleading as it was extremely complicated and is only partially understood[17]. The legionaries normally retired after fifteen years’ service, but this was a rather irregular procedure at this time. Centurions never retired but went on in service until they died – except the primipilares who went on to higher office[18].

In his remarkable study on Imperial Roman Legionary, Ross Cowan noted that the senior officers were the commander and the six tribunes, five of equestrian rank and a senator designate, acting mainly in legal and administrative roles[19]. It is difficult to understand a system in which the military and civil functions are so interlocked[20]. It is as if today’s politicians and company directors had to spend part of their careers as senior military officers (as indeed some successfully did in wartime). Normal Roman practice was for members of the senatorial order to take command, not only in the military, but also as provincial governors[21]. Those of the equestrian order, i.e. the knightly class, had similar careers, but in lower grades. Obviously, individuals vary greatly in their abilities and capacities[22]. Thus, those who failed vanished into obscurity and those grew in office given greater responsibility according to their particular talents. Provincial governors and legionary commanders were selected with great care[23]. When a province faced serious threats from attack or revolt, an experienced general with a well-proven record sent to deal with it. If, however, a province was in financial difficulties or tribes needed pacification and reorganization a very different person chose[24]. Occasionally, they committed mistakes. One of the worst was when Augustus sent Varus to Germany to integrate the legal system into the Roman pattern[25]. He had not imagined that the governor faced with such a serious frontier situation, which led him into a trap with the loss of three legions. Augustus deeply affected by this tragedy since the mistake had clearly been his alone.

The legions bore the brunt of the fighting, especially in a set-piece engagement and the men were well equipped for this tough hand-to-hand warfare. They all wore body armor arranged in horizontal strips, which were strong, and flexible, allowing full arm movement and it strengthened on the shoulders with extra curved strips. They had stylish helmets, which also covered the neck and cheeks. They could take sword blows aimed from above as well as front the front and back, but their legs were unprotected, since any weight here would have prevented rapid movement and tired them on long marches. However, the chief protection came from the large shield, curved to fit the whole of the left side of the body from chin to knee. The edges were bound in metal but the shield itself was made of thin sheets of wood glued together with cross grain, somewhat like plywood; the front was covered with red leather and decorated with bronze mounts in the form of stylized thunderbolts and flashes of lightning, the emblems of Jupiter, the senior Roman deity. Every man had two javelins, each seven feet long, with a wooden shaft and iron shank and hardened tip. These normally threw in two volleys at the advancing enemy, and designed to penetrate the enemy shields, so that in the heat of the moment they casted aside.

It was only at this point that the legionaries drew their short swords, carried high up on the right-hand side for ease of withdrawal and to not impede the shield side. They closed formation into a line of tight wedges, brought their shields close into their bodies, then suddenly and violently projected themselves into the enemy mass, pushing forward with the heavy metal shield boss and using the sword like a bayonet, thrusting and turning into the soft parts of the bodies. With this rapid forward thrust and by their very weight, they carved their way through the enemy ranks, driving them bank against one another, packing the Celtic warriors so tightly together that they could not use their long swords. For the legionaries did not need space to continue their instant butchery, but pushed forward eagerly trampling over the falling bodies with their heavy hobnail boots. These brutal, but effective tactics go a long way to explain the success of legions against greatest numbers.

Raffaele D’Amato, an experienced researcher of the ancient world, suggests that the advent of metals technology did not greatly affect the weaponry of warfare[26]. The most significant impact was its contribution not to offensive weapons, but to defensive systems. The development of protective body and head armor had a tremendous impact on battle tactics, and the growth of new metal weapons represented an attempt to thwart the effectiveness of defensive armor[27]. Metals technology, early on, did permit the introduction of two important new weapons, the penetrating socket axe and the sickle sword, whose effectiveness depended directly upon the ability to cast metal into required shapes[28]. Neither weapon revolutionized warfare on any significant scale. Certainly the principal and revolutionary weapons of the metals age, the composite bow and the chariot, did not depend upon metals technology at all.

Yigael Yadin suggests that the first recorded instance of body armor found on the Stele of Vultures in ancient Sumer, which shows Eannatum’s soldiers wearing leather cloaks on which are sewn spine metal disks[29]. The disks do not seem arranged in any specific order, and one does not know if the disks were made of copper or bronze. By 2100 B.C., the conquest stele of Naram Sin appears to show plate armor, and it is likely that plate armor had been in wide use for a few hundred years[30]. Plate armor was made of thin bronze plates sewn to a leather shirt or jerkin[31]. The plates themselves were 2mm thick and had somewhat raised spines to allow them to hang correctly[32]. This type of armor became standard protection for the soldiers of Egypt in the New Kingdom (1600-1000 B.C.). The rise of the new iron military of Assyria saw the development of a new and more effective form of body armor called lamellar armor[33]. Assyrian armor was comprised of a shirt constructed of laminated layers of leather sewn or glued together. To the outer surface of this coat were attached fitted iron-plates, each plate connects with the next at the edge and not partly covered and held in place by stitching or gluing. A general estimate of the weight of this armor is thirty pounds[34].

By the time of classical Greece and ancient Rome (600 B.C.), armor had changed considerably. Instead of laminated leather and iron plates, the Greeks and early Romans introduced the cast bell muscular cuirass (lorica, thorax, statos) made of bronze[35]. This form of armor is in stark contrast with Assyrian, Egyptian and Sumerian armor and represents a very new type of armor[36]. The cuirass weighed about twenty-five pounds, was hot and uncomfortable, and slowed movement[37]. By the third century B.C., the bell cuirass had given way in Greece to the linen cuirass. Constructed of strips of linen glued and sewn together in lamellar fashion, it was cheaper, more flexible, and lighter than the bronze cuirass[38].

The third century B.C. saw the introduction of iron chain mail, probably invented by the Celts[39]. A shirt of mail weighed about thirty pounds, but was much easier to make in quantity than cast bronze armor. The Romans adopted the chain mail armor for their own troops, and the mail shirt remained the basic armor of the Roman infantryman until the first half of the first century B.C. By the first century A.D., the Roman military was equipped with laminated leather armor that provided sufficient protection against the tribal armies that they encountered most. Perhaps the ultimate body armor appeared all at once, the lorica segmentata. It was made of plates of thin sheet steel riveted to leather plates held together by straps and a series of buckles and locks. At twenty pounds, it was considerably lighter than the traditional chain mail[40].

Finally, to question the validity of battle tactics does not mean to nullify the role of weapons. They help to define the nature and shape of war, and thus how humans behave in their environment. They can even be influential in winning wars and transforming societies. However, the relationships with technology, especially with military technology, are not always straightforward, but sometimes quite irrational. As a result, new weapons are not always superior to older ones, they used in a single fashion, and they cannot fully explain either why societies change or why they change in the ways that they do.

 

 

Bibliography

Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Conteneau, Georges. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria. London: Edward Arnold, 1954.

Cowan, Ross. Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161-284. United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing, 2003.

D’Amato, Raffaele. Roman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late Empire. United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing, 2012.

Ferrill, A. The Fall of the Roman Empire: the Military Explanation. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

Gabriel, Richard A. Soldiers’ lives through history: The Ancient World. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Grant, Neil. Everyday Life of the Celts. United States: Black Rabbit Books, 2004.

Luttwak, Edward. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University, 1979.

McWhiney, Grady and Perry D. Jamieson. Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984.

Webster, Graham. The Roman Invason of Britain. London: Routledge, 2003.

Weir, William. 50 Weapons that Changed Warfare. Franklin Lakes , NJ: Career Press, 2005.

Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in Light of Archaeology, 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

[1] A. Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire: the Military Explanation (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), p. 164.

[2] Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1984), p. 174.

[3] McWhiney and Jamieson, p. 174.

[4] William Weir, 50 Weapons that Changed Warfare (Franklin Lakes , NJ: Career Press, 2005), p. 36.

[5] Neil Grant, Everyday Life of the Celts (Black Rabbit Books, 2004), p. 20.

[6] Richard A. Gabriel, Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Ancient World (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), p. 265.

[7] Gabriel, p. 266.

[8] Gabriel, p. 267.

[9] Graham Webster, The Roman Invason of Britain (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 37.

[10] Webster, p. 37.

[11] Webster, p. 38.

[12] Webster, p. 38.

[13] Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 67-69.

[14] Luttwak, p. 68.

[15] Luttwak, p. 69.

[16] Luttwak, p. 70.

[17] Luttwak, p. 70.

[18] Luttwak, p. 70.

[19] Ross Cowan, Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161-284 (United Kingdom: Osprey Publishing, 2003), p. 17.

[20] Cowan, p. 17.

[21] Cowan, p. 18.

[22] Cowan, p. 18.

[23] Cowan, p. 19.

[24] Cowan, p. 20.

[25] Webster, The Roman Invason of Britain, p. 112.

[26] Raffaele D’Amato, Roman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late Empire (UK: Osprey Publishing, 2012), p. 33

[27] D’Amato, p. 33.

[28] D’Amato, p. 34.

[29] Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in Light of Archaeology, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), vol. 1, p. 135.

[30] Yadin, p. 197.

[31] Yadin, p. 197.

[32] Yadin, p. 197.

[33] Georges Conteneau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (London: Edward Arnold, 1954), p. 44.

[34] Conteneau, p. 44.

[35] Peter Connolly, Greece and Rome at War (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981),  p. 58.

[36] Connolly,  p. 58.

[37] Connolly,  p. 58.

[38] Connolly, p. 58.

[39] Connolly, p. 230.

[40] Connolly, 231.

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