Pre-Modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying

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“Man does not enter battle to fight, but for victory. He does everything that he can to avoid the first and obtain the second”

–Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, trans. John Greely and Robert Cotton (or. pub. Paris, 1870; trans. edition, New York, 1921), pg. 1.

Of the many books and articles published explaining the tactical mechanics of ancient and medieval warfare, none have influenced my views on the topic more than a short article by Philip Sabin titled “The Face of Roman Battle.” In this article Sabin attempts to draw an accurate description of the way a Roman legion and its maniples actually worked on the battlefield. He is not the only one to attempt this feat. The clearest description of the pre-Marian armies is the account found in the eighteenth book of Polybius’s Histories, and historians have been squabbling over just what Polybius’s rather ambiguous report means for the better part of the last two centuries. I believe that Sabin’s is the best of their efforts. What makes his description so convincing is the building blocks he uses to construct it. Sabin starts his reconstruction with a few general insights about the nature of ancient combat, especially the hand-to-hand sort. His most important insight is this: close combat is absolutely terrifying. When you realize just how terrifying it is much of what we find in the ancient and medieval source starts to make a lot more sense.

Sabin’s case study is the Roman legion. In his essay’s first section Sabin surveys common features of battle narratives preserved in the extant histories and concludes that any description of Roman battle mechanics must be able to explain a few odd features of these accounts to be considered legitimate:

Roman heavy infantry engagements possessed several clear characteristics which must be accounted for by any model of the combat mechanics involved. If not decided at the first clash, the contests often dragged on for an hour or more before one side finally broke and fled. The losers could suffer appalling casualties in the battle itself or in the ensuing pursuit, but the victors rarely suffered more than 5 per cent fatalities even in drawn-out engagements. The fighting lines could shift back and forth over hundreds of yards as one side withdrew or was pushed back by its opponents. Finally, the Romans had a practical system for the passage of lines, and preferred to reinforce or replace tired units with fresh ones rather than maximizing the depth of the initial fighting line. [1]

As Sabin read the ancient accounts he realized that parallels for many features of Roman combat could be found in descriptions of early modern Europe’s bayonet charge:

We know from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century engagements that bayonets caused only a tiny proportion of battle casualties, but bayonet charges do seem to have been decisive in triggering routs. The explanation for this apparent paradox seems to be that cold steel held a unique terror for troops, over and above that caused by the more random and impersonal perils of shot and shell. The morale of opposed infantry formations appears to have been closely interlinked, such that if one side could nerve itself to launch a bayonet charge in the conviction that the enemy would not stand, the enemy did indeed break before contact. Conversely, if mutual deterrence was maintained, then the combat could bog down into a bloody close-range firefight between the opposing lines, often lasting for hours….

There are striking parallels between the psychological role of bayonet charges in modern warfare and the way in which many ancient combats were decided at or before the first shock, with a charge by one side prompting its enemies to take flight at once. Hoplite engagements seem to have been particularly susceptible to such an early resolution, sometimes even producing ‘tearless battles’ when one side fled so soon that it outdistanced any pursuit. Goldsworthy claims that late Republican and early Imperial legionaries exploited their professionalism and esprit de corps by winning similar swift victories against less resolute opponents through a coordinated volley of pila followed by a fierce charge. This chimes exactly with Paddy Griffith’s argument that the disciplined British infantry of the Napoleonic Wars beat the French not through winning prolonged firefights but through a single devastating musket volley followed by a charge with the bayonet. [2]

Why was cold steel a “unique terror” for troops in combat? On the face of it a sword does not seem any more frightening than the cannon-ball. Pop culture portrayals of small imperialist forces putting hordes of backward natives to flight with nothing but gun and powder suggest the opposite conclusion. Images of countless thousands led to the slaughter on the banks of the Somme or hills of Verdun only strengthen the impression. But those men who actually withstood both the bullet and the bayonet overwhelmingly preferred to face the former. A similar preference for arrows and cross-bows shot from afar over spear thrusts and sword strokes closer to home pervades the ancient and medieval sources.

To understand why this was so you must discard Hollywood notions of close combat. This is hard to do, for the notions are much older than Hollywood. The classical Chinese novels Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms speak of warriors who exchange five, ten, twenty, and even fifty “rounds” or “clashes” on the battlefield. The long duels of ancient India’s great war epic, the Mahabharata, are matched only by the extended contests of its Greek counterpart, the Iliad. All of it is poppycock. Ancient battles did not descend into a series of extended melees when the two front lines collided. The silliness of the Hollywood style of battle becomes immediately apparent when you watch sparring competitions that use pre-modern weapons:

As you can see, most close quarter engagements are decided within seconds. To engage in hand to hand combat is to hang your life on a the balance of a few split second decisions. This is terrifying. It is all the more terrifying if the enemy force is as committed and disciplined as your own.  If you survive the first encounter–that is, if you successfully kill the first man who attempts to kill you–there will be another, and then yet another to fill in his place. How long can you keep making instant life-or-death decisions before you make a mistake? The odds are not in your favor. The physical and mental strain of close quarters combat on those in the front lines is simply more than can be borne for any great stretch of time. 

Sabin explains why this is important:

What does all this mean for the many cases in Roman infantry battles where neither side broke at the outset, and the combat turned into a prolonged affair? I suggest that close-range sword dueling between steady bodies of infantry must have been a highly unstable state, and one that would require massive injections of physical and psychological energy either to initiate or to sustain for any length of time. It was clearly only the availability of protective armor and shields that made such duels endurable at all, given their apparent intolerability for the unprotected troops of more modern times. I would argue that there must also have been a more physically and psychologically sustainable ‘default state’ within protracted Roman infantry contests, into which the combatants would naturally relapse if the initial advances by either side failed to trigger an early rout.

We can see such ‘default states’ in a wide variety of other forms of human combat. Anthropological observations of primitive tribes confirm the image in heroic poetry of protracted stand-offs in which individual warriors would move forward to do battle and then retreat into the safety of the supporting mass. Even when lethal weapons are not involved, we can see similar stand-offs between rioting mobs and lines of police, or at an individual level between dueling boxers, who spend much more time circling each other warily and looking for an opening than they do in the actual flurries of blow and counter-blow. I suggest that the default state in protracted Roman infantry combats would have been similar to that between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century infantry, namely a small separation of the two lines so that they could exchange insults and missile fire but were not quite close enough for hand-to-hand dueling. If such a default state existed in Roman infantry clashes, this raises the question of the frequency and duration of actual sword fighting between the opposing lines. Could troops who had closed for such sword play disengage without routing, and re-establish the ‘safety distance’? How long a period of sword fighting was physically and psychologically sustainable before the tension had to be broken either by a reversion to the default stand-off or by the flight of one side? What proportion of the overall length of infantry clashes was spent in sword dueling, and what proportion in sporadic missile exchanges from a short distance away? [3]

Sabin does not believe that “pure missile duel” style of battle, decided by one great final charge at its end, accords with the surviving narrative sources:

 Such a radical image seems to me incompatible with the many references in the literature to true hand-to-hand fighting, and it makes it difficult to explain how one side could ‘push back’ its adversaries during the course of the contest. Hence, unlike in the stalemated firefights of more recent times, I believe that in most Roman battles the lines did sporadically come into contact, as one side or the other surged forward for a brief and localized flurry of hand-to-hand combat. The flurry of combat would end when one side got the worst of the exchange, and its troops would step back to re-impose the ‘safety distance’ while brandishing their weapons to deter immediate enemy pursuit….

The model of Roman infantry combat as a dynamic balance of mutual dread fits the overall characteristics of the phenomenon far better than do the alternative images of a protracted othismos [i.e. a group of massed infantry pressing each forward, hopolite style] or continuous sword dueling. It helps to explain why some clashes were decided at the first onset while others dragged on for hours. It accounts for the relatively low casualties suffered by the victorious army, since periods of close range stand-off would be far less bloody than the equivalent firefights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, given the much lower numbers of missiles available and the fact that the great majority would be blocked by the large infantry shields (cf. Livy 28.2, 28.32-3; Caesar, BGI .26; Josephus, BJ 3. I I2-I4). The model also suggests how one side could gradually ‘push’ another back over distances of hundreds of yards, since if it was always the same side that gave way after the sporadic flurries of hand-to-hand dueling, the accumulation of such small withdrawals would have significant grand tactical impact over time. [4]

But if cold steel was so frightening, why would men engage in close quarters combat at all? Again, Sabin explains:

Why would parts of each line sporadically surge forward into contact? The key individuals would surely be the ‘natural fighters’ and junior leaders, who would encourage a concerted lunge forward to overcome the understandable reluctance among their comrades to be the first to advance into the wall of enemy blades. Roman sub- units such as centuries, maniples, and cohorts offered an ideal basis for such localized charges, whereas tribal warriors would mount less disciplined attacks led by the bolder spirits among them. The many accounts of Roman standard-bearers carrying or flinging their standards towards the enemy to embolden the onslaught of their comrades (as at Pydna and in Caesar’s invasion of Britain) are of obvious relevance in this connection (Plutarch, Aem. 20; Caesar, BG 4.25). Across an overall infantry battlefront many hundreds of yards wide, the back and forth movement of individual sub-units or warrior bands just the crucial few yards to engage in or disengage from hand-to-hand combat would not prejudice the maintenance of the overall line. If such flurries of sword fighting were not quickly decisive, then sheer physical and nervous exhaustion, coupled with the killing or wounding of the key junior leaders who were inspiring their men to engage, would lead the two sides to separate back to the default stand-off. The fact that even phalangites could step back facing the enemy (as at Sellasia) indicates that there was usually sufficient ‘give’ within infantry formations to allow front-rankers to shy away from their adversaries without bumping immediately into the man behind. Indeed, when this flexibility was removed and troops became too closely packed together, thereby hindering their ability to use their weapons properly or to step back from clashes which were not going well, they risked exposing themselves to one-sided slaughter. Something like this clearly happened at Cannae, and it could well be that a key reason why flank and rear attacks were so devastating was not just the psychological shock they caused but the fact that they crowded the victims in on one another, removing their ability to re-establish the ‘safety distance’ and so to recover their cohesion and fighting effectiveness. [5]

Sabin goes on to describe how this model of legionary activity makes sense of the ambiguous descriptions of Rome’s famous maniple system, and why the maniples would be so effective in this style of combat. I encourage those interested in Roman history to read the entire thing. But I hope readers can see how easily Sabin’s insights transfer to the wars of men who lived far from Rome. Not every army in the pre-modern world had maniples, but many had large infantry contingents intended to destroy their enemies in close quarters. The tempo of their battles would have been decided by fear and terror, as it was with the Romans. Sabin’s model of periodic surges of courage temporarily hurling front lines together should be the default image of every mass infantry battle waged in the pre-modern era. 

Other posts on The Scholar’s Stage about pre-modern warfare:

“The Radical Sunzi”
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage (2 January 2015).

ISIS, the Mongols, and the “Return of Ancient Challenges
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage (18 December 2014).

What Edward Luttwak Doesn’t Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of the Han-Xiongnu Wars)” 
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage (4 September 2014).

“Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?”
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage (9 April 2013).

EDIT (27/10/2015 11:00 AM): A reader has pointed out to me that Philip Sabin has recently published a book that fleshes out this model and uses it to analyze the narrative accounts of famous Roman and Greek battles. I have not read it yet, but it looks interesting: Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World.

EDIT (27/10/2015 4:00 PM): Also see my short follow up post to this one: “A Few More Thoughts on the Terrors of Pre-Modern Battle.” 


[1] Philip Sabin, “The Roman Face of Battle,” Journal of Roman Studies 90 (2000), p. 5

[2] Ibid, 13

[3] Ibid, 14

[4] Ibid, 15

[5] Ibid, 16

Leave a Reply to Leo Richard Comerford Cancel reply


I think the difference between the fight above and a massive battle would be the masses. I've spared a few times like the above fight, and usually they do last only a few seconds, yes. However, when you add more people into the fight, things become very different. Your mobility decreases. If you have a shield you may clash shields. We had these massive 5 feet tall shields that were just brutal in large numbers. Fights lasted longer too. Fun stuff, but very different.


Agreed, one on one vs. group fights are not the same. But the general point about the unbearable physical and mental pressure of being within arms length of many people who want to kill you holds true, even if group formations made the exchanges a bit longer than the five or six second long exchanges seen in individual duels.

I don't really see what one-on-one duels between commanders in Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh have to do with your thesis, which is about field battles.

Mr. Greer:

Do you know if there are any detailed eyewitness accounts of how the warriors in the Zulu impis fought it out at the very front? They had no armor but when they fought another indigenous group neither side did and their basic weaponry, assegai and cowhide shield, seems basically the same as a legionaries.

@Anon #1-

Perhaps I just really like Three Kingdoms and can't let an excuse to cite it pass by.

My thesis is that being within arm's length of an armed man who wants to kill you puts such emotional and physical pressure on the soldier in question that this kind of activity cannot be done for long lengths of time. An implication of this is that most pre-modern combat involved brief surges of fighting, not continual and constant battle on the line. Fighting in tight and disciplined formations helped alleviate these pressures, but they cannot not change human nature.

Hollywood regularly depicts ancient battles as starting out in formation but ended up in a scattered mob of duels. Why do they do this? One reason is that the romantic ideal of great warriors exchanging many blows in a long series of duels is one with a long cultural lineage–stretching all the way back to works of classic literature like Outlaws of the Marsh or Three Kingdoms. The majority of these depictions in the Chinese case are of one v. one duels before or far from the main battle (though in Three Kingdoms this is not always true), but this really misses the point. What matters is that the image of the dueling warrior has a long history, and that this literary image has been (ahistorically) injected into modern depictions of ancient battle.

Commanders doing one-on-one battles is historical, and it fits ok; they were on horseback, with long lances, and they had to prove their might in front of everyone.

The field battle scenes though are indeed absurd. You see the heroes hacking their way into the city, killing enemies 5 by 5 while jumping 5 meters high.

Of course the implausible part is not that they can kill enemies 5 by 5. What makes no sense is that the enemies would keep on coming after witnessing that! And they come one by one, just to get hacked in seconds of course.

In reality they must have run away at first seeing the enemy get too close, of course.

I'm just getting to the end of the Shuihuzhuan and the ending makes absolutely no sense to me. 70 heroes dying while fighting Fang La! Zhu Yuanzhang must have tortured him to write that in.

I question, only a tiny bit, the idea that a bayonet charge caused the most amount of fall back and victory only due to the fact close combat is horrifying. While it most certainly would be, a cause to charge comes from the assurance of position, strength in numbers, or other factors that the enemy will simply flee.

In other words, you would only ever order a bayonet charge when the enemy is already showing signs of being broken, or you can/have sufficiently surprised them. Shooting is also time-consuming (relatively) and expensive and had been up until around WWI.

During the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, bayonet charges were ideally devastatingly bad ideas and would have been much worse if the receivers had more munitions. They drew groups of soldiers into pockets of killing zones in the woods, created confusion, broke up enemy formation, and were repulsed with resolute men holding ground. All this and the receivers rarely had bayonets at the onset themselves.

The bayonet charge was considered because of the poor close combat equipment of the Indians and colonists in terms of fighting a mass combat (in which a spear-wall is greatly suited for). The enemy is considered to have poor amount of ammunition and would be ready for flight anyway, and the enemy were REALLY good shots. Bayonet charges for them were more out of desperation than anything else. And despite superior arms and training, they lost.

– – – –

Something else to point out, professional discipline makes quite the difference not just in terms of not fleeing, but charging. A well-oiled and drilled group of men preparing for close combat would cause a great disturbance when they unflinchingly and extremely willingly march straight at you into battle.

Few non-Roman groups would have been so professionally trained as year-round soldiers as their only job. They might have similar equipment, even superior, but the Roman soldiers are full-time soldiers. Their sole purpose of paid existence is to function in an army. Virtually everyone else, even hoplite armies, were made up of part-time men able to part for the season of battle and assemble when called. Or they were made up of men who were raised temporarily for a campaign to be trained for a battle.

Imagine yourself as such a soldier. Psychologically knowing that these men had homes and lives to go back to, many of whom might not even want to really be there. You have wives and family, and land, and farm. You are here for your home. You haven't been fighting much or for very long, your weapons are given to you on loan. You feel strong and confident with them but honestly only because you are used to the plow or the hammer in your workshop.

Now you are assembled with your fellow civilians to fight the Romans. And, dear God, they're marching in complete and total unison! They are grim-faced, they look exactly alike. They are marching and acting like the best of the best of your elites who trained you, and there's thousands and thousands of them.

These Romans are not human. They don't have families. They don't have land. They don't have farms. They don't have other life to return to. They are soldiers, they live and breathe the army. You're just a farmhand with weapons.

So you get ready, you knock your weapon to your shield and open things up for mocking. Here comes the "default state" where both sides get to stand off and … oh shit the Romans aren't stopping for a stand off! They keep marching! They don't care, they're not shouting or getting roused up like we farmers need to get courage to fight! They're just marching closer. They WANT to fight in close combat they WANT to die. Well hell, I want to live!

Very good stuff. It might also be useful to try and quantify the difference in difficulty between defending yourself while standing still, and attacking while moving forward. I would assume the first is much easier than the second; which suggests that those who move forward to attack would be those who were more willing to take risks. It's possible too that in a multi-row front, the soldiers at the back who hadn't yet faced the trauma of hand-to-hand combat were actively driving forward the soldiers on the front line who already had. If I were a Roman general I would put the bloodthirstiest psychopaths in the back row.

The Romans were one of the best military Fighting forces of the times. Roman training lasted several months and went through several phases similar to modern basic training and advanced specialized training again similar to modern military training. Roman military organization is explained in numerous books. For one of the best short explanation can be found on Wikipedia titled "Roman infantry tactics". Obviously it cannot go into the detail of many of the books on the subject but gives a short but concise outline of the subject.

Nope. Modern psychology and pacifism bros, nothing else. Melees took place in medieval times and the text rests them sometimes as natural. Homer gives a different look to battle, so does hedoratus. The Roman time accounts are very formation based, but there are some things odd about it.

The modern era is full of misunderstanding. A post Vietnam society has promoted the concept of perpetual fear and that even wwii vets couldn't fight for seventy five percent of the men, seventy percent fired over the heads of the enemy in Vietnam, and this idea of low casualties and high psychology and fear is an unrealistic lie. They now apply this and supposed low killing with bayonet to mean something crazy, like men not really fighting until the reality of the rout, when they are willing to do more than shoot over heads. The fact is history has been crippled. War in the ancient world is a huge argument, but the fray, the press, the battle, and the melee, according to some texts of the middle ages suggest between formations there was a melee and single combat and the lines were used to deploy. Homer suggesto the same thing. Accounts of ancient world warfare in roman times are short on personal details, but carry small allusions to extraordinary feats which makes one wonder about formations. Other times they clarify with texts that sound like staying in ranks is the only way. But the dangers of penatration don't add up to the final result of nobody willing to leave ranks in the first place. Formations are mysterious, effective defensively, and are idolized. We need to reexamine everything again.

Interesting article – I'll have to read Sabin. Side note: citing a single HEMA sparring video as evidence of how historical fights played out is sketchy at best. As both a modern fencing and sometime HEMA tournament player, I can tell you that "life or death" isn't even close to a concern, and that affects how you play. You can take risks that (in my opinion) youd be unlikely to take in the historical context.

War was and is terrifying. I doubt that infantry assaults at Passchendaele or at the Chemin des Dames were any less terrifying then those of ancient battles. They were, if anything, more revolting in their nauseating repetitiveness and futility. Being burned alive inside a modern tank is hardly better than the battlefield death of a Homeric warrior.
As for the Roman soldiers having no families, it's not entirely correct:
A decisive aspect of formation combat is bonding. A formation is an organism. The stronger the bond among its members, the stronger its collective effectiveness. No wonder perhaps the most legendary formation of ancient times, the Theban Sacred Band, was formed by men who bonded in peaceful life as well as in battle.
In his life of Pelopidas Plutarch describes Philip inspecting the battlefield after the battle of Cheroneia, where the Thebans were annihilated: "when, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the three hundred were lying, all where they had faced the long spears of his phalanx, with their armour, and mingled one with another, he was amazed, and on learning that this was the band of lovers and beloved, burst into tears and said: "Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered anything disgraceful." I may shrug at gay pride parades, but I share his commotion.

I bet that they were terrifying. Hearing the direct accounts of war from people that I know or are related to me depresses me. Just the thought of shooting guy, who is a hundred yards off, sounds horrible to me. I can’t imagine what it was like to actually burst a spear through some poor guy’s chest. Chances are that the guy was recently a peasant who never wanted to fight anyone, and just wanted to be back home with his family.

I can imagine his thoughts, filled with dread, shaking, and nearing pissing himself, dying in the dirt: “Oh shit. Oh shit! I am going to die in this miserable place. I’ll never see my wife and kids…”

Fucking horrible. Chances are, you yourself are that conscripted peasant. There you are, dying for some shithead lord who doesn’t give a fuck about you or your family. Dying young, being told the lie that you’re going with glory. I can only imagine what it would be like for a guy who has asked the deeper questions about life. Even worse for a guy who is afraid to die, perhaps not believing in an afterlife.

I don’t know. I’ve never experienced war. Not in this lifetime. Lots of veterans say that things must be getting better, not having to sacrifice as many lives. Whatever the case, most conflicts are a pointless waste.

Thanks for sharing your post.