on ancient superweapons, pt 1

Hollywood and TV like to portray ancient warfare as an orgy of oiled muscles, whirling blades and decapitations. While it sometimes was like that, it was usually much more mundane. Prof. P Sabin likened the mechanics of the average ancient battle to a modern riot – opposing sides often stood at a distance hurling war cries (and missiles) at each other, and only closed distance when one side was sufficiently psyched to advance. Fear was often your greatest weapon. Ideally one side would stand down and retreat without even having to come to blows (though this rarely happened in large battles involving hundreds of thousands of men).

Ancient battles often followed very specific rhythms and patterns: one notices that the winning side almost always comes off far more lightly than the losing side. While some of this is definitely self-aggrandisement by the victors, its oddly frequent recurrence suggests that it might’ve been more than just bluff and bluster. Ancient warfare in the eastern Mediterranean was often decided by a clash of infantry – casualties would’ve been quite light while the two lines pushed and jabbed at each other, especially since most infantrymen were protected by a shield and some form of armour. Truly hideous casualty rates would’ve come into play however when one side broke and ran, and was pursued by the victors (who often sent in cavalry just for this purpose). Most men died during this chase – the side that held its ground was spared this.

But sometimes one comes across some very odd parts of ancient warfare that suggest that the balls-out-crazy Hollywood oil-fests aren’t too far off the mark: while most ancient battles involved two lines of simple men who really didn’t want to be there, some of them were morbidly fun thanks to some truly strange ancient ‘superweapons’ (fun for us, that is – those involved would not have found it fun at all):

War elephants
Used by Most famously the Carthaginian general Hannibal; also by the ancient Persians (the Achaemenids at the Battle of Gaugamela, also the Sassanids); the ancient Indians (Battle of Hydaspes and others); the Hellenistic kings (notably Pyrrhus of Epirus, but also the kings of the Bactrians, and the Ptolemies and Seleukids at the Battle of Raphia); occasionally by the Romans (during the AD43 invasion of Britain, possibly also by Caesar during his escapades in Britain)

Pros Large and terrifying (especially it seems to the Celts, as at the so-called Elephant Battle and the invasion of Britain, though this could be just a trope), make plenty of noise (trumpeting and roaring, though oddly their footfalls are quite soft). Often used as terror weapons, though they could charge into enemy lines and cause horrible damage, trampling and goring with their tusks; could be fitted with armour (also tusks sheathed with metal) for added intimidation. Often quite useful against cavalry (horses find their smell unsettling); could also carry teams of soldiers on their backs – Hellenistic war elephants often carried a soldier with a pike, and/or soldiers with javelins and bows.

Cons Could not carry out any manoeuvre more complex than a straightforward charge; could be maddened quite easily by the noise of battle, the death of its mahout (driver), or by wounds suffered in battle; maddened elephants could sometimes be an asset, causing even further damage to enemy lines, but alarmingly often they would turn tail and charge right back into friendly lines. Also were a logistical nightmare: consumed an unimaginable amount of fodder every day, and were very difficult to transport. Most of Hannibal’s elephants died of the cold during his trek across the Alps. Their mahouts were specialists as well, and hard to replace.

How to counter Several notable tactics include blowing loud trumpets at them, and opening wide lanes in your formations to allow them to harmlessly pass through (both done by the Romans at the Battle of Zama); nimble troops such as javelineers and light cavalry could also annoy them enough with missiles to drive them away; also the creative use of pigs (elephants are unnerved by their squeals), such as dangling a terrified pig from a city wall to drive away a siege elephant (Siege of Edessa), or dousing pigs in oil, setting them alight and driving them toward a line of war elephants (Siege of Megara).

Scythed chariots
Used by Heavy chariots fitted with curved and/or serrated blades on their wheels were used mainly by armies of the east: the Achaemenid Persians, also the Hellenistic kingdoms of the east (Seleucids, Pontus), and the ancient Chinese; possibly also by the ancient Britons during the AD43 Roman invasion, though the only proof we have comes from a Roman source (no archaeological or artistic evidence).

Pros Absolutely terrifying weapon when it makes contact with a formation of men: the Roman writer Lucretius (iii.642) notes how scythed chariots could slice limbs clean off without the unfortunate victim even noticing, until he saw with his own eyes the writhing thing on the ground, or how one soldier lost his shield and his entire left arm without even knowing it, while his comrade tried to get off the ground on one leg, the other lying in a pool of blood. The writer Appian (Mithridatic Wars, 17) notes how scythed chariots had a habit of catching errant limbs on their wheels, or else cutting men clean in half or mangling them. It was the terror this created, he said, rather than any practical use, which made it such an effective weapon.

Cons Much like war elephants, clumsy and hard to manoeuvre (scythed chariots were often pulled by a team of four horses), only really usable in flat terrain; also often a bad investment, since the chariots, their blades and/or their teams of horses (which were very expensive) would often get ruined in the course of battle, even if it were a victory.

How to counter Disciplined troops often had little trouble with them; at the Battle of Gaugamela, the Macedonians threw the Persian chariots into turmoil by beating their shields and spears together and frightening the horses with the noise; another Macedonian tactic at Gaugamela was to simply open wide lanes to let the Persian chariots plow harmlessly through, where they were quickly dispatched by waiting soldiers; at the Battle of Chaeronea the Roman general Sulla countered the scythed chariots of Pontus simply by engaging them in broken terrain – while the chariots floundered about the Roman troops jeered and clapped, and called for more, as one would do at the circus (Plutarch, Sulla, 21.3). When the Pontic chariots finally closed, the Romans retreated behind a line of stakes driven into the ground, rendering the chariots once again helpless.

Next time we’ll look at super-heavy armoured cavalrymen, weapons of mass destruction, and others.

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