on ancient superweapons, pt 2

Last time we looked at some of the more well-known ‘superweapons’ of the ancient classical world: war elephants and scythed chariots. This time we finish our look at ancient superweapons with some of the more inconspicuous and obscure (though still spectacular):

Cataphracts
Used by Heavily-armoured (or ‘fully covered’ in the original Greek), lance-armed cavalry riding large, sometimes armoured, chargers were used by many different armies of the ancient world: most notably the Parthians and Sassanid Persians; the Palmyrenes in the 3rd century; also used occasionally by the Romans (mostly in their later imperial period, as at the Battle of Strasbourg). Used extensively by ancient steppe cultures (Alans, Sarmatians, etc), as well as by the Hellenistic kingdoms of the east (most notably the Seleukids at the Battle of Magnesia).

Pros Could be used as an effective terror weapon (cf. the Battle of Carrhae for a failed attempt). The Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus (25.10-13) describes the awful sight of a line of armoured Persian cataphracts: “all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates… and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye… Of these some, who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would think them held fast by clamps of bronze.” Could be used to charge into enemy formations with devastating results – Plutarch (Crassus, 27.2) describes how the Parthian cataphracts wielding their two-handed lances, thundering forward on their chargers, could skewer two Roman soldiers at once. It is not hard to imagine the terror created by the sheer weight of a cataphract charge, as well as the ensuing panic.

Cons Much like elephants and scythed chariots, terrifying but also ponderously clumsy. The cataphract’s armour gave him superior protection but also made him clumsy, and all but deaf and blind in a swirling cavalry battle. And as was the case in many eastern armies, his armour could tire him out in the hot sun – one Roman nickname for the cataphract was clibanarius or oven-man (after clibanus – camp stove; though scholars dispute whether clibanarius is in fact derived from the Persian grivpanbara, or neck-guard-wearer). The cataphract’s primary weapon, the two-handed lance, could also prove fatally unwieldy in close combat. And so cataphract formations that were not properly supported or had found themselves cut off from supporting formations, could be easily outflanked or surrounded, then destroyed (Battle of Tigranocerta – Appian, Mithridatic Wars 12.84), since their heavy armour negated one of the greatest advantages of the cavalryman – mobility.

How to counter Arrian’s Tactica is a step-by-step guide on how to resist a charge by ‘Scythian’ (ie. Alan) cavalry, presumably including any number of cataphract-style cavalry. Arrian’s instructions recommend drawing up a deep infantry formation bristling with spear points, ready to lock shields and stand ground to receive the enemy charge, but also supporting this formation with loud war cries, missiles and stone-throwing devices. The precise details in Arrian’s instructions, and the fury of the missiles poured onto the advancing foe, suggest that resisting an armoured cavalry charge was no mean feat! Other tactics used by the Romans against cataphracts include engaging them with blunt weapons such as heavy clubs (Zosimus 1.52-53) which would not pierce their armour but could seriously wound the man underneath through blunt force; lightly-armoured Gallic auxiliary cavalrymen at the Battle of Carrhae (Plutarch, Crassus 25.8), confronted with the Parthian cataphracts, resorted to grabbing their enemies’ long lances and yanking them off their horses, or even dismounting and stabbing the enemy horses from underneath, since their heavy armour made it almost impossible to land en effective blow (needless to say this was more the product of desperation than doctrine).

Naval superweapons
Used by The aforementioned Hannibal and the Sicilian Greek inventor Archimedes. Hannibal’s solution to the overwhelming numbers of the Pergamene Navy was to order his men to gather a small hoard of clay pots and fill them with all sorts of venomous snakes (Nepos, Hannibal, 10), which would then be hurled into the enemy ships as their marines prepared to board – no word on how the snakes were collected safely. On the other end of the technological spectrum is Archimedes, who invented two superweapons: the so-called Archimedes’ Claw (Plutarch, Marcellus, 15.2), and what can only be described as a death ray (Lucian, Hippias 2; Anthemius, Machines 153). The Claw is still not entirely understood, though modern experiments have shed some light: a metal hook or claw attached to a stout pole was positioned on the sea walls of Syracuse, and when the Roman ships approached to unload their marines, the hook could be lowered to grab hold of a ship’s prow, pull it up, then suddenly drop it again, injuring the crew or even capsizing the ship. The death ray is still more controversial, and according to the ancient writers consisted of an array of polished metal surfaces angled just right, which could focus sunlight intensely enough to set fire to the Roman ships massing before Syracuse (like a giant magnifying glass). This one seems even harder to believe than the Claw, though modern experiments have shown that the death ray can work, albeit under very specific weather conditions.

Pros Hannibal’s tactic was a last-ditch attempt, and scored a naval victory for cheap, against an overwhelmingly superior foe. Archimedes’ superweapons were again an innovation in the face of overwhelming odds, as the Roman Navy greatly outmatched that of the Syracusans. In both cases the shock factor was a definite advantage, though the situation that called for the use of such tactics was definitely not advantageous.

Cons Very situation-specific, and as well as hard to replicate – one seldom comes across the likes of Hannibal and Archimedes. The snake pots could have easily backfired (snakes do not differentiate between political allegiances in the middle of a melee), while the death ray would not have worked in any but the sunniest of weather.

How to counter Don’t join the Navy.

Pike phalanx
Used by A solid mass of infantry wielding 5-6 metre-long-pikes (sarissas), advancing in ‘loose’ formation (three feet between each man) with pikes levelled; used by most Greek-speaking armies at some point from the 4th century BC till the early 1st century AD: possibly pioneered by the Athenian general Iphikrates but made famous by the Macedonian army under Philip II and his son Alexander; used extensively by the Hellenistic kingdoms, and even possibly by the Kushans (as suggested by one enigmatic coin from the 1st century BC) after they extended their control over the Indo-Greek kingdoms and presumably adopted some of their ways; possibly used by the Romans under Emperor Caracalla (Herodian 4.8), though his ‘Macedonian phalanx’ was probably just an evocatively fancy name for a conventional military unit being sent to fight the Persians.

Pros Powerful psychological weapon – Plutarch describes the sight of an advancing Macedonian phalanx: “the flower of the Macedonians [in] youthful strength and valour, gleaming with gilded armour and fresh scarlet coats… were illumined by the phalanx-lines of the Bronze-shields which issued from the camp behind them and filled the plain with the gleam of iron and the glitter of bronze… the hills, too [were filled] with the tumultuous shouts of their cheering.” (Paullus 18.7-8). Even the Roman general Paullus, one of the most dour and disciplined men of his time, admitted the rumbling wall of spearpoints was a terrifying sight: “when he saw… [their] long spears set at one level… and saw too the strength of their interlocked shields and the fierceness of their onset, amazement and fear took possession of him, and he felt that he had never seen a sight more fearful; often in after times he used to speak of his emotions at that time and of what he saw.” (Paullus 19.2) Practically the pike phalanx was extremely difficult to resist as it advanced, due to the length of the spears; also because the ranks of spears were serried, so that even if enemy troops got past the spearpoint of the first man in the rank, he would face the spears of all the men behind him (Polybius 18.29), one after the other. Savvy generals would use the pike phalanx to ‘pin’ an enemy formation while engaging it in the flanks with cavalry (as Alexander did at the Battle of Hydaspes).

Cons The length of the pikes would not guarantee superiority over enemy formations, particularly if said formations were made of disciplined troops (the Thebans at the Battle of Chaeronea, though they wielded far shorter spears, were able to go toe-to-toe with the Macedonian phalanx for some time). The pike phalanx, much like all the superweapons in this list, was also ponderous and clumsy, and took a rigorous drill to make it even function as a formation: recruits would have to learn to march in step, and perform wheels and turns while raising and leveling their pikes in the heat of battle – only the steadiest of troops could pull this off consistently and efficiently. Fatigued and inexperienced troops, unable to keep in step and wheel and turn with the rest, could well endanger the entire formation. For this reason the pike phalanx required close support on its flanks, without which it was fatally susceptible – as seen at the Battle of Cynoscephalae when the Romans hit the Macedonian phalanx from the rear, and also in the near-collapse of Alexander’s left flank (which had been encircled and hit from behind) at the Battle of Gaugamela. The pike phalanx could also only operate in more or less flat terrain, since any obstacles would ruin the tight cohesion required for the formation to work (Polybius 18.31-32).

How to counter The aforementioned flanking was one way to deal with the pike phalanx. Other times the only way to counter a pike phalanx was to field one of your own – preferably wielding pikes of similar or greater length. The Romans found another way to deal with it however: engage on broken terrain, and outlast it. Polybius (ibid.) notes how the phalanx has a habit of losing its cohesion as it advances, either because of obstacles breaking up the line, or certain sections of the formation advancing at different speeds. Roman troops had engaged the Macedonian phalanx head-on at the Battle of Pydna, and as was usual in these kinds of engagements, had to give ground before the irresistible line of pikes. But as the Romans fell back they noticed the Macedonian line becoming increasingly ragged with gaps (Plutarch, Paullus 20.7) as some elements advanced ahead of the others. At this point the Romans split their line into smaller units, advanced into these gaps and cut the Macedonians to pieces. Polybius notes (ibid.) that in close combat the Roman legionary’s equipment (a large oval shield and cut-and-thrust sword) proved superior to the Macedonian soldier’s light target shield and short sword – the only gear he had once he’d dropped his unwieldy pike.

As noted above, all these ancient superweapons shared several characteristics: the ability to inspire awe and fear, but also clumsiness and over-reliance on precision, as well as (barring Archimedes’ inventions) a helplessness against disciplined troops under the command of shrewd generals.

Ancient battle was occasionally a macabre spectacle, but often enough it was decided by humble soldiers. Sometimes it was a Hollywood-style gore-fest involving spectacular heroes and machines, but more often than not it was won by discipline and quick wits.

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