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Ancient armies face-off


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#1 Corinthian

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Posted 17 November 2004 - 2237 PM

IIRC, we had an old thread on this but I forgot when (2 years?) and the discussion.

Anyway, to start, which army would've beaten the sh1t out of the other - Roman legions or Sparta hoplytes?
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#2 Lev

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0025 AM

The spartans were man-for-man better warriors, and in a stand-up fight on level terrain they should wipe the floor with the romans (especially if the roman army is a non-permanent force, eg an expeditionary force during the republic).
But if the romans are under a competent general they will accept battle only on broken/uneven terrain, or from entrenchments, and they would be able to break-up the Spartan formations and waste their army. (They might even be able to secure some decent ancillary cavalry and use that to beat the Spartans, and than use their infantry to mop up the remainders).

[Edited by Lev (18 Nov 2004).]
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#3 Yama

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0104 AM

It's not 'fair' to compare ancient armies from different eras and different cultures and geopolitical situations head-on. In the old days, you couldn't just 'design the army' as you wished, you had to use what you got and develope a system which would suit your culture and society. It's said that feodal armies were quite ineffective and this is true in isolation, but this wasn't result of leaders being stupid (though there were such cases too...), it wasn't possible to have any other sort of armies within the feodal system.

Steppes nomads were ones who enormously benefitted from this situation. Whilst agricultural nations struggled to equip and upkeep any number of cavalry, nomads had all the horses they could ever need and just about every male was a capable horseman by default. This meant that small number of poor nomads could have military and political effect way out of proportion to their number and wealth.

The story goes that when Persians first conquered fertile valleys of Eufrat and Tigris, they were eager to move to there and enjoy their conquest, until their King pointed out that 'soft land produces soft men...and once that happens, we will be next to be conquered'.
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#4 swerve

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0113 AM

There wouldn't be enough Spartans. The Romans could thrash the bulk of the Spartan army, which consisted of relatively poorly trained & disciplined non-Spartan troops (late Spartan armies consisted mainly of helots), & could then afford to throw bodies at the small number of Spartans proper until Sparta ran out of men. The Spartan system produced an elite force, but at the cost of it being very small. Suicidal in the long run, especially as they kept tightening the requirements & the number of eligible Spartans steadily shrank.
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#5 Sardaukar

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0533 AM

If Spartans have faced pre-Scipio Africanus Roman army, they might have had a chance, since it was basicly phalanx vs. phalanx. That was when Roman tactics were called "manipular tactics"..which is basicly phalanx with joints.

Scipio and other Roman generals serving then (by influence of Hannibal) adopted the "echelon tactics", which is how Hannibal encircled the Romans in Cannae. Faced by that, Spartans would only be able to defend in place where terrain prevented them to be encircled. Going to attack Roman army of that era with phalanx tactics was doomed. They'd have been gotten into melee with first echelon of Roman troops and then promptly encirled by second echelon. Spartans lacked that kind of tactical mobility.

If Spartans were against Marius/Sulla/Caesar-type "cohort tactics", where cohorts were able to manouver as independent units instead of "echelons", they'd have mauled Spartans badly. I doubt any Spartan army would be able to maintain cohesion of phalanx fighting line when encuntering quite freely-manouvering Roman cohorts.

But, as others have pointed out, it's very unfair to compare organizations and units from different eras to each other. And, as is also pointed out, Romans had "mass-military", they had almost unlimited amounts of bodies to fill the losses, unlike Sparta or Carthago, who didn't get replacements that easily..or cheaply.

Cheers,

M.S.

[Edited by Sardaukar (18 Nov 2004).]
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#6 Xonitex

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0754 AM

What about Alexander's post-Spartan Macedonian force? Ballistic artillery, catapults, etc...

Did they employ the same Greek phalanx-style tactics?
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#7 Lentzner

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 0824 AM

Spartans are toast in all but most contrived of scenarios. (Assuming a post-phalanx Roman army).

One of the more depressing things about warfare is that the army of individual bad-asses always lose against the army of inferior soldiers with the superior organization. (It makes a better story, at least, if the bad-asses win) Most people assume the opposite and this mistake has been made again and again.

In more recent times (WWII) Ranger units were badly mauled when commanders used them as super-infantry. I'm not saying the Rangers were a weak organization, but going toe-to-toe with other front line units was not playing to their strengths.

That being said, I think the Roman soldier seems to get short changed. The popular notion seems to be of these little Italian guys cowering behind their big shields. My feeling is that they were, man for man, superior to the majority of their opponents AND had the superior organization. AFAIK, they were the only full-time professional army in Europe. This is a huge advantage. I've no doubt they were better trained, more fit, and more disciplined, than any of their challengers and their record reflects this.

Regards,

Matt
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#8 DaveDash

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1036 AM

I agree with most of the posters here.

As for a Alexander type force vs the Romans, well, we saw that when Pyruss attacked the Romans.
Phyruss used a similar force structure to Alexander I believe and while he bet the Romans, it was at great cost and the Roman army really was in its very early days at this point.
The Romans would have problems with the Macedonian cavalry unless they hired some competent cavalry of their own to deal with them, if the Romans could take care of the Macedonian cavalry they would most likely win.

As many people have pointed out, the Phalanx was tough in a front on fight, but as soon as you used it against a force with manouverability or on uneven ground it would fall apart.

One part of the Roman army that is a 'force multiplier' is their Centurians. Because the Romans had professional life time officers like the Centurion it could keep unit cohesion even in the worst of situations.
Caesars 10th and 9th Cohorts (his most experianced) managed to drive off an organised German attack when they were caught off guard setting up camp.
They even persued the German forces across unfavourable terrain and captured THEIR camp, then returned to battle and routed the remaining German forces who were fighting the other cohorts.


[Edited by DaveDash (18 Nov 2004).]
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#9 swerve

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1051 AM

I think there were never more than 10000 Spartan citizens of military age, & by the time Sparta sank into oblivion, the number had declined to about 1000. Mighty good still, but so what? Lentzner's right. A small elite force & a mass of probably rather unwilling serf levies is toast against any half-decent army of reasonable size.
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#10 DaveDash

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1100 AM

An interesting question would be how a Roman army would fare against a medieval army, say the English or French in the 1200s+ ?

The Roman numbers would obviously be huge in comparason, but would they have an answer to a charge of Knights? Longbows?

I imagine once engaged in a melee the better trained and organised Roman forces tear apart the medieval spear/pike/swordsmen, but getting there might be a problem.
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#11 Lentzner

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1247 PM

Originally posted by DaveDash:
An interesting question would be how a Roman army would fare against a medieval army, say the English or French in the 1200s+ ?

The Roman numbers would obviously be huge in comparason, but would they have an answer to a charge of Knights? Longbows?

I imagine once engaged in a melee the better trained and organised Roman forces tear apart the medieval spear/pike/swordsmen, but getting there might be a problem.


The Romans are in a lot of trouble in this case. They have nothing to stand up to a cavalry charge. Their gladii are useless, their pila too short. Armor-wise they are at a big disadvantage. For their time they were the most heavily armored infantry in the world, but compared to a knight or sergeant with full mail or plate they don't match up - both in quality and coverage.

Longbows and crossbows would also be problematic. It is my assertion that heavy infantry cannot exist without adequate missile protection. At ranges of less than 100m I don't think the standard kit will be enough protection. Even against pike formation they would not fare well as these were supported with crossbowmen and halberdiers. Plus, the tactics used by the pike blockswere much more sophisticated than the phalanx even if the weapons weren't.

The only thing going for them would be their numbers. Considering the expense and effort of training and equiping their soldiers, using them as fodder is not a long term viable strategy.

Regards,

Matt
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#12 swerve

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1312 PM

Originally posted by Lentzner:
<snip>
Longbows and crossbows would also be problematic. It is my assertion that heavy infantry cannot exist without adequate missile protection. At ranges of less than 100m I don't think the standard kit will be enough protection. Even against pike formation they would not fare well as these were supported with crossbowmen and halberdiers. Plus, the tactics used by the pike blockswere much more sophisticated than the phalanx even if the weapons weren't.
<snip>


That sounds more 1400s than 1200s, Matt.
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#13 Lentzner

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1403 PM

Originally posted by swerve:
That sounds more 1400s than 1200s, Matt.



I believe he wrote 1200s plus. Posted Image
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#14 Galloglass

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1417 PM

I have always wondered about a Roman (Marius Reformation type) formation duking it out against a Zulu army. Similiar weapons (short, stabbing) and possibly similiar doctrine (maneuver warfare in the form of fast moving {strategically for the impis, tactically for the legions}). Granted, the impi's soldiers had nill for armor, but for their time, they were a sophisticated military organization. The Legions had been beaten by more armored, yet lesser organized opponents in their time, while the Zulus were able to bloody the world's premier fighting force of it's day.
Yes, different eras, but i always wonder about this match up. Any one have thoughts?

Tim
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#15 DaveDash

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1431 PM

Lentzner I agree with you about the Cavalry and missile weapons being a problem for the Romans, but I still believe they could go toe to toe with most Medieval infantry.

The infantry they would be facing would most likely men medieval men-at-arms with chainmail at best, with very poor training and discipline compared to the Romans.

While the Roman armour and steel would be of a poorer quality the stabbing motion of the Gladius would still be quite effective against chainmail, particulary with numerous gaps in ones armour as men-at-arms would have.

I agree though, the Romans would be more like a light infantry force in the Medieval ages and against an fair number of mounted or dismounted Knights they would be toast.
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#16 Lentzner

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1514 PM

Originally posted by DaveDash:
snip

The infantry they would be facing would most likely men medieval men-at-arms with chainmail at best, with very poor training and discipline compared to the Romans.

snip


Medieval infantry was pretty maginalized, but that was because all the combat power was invested in the cavalry. In the time before and after cavalry's dominance the infantry could be pretty well organized. Harold Godwinson's army at Hasting sported a professional body of carls and huscarls who could form a shield wall and were supported by axe weilding shock infantry. Not too shabby. After came the rise of high quality militias.

Originally posted by DaveDash:
snip

While the Roman armour and steel would be of a poorer quality the stabbing motion of the Gladius would still be quite effective against chainmail, particulary with numerous gaps in ones armour as men-at-arms would have.

snip


I'm not sure what gaps you are referring to. One of the major advantages of mail is that it doesn't have gaps, being a flexible metal fabric. As far as defeating the mail directly I don't think the gladius would do well since it is the wrong shape. Mail breaking swords are all tapered over the entire length and very rigid. Honestly, I don't know how stiff the gladius was, but I think it was more of a multipurpose cut and thrust sword than an armor piercer (it didn't need to be).

I think a Roman army could do well in Europe (no horse archers!) up to the end of the Dark Ages (~1000 AD in my book). After that, they just don't have the chops.

Regards,

Matt
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#17 DaveDash

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1526 PM

Lentzner good post, I concur.

My point about chainmail was I was under the impression that Men-At-Arms at best had fairly shoddy mail.

After some thought about the Gladius it would probably be hard to pierce through a good quality chain shirt.
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#18 Tiemler

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 1905 PM

Is there any record of the Romans fighting a barbarian tribe or other adversary who used narcotics extensively in warfare?
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#19 DougRichards

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 2247 PM

Originally posted by Galloglass:
I have always wondered about a Roman (Marius Reformation type) formation duking it out against a Zulu army.  Similiar weapons (short, stabbing) and possibly similiar doctrine (maneuver warfare in the form of fast moving {strategically for the impis, tactically for the legions}).  Granted, the impi's soldiers had nill for armor, but for their time, they were a sophisticated military organization.  The Legions had been beaten by more armored, yet lesser organized opponents in their time, while the Zulus were able to bloody the world's premier fighting force of it's day.
Yes, different eras, but i always wonder about this match up.  Any one have thoughts?

Tim


Tim,

Romans had several major advantages. The first being ARMOUR. A Roman infantryman would be pretty unlucky to get harmed by a Zulu stabbing spear. Most likely damage to a Roman could be if about ten Zulus managed to get him on the ground and simply crushed him to death by jumping on him.

Secondly, a volley of pillum would generally break up at least the first Zulu charge.

Lastly, Roman auxillaries, and artillery, would have connsiderable missile effect on a Zulu impi, without the Zulus being able to hit back.

Zulus vs Brits, Zulus won through suicidal courage - much teh same a Chinese human wave tactics, against a numerically inferior force.

Now, put an equal number of Zulus against a Scottish 1740 highlander force of similar size, and that would be an interesting encounter.
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#20 Yama

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Posted 18 November 2004 - 2304 PM

Originally posted by Lentzner:
I'm not sure what gaps you are referring to. One of the major advantages of mail is that it doesn't have gaps, being a flexible metal fabric. As far as defeating the mail directly I don't think the gladius would do well since it is the wrong shape. Mail breaking swords are all tapered over the entire length and very rigid. Honestly, I don't know how stiff the gladius was, but I think it was more of a multipurpose cut and thrust sword than an armor piercer (it didn't need to be).


Romans had several different models of gladii, adopted as their enemies changed. 'Imperial' Gladius was a straight sword designed to fight mostly unarmoured Germanic tribes. During Republic Era when their main enemies were well-equipped Kelts, their swords were tapered.
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