I am the very model of a modern Major-Gineral / I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral – The Pirates of Penzance
We shipped off into the navy last week, so this week we’ll come back ashore and talk a little about the land militaries of the late Ptolemaic/ early Roman imperial age. Personally (though I hope it isn’t brutally obvious in my prose), I don’t particularly enjoy reading about every last historical battle detail, nor is it one of my favorite parts to write about. But war is a nearly constant threat or reality at this time, so it is too important of a part of any character’s life experience to ignore, and not just queens like Arsinoë or generals like Caesar. With some exceptions to a handful of powerful trading nations, vast armies of well-trained soldiers were the might on which most kingdoms of this period rested. Compromise and negotiation had a place, but usually the best way to defend one’s territories was through warfare, or the threat of it.
To pull our discussion back a little further than the time in question, I thought it might be useful to take a brief look at the armies of ancient Egypt. To examine how its organization forms a sort of bridge between the military styles of Greece and Rome, and those of their Eastern neighbors.
Aside from always possessing a formidable navy on par with the ones we examined last week, the Egyptian armies of the periods before the arrival of the Ptolemies were outfits consisting primarily of a diversified infantry and strong chariotry. Infantry soldiers were divided up into units based on the different weapons they wielded: primarily lances/javelins, spears, and bows.
Aside from these larger projectile weapons, Egyptian soldiers would use a variety of close-combat weapons such as slings, daggers, and the khepesh (or khopesh) – a sickle-shaped small sword (~2ft long) whose curved edge could be used to pull away an opponent’s shield or to hook their sword arm. Only the outside edge (if any) of the khepesh would be sharpened, presumably to be used in a defensive, slashing motion; the inner curved edge being for disarming as described above.
But the backbone of the Egyptian infantry was their archers. In truly ancient times, the Egyptians used bows made of joined antelope horns, with a piece of wood for stability. Eventually wooden bows largely replaced these horn bows, but they never completely disappeared from the army. The Egyptians were dedicated enough bowmen to be equally comfortable with simple bows (made of one piece of wood) and composite bows made of several pieces, or with wood and horn, or wood and animal sinews.
Infantry soldiers often used simple bows because they were less expensive and easier to maintain, while composite bows were laregly reserved for the Egyptian army’s other great military advantage – its charioteers, as seen by Ramses above and below.
Like many chariots of the Bronze Age, ancient Egyptian chariots were lightweight vehicles best designed for the flat, open terrain of their part of North Africa, where their great speed and maneuverability could bring lancers and archers to any part of a battlefield, rather than smashing through lines of enemy infantry. The Egyptians used chariots the way their Eastern allies and opponents used horseback cavalry, to move men and equipment faster than men could on their own. But the decline of chariotry in Egypt coincided with the fall of another famous charioteer-driven army, that of the Persian Empire, whose incredibly effective military would fall to a style of ancient warfare that had a fabled history all its own.
Alexander the Great, as a Macedonian, came from the Greek military tradition, and once he conquered Egypt and afterwards Ptolemy Soter inherited it, they brought Greek-style infantry fighting to the Egyptian army. So that by the time Cleopatra and Arsinoë are fielding armies, it is more of a Greek army with a fondness for archery, rather than an Egyptian army with a fondness for plumed headgear.
The basic unit of the Greek infantry is the hoplite, the foot soldier, wearing linen or bronze armor, and armed with a shield, a sword, and a spear.
I know linen sounds like a terrible thing to make armor out of, but we’re not talking Bed Bath & Beyond here. Linen as a fiber is incredibly puncture-resistant when folded over and glued together in many, tightly pressed layers. This armor, called linothorax by the Greeks, was immensely popular, even over bronze or leather cuirasses because it was cheaper, lighter, and perhaps most importantly to the citizen-hoplite following Alexander over half the ancient world, cooler temperature-wise. Historians and archeologists have done some really neat tests with modern reconstructions of linothorax (necessary because as a biodegradable suit of armor, we don’t have intact ancient examples), and even at point-blank range, the armor can deflect arrow punctures or at least minimize the damage inflicted.
A hoplite’s shield was called an aspis, a round, concave wooden shield covered in bronze on the outer side and leather on the inner. The aspis was exceptional for its handles, called the Argive grip, which placed the shield handles at the edges of the circle, with a leather support strapped around the forearm.
This kept the shield from moving side to side too much when struck, and prevented the hoplite from losing his shield in the middle of a fight. It would remain the shield par excellence until a new military power arrived on the scene and changed ancient warfare forever.
Rather than the charioteers of Egypt and Persian, Greek armies relied on mounted cavalries for their infantry support. The Greeks were considered proficient horsemen, but because the people they were fighting (the Persians and their proto-Iranian counterparts, the Scythians, the proto-Turkish kingdoms, etc) were usually either horse-based nomadic tribes or their descendants, rarely were they going to out-ride their enemies. To counter this, the Greeks developed innovative infantry strategies instead of perfecting their Parthian shots.
What the Greeks brought to a fight was the phalanx. The phalanx was a rectangular infantry formation that allowed them to mass soldiers together to attack without exposing the lines to significant risk of being flanked from behind. The front line of hoplites would lock their shields to protect the soldier next to them, and the line of soldiers behind the front line would point their javelins forward to protect the guys on the front line. As the lines moved forward, each successive line would drop their javelins forward to protect the line in front. This presented a wall of shields and lances that was difficult to penetrate. The phalanx moved at a walk to maintain the formation, which was less effective if gaps in the line appeared through miscoordination, but a well-trained phalanx could sprint its final yards if it wished to try to break apart an enemy’s lines.
All of this relied on the strength of the men in the lines and the discipline of maintaining the phalanx, but it could be an unstoppable force when used correctly. Alexander was a master of this – he could defeat much larger armies with amazingly thin phalanxes because the formation made an army move as a unit that relied on each man in it. The phalanx would be continued to be used throughout antiquity, but it would be largely superseded by the newer strategies of the Roman army, which was more successful than its predecessors at exploiting its weaknesses, mainly in terms of mobility. The Romans built a more agile infantry that excelled in close combat, so one of their most effective techniques against the phalanx was to feign retreats and force the phalanx to chase them. Speed, as discussed above, was more likely to break apart the formation and then the Romans could penetrate the first lines fairly easily.
Arsinoë’s army might have sported Egyptian bows and Greek linothorax, but their opponents, as you see, brought their own ideas to the art of ancient war and it would ultimately be their army that stamped its face over the Western world. The hoplite’s equivalent in the Roman army was the legionary.
The legionary had more equipment than his hoplite counterpart, which mostly reflected the Romans’ embrace of both projectile warfare and close combat. The Roman legionary had a javelin (pilum) and a shield (scutum) like a hoplite, but you can see that Rome favored large, rectangular shields over the aspis. A scutum protected more of a soldier’s body, and the protruding metal umbo could be used to punch out at an attacking enemy, but the aspis was considered more durable, as a scutum was potentially vulnerable to piercing or downward slashing motions.
Additionally, a legionary had a gladius, the Roman infantry sword, and a pugio, the standard military dagger. Incidentally, the pugio was dagger that killed Julius – a side effect of pretty much making all of your adult men do time in the military means that even senators had access to a lot of weapons.
As for armor, there were several styles throughout the history of the Roman army, but the one you’re most likely thinking of is the lorica segmentata, the body armor with the overlapping ferrous strips attached to leather straps and brass hooks. But Roman body armor could also consist of an early form of chain mail (the lorica hamata), or small metal scales (the lorica squamata).
Roman legions were so successful in part because of their greater battle flexibility in comparison to many of their opponents. Early Roman armies used the phalanx same as the Greeks, but eventually they developed their own formations, the basis of which was three lines of troops call a triplex – with greenest infantrymen in front, a line of pilum-wielding specialists behind them, and then the veteran combat soldiers at the back. But the greatest Roman generals were famous for playing with these this basic formation to often devastating effect that wreak havoc on enemy troops attempting to counter them.
A portion of this flexibility also came from the growing ethnic diversity of the Roman military over time. All ancient armies employed mercenaries, particularly ones who possessed certain weapons skills or other tactical knowledge that the native soldiers might lack. But as Rome’s empire expanded, more and more of these traditional mercenaries became Romans and brought their native talents into a permanent home in the legions. By the time of Octavius’ government, Rome had Rhodians and other Greeks for its navy; Egyptians for archers; Scythians and North Africans for its light cavalry; and Germans for its heavy cavalry and spearmen, just to name a few. They also had the smiths of the Iberian peninsula, who produced metalwork and weapons that were often of higher quality and durability to supply their troops.
And there you have it – a small window into military life in the ancient world. As with modern armies, with a wider view one can see how they innovated and adapted to times and circumstances, even when weapons and technology remained more static. As Alexander, and then the Romans, continued expanding the boundaries of what their people considered their world, those changes would continue to shape their warfare as new cultures and their armies would bring their own strength to bear on these new arrivals.
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