Author Topic: Classification of infantry - the return of the revenge of the extra medium foot!  (Read 6819 times)

Justin Swanton

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We do seem to have agreed that reasonably well-protected infantry could advance up to contact with archers who would have to melee them or run for it. Does that help with the classification process of the thread?
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DougM

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No. We don't. We have entirely insufficient information. We don't even know whether the archers in this case were mounted or on foot.
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nikgaukroger

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The complicated drill involving the direct involvement of the general was not attested by the sources.  Many thanks for the clarification.

Not attested, but I think suggested; it is not actually that complicated, as it is intuitive and simply relies on speeding up after each volley to throw off the archers' aim, which seems a more rational approach in very hot weather than a flat-rate two-hundred-yard dash.  Julian would have trained his troops to it beforehand, not in mid-battle.  Anyway, make of it what you will.

I don't think that the detail you originally posted (as if it were attested) is even suggested to be honest. Is there even anything to suggest that the Persian shooting was by volley?
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DougM

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All we have is that Roman foot were told to move  quickly to cut down the time they would be getting hit by Persian archery.

Everything else is conjecture. So for example I could postulate that the Roman infantry arrived for combat tired and disorganised by running,  so it was lucky there were only small numbers of archers.
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Justin Swanton

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What we do have at least is that the drill of the Romans and Greeks (and others like mounted or dismounted French during the 100 years war) was to advance against a line of archers and melee with them, though there is an article/forum post somewhere to the effect that punctuating a line of English longbowmen with men-at-arms would naturally funnel the advancing infantry towards the men-at-arms. Might that have happened in Antiquity?
« Last Edit: September 09, 2019, 07:44:58 AM by Justin Swanton »
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Patrick Waterson

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No. We don't. We have entirely insufficient information. We don't even know whether the archers in this case were mounted or on foot.

We can resolve this one.  Let us take a look at Ammianus' account of this battle, as he provides some helpful clues and helpful context (and a couple of enigmas).

The background:

Leaving this place as well, the whole army had come to a district called Maranga, when near daybreak a huge force of Persians appeared with Merena, general of their cavalry, two sons of the king, and many other magnates. - XXV.1.11

So the Persian force is under a general of cavalry, which suggests a significanty cavalry component, although Ammianus nowhere explicitly identifies any of the Persian soldiery as cavalry.  We read on.

Moreover, all the companies were clad in iron (erant autem omnes catervae ferratae), and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skilfully fitted to their heads, that, since their entire bodies were plated with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings fitted to the circle of the eye, or where through the tips of their noses they were able to get a little breath.  - XXV.1.12

Was the entire army composed of cataphracts?

Of these some, who were armed with pikes (quorum pars contis dimicatura), stood so motionless that you would think them held fast by clamps of bronze. Hard by (iuxtaque), the archers (for that nation has especially trusted in this art from the very cradle) were bending their flexible bows with such wide-stretched arms that the strings touched their right breasts, while the arrow-points were close to their left hands; and by a highly skilful stroke of the fingers the arrows flew hissing forth and brought with them deadly wounds. - XXV.1.13

The question here: are the archers cataphracts, or are they accompanying cataphracts?  Note incidentally that a man in this Sassanid army is either a kontos-user or an archer.

Behind them (post hos) the gleaming elephants, with their awful figures and savage, gaping mouths could scarcely be endured by the faint-hearted; and their trumpeting, their odour, and their strange aspect alarmed the horses still more. - XXV.1.14

Elephants behind cavalry?  Or elephants behind archers?  The hos suggests the elephants are behind the archers, which would make the archers in all probability infantry.

[section 15 covers the use of a hammer and chisel to despatch rogue elephants]

Although these sights caused no little fear, the emperor, guarded by troops of armed men and with his trustworthy generals, full of confidence, as the great and dangerous power of the enemy demanded, drew up his soldiers in the form of a crescent with curving wings to meet the enemy. - XXV.1.16

Although these sights caused no little fear, the emperor, guarded by troops of armed men and with his trustworthy generals, full of confidence, as the great and dangerous power of the enemy demanded, drew up his soldiers in the form of a crescent with curving wings (lunari acie sinuatisque lateribus) to meet the enemy. - XXV.1.16

Did this advance his wings or refuse them?  If the Persians were superior in cavalry, he probably refused them.

Now for the key part.

And in order that the onset of the bowmen might not throw our ranks into confusion (et ne sagittariorum procursus nostrorum cuneos disiectaret), he advanced at a swift pace, and so ruined the effectiveness of the arrows. Then the usual signal for battle was given, and the Roman infantry in close order with mighty effort drove the serried ranks of the enemy before them (denseti Romani pedites confertas hostium frontes, nisu protruserunt acerrimo). - XXV.1.17

How often does one see infantry closing 'at a swift pace' against cavalry and 'with mighty effort' driving their serried ranks before them?  I conclude the opponents of the Roman infantry were Persian infantry, and these are identical with the archers Ammianus gives as 'next to' (iuxta) the cataphracts and with elephants at their backs.

There is one further clue.

And in the heat of the combat that followed, the clash of shields, the shouts of the men, and the doleful sound of the whirring arrows continued without intermission. The plains were covered with blood and dead bodies, but the Persian losses were greater; for they often lacked endurance in battle and could with difficulty maintain a close contest man to man, since they were accustomed to fight bravely at long range, but if they perceived that their forces were giving way, as they retreated they would shoot their arrows back like a shower of rain and keep the enemy from a bold pursuit. So by the weight of great strength the Parthians were driven back, and when the signal for retreat was given in the usual manner, our soldiers, long wearied by the fiery course of the sun, returned to their tents, encouraged to dare greater deeds of valour in the future. - XXV.1.18

The 'clash of shields' sounds like an infantry against infantry fight, as does the attritional nature of the struggle.  The surprise is perhaps that the Persian infantry endured as long as they did.

So we can tell from the context that Julian's fast-moving soldiery closed against enemy infantry; despite Ammianus' incompleteness of description, the clues are there.

A couple of enigmas:
1) Why does Ammianus refer to 'all' the Persians as being cased in armour?  Is there a word missing from the MS?  Or were the archers fully armoured for this battle?
2) What has happened to Persian mounted archers?  The archers engaged by the Roman infantry behave like infantry, and nothing seems to happen on the flanks.  Did the Persians have no mounted archers in this battle - or did the Roman 'crescent' with its protruding or refused wings baffle them and the cataphracts and render them unable to influence the outcome?  The lack of Roman pursuit suggests the Persian cavalry had been held in play but not defeated.
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Erpingham

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What we do have at least is that the drill of the Romans and Greeks (and others like mounted or dismounted French during the 100 years war) was to advance against a line of archers and melee with them, though there is an article/forum post somewhere to the effect that punctuating a line of English longbowmen with men-at-arms would naturally funnel the advancing infantry towards the men-at-arms. Might that have happened in Antiquity?

Men-at-arms were prone to attack their peers for a couple of reasons.  One was social - it was more prestigious to do so.  While this is often given as the main reason, it is at least as likely it is about defeating the main enemy force, after which the remainder will give up.  In particular, aiming at the standards, which marked the commanders, was popular as to defeat the enemy commander could cause morale to collapse.  So, do we expect our Romans or Greeks to be governed by similar conventions? 
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Patrick Waterson

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One point we all missed (which accounts for the initial slowness of the Roman infantry in Ammianus XXIV.6.10) is that they were going slowly to give their skirmishers time and opportunity to play.

So, when both sides were near enough to look each other in the face, the Romans, gleaming in their crested helmets and swinging their shields as if to the rhythm of the anapaestic foot, advanced slowly; and the light-armed skirmishers opened the battle by hurling their javelins, while the earth everywhere was turned to dust and swept away in a swift whirlwind. - XXIV.6.10

The skirmishers would have to withdraw before the lines clashed, and as soon as they did so the Roman infantry would have picked up its pace.

And when the battle-cry was raised in the usual manner by both sides and the trumpets' blare increased the ardour of the men, here and there they fought hand-to-hand with spears and drawn swords; and the soldiers were freer from the danger of the arrows the more quickly they forced their way into the enemy's ranks. - idem.11

So the slow advance is something of a red herring, as it was contingent upon the operation of skirmishers ahead of the line.
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Patrick Waterson

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So, do we expect our Romans or Greeks to be governed by similar conventions?

I would think they were not: one may remember a Republican Roman consul executing his own son for breaking ranks to kill an enemy champion; the son's deed which would have received undiluted approbation from the mediaeval mindset (if one can meaningfully use such a term) but did not from the classical, which had moved on from Homeric standards to a more disciplined outlook.

I think Justin was also asking whether the arrow storm produced a slowing effect in the classical period; the paucity of massed archers outside the Achaemenid Empire and the fact that Greeks in our sources tended to await the moment behind a shield wall (as at Plataea) or move at a fast pace to avoid the arrow storm (as at Marathon) suggests they were conversant with the effects of massed archery and took care to do more about ameliorating it than just making jokes about fighting in the shade.  The fact that they appear to have eschewed a standard advance into an arrow storm suggests they by rapidity or immobility avoided being funnelled rather than being immune to it.  That is my reading, anyway.
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Erpingham

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Quote
but if they perceived that their forces were giving way, as they retreated they would shoot their arrows back like a shower of rain and keep the enemy from a bold pursuit.

Though it is a long way from the MI debate, I'd suggest this sounds like a description of the Parthian Shot, which is usually considered a cavalry tactic.
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Jim Webster

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Remember that Merena, general of their cavalry, might merely be, Merena, magister equitum
If the author was merely foisting a Roman title onto a Persian equivalent, it may merely mean Merena was senior but not the most senior.
Also in its classic form (the second in command for a dictator in the early republic) the magister equitum could command infantry as well as cavalry
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Justin Swanton

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So, do we expect our Romans or Greeks to be governed by similar conventions?

I would think they were not: one may remember a Republican Roman consul executing his own son for breaking ranks to kill an enemy champion

Titus Manlius. A first-class general who probably felt he needed to make an example of his son since the single combat implies the accompanying Roman and Latin troops were prepared to sit by and watch - a dangerous prelude to fraternisation which is exactly what Titus didn't want to see happening ("Why should we fight our comrades?"). IMHO his operational manoeuvring was brilliant, getting his troops into a position at the foot of Vesuvius that negated the Latin superiority in cavalry and supplied perfect ground for his Samnite allies.
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DougM

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It's all speculation though isn't it? I could equally postulate that the Roman force adopted a crescent because they massively outnumbered their opponents, (and we know it was the greatest force ever assembled to attack Persia). Are you also suggesting that Persian cavalry were all cataphract armoured albeit some were archers only?
  • Doug Melville
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nikgaukroger

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Are you also suggesting that Persian cavalry were all cataphract armoured albeit some were archers only?

IMO it would be a perfectly valid reading of the passage.
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DougM

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Are you also suggesting that Persian cavalry were all cataphract armoured albeit some were archers only?

IMO it would be a perfectly valid reading of the passage.

It would, however; it would mean our wargames view of Sasanian armies would have to undergo a radical reassessment. :)   I'm not averse to that, but a lot of people would be horrified. 
  • Doug Melville
"Let the great gods Mithra and Ahura help us, when the swords are loudly clashing, when the nostrils of the horses are a tremble,...  when the strings of the bows are whistling and sending off sharp arrows."  http://aleadodyssey.blogspot.com/