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Conan

The horror of war...

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I love ancient warfare. The history, tactics, the campaigns its so ancient, distant, its almost like fantasy. The battles such as Thermopylae, are noble, glorious, maybe even romantic.

 

Are there any sources that paint the darker side of ancient warfare? The detail of the heat of battle? The unimaginable violence.

 

What it was like to stand in the front line holding your shield tight and bracing for the impact of the charging Celtic enemy. To be at the front of the legion, your shield arm is almost numb, your so exhausted every thrust/ slash of your gladius is agony.

 

What it must have been like to thrust your spear into the face of your opposing enemy, step over him and allow the men in the ranks behind you to finish him of, making sure he doesn't get back up.

 

To have to hack through a mans desperately raised hands and forearms to deliver the killer head blow.

 

To stand in the baking sun after a grueling, grinding battle, you so exhausted your nearly sick, dehydrated, light headed, covered in blood only to raise your aching head to see fresh enemy troops formed up and heading to your position.

 

Is there any sources that identify the psychological impact that battle/war must have had on some soldiers?

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The problem with describing the horror of war from roman eyes is that the common soldier didn't write of his experiences, apart perhaps from private correspondence which probably hasn't survived. So the great majority of descriptions of such things come from educated men who might not have experienced warfare themselves. What you need to do is read through accounts of campaigns, and I would suggest Julius Caesars description of his conquest of Gaul, which apart from the exaggerations gives a commanders eye view of what was going on, and also Josephus's account of the Jewish War for glimpses of roman soldiers who are bored and careless besides those implacably besieging the jews. Back that up with say, Tacitus and Suetonius, who fill in with stories and anecdotes of warfare, and a general picture emerges. What you need to do though is look closely at what is being said. Sometimes there's little clues to be had in phrases that otherwise might pass mention - for instance, in Suetonius, where he describes Julius Caesar pushing men back into line as their morale crumbles in the heat of battle, being threatened by one standard bearer, and another running off leaving the standard in his hands. There is an extraordinary account of camping over winter somewhere, so cold that one mans hands fall off as he picks up firewood. A little overstated perhaps, but there's a hint of frostbite there definitely.

 

Typically, a roman soldier is a robust character, strong camaraderie, very much someone to find a way of getting off heavy duties, a man who would casually steal a civilians donkey and use violence if the man complained, a soldier who was trained to fight and dehumanised enough to slay the occupants of a town if ordered to do so, fully capable of long hard marches to get there, and fully capable of building fortifications right there and then. They were rough men, accustomed to hardship and violence, and men who actually became indifferent soldiers very quickly if poorly led, and very bolshy if they decided they were badly treated. They were also men who lived in a regime where punishments might be severe, and despite the risk, guards regularly slept propped up on the spears and shields. In most cases I imagine they weren't afraid of their enemies either, though often there must have been some grudging respect.

 

I think the important thing is that roman soldiers were taught and trained to expect hardship, to overcome fear, and to shrug off the privations of army life. Many of them would have shouldered their loads as ordered and gritted their teeth at discomfort. And complain mightily if their commander didn't acknowledge their efforts.

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Cassius Dio is actually a decent source regarding some of the more sordid details. He is also well known for the flamboyant speeches of generals.

 

There are many samples, but the battle of Pharsalus provides some detail...

 

From Book 41.60 (The entire battle takes place between ch. 52 - 63)

"And all this took place, as I said, not in one spot, but in many places at once, scattered all about, so that with some contending at a distance and others fighting at close quarters, this body smiting its opponents and that group being struck, one detachment fleeing and another pursuing, many infantry battles and many cavalry battles as well were to be seen. 5 Meanwhile many incredible things were taking place. One man after routing another would himself be turned to flight, and another who had avoided an opponent would in turn attack him. One soldier who had struck another would be wounded himself, and a second, who had fallen, would kill the enemy who stood over him. Many died without being wounded, and many when half dead kept on slaying. Some were glad and sang paeans, while the others were distressed and uttered lamentations, so that all places were filled with shouts and groans. The majority were thrown into confusion by this fact, for what was said was unintelligible to them, because of the confusion of nations and languages, and alarmed them greatly, and those who could understand one panother suffered a calamity many times worse; for in addition to their own misfortunes they could hear and at the same time see those of their neighbours."

 

Another... The Battle of Philippi, from Book 47.44

"For a long time there was pushing of shield against shield and thrusting with the sword, as they were at first cautiously looking for a chance to wound others without being wounded themselves, since they were as eager to save themselves as to slay their antagonists; but later, when their ardour increased and their rage was inflamed, they rushed together recklessly and paid no more attention to their own safety, but in their eagerness to destroy their adversaries would even throw away their own lives. Some cast away their shields and seizing hold of the foes facing them choked them by means of their helmets while they struck them in the back, or else tore away their armour and smote them on the breast. Others seized hold of the swords of their opponents, who were thus as good as unarmed, and then ran their own into their bodies; and some exposed a part of their own bodies to be wounded and thus gained a freer use of the rest. Some clutched their opponents in an embrace that prevented either one from striking and perished through the commingling of their swords and bodies. Some died of a single blow, others of many, and they neither were conscious of their wounds, since death forestalled their suffering, nor lamented their end, since they never reached the point of grieving. One who killed another thought in the excessive joy of the moment that he could never die; and whoever fell lost consciousness and had no knowledge of his state."

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We are better informed about the Greek reality on this grim matter, check Hanson's book on Hopplite Warfare : crushing the enemy under foot, bitting him hard, banging him with one's broken spear, ...

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One of the most lucid account of the horror of war comes from Tacitus' Historiae, when he describes the Second Battle of Cremona and the later description of the sack of the city. The entire account is very long, so I dont want to waste space putting the whole thing, but here is a tidbit:

 

"Throughout the night the battle raged in many forms, indecisive and fierce, destructive, first to one side, then to the other. Courage, strength, even the eye with its keenest sight, were of no avail. Both armies fought with the same weapons; the watch-word, continually asked, became known; the colours were confused together, as parties of combatants snatched them from the enemy, and hurried them in this or that direction."

 

and then later:

 

"Forty thousand armed men burst into Cremona, and with them a body of sutlers and camp-followers, yet more numerous and yet more abandoned to lust and cruelty. Neither age nor rank were any protection from indiscriminate slaughter and violation. Aged men and women past their prime, worthless as booty, were dragged about in wanton insult. Did a grown up maiden or youth of marked beauty fall in their way, they were torn in pieces by the violent hands of ravishers; and in the end the destroyers themselves were provoked into mutual slaughter."

 

There is also Polybius' description of the capture of New Carthage and the destruction of Carthage, which he witnessed. War as something terrible is common is common during histories of civil wars; and during descriptions of terrible defeats.

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What might be worthwhile is asking re-enactors for their opnions. Granted they don't actually hack each other down in cold blodd, but they do have first hand experience of handling confrontations and equipment. They may well be able to fill you in on practical details.

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Somewhere near the start of Tacitus' Histories, I think, we get what purports to be a long whinge from a common- and highly mutinous - legionary. It gives a good view of a soldier's life on the gorund - or at least what Tacitus imagined it to be, and he did research things quite well. (For instance when describing Vesuvius he wrote to survivors to ask their experiences). Bear in mind most soldiers spent little time actually fighting. In any army, the real enemies are the NCOs and the quartermaster, with the enemy a sort of background factor, like the weather.

 

 

I don't think you are going to get an actual description of battle experience of the kind you are looking for, because even these days, people who have been 'at the sharp end' tend to keep discussions of these matters among themselves. As they say - you had to be there to understand it. I can add that in my experience of a hot firefight, there is an awful lot to do in a very short time, and it's quite important to do it right. You are too busy concentrating to feel much emotion till afterward. I'd imagine that any legionary in battle who stopped to 'live the moment' probably wouldn't.

 

However, look at Caesar's description of the final attempt to break out of Alesia, and, with a bit of imagination you get a pretty clear idea of what it might be like.

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I have read that in ancient battles the battle itself just last like 2-3 minutes, and then the forces took a brake and drunk water, then the fighting started again, in almost all ancient battles the main losses i when one side routing and the other side pursuit them. Except in battles between forces whith very high morale like Thermypolae and other last stands.

Edited by Legio X

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