2009/09/07

Roman warfare - remarks

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I've got a few small books in my car just for reading when I'm in a traffic jam or at a doctor's waiting room. German doctors have 90% women's journals and the remaining 10% are either for small children, old or about cars.

So I sat again and read in a small book by Adrian Goldsworthy about "Roman Warfare". I've certainly read more than enough on the topic, but somehow I once felt tempted to buy that book and here it is.

The doctor was slow, I read three full chapters. The overall description of Roman Warfare was well-known to me, but there were some bits that I'd like to share and comment:

The warfare of the late fifth and fourth centuries BC became increasingly bitter and the consequences for the losers much more serious.

The story of Rome's early history is one of steady, if often slow, growth in power and size. The earliest myths of Rome's history show a willingness to absorb outsiders into the community, an attitude quite unlike that of Greek city states who were highly jealous of the privileges of citizenship. Slaves, most of whom at this period were war captives, received full citizen rights when they gained their freedom.

Wow, that's food for thought for xenophobes.

The longer the battle went on the harder it became each time to persuade the line to close once more. Officers played a vital role in urging on their men to sustain this effort, Centurions were elected from those with a record for gallantry and the Romans took great care to praise and reward soldiers who displayed individual boldness.

OK, so who said an army is no democracy or democracy doesn't work in an army? ;-)
I've seen many incompetent leaders in captain to colonel rank who hadn't, didn't get and didn't deserve the respect of their subordinates. Some were simply doing harm to their units and were good for absolutely nothing.
I wonder whether it's possible to implement some kind of bottom-up system to get rid of such duds.

Armies tended to move rapidly to confront each other, since defeating the enemy army was their main function, but then became very cautious, camping only a few kilometres apart for days or even weeks without fighting. Often each side marched out and deployed in battle formation every day, the two kines within an few hundred metres of each other, yet neither was willing to advance the final short distance and force a battle. Frequent skirmishes and single combats were fought between detachments of cavalry and light infantry, and victories in these helped to develop a feeling of superiority over the enemy.

He's obviously as much into over-length sentences as I am.
The thing about approaching, but not risking a decision immediately is a very common trait of warfare. It happened throughout history, but this rule has its exceptions just as every rule in warfare. Nevertheless, the description of preparing for decisive actions while already standing close to the enemy still sounds a lot like modern warfare. Think of 9/39-4/40 Western front, WW2 Eastern Front between offensives, Korean War or the Iraq-Iran War. This emphasizes the importance of striving for an unfair advantage, of the quest to decide the battle before it happens. This whole facet of the art of war can even be traced back to Sun Tzu. You better don't do it too obviously, though. The enemy will refuse battle if he understands that you have too much net advantage.

The second interesting part was about skirmishing. I look much into skirmishing - its potential, requirements and effects - in my theoretical work (I actually keep the better part of my writing out of the blog). Western armies have emphasized the decisive battle and battle formations over skirmishers/scouts and in general the ability to shape the battle. Maybe we look way too much into powerful combat brigades and not nearly enough into much smaller and much more elusive skirmishers.
Tactical and operational doctrine is mostly about intense combat, and not nearly as much about the actual shaping ops and tasks like screening/scouting/harassing.

Although often outmanoeuvered by more skillful opponents, Roman armies were still tough opponents who continued fighting long after most other armies would have conceded defeat. In part this was a result of harsh military discipline which inflicted severe penalties on soldiers who fled even from the most desperate situation.

Now excuse me for being predictable, but this reminds me very much of the Wehrmacht. It's staying power was incredible. Some historical divisions were broken by 5-15% losses while others kept fighting stubbornly after 40% losses. Some units crumbled once encircled while others kept resisting in a pocket for months, often even breaking out.
This difference is one of the not-so-secrets of the art of war that you don't find in field manuals (neither new nor old). It's more than just leadership, organization, enforced discipline - it's about motivation (as is indeed almost everything in human interactions). Napoleon gave a rule of thumb like 3:1 for morale over troops. This whole morale thing needs to be emphasized. The power of armies is too often being measured in quantitative and technical means even though morale is most important.
We spend billions on developing tools and weapons, millions on developing operational and tactical concepts - how much do we spend on morale?


Military history has a lot to offer - even an introduction book on an epoch can still hold lots of interesting remarks. In three chapters!

Sven Ortmann
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1 comment:

  1. Morale has to with the immediate leadership, the personal bonds in the unit, the perception of own capabilities and the satisfaction with the environment that sends you to fight.

    Roman morale had ups and downs. Seizing land for colonization by well-off peasants was a major reason why Rome had well trained sword fighters until the Second Punic War.
    Afterwards the social elevation and military training could compensate for not being raised a warrior any more, because of an increasing wealth gap that reduced middle class leisure, with a corresponding new political system. This empire then crumbled from the internal problems that made replacements of soldiers impossible on the required scale without toppling the institutions they were meant to defend.

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