I think it’s fair to say if war broke out, most of us could imagine ourselves firing a gun at the enemy. After all, the enemy is usually a fair distance away. And the nature of modern CAW (Combined Arms Warfare) is that we tend to kill our enemy, or be killed ourselves, at a remove.
But this is a very recent development in human history.
The efficient and distant slaughter of an enemy, which the advent of gunpowder gave mankind, is, when arrayed against the thousands of years of its overwhelmingly violent history, something that really only kicked off maybe 400 years ago.
Of course, long-range weapons have been developed and modernised, and when a nation goes to war today, the impersonal nature of the conflict is the governing paradigm. It is lot easier on the human psyche to kill at a distance than it is to stand face to face with your enemy and hack him to bits while he’s trying to hack you to bits.
But the hacking to bits thing was the way things were done in human conflict for tens of thousands of years. It defined entire societies and cultures. Mankind’s history would pivot on such intensely close-up conflicts. Entire nations and empires would rise or fall according to the prowess of men who were adept at killing their fellow men face-to-face.
Consider also the different levels of stress on today’s soldiers compared to the solders of old. Modern warfare can be like a slow drip-drip of pressure, punctuated by the odd battle, which is often inconclusive. Ancient battles were an immediate, all or nothing affair. You march out to meet the enemy. You go at it until one side runs away or is killed, and then it’s over.
Just think about that for second. Could you do it? All bullshit aside. Could you, untrained, civilised, and soft, take your place in a phalanx, sword at your hip, spear in one hand and shield in the other, close with the enemy and offer him combat?
Not a fair comparison, you think? The ancients who peopled the great empires and nations of old were different.
Were they? Consider this…
The first professional standing army we know about was fielded by the Assyrian Empire around 4000BCE. The Sumerians, who preceded them, may have had professional soldiers, but we simply don’t know. But we do know the Assyrians did.
And this made them a force to be reckoned with in the ancient world. Why? Simple.
At that time, and for many centuries afterwards, up until the time of the Persian and Greek wars – which were followed by the amazing conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon, who ended the centuries-long Achaemenid Persian Empire (begun by Cyrus The Great around 600BCE) when he burned down its capital, Persepolis, in 330BCE – most armies were citizen armies.
They worked very simply. An enemy, normally comprising of citizen-soldiers like yourself, attacked your people. You got your weapons out of the back-room, kissed your wife and kids goodbye, and went off to defend your land and people. You were a farmer, a trader, a politician, a merchant – but you were not a professional soldier.
But you were still expected to stand in a line, holding your weapons, and advance upon (or defend against) an enemy at very close quarters.
Sure, there were horse-mounted soldiers in those days, the ancestors of the cavalry, and archers, but the real business, the deciding business, if you like, was almost always done by the infantry. Which would be you.
Were you trained in the use of the spear, the sword and the shield? Maybe, but that training would not have been professional, and much of what you might know you maybe learned the last time the invaders came over the hill or your ruler decided he wanted more land or resources. You certainly did not train for war while doing farmwork or selling spices.
But there you were. In the front line. Quite possibly with close friends and even relatives on either side of you, advancing upon the enemy, which you were expected to kill in hand-to-hand combat. Or die trying.
I cannot imagine what that would be like, and historians to this day aren’t entirely clear on how these ancient battles took place. Sure, they know the outcome, and some remnants of strategy and even tactics have been passed down. This is thanks mainly to the reasonable record-keeping of the ancient Greeks, but even they aren’t at all precise as to the “how” of face-to-face battle.
We have Herodotus – called both the Father of History and the Father of Lies, and he was possibly a bit of both. But maybe consider Herodotus writings and “records” were done at a time when most people would have been familiar with what had happened, and therefore familiar with the methods of battle. And also bear in mind Herodotus’ “histories” were designed to be performed in front of audiences, and thus needed to be filled with a bit of drama. He didn’t so much write history as he wrote screenplays. But he is pretty much all we have from that time.
Records do exist from various empires. But they are more proclamations of what happened rather than actual descriptions of how it happened. Take the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II (r. 884-859 BCE) reporting on his conquest of Têla:
“From Kinabu, I departed, to the city of Têla I drew near. The city was exceeding strong and was surrounded by three walls. The men trusted in their mighty walls and in their hosts, and did not come down, and did not embrace my feet. With battle and slaughter I stormed the city and captured it. 3000 of their warriors I put to the sword; their spoil and their possessions, their cattle and their sheep I carried off. Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire, the city I destroyed, I devastated, I burned it with fire and consumed it.”
This was a rather typical Assyrian post-battle report. It mainly dealt with the might and power of the king, and the cruelty he would inflict upon those who rebelled against his rule. And it was meant to induce fear, and it worked. But none of it deals with the “how”. The nitty-gritty, if you will, of what it was like to fight and kill and be killed, up close and personal.
The closest we can get to seeing what such a thing might have looked like, is by looking at video of modern riots. Of course, it’s not the same, but it gives you an idea of what humans do when they are forced to confront each other in close-quarter combat, the press of bodies, the madness, the fear, the frenzy that must surely inform and drive any such encounter.
We really have no true terms of reference. It’s almost like we’re dealing with a different species altogether. Modern man has no concept of what it was like to fight in that way.
But what about the bayonet, you say. Yes, it’s still a part of many modern armies’ battle-kit – and it looks cool on parade, right? And who doesn’t feel a frisson of excitement when you hear an officer yell: “Fix bayonets!” in a movie? You know there’s gonna be some close-quarter slaughter, don’t you?
Maybe not. Studies have shown that the vast majority of soldiers who have fixed bayonets and charged the enemy, have not actually used them. They usually resort to using their rifles as a club. Those being charged at by men with fixed bayonets likewise do not engage and will usually run away. It seems the human animal, or at least the modern human animal, has a real problem with hacking and stabbing at another human animal.
Not so in ancient times. In those battles you were expected to stand and stab and hack at your enemy. Imagine, if you can (and I try but I really struggle), what that took – both in terms of physicality and psychological acceptance.
Wielding a spear, a shield, and a sword, requires a great deal of strength. Running in armour, then fighting for sometimes long periods of time – some ancient battles lasted all day – requires a physical strength today’s elite athletes do not possess. Do you doubt me? Go chop some wood. Start at daybreak and do not stop until sundown. No breaks. Just chop. Over and over and over. I reckon (actually I know, I split five tonne of wood each winter) I’d last 15 minutes.
I cannot comprehend the strength it would take to fight an ancient battle. It simply does not compute.
Because chopping wood is not hacking at an enemy, is it? He’s trying to kill you every bit as much as you’re trying to kill him. You can see his eyes, you can smell his breath and his sweat. You can also smell the stink of shit and piss – men fouling themselves before and during a battle was commonplace – and the all-pervading odour of blood and entrails. Then there’s the screaming and howling and the clash of weapons, the stomping of feet, and the screams of the wounded and the battle-crazed.
And while adrenaline may well keep you going for a bit, that stuff just doesn’t last. If you’ve ever been in a fight, you’ll know that to be true. You might be Mike Tyson for the first three minutes…but after that, you’re huffing and puffing and wishing it would stop. And that’s if you haven’t been kicked in the face a few times.
But rolling around on the floor of a pub is not standing in a field with an iron helmet on your head, a bronze breast-plate on your chest, holding a two-metre-long ash spear in your sweating hand, wondering if you can get your sword out fast enough when the spear breaks (and they broke all the time), and slash at the enemy before you’re cut down.
We simply have no terms of reference for that.
Before the battle, the chattering of teeth was often the loudest noise on the field. Men were gripped with terror as they faced their fate. They pissed and shit themselves even before battle commenced. But they stood and they fought.
And the carnage and butchery was on a scale we simply cannot comprehend. Modern weapons like bullets, grenades, and artillery cause terrible wounds. But many of them are almost cauterising, unlike the wounds made by naked steel, bronze, or iron. The wounds inflicted by edged weapons are horrific on a level modern people have not ever seen. The amount of blood spilled on the field of battle in ancient conflicts fries my mind. Here’s some quick maths for you – and remember, unlike modern wars and battles which normally happen over a very wide area or a long front, ancient battles took place in much smaller spaces, often only a few football fields in size…
Let’s take a phalanx of ten thousand soldiers. Each soldier contains five-litres of blood. If all ten thousand soldiers are killed in that day’s battle – and let’s recall the Battle of Platea (479BCE) saw somewhere between 51,500 and 257,000 men killed in a week – they might shed three-litres or so of blood via the vast and gaping wounds inflicted by spears and swords. That’s 30,000-litres of blood all dumped in a relatively small area. Now imagine 250,000 dead men who have shed 750,000-litres of blood.
When the ancients write about rivers running red with blood, they are probably not exaggerating.
What does that kind of fighting do to a man? How does he deal with the aftermath of such a battle? Does he scream at night? Does it drive him insane? Old records make no mention of PTSD. It’s possible such things were viewed as part of the normal scheme of life – occasionally you had to put down the plough and pick up the spear. Then you went back to the plough.
Societies were also very different back then. Battlefield victories were cheered and songs were sung. The warriors were glorified and lauded. The losers? Well, they were all usually killed, or enslaved, along with their families, their cities and towns burned, and the world moved on with scant regard for peoples’ feelings. Outraged? You certainly can be as outraged as you like today. Back then, no-one cared.
That is not our time. Ours is a time of silken slippers, as Voltaire observed.
“History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”
What he meant was that empires were forged by men wearing wooden shoes – hard men, ruthless and cruel. And once the empire was created, it existed and thrived while ever those wooden-shoed men ruled. But all empires become soft as time passes. All empires reach their zenith eventually. They no longer expand, and they begin to contract and then collapse. The wooden shoe- wearers have been replaced by men in silken slippers and the descent down the ladder begins.
Of course, we will likely never have to stand in a phalanx with a spear. Human society has progressed far beyond that. So far beyond that, we cannot actually comprehend what that might have been like. But empires still exist and empires still collapse – and all of us pay the price for that.
It’s just no longer paid in a field with a spear. And just as well. We’re just not up to that anymore.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.