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 Post subject: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Sat Apr 23, 2011 9:32 pm 
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I suppose I will continue my reign of terror within the General Discussion forums.

My question/thought experiment of the hour:

It is a general rule that if two armies of similar technological capability and experience meet, the one who fights as individuals will lose to those who fight in units. This was a large part of the reason that the Greeks could hold their land against the Persians, and that the Roman Legions did so well.

The way I understand it, the roman empire begins to waver as their armies are composed of more auxiliaries and less proper Roman heavy infantry and the internal structure of Rome began to wane. I'm sure it is more complicated than that but the thrust of it is that they didn't fall because the Legion idea became obsolete.

So the question: How effective would Roman tactics have been on a medieval battlefield? They certainly would've been better trained than all but the most professional of Knights. The Roman army was known for their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and enemy weaponry. How do you think they might have had to adapt to the enemies they now faced? What do you think they might have adopted? Would the gladius still be the weapon of choice?

Would the Romans be able to trounce through their enemies in the way that they had in times past, or will have military tactics and technology changed enough to allow the feudal based medieval war machine to take on or destroy Rome's army at their height?

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Sun Apr 24, 2011 6:39 pm 
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You realize that such hypothetical stuff is not only difficult, but also open to interpretation and impossible to prove, or even be certain about to any degree of academic standard, right? So we are just, more or less, blathering.

First of all, the “Roman Legion”. What Roam legion are we talking about? The so-called “Polybian” militia legion? The professional legion of the Marianic reform, of the late Republic? The “classic” legion of the High Empire? The legion of Late Antiquity? The answer would depend on that, but as you mention the short sword I assume that we are talking of the legion as it it existed in the first two centuries of the Christian era.

And what medieval battlefield? Early medieval armies of the Merovingians and Carolingians? High medieval armies dominated by the knightly charge? Combined arms late medieval armies of infantry, pikemen and archers/crossbowmen augmented by heavy cavalry?

Early medieval armies of Merovingians, Carolingians, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings fought pretty much like antique Celts and Germanians (who were not quite as undisciplined and undertrained as some people think). The Romans cut right through the Celts and, to a slightly lesser degree, the Germanic peoples, so I see no reason why they should not have done so with the early medieval armies made up of close-combat infantry augmented by bigger or smaller contingents of light to medium cavalry. I don’t think that a change of tactics or equipment would have been necessary. The Avars and Magyars are a slightly different matter. Their way of fighting was closer to the Parthians’: All-cavalry armies (almost) with a core of heavy horsemen augmented by many light horsearchers. The Romans could and did prevail against those, but only if augmented by sizeable contingents of auxiliary cavalry and/or archers. Without this support, the legion would be like a sitting duck, but with auxiliary archers to drive off enemy horsearchers and auxiliary cavalry to pin down the mobile enemy long enough for the legion infantry to close, even a mobile cavalry arms could quite easily be beaten.

At the core of high medieval tactic was the repeated charge by super-heavy cavalry. But cavalry charges are always dependent upon an enemy being either in loose formation or else being undisciplined enough or frightened enough to break ranks; if an enemy keeps its close formation, the cavalry charge is powerless. I think that not only would a knightly charge against a highly disciplined Roman legion have failed to dislodge the legion, but also that the hail of heavy javelins that would have greeted the charge about twentymetres from the Roman ranks would have had a devastating effect on it. High medieval horses were at best lightly armoured (if that) and with about wo javelins per horse, which at that distance could hardly miss, the hail of missiles greeting the knightly charge would have brought down (at least) the entire front rank in a tangle of falling horses no more than about 15 metres in front of the Roman line. I envision this breaking up the momentum of the the ranks behind, and I further envision the Romans unsheating their swords and getting stuck in. I think the knights would not have stood a chance aganst this meatgrinder.

Of course, this would in turn have meant that the knights would have put heavy armour on their horses much sooner than they had to in the real middle ages. Now, with well-armoured horses the Roman javelins would not have broken up the knightly charge as efficiently, but the well-disciplined Romans would not have broken rank in face of the charge, forcing the knights to veer away without having done any damage. As several ancient accounts of battles teach us, the Roman legon was able to time its charges immaculately, almost literally to the second. I imagine that they would would have used the very moment when the knights were forced to rein in their horses just two or three metres from the Roman lines and turn away, the moment when they were effectively standing still and without momentum, for a counter charge. From then on it would again be the Roman meatgrinder at work.

Late medieval armies are very difficult to forme to gauge, as they used a sophisticated combined arms approach, where each type of troop supported all others in quite nifty ways. I see the Roman legion having no trouble with pike formations; those were no different from Hellensitic phalanxes, and the Romans, then still but militia soldiers, cut the phalanxes (of professional full-time soldiers, no less!) to pieces so very effectively that the Hellenistic kingdoms began to abandon phalanx warfare and tried to copy Roman warfare. But with the late medieval pike formation being very effectively supported by other weapon types I actually think that the Romans would rather have lost.

As to Roman equipment – by the 1st century AD at the latest it was perfect for their type of warfare. The large, square, curved shield, the incredibly niftily designed helmet with all manner of ridges to break the force of blows before they ever hit the helemet plates, the heavy javelin with the additional weight to give it more stopping power, the short stabbing sword perfect for close quarter work in tight formations yet still powerful enough on the cut to shear off limbs – the all were the pinnacle of a weapons technology that had honed its tools of centuries to be perfect for the job. As long as the Romans would not have changed their overall way of fighting, I see no reason or indeed need why they should have changed or altered their equipment. I do think, however, that once the brigandine entered the arena, they would have switched to this type or armour – it is as easily, quickly and cheaply to manufacture as the segmented armour and offers slightly better protection for slightly more of the body.

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:14 pm 
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Grettir wrote:
You realize that such hypothetical stuff is not only difficult, but also open to interpretation and impossible to prove, or even be certain about to any degree of academic standard, right? So we are just, more or less, blathering.


That's why it is a thought experiment, my good sir! I enjoy blather on occasion. Particularly historical blather.

Your thoughts largely mirror mine. I was struck by a realization when watching some documentary or other on Legion tactics: none of the barbarians were fighting in a style all that different from my understanding of later methods employed by various medieval period armies. As you mentioned, things get a bit more complicated towards the late medieval period and certainly early renaissance.

It would've been very interesting to see how tactics changed if the Roman style of fighting had lingered rather than having been "lost" for a few hundred years.

I now find myself oddly drawn towards designing roman-styled brigandine armor.

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Sun Apr 24, 2011 11:54 pm 
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KazianG wrote:
It would've been very interesting to see how tactics changed if the Roman style of fighting had lingered rather than having been "lost" for a few hundred years.


Lost?

Blurb of Early Carolingian Warfare wrote:
Bachrach includes fresh accounts of Charles Martel's defeat of the Muslims at Poitiers in 732, and Pippin's successful siege of Bourges in 762, demonstrating that in the matter of warfare there never was a western European Dark Age that ultimately was enlightened by some later Renaissance. The early Carolingians built upon surviving military institutions, adopted late antique technology, and effectively utilized their classical intellectual inheritance to prepare the way militarily for Charlemagne's empire.


The military institutions, the techniques, the strategy were never lost. The Byzantine Empire survived through to the mid-15th century after all. At the very least they had the knowledge needed to put together a Roman-style legion.

What changed post-Western Empire wasn't the military but the infrastructure needed to support the Roman-style of military. You need an Empire, a tightly centralized state, to produce a military like the Romans. Look at where that type of state exists in the period and there's a chance you'll see a military structure similar to the Romans. But where the state is loosely centralized -- I'm thinking 14th century France in the face of the English threat -- the society itself is incapable of producing a Roman-style military no matter how useful it would have been on the battlefield.

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 6:09 am 
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Grettir wrote:
You realize that such hypothetical stuff is not only difficult, but also open to interpretation and impossible to prove, or even be certain about to any degree of academic standard, right? So we are just, more or less, blathering.
KazianG wrote:
That's why it is a thought experiment, my good sir! I enjoy blather on occasion. Particularly historical blather.

Well, I really don’t. At least not in areas where I would otherwise know enough to base whatever I claim on sound, tested and demonstratable evidence. For something to be an experiment, even a thought experiment, a grounding in demonstratable facts is necessary, or else it is not even an experiment; and with something like what you have been asking, this factual grounding is missing.

Ian.Plumb wrote:
The military institutions, the techniques, the strategy were never lost. The Byzantine Empire survived through to the mid-15th century after all. At the very least they had the knowledge needed to put together a Roman-style legion.

What changed post-Western Empire wasn't the military but the infrastructure needed to support the Roman-style of military.

Very, very, very true.

I do however think that your choice of examples is misleading. Pointing to the tradition of the Byzantine Empire and talking about Europe post-Western Empire might lead people to think that Late Antiquity and then the Byzantine Empire saw an unbroken evolution of military thought to ever greater refinement. In fact, a number of domestic and foreign events in the 3rd century AD damaged the economic base of Rome to such an extent that it became unable to field armies of the same quality as before. This situation restabilized somewhat in the 4th century, but in the 5th century collapsed completely in the West and was again severly damaged in the East. While Late Antiquity by and large was not, contrary to what many still believe in the wake Gibbon’s long outdated but among laymen still influential opinion, a time of universal decline, but where the military arm of the Empire was concerned it sadly was, as military writers of the time bemourned themselves. As you point out rightly and importanty, this ws not due to the knowledge being lost, but due to the Romans being for various reasons unable to effectively apply this knowledge. But this did not befall just the Dark Ages, it was already afflicting the Late Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire as well, though to a somewhat lesser degree.

This is one of the reasons why I find this “thought experiment” rather idle. So-called The Dark Ages and the High Middle Ages did not lack the knowledge, they lacked the economic, political and infrastructural means to apply them. The assessement of the performance of the Roman legion against medieval foes does only stand when one transported such a legion into the Middle Ages with a time machine.

The other reason is that medieval military technology and tactics developed themselves only in interplay with the enemies’ military technology and tactics. If a remnant of the High Empire would somehow, unchanged by Late Antiquity, have survived into the Middle Ages, the entire medieval system of warfare would not have developed the way it did.

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 9:14 am 
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Grettir wrote:
I do however think that your choice of examples is misleading. Pointing to the tradition of the Byzantine Empire and talking about Europe post-Western Empire might lead people to think that Late Antiquity and then the Byzantine Empire saw an unbroken evolution of military thought to ever greater refinement. In fact, a number of domestic and foreign events in the 3rd century AD damaged the economic base of Rome to such an extent that it became unable to field armies of the same quality as before. This situation restabilized somewhat in the 4th century, but in the 5th century collapsed completely in the West and was again severely damaged in the East.


Naturally I am content to defer to your greater knowledge on the subject. :)

Grettir wrote:
As you point out rightly and importantly, this was not due to the knowledge being lost, but due to the Romans being for various reasons unable to effectively apply this knowledge. But this did not befall just the Dark Ages, it was already afflicting the Late Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire as well, though to a somewhat lesser degree.


We can only imagine the frustration that must have been felt in the Byzantine Empire when they could see their territory eroded to the point of no return, knowing what needed to be done militarily to stop the process yet being unable to implement the disciplined, efficient war machine of their forbears.

Grettir wrote:
The other reason is that medieval military technology and tactics developed themselves only in interplay with the enemies’ military technology and tactics. If a remnant of the High Empire would somehow, unchanged by Late Antiquity, have survived into the Middle Ages, the entire medieval system of warfare would not have developed the way it did.


Absolutely. While this is a scenario wargamers can happily enact role-players need the accompanying societies and some degree of realism regarding economics and infrastructure. You don't get the Roman war machine when all you control is a city-state with relatively small resources to draw upon.

Regards,

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 4:14 pm 
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Ian.Plumb wrote:
Naturally I am content to defer to your greater knowledge on the subject. :)

Not at all. I think it was very important that you pointed out that knowledge was not so much lost as simply impossible to apply. I suspect that KazianG is aware of this himself and has for this very reason written “lost”, but others perusing this thread might not. There are still so many crappy assumptions of a gecline in knowledge about that it is not asy to talk about the Middle Ages in comparison to Antiquity without encountering and inadvertently feeding wrong assumptions on the way. In fact there is in many a respect a stronger continuity between Roman times and the Middle Ages even in western Europe than many people know. But at the same time one must not assume or create the impression that there was no huge loss of knowledge. This is really an area where one cannot work with generalisations to whatever small a degree. In some areas, knowledge was lost or retained only by an inconsequential minority, in other areas it was retained theoretically, but circumstances did not allow for its application; and the balance between the two is not even the same everywhere in Europe.

Ian.Plumb wrote:
We can only imagine the frustration that must have been felt in the Byzantine Empire when they could see their territory eroded to the point of no return, knowing what needed to be done militarily to stop the process yet being unable to implement the disciplined, efficient war machine of their forbears.

The frustration is not only Byzantium’s, but already felt in Late Antiquity. It is exactly this frustrated sentiment that had Vegetius write his guidebook to earlier Roman ways of warfare. While the Roman army of the Late Empire is not just a decline from the High Empire but in many respects an appropriate answer to changing military needs, it is, due to economic, political, societal and infrastructural changes in the structure of the Roman Empire in some respects also a decline. The conditions that had allowed for the creation of the madly efficient Roman war machine were gone, and as they, or something approaching them, could not be recreated by neither Late Rome nor Byzantium neither could the war machine itself.

Ultimately, we are here grazing the surface of the question for the actual reason of he dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, the answer to which can be provided, but only by a few hours of painstaking explanation.

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 Post subject: Re: Legion of Anachronism
PostPosted: Mon Apr 25, 2011 8:35 pm 
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Grettir wrote:
Ultimately, we are here grazing the surface of the question for the actual reason of he dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, the answer to which can be provided, but only by a few hours of painstaking explanation.
I just read The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell recently where the main character (a norse pagan) guessed that the fall of Romans must have been caused by their conversion to "the nailed god" who was (as the character had often witnessed) woefully inept in aiding his followers. :mrgreen:

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