“We romanticize swords so much. Imagine everyone is swinging tire irons at each other.”
– John Dolan
Anyone who tries to conceptualize military engagements from a millenia or two ago is going to have their impression heavily shaped by influences that themselves were heavily influenced by fantasists, such as pulp fantasy painter Frank Frazetta. It’s difficult not to imagine berserker Vikings axing their way through villagers caught off guard, vast Chinese or Japanese ranks struggling amidst forests of arrows, or Spartans plowing their way through, well, anybody. And all of it is done for optimal cinematic effect. People with a need for escapism will want to picture themselves in that situation, usually on the winning side.
While it’s no surprise that real life is very different from re-creations done for show, we often get the very basics wrong. So let’s take a look at what combatants from the distant past actually had to look forward to, and hopefully better appreciate how far removed we are from that reality. Not only was the past more horrifying than fiction wants us to believe, it was also often (and surprisingly) far more mundane.
10. Barbarian Mercenaries Caused Rome’s Decline
Unless a civilization reaches a degree of influence where it is designated an “empire,” it is invariably regarded as just an unusually large mob of savages. How often have we seen Roman conquerors pitted against dirt-caked crowds under haphazard piles of furs just running at the legions like kids being let out on the last day of school? This an especially handy perception when nationalists wish to claim that the Roman military heavily turning to barbarian soldiers in its last few centuries was the impetus to its downfall.
A close look at the historical record debunks this. Julius Caesar himself was very candid that the Gauls he faced for eight years demonstrated considerable organization. Their weapons, clothing, and social systems all demonstrated they had very well-organized infrastructure. More to the point, some of the greatest Roman victories, such as the 356 AD victory at Strasbourg, were overwhelmingly due to specialized barbarian cavalry archers at nearly three to one odds. Even Caesar relied heavily on mounted German mercenaries to save his army at Alesia, the battle he won at the longest odds of his career. The evidence indicates that if barbarian mercenaries were the cause of Rome’s fall, they had been key to its rise as well.
9. Ancient China Was Extremely Militaristic
We assume that because ancient nations were often at war, the only societies that would survive would be those which venerated the military. How were soldiers supposed to be motivated to go put their lives on the line if there weren’t concepts like martial honor to compel them, especially during times when there were limited material rewards to go around?
So it must be with Ancient China, which conquered such a vast and influential empire, right? This is a particularly common perception in the West, which primarily sees Ancient China through war stories such as Mulan, John Woo’s Red Cliff, or The Wall.
There’s some evidence gathered by historians that indicates anti-militarism was a mainstream view in Ancient China. Confucius, as influential an advisor as China ever produced, was noted for his dismissiveness of soldiers and argued that military conquests undermined a ruler’s legitimacy. There’s an adage from Ancient China: “Good men do not become soldiers.” Much harsher than the relatively recent American saying, “mamas, don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys.” A significant part of the appeal of Sun Tzu’s Art of War was that it prevented the loss of valuable resources and infrastructure to war by appealing to cunning over honorable warfare.
8. Greeks Thought Archers Were Cowardly
In the Greek classic The Iliad, the character Diomedes is hit by an arrow and calls archery fit only for cowards. As posited by Peter Gainsford, this fed the misconception that this viewpoint was a mainstream belief among the Greeks, and not the grousing of a specific wounded character. This belief was further supported by the way that the close quarters formation known as the phalanx became so highly venerated for its supposed invincibility. So these days you see depictions of the Greeks, such as in both the graphic novel and film 300, where Spartan King Leonidas says this explicitly.
In reality even the Spartans, the supposed pinnacle of phalanx fighters, regularly used archers as a suppression technique during maneuvers. To be fair, there are no surviving accounts of Spartan archers devastating enemies, like Welsh bowmen or Mongol horse archers are known to have done, but archaeologists have unearthed tributes to archers in ancient Sparta itself. Not that they needed to confirm this point, as Greek mythology and epics such as Homer’s Odyssey are full of tributes to heroic archers.
7. PTSD Wasn’t Acknowledged Yet
History classes often spread the idea that post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t really understood or recorded until the 20th Century. Even at the beginning of that era with World War I, the prevailing notion is that it was only dismissed as “shell shock.” Since life off the battlefield was so much harsher than modern amenities, it’s assumed people must have been conditioned with sterner stuff than they can muster now. Even Ancient Romans sometimes gave barbarian soldiers credit for being tougher because they believed civilization was softening up their troops.
Ancient historians might not have used the term “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but they recorded the effects nevertheless. Herodotus, famous for documenting the Greco-Persian Wars, named spear-carrier Epizelus as one suffering from psychological problems after the fighting ended. Centuries earlier, PBS reported that Assyrian tablets recorded the psychological harm that soldiers had suffered from their time in the service. While Ancient China does not have any known direct translation for the word, Huangdi’s Canon of Medicine from circa 200 BC very strongly alludes to veterans suffering from suspiciously similar psychological afflictions. The evidence indicates that less technology often does not necessarily produce super-soldiers.
6. Ancient Ships Rammed Each Other All the Time
Ancient ships ramming each other all the time seems like it would make sense, since wooden ships would naturally seem vastly more vulnerable to it than metal hulls. It’s very difficult to sink an enemy ship with arrows or any heavy equipment most ancient vessels could bring to bear in battle. Even using fire can result in an attacker’s own ship being set ablaze, an unusually literal example of backfiring.
But as consistently reported, such as in Raffaele D’Amato’s 2017 book Imperial Roman Ships, it was not something any captain would do if they could avoid it. A successful ramming still risks ruining the structural integrity of anything from the hull to the mast of the attacker. Further, even if a ship one-hit killed its enemy, there was the danger of the ram being caught and the rammer being taken down with the sinking ship. This was why even much ricketier ships were often more successful because of their improved speed and maneuverability, such as Constantine’s navy in the 4th Century AD.
This was the case in Ancient Asian naval combat as well. Even when the Korean navy began producing pioneer ironclad ships, which were celebrated for being unsinkable, they were hesitant to ram other ships with them because it was too risky. If anything, ramming ships is more common with modern navies, where ships have mass-produced interchangeable components, and the ability to scuttle ships making boarding a vessel for capture much riskier than back in the day.
5. Roman Uniforms That Were… Uniform
You know what an Imperial Roman soldier looked like. Red tunic, leather armor that ended in a sort of skirt. Makes sense the empire would want a standardized item of clothing to help form a sense of cohesion with its legion. Except according to surviving documents, the Roman Empire very often couldn’t be bothered to make the effort. In fact, payrolls show that they actually docked soldiers’ pay for their uniforms, so the poorer troops weren’t going to try that. There are a number of letters from the period where the soldiers ask their own homes to mail them some clothes, including a particularly celebrated letter where one poor soldier stationed in Britain wrote to home asking them to send him wool socks.
The idea every Roman dressed the same was overwhelmingly a Hollywood misconception. Those bright red uniforms looked very nice in Technicolor. It’s kind of a silly notion in hindsight: Red was a very expensive dye for the time, reserved for the nobles. Thinking every private dressed like that would be like if modern soldiers were portrayed as all going into battle wearing Louis Vuitton or Gucci uniforms.
4. Wars Were Won on the Basis of Single Battles
One of the long-held beliefs about the American Revolution was that the Americans won their independence because while they couldn’t defeat His Majesty’s armies in conventional battles, they could turn to guerilla tactics to win the day. While we’ve talked before about how true that is, history lessons often treat the notion of American rebels preferring guerrilla tactics as some sort of innovation. There are practical reasons to think this was the case: Less-developed agricultural technology would have meant that fielding an army was not plausible, as either side would need to send troops back for the harvests or face ruin at home.
Yet even in ancient times the concept of warfare and attrition were well understood. Emperor Fabius was particularly noted for his skill with them, and so the slang term of being tactically offensive to wear down an enemy, even one conventionally unbeatable in a pitched battle, acquired the nickname “Fabian tactics.” These would allow Rome to defeat Hannibal even as he slaughtered their armies four times on the Italian Peninsula during the Second Punic War. They almost brought Julius Caesar to a stop during the Gallic Wars, with Caesar giving Vercingetorix considerable credit for his skill in their use. According to New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare by Garrett Fagan and Matthew Trundle, even Sparta itself was brought to defeat by attrition warfare, in no small part because its extreme reliance on slave labor made their positions more tenuous if the troops had to be mustered for long. No amount of toughness will help troops that can’t be supplied or can’t seem to make progress.
3. Very Heavy Swords Were Common
It makes sense to assume that if a sword is going to be expected to chop away at people wearing armor and wielding shields, you’re going to want something as heavy as a sledgehammer. Not for nothing did warhammers become a popular implement by the time the Medieval era rolled around and soldiers needed to incapacitate those wearing the best deflections available.
Well, in truth swords have historically been pretty light. As pointed out by Escapist magazine, heavier broadswords were likely only going to weigh about four and a half pounds, meaning that if someone can wield an average laptop without much trouble they’re on their way to being in shape enough to wield a sword. Even the heaviest (or at least the very heaviest swords known to have been used in real combat), the Middle European Zweihander, weighed 8.8 pounds. Considering that an American Civil War musket weighed about 9.75 pounds, that means that soldiers that tried to bayonet or club their enemies were performing a more laborious task than the strongest ancient swordsmen.
2. The Soldiers Were All Men
Every time there’s a historical drama that features a woman wielding a sword in battle, internet commentators will come out of the woodwork to decry that as unrealistic. The assumption is that women and men are just operating at such inherently different levels of strength. Even fantasy programs such as The Witcher came in for heavy rebukes for these creative decisions.
The common rejoinder is to point out specific female combatants from ancient times, such as Queen Boudica or Queen Tomyris. But that’s a fundamentally flawed approach, as it implies that such soldiers were the exception that proves the rule. Let’s instead consider the armies where female combatants were a practice barely even worthy of comment: there were Trung Trac and Trung Nhi of Vietnam, who not only led a defense of Vietnam that drove out the Chinese in 40 AD, but who also trained a general staff of 36 other women. Or there were the numerous iron age Celtic burial sites which included chariots and female skeletons buried with them. Still not enough armies where this was a regularly accepted practice? Hopefully the accounts of East Africa, where regiments of female archers from Western Sudan, or similarly large units of female warriors from Ghana who were still being pitted against European armies during the Medieval era will be enough to make the case. No one at TopTenz can decide for you. We’re not your mother.
1. Long Swords are Ideal
As implied by the opening quote and our third entry, there is no arm through the ages as venerated as the sword. The most famous blade of kings, perhaps only the club is more universal. We’re certainly led to believe that an army armed with longswords would make short work of any row of spearwielders in close combat outside of maybe a phalanx.
According to History.com‘s analysis of ancient warfare, armies where the soldiers were relying on swords were at a considerable disadvantage. The sword, even a short sword, requires considerable elbow room to be wielded properly. This is partially why the Roman legion strongly preferred short swords known as gladiuses after closing with their enemies, though even that was substantially supported by javelins and slings to create gaps in enemy lines. In conclusion, in ancient war, even the most classy individualistic weapon was no match for unit cohesion.
Dustin Koski is the author of the fantasy novel A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, where a character wields a spearspade. He hopes that someday he can spread the misconception that they were real ancient weapons.