Short of going back in time, the best way most of us have to get a feel for what battle was like back in the day is by watching TV and movies. Unfortunately, both of these have bred a number of misconceptions about what went on in ancient warfare. Such as…
10. Spartans Were Great Warriors
The sword and sandal genre of film that brought popularity to many a Greek epic is also in part responsible for the modern belief that Spartans were exceptional warriors on the battlefield. And no film has done more to cement this belief than 300.
In real life, while the Spartans were no doubt capable on the battlefield, they certainly did not have a reputation among the rest of the Greek States as being formidable or even noteworthy for their battle prowess. In fact, in one story, some people from Aigiai went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who were the best of all the Greeks. The oracle served them a pretty wicked burn by suggesting that they were arguably the worst of all the Greeks, but in listing who were the best the only nod that the Spartans got was for the quality of their women. It was the people of Argos who got mentioned for being skilled on the battlefield.
At the Battle of Champions in 550 BCE, 300 Spartans took on 300 Argives and the end result was that one Spartan survived while two of their enemies lived. If nothing else that indicates they were evenly matched, with a slight edge to the Argives.
As for the famous battle that the movie 300 depicted, it’s true that King Leonidas of Sparta led an army of 300 Spartans to face off against a massive force of Persians. He also led about six or seven thousand other Greeks from numerous other city-states, and for two days they held off the Persians at a mountain pass. However, the forces of Xerxes were able to circle around the Greek army and while most of them fled, the Spartans stayed behind. The Persians removed Leonidas’ head after he was killed. It was certainly an act of remarkable bravery on behalf of the Spartans, but the fact is they were not victorious in battle, and did not prevent the Persians from continuing on through Greece.
9. Knights Were Honorable
Most of us think of knights as being honorable people, given that’s where the very concept of chivalry comes from. This myth has often been reinforced in books and film, in particular as it relates to anything from Arthurian legends. Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Sir Gawain, and all the rest were courteous and honorable men. But the reality was that knights were often just men with swords. They were hired muscle that had the skill and desire to hurt other people if you wanted them to. An armored man on horseback in medieval times was not too much different from a tank today.
In reality, the code of knightly conduct that we think of as it relates to how knights are meant to behave, and the rules they should follow, actually did exist and it came about in direct response to the fact that so many knights were lawless, savage individuals.
The church developed the chivalric code after the attack on Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. That battle, and many before it, saw knights brutally laying waste to civilians. They would kill, they would steal, and they would rape with impunity because no one could stop them. And that is the only reason why the church sought to create rules in an effort to curtail their behavior.
8. Medieval Armor was Incredibly Heavy
It’s been a long-standing belief for some that a knight in a full suit of plate-armor would be extremely weighted down and clunky. There’s a scene in Laurence Olivier’s version of Henry V in which a crane is used to lift a knight in full armor onto his horse. This gave rise to a modern belief that knights were so bogged down by the weight of their armor that they could barely move, and had to be hoisted onto their horses in order to become mobile again.
In reality, a suit of armor typically weighed somewhere between 45 and 55 pounds. A modern Marine is going to carry anywhere between 60 and 100 pounds worth of gear with them into combat. Even a modern firefighter carries somewhere between 30 and 40 pounds worth of gear when they’re at work.
7. Boiling Oil Was a Common Castle Defense
Castles were highly fortified and nearly impenetrable when it came to ancient warfare. They giant boxes made of stone, after all. Still, they needed to be defended, and what better way to eliminate a small mass of enemies attempting to storm the gates than by dumping a cauldron of boiling oil on them from above? It seems entirely possible when you say it like that, and odds are you’ve seen it once or twice in a film as well. However, it may not have actually gone down like that in real life.
Oil is no cheap substance, and it was much harder to come by back in the day. Modern technology has made the process of refining oil much easier, but in ancient times getting enough oil together to fill a cauldron and then boil it was going to take quite a bit of time and money.
There is little evidence to suggest this was a common practice in defending castles. More likely was boiling a pot of water and dumping that over the side on some enemies. Failing that, hot sand was also something that could be dumped on enemies, as finding extremely hot sand filtering through your armor was likely to burn skin pretty badly. But oil was simply not in plentiful enough supply to make this a practical weapon by any means.
6. Knightly Combat Was Highly Skilled
It seems like a knight should have been a highly skilled fighter and in many cases that was true. But not in every case. And even if a knight had spent years fine-tuning their combat readiness, in the heat of the moment it wasn’t necessarily practical that you go toe to toe with perfect sparring technique against your foe.
In many cases the combat between knights was less about finesse in battle and more about who could thump the other guy over the head the hardest. Given that both of these people could have been heavily armored, your skill with swordplay wasn’t always of the utmost importance.In fact, military historian Robin Neillands was quoted as saying that ‘knightly warfare as involving no great skill, being simply a matter of bludgeoning one’s opponent to the ground.’
5. Knights Were Always Killed in Battle When they Lost
War is generally a brutal affair, and there’s not a lot of mercy to be seen on a battlefield. That kind of defeats the purpose of war in the first place. However, it’s also not unheard of for there to be times when killing is not the be-all, end-all of war.
When knights met on the battlefield in war it was not always a kill-or-be-killed situation, simply because of financial reasons. A knight that survived a battle is worth more than one that did not. Not only could you loot the gear from a knight that you defeated in battle, you could also ransom them to whatever lord they may have served. At the Battle of Brémule in the year 1119, three knights lost their lives and 140 others were taken prisoner. This would certainly be in part because knights who considered themselves Christian didn’t want to spill the blood of other knights, but the fact that they were worth so much money was definitely a consideration as well.
4. All Battles Started with Charges
The charge is a staple of battle that most of us have seen time and again in movies. Two enemy forces on opposite sides of the field of battle, and then at just the right moment both sides rush together like absolute madmen, weapons drawn, meeting in the middle in a clash of steel and gore. It makes for a hell of a scene on film, and it makes absolutely no sense in real life.
That’s not to say a charge is a maneuver that’s never been done before. It certainly has, and cavalry charges have a long history in warfare. But if you are looking to actually win battles, an intelligent general is absolutely not letting his soldiers run roughshod over the enemy with no order whatsoever. Part of the reason the Roman armies were so successful in battle is because they had made good use of the phalanx. That is an ordered unit of soldiers working together in formation. Breaking formation is what ended up losing battles. When soldiers stay in formation, they are in a far better position to defend against the enemy.
The problem with formation battle maneuvers is they don’t particularly look exciting on film.
3. There Were No Real Female Warriors (like Amazons)
One of the most popular tales from Greek history and mythology involves the warrior tribe known as the Amazons. This is thanks, in no small part, to Wonder Woman. When conflated with other tales from Greek mythology like those of Hercules, it’s a common belief that the idea of Amazons was purely fictional. In fact, that’s not true at all.
Evidence from burial sites found around Russia has shown that Scythian women, whom Herodotus believes were descendants of the Amazons after the two peoples came together, were very much warrior women. Unearthed grave sites show women that were buried alongside their weapons. Their skeletons show that they were bow-legged, indicating they spent a lot of time on horseback, and they were also unusually tall for the time period in which they lived. So, in fact, they truly were giant warrior women. At least, as far as some Greek warriors may have been concerned.
2. Swords Were Heavy
Undoubtedly you have seen at least one movie in which a character moves to pick up a broadsword that another character had just been holding, and collapses under the weight of the thing. It’s almost unquestioned by modern standards that a sword had to be a big, brutish weapon that was incredibly unwieldy, except for in the hands of the most highly skilled and powerful knights of old.
The truth of the matter is that swords were not unwieldy at all. When you think about it, how could they have been? If a sword was hard to move, then it was no good in battle. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, the momentum created by swinging a massive, heavy piece of metal would have made it almost impossible to use in battle.
The average sword used by people in medieval times would have been between two and a half and three and a half pounds. A hand and a half war sword would probably be around four and a half pounds. Even the largest two-handed swords used by the most powerful fighters rarely weighed more than three kilograms, which is only about six and a half pounds.
1. Blood Grooves Were to Bleed an Enemy
There is a line down the center of many swords that you may have noticed if you’ve taken the time to look at one. This shallow groove extends nearly from the hilt to the point of a blade. You’ll see them on bayonets, some Japanese blades, and even some combat knives as well. The proper name for this groove is a fuller, but they’re also known as blood grooves and blood gutters.
The name blood groove has given rise to the belief that the point of a fuller was to allow blood to seep out of the wound after you stabbed an enemy, causing them to die more quickly. If there was no blood groove in the blade then theoretically the blade itself could plug the wound and the victim would not bleed very much at all. The groove ensured that blood would be spilled, and your victim would soon die; if not from the wound itself, then from blood loss.
The truth of the matter is that a blood groove has nothing to do with blood. Instead, the fuller is included in the design of the blade when a blacksmith is making it as a way to reduce the overall weight of the weapon. A blade with a properly designed fuller can be upwards of 35% lighter than an otherwise identical blade that does not have a fuller in it. There’s no sacrifice in the integrity of the blade itself, or its ability to function.