Battle Tactics: Classical Warfare and How Magic Might Change it.

One of the great weaknesses of Fantasy novels in my mind is in their battle descriptions. While many authors research some aspects of warfare diligently and present it intelligently, I find that few take their world’s Fantastic elements into account in the fortifications, warfare, and battle tactics of their world. Consider this: If a world was conquered by men and women who rode Dragons as weapons of war, wouldn’t the fortifications their descendants build reflect this? I frequently read novels where Dragons have been used as weapons of war, but almost all of them have castles and strongholds built in the medieval fashion. What good is a high wall if your opponent’s most fearsome weapon can simply fly over it?

A Castle built to defend against Dragons needs some form of hardened roof, dome, or defence platforms to repel aerial attack. Play a game like Dwarf Fortress, where you can be attacked by Dragons and other flying monstrosities and the weaknesses of the standard medieval model of fortification become immediately apparent. You might also live long enough to realize why having easily accessible tombs, graveyards, and garbage pits might be a bad idea when enemy necromancers come around.

For this article I am going to concentrate on the classical age: mainly Greek and Roman tactics with a little bit of the Celts and Carthage on the side. I’ll describe the main tactics in very basic detail and then give examples of how magic might chanage these.

Mob Melee [Default]: In the Classical age the default style of battlefield warfare was simply to group up and rush forward. Combatants attempted to crush the enemy through superior strength and the weight of the charge mass and if they failed to do so the combat immediately dissolved into a mass melee. In the melee skilled individuals could wreak havoc. Many peoples, including the Celts appeared to use this model of warfare. It also appears that this is the style of fighting described in the Iliad. I am oversimplifying.

  • In tribal warfare and early militias you fought with what you could afford. It was hard to create a serious formation with mismatched arms and armour.

The Phalanx [Formation Warfare 1]: The Phalanx is the dominant formation of the Hellenic age. With warrior cultures like Sparta and the Macedonian system, we see permanent units formed and true formation tactics arrive. The Phalanx at its simplest, is a mass of men formed into several lines armed with spears or pikes and shields. The men behind the front of the line can attack over the shoulders of those in front. Mob Melee is utterly ineffective against a Phalanx; the charging warriors cannot get close to the mass of the Phalanx without being impaled on spears. This method of warfare was so dominant, that the Greeks, who seem to have mastered it first, were at a huge advantage over other forces. Greek mercenaries were highly sought after. Two Phalanxes attacking each other became locked in a contest that was won by the side that either got help first or applied the most strength or discipline (here is an interesting post about two Hoplite Phalanx’s clashing)

  • It required a fair bit of training to form and hold a Phalanx well. The Spartans were a martial culture, raised to warfare while the Macedonians were nearly a professional army, constantly at war under Phillip and Alexander.
  • If an enemy could break past the pikes the long weapons would become a liability and the formation broke.
  • Most Phalanxes were effective against direct cavalry charges.
  • A Phalanx that came under missile attack could cross its spears to gain additional protection.
  • With formation training, complex manoeuvres became possible. An example of this was Macedonian soldiers parting on command to avoid flaming bundles and boulders being rolled down hills into their midst and instantly reforming.

A colourful depiction of a phalanx.

The Roman Legion [Formation Warfare 2]: The Roman Battle line gradually dropped the spears in favour of Javelins that were thrown at enemies to break up mob formations and Phalanxes alike. The Larger shields provided extra protection while the swords were better once an enemy closed and easier to use when tired. The Romans practiced cycling soldiers in and out of the lines to give tired soldiers a chance to rest. They also added special formations like the famous tortoise to their list.

  • The Pilum were made to pierce shield and bend, getting stuck in the shield and thus weighing it down. This was apparently effective enough against a Phalanx that the Romans could then close in and break the lines while maintaining their own.
  • Some forms of Mob Melee presented unique problems for the Roman formations that would have failed against a Phalanx. The heavy swords of the lightly armoured Dacians (the Falx) were apparently an issued since they could cleave through shield and helmets. This was solved by reinforcing both.
  • Romans used a very wide variety of specialty units, the best soldiers of client states and conquered peoples.
  • The Romans actually mixed their legion formations quite a bit over the years. Results varied.

Doesn’t quite capture the feel of the Legion formation, but I could not find a better pic.

Mounted Warriors in Classical Battles [Auxilliaries 1]: Cavalry in the Classical age was often used to attack the Flanks of Phalanxes that were engaged. Alexander was famous for using his cavalry to sweep through enemy infantry once they were engaged with his Phalanxes. Mounted warriors would often dismount to fight if they had to engage head on.

  • Stirrups, and thus long lances did not really appear until later.

Archers, Slingers, and Skirmishers [Auxiliaries 2]: Skirmishers provided a screen that distracted enemy cavalry and slowed phalanxes. These lightly armoured and highly mobile infantry were never really supposed to engaged the enemy directly. Archers were common in this period as well, but did not dominate. Slingers were of great uses against slow formations, they were shorter range than archers but apparently could hit very hard. All of these saw use alongside and against the main formations.

  • Few archers in this time period had easy access to bows powerful enough to penetrate heavy armour/shields. The Scytheans were noted.
  • While legion javelins were primarily used to break enemy formations, some skirmishers were known to use them as a primary weapon. The early Thracians were noted for this, in a few sources. The Iliad has a quite a bit of spear and javelin throwing, even a dude wielding two at once (take that RPG rules!)
  • Sling head-shots were apparently rather lethal.

Chariots [Default Auxiliaries  : Chariots show up as a form of noble warfare in the Celts and Early Greeks. They provided a mobile platform for missile attacks and a way for a heavily-armoured individual to get around the battlefield, dismount and fighting. The famous wheel scythes allowed some charioteers to really dominate mob melee and even do serious flanking damage to a formation.

Elephants [A Real Life Fantasy Unit?]: Elephants were encountered as weapons of war in this period. The sheer size and mass of a war-trained elephant allowed it to break all but the most disciplined of formations. The cost of food, training, and armour made them tough to field and maintain but they presented real problems to the Greeks and Early Romans.

  • Elephants and the tactics used against give a good example of how fantasy elements deform common tactics. The armies that ran up against them had to suddenly adapt to these unusual beasts.

Fantasy elements can change any of these.

Mages: Spell-casters are fairly common in fantasy tales these days. Wizards would likely have a tremendous impact on classical warfare.

  • Formations lasted well into the age of the cannon, but they were certainly changed by the advent of artillery. If you fantasy novel has mages involved in the conflict it changes the nature of the fight. Mages tossing exploding fireballs might spell the end of the Phalanx. Of course it could also mean that your legions use treated shields and a tortoise formation that helps reduces fire damage. Perhaps mages are attached to formations and strive to increased their soldiers strength, giving them an edge over enemy combatants (Tigana has something like this). Depending on the effective range of the magic being used this can really change the way fighting occurs.
  • Spells could be used to change the terrain, impeding formations and creating confusion.
  • Mages might just cancel each other out, waging a separate battle for dominance with spell and counter-spell until one side gains the upper hand and helps their troops.
  • Mages can also be used to counter fantastic creatures.

Fantastical Beasts/Races: If an Elephant is a problem, then a dragon is a real issue. Many fantasy novels feature huge and deadly creatures. Some of these are domesticated. If they end up being used in warfare, they change the nature of the field.

  • Unless your shields can withstand fire, then any creature that breathes fire will break formations and dominate the field. Dragons would likely be the center-pieces of whole armies in classical warfare unless some other way was found to stop them.
  • Flying units provide new angles of attack. Harpies can flank from the sky!
  • Giants, ogres, and trolls make for excellent formation breakers. They might get driven off by Phalanxes though. Well armed Giants fighting in formation would dominate the field. Of course, feeding that formation of giants might be a problem.
  • Elven archery and monsters with ranges attacks might also act as a substitute for magery here.

And what happens if your men are armed with enchanted weapons or elemental siege engines? Each element must be considered carefully. If you think it through, your readers will enjoy your battle-scenes more instead of questioning why your elven snipers don’t take down commanders or how on earth a motte and bailey seems useful in an age of Dragon Lords.

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4 comments on “Battle Tactics: Classical Warfare and How Magic Might Change it.

  1. Emmy says:

    This has given me food for thought. Great article on fantasy warfare. Must change some of my fictional defenses at once.

    • grimkrieg says:

      It is a thought exercise more than anything. Your best bet if you get stumped it to talk to other authors and fantasy gamers. If you do it correctly it often leads you to new places in your world-building, which can be fun 😀

  2. […] battlefield or the wars of the middle-ages pretty easily (if you don’t read this and this). Fireballs could blast formations to pieces and hereditary magic could bump the knightly […]

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