Friday, March 24, 2017

The Roman Legion – Structure

Roman legionnaires were the quintessential fighting machines of their time, a perfect amalgam of courage, discipline, and athletic ability. Consider marching over 20 miles a day with heavy armor, swimming across rivers, constructing bridges and roads, and waging war. In other words, each legionnaire was an intrepid decathlete meets MacGyver, which kind of explains Roman dominance. Still, the Empire’s success on the battlefields was not simply founded on elite soldiers but on sound tactics which optimized their effectiveness. For many years, the Roman army used the tried and trusted Greek phalanx formation, which was effective till enemies evolved into faster, more mobile units. The Romans duly adapted and organized their army into the following groups. 

Velites: The Velites were the youngest and the most inexperienced soldiers, who were also the poorest to serve in the Roman army. Their name is derived from the light pilum or hasta velitaris which they carried. The Velites were used for initial skirmishes. Usually, their job was to throw their pilums at the enemy and retreat to the back to be replaced by the first line of heavy infantry – the Hastati. 

Hastati: The Hastati, like the Velites, were made up of young individuals who just happened to be wealthier and could afford the classic Roman armor.  They carried the traditional pilum and the short Roman sword, the gladius. The Hastati wore helmets adorned with plumes that reached a foot and a half in height, which made them look bigger and more intimidating. They were the first to meet the enemy in melee combat and if things didn’t go to plan, they fell back and let the crème de la crème of the infantry, the Principes, strut their stuff.

Principes: These soldiers were, age-wise and in physical terms, at the peak of their powers. They considered it their obligation to give victory to the Roman army. The Principes were wealthier than the Hastati and, at times, wore better armor. They would initially interchange with the Hastati, giving the latter much needed breaks, before engaging in earnest battle. Most importantly, this group could fight.

Triarii: The oldest and the most experienced soldiers made up the Triarii. They wore armor similar to the Hastati and Principes but had a somewhat different role. They were the Roman army’s last resort and would only get involved if the heavy infantry met with resistance. The Triarii charged the enemy with phalanx style spears and this shock attack usually allowed the Hastati and Principes time to regroup. 

Cavalry: The primary function of the Roman cavalry was to ensure that the infantry was not outflanked. Also, they were in charge of hunting down enemies who fled from the battlefield. It is interesting to note that the Romans, for all their skills, were not the greatest on horseback and so the cavalry included a fair number of African and Gaul mercenaries.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Which Sword are You: One-handed or Two?

Which of these two medieval sword forms was the more effective weapon – the one-handed or the two-handed sword? This post will not attempt to influence opinion either way. What we will do is provide a summary for both and let you decide. So, here goes.

Let’s take arguably the most common of each of these swords, the one-handed Arming sword and the two-handed Longsword, as reference points. The Arming sword measured about 28–31 inches and was a light, versatile weapon that could be wielded by one hand. This meant that the free hand or the offhand could be used to hold a shield or buckler for protection. This one-handed sword was very effective in close-quarter combat due to its small size and maneuverability.

At 33–43 inches, the heavier, two-handed Longsword was more difficult to wield. However, this did not make it an inferior weapon. In fact, the two-handed sword was extremely effective in conjunction with full-body armor. During the latter part of the medieval period, armor evolved and the shield was no longer a necessity. A bigger sword in two hands generated more power and was especially needed to damage similarly armored adversaries.

The growing popularity of two-handed swords did not wipe the one-handed sword from existence. In fact, the latter was used by light troops even after gunpowder came into the picture. One can say that it outlasted its longer, heavier counterpart.

So, which of these two was the better tool? In the battlefield, a full-armored soldier with a two-handed sword was the fiercer proposition. For day-to-day protection, the one-handed sword was by far the more convenient option; carrying a Longsword to the marketplace just does not seem cool or feasible. In a war scenario, the Longsword and armor almost always beats the Arming sword and shield. Without armor in let’s say a random street duel, the Longsword is severely disadvantaged against the smaller one-handed sword which affords the luxury of a free hand to hold another weapon or a means of protection.

Verdict: If you are a person who likes to bet safe, keep the money in your pocket on this one.

One-handed and two-handed swords were not limited to the Arming sword and the Longsword, respectively. For more extensive information on these weapons and swords in general, click here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Clements #16 The Dawn and Dusk of the Viking Sword

The swords of the Norse are among the most iconic in history. Among students of arms they continual to be one of the most popular weapon forms of the West...and for good reason. There is no denying their austere beauty, originality, and technical quality. But there are aspects to them not generally considered. We have to ask not only why did they originate but what happened to them? Viking swords owe a debt to their earlier cousins among the blades of Dark Age "barbarian" tribes. But they soon came into their own, both functionally and aesthetically. It's easy to grasp how a culture that emphasized the prowess of the individual warrior fighting almost, but not entirely, on foot in tribal skirmish and feuding clans, would come to favor a particular type of fighting blade. They would naturally gravitate toward a beefy yet elegant sword useful in both single combat or clash of short battle over one fit for large formations of trained soldiers on campaign. They would need one practical for a shipboard encounter, shield-wall defense, rural raid, or sudden personal assault. They would need one that could deal with targets wearing more than just thick furs and leathers as well as the increasingly effective defense offered by chainmail. They would need a weapon that could whip around to strongly chop and slash at a large opponent adroitly wielding an agile wooden shield as much as the cleaving blows of an agile battle-axe. It would need a cross-section that was flexible and resilient to withstand beating against hafted weapons and warding off blows, yet robust enough to deliver shearing cuts on flesh and bone.

Such a sword would require a grip that allowed the single hand to hold on snugly while still providing maximum suppleness to the wrist. All these elements and more were achieved in the swords of the Vikings. Surprisingly, aside from a few lines in the Sagas, virtually all we actually know about the properties of Norse swords comes almost entirely from examination of a small quantity of surviving specimens of generally poor condition and experiments with modern replicas of these examples. There simply isn't the body of literature and artwork about them that exists for the swords of later centuries and other cultures. Nonetheless, what we do know is that there were regional differences among Norse swords even as there was a mutual influence between them and those from elsewhere in Europe. Curiously, on top of this, the distinction between Viking sword blades and those used by the Anglo Saxons and even the Franks are not all that great. Yet, it is Norse swords which have come to stand out. To see the larger picture, merely consider that all sword designs and their manner of construction are a compromise. They are a trade off between the limitations of the maker's ability to work available materials and the technical demands of their function as a lethal weapon. It's a life-and-death matter of being effective in the different kinds of offensive and defensive actions they can perform contrasted with their sharpness, toughness, and resilience. Achieving an aesthetic harmony in these elements is surely what defines the best swords. Though, keep in mind, in earlier ages a sword was crafted by a smith only in relatively small quantities through considerable labor and cost. Such a prized tool would be well-decorated, well-kept and, because the mysteries of metallurgical science were still unknown, always considered with a certain awe. To the fighting man, it was a matter of practical survival (along with a certain mysticism), and Viking swords in particular were emblematic of all this. Yet, when examined in this context, the deeper reality is that the Vikings did not face an especially wide array of particular enemies for which their swords proved decidedly effective over others. And in time, they were supplanted by newer knightly arming swords even as the Norse themselves supplanted their older faith and culture with that of Christendom. Eventually, their indigenous sword style was overshadowed by a slightly tapering design with a somewhat thicker cross-section that enabled a more versatile action from cut to thrust and back again against thick metal-rimmed shields and the more resistant armors coming into use. As effective on foot as on horseback, with a cruciform hilt adapted for agile use in either one or two hands, the classic Medieval sword was born. These newer swords with strong biting edges and generally more narrower points were at least as deadly and reliable. They proved effective against different armor designs while being balanced for use by fighters wearing such in combat. Their hilt style also provided these blades the necessary maneuverability to fight against a host of adversaries amidst clashing armies on campaign, fortress sieges, and knightly judicial combats. It's possible their method of forging may even have been significantly less intensive. Just as Viking ships served out their utility until newer designs and maritime eventually rendered them unnecessary, the age of the Vikings also ended...and so did their traditional sword. But their heroic, albeit sometimes brutal, allure cannot be denied. That the renown these very personal weapons earned is due as much to the ferocity and tenacity of the tales surrounding their users, as well as the distinctive beauty of their form, its part of their lore. They earned their niche in martial history and no student of the subject can overlook their importance nor consider themselves informed without deeply exploring these proud entries in the world of fighting blades.