Battles in the ancient world (part 2)

This is the second instalment in a series of eight blog posts on types of battles fought in the ancient world. In the first part, I wrote about pitched battles, also known as “set-piece” battles. A pitched battle was fought whenever two opposing armies decided to engage each other, usually in order to pursue a decisive victory. It was therefore quite different from a chance encounter, in which an army ran into its opposing number while on the move and decided to immediately attack.

The meeting engagement

A meeting engagement or encounter battle is not a carefully planned battle for at least one of the two sides involved. Instead, an army comes across the enemy – or has only a vague idea of where the enemy is – and the general in charge decides to attack immediately, rather than disengage and organize his forces. One of the most famous meeting engagements in history is probably the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), fought between Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War. Battles like these differ from ambushes or surprise attacks in that neither side is actively seeking an advantage before combat or attempts to take the enemy by surprise.

A meeting engagement is usually the result of insufficient reconnaissance. Ancient armies did use scouts and spies, but – like all human endeavours – reconnaissance was also the subject of human error and oversight. In his Hellenica (3.2.14–20), Xenophon tells the story of how the Spartan commander Dercylidas very nearly ran into a Persian army already deployed for battle. Some ancient historians emphasize the lack of proper reconnaissance to point out hubris on the part of one of the combatants. For example, during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the Athenians were confident that the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies would never be able to attack the Piraeus without their knowing in advance. They were duly surprised when a Peloponnesian force did appear and only managed to narrowly avert disaster (Thuc. 2.93).

The Battle of Mantinea (418 BC) can be considered an encounter battle. The Spartans, under the command of Agis, wanted to engage the Argives and their allies, but the latter could not be moved to abandon their advantageous position on a steep hill. Instead, Agis led his troops away so they could fill up sinkholes to flood the territory of Mantinea. The Argives took advantage of this situation and rushed to meet the Spartans, who were taken by surprise as they emerged from a nearby forest. The Spartans had to deploy their forces quickly to meet the Argives. After a fierce battles, the Argive’s right was forced to rout and victory belonged to the Spartans.

During their escape from hostile country, the Greek mercenary army known as the Ten Thousandcame to rely heavily on scouts in order to avoid being taken unaware by enemy forces, whether Persian or hostile natives. Xenophon made heavy use of scouts to both avoid being surprised by enemy troops and to gain knowledge of the terrain, which would be vital if the Greek forces had to be arrayed for battle at short notice. During the whole trek through Persian territory back to the Aegean, the Ten Thousand were constantly on the defensive (for more on the Ten Thousand, see Ancient Warfare VII.5).

Perhaps the most famous encounter battle of the ancient world is the Battle of Cynoscephalae(197 BC). Roman forces numbering perhaps around 30,000 men and under the command of Titus Quinctius Flaminius marched from Thebes toward Pherae in search of Philip V of Macedon. The two armies met near Pherae where Philip’s troops were defeated in a cavalry skirmish. Both sides then marched away in search of food. The hilly nature of the landscape caused them to lose track of each other’s position. Unaware of the other army’s location, the two forces made camp on opposite sides of a series of small, rocky hills called the Kynoskephalai (“Dogs’ Heads”). Both sides sent out some cavalry or light troops, which met in a brief skirmish. The Romans were about to be defeated when reinforcements joined. The two opposing armies quickly deployed for battle, pitting Macedonian phalanx against Roman legion, similar to the later Battle of Pydna (168 BC), with the Romans emerging victorious.

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