The Face of Battle
This entry was posted on October 13, 2017.
Tonight we're recording a new episode of the Ancient Warfare podcast (listen to the result). It's an 'in-betweener' so we won't discuss a recent issue. Instead, we'll be looking at a topic pitched by a Patreon supporter. He'd like us to discuss what we actually know about the up close and personal aspects of battle in the ancient world. I have no doubt whatsoever that our regular team will find plenty to discuss. That said, I figured I'd do some quick research. This topic has been debated for a long time...
We'll have to start with a debate on whether this subject is actually something we'll ever be able to discuss successfully. Certainly, we can (and will, and enjoy) debate the topic, but Cicero's On the orator offers a pertinent warning (2.18):
 Nor have I [Catulus] occasion for any Greek master to repeat his hackneyed precepts, when he himself never saw the forum, or was present at a trial; presumption similar to what is told of Phormio the peripatetic; for when Hannibal, driven from Carthage, came to Ephesus as an exile to seek the protection of Antiochus, and, as his name was held in great honour among all men, was invited by those who entertained him to hear the philosopher whom I mentioned, if he were inclined; and when he had signified that he was not unwilling, that copious speaker is said to have harangued some hours upon the duties of a general, and the whole military art;  and when the rest of the audience, who were extremely delighted, inquired of Hannibal what he thought of the philosopher, the Carthaginian is reported to have answered, not in very good Greek, but with very good sense, that ‘he had seen many doting old men, but had never seen any one deeper in his dotage than Phormio.’ Nor did he say so, indeed, without reason; for what could have been a greater proof of arrogance, or impertinent loquacity, than for a Greek, who had never seen an enemy or a camp, or had the least concern in any public employment, to deliver instructions on the military art to Hannibal, who had contended so many years for empire with the Romans, the conquerors of all nations? In this manner all those seem to me to act, who give rules on the art of speaking; for they teach others that of which they have no experience themselves. But they are perhaps less in error in this respect, that they do not attempt to instruct you, Catulus, as he did Hannibal, but boys only, or youths.”
In other words: don't discuss anything you're not experienced in. Daly, Cannae mentions Paul Fussell's doubts about whether his recent military experience qualified him to study battles of only a century ago, let alone those of thousands of years in the past (see e.g. Wartime).
And yet, students of ancient history have tried to get an idea of the experience of ancient battle for a long time. We tend to think of John Keegan's book The Face of Battle as the first attempt to do so, but that's hardly fair for ancient warfare. German and French officers studied the Greeks, Hannibal and Caesar extensively in the late 19th and early 20th century, and made many a pronouncement about battles in the ancient world. It's their thoroughness that still makes Kromayer and Veith's Atlas of Ancient Battlefields useful, though a century of new research has invalidated some of their points. Similarly, Ardant Du Picq's study of morale in warfare is interesting and has been highly influential for later studies.
Modern studies - which indeed started coming in a rush after Keegan - abound. One of the first is of course Victor Davis Hanson's Western Way of War (see Josho's commentary here). For the Roman experience of battle, you might look to the already mentioned book by Daly. Or check out J.E. Lendon's much admired Soldiers and Ghosts. And then there's a host of articles such as Phil Sabin's 'The Face of Roman Battle' JRS 90 (2000) or Everett Wheeler's 'Firepower: Missile weapons and the "Face of Battle"' Electrum 5 (2001). That's leaving aside those articles arguing in favour or against our ability of ever knowing what battle was like to begin with.
To sum up: I doubt I'll manage to read everything I'd like to read before our discussion tonight, but I very much doubt we'll lack material. You'll be able to listen to the results in 10 days or so...