Battlefield rock, paper, scissors

Why do armies tend to consist of different types of troops, at least in complex societies that are able to bring a relatively large number of combatants out on the battlefield? The reason, of course, is that each type of warrior on the battlefield has different strengths and weaknesses. You field one type of warrior to offset the weaknesses of another type, and so on.

For example, a hoplite, especially in the Archaic period (ca. 700–500 BC), was heavily armoured. This meant that they were vulnerable to light troops, such as archers, who could loose their arrows at them from a safe distance; the hoplites would probably never be able to catch up to them or even if they did, they’d probably be too knackered to do anything.

This is why the great armies of history used combined arms tactics to make sure that they did not have any vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a cunning enemy general. If you are familiar with strategy games, you probably know about counters and especially hard counters: a types of fighter that is especially effective against another type of fighter, e.g. spearmen can easily defend against (‘counter’) charging cavalry. (When the distinction isn’t so clear cut, you use the term ‘soft counter’.)

Archer Jones, in his The Art of War in the Western World (1987), summarized the ‘tactical capabilities of weapon systems’ in a diagram on page 144. It looks like this:

Light (missile) infantry can successfully attack (hence the A) heavy (shock) infantry; they can each defend (hence the D) against light (missile) cavalry and heavy (shock) cavalry, respectively. Light cavalry can attack heavy cavalry and heavy infantry, and heavy cavalry is effective against light cavalry. Naturally, this is an abstracted view of the relationships between different types of troops: battlefield conditions obviously would have been incredibly important.

The diagram is printed in the chapter on the ‘Medieval ways of war’ (the starting date of which Jones places in AD 200). Indeed, for the ancient world, the distinction between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ cavalry is indeed tricky, since a lot of the time the heavy cavalry wasn’t more heavily armoured than the light cavalry. The main difference lay in the weapon used (the lance versus the javelin or even the bow).

Instead, for much of the ancient world, a simpler diagram would suffice:

If you’ve ever played a strategy game set in ancient times, such as Age of Mythology (2002), you’ll be familiar with this diagram or at least the relationship that it depicts. It’s essentially a tactical form of rock, paper, scissors, where one type of warrior beats (counters) another. In this case, missile troops (archers, slingers, javelineers) beat shock troops (spearmen, swordsmen), who in turn beat mounted troops (lancers, horse archers, and so on).

While such diagrams obviously simplify historical realities, they do give an idea of what the relationships between different types of troops were on the battlefield. They also seem intuitive: of course, armoured troops would be slower and more susceptible to missile fire. Of course, a unit of cavalry couldn’t charge directly into a line of pikemen.

As a study aid, such diagrams allow us to better gauge the tactics used in ancient battles, and the considerations that a general might have had about troop deployment. They also raise interesting questions. Where, for example, was the Persian cavalry at Marathon? Did they not deploy them for fear of the Athenian hoplites, or were other factors at play?

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