Truth or Fantasy?

By Terikel Grayhair

Rome:Total War has some pretty odd units. Are those real? Did they actually exist? Well, now you can read the story behind some of Rome:Total war's more exotic (and sometimes downright silly) units and find out for yourself if they are Fact or Fantasy.

The falx seems to be a fantasy creation at first glance- a long blade that can cut through metal and men with equal ease. It is no Ginsu blade, but cannot be far from it. What it was was a long hook-like blade, with the cutting edge on the inside of the blade- used in a pulling motion, rather than the outward slash. Pure Fantasy, eh? Well... No.

The Dacians did indeed use the falx in battle. The name comes from Latin, however, and means sickle, though interestingly enough, the word sickle derives from the Dacian name for the shorter falx- the sica. It was a rather long blade for the times, with the cutting edge upon the inside of the curve, rather than on the outside as in modern sabers as mentioned above.

There were two sorts of falxes- a long two-handed variety which necessitated a specially-trained warrior, or the more common one-handed variety similar to the swords the Thracian infantry use in Rome:Total War. The falx shown in the Dacian and Thracian units, however, resembles more closely the Thracian variant- the Rhomphaia- more so than the heavily-curved Dacian model.

It was one of the few weapons encountered by the Romans which caused them to modify their current equipment. Upon facing falxmen for the first time, the Romans were terrified to see the weapon slice through helmets, or chop off arms with a single blow. The next time the Romans went on the warpath, they had bronze crosses reinforcing their helmets, and metal plates covering their shoulders and lower legs.

The falxmen in history, unlike in RTW, did not serve in an organized unit of such. Like most barbarians, they were crudely grouped by fighting style instead of weapon type. The falx was a melee weapon, and thus grouped with others such as axemen and swordsmen.

Please note the error in the picture above. The falx shown in the Dacian's hand curves the wrong way- a true falx curved outward, and had its sharpened edge on the inside of the curve.

These existed, but not until the day of the Vikings. Tacitus does not mention them, nor does any classical historian I have perused. But later historians and chroniclers mention them in great detail- even down to the bear-skin capes and naked bodies. Viking lords used berserkers as throw-away weapons, unleashing them upon their foes to do their thing and then ignoring them. The men would work themselves up into their fury, the berserkergang, during which they could perform feats of amazing strength and be seemingly immune to weapons. Even lethal wounds could be ignored for a time. Their appearance and disposition was often enough to send showers of warm urine streaming down their opponent's trousers, as was the gibberish they spouted in this state.

Berserkers were far from honored. Most were treated with respect due them as prime warriors, but their tendency (not reflected in the game) to kill both friend and foe when in their berserkergang made them a double-edged sword. Killing a comrade in battle was among the lowest deed one could perform, and since berserkers often did just that, the other warriors reviled them. Only their awesome skill in battle earned them any grudging respect.

Berserkers were outlawed by Nordic kings in or about 1015, and anyone going into a berserkergang was to be punished by being outlawed for period no less than three years.

Night Raiders
These are actually true to form, surprisingly enough. Tacitus tells us of the Harii tribe in his Germania, which painted their shields black, dyed their bodies, and chose to fight almost exclusively at night. Their paint and dye, when coupled with their screeching in the attack, was done to terrify their opponents, just like in the game.

The Night Raiders were thus based on actual warriors who fought in actual groups and had actual unnerving effects, just like the units- making them in fact one of the most factual of the exotic units.

Head Hurlers
Kill a man, cut off his head, dip it in lime, let it dry, then chuck it at an enemy. Sounds awful. But it was indeed a custom among the Britons and Celts! There were no units of Head Hurlers- that part is pure fantasy- but the actual throwing of limed heads is a documented fact. The Celts were head hunters, and believed that the spirit of a man resided in his head. This made the head special, and sought-after. Lime was a preservative, treating the head with it kept the trophy for longer. And hurling it at an enemy was considered a major insult to the enemy. And the lime coating? It did indeed burn the skin where it impacted.

However, there were no units of these men. Individuals might throw their trophies, thinking them imbued with some magical power, but most heads collected would be treated and kept as souvenirs. The more powerful a warrior, the more value his head had.

British Chariots
Another unit of factual warriors in a fantasy unit. British nobles were famous for riding into battle upon their chariots. Historians mention their antics while doing so- running along the yoke, dancing between the horses, throwing spears as they passed a foe. Verily, archaeologists have recovered many such chariots, and restored some of them to their original condition.

The British chariot was a two-horse wagon, driven by one man while the noble warrior was free to perform his tricks and to fight. Considerable engineering went into the chariot to make it both light (and thus swift) and maneuverable while providing a stable fighting platform. They had rimmed wheels with spokes, and were often highly decorated. There were no blades on the hubs, though- never has a British chariot been unearthed with any indication it once had scythed blades on its hubs. Eastern chariots with bladed hubs have been recovered- but not a single British one to date.

Flaming Pigs
Sad, but true. Tarred pigs were indeed used in warfare- mostly by the Romans against the elephants of Pyrrhus. The squealing of the pigs, combined with the fire, drove the elephants insane. There were no pig farms with specially trained pigs or pig handlers, though- and once ignited, the pigs did not run in a preset direction but tended to scatter wherever Chaos took them.

They did indeed scare the living poop out of elephants, according to the sources. One could say they were surprisingly effective. Tasty, too.

As pigs are easier to come by in Europe than elephants, the use of imported elephants to fight in Europe died out.

Why on Earth would Rome:Total War have this unit? They can hardly fight, have no morale worth spit, tie up resources better used for true warriors, and have no historical counterpart?

Well, mostly. Besides their use in population redistribution, peasants are handy little buggers and are historically accurate. When cities were besieged in the old days, the male population of the city often joined the defenders. Maybe not always on the walls fighting, but doing the other tasks like bringing supplies, putting out fires, and such that freed up true warriors to serve on the walls. Later, in medieval times, peasants and serfs were called up to fight as part of a feudal lord's retinue.

Peasants were not organized into units as in the game, however.

Screeching Women
There was of course no unit recruited at a shrine to Freyja of these melodious maidens. But there were, in fact, detailed reports of women accompanying their men on German battlefields to provide morale support. Tacitus mentions them twice- in his Germania and again in his Annals, specifically at the battle near modern Nijmegen when Lupercus and the XV Primigenia and V Alaudae legions were sent packing back to Castra Vetera where they were later besieged.

He mentions in detail how the women would gather behind the warhost, and show their bosoms to flagging warriors while screaming that their loss that day would mean the enemy gaining these breasts as slaves. Women held an honored position in German tribes, and were seen as holy spirits as shown by their adoration of such as Aurinia and Veleda. Slavery was the fate of cowards and the unlucky- and letting one's women fall into that fate was a hideous deed. Thus the men were encouraged to fight harder.

Sometimes it worked.

Praetorian Cohorts
Everyone who ever read a word of Roman history knows that the Praetorian cohorts were indeed factual units. They were chosen from among the elite at first for the honor of guarding the emperor- and were the only troops allowed by Roman law to be based in or around Rome itself. Most generals had a picked group of bodyguards when on campaign. Since these men guarded the praetorium- or headquarters of the general, they became known as praetorian cohorts. Augustus created a similar bodyguard for himself, and used the same name for these imperial guards- the praetorian cohorts- though only one cohort was patrolling the public buildings in Rome at any one time. The rest were spread throughout towns nearby where they could do no harm.

Tiberius allowed the other eight praetorian cohorts to move into a Praetorian Barracks (Castra Praetoria) built just outside Rome, and it was from this time that the praetorians began enjoying political power. The emperors relied upon them as a legionary force at hand, and in turn they began to consider the emperor and his throne as their own- one which they could replace at will and often did.

So from being initially the best troops in the Empire, they fell from military power to assume political power. They became less fearsome as warriors and more a police force and finally emperor-makers until finally disbanded by Constantine I.

Urban Cohorts
This was a factual unit. Really. Augustus had them created for Rome. Honest. But they were not super-troops who could stand up against elephants and whittle them down with their gladii and pila until there was nothing before them than pachydermal bones. No, the true urban cohorts were more firemen and police officers than combat troops.

Fire had always been the biggest threat to any city, even a city built in stone. Rome was then, much as today, a city of apartment-buildings. During the civil wars, riots had often broken out as one faction or another was angered by some event. Thus, to keep order in his beloved city, Augustus created the cohors urbanae, under the direction of the urban prefect, to act as a heavy-duty police force to back up the vigiles (night watch and fire brigade) and force a reduction in the activities of the mobs that used to run rampant over the city in the Republican days.

The urban cohorts were the same size and strength of the praetorian cohorts, though there were initially only three of them in Rome itself. They shared many of the same facilities as the praetorians, and soon came to be seen as a balancing force against the praetorians. This is probably where RTW gets the inspiration to make them so powerful in the game. But whereas the praetorians were soldiers first and police second, the urban cohorts were primarily a paramilitary police force for riot duty and fire prevention who rarely saw battle. This led to the praetorians being seen as the more prestigious unit.

Head Hunting Maidens
Girls with cleavers, seeking to kill? True! Well, maybe not the cleaver part, but both Sarmatian and Scythian warhosts were known to have both male and female warriors. Indeed, Herodotus wrote much of their women, thinking their descent must be from the legendary Amazons. Indeed, he even mentioned a custom that no girl could wed until she had killed in battle. Hippocrates mentions something similar.

And, recently, tombs have been discovered in Southern Siberia with women dressed as warriors, and buried with their weapons, giving credence to the outlandish claims of Herodotus. They did indeed fight alongside the men, share the same dangers, and were every bit as tough and hardy as the other warriors of the tribe.

The arcani, Rome's Nijnas. Cowflops. If any unit here is completely fantasy, it would be this one. The twin swords, incredible stamina, black armor, and ability to hide anywhere, even on an open field- all pure unadulterated fantasy. Right?

Wrong. There were arcani, at least groups named such. Arcanus means 'hidden ones' or 'secret ones' in Latin, and the arcani themselves were spies and scouts of the empire. A shadow organization, they were never mentioned but once in ancient texts- and that in Britannia. They were accused of treason by allowing the barbarians- whom they knew were gathering for an attack- to do so without giving word to the garrisons. After the barbarians were repelled and Britannia set in order by Theodosius, the arcani there were disbanded in disgrace.

Other groups may have existed, but being hidden scouts and spies, never mentioned in ancient texts. It seems rather odd that spies and scouts of this nature were used only in one province, and not throughout the border regions, thus leaving one open to suggestions that other units did exist, but being secret, were never mentioned because they performed their tasks properly. But they were far from the battlefield ninjas of our beloved game.

Sacred Band of Carthage
I thought the Sacred Band was Theban, wiped out to a man by Philip II of Macedon at Charonaea. It was, but before they perished, Greek historians had labeled another group as the Sacred Band- a rather large unit from Carthage. The Thebans had three hundred in their Sacred Band, whereas the Carthaginians had two to three thousand. Unlike the Thebans, the Carthaginian Sacred Band soldiers were not lovers. They were volunteers from among the city's wealthy and/or noble classes, lavishly armed and equipped, then trained as a phalanx. They were deemed Sacred because unlike most armies, Carthaginian forces were not citizen-armies but rather hired mercenaries and allies. Very few Carthaginian citizens served in the armies, yet the Sacred Band was a unit consisting entirely of citizens.

It was considered an honor to serve in the Sacred Band of Carthage, though it was not the wisest choice for career opportunities. The Sacred Band of Carthage was annihilated to a man in Sicily in 341 BCE. It was reformed, then wiped out again in 311 BCE. Twice within forty years two to three thousand wealthy and/or noble Carthaginian citizens died on the field of battle- a staggering loss to the city. Thereafter the Sacred Band was never reformed- not even during the First Punic War, which is probably why most people have never heard of it.

Bull Warriors
Bullshit Warriors is a better name for these tough Spanish warriors. Nowhere outside of Rome:Total War have these warriors existed.

Though pure fantasy as both a warrior and a unit, Bull Warriors do have a small toehold in the realm of reality. The true warriors in Spain of the time, both the native Iberians, the Celtiberians, and the Celts, were much hardier and more elusive than the game can portray. There were among the warriors men who could perform great feats of strength and courage. Men like these, when well-led and used wisely, made life a living hell for the Carthaginians and the Romans who came to conquer Spain.

The Bull warriors represent those tough men.