Real Heroes

by D Furius Venator

I Need a Hero!

The importance of individual courage on the ancient battlefield.

The following owes much to the work of John Keegan, who revolutionised the study of war in the 70s, though much of his inspiration came from the 19th century Frenchman du Piq and the 20th century American military historian Marshall. Latterly, Keegan has been followed by Hanson (for Greek warfare) and Goldsworthy (for the Roman army). I'd recommend the works of all three; though dissent from Hanson in his analysis of how the hoplites used their weapons.

Often when we look at ancient battles we do so from the point of view of the commander; or more precisely, what we imagine the commander's point of view to have been. Thus at Cannae we see the brilliance with which Hannibal lured the legions forward whilst he destroyed their cavalry with his and then enveloped them; at Pharsalus we admire Caesar's reinforcement of his cavalry with legionary cohorts, decisively routing Pompey's horse and turning the battle in his favour; we stand in awe as Epaminondas destroys the Spartans with his echelon attack in deep columns.

Alternatively we admire the qualities of certain units, with an emphasis on their weaponry. The Macedonian phalanx, monolithic yet flexible, the finest infantry of their age, advanced behind an invincible wall of pikes; Imperial legions, iron men with iron purpose, snug in lorica segmentata hurled their pila into the foe before closing with the gladius; the Parthian horse archer humbling the might of Rome with volleys of arrows shot from cantering horses.

Seldom do we look at the individual soldier and the impact that was made by a few brave men. The soldier, especially the long service professional is regarded almost as an automaton. The fact that he is a human being, with human weaknesses is overlooked, or lip service is paid to the concept: troops are dismissed as 'recruits' to explain a rout, or as 'crack troops' to explain unlikely success. I want to draw attention to what might be described as 'Homeric' episodes; a single warrior, often a junior officer like a file leader or centurion, turning the tide of a unit action by a feat of personal bravery and I want to assert that such actions were not rare in ancient battles but relatively commonplace (though few men were capable of such feats), and that it was those actions as much as tactical brilliance or unit organisation and equipment that would ensure victory.

Modern studies of men in battle have revealed that in any unit only 15-25% of a unit actually fight with any intent to kill the enemy. This is often a difficult concept to grasp, so conditioned are we to imagining that well trained soldiers are efficient killing machines. But as human behaviour has not changed in its essentials in the past three millennia (at least), we can be confident that the ratio would have held as good for a hoplite phalanx at Marathon, a Roman cohort at Pharsalus or a Gallic war band at the Sambre as it did for a British infantry company at Monte Cassino or US paratroops in Normandy. It is just possible that the Spartans may have overcome the 25% 'cap' of what the British army termed 'gutful men', the effective troops, but their system was unique in history and their collapse against the Thebans suggests that they were as susceptible as other men to failure of morale if pushed far enough.

So what is it that the 'gutful men', perhaps as many as 100 in an experienced Roman cohort, an average of about fifteen per century, did that the other men did not? We can be fairly confident that they would make up the 'officers' of a Roman cohort. The centurion, the signifer and the optio would account for three of the fifteen and would most often lead the unit with displays of conspicuous gallantry. The remaining twelve would be those most ready to follow in a charge and actually close with the enemy, or hold the line in a retreat. If a century formed six deep and twelve across then it is possible that the 'gutful' would have formed the front rank, though we should be wary of drawing conclusions from such neat arithmetic. It is as important for units to have steady men in the rear as from the front because routs start when the rear men waver and turn to run, not the front rankers who have nowhere to go (their passage to safety is blocked by the men behind. Likely each contubernium (the mess unit of eight men) contained one or perhaps two of these 'gutful men' whose resolve the less aggressive would seek to emulate and whose contempt they would seek to avoid by holding their place if not fighting as aggressively.

Some examples:

  • Sabinus and eleven of his comrades (from an auxiliary cohort perhaps 240 strong in action, so perhaps 5% of its strength) are the only ones to mount an assault on a breach in the Antonia fortress at Jerusalem (Josephus VI 54f). Sabinus reached and took the wall alone. Eight survived the unsuccessful attack. All were wounded and brought down by their comrades, indicating that the mass of the cohort was near the action but unwilling to commit until they had seen the results of the assault party of 'gutful men'.

  • Later in the siege of Jerusalem, a centurion seeing a party of Romans retreating in disorder launched a single-handed attack that drove the Jews back in panic. He was unfortunate to slip on smooth flagstones and seeing him fall, the Jews rallied and dispatched him only after a prolonged struggle (Josephus VI 81f).

  • The veteran primus pilus Crastinus 'was the first man to engage the enemy. He hacked his way through the first rank and was still pressing forwards ...when he was [killed]' (Plutarch, Caesar 44).

  • At Carrhae, the Romans harassed by cataphracts: 'Some...found the courage to dash out against their attackers' (Plutarch, Crassus 27).

  • There is also the famous case of the aquilifer of the Tenth Legion prepared to assault the shores of Britain single-handed (Caesar, Gallic Wars, IV 25). In the event, his action was enough to precipitate a full-scale assault.

  • The Persians at Plataea: 'Sometimes singly, sometimes in groups of ten men- perhaps fewer, perhaps more- they fell upon the Spartan line and were cut down' (Herodotus IX 62).

Now the importance of the 'gutful' men was well recognised by the Romans. Josephus describes (VII 6f) how Titus personally awarded gallantry decorations in front of the whole army. Alexander did the same think after Issus (Arrian II 12). Other examples abound in the ancient literature. Obviously, the brave men were the most likely to be injured or killed also as many of the pieces quoted above confirm. This was especially true when they were fighting to avert a defeat as the Persians at Plataea were, or when assaulting siege works. But it is important to realise that the men who acted in the ways described would have done so in every battle they participated in. It usually takes over 100 days of combat for men to lose their effectiveness. Very few in the ancient world would see so much combat even in 40 years service. Thus the 'gutful' men would improve with time, so long as they lived.

Such was the importance of individual example that there was a strong Hellenistic tradition of leaders setting personal examples of bravery. Hellenistic generals most often fought in the front ranks, Alexander the Great being only the most famous example. This style of leadership is often criticised as allowing little control of the battlefield. That is somewhat anachronistic, reflecting the modern worlds obsession with the commander as tactician. The ancients knew better, realising that personal presence, ideally at the point of decision, was as important as convoluted and often risky tactical manoeuvrings. As units became more flexible, the commander might take more of a 'back seat' but every able commander from Cyrus to Belisarius (and beyond) was willing to plunge into the fray if necessary (Hannibal might be a notable and surprising exception).

None of the above is to imply that heroic action was the most important factor in ancient battles: training, good generalship (that would often incorporate heroic action) and (on occasion) battle tactics and weaponry were important too. But to neglect or underplay the contribution of the 'gutful men' is to limit one's understanding of how battles were fought why they were won or lost.