Greek Phalanx

During the era in history when Ancient Greece was at the height of power, great armies came in many cultures but one dominant formation: the phalanx.

File:Greek Phalanx.jpgAvailable under the wikipedia Greek Phalanx article.

The word phalanx comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘finger.’ And in Greece, the fighters in a phalanx were hoplites.  These warriors were the citizens of the city.  They provided their own weapons and armor and came together for the defense of the city state.  They were armed with spears, short swords, bronze body armor, a helmet and greaves as well as a round ‘hoplon’ (shield) which gave them their name.

This is a formation in which men march in close quarters.  They leave no gaps between rows, and the front ranks hold spears pointed at the enemy.  Because of the way that a phalanx works, the initial arrangement of the formation decided the direction (and sometimes the outcome of the battle) of the phalanx.  They were not very maneuverable and had little way of being directed to move any way but forward.

The strength of a phalanx depended on the discipline, strength, and endurance of the men of which it was composed.  The purpose was a contest of these things as two phalanxes would close together in a kind of brutal pushing war.

During the rise of the Macedonian Empire, Philip II and Alexander the Great modified the phalanx by employing an army of professional soldiers and equipping them with more standardized weapons and armor and significantly longer spears.  These men were much better trained, and their phalanxes were capable of more complex maneuvers.

Heavy Cavalry: An Introduction

During the late years of the Roman Empire, the two halves of the Empire were split and essentially ruled by different leaders.  While the western part dealt with Visigoths and other incursions into the northern border, the eastern half dealt with constant fighting with the Persians.  Between the 500s A.D. and the 700s, much of the fighting between the Persians and the Byzantines was done from horseback.  And the armor of the cavalry on both sides became more and more similar over time, coming to look something like this artistic piece:

Image courtesy of

The armaments of a Byzantine Cataphract, (a name given to the heavy cavalry, literally meaning “armored” from the Greek, Kataphraktos) would include some or all of the following: two bows, a lance, a spear, a sword, a mace, an axe, a sling, full plate armor, full barding armor and in some cases a banner.  Because of the wide variety of their armaments, these warriors likely spent much of each year training in the use of each of their weapons.   They were the elite fighting force of their time.

The horsemanship of each man was as important as his familiarity with his weapons.  The Cataphracts rode in units and were capable of intricate movements to gain advantages on the field, and this was only possible because of expert horsemanship.

The advantage gained by this kind of a fighting force is that the riders could ride in deep (8-10 deep) ranks and punch through an entire rank of enemy infantry without losing all momentum.  They were as much a weapon of fear as an effective fighting force.  This tactic was emulated through history up to and even slightly beyond the development of gunpowder weapons.

Part of what allowed the extensive use of heavy cavalry was a decision made by Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 610-641 A.D., who ordered that soldiers of Byzantium would be assigned a parcel of land in reward for their service.  Because land is very necessary for maintaining horses, this allowed many more of his men to keep and train horses for battle.

Scottish Claymores

What they are:

A claymore is a two handed Scottish great sword.  The origin of the name claymore comes from the Gaelic words ‘claidheamh mòr’ meaning ‘great sword.’

What they look like: Claymores have a long two handed hilt made with a spiral carved wooden handle covering the full tang with a cross guard angled toward the blade.  The intention behind this may have been to catch an enemy’s blade behind the crossguard providing an opportunity to kill or disarm him.  The crossguard of a claymore traditionally ends with a quatrefoil on each side, and the blade is traditionally between four-and-a-half and five feet long.  It includes a blunt section known as a ricasso.  This would sometimes be wrapped in leather, enabling the wielder to use it as a leverage point if his opponent managed to come to close grips with him.  Thus the sword would be agile enough to allow a contest even at very close quarters in spite of the blade’s great size and weight.claymore.jpeg

This is a stainless steel replica of a claymore from Scotland.  In all respects except materials, it closely resembles a historic piece which survived. Image is courtesy of


How they were used: these great swords were used for close quarters combat but also gave some reach to the swordsman potentially allowing him to strike at his adversary before he himself was at risk of counter attack.

Scottish highlanders likely used claymores against the british and in border wars with other Scottish tribes as a weapon of intimidation because of the weight of the weapon and length of the blade.  This presented some difficulty when fighting in close ranks because the weapon seemed to be less about control and more about intimidation.

History of the claymore: the first claymores likely appeared in the late 1300s and were used up until the 1700s.

They were likely used by William Wallace and his men, however Wallace seems to have carried a custom sword that does not fit the exact qualifications of a claymore.  Despite this, it is likely that both claymores and highlanders were brought fame because of the campaigns fought by the Scottish against British oppression following the lead of William Wallace.


Saddles and Stirrups, Intro to Cavalry

While the time of the development of saddles and stirrups is difficult to pin down, art and other more permanent depictions of the two suggest that they may have been seen together somewhat commonly starting in the early 500’s B.C.  The idea for each piece may have existed hundreds of years earlier, but the idea became readily available to most cultures starting in this era.


image courtesy of:

It is difficult to describe the importance of horsemanship in early warfare without specifically addressing the advantages gained by particular civilizations because of their use of horses in their armies.  However, there is a useful comparison to make which illustrates how stirrups and saddles provided advantages to early horsemen.

Riding a horse in itself could provide some advantage to a warrior because arriving on the field of battle, he would be less exhausted from the journey.With a good saddle, it is easier to stay on a horse, which provides an even greater advantage in this respect.

Another aspect of advantage occurs after a battle or during a tactical part of a battle.  Horses allow for quicker movement on the field, so a group of riders could take advantage of a tactical situation which allowed them to divide and confuse the enemy (much like Alexander the Great).

Stirrups provide a greater advantage during the battle; they allow warriors on horseback to put more power into the strokes of their weapons, or to rely on the speed and weight of their horses to drive a spear or lance further into a crowd of enemies.  The critical advantage provided is that it is much more difficult to unhorse a rider who has stirrups.

Mongolian Horse Bows

The Mongols


During the 1200s, the western powers underwent a time of division and intrigue.  Various factors contributed to the weakened state of the western civilizations, however the greatest of these was likely the invasion of the Golden Hoard.  Genghis Khan led the Mongolian armies from the east west across Asia and Eastern Europe.  They pillaged and burned as they went.  The Mongolian Empire was among the largest empires in history.  MONGOLIAN BOW 1-1.JPG

Taken from

They owed their success in at least some part to their bows and the skilled archers who used them.


What makes a Mongolian bow special is that it is designed with birch wood, bone, and sinew in order to take the best properties of the three and combine them into a single effective piece.  The recurve design gives the bow power in a shorter frame than a longbow would have.  And the size of these bows means that they could be fired from horseback effectively.  This allowed the Mongols to employ Parthian tactics (they would ride away from pursuit, firing arrows back at their foes).  This also allowed the Golden Hordes to avoid most direct engagements.  They could quickly move away from armed enemies and pick them off skirmish style.


While there is a great deal of myth surrounding the Mongols and their weapons, there is some question as to how realistic even some modern articles are about the capabilities of the Mongolian bows.


For instance, some authors claim that the bows had well over a hundred pound draw weight and could fire arrows nearly a quarter of a mile with accuracy. However, modern archers do not use wooden arrows with bows of such high draw weights because the forces involve cause the arrows to flex and shatter, often injuring the archer when they do.


There is also a competitive tradition among scholars of archery to choose favorites between longbows and Mongolian bows and to argue that one is superior to the other.   This discussion is usually heated, and both sides make apparently outlandish claims.  This could be brought about because of the old stories which surround both the old British and old Mongol cultures.  Western examples are familiar and come to mind: Robin Hood and his Merry Men, as opposed to the riders of the Golden Horde.


Both cultures used archery and bowyery to great effect in establishing themselves as strong world powers.


Damascus Steel

The creation of Damascus steel blades in the middle east was a phenomenon that begun to take place somewhere between the 300s BC and and the crusades when these blades began to become the legend that they are today.  They are known to be durable, shatter resistant blades which can hold a fine edge under very adverse conditions.

However, in the mid 1700s, the art was lost to metalsmiths, likely because of the fact that the secret of creating such blades was carefully guarded by the craftsmen who made them.  There is much speculation about the chemical processes used in the creation of such blades, but while modern science can create very near matches, there is still some question about how such precise metallurgy could happen so early in history.

It seems likely that a lifetime of study likely went into the creation of the first Damascus steel blades.

Some interesting facts about this form of steel:

1: Damascus steel contains about 1.5% carbon.

2: The famous ‘damask’ pattern found on these high quality blades appeared because there are layers of cementite particles contrasting against the surrounding steel.

Here is an example of that pattern:

Image is freely available through the wiki article on Damascus steel.

Damascus steel represents a sort of peek to the metal mastery race that took place in Europe, northern Africa and western Asia from the first bronze swords on into the best steel available.  The advantage of better armor and weapons became more clear as history formed, and until the age of gunpowder, Damascus steel and some similar arts found in Japan represent the height of that era.  To this day, it would be hard to find a better kind of sword than a handmade Damascus blade or Japanese Katana.

Trebuchet Sieges

Trebuchet Construction:

Building a trebuchet to break a siege was no small expense.  It required a good many nails, about two miles of quality rope, enough lumber to build a small house, and most difficult of all: expert engineers.

A typical starting point for construction of a trebuchet is the frame.  This process was not as simple as it might at first seem because the frame of a trebuchet has to withstand a variety of forces which can change during operation.  Most structures are not designed to move hundreds or thousands of pounds of something, and in medieval times, such a construct was nearly unprecedented.

After the base frame was in place and the A-frame was up, the throwing arm and counter-weight basket had to be affixed to it.  The precision with which the fulcrum was made had to be precise to prevent the rotary motion of the arm from grinding in such a way that it would reduce the energy the engine could put into a projectile.  This part of the machine was critical because trebuchets could have a weight basket with a capacity up to multiple tons.

Trebuchet Operation:

A simple machine would provide mechanical advantage which would allow a small group of workers to lower a trebuchet arm into a firing position. The throwing sling would be setup with a projectile inside and a loop of rope would be placed around the firing pin.


When the device is triggered, the counterweight falls quickly and sweeps the throwing arm in an arc toward the target.  The sling containing the projectile moves due to centripetal force and  somewhere near the top of its path releases the projectile.


Trebuchet Mechanics:

The physical principles behind trebuchets are fairly complex, and it is worth noting that a trebuchet’s maximum range is determined by several factors: the capacity of the weight basket, the length and ratio of the throwing arm to the fulcrum and distance from fulcrum to basket, the length of the lead rope on the sling, and the angle of the firing pin affixed to the end of the throwing arm.

Pictures are courtesy of

English Longbows

(Image is public domain)

The English Longbow

One of the most powerful weapons of the Medieval period was the English Longbow.  This bow differed from many other bows in several ways: the amount of time a yeoman would spend practicing with his bow, the physical characteristics of the bow itself, and the size and weight of the projectile it was capable of shooting.

Longbows are among the long family of bows.  They tend to be at least four and a half feet long, and would more typically be around the height of the man shooting the bow.  They were made of yew tree limbs in a fairly typical fashion with the bow being made from half heartwood and half sapwood.  The heartwood layer faces the string, and the sapwood faces the target.  This is because the properties of each type of wood lend themselves to their task in this arrangement.  Sapwood is young wood that can readily resist stretching, whereas heartwood has aged and become more structured, so it resists compression.  Like a tree can bend in the wind and remain undamaged, so a bow bends in the hands of an archer and survives the use.

Because of the art of making such a bow combined with its stature, the longbow had a high draw weight and a relatively long release time.  Combined, these factors meant that this particular kind of bow would release an arrow from full draw that:

1) weighed more than an average arrow

2) had a higher than average initial velocity

Because of these factors, arrows fired from a longbow had a much higher energy on impact.  They were effective against armors that were sufficient against lesser bows.

    Considering the famous Battle of Agincourt, in which reportedly an army of English, outnumbered ten to one by the French, engaged them and killed an estimated 10,000 men while the French managed only to kill roughly a hundred English; it is likely that the English use of the longbow helped secure the English empire a predominant place as a world power until modern times.

Bronze to Change the World

The ancient Greeks fought two famous battles against the army of the Persian Empire in the early era of bronze between the early and late 400s BC. These were the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon.  And these battles, along with the Greek invention of bronze weapons and armor, allowed the Greek civilizations to weather the storm that was the invasion of the Persian Empire.

An example of a Greek bronze short sword.

Greek bronze helm, C. 600 BC.

The advantage bronze provided to the Greeks allowed a small number of Spartan hoplites to stand and inflict outrageous casualties on a much larger Persian host at a pass known as Thermopylae with cliffs to their left and a fall into the ocean to their right.  Although they were later surrounded and killed down to the last man, this battle lasted much longer than it would be expected for 300 men to stand against hundreds of thousands.

    Metal armor made the difference by making many of the Persian weapons nearly useless against the hoplites.  When the Persians advanced to the Greek line, the contest between each Greek with the Persian advancing toward him was greatly weighted in favor of the Greek.  This is because of a few different factors like extensive training and discipline, but perhaps the greatest advantage was the disparity in their equipment.  Persians were armed with much cruder weapons and wore cloth and leather armors.  These were not adequate to the task of stopping sharp bronze swords, whereas the whips some of the Persians are said to have carried would be totally useless against bronze armor.

    Because the Greeks had these advantages during the Greco-Persian wars, their civilizations survived to influence the western civilizations around the Mediterranean.  In some ways the development of bronze working technology was the basis for the ancient Greek say in how things are today.