Ancient tribes, cities, nations, and empires fought to conquer other peoples, to defend their homelands, or to gather spoils. Their success—and often their very survival—depended on the skill of their commanders, on luck, and on their fighting gear.
Styles of warfare changed considerably between the beginning of recorded Greek history around 800 B.C. and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the A.D. 400s. The typical fighting man of early Greece was a farmer who took up his weapons and armor whenever his local king or chieftain commanded him to do so. A soldier during the Roman Empire, on the other hand, was a trained professional, often with many years of experience, who was part of a carefully organized imperial* war machine. Some types of weapons and armor remained unchanged for centuries, although soldiers developed new ways of using them. Armorers* and inventors developed some new items as well.
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* armorer person who makes weapons and armor
Greek Weapons and Armor, a Greek soldier’s armor consisted of a deep, bowl-shaped helmet with extensions that protected the cheeks, a cuirass or breastplate, and shin guards called greaves. Arm, leg, and foot protectors were also worn, but as time went on, they were discarded to give soldiers greater mobility. Most armor was made of bronze or a combination of bronze and iron. By the 600s B.C., the Greek hoplite, or heavy infantryman, also carried a circular shield, called a hoplon. This shield, made of wood and bronze, was about three feet in diameter. It could be carried on the left arm by means of a strap or gripped with the fist. Hoplites, who stood side by side and marched forward in unison, used their upraised shields to create a wall to bear down on the enemy. Shields were useless, however, for protecting soldiers’ backs, so those who ran from the field of battle generally threw away their shields. This was considered an exceedingly disgraceful action. The women of militaristic Sparta supposedly told their sons to come home “with your shield or on it”—in other words, come back victorious or dead. Mail—armor made of metal links or plates that fits over the body—first appeared in the Hellenistic* period. Mail was made of iron because it was stronger them bronze, which is an alloy*. Little is known about the Greeks’ use of mail.
The Greek warrior’s primary weapon was the spear. Early Greek spears were short, about the height of the warrior, with leaf-shaped spearheads, and were thrown with one hand. Later spears were made longer, evolving from the hoplite’s 9-foot spear in the 600s B.C. to spears of 21 feet in Hellenistic Greece. An offshoot of the spear was the javelin, or throwing spear. Shorter and lighter than regular spears, javelins were often used in skirmishes*. Their accuracy could be improved by looping a throwing string around the shaft of the spear and tying it to the thrower’s finger, giving the javelin a spin when it was released. Another popular weapon was the short sword, which the soldier used for cutting and thrusting at close quarters.
Slings were one of the earliest weapons. A sling consisted of a pouch with two cords attached. A small stone or lead bullet was placed in the pouch, and it was whirled to high speed. Then one of the cords was let go, releasing the projectile. Although it was difficult to place an accurate shot with a sling, slings could outrange javelins and even some bows. Bows and arrows were also used as weapons. Bows were constructed of wood and animal horn and overlaid with sinew* in the front to increase their recoil power. Arrows were made of bronze or iron. The Greeks also developed a form of crossbow* known as a gastraphetes (belly shooter). It extended the range of arrows by using a bow that was heavier and stiffer than that usually used by archers.
The Greeks also used large, mechanical devices to wage war. Mechanical stone and bolt throwers became increasingly important in siege* and countersiege during the 300s B.C. Catapults*, too, were used, either powered by torsion* or by bows.
Roman Weapons and Armor. Roman armor evolved over time. The soldier in the republic fought mainly with a spear and carried an oval shield for protection. He wore a leather cuirass to which was fashioned a bronze breastplate, and he wore a helmet made of bronze. By the early empire, helmets were made of iron, and the Roman soldier used a short sword and was protected by a scutum, a large shield shaped like a cylinder, which was made of wood and covered with leather. The use of mail also changed over time. During the republic, soldiers wore a mail shirt, or lorica hamata, which hung to the mid-thigh. It was flexible and provided protection against arrows, spears, and slashing blows, but it was very heavy. In the empire, legionnaries* wore a lorica segmentata, or plate mail. This sheet of iron covered only the shoulders and torso, but because of its construction, it gave better protection against piercing blows of hand-to-hand combat.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* alloy substance made of two or more metals or of a metal and a nonmetal
* skirmish in war, a minor fight between small groups, usually apart from larger troop movements
* sinew tough, elastic fibrous tissue that joins muscle to bone; tendon
* crossbow weapon for discharging arrows that consists of a short bow mounted crosswise by two equal and opposite forces
* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid
* catapult military device for hurling missiles, such as stones
* torsion twisting or rotation of an object by two equal and opposite forces
The classic Roman weapon was the gladius, or stabbing sword, which was about two feet long. The Romans also used a javelin called a pilum. It was short, about five feet long, with a heavy load of soft iron at the tip, which made up one-third of the shaft of the spear. It could not be thrown as far as some javelins, but it had greater impact. Also, because the soft iron tip bent on striking, it was of little value to the enemy, since it could not be reused.
Although the spear and the sword remained the main arms carried by Roman soldiers, the Romans also developed and used a variety of other weapons. One was the martiobarbulus, a small, barbed dart that was vicious against both men and horses. Another was the catapult, which came in two types: stone throwing (ballista) and arrow shooting (catapulta). The Romans used ballista to fire flaming logs or rock missiles while waging sieges. Lighter catapults were also used on the open battlefield, and catapults were regularly used in sea battles. By the late empire, the Romans developed a single-armed stone thrower called the onager, or wild ass, for the way it reared up after being shot off. The Romans also developed carroballistae, small torsion engines on wheels, and the manuballista, or hand catapult—-a light, portable version of the useful weapon.
The Romans also built battering rams. These were squared-off timbers plated with iron and capped with an iron head, sometimes in the shape of a ram. Ropes were wound around the timber to reinforce it and to prevent it from splitting. The timber was suspended on ropes inside a small hut. The hut, built of heavy timbers, was covered with thick planking and green wicker to break the force of stones. To protect it against fire, two layers of animal hide with fresh seaweed in between were laid over the top. Battering rams were sometimes built into siege towers. To construct a siege tower, the Romans would clear a broad terrace and two ramps against the wall to be scaled. Soldiers would then roll two wooden assault towers up the ramps and fight against the wall. From the towers, archers, slingers, and javelin throwers could fire down on the enemy. (See also Wars and Warfare, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)
* legionnaire member of a legion