(From sticks and stones to advanced projectiles capable of annihilating the entire planet, warfare has evolved along with civilization.
The advent of technology was one pivotal aspect that forever changed how wars were fought from ancient times to the modern era—and it will be the same factor that will keep it in constant development as humans strive to gain the upper hand over each other.
Certainly, aggravating skirmishes did not begin during the rise of Mesopotamia, but it was during this period that traces of the “earliest armies at war” were first uncovered by archeologists. Not to dwell much on that department, in short, men have always fought one another, whether for basic necessities and resources to plain greed for control and power. What makes it different from one era to another is the advancement of tools and tactics.
In ancient civilization warfare, with the absence of long-range weapons, formidable tanks, and destructive missiles, warriors relied so much on hand-to-hand combat and wit to outsmart enemies, which would become the centerpiece of the evolution of military tactics—branching out as people who fought for dominance and power generation after generation aimed to conquer effectively and efficiently without losing so much of their own. Here are three ancient military tactics that helped shape warfare across centuries.
The earliest, most popularly known battle formation that originated in the ancient period was the phalanx, “a block of heavily armed infantry standing shoulder-to-shoulder in files several ranks deep,” which was first employed by the ancient Sumerians and enhanced by the ancient Greeks. For thousands of generations, the formation evolved and even survived well into the gunpowder era, with most historians viewing it as an important foundation of the European military.
A standard phalanx formation for the Sumerians composed of six men, with the first line carrying large, rectangular shields, while the rest of the troops bore heavy pikes and battle axes. Greeks, on the other hand, were “equipped with a round shield, a heavy corselet of leather and metal, greaves (shin armor), an 8-foot pike for thrusting, and a 2-foot double-edged sword.” This was further improved by Philip II of Macedonia and his son, Alexander III (famously known as Alexander the Great), adding more mobility and intimidation.
Alexander’s phalanx arrangement, for example, normally consisted of 16 men, with each soldier armed with a 13- to 21-foot spear (also called sarissa). During battle formation, the first five men on the line held their spears horizontally while the rest presumably held theirs vertically or rested on the shoulders of those in front. To amplify the formation, each side of the phalanx was the light infantry, a unit of archers, slingers, and javelin men, and the heavy cavalry, who were tasked with protecting the flanks and targeting the weak points of the enemy. In addition, a squadron of light horses was mobilized for scouting and skirmishing against loose enemy units attempting to outflank.
The Romans would later discover the effectiveness of the Greek’s phalanx and adapted the formation, adding their touch by using thrusting spears. Shortly after, however, they ditched it for a more flexible three-line legion, which boosted the Romans in their conquest to conquer the world.
It would take a couple more millennia for the phalanx to come back in major battles. This time, aside from spears, medieval combatants were now armed with crossbows and halberds minus all armor besides helmets and cuirass (body armor). During the gunpowder era, the Spanish troops introduced another version of the phalanx by arming its men with pikes and arquebus (also known as harquebus), the earliest firearm version. In this version, men equipped with the long gun would pile in “solid columns of infantry known as battles,” composed of 25 ranks deep. Following each firing at the command, an arquebusier would withdraw at the back to reload behind the pikemen, while the men after him would take front position and fire, and so on. Once the enemy’s formation breaks down by firepower, the pikemen would charge out of the line to attack the field.
Today, the phalanx might be impossible to pull off by men alone with the advent of powerful firearms and tanks, but the element of surprise, as well as the combination of assault, defense, and scouting in tactical formations, remains prevalent in the modern battlefield.
Warfare Weapons, Tools, and Technology
The evolution of warfare weapons may greatly differ between civilizations and countries, but most of the basic materials used to create these tools of destruction stemmed from wood and stones, then later, to bronze and metal to modern synthetic materials such as plastics.
Simple bows were the earliest known to have witnessed the harshness of warfare. It was widely used to target enemies from long range without having to engage in direct contact alongside pikes that were also used via thrusting. Egyptians would take this to the next level with their composite bow capable of reaching double the range of its predecessor. From then on, basically, weapons would improve in terms of capacity, firepower, handling, and whatnot, drastically affecting how forces from each side decided their battle formations and approach. While the strongest wooden shields could easily block wooden arrows and spears, the introduction of metals demanded innovation for these protective gears to become more susceptible to these deadly weapons. Through this, science, technology, and engineering have all become integral parts of warfare, particularly with the development of biochemical weapons in the 20th century.
During this period, mobility also became more apparent in claiming decisive victories, leading empires to train strong and agile warriors to induct reliable war chariots that provided a great advantage and boost in battle formations. Elephants would later join the horses in supporting campaigns, as well as camels, donkeys, mules, and other animals capable of towing auxiliaries, supplies, and wounded men.
The use of engineering rose to prominence during the rise of the Roman Empire and was especially prevalent in Alexander the Great’s conquests. On his tour, Alexander had a corps of engineers in his regular army to assist with geographical obstacles that may come their way. Julius Caesar also used engineers to outsmart enemies, particularly those with high walls and towers. Both generals successfully infiltrated strongholds by taking full advantage of the technological advances at their disposal.
Infantry in the ancient period was composed mainly of two types: Shock Troops and Peltasts, which both evolved and expanded through centuries.
Shock Troops, also known today as Assault Troops, are the backbone of an army. It is where well-trained warriors are assigned whose objective is to lead close and direct attacks. They’re better equipped as well to hold the frontlines and fend off sudden invasions and raids, and because of this, most casualties are expected from this formation, whether the operation is successful or not. Peltasts, on the other hand, are light infantrymen tasked to move loosely on the battlefield and target enemies using long-range weapons such as pikes and bows. They’re also responsible for scouting and reconnaissance, skirmishes, and raids. The light infantry also has other types according to the needs and geographical location of an army, such as the mountain infantry for those in the mountainous areas and naval infantry for those operating at sea, and later spawn new varieties with the use of technology, such as mechanized and air assault infantry.
Special forces will soon be introduced to execute more specific battles and elite missions. The great ancient empires with specialized armies include the Roman Empire’s Praetorian Guard and the Speculatores (reconnaissance force), ancient Egypt’s the Sacred Band of Thebes, and Sparta’s Sciritae, to name a few. While these elite forces were not complete, they would evolve to become more and more capable as a fully capable, self-sufficient military branch to what we know today.
Ancient civilization warfare had basically formed the foundation of the modern battlefield, just like how it came into being through the ingenuity of the generations that came before.
As long as humans evolve, the state of warfare will always change along with it. Not to mention the continuous cultivation of the tribe mentality, which remains pretty much alive well into the 21st century—and for as long as the “us” versus “them” mentality thrives, the end of conflicts between humans will never be in sight and could even, one day, become the catalyst of its extinction.