They often say that history repeats itself. This isn’t completely true, but you couldn’t be criticised for noticing some of the similarities between ancient and modern warfare. Whether it was the insignia of the Romans or the tactics of Ancient Chinese warriors, there are clear conscious and subconscious influences through a lot of modern history.
Although many civilisations had had impressive armies and waged war before the Greeks, it is their tactics and organisation that have gone down in military history. Indeed, the histories of their battles are studied and read to this day. For example, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War was read by the US Secretary of State at the start of the Cold War and is still mandatory study in military colleges like West Point in the US. It is said to teach about military tactics and how to get public supported in a long war. Other considerations it proposes like the long term impacts of biological warfare are meant to build critical thinking.
Ancient Greece was a large conglomeration of small states and therefore, almost constantly at war. In order to be competitive, each state was constantly inventing new ways to beat their opponent. One such method many of them adopted to develop strong armies was conscription. Athens are probably the most famous example of this. They had a ‘citizen-soldier’ model where all able-bodied men had to serve as a ‘Hoplite’ soldier. On the other hand, the model could be more like the Spartans. They trained a small proportion of the population from a very young age to be a highly skilled and ruthless, but smaller military force. The Greek city states weren’t the first civilisations to invoke conscription; we see this from as early as the Egyptian Old Kingdom. However, it’s their models modern conscription models refer back to.
The Phalanx Formation
One could hardly talk about Ancient Greek warfare without talking about the Phalanx formation. First written about by Homer, it involved large numbers of Hoplite soldier standing in close formation with shields held defensively with spears pointed outwards. They would then, in the strictest discipline, move forward towards their enemy. Famously used under Alexander the Great and at the Battle of Marathon, they kept casualties lower than they would be in an open formation.
This formation was used by the Romans, but also in the American Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg. With helmets still not popular amongst soldiers, it was a good way to increase the protection of individual soldiers against long range attack and even canon fire. In Europe, the Swiss also revisited the Phalanx formation. Their ‘Swiss Pike Square’ used pikes instead of spears and was famously used at the 1476 Battle of Grandson. In modern warfare, the mass use of the shield has stopped, but Phalanx like formations are still found in the methods used by Riot Police around the world.
One of the most studied and memorable elements of the Roman Empire is their military. Livy himself, a contemporary historian, described the Romans as being ‘eminent’ for their ‘military power.’ It’s been said by many that it was their highly organised and professional army that allowed them to move from being a small city state in Italy to a large empire. It was their tactics that promoted the mass building of roads so that they could employ ‘rapid reaction’ tactics. Based on responding as quickly as possible to a disturbance, this tactic is frequently used in the US with SWAT teams. The desired outcome being to nip an uprising in the bud.
In general, what made the Roman army so powerful was their organisational tactics. These included splitting into legions, building supply lines and offering salaried security for their soldiers. All of these features are now a key part of modern warfare. For example, their system of having long term professional soldiers as well as military service from a large proportion of their male population is a model that’s continually used in many countries across the world today. What also set them apart was their equipment. It could be low quality but they were the first to mass manufacture both weaponry and helmets. This meant soldiers were always familiar with their weapons and they were cheaply replaced. Mass production of weapons has become a crucial part of winning and surviving warfare. This was especially relevant in the two World Wars of the early 20th Century.
During the renaissance there was a trend of military leaders and soldiers wanting to emulate ancient Classical heroes. Their armour and weapons, especially for ceremonial purposes, came to closely reflect that of the ancient past. An example of this is an Italian Burgonet from the 16th Century . It includes not only a Medusa, but more generally scroll motifs of Roman origin.
Aside from weaponry, more specific battle techniques were also popular subjects of emulation in Renaissance era Europe. One key example of this is the statesmen Maurice of Nassau who oversaw large Dutch military reforms in the 16th Century. He was heavily inspired by the writing of Aelian, who wrote about military strategy under the reign of Septimus Severus. He studied carefully the drill and formation tactics of ancient Rome in order to create a ‘proficient military machine.’ Alongside Maurice of Nassau, many others were interested in Roman techniques – one of this number being the political philosopher Machiavelli.
After the Renaissance, many leaders throughout the 18th and 19th Century invoked the language, tactics or weaponry of Rome to improve their position of military power. The famous Napoleon Boneparte was one such of these individuals; indeed, he’s quoted as saying, ‘I am a true Roman Emperor; I am of the best race of the Caesars – those who are founders.’ He used Roman insignia, marching his men under the imperial eagle, and studied Roman tactics. His use of auxiliary forces in captured territories also followed the blueprint of the Roman empire. It meant that the man power of new territories could be utilised, whilst minimising the power they had and therefore any internal risk they posed. Indeed, Napoleon drew inspiration from both the Roman Republic and the more tyrannical Roman emperors. From very early on in his political career, Roman history was at the forefront of his mind. This can be seen in not only his military tactics but also his desire for Paris to be his very own Rome.
Co-option in Fascist Movements
It would be incorrect to consider the impact of ancient warfare on the present day without thinking about the way that fascist movements in World War 2 were heavily inspired by Roman thinking. Nazi Germany were frequently trying to ethnically link themselves to the individuals of Ancient Rome. This was because they wanted to present themselves akin to the politically authoritarian and military powerful Roman emperors. In fact, it is said that Hitler adored Rome. Similarly to Napoleon’s desire to make Paris his very own Rome, Hitler wanted to rebuild Berlin to outdo Rome. Considering this, it’s probably not a surprise that many insignia and symbols used by the German fascist movement had Roman origins. This includes the imperial eagle, the ‘Nazi’ one arm Salute and even the Swastika.
Even more so than the German Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy inextricably linked itself to the glory of the Roman empire. As Mussolini himself once said on a speech in Sicily; ‘My journey means the strengthening of the Italian power that has descended from Ancient Rome.’ His main military aim was always to build an empire akin to that of Rome. He thought it the Italian’s right and many think he partially followed Hitler into WW2 because of his desire for territorial expansion.
The relationship that Ancient China had with warfare is more complex compared to their Mediterranean contemporaries. It wasn’t such a matter of the large scale imperial expansion of the Romans nor was it the near constant fighting of the Ancient Greeks. They wanted to protect their borders, especially from Northern Invaders, and maintain peace within the empire. In fact, the importance military action was very dependant on Dynasty. One of the periods that saw the most infighting was the aptly named, Warring States Period.
Invention of the Gun
One of the longest lasting impacts that Ancient Warfare in China had on war throughout the world was the invention of gun powder. Initially an accident, it was used from as early as 904 AD in the Song Dynasty against the Mongols. Weapons included ‘flying arrows’ and early artillery pieces. The sale of gunpowder was banned to foreigners, as they wanted to keep it secret. But the knowledge of its uses travelled down the information highway, the Silk Road. It only took until 1280 that the first gunpowder recipe was published in the West. This of course would be developed into early guns that would be used in many battles. By the 1400s the hand gun was not uncommon across Europe and we see the development of the Matlock. Whether for canons or fire arms, gun powder would remain a crucial part of warfare until the First World War.
Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War‘
Just as the texts of Aelian and Homer inspired military tactics in Europe, so did Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in China. Written during the Warring States Period, Sun-Tzu was a military strategist who was likely working for the Wu Empire. His book is full of tactics and advice, but its main premise is that war should be avoided with diplomacy if at all possible. This is considerably different to any mediterranean classical texts on the subject.
His advice is more reminiscent of modern warfare than the formations of the Ancient Romans and Greeks. This is because he focussed on deception and really knowing the enemy. For example, one of his most cited pieces of advice is: “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Today, his work is still a handbook for many people all over the world. In the 20th Century it was used heavily by: Chang Kai-Shek of the Chinese Nationalists, Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party and Ho Chi Minh of the Vietnamese Communists. Even more recently, commanders in the Gulf War like Colin Powell cited its importance in determining their strategy.
If you’re interested in how ancient history impacts the current day, why not read our article on how ancient art impacts modern art?