Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Greek RMA

I think I’ve remarked before on the modern prevalence of Revolutions in Military Activity (RMA), also known as military revolutions. The trend of spotting these in the historical record was started by Michael Roberts in the 1950’s, and has continued more or less ever since.

Roberts’ initial idea was that the army of Gustavus Adolphus constituted a military revolution, seeking decisive battles, increasing firepower, making artillery more mobile and so on. To be fair to Roberts, he also recognised that the Swedish army of the Thirty Years War was also part of a process that had started, he thought, more or less with the Dutch Revolt in the 1560’s, which had forced the States of the Low Countries into military ‘reforms’ (the scare quotes are there because the Dutch did not have much of a military initially to reform).

The argument then started to centre around the army of Prince Maurice of Orange, which defeated the Spanish Army of Flanders in the early 1600’s, when the Spanish were reckoned to be the paradigm military force of the age. Interestingly enough, it was reckoned that Maurice also made use of Classical military texts in reorganising the army – Frontinus, Vegetius and Aelian, which fits in quite nicely with the historical metanarrative of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.

Of course, it is not quite that simple; the Whig history proposal of constant progress  is always open to the undermining counterexample. In this case, of course, Nordlingen (1634) is an aberration; the modern Swedish – German army lost to the outdated Spanish one. 

Furthermore, the assumptions that were made about warfare pre (say) 1590 were dubious, to say the least. For example, there is the idea that Spanish Tercios fought with a central pike block and a thin outer coating of shot, with ‘castles’ of shot at each corner. This is also something that gets propagated through some sets of wargame rules. It is seen in the art of the times, and seems like something that is reasonable for an archaic, inefficient military system awaiting defeat by the forces of progress.

More recent work, however,, has pointed out that the Tercio system was only even an administrative convenience. Like everyone else, the Spanish split their troops up into various garrisons, and were not daft enough to leave half their firepower masked by the other half. The ‘castle’ formation for tercios on the battlefield would seem to be an artistic convention.  

Once the genie was out of the bottle, however, military revolutions started to pop up all over the place. The thirteenth century was recommended by medieval specialists. The period after 1680 was claimed for those who saw military expenditure as the key cause of state formation and control. The Napoleonic system was grabbed by those who took the French Revolution as a bridge to the ‘modern’ era. And so on.

As a paradigm, the RMA has become something which those of us viewing the historical scene from afar have simply responded ‘oh no, not another one!’ And, of course, modern commentators are not averse to claiming a RMA for every passing new weapons system which grabs the attention. At present, I think it is the pilotless drone, but in the not too distant past it was the Anti-missile missile, and before that anti-aircraft missile batteries, and so on.

It may seem that I have a read downer on the idea of a RMA, and to some extent that is true because the concept has been rather done to death. However, in the ancient world there is, possible a good candidate for a claim of some sort of RMA, even if only a modest one. That change came, roughly speaking, around the time of Phillip II of Macedonia.

What happened in the 360’s BC then? Well, before that period the Greek cities relied, mostly, on citizen soldiers, the hoplites, and maybe a few allies and mercenaries, particularly specialists such as Rhodian slingers and Cretan archers. It is true that there were mercenaries around – Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, for example, was a Greek mercenary force, but the thing was that they were employed by non-Greeks. For Alexander and his father, mercenaries became vital to their warfare.

I suppose I should note here that by mercenary I mean professional soldier. The citizen soldiers of the city states were not professionals, in the sense that they did other things as well, such as farm estates and engage in politics. The soldiers of the Alexandrian and Successors were paid to be full time soldiers.

Secondly, of course, the hoplite phalanx gave way, more or less, to the pike phalanx. The clash of phalanxes had always been the most decisive phase of a Greek battle, but the pike had an advantage, if only in length, over the hoplite spear. The most important change, however, was in the cavalry.

As we know, cavalry before Alexander was a bit wimpish. Even the Persians, with their acknowledged cavalry superiority did not have what we would now know as shock cavalry, cavalry that could and would charge home on unshaken foes. Mostly, the reports of cavalry contests before Alexander are of swirling, javelin throwing melees. The Companions charged home. Alexander made them the decisive arm in his battles, although, it has to be said that without Alexander’s tactical acumen, later shock cavalry was less decisive (although it could be that countermeasures were developed).

Finally, the main revolution in Greek military affairs came in siege warfare. Before Alexander, sieges were fairly desultory affairs of blockade, undermining, escalade and treachery.  With the major sieges of the Alexandrian and Successor ages, sieges started to look much more modern, or at least, medieval. Catapults, bolt shooters, siege engines and battering rams were all added to the besieger’s repertoire, and, more significantly perhaps, the military engineer became a major figure.

This, perhaps, then is a good candidate for the first western military revolution. Other cultures, in particular the Assyrians and Babylonians, carried out sieges long before Alexander got to Tyre but, in the 50 or so years around the latter end of the fourth century BC, something changed in the Greek (Hellenistic) military mind.  

And somehow, wargame rules have to accommodate that.

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