Collections: Total Generalship: Commanding Pre-Modern Armies, Part II: Commands

This is the second of a four-part (I) look at the role of the general in a pre-modern army, particularly in the context of a pitched battle. Last week, we looked at the information a general might have before and during a battle. What we found was that, in contrast to the broadly omniscient generals of film and video games, actual generals had to work in an information environment which was both unsure (that is, information was frequently false) and substantially incomplete.

This week, we’re going to turn to look at what the general can do with that information, focusing on his actions during the battle itself. As we’ll see, the role of the general during the battle can be divided effectively in two parts, which we might term ‘command’ and ‘leadership.’ ‘Command’ is the thing that most video games simulate: the specific tactical choices the general makes concerning the disposition of his army, its movement and so on. But as important – often more important – was the general’s leadership role: inspiring his troops, performing the role of general to their satisfaction and giving them a sense of confidence in the possibility of victory. While popular culture often focuses more on command, in pre-modern armies, leadership was, as we’ll see, often the dominant factor (though command is by no means absent!).

At the same time it is focused on command, the popular vision of it dispenses with many of its inherent limitations. I suspect every military historian who has ever discussed a pre-modern battle with a lay audience has gotten some version of “well why didn’t they do X” where ‘X’ was a battle-plan far too intricate, too finicky and complex and most importantly required too much agility in command – that is, too much ability to change the plan ‘on the fly’ – to ever be implemented. Often they are plans with so many moving parts that one wonders if they could be accomplished with modern communications equipment. But such plans are not only possible in strategy video games, they are often optimal (and are a staple of the ‘chessmaster‘ fiction trope). So let’s talk about why even the very best generals had only very limited control of an army in motion.

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Point and Click Command

Of course in a game like Total War this is all very easy; you click on your unit and then you click where you want it to go. The unit responds almost instantly and understands your orders exactly. Indeed, when the latest Total War game, the fantasy-themed Total War: Warhammer III, released there was a bug where some units (mostly missile infantry) would take one or two extra seconds to respond to orders. This was a major problem! Creative Assembly had to rush to fix it.1

As we’ll see, in a real battle when seconds count, new orders are only a few minutes away. Well, sometimes they’re rather more than a few minutes away. Or not coming at all.

This is also true, of course, in films. Our friend Darius III here below from Alexander (2004) silently waves his hand to mean ‘archers shoot!’ and also ‘chariots, charge!’ and then also ‘everyone else, charge!’ Keeping in mind what we saw about the observation abilities of a general on horseback, you can well imagine how able Darius’ soldiers will have been to see his hand gestures while they were on foot from a mile or so away. Yet his army responds flawlessly to his silent arm-gestures. Likewise the flag-signalling in Braveheart‘s (1995) rendition of the Battle of Falkirk: a small banner, raised in the rear is used to signal to soldiers who are looking forward at the enemy, combined with a fellow shouting ‘advance.’2 One is left to assume that these generals control their armies in truth through telepathy.

Touchdown! Wait, no, actually, I mean charge! Well, some of you. Not you. Or him. But that guy – Hey You! Get running! No, not you, the OTHER you.

There is also never any confusion about these orders. No one misinterprets the flag or hears the wrong orders. Your unit commanders in Total War never ignore or disobey you; sure the units themselves can rout, but you never have a unit in good order simply ignore your orders – a thing which happened fairly regularly in actual battles!3 Instead, units are unfailingly obedient right up until the moment they break entirely. You can order untrained, unarmored and barely armed pitchfork peasant levies to charge into contact with well-order plate-clad knights and they will do it.4

The result is that battleplans in modern strategy games are often impressive intricate, involving the player giving lots of small, detailed orders (sometimes called ‘micro,’ short for ‘micromanagement’) to individual units. It is not uncommon in a Total War battle for a player to manually coordinate ‘cycle-charges’ (having a cavalry unit charge and retreat and then charge the same unit again to abuse the charge-bonus mechanics) while also ordering their archers to focus fire on individual enemy units while simultaneously moving up their own infantry reserves in multiple distinct maneuvering units to pin dangerous enemy units while also coordinating the targeting of their field artillery. Such attacks in the hands of a skilled player can be flawlessly coordinated because in practice the player isn’t coordinating with anyone but themselves.

And I think most people have an intuitive sense that battlefield command didn’t work like this but it is worth discussing why because of how that ‘why’ places limits on a general’s ability to micromanage his battles.

Performing Generalship

We have to start not with tactics or the physics of shouting orders, but with cultural expectations. First, we need to establish some foundations here. First, in a pre-modern battle (arguably in any battle) morale is the most critical element of the battle; battles are not won by killing all of the enemies, but by making the enemies run away. They are thus won and lost in the minds of the soldiers (whose minds are, of course, heavily influenced by the likelihood that they will be killed or the battle lost, which is why all of the tactics still matter). Second, and we’ve actually discussed this before, it is important to remember that the average soldier in the army likely has no idea if the plan of battle is good or not or even if the battle is going well or not; he cannot see those things because his vision is likely blocked by all of his fellow soldiers all around him and because (as discussed last time) the battlefield is so large that even with unobstructed vision it would be hard to get a sense of it.

So instead of assessing a battle plan – which they cannot observe – soldiers tend to assess battle commanders. And they are going to assess commanders not against abstract first principles (nor can they just check their character sheet to see how many ‘stars’ they have next to ‘command’), but against their idea of what a ‘good general’ looks like. And that idea is – as we’re about to demonstrate – going to be pretty dependent on their culture because different cultures import very different assumptions about war. As I noted back in the Helm’s Deep series, “an American general who slaughtered a goat in front of his army before battle would not reassure his men; a Greek general who failed to do so might well panic them.” An extreme example to be sure, but not an absurd one. In essence then, a general who does the things his culture expects from him is effectively performing leadership as we’ve defined it above.

But the inverse of this expectation held by the soldiers is that generals are not generally free to command however they’d like, even if they wanted to (though of course most generals are going to have the same culturally embedded sense of what good generalship as as their soldiers). Precisely because a general knows his soldiers are watching him for signs that he is their idea of a ‘good general,’ the general is under pressure to perform generalship, whatever that may look like in this cultural context. That is going to be particularly true because almost all of the common models of generalship demand that the general be conspicuous, be available to be seen and observed by his soldiers. As a result, cultural ideals are going to heavily constrain what the general can do on the battlefield, especially if they demand that the general engage personally in combat.

Different Sorts of Generals

We can actually get a sense of a good part of the range simply by detailing the different expectations for generalship in ancient Greek, Macedonian and Roman societies and how they evolved (which has the added benefit of sticking within my area of expertise!).5

On one end, we have what we might call the ‘warrior-hero general.’ This is, for instance, the style of leadership that shows up in Homer (particularly in the Iliad),6 but this model is common more broadly. For Homer, the leaders were among the promachoi – ‘fore-fighters,’ who fought in the front ranks or even beyond them, skirmishing with the enemy in the space between their formations (which makes more sense, spatially, if you imagine Homeric armies mostly engaging in longer range missile exchanges in pitched battle like many ‘first system‘ armies).

The idea here is not (as with the heroes of Homer) that the warrior-hero general simply defeats the army on his own,7 but rather that he is motivating his soldiers by his own conspicuous bravery, ‘leading by example.’ This kind of leadership, of course, isn’t limited to just Homer; you may recall Bertran de Born praising it as well:

And I am as well pleased by a lord
when he is first in the attack,
armed, upon his horse, unafraid,
so he makes his men take heart
by his own brave lordliness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the pure ‘general as commander’ ideal, where the commanding general (who may have subordinates, of course, who may even in later armies have ‘general’ in the name of their rank) is expected to stay well clear of the actual fighting and instead be a coordinating figure. This style, for reasons that we’ll get to a little later in this post, is fairly rare in the pre-gunpowder era, but becomes common afterwards. Because in this model the general’s role is seen primarily in terms of coordinating various independently maneuvering elements of an army; a general that is ‘stuck in’ personally cannot do this effectively. And it may seem strange, but violating these norms with excessive bravery can provoke a negative response in the army; confederate general Robert E. Lee attempted to advance with an attack by the Texas Brigade at the Battle of the Wilderness (May 6, 1864) only to have his own soldiers refuse to advance until he retired to a more protected position.8 Of course this sort of pure coordination model is common in tactical video games which only infrequently put the player-as-general on the battlefield (or even if the ‘general’ of the army is represented on the battlefield, the survival of that figure is in no way connected to the player’s ability to coordinate the army).

In practice, pre-modern (which is to say, pre-gunpowder) generals almost never adopt this pure coordination model of generalship. The issue here is that effective control of a gunpowder army both demands and allows for a lot more coordination. Because units are not in melee contact, engagements are less decisive (units advance, receive fire, break, fall back and then often reform to advance again; by contrast a formation defeated in a shock9 engagement tends not to reform because it is chased by the troops that defeated it), giving more space for units to maneuver in substantially longer battles. Moreover, units under fire can maneuver, whereas units in shock generally cannot, which is to say that a formation receiving musket or artillery fire can still be controlled and moved about the field, but a unit receiving sword strikes is largely beyond effective command except for ‘retreat!’

In between these two extremes sits variations on what Wheeler (see footnote above) terms a ‘battle manager,’ which is a bit more complex and we’ll return to it in a moment.

What I want to note here is that these expectations are going to impact where the general is on the battlefield and thus what he can do to exert command. A general in a culture which expects its leaders to be at the front leading the army has the advantage of being seen by at least some of his soldiers (indeed that is the point – they need to see him performing heroic leadership), but once engaged, he cannot go anywhere or command anyone. This is also true, by the by, in cultures where the general is expected to be on foot to show that they share in the difficulties and dangers of the infantry; this is fairly rare but for much of the Archaic and Classical periods, this was expected of Greek generals. Even if a general on foot isn’t in combat directly, their ability to see or move about the battlefield is going to be extremely limited.

On the flipside, a general who is following the ‘commander’ ideal is likely to be in the rear, perhaps in an elevated position for observation. The obvious limitation here is that such a commander is going to struggle to display leadership because no one can see them (everyone is facing towards the enemy, after all). But that also impacts their ability to command – no one is looking at them so if they want to change their plans on the fly they need to send word somehow to subordinate officers who are with or in front of the battle line who can then use their visibility to communicate those orders to the troops.

And those communication problems bring us to:

Signals and Shouting

Let us assume, picking up our discussion of information last time, that our army is formed up into its battle array (pre-planned the night before, recall) and is advancing and our general has just now noticed something that demands a change in the plan. It could be a dangerous enemy attack (perhaps on the flank) or an opportunity to split the enemy line. Whatever it is, our general needs to make some alteration to the battle plan. It is almost certainly a fairly minor alteration, as with a battle line anywhere from a kilometer to several kilometers long, it would, for instance, take far too long to shuffle the right-to-left order of the line just due to the marching time involved. Nevertheless, the general needs to issue an unplanned, on-the-spot command; how does he do it?

The first option, of course, is shouting. The problem here is obvious: how is the commander’s command to be heard? Interestingly, there has been a fair bit of research by ancient historians looking at the question of how many people can possibly hear a short address unaided by modern loudspeakers and the like; figures vary but generally a few thousand if they are reasonably compact and quiet.10 That might work for a general’s pre-battle speech, delivered before the army advances, but it will not do for an army that is already in motion, much less once the chaos of battle has begun. Thousands of men marching (let alone fighting!) are noisy!

The modern solution to this problem is radio, but of course that’s hardly available to our pre-modern commander. Instead, to judge by films, the mind quickly jumps to signal flags. I am reminded of Braveheart (1995)’s rendition of the Battle of Falkirk, where Edward I uses signal flags to order his archers forward. HBO’s Rome also does this in its version of the Battle of Philippi, with flags being jostled and then pointed forward to signal the advance. Unfortunately, signal flags – as distinct from unit flags (which we’ll come back to in a moment) – have a few key problems, the most notable of which is that no one will be looking at them: after all the army is advancing, the soldiers are looking forward but signal flags (again, as opposed to unit flags) are going to be behind them, not placed out in the middle of No Man’s Land between the armies. As a result, signal flags are useful for sending information long distances (in a chain of stations or operators), for instance from one commander at distance to another, but not in battle; operational, rather than tactical tools. In practice, the use of signal flags like this is confined to the modern era; the first successful ‘optical telegraphs’ (as iterations on things like smoke signals and fire relays) date to the late 18th century.

Via Wikipedia, a relief from the Column of Trajan (c. 106) showing the legionary signa, in this case three aquila, on the left. Though the artist has not drawn this out, each legion’s aquila would have been somewhat distinct within the general pattern here.

Unit flags – a banner or other big, obvious symbol (like a statue of an eagle on a stick) – are more useful. These can be positioned at the front of a unit, typically at its center. If it advances, then the soldiers in the unit also know to advance, following the standard they can see (because it is elevated, large and visible) even if they cannot hear the orders. There are two complications here though: first, the unit banner or flag is a relatively late innovation in antiquity, really only coming into its own with the Romans. The Achaemenids may have used some kinds of ensigns or standards, but the Greeks do not seem to have done. Instead our first really good documentation of something like a battle flag comes from the Romans: each legion had a signa (eventually standardized to the legionary eagle, the aquila), which was a shiny metal statue mounted on a poll so it could be easily seen. Units of the legion broken off to do other things might instead follow a less impressive cloth banner, a vexillum, by which such detachments became known as vexillationes. But the broader problem is that of course your general may not be particularly close to your flags (or other standards) which are generally at the front-center of each component unit of your army. The flags may allow a subordinate officer to ‘drive’ the unit over the battlefield – and that’s good – but it doesn’t let the general tell that officer what to do.

Via Wikimedia Commons, relief probably from a triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, showing the emperor on horseback in front of a pair of vexilla or detachment battle-flags.

A better option is music, but once again development seems to come fairly late in antiquity. Greek hoplites seem to have advanced to the music of the aulos, a double-reeded flute-like instrument; given the limitations of the instrument it is generally assumed it was used to keep time (so everyone marched in step) not transmit orders. Once again, a more complex system of musical signalling seems to come with the Romans, at least as detailed by Vegetius.11 Vegetius (2.22) notes three different kinds of horn instruments used by a legion: the tubicen was used to sound charge and retreat, the cornicen regulated the movement of the signa (so ‘advance’ or ‘halt’), while the buccina was used mostly for camp signals: sounding watches or assemblies. It’s a system that is akin to later bugle calls, but note that the orders it can give are limited to a relative handful of prearranged signals: advance, halt, charge, retreat, assemble, change shift and so on.

Via Wikipedia, a detail of the Chigi Vase (c.650 BC) showing an auletes (aulos-player) apparently keeping marching time for an advancing line of men in hoplite equipment.

The attentive reader here may have already noticed how developed Roman command and control is and may suspect that ties in with the Romans having a more ‘command’ oriented culture of generalship; if so you are ahead of the game!

Via Wikipedia, Roman military musicians (with cornicines) from the Column of Trajan (c. 106).

Of course if those instruments are sounding on a per-unit basis (and they are) that means you still have the problem of getting the order from the general to the instruments for the unit in question. And fundamentally here, the technology is – as I tell my students – man-on-horse. The particular fellow on the horse may be a dedicated messenger (if your military organization has those) or a subordinate officer or it may be the general himself.

But it is important to note now the limitations of this sort of system and we can use what we know of the Roman command and control system (as noted, one of the more developed of such systems prior to gunpowder) to get a sense of them. Let’s say the general realizes there is a problem on his flank and he needs a unit (probably here we’re talking a cohort or a maniple, not a legion) to change what it is doing. First off, the order needs to get within shouting range of the unit’s commander (in this case a senior centurion). The general can either go themselves or send a messenger; both options have their downsides. If the general goes himself he is essentially removing himself from observing or commanding the rest of the battle, but a common problem with sending a junior subordinate is that the unit commander may not respect or feel the need to obey that subordinate (written orders can help with this, but now we’re bringing in questions of literacy). Of course both a messenger or a general in transit may also well be killed, which will prevent the order from being received!12

In either case, the message is going to move at galloping speed, which is around 40km/h, meaning that it may take several minutes for the general or messenger to navigate to the spot. That doesn’t sound so bad, but battles with contact weapons do not typically go for hours and hours; Pydna (168) was, as noted last week, decided in about an hour total! Of course a battle might be longer (or shorter!) than this, though much of that extra time is likely pre-battle skirmishing – the actual direct press of infantry formations in shock rarely lasts long because of the terror of it (and to a lesser extent its lethality; we’ll return to the balance of terror and lethality next time). Imagine if you were playing a Total War game and your input delay was, say, five minutes long in a battle that might only last an hour or two.

But of course galloping time isn’t the end of it. The message now has to be conveyed to the unit. In the Roman system, that means the messenger needs to find the appropriate centurion, explain the order to him and then ideally that fellow will then signal the instruments and signa to act accordingly – but even then, those instruments and signa only have a handful of prearranged signals available. Anything more complicated will need to be shouted down the line the old fashioned way (as we know, for instance, the Spartans did for lack of almost any of the rest of this apparatus of command, Xen. Lac. 13.9). Needless to say that means that giving any complex order to a unit already engaged or about to be engaged is going to mean starting by signalling retreat and then attempting to regroup the unit; regrouping an already retreating unit is one of the most difficult tasks on a battlefield and is rarely performed successfully in an unplanned fashion (even in an planned fashion it goes wrong as often as it goes right).

(This is, by the by, why reserves are so important. An unengaged unit hanging behind the lines can be given new orders far, far easier than a unit that is already engaged or about to be. And indeed, those familiar with the Roman system of fighting with its three lines of heavy infantry will note that it is a system heavy on reserves. Indeed, the manipular legion essentially assumes it will be necessary to retreat and regroup the first line of heavy infantry (the hastati) behind the second (the principes) and plans and drills for that. Note how the Roman command culture, the Roman fighting method and the actual apparatus of messengers, signa, instruments and junior officers all align here – that’s common because these sort of institutions tend to co-evolve)

By contrast we may compare a Greek hoplite army in the Classical Period. It has no battle flags or ensigns and the general is expected to fight on foot. In the past I’ve described the resulting phalanx as an ‘unguided missile‘ and this is a big reason why. That’s not to say hoplite generals never exerted command on the battlefield – better generals might keep a reserve to be rushed to important points (as Pagondas does at the Battle of Delium in 424 BC). But for the most part, once a hoplite general formed up the army and hit ‘go,’ they had very little control over the army.

Being Seen

The modern instinct here is to look at the contrast between a ‘command’ oriented general and a ‘leadership’ oriented one and to wonder why any culture preferred from-the-front leadership instead of from-the-back command. This is in part because we are simply unconsciously preferring our own model of generalship, but it is also because modern warfare with its tremendous dispersion (things are much more spread out to avoid the massive firepower of modern weapons) makes visual leadership – being seen performing leadership – impossible beyond the smallest units.13

But remember: battles are not won by killing all of the enemies, but by making the enemy run away. Which means battles are principally won in the minds of the combatants. As a result, inspiring leadership matters. Now many games model this very crudely by just giving soldiers a morale boost based on their proximity to the general. But generals do not radiate a warm aura of comfort by their nature. In a real battle they need to be seen, humans being primarily visual creatures. A general conspicuous at the front of the army signals confidence and aggressiveness, which encouraged both in his soldiers.

Of course for that to work, the general must be recognized and we know that in almost all pre-modern armies there was a real concern for officers and the general in particular to be readily recognizable to their troops, even in situations where they were unlikely to be exerting a command function. In Greek and Roman armies, elaborate helmet crests (especially transverse – that is, left-to-right, crests) were often used to signal officers. Strategoi (generals) in Athens interesting seem to have stuck with the heavier Corinthian helmet (at least, to go by their statuary) long after most hoplites had gone to newer, lighter types. Distinguishing generals with archaic features also goes for the Romans: Roman generals are depicted in bronze or iron ‘muscle cuirasses’ and with ‘Attic’ type helmets, both pieces of equipment which by the second century BCE were long out of use in the rest of the army, which had adopted Gallic mail armor and a version of the Gallic ‘Montefortino’ type helmet. Nevertheless, muscle cuirasses and Attic helmets on Roman generals and later emperors persist well into the third century AD. Of course in the Middle Ages we see the development of elaborate systems of heraldry and banners to distinguish kings and nobles on the battlefield as well and it’s clear that kings and high nobility often also wore much more elaborately decorated armor so they would stick out and be easily seen.

Via Wikipedia, the famous bust of Pericles (495-429 BC), a Roman copy of a Greek original c. 430 BC. The Corinthian helmet Pericles wears is the standard way of signalling in sculpture that he was a stratagos, one of Athens’ elected generals. The artistic convention would seem to suggest that the strategoi tended to wear this older (and higher status) type of helmet for some time after it had become quite rare among regular hoplites, though of course we must admit the possibility that it is merely an artistic convention.

And especially for armies which are not built for or do not require a lot of careful handling once the fight starts, the best thing a general probably can do is put himself in a highly visible position. We’ll get into this more next time, but most pre-modern armies are essentially single-function machines anyway: you line the men up, hit ‘go’ and hope for the best. If your component shield-wall or shield-and-archer blocks can’t maneuver in combat anyway, the general might as well cut a dashing figure and at least do some good in the minds of his soldiers.

Via Wikipedia, a statue of the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) dressed as a general from Xanten, Germany. Sculptors enjoyed embelishing the details on the cuirasses of emperors, but this style of armor – the muscle cuirass – was essentially the province only of elites and particularly of commanders in Rome. Wearing such would have made an officer immediately recognizable.

But what if you do want to do some command without completely surrendering these leadership advantages?

The Battle Manager

That at last brings us back to Everett Wheeler’s concept of the ‘battle manager,’ a phrase Wheeler coins off of Plutarch’s description of Pyrrhus of Epirus commanding at the Battle of Heracleia in 280 (Plut. Pyrrh. 16.8). Plutarch stresses both that the battle “did not blur his power of calculation” but that Pyrrhus also was “running from one spot to another and bolstering those seeming to be overpowered” and thus “managed the battle.” Wheeler is mostly concerned with battle manager generals in the Greek context in that particular chapter, but I think we can extend the idea a little bit and draw distinctions between two models, which I’ll call the ‘Alexander’ model and the ‘Caesar’ model. Both sit between the warrior-hero-general and the pure-commander-general on the leadership <-> command spectrum, but the ‘Alexander’ model is a bit closer to the warrior-hero and the ‘Caesar’ model a bit closer to the ‘commander’ model.

Before we dive into either, it has to be noted that for a battle manager to work to its full potential, the army has to be organized correctly for it. In particular I hope you will note in the next few paragraphs how important subordinate and junior officers (some we might classify as NCOs) are to this system working, for two key reasons. First, the battle manager has to be able to delegate to these fellows. He cannot be everywhere and almost certainly has an army that is complex enough to require some coordination and command at all levels so he needs subordinates in command of each component unit who can handle well enough on their own in normal circumstances (and who can also perform visual leadership for their own smaller unit). At the same time, he has to be able to command through those subordinates, for the reasons we discussed above.

If we look at the way Alexander commanded in battle – even beginning with Chaeronea before he was king – there is a fairly common pattern. Command of the infantry bulk of the army – the Macedonian sarisa-phalanx – was entrusted to key subordinates. In this case the structure was that there was an overall commander of that section of the army (early on this was Parmenion), which was then broken into six taxeis, each commanded by a taxiarch who was a noble Macedonian companion of Alexander’s. Those taxeis were then subdivided into the basic unit of the phalanx, the syntagma of 256 men which seem to have been able to maneuver independently, but normally would be joined together to make the taxeis one coherent wall of sarisa-points. Other units similarly had commanders and sub-commanders.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the Battle of Gaugamela. Notice how Alexander is effectively in charge of his cavalry contingent and nothing else, trusting Parmenion to hold up the left flank long enough for Alexander to achieve a decisive result on the right.

Alexander himself rode at the front of his Companion cavalry, his elite striking cavalry formation. There’s a good deal of sense to that: Alexander is the fellow who comes up with the battle plan and is supposed to be thinking about the situation on the whole field. By being with his most powerful, mobile striking force, the moment he sees an opportunity, he can move immediately with that force to capitalize on it (alternately, other generals in the Alexander mode, if they saw a danger, could move with that force to stabilize it). And that’s exactly what Alexander does, over and over again: the pressure of the phalanx creates weaknesses in the enemy force and when Alexander sees those gaps, he leads the Companion cavalry (with elite light troops in tow to support) straight into that gap.

Also from Wikipedia, Alexander achieving a decisive result on the right.

Now two notes here: first what this means about Alexander’s command opportunities. He really is driving the Companion cavalry and relying mostly on his other commanders to handle their parts of this army. His ability to influence them – beyond coming up with the general plan before the battle – is limited. At best he could send a messenger, but obviously once he commits the Companion cavalry (and himself!) that’s hardly an option anymore. On the flip-side, by commanding the Companion cavalry as a sort of ‘reserve’ (albeit an offensive force he intends to commit fairly early) he still has some control over the course of the battle. The second thing, of course, is that he sacrifices very little of the leadership benefits in so doing because he is still charging forward, highly visible with his very distinctive helmet and cloak, at the head of the cavalry where everyone can see him being aggressive, confidence, involved in the battle and sharing in the peril of his men.

Via Wikipedia, a detail of the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, an early first century BC copy of a likely third century BC original, depicting the Battle of Issus. Alexander rides boldly at the head of his Companion Cavalry charging directly at Darius (out of picture here).

Caesar provides a different model, though it should be noted this isn’t particular to him but rather Caesar performs with uncommon excellence a broadly common Roman model of command. First, Caesar did not particularly attach himself to any unit in his army; he rode with his own retinue of course but this was not a dedicated striking force the way Alexander’s larger body of Companion cavalry was. Instead, reading his battles and campaigns Caesar seems frequently in motion or else positioned on ground designed for observation. At Alesia (52BC), for instance, Caesar expressly notes that in the chaotic final engagement he “found a suitable place where he could see what was happening in each part [of the battlefield]” (Caes. B.G. 7.85) and from there dispatches his reserves as necessary to repel the attacks, sending subordinates (Labienus, Brutus and Gaius Fabius) with chunks of his reserves at various points to key distressed places.

What I want to note here is that Caesar can only send the reserves he has. Even being Gaius Julius Caesar with all of the skill that implies, the moment he sends these fellows he loses control of them. Once a cohort – Caesar’s battlefield maneuver unit of preference, representing 1/10th of a legion – is engaged, Caesar can’t do much to control it anymore and rarely tries. What he does do is move around unengaged cohorts, which conveniently for him, the Roman triplex acies and the generally large size of his armies tend to create.

That doesn’t mean that Caesar never gets ‘stuck in’ to perform the warrior-hero role, though. Rather, like most Roman generals he only does so when the situation seems critical and the morale effect of seeing the general himself charge into combat is most needed. After sending Labienus to bail out a weakness in his position at Alesia, Caesar himself goes to the point to encourage his troops, though he doesn’t yet engage (Caes., B.G. 7.86), in part because he seems to be waiting to see if Brutus and Fabius can resolve the other critical point in his line; when they do (7.87) goes to where Labienus is still pressed, “rushing that he might get stuck in the fight.”14 The intended impact here is moral as Caesar is quick to note that he was readily visible to all by wearing the general’s distinctive red cloak.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to attribute all of the flexibility of Roman legions to their commanding generals. To take another example, at Cynocephelae (197BC), a fight between the Romans and the Macedonians, the Roman left had been pushed back while the Roman right had pushed forward (the Macedonians opposite them were still forming up and hadn’t pressed their position), creating a gap between the two sides of the battlefield.15 The Roman commander, Flamininus, seeing his left losing slowly seems to have gambled he could win on the right quickly rushed there and led a strong attack (with elephants!). Flamininus, for his part, seems to have lost control of the battle mostly here; most of his troops pursued the fleeing Macedonians on the right with the potential danger that they might chase them off of the field, allowing the Macedonians to win on the other side of the battle. But at this point an unnamed junior officer, a military tribune, rallied up twenty maniples (about half a legion) and turned and plowed them straight into the Macedonian flank, winning the battle. Junior officers like this frequently matter in Roman battles. To take another example, Caesar’s army at Bibracte (58BC) famously manages the feat of winning when attacked in both the front and the rear by about-facing its third line and attacking in both directions at once. Notably Caesar does not say that he did this, merely that the Romans did, which is a strong indication that turning the rear ranks of the army to face backwards was a decision made by more junior officers (probably centurions). Caesar for his part was, somewhat rarely, unmounted at this juncture and so perhaps not fully aware of the situation (he had sent away the horses as a heroic gesture to share his soldier’s peril as a way of firming up morale in an army that was, at this point, larely untested).

Via Wikipedia, a rough map of the Battle of Cynocephelae (197).

Towards a Model of Army Command

To sum up then we might ask again how much control does a pre-modern general have over his army once the pitched battle has started? The Total War vision presents an almost infinite canvas of possibilities for the general to make many, many decisions. By contrast actual generals, constrained both by cultural expectations and the simple physics of battlefield communications without radios, telegraphs or cellphones, really had only a handful of ‘decision points’ where they could effect the battle.

Prior to the battle the general is going to come up with the battle plan: how the army will be arrayed, how it intends to fight and how he thinks it will win. We’ll come back to this next time but in many cases this too is a socially-embedded, culturally contingent ‘script’ – especially in unplanned battles where the ‘ideal’ battle everyone has in their head is the only plan anyone has to work with. In any case at best most of the army is going to try to execute on the plan as laid out and the general is going to have very little ability to change that both because of limited communications and, as discussed last time, limited information. That means the broad outlines of the plan are set the night before the battle, with some knowledge of the terrain but no knowledge of the enemy’s battleplan save for informed guesses.

As the army forms up the general has to decide where to be. In some cases, this is going to be culturally embedded and thus hardly a choice. Macedonian kings – the Ptolemies notwithstanding – ride with their elite cavalry (the Companions or later the agema) and it would be strange for the king to be anywhere else. Spartan kings deploy on the right flank of their army (though not always, it seems, in the front rank). For other armies, this will be a choice. Flamininus, as noted, chooses to rush to his victorious right rather than his beleaguered left in the hopes of pulling out a victory. Last week, you will recall Aemilius Paullus makes a clear decision to ‘drive’ his Legio I in the battle (so taking his beleaguered right over his safer left). The general’s control over the unit he is with is going to be much higher than anywhere else so this decision, “where should I be?” shapes the decision-points that come after it.

Once the army is advancing, the general may, if his form of army allows for it, have a key decision about when and where to commit his reserve, which is typically going to be either the unit he is with, or part of it. However, many pre-modern armies have little in the way of a reserve – reserves demand a command-oriented (at least ‘battle manager’) general to deploy them and the command structure to allow them to be deployed. And of course forces pulled into the reserve are not in the main force and there is always a risk there: one thinks of the Macedonian cavalry reserve at Pydna (168) which never deploys (the battle is lost before they are committed) and it is hard not to conclude they’d have been better used as part of the main force.

Finally, as the fight proper begins, the general has a crucial choice about where to commit himself. In many pre-modern armies, this won’t be much of a choice at all, because the general’s position is preset, but for more flexible command systems this choice is crucial. By committing himself to a specific point, the general can produce local morale effects or exert much finer control over a very specific unit (like the Companion cavalry), but doing so effectively takes him out of the rest of the battle, meaning that everything else about the plan now relies entirely on his subordinates. It is striking that Caesar tends to wait until things are truly critical before ever engaging himself; only when he has dispatched all of his reserves does he consider dispatching himself (which makes sense: once he charges in, he’s no longer in a position to order his reserves to do anything anyway).

And that is about the limit of the command options available to the general; beyond these basic decisions the general is mostly stuck hoping his subordinates and the rest of the army can execute on the plan. Needless to say it is not hard to see why mainstream tactics games do not work like this: having to make a plan effectively blind and then mostly just hope it goes well would be very frustrating for many players. It was frustrating for many generals too, of course!

Next week, we’re going to complicate this picture even more by looking at the army itself and how its organization, subordinate officers, level of drill and informal doctrine further shape and constrain command decisions, but also situations in which they allow armies to respond dynamically without the general’s input.

  1. In fairness, ‘rush’ may not be an accurate word to use to describe Creative Assembly’s currently glacial pace of development on TW: Warhammer III, though my sense is that this was a resource allocation issue within CA and no fault of the developers themselves.
  2. I feel the need to note that Braveheart is one of those films that mangles its history so badly that I can’t really watch it. The characters are wrong, the battles are wrong, the equipment is wrong, the sets are wrong. Only the soundtrack is good and mercifully one can listen to that without having to experience the rest of the film.
  3. Ultimate General: Gettysburg and its sequel, Ultimate General: Civil War attempt, to a degree, to actually give their colonels and brigadier generals some independence and so they occasionally will not advance when you tell them to, or retreat when you tell them to hold, if morale is low. But you never glance over to your left flank to find out that Dan Sickles is just not there because he has decided to position himself 1.1 kilometers in advance of his intended position in an act of pure insubordination. Not that I am saying that would be fun gameplay – but it would be accurate gameplay.
  4. In actual warfare, doing something like that would often cause the line to break before contact because your soldiers are not stupid and if you charge them into something obviously suicidal, they’ll just run away – they won’t typically wait to take 50% casualties first.
  5. The description that follows borrows a fair bit, including the term ‘battle manager,’ from E. Wheeler, “The General As Hoplite” in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (1993).
  6. Of course these are fictional works, though the communis opinio of scholars is that warfare in Homer is mostly a pastiche of warfare in his own day (that is the late Dark Age/very early Archaic) including the preference for commanders to ‘lead from the front.’
  7. Though where the warrior-hero general is also the king, state accounts of the battle may choose to represent it as if the king slew the enemy all on his own, as with, for instance, the Kadesh Inscription.
  8. This episode is often presented with the rose-tint of Lost Cause framing as showing Lee as beloved of his soldiers, but it should be noted that in this same battle, Lee’s best living corps commander, Longstreet, also proceeded recklessly forward and was wounded by friendly fire, not very far from the spot where Jackson had been killed by friendly fire two years earlier. So one my well instead read it as a sterling example of how the ‘chivalrous’ (their word, not mine) ideal of leading from the front held by the enslaver-planter aristocracy of the South was frankly unsuited to the warfare of their era and actually detrimental to their battlefield performance.
  9. Technical term meaning ‘close combat’ as with swords, spears, bayonets or other ‘contact’ weapons.
  10. A summary of this research is presented early on in E. Anson, “The General’s Pre-Battle Exhortation in Graeco-Roman Warfare” Greece & Rome 57.2 (2010): 304-318. The question of the ability of a speaker to speak to a large crowd is also a central one in debates about the nature of the Roman Republic, e.g. F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998), H. Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (2001) and R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2004).
  11. There is a necessary caveat here that Vegetius is a difficult source. Writing in the fourth century AD he imagines himself describing the legion of the first or second century AD, but indiscriminately mixes source material from as early as the second century BC with his own time.
  12. This is actually something simulated in the Take Command series: orders to distant units do have to be sent by messengers and if that messenger gets shot then you must send another.
  13. That isn’t to say leadership in modern armies isn’t important – it is very important, potentially more important because it cannot usually be done visually.
  14. Accelerat Caesar, ut proelio intersit, literally: “Caesar hurried so that he might get into the middle of the combat.”
  15. This whole battle narrative is in Plb. 18.24-26

213 thoughts on “Collections: Total Generalship: Commanding Pre-Modern Armies, Part II: Commands

  1. One thing of note is that sometimes you actually do have people communicating by shouting, simply by having officers acting as repeaters. “CHARGE!” says the general, there’s only one subordinate officerwithin earshot, but there’s another officer within earshot of him, so when he shouts the order, they can repeat, it, etc.

    Still has it’s limitations, of course, (each step in the chain opens up more opportunity for miscommunication, etc.) but it did happen.

  2. Also, I’m not sure asian armies (by which I largley mean “chinese”) armies, were particularly more command-oriented: Even without going into the fictionalized accounts there’s plenty of records of individual commanders performing acts of inspiring bravey.

  3. How easy would it be for a junior commander (or anyone) to “rally up twenty maniples”?

    1. Presumably the fellow in question – a military tribune – dashed between the units giving quick orders to them. As we’ll see next time (but not next week) the Roman legion was particularly good at this sort of thing. And the tribune himself would have been mounted.

  4. I would be really interested to hear your reading of Lucan’s De Bello Civile (also known as the Pharsalia). Cato, Caesar, and Pompey all have vastly different personalities (partly because this is also a work of philosophical exegesis) and those result in very different styles of generalship, with very different effects on the troops on each side.

  5. I feel like I am coming in late since I wasn’t able to get to this article until just now, but I notice that all of the limitations you are describing here were incorporated into one of the most popular sets of historical miniatures wargame rules that dominated the hobby through the ’70s and ’80s, the Wargames Research Group Ancients and Medieval rules. A player would set up their formations blind and give orders to each unit that would constrain movement and even combat choices for the first several turns (if a unit was told to advance quickly, it couldn’t decide to do otherwise, while a unit that was ordered to skirmish couldn’t suddenly decide to make a stand), and then units had a morale rating that they would need to check to obey dangerous orders like charging into contact and check again when reaching various casualty thresholds, and so on.

    And yet with all these llimitations and constraints, players still loved to play using those rules. I don’t see why computer gamers can’t learn to play under such restrictions if they improve the realism and immersion of feeling like an actual general.

    Of course, there is also the fact that those rules were eventually supplanted by a newer set (also from WRG, the line usually called DBX, which includes De Bellis Antiquitatis/DBA, De Bellis Multitudinis/DBM, and De Bellis Magistrorum Militum/DBMM, but also Hordes of the Things/HotT, the fantasy set) that simply played faster due to eliminating things like counting casualties in favor of just checking outcomes, but those aren’t considerations that matter for computer games.

    1. I’m sure there are computer wargamers who enjoy such games, and there are a handful that model command delay and friction, but they are very niche. I don’t think it’s a matter of learning, but that by nature putting severe limits on command and control make a game less fun to the general audience.

      Just like how highly realistic shooter games where you die from a single bullet and firefights frequently involve sitting in cover while blindly returning fire are far less popular than ones where you can take more bullets than an 80s action hero and run around like an Olympic sprinter.

  6. Thought about game design here – you probably actually could design a Be An Ancient General game that more-or-less hewed to this kind of uncertainty and very little control over the battle once it was engaged without reducing fun, by running with the Robo Rally model/ aesthetic for why it’s fun.

    So, Robo Rally is a board game where each player controls a robot, and at the start of every round you set out five commands for the robot to follow in the order you give it. The commands you can give are decided by the randomly drawn cards in your hand, and each card has both the command (“turn right” “move forward” etc) and a number – during each round, everyone reveals their 1st command and commands execute in an order decided by the number on the card (highest first, lowest last), then board events happen, and then all the robots fire their weapons. Then 2nd command phase happens, then 3rd, etc. (Board events are stuff like conveyer belts and wall lasers.) If a robot moves into another robot, the other robot is pushed. Robots can pick up special powers as they navigate the field, and can be damaged or healed or flung down a pit of doom. The goal is to collect all the flags on the board in a numbered order, by finishing a command phase on the flag-square.

    It’s an extremely fun and *very hard* and pretty unpredictable game, and it seems like it has the same core idea here – you form a plan of battle and then sit back and watch as your little dude goes where you *completely* didn’t intend, because you can predict the board and yourself but all the other players are doing their own thing and messing with you, and then you form a new plan of battle to get your dude no longer stuck behind a wall or squatting on a conveyor belt into a pit of doom.

    Anyways, a general-themed game running on robo rally design logic should exist because this is a very funny and chaotic game 😛 Either as a board or video game. Especially with orders failing + insubordination + reports + fog of war + etc integrated as humorously as possible.

  7. This is something the mount and blade series can do in the newest game bannerlord. While you can still play the role of the omnipotent Commander, their is no overhead camera so you are still largely limited to your character line of sight. Plus the character has companions that allow you to simulate the junior officers, especially since you can hand over command to the AI,
    and allow yourself to command only a particular unit of troops (like the Alexandermodel you supplied). The game does struggle due to size, armies of 500 don’t necessarily require much tier commanding

    1. That and success in Bannerlord requires you to pull off one lopsided mega-victory after another, which at anything close to ‘Realistic’ settings is going to demand that you don’t let the often quite foolish AI do what it wants.

  8. Thoughts about Tolkien and leadership: some fans look down on Denethor for sitting in his tower and directing battle, unlike Theoden and Aragorn taking the field. I’ve never agreed, and Bret helps shine light on that.

    Theoden is a pretty ordinary leader of cavalry. There’s not much he can do other than split his forces and send them to various places. His society values him leading in battle, and also any role for leadership during the battle would be like Alexander: see an opportunity, lead his own unit into it. Also, relieving the siege was a desperate situation, so it probably makes sense to just land like a hammer, no reserves.

    Denethor is *defending* a siege, very different. He lives on top of a very tall tower-city, with literal oversight of the field. More, “He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off.” Tolkien rarely shows telepathy actually changing the plot, especially on the good guy side, but still we have hints like that — his resources are not ordinary. Plus the palantir. So sitting in his tower, watching by one means or another, and directing, is quite sensible for him; he would do more good using “long sight” to see if the Cair Andros garrison were still alive, and whatnot, then holding a sword on the field.

    (It would be even better if he could direct by thought too, but I’m far less confident in that. If anyone under him were sensitive to such messages, it would be Faramir, and maybe Imrahil. Who happen to be the most distant captain, and the cavalry captain, respectively, precisely where such capability would be most useful, hmm.)

    Aragorn’s assault on the Black Gate is all about seeming to be over-confident bait, of course. He and Eomer take the field in later wars, we’re told; that makes sense for a charismatic warrior-king who maybe also wants to be on the spot in the event of actual diplomacy. Plus his wife probably has way more experience running things than he does and can do just fine in his absence. Plus the Appendix says “when Aragorn was abroad, from afar she watched over him in thought” which may mean more than just thinking and worrying about him; if your royal couple has long-distance telepathy, it makes sense to split up a lot.

  9. There was a game called “Legion” where you did just what is described here. You planned the battle beforhand, deploying the units and giving them basic orders. When the battle started you could control very little and mostly just sit back and see how it unfolded. Some people liked it, but others (predictably) thought it a terrible game because the player had so little input!

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