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Before telegraph, telephone, and radio, how did the ancients exert battlefield command and control?


IN THE POPULAR IMAGINATION ancient battlefields were loud, swirling melees, where little could be heard over the din of clashing metal and screaming men. In the midst of this melee, visibility was often limited to a few yards, and each fighter’s focus was, understandably, on those few people to his front, trying to kill him. This image may be accurate at the tip of the spear or at the climactic moments of a battle, but it does not accurately reflect the entire battlefield through all of its phases. In fact, in the opening phases of a battle, a premodern battlefield was often eerily quiet.

As the ranks formed, an undercurrent of muttering could be heard as veterans lifted the courage of men new to battle with a few encouraging words. The muttering was punctuated by some shouting, as officers placed their units into line. But when all was ready, a prolonged quiet set in as the men retreated inward, mentally steeling themselves for the trial ahead. Eventually, the army commander often gave a prebattle oration to the men, but it could be heard by no more than a fraction of the force, so most men were left to draw strength from the speeches of their local commanders.

Following the speeches, ancient armies would spare a few moments for prayer, sacrifices, and, in the case of the Greeks, the singing of the holy paean. Then the armies would stand waiting until one side received the order to move, delivered by flags, bugles, raised standards, and even shouting. While historical accounts record instances when one or both forces went forth screaming and in some disorder, this does not appear to be true of well-trained and disciplined forces, where a stolid and slow advance appears to have been the rule. Spartan armies, as an example, typically walked silently toward their foes, kept in step by the music of flutes. When disciplined forces came on at a rush, it was usually for a specific reason. Herodotus tells us that the Athenian hoplites at Marathon ran (likely a slow trot) for almost a mile before smashing into the Persian line. If that was the case, it was probably done to pass through the Persian arrow storm as rapidly as possible.

When an army did charge, it was almost always to close the final hundred yards or less and was usually done by both sides simultaneously. Typically, the moment for the final charge was announced by loud trumpet blasts, at which the armies would shout their war cries and launch themselves at their foes. Even at this late stage of an advance, battle-hardened troops could still react to unexpected situations: At the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC Caesar’s veterans charged, but Pompey’s legions stood still, awaiting the impact. As Caesar relates:

Nor was it a vain institution of our ancestors that the trumpets should sound on all sides and a general shout be raised, by which they imagined that the enemy would be struck with terror and their own army inspired with courage.

Our men, when the signal was given, rushed forward with their javelins ready to be launched, but perceiving that Pompey’s men did not run to meet their charge, and having acquired experience by custom and practice in former battles, they of their own accord repressed their speed, and halted almost midway, so that they would not come up with the enemy when their strength was exhausted. After a short respite they renewed their course, threw their javelins, and instantly drew their swords.

When two armies were close to impact, they habitually shouted their war cries—in the case of the Romans, three loud shouts—and beat their weapons upon their shields. Moments later there may have been a crash of impact, then silence. The popular image of thousands of men shouting, the thunderous noise of crashing shields, and clanging iron is most likely a myth or a Hollywood fabrication. No disciplined forces would have behaved that way. Noise and swirling confusion were anathema to soldiers engaged in the brutal business of killing. They counted on the cohesion of their formations to protect their vulnerable flanks and rear. Moreover, even in the midst of battle they had to remain alert for the sounds of signals and the orders of their immediate commanders. The Roman historian Appian presents a unique description of two armies of Roman veterans meeting at the Battle of Forum Gallorum in 43 BC:

Being veterans, they raised no battle-cry, since they could not expect to terrify each other, nor in the engagement did they utter a sound, either as victors or vanquished. As there could be neither flanking nor charging amid marshes and ditches, they met together in close order, and since neither could dislodge the other they locked together with their swords as in a wrestling match. No blow missed its mark. There were wounds and slaughter but no cries, only groans; and when one fell he was instantly borne away and another took his place. They needed neither admonition nor encouragement, since experience made each one his own general. When they were overcome by fatigue they drew apart from each other for a brief space to take breath, as in gymnastic games, and then rushed again to the encounter. Amazement took possession of the new levies who had come up, as they beheld such deeds done with such precision and in such silence.

That both armies “drew apart from each other for a brief space to take a breather, as in gymnastic games” presents another characteristic of premodern warfare: The fighting was rarely continuous. Hand-to-hand combat is brutal and exhausting. No human could long stand the mental and physical exertion of such combat. After just a few minutes sub-units of armies would of necessity pull away from each other and after a short or long respite, re-form, and then—if they were veterans or had an inspiring local leader—close again with their foes. Only in this way was it possible for battles to last for hours or from dawn to dusk, as many them did.

Given that the bulk of ancient battles involving disciplined, well-led troops were slow to develop, eerily silent, and the actual fighting sporadic and spread over many hours. Commanders were capable of controlling substantial portions of their forces throughout the battle, only charging into the fray at a climactic moment. But just how did they do it?


BATTLEFIELD COMMAND AND CONTROL was foremost a function of possessing well-trained and disciplined troops. The Battle of Marathon in 490 BC is one of the earliest for which we have an account, though not by an eyewitness. Herodotus, writing roughly a half century after the event, reports that after the Athenian hoplites had defeated the Persian flanks, they “allowed the barbarian troops they had routed to flee, and then drawing their wings together, they fought those enemy who had broken through their center.” Consider for a moment what has happened: Two widely separated Athenian flanks defeated the forces to their front, and eschewing the instinct to chase a fleeing foe, each halted, re-formed, then turned 90 degrees to attack again. This is not the work of amateurs. Rather, after years of nearly continuous warfare, Athens likely possessed the most experienced and battle-tried army in the ancient world. Using a plan that had been worked out and rehearsed in the 10 days the Greeks had been watching the Persian force, these hoplites were ready for a signal—probably a trumpet blast—to do what any less disciplined force would have found impossible.

Similarly, Caesar’s account of the methods used to control his forces when the Nervii ambushed his legions along the Sambre River in 57 BC demonstrates the crucial advantage of having trained veterans at one’s disposal. As Caesar relates: “Everything had to be done in one moment—the flag to raise, as a signal of a general call to arms, a trumpet-call to sound; the troops to recall from entrenching…the line to form, the troops to harangue, the signals to give.” One assumes the final signal normally started the advance of the formed legions. In this case, however, Caesar was not given the time to accomplish any of these tasks. On the Sambre, Caesar did not save his army—Roman training and discipline did:

The stress of the moment was relieved by two things: the knowledge and experience of the troops—their training in previous battles enabled them to see for themselves what was proper to be done as readily as others could have shown them—and the fact that Caesar had forbidden the several lieutenants-general to leave the entrenching and their proper legions until the camp was fortified. These generals, seeing the approach and the speed of the enemy, waited no more for a command from Caesar, but took on their own account what steps seemed to them proper….

The time was so short, the temper of the enemy so ready for conflict….In whichever direction each man chanced to come in from the entrenching, whatever standard each first caught sight of, by that he stood, to lose no fighting time in seeking out his proper company.

Caesar relates that throughout the rest of the day’s fighting, he was unable to assume command of the entire battle because of the wide dispersal of his legions and the lay of the land. Control of the fighting was left to legates and centurions, who gathered all available men to the nearest standard and then fought a series of local fights. Still, when Caesar came upon the hard-pressed XII Legion, he could find no troops to send to their support. Needing to quickly rebuild the men’s courage, Caesar took a shield from a soldier in the last rank and joined the fray. He pushed to the front, called out centurions by name, and cheered the rank and file. But as soon as he had restored the situation, Caesar apparently left the legion to direct two reinforcing legions.

Clearly, at a time when a commander’s immediate influence was often limited by how far his voice could carry, having well-trained troops officered by men who could react when the plan went wrong was a considerable combat multiplier. At the 202 BC Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War, the Greek historian Polybius tells us that

in this way they even threw the cohorts of the hastati [the first line of Roman soldiers] into confusion, but the officers of the principes [the second line], seeing what was happening, brought up their ranks to assist, and now the greater number of the Carthaginians and their mercenaries were cut to pieces where they stood, either by themselves or by the hastati.

In this case the legates and centurions commanding the troops of the principes did not wait for orders from Scipio or one of the other senior Roman commanders on the field. Rather, they saw what had to be done and they did it. It was not for nothing that the Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote, “Their exercises are bloodless battles, and their battles bloody exercises.” Later in this same battle the Romans used the superior training of their ranks to halt their advancing troops, recall (with bugles) those still in combat, re-form their ranks and, on Scipio’s command, move the triarii (the third line) forward and to the flanks, all under the eyes of Hannibal and his increasingly nervous army.


THE DOCTRINES AND FORMATIONS that an ancient force employed on the battlefield were just as crucial for victory as superior training and discipline. The armies of the Roman Republic employed three lines of troops, with a host of skirmishers, velites, to their front. Velites were the youngest and newest soldiers in the army, and their leaders knew that these highly aggressive recruits, often set on demonstrating their bravery, were not easily kept in a disciplined formation. So they were sent forward, singly or in small groups, to harass their foes and prove their courage. No centurion led them, and they were given no commands. Each was expected to do as much damage as possible to the enemy, while the rest of the army watched the performance and measured the velites’ courage. When the main event got underway, the surviving velites would retreat and then reappear on the flanks to harass the enemy again. In this manner, the most uncontrollable soldiers in a Roman army were given something useful to accomplish, but at the same time moved away from the three main lines that were crucial to Roman success.

It was these individual lines that provided Roman generals their unique ability to control a battle. The first-line hastati were young legionaries, many only recently moved up from the velites’ ranks. They could be counted on to attack with youthful aggression and not tire as easily as the older men. When they did tire or falter, the second-line principes would advance, either by orders of the commanding general or their own immediate officers. The third and final line—the triarii—was made up of grizzled veterans. These men usually lounged about in the early phases of a battle; seeking to avoid fatigue, they rarely deigned to put on armor or take up their shields until they received the call to battle. They were a general’s last reserve, only thrown in at the climax of battle when an enemy line was on the verge of breaking or when the first two lines had met with disaster. In fact, a common Roman proverb declared: “It is in the hands of the triarii.”

Through these three distinct lines Roman commanders were able to direct their troops in battle. As one line fought, a commander could ride among his other lines, surveying the battlefield and sending in fresh troops as required. Rather than always being in the fray, Roman commanders typically kept some distance from the main fighting, sending in reinforcements as needed. By doing so, they were free to move to critical areas and, if necessary, plunge into the battle themselves. So, we find Caesar at Alesia managing a battle rather than participating in it.

I went to other parts of the line in person, and urged the men there not to give in under the pressure. I told them that the fruits of all their previous battles depended on that day, and on that very hour…

First I sent some cohorts with young [Decimus Junius] Brutus, then others with the legate Gaius Fabius…

Finally, when the fighting was getting fiercer, I went in person, taking fresh troops to relieve them…

[Titus] Labienus realized that neither ramparts nor trenches were proving capable of checking the Gauls’ violent attacks. Fortunately, he had been able to collect together 11 cohorts, drawn from the nearest redoubts, and he now sent messengers to tell me what he thought must be done. I hurried on so as to arrive in time to take part in the action.

The enemy knew who was approaching by the color of the cloak I always wore in action to mark me out; and from the higher ground where they stood, they had a view of the lower slopes and so could see the squadrons of cavalry and the cohorts I had ordered to follow me. They therefore joined battle…

Suddenly our cavalry could be seen to the rear, and fresh cohorts were moving up closer. The Gauls turned tail, but our cavalry cut off their flight. There was great slaughter.

Even a general as impulsive as Alexander refrained, when necessary, from charging into the fight, as he did at Granicus and Issus. Because he commanded the first truly integrated combined force in the ancient world, Alexander always had a number of options at his disposal as a battle developed. As a result of thorough planning and superior subordinate commanders, the bulk of his army could and did fight independently of Alexander.

Though he usually began a major battle by leading an impetuous cavalry charge, in the early phases of the great Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, he stood aside from the initial fighting, as he calmly sent one cavalry squadron after another into the Persian’s advancing left flank. Only after spotting a gap forming in the Persian line did he wheel his elite companion cavalry around and lead them at full speed and with a war cry at Darius himself. Even after Alexander was fully committed, a messenger from his second in command, Parmenion, found him, causing Alexander to disengage from his own fight and race to Parmenion’s aid. As Caesar demonstrated at Alesia and Alexander at Gaugamela, even after a commander had hefted his shield and charged into the fray, he still maintained the capacity to disengage and assume command of other sections of the battlefield.


HAVING MEN WHO COULD FIGHT while maintaining order and listening for shouted commands and signals was an inestimable advantage to a commander. But he also needed to develop a plan and take subordinate commanders into his confidence. As Josephus relates:

When they are to fight, they leave nothing unplanned, nor to be done offhand, but counsel is ever first taken before any work is begun, and what hath been there resolved upon is put into execution presently; for which reason they seldom commit any errors; and if they have been mistaken at any time, they easily correct those mistakes.

As the troops assembled and approached, they were guided mostly by the sound of trumpets and the orders of their immediate superiors. Again Josephus describes the spectacle:

The trumpet gives a sound, at which time nobody lies still, but at the first intimation…all is made ready for their going out; then do the trumpets sound again, to order them to get ready for the march; then do they…stand, at the place for starting, ready to march….Then do the trumpets give a sound the third time, that they are to go out….Then does the crier stand at the general’s right hand, and asks them thrice, in their own tongue, whether they be now ready to go out to war or not. To which they reply often, with a loud and cheerful: “We are ready.”

Once the troops engaged, the first order of business was always maintaining formation discipline, because in battle it was manifestly easier to control formations than individuals. In every source addressing this issue, the stated penalty for leaving formation without orders, either to attack or run away, was death. Keeping formation under the stress of close combat was accomplished by binding men to their standards. In the Roman case these were the “sacred eagles” upon which units would form or rally. To lose an eagle standard was a disgrace, and to abandon the eagle was to court a death sentence. Where a standard stood, so stood a formed unit ready for combat. When the eagle advanced, the unit advanced, and when it fell, defeat was at hand. Livy gives us an account of the standard’s importance in battle:

Then, after sounding the charge, he sprang from his horse and, catching hold of the nearest standard-bearer, he hurried with him against the enemy, exclaiming at the same time: “On, soldier, with the standard!” When they saw Camillus, weakened as he was by age, charging in person against the enemy, they all raised the battle-cry and rushed forward, shouting in all directions, “Follow the General!” It is stated that by Camillus’ orders the standard was flung into the enemy’s lines in order to incite the men of the front rank to recover it.

The ancient sources are replete with stories of men who, having temporarily lost their courage, were rallied by their standard-bearer rushing forward and dragging the rest of the formation behind him. In Caesar’s account of the first Roman invasion of Briton he relates:

He who carried the eagle of the Tenth Legion…exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to my country and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he leaped from the ship and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy. Then our men, exhorting one another that so great a disgrace should not be incurred, all leaped from the ship.

Once in battle, commanders made use of their reserves to control the tempo and actions of the battlefield. Orders to these succeeding lines of reserve troops could be delivered by prearranged signals, such as trumpets, flags, or raised standards. In some cases, sources indicate that advances began with a simple wave from the commander, at which a series of prearranged signals would begin. One other interesting method of delivering commands is found in the Byzantine army’s sixth-century Strategikon, which called for each subformation to have a designated screamer or shouter stationed behind the formation. He would listen for the shouts of the general or of a nearby screamer, and then pass them on by repeating the shouts to his own unit.

By today’s standards, such methods of communication seem hopelessly limited. But they evidently worked well enough that the ebb and flow of even large battles was often sufficiently controlled to reach a decisive outcome. MHQ


JAMES LACEY is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. His most recent book, with coauthor Williamson Murray, is Moment of Battle (2013).

PHOTO: Ancient commanders might give prebattle speeches to the men that were within earshot, but the order to move would be delivered late by local commanders, shouting and using banners and horns. Sir Peter Paul Rubens/Samuel H. Kress Collection/National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Can You Hear Me Now?

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