In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval
A pitted sexa blade, a comb with sheaths for the teeth, a large clay pot, and some small metal dress accessories in a glass case
Goods from post-imperial graves in the Zeughaus, Innsbruck

Military service may often have been the business of rather older men than we might expect in the light of modern experience. Twentieth-century warfare was infamously the business of very young men. In Normandy in 1944, soldiers in their late twenties were regarded by their comrades as ‘old’ and the average age of the GIs in Vietnam was nineteen. British soldiers in the Falklands in 1982 were even younger: only eighteen on average. However, in the furnished cemeteries of the sixth century (CE) full weapon sets typically symbolise mature adult men (between about thirty and fifty, or even sixty). Later, Ripwin, a landowner in the middle Rhine area, first attests charters in 767 (CE), suggesting he must have reached legal majority (about fifteen years) by then. Twenty-five years afterwards, in 792/3, he was called out on campaign to Italy and made various dispositions about what was to happen if he did not return. Ripwin’s worries were reasonable enough; Italy was a graveyard for armies, if more through disease than battle. Nevertheless, Ripwin did come back – he appears in the documents until 806 – but these charters show that he was still serving in Charlemagne’s army until at least his forties.

Close fighting with spear and shield requires strength and stamina to be sure, but also, and possibly more importantly, cunning and the knowledge of how to attack and parry – knowing the moves. An experienced warrior can spot the type of attack being launched, parry it and riposte with a minimum of physical effort. He knows where and when to use physical effort, and not to waste it on wild, frenzied attacks. Except possibly against raw, untrained troops, accuracy and blade- or point-control is more important than mere ferocity. Repeated experience of battle made a warrior more likely to survive it. As will be seen, it was this accumulation of experience which made the Vikings such difficult foes to beat. It is very likely that the same factor made eighth-century Frankish armies so successful. Success breeds success. On the other hand, states whose armed forces had had little experience of warfare might find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when attacked by more hardened forces. Thus, it would seem, the easy success over Lombard armies enjoyed by battle-tested Frankish forces in the eighth century. The rapid collapse of the Avar kingdom in the 790s probably owed as much to the Avars’ generally peaceful and isolationist existence in the eighth century as to the clever strategies employed by Charlemagne and his commanders.

– Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. Warfare and History (Routledge: London and New York, 2003) pp. 35, 36

In antiquity, teenaged soldiers are often assigned to less demanding roles, like Polybius’ velites or Thucydides’ troops to man the Long Walls, until their bodies and minds had matured and they had gained the experience to survive prolonged combat at close quarters without flinching. Classical Greeks thought that the one thing young soldiers were good at was chasing down light-armed opponents, and in that they agreed with modern athletes.

Experience was probably the main reason that Athenian armies were so successful in the fifth century BCE. Except in Sparta and the Roman army after Augustus, military training was not institutionalized, so in two generations of peace key practical knowledge was generally lost. That knowledge could be reinvented, but Thucydides’ harsh teacher charged tuition fees in blood.

Further Reading: Jolene McLeod has an article somewhere arguing that while Plutarch’s story about Eumenes’ Silver Shields being ‘none of them under sixty years of age’ (Eumenes, 16.4) was probably exaggerated, plenty of middle-aged men served as combat soldiers in antiquity. Reyes Bertolin has researched ancient athletes who tend to be young adults as the games professionalized and competition became more intense.

2020-06-06: trackback from Eleanor Konik, Vikings & Spartans: Women in a Militaristic Culture (some inconsistency between the two sites is creating a problem with CSS here so I am linking manually)

13 thoughts on “In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game

  1. paulmacd1 says:

    Whilst the above comments may have some veracity, they have rather a taste of ‘rationalisation’ and they are certainly not true overall. Most weapon finds, like those referred to above come from grave finds, and this may present as a very distorted picture. Weapons in a grave do not mean that the deceased necessarily fought with them up to his death – they may have hung on a wall for years. Almost all ancient societies sought to maximise their manpower resources, thus a man was eligible for military service from when he was big enough and old enough to hold a weapon for as long as he was fit to do so, and this practice was almost universal whether civilised or barbarian. As a typical example we may take the middle Republican Roman army. The youngest and poorest, who were of course unable to afford a full panoply, formed the ‘velites’ – lightly armed skirmishers and being young were fit enough to chase off enemy skirmishers, gaining battle experience in the process. As they matured and could afford better equipment, they took their place as ‘Hastati’/spearmen in the battle line, all the while gaining experience, until as mature men in their prime ( I.e. still fairly young) they became ‘Principes’/leading men and the backbone of the army. As they grew older, perhaps in their forties, they became ‘Triarii’/’Primani’ until they were too old to use their weapons, which of course retained an honoured place in the household, or perhaps passed on to the next generation.

    But it was still the young and fit who were expected to bear the burden of warfare in all societies.
    Archaeologically, we get a better impression from battlefields and mass grave sites than tombs. Examples from Gaulish interneccine warfare include Ribemont-sur-ancre, Gournay-sur-Aronde and Tintingae .
    If we take the former as an example, (fought around 260 BC) some thousands must have taken part, and around 500 individuals were recovered, all male, between 15-40 years old, all healthy, and surprisingly all about the size of modern Europeans ( evidently Gaulish size was not exaggerated). More than 5,000 weapons and parts of weapons were recovered – almost all spears, javelins and parts of shields. Few swords and scabbards were recovered -as one might expect . A long La Tene sword was the most expensive weapon of antiquity, and hardly likely to be owned by the average Gallic warrior. Rather the cheapest weapons, spear and shield, were far more typical. The long swords were the preserve of chiefs, nobles and perhaps some of their retinues – the presentation of a sword was a great honour. Incidentally most La Tene swords are as short as their Greek and Roman counterparts being more useful in a close order fight than a long sword. These weapons had all evidently been dedicated to the Gods by the victors – and before anyone suggests the best had been taken as trophies, one does not rob the Gods, and why were not all taken?
    The ‘trope’ that Gauls were all swordsmen most likely came from the fact that the chiefs nobles and their retainers formed the front line – not to mention that the front line is the only place such a weapon can be usefully wielded. Most of the Graeco-Roman writers who mention this ‘trope’ wrote long after the events and significantly Caesar, who had first-hand experience of fighting Gauls does not make much of Gallic swordsmen generally.

    We may suggest then:
    1.That battle was the preserve mainly of the young.
    2. Gauls/Celts were not mainly swordsmen.
    3. Not all Celtic swords were long, many if not most were short

    regards to all, Paul McDonnell-Staff

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Paul,

      thanks for the comment. I am changing hosts this weekend (no later than Wednesday 31 July) so I will reply in a few days so comments don’t get lost in transition.

      A good example of the kind of thing I find in all the ancient Greek military authorities is Xen. Hell. 6.4.17: on a normal campaign the Spartans had conscripted 36 age-classes (all the men from the minimum age of conscription to 35 years older) but before Leuctra they raised that to 41 age classes. Evidently, they thought soldiers in their 50s could contribute to a campaign several days’ march away in Boeotia. We hear about Spartans and Athenians keeping the oldest and the youngest men liable to conscription at home in Thuc 5.64.2-3 (Spartans) and Thuc 2.13.6-7 (Athenians).

      Mass graves are an interesting source, and I would like to see a study of the bones from the Chaeronaea monument or the Spartans buried outside the Diplylon Gate of Athens, but aging skeletons is imprecise and they show who died, which will tend to be the young and inexperienced. The two dangers which experience could not control were disease and bullets. No amount of skill lets you void or parry a bullet from your place in a file two cubits wide, and if I am too lazy to dig a proper latrine (and Xenophon insists that the best armies in his day just moved camp frequently and agreed to squat far enough from camp not to bother their neighbours), we both drink the same tainted water. Classical armies don’t seem to have had as much of a problem with disease as armies in the last thousand years (probably some of the nastiest pathogens had not yet spread from their original pools) and they obviously didn’t have to worry about gunpowder.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Paul, I guess all I will say is that Aristotle’s Athenians had 42 year-classes liable to conscription (probably from the 19th year to the 60th) and there is plenty of Greek evidence from Tyrtaeus onwards for old men fighting and dying beside young ones. I think that Polybius’ Romans were only liable to service up to age 45 which is younger than the Greek tradition but similar to early-20th-century Europe, Nathan Rosenstein has theories about how ten years of service might fit into Republican Roman life paths.

      I don’t see anything like current American military wisdom that the fighting part of an army should be young adults, or the British army’s efforts to recruit 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds.

      When you say “most La Tene swords are as short as their Greek and Roman counterparts” you touch on something embarrassing. When you look at Greek swords in museums, you find some 110 cm long as early as the Geometric period (there is one that big in Imma Killian-Dirlmeier’s Prähistorische Bronzefunde volume), and plenty 80-90 cm long. Unfortunately, the ancient Greek swords in museums and books by archaeologists are very different from the ancient Greek swords in English books by classicists.

      (looks like the change of hosts will be delayed into August)

      1. paulmacd1 says:

        Sorry for the delayed response – I’ve been unwell and in hospital recently.

        Yes, I commented myself that that City-state hoplites were liable for service pretty much into old age.Spartans too were ‘trainees’ (eirens) from 18-23 though technically they reached ‘manhood’ at age 21, and were then liable for service for 40 years. (It should be borne in mind that Greeks counted age from birth, unlike us, so that from 0-1 counted as your first year or 1 year old)

        I don’t think there is “plenty of Greek evidence” for old men fighting and dying alongside young ones – what there is restricted to epic poems and is anecdotal.
        In practice the older men ( as in Rome) formed the rear ranks and ‘backed up’ the younger men who clearly bore the brunt of the fighting. Moreover, the older men tended to perform ‘second line’ duties -guarding the camp or the supply train in the rear etc ( see Thuc V.72.3 for example), or the older and younger men (eirenes), amounting to one sixth of the army being sent back from Orestheion to act as a ‘home guard’ before Mantinea.
        As to Greek sword length, early bronze age swords were quite long – though they had a tendency to break, and became shorter over time. From the thirteenth C BC on, the commonest type was the ‘Naue II’ type only some 50 cm -70 cm long, becoming mainly iron after 1,000 BC. These lasted until c 500 BC when they are replaced by the classical ‘xiphos’ and curved ‘kopis’ of similar length, or the even shorter Lacedamonian ‘encheiridion’ ( a dagger).

        Celtic short swords were used for the same reason as Greek and Roman ones – they were much handier in close-order battle.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Hi Paul,

          that is OK, I am glad when you have time to comment. I think one or two other people who have dropped off the ‘ancient Internet’ have medical or family problems.

          I will have to look at those passages in Thucydides, but it seems to me that the guys in the middle and rear of the phalanx had to survive the same hardships on the march and in camp, and face the same “sling shot, bow shot, spear shot too/boots and butt-spikes stamping through”. Let me see if I can track down the article by Jolene McLeod in Calgary (she may have changed her name).

          The fourth-century-BCE cleaver from the tumulus at Golyamata Mogila is 81.2 cm long, and the one at Rimini is in that neighbourhood. Schmitt’s sword number 423 from Kalapodi (?ancient Abai?) is 74.5 cm long and missing part of its point. An iron sword of the 9th/8th century BCE from Vergina published by Effi Photos is 80 cm long- not as giant as the big one in Imma Killian-Dirlmeier’s book but still substantial!

  2. rusell1200 says:

    In the vast majority of the major sports, athletes peak around 27 years of age. That is combining very high levels of skills combined with physical performance.

    The U.S. Army generally states that troops maintain their physical strength and endurance until around 30 and then begin to slowly drop off. This seems to fit with what I had read about Napoleonic era soldiers who were generally thought to be at their marching peak in their early 30s.

    For myself, working out in the field as an electrician in solar pv, I could generally outwork the young 18 year olds until I got to around 50. And Napoleon’s Young Guard (best of the new recruits) were famous for falling out on the march, so it’s an inherent issue with modern youth.

    All of the major combatants of WW2 had issues with finding enough people to send to fight, without killing the economy needed to keep the war machines going. 18 year olds have less job skills than 30 year olds. Thus the preference for sending them.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      When Solon divides human life into 10 seven-year periods (fragment 27 West), he says that a man is strongest in the fourth and best in his mind and tongue in the sixth and seventh. When we compare the census figures to the number of legions in the field, the Romans had a WW I or WW II intensity levy, 10% or more of the population, from early in the Second Punic War until the preserved text of Livy ends 50 years later! (There were a few years of peace in between, but only a few).

      VDH had some good anecdotes about old farmers accustomed to the work outlasting college-age athletes. Its really too bad that it was all in support of a political agenda (he quit teaching history to write political columns not the other way around), so you can’t trust a word he says. Having a classicist with a farm was a good thing, like J.K. Anderson’s riding or the trireme project’s sailing and boatbuilding.

      (Still waiting to move hosts and domain registrars)

  3. Tak Hallus says:

    Age and guile beat youth and enthusiasm?

    Weren’t the 300 Spartans sent to Thermopylae all “sires” who had fathered sons?

    Real world evidence beats literature, but I seem to recall one of Heinlein’s novels remarking on young recruits being eager and full of energy, but unlikely to hold up against older veterans with hard earned combat experience.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, that is one of the details in Herodotus. And later on the Spartans are one of the armies which we hear of sending the youngest soldiers to chase down troops pelting them with stones and javelins from a distance while the older soldiers hold their position.

  4. paulmacd1 says:

    Certainly older men faced the same stresses on the march and in the camp as younger – but then everyone walked everywhere in those times and a 50 year old could be as fit as a 20 year old – as you allude to above, but that is not the same as combat.
    While swords in the bronze age were longer, by classical times sword lengths were generally as I have given, as shown by countless examples. Longer blades were cavalry blades as a rule. For example, the long kopis from Golyamata you refer to belonged to a mounted warrior (probably Prince Iolaus), as shown by his other equipment including horse tack.

    You are not comparing like with like!

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Paul … there are a few hundred extant Iron Age swords and 87 big cleavers from the Aegean, of which a few dozen are fairly intact and have been published with measurements. Out of a few dozen, I found five longer than 70 cm flipping through the references I have on hand, which is not most of these very expensive and bulky books. If you got your ideas about Greek swords from reading books in English, you almost certainly got then from someone who never read those German books with measurements, just gave numbers which ‘felt right’ after looking at Athenian art and studying earlier English writers and the handful of swords which are stable and pretty enough to show in museums.

      Its possible that some of these are cavalry swords, but in the Geometric we find some very long swords in South Greek cemeteries, and there was one medium-sized one at Kalapodi. And the same could be true of long La Tenè swords. I think the thing to do is start by describing the artefacts, next note how they compare to swords in art and texts, and then look for patterns such as regional differences or infantry vs. cavalry swords. But the Aegean swords and cleavers 85 cm long were just as Greek as the ones 30 cm long.

      Old guys often find sleeping on the ground, etc. harder than young ‘uns.

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