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Knights Replaced Roman Legion Infantry For Mobility and Other Factors

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  • Knights Replaced Roman Legion Infantry For Mobility and Other Factors

    I was reading in Oman's The Art of War In the Middle Ages that the reason the late Roman Empire and early Franks started abandoning Discipline Heavy Infantry and instead resort to elite heavy cavalry (later to develop what we call "Knights) is that as Rome fell more and more into decline, there were so many enemies attacking Rome from multiple directions.

    These enemies were of various fighting styles from the quick hit-and-run Horse Archers of the Magyars to the Berserkers of the Lombard, the Roman Infantry lacked the Rapidity to respond to various movements of the enemies of Rome as well as the flexibility and aggressive offensive mobility to adapt to all these various enemies.

    So eventually the Romans started abandoning the old Legions of Rome and replacing them with Shock Cavalry that could rapidly go throughout what was left of the empire to counter attacks from various sides. They were much more flexible to maneuver around Europe than the Roman Legions were and when they met an enemy head on, they had this "Shock" charge that would rapidly wipe out enemy forces.

    So basically Elite Heavy Cavalry that gradually developed into what we now call Knights replaced the Roman Legion according to Oman because they had this rapidity,flexibility,shock attacks (that could crush enemies in an instant), and other such advantages that the old Roman Legion lacked.

    What do you think? Is Oman right?

  • #2
    A bit simplistic. There are other reasons:

    1) The Roman Legion was extremely expensive, with each and every infantryman being equipped with quality weapons and armor. It required an equally high grade of economy to maintain such forces. With the Roman economy in decline, they could no longer support such forces.

    2) The Roman Legionairre was a professional soldier. They operated within an army made up of professionals with only some levies thrown in. With the decline of the economy comes a decline of the ability to pay the professional. He becomes more individually valuable as a result.

    3) With more individually valuable warriors, it only makes sense to mount them. You would want them to be mobile. Plus, with the decline of the professional soldier you see the re-ascent of the noble-soldier because he can afford the expensive gear that the professional once had provided by the state.

    4) The influx of other cultures showed a need for shock cavalry. With the other things going on, the nobility took the role of shock cavalry, relegated the infantry to the levies and mercenaries, and took way too big of a role on the battlefield.

    It was a cultural, economic, and social change, rather than a military change. If you deployed a Roman Legion against a normal composition Dark Age army of comparable size, the legion would win every time. The expense of swords, maille, etc. helped drive the social change from nobles leading professional troops, to larger numbers of noble born men becoming the professional troops themselves.
    Tacitos, Satrap of Kyrene

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    • #3
      Agreed. The Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centered on the capital of Constantinople. It is also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, primarily in the context of Late Antiquity, while the Western Roman Empire was still maintained, still employed Roman style legions and tactics until they run out of money and eventually the quality of their armies declined too thus their territories.
      "No title of Nobility shall be granted."
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      • #4
        JE Lendon's "Soldiers and Ghosts" puts forward the idea that the armies of the Empire were quite backwards after the death of Aurelius.
        I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in Classical Era warfare.

        Whether he is right or not, I think it is fair to say that we know much less of the Legions than we would like to. I would look at the broad scope of Roman history as to why it developed as an infantry force first, with a little bit of help from the book mentioned;

        For the first five hundred years of its existence, Rome's enemies were not that far away. Even though it was continuously expanding, the front was always shifting, with the mortal enemy of Rome - the Volsci - being replaced by the Samnites and the Gauls, respectively. Because the situation was consistent for these long years, and because of Rome's republican army structure, its strength would always be in its civic infantry. The infantry tactics that evolved over time remained despite social changes, and the Roman legions of AD 100 were similar enough to those that had fought hundreds of years before. It was during the peace, followed by a lack of central direction and use for the legions that they faded away. The auxiliaries were cheaper and easier to find, but more importantly, they were most readily available to whichever usurper came to power.
        As Mr Lendon points out, by the time of Julian the Apostate, the myths of Alexander (and others) became more real than the experience that had created the Roman military machine.

        In short; there was no sudden transition from Roman Infantry to the mounted soldier of the middle ages.

        The Byzantine armies from the 5th century to the 10th were armed with medium armor and their primary weapon was the spear, not the sword. Their tactics, as shown in their books on war, dealt more with the effective employment of the army by a skilled general - quite the opposite of the Classic Legion, which operated basically the same and could be used by an inexperienced general, and which only changed its structure under some exceptional commanders (like Scipio, one of the best generals in history).

        The armies of the middle ages and the Byzantine armies were very similar in their preference for cavalry, and I think that mobility did indeed have a lot to do with it.
        European armies always reverted to a rudimentary phalanx during periods of military stagnation: Whether it was the shield wall of the Saxons, the Scottish schiltron, the Frankish shield wall, or even the Swiss phalanx.
        The importance of cavalry came from experience during Charlemagne's time and never really let go. It was the only effective way to counter-raid the Viking raiders and to defeat the Magyars. A lot of the more famous medieval battles are accounts of infantry defeating foolishly employed cavalry, but cavalry was effective more often than not. Lechfeld, Bouvines, and possibly even Hastings are some of the more famous battles that were won by cavalry. They aren't remembered as victories of the cavalry because it wasn't unusual. It never really lost its place on the battlefield entirely until the Crimea.

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        • #5
          We should take into account that mercenaries were hired by the Byzantines because they were less likely to side with rivals or start coups, so long as a steady paycheck came their way. This diverted money away from the professional heavy infantry corps. You could also disband them as soon as you were done with them, where a professional soldier has to be maintained for a minimum period of time under a contract to make military service attractive. Mercenaries may be skilled and well equipped, but are unlikely to fight to the death, as they have no stake to do so.

          Geography and culture are reasons for the success of the Roman legionary. In the early Republican era they used a maniple system of lightest to heaviest troops in that order. The revolutionary thing was their flexibility and adaptability. They could move quickly over broken terrain easy. Eventually this gave way to a homogenized cohort system where they were all equipped the same. The auxiliaries were still there and their character reflected the regions from where they were recruited. This worked well against other infantry armies like the Carthaginians, Iberians, Gauls, Greeks and Germans. Eventually they began to encounter cavalry heavy armies like the Huns and Parthians. They used horse archers in tactics that had greater maneuverability which the Romans had nothing to counter with. This use of cavalry against the Romans would prove again and again how good quality light and heavy cavalry can defeat an army with a superior heavy infantry force. In some cases the heavy infantry wasn't even engaged. The Byzantines would also find out the effects of a superior cavalry force later when the Seljuk Turks would attack them. Even though the Byzantines had good quality cavalry, they were expensive and there weren't enough of them. Their infantry core was no longer professional. Their army was too unbalanced. Too many mercenaries, too little cavalry, too many levies. Even worse was that these elite units were only elite because they were professional soldiers that drilled a lot and had fancy uniforms and armor but had little actual experience. These were controlled closely by the emperor. It was if the emperor was more afraid of the army deciding to overthrow him than about defending his empire.
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          • #6
            Originally posted by Frtigern View Post
            It was if the emperor was more afraid of the army deciding to overthrow him than about defending his empire.
            The history of Imperial Rome in a nutshell.
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            • #7
              Originally posted by Frtigern View Post
              Geography and culture are reasons for the success of the Roman legionary.
              In a nutshell: Location, location, location...The knights or the heavy cavalry I would say developed because most of the European peoples used or utilized the infantry. Europe was a forested continent not a steppe. Everyone primarily fought on foot. The answer for a quick and decisive victory over infantry is a shock cavalry. The Romans developed their legions according to the tactics of the enemies they encountered. But on the other hand when knights meet Mongol style cavalry, they would lose every time.
              "No title of Nobility shall be granted."
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              • #8
                Originally posted by speed_pump View Post
                But on the other hand when knights meet Mongol style cavalry, they would lose every time.
                Again I bring up Lechfeld, or Charlemagne's campaigns against the Magyars. Not Mongol style exactly, but Light Cavalry with similar tactics.

                The Mongol's strength was on their organization. They were centuries ahead of their foes because of their Tumen system, which organized forces more closely along the lines of Napoleonic divisions. There was no medieval equivalent, but had there been, I think it would have operated much more effectively.
                Modern revisionism also puts forward the idea that much more of the Mongol army acted as heavy cavalry than was previously believed. I think it is likely, considering that light cavalry/screening tactics were simply not enough (on their own) to win some of the victories that the Mongols did.

                But speaking of Light Cavalry tactics - the Romans themselves were not particularly adept at fighting them with the standard legion. Their strongest asset in the 2nd Punic War was when Massinissa, who was truly one of the great cavalry commanders of history, defected to their side. It was the Numidians who forced their entire army structure to change again a century later.

                Indeed, the further that the Roman (and Byzantine) armies got away from fighting similar foes, the more they needed cavalry. The Byzantine armies were a combined arms force but cavalry was always the most important.

                Also key is that by the time of Western Europe's nation states, cavalry was something that they fully knew how to use. The Romans (before the Western Empire's collapse) never really figured out how to use them effectively in pitched battle.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Rojik View Post
                  The history of Imperial Rome in a nutshell.
                  Not really. The army were fiercely loyal to many. How else would there have been so many civil wars?
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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Hypaspist View Post
                    Again I bring up Lechfeld, or Charlemagne's campaigns against the Magyars. Not Mongol style exactly, but Light Cavalry with similar tactics.

                    The Mongol's strength was on their organization. They were centuries ahead of their foes because of their Tumen system, which organized forces more closely along the lines of Napoleonic divisions. There was no medieval equivalent, but had there been, I think it would have operated much more effectively.
                    Modern revisionism also puts forward the idea that much more of the Mongol army acted as heavy cavalry than was previously believed. I think it is likely, considering that light cavalry/screening tactics were simply not enough (on their own) to win some of the victories that the Mongols did.

                    But speaking of Light Cavalry tactics - the Romans themselves were not particularly adept at fighting them with the standard legion. Their strongest asset in the 2nd Punic War was when Massinissa, who was truly one of the great cavalry commanders of history, defected to their side. It was the Numidians who forced their entire army structure to change again a century later.

                    Indeed, the further that the Roman (and Byzantine) armies got away from fighting similar foes, the more they needed cavalry. The Byzantine armies were a combined arms force but cavalry was always the most important.

                    Also key is that by the time of Western Europe's nation states, cavalry was something that they fully knew how to use. The Romans (before the Western Empire's collapse) never really figured out how to use them effectively in pitched battle.
                    Instead of conversing here this way (too slow and I 've got too many points to say) I would recommend to read an awesome book or should I say books about the Mongols and their rise: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3276637-genghis
                    You are right about some things but you underestimate the power of the Mongol double-curved bow, Mongols were very flexible. They adjusted to their enemy...If their enemy was heavy cavalry (knights) they would use only light cavalry with armor piercing arrows or shoot the horse. They had a kind of heavy cavalry but it was still light by our standards. No wonder that the knight never developed on the steppes. No infantry to crush...
                    "No title of Nobility shall be granted."
                    Article I of the Constitution of the United States

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                    • #11
                      It might be that the shift happened in different areas for different reasons. In the Eastern empire we certainly see a shift to more and more cavalry in response to the Seleucids and other threats that likely required more mobility. But in the west, for instance among the Franks, knights really appear from the rise of feudalism when the state-funded, professional soldiers of Rome fall out of favor for a society based around a "warrior class" consisting of the few who could actually afford good weapons and armor.

                      Coincidentally they could also afford horses and didn't feel like walking everywhere.

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                      • #12
                        You know, I am somewhat confused about the Question of the thread... Are we talking about the Knights as a doctrine (Code of Chivalry and etc.) or just in terms of heavy cavalry? Because if it's the latter, heavy cavalry have existed long time before the knights, in Ancient times (cataphracts)...

                        "No title of Nobility shall be granted."
                        Article I of the Constitution of the United States

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                        • #13
                          Regarding the mobility of cavalry, are you talking just about the tactical mobility or also about strategic? I always imagined the speed of armies would be more restricted by their baggage train than any fighting unit, and even if not, the entire army would have to be on horseback to travel much faster without splitting up. For these reasons I have thought cavalry (in most non-nomadic armies) to not have much of an advantage in strategic mobility. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

                          Speaking of Roman legions specifically, I would based on the above have expected their discipline (and light baggage in some periods?) to give them greater strategic mobility than most medieval European armies. Something I like to think is that effectivity is as much about reducing dead time as about doing things faster.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by speed_pump View Post
                            Agreed. The Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centered on the capital of Constantinople. It is also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, primarily in the context of Late Antiquity, while the Western Roman Empire was still maintained, still employed Roman style legions and tactics until they run out of money and eventually the quality of their armies declined too thus their territories.
                            Properly it was the Eastern Roman Empire. Terming it the Byzantine Empire is incorrect, that term having been coined by a 16th century German historian. So, there never actually was a Byzantine Empire.

                            This is a good example of an historical error being repeated, ad nauseum, and not being corrected.

                            Sincerely,
                            M
                            We are not now that strength which in old days
                            Moved earth and heaven; that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts
                            Made weak by time and fate but strong in will
                            To strive to seek to find and not to yield.

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                            • #15
                              As to actual mobility, having a cavalry-centered army of Western (not Mongol) style doesn't appreciably increase the strategic mobility. It obviously does that for tactical mobility, and really operational mobility (you can detach the majority of your cavalry from their baggage for a few days to steal a march if need be). But I'd think that a well-drilled Roman Legion has better strategic and operational (under normal circumstances) mobility than a Western-style cavalry army. Just from the streamlined baggage system (comparatively speaking), and the discipline and conditioning of the marching troops.

                              The Mongols are a different animal entirely.
                              Tacitos, Satrap of Kyrene

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