What Caused Death and Injury During (and After) Ancient Battles Essay
Soldiering has never been an easy job. In any period of history the risks are rarely any different, death and injury stalk every battlefield the world over. Egyptian and Greek warfare became sophisticated theatres of mortality and injury in their day, the means by which the enemy could be dispatched were numerous and effective. Rivalling this however, was nature; infection and disease were as big a risk to the soldier as any blade.
Injury is also present in the mind of the warrior, the stress of battle, the grief, the inner turmoil caused by murder and the horrors one could witness remained long in the memory of every veteran and for some this manifested itself in mental illness. As we shall see, Egyptian and Greek warfare varied hugely in the way it was carried out, this in turn affecting how injuries could be received and therefore warrants a division between them in discussion about pitched battle injuries.
It will be necessary to generalise the period of time that this essay involves, it would be impossible to accurately talk about warfare over the whole course of Egyptian and Greek history. Fortunately death and injury occur in a fairly consistent way throughout both periods and the simplification will not significantly damage the validity of any of the arguments involved. I have decided not to include naval warfare in this discussion and rather focus on land battle, partially due to the lack of space of which to do so and also due to the shortage in evidence and research on the topic.
The Egyptian pitched battle was a dangerous affair, far more so than the following Greek style. Lightly armoured and with a heavy use of lethal ranged weaponry the Egyptian soldier had much to fear. Partridge separates the type of injuries sustained in battle into two main categories, blunt wounds and piercing wounds. Blows were sustained from rocks thrown from high battlements or clubs and blunt instruments; they could shatter and break bones, cause severe bruising and internal injuries.
Such injuries were not usually as lethal as others unless directed at the head, physicians could cope well with broken bones but their ability to deal with internal bleeding was minimal and such and injury would normally result in the death of the patient (should they receive treatment at all). The common royal motif of smiting also falls into this category and there is strong evidence that this occurred on the battlefield, the Deir el Bahri tomb discovered by Winlock in 1923 a prime source.
Amongst the dead were those who had been clubbed on the left side of the head as if their hair was held whilst this occurred, this would match the smiting example perfectly although it could be motivated by mercy on behalf of the dying, not anger. Piercing injuries were a more serious issue: arrows, spears, swords and other sharp instruments were very dangerous and necessitated the use of a shield. Shallow wounds could be dealt with reasonably affectively, many would heal naturally and honey, amongst other things, was often used as a primitive antiseptic wash.
If infection did occur then survival was unlikely and was largely much to do with the age and physical condition of the individual. Wounds were generally received on the left side, reflecting the stance of the soldier and the fact that the right hand was usually used to wield weapons, the chest seeming to be the area that received most injury. Evidence for piercing wounds is hindered by the practise of repurposing arrows making identifying their impact on a corpse rather difficult; natural decay is an issue as soft tissue deteriorates faster than other parts of the body and embalming camouflages wounds that have healed well.
Seeing as dull blows leave a far greater impact on the body (bones show impacts more clearly and survive better over time) we are left with a pool of evidence skewed in favour of the blunt kinds of injuries in our physical evidence. It is only via consulting the wider body of evidence that we discover the prominence of piercing weapons, evidence like that from Deshasheh offering an insight into the prominence of arrows in war. This relief displays the impact arrows had in battle alongside other weapons; Winlock comments that, ‘the dead and wounded bristling with arrows in the Deshasheh reliefs give a realistic picture of the battlefields’.
Along with sources like that of The Tomb of Amenemhet and its depiction of ranged weapons we can confidently assert that arrows and other ranged weapons played a large role in causing the casualties of Egyptian warfare, the physical evidence unsupportive due to flesh decay and wood’s biodegradability. In all, the pitched battle was quite clearly a dangerous place but if we are to take the Deir el Bahri tomb as an example there appears to be only 60 or so dead out of a force of perhaps hundreds, a reasonably low percentage, it would be reasonable to ssume that death and injury trailed the surviving soldier home.
Many of the injuries sustained during a battle would not be immediately lethal, Egyptian soldiers could carry war wounds to their death. Short term post battle deaths would occur from damage like: internal bleeding, blood loss, infection and injuries which would prevent the soldier from functions like eating and drinking. Many more would survive battles with injuries that whilst were not lethal in the short term would leave the sufferer with severe pain and/or disability.
We know that many could return from battle with brain damage, the Edwin Smith Papyrus provides the evidence for this, case 8 seemingly describing such an injury. Broken bones, if attended to, could heal well, but if untreated a soldier could be left crippled, unable to fight or work, such injuries would be reasonably common due to the high use of clubs and rocks both capable of causing such injuries especially in siege warfare. This walking wounded would invariably suffer not only from their injuries but also financially on return home unable to provide for himself or his family.
Campaign could be just as dangerous as battle itself, and if it did not kill it would certainly leave some soldiers predisposed to death. Malnutrition was a serious issue, especially during a siege where often the aggressors would struggle to provide themselves with provisions as much as the besieged. Papyrus Anastasi describes a returning soldier as such, ‘If thou blowest beside him as he passes, he will drop down far off like a leaf of foliage’, fighting in such a state would leave a soldier susceptible to many injuries, fatigue may leave him unable to lift his shield high enough, or retreat with enough vigour to save his skin.
The diet on the march would consist largely of bread which contained high levels of grit, this would wear down teeth and could even cause abscesses or infections which could be fatal but at best would cause discomfort. The campaign had other methods of killing off its followers, the dangers of the landscape were numerous and snakes, scorpion, crocodile and hippopotami were all real dangers to troops. Disease was rife in camp; Schistomiasis was a real danger as was Tuberculosis and scurvy, all deadly and at best incapacitating .
Egyptian warfare was rarely anything other than unpleasant and offered those who fought little in return for their labours, Papyrus Lansing, whilst a clear exaggeration of army life leaves no illusion that there was much pleasant to expect during or after war. Unlike its Greek counterpart, prestige laid with the conquering king, not the army who fought for him, their only hope was a quick death or to return unscathed as anything in-between would be unbearable; fate is rarely so kind, Egypt littered with the crippled, dead and dying during periods of war.
Greek warfare was substantially different in many respects to its Egyptian predecessor; Hellas produced walls of bronze studded with iron, great wooden vessels fuelled by Greek sweat, grit and muscle then released them into a culture defined by the Agon, war and competition. Death and injury was no stranger to Greek lands and the hoplite was well aware of their potential fate when they marched into battle, nor was the thete naive as he pulled his oar into treacherous waters. The Hoplites heavy armour left them far less exposed to injury then the Egyptians.
For instance, hoplites war largely impervious to arrows, Schwartz citing a study claiming that the hoplite shield could have withstood a Napoleonic rifle. With only rare examples like that told by Xenophon where particularly large barbarian arrows could pierce shield and breastplate the only real time when a hoplite could fear ranged weapons was when they were on the march, particularly in single file when a phalanx could not be formed, in such occasions death rates could be huge, as long as their flanks were not exposed then the hoplite was largely safe.
The success against the Persians at Marathon can be partially explained by this defensive strength of the hoplite against ranged weaponry and it was certainly a great asset of Greek warfare that casualties from arrows were minimal. Once a Phalanx was formed then there was a more varied panoply of injury and death. The othismos was perhaps the most dangerous part of a battle (particularly the very first meeting as this was usually taken at a run and puncture wounds could be carried far deeper), this scrum would push back and forth causing many to fall over and be subsequently trampled by the ebb of the struggle.
For those who were not trampled the butt spike of a spear was likely to dispatch them very quickly. If the line collapsed (pararrexis) then the force would likely rout to avoid being flanked and annihilated. Due to this practise of quick retreat, the reasonably small killing zone of the phalanx and the inability of a hoplite to pursue a routing force the casualty rates in hoplite warfare were reasonably low. At Delium in 424 BC it is estimated that 2. 7% of the victorious Baeotians were killed with 10% of the Athenians dead. Assuming that a soldier had full panoply then his unprotected hands, arms and feet were all liable to be cut.
These were not generally fatal but, like the Egyptian period discussed, if they became infected then there was a real chance of death should the infection become bad enough. There was, fortunately, a general awareness that wound cleaning and bandaging would prevent complications and so death from these minor injuries weren’t overly numerous. The most vulnerable part of the hoplite body, whilst he was still upright, was the area from the upper thigh to below the naval; there are many examples of injuries in this area within ancient texts.
A spear thrust just under or over the hoplon would inflict this kind of severe damage, and since medicine again was not at a stage where internal bleeding and cuts to main arteries could be dealt with then deep puncture wounds would usually lead to death. The psychological impact of warfare is well known, the wars of the 20th century brought into the public eye the impact that the horrors of war could have upon a soldier. Such mental afflictions by no means unique to our modern age.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of battle induced mental illness was that of Epizelus who lost his sight without receiving a blow upon his body. Although it would be impossible to know for sure, similar modern cases receive the diagnosis of Hysterical Conversion, a prime example of a psychological illness. This however, is a unique case in history; far more common is evidence for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Xenophon offers several instances where such a diagnoses could be given: in Anabais (2. 6. 6. Xenophon describes Clearchus in a manner which Tritle contends clearly diagnoses him with PTSD. Additionally, again in Anabasis (5. 8. 14), we again are offered evidence of men breaking down during battle, unable to endure its hardships and that it was a fairly regular occurrence. We should not be surprised at this, Greek armour was designed to terrify, Plutarch described it as a, ‘ferocious beast as it wheels and stiffens its bristles’, their shields were adorned with images designed to frighten and coupled with the fear of injury and death meant that even before a battle had begun fear could paralyse.
During a battle the sights, sounds and smells of death were even more effective if producing these reactions, it was for this reason that the ‘worst’ troops were kept in the middle between the best at the front and rear, one could not afford for someone susceptible to PTSD to break the line. Coping strategies existed which in some ways helped Soldiers to deal with these issues. The Pyrrhic dance, although interpreted differently by communities, was performed at the end of campaigns and supposedly had some form of therapeutic effect.
Needless to say, for those who were unable to overcome their experiences life would be very difficult; many turned to drinking, others suicide. War is cruel beyond measure, for some it is too much to live with. Few are under any illusion of the risks in war, Egyptian warriors and Greek hoplites faced injury and death from the start of campaign to the end, some wouldn’t return home alive, others would return crippled and disabled, yet more still a shell of their former selves. Whilst the nature of these two types of warfare was distant the potential cost of battle remained identical and endures to this day.
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