I should also preface with this: 300 is not a realistic movie, it’s stylized and cinematic but harkens to real events and strategies of the era.
I love reading about ancient warfare. So different from our modern conception of war where the power of our hand held weapons, not to mention the accuracy of our artillery and airborne strikes makes hit and run tactics the flavor of the day. Ancient warfare was different, armies with banners arrayed against each other. Weapons designed to spread punishment as widely among ranked enemy soldiers as possible. It’s amazing how the specific technologies that helped ancient empires win the day were not superior weapons or stunning tactics but stuff like roads, formations, training and logistics. Over the next few blogs I’m going to breakdown some of how the Romans and others dominated early warfare using the power of mundane technology, stuff we take for granted today.
Got a buddy who’s a martial artist. He’s been doing this stuff for years, maybe like 15-20 now. He’s a little guy, kinda skinny, strong but not super muscular in build but I’m certain he would destroy me in a direct confrontation because he practices Jiu Jitsu which is the art of folding clothes while someone is wearing them. I’m obsessed with process and meaning so I once asked him, ‘Why learn martial arts? What is it you’re really learning?’. I want you to understand, dear reader, that I know the value of martial arts but what I don’t understand is ‘why’ they’re valuable. My friend enlightened me. ‘It’s muscle memory’ he said. Essentially what you’re learning in a given martial art is not so much how to punch or execute certain maneuvers but how to do it right every time, no matter what the conditions. To have a repertoire on hand that lets you adapt to a given situation quickly because you have the tools and you know how to use them. This is what training is.
How does this relate to ancient warfare? I’m glad you asked. Training, repeated drills, forming up, knocking arrows in unison, bearing shields in formed ranks and the ability to perform those skills under stress are what make difference. They’re also super boring and repetitive. But this, right here, is what fascinates me. The power of the Spartan military is not that one guy was a superb strategist (though there have been plenty of battles won with such brilliant minds) or some super skilled individual warrior but on the aggregate training of the soldiery. Watch the video again, the Persians press in but shields are lifted and not one Spartan dies, in the counter attack the Spartans must push in unison and strike in unison. That sort of fast reaction comes from that maneuver, lifting a big heavy metal shield and hold in place for a long time, striking with spear to rhythm and timing being second nature. How did they learn that? Practice practice practice. Notice how the other side, disorganized, untrained is decimated by this tactic. They have shields too but their use isn’t second nature.
What I find stunning is that in fiction every scene we watch in a training yard we focus on the hero impressing everyone. They dodge arrows, the other soldiers are impressed, they execute a sweet judo throw, the appreciation mounts, they demonstrate expert sword play, ‘holy cow!’. But it’s the guys in the background drilling their shield lifting and formations that are going to win the day because if the army is decimated by the incoming army before they can close distance this fight is going to be short no matter how good the hero is at judo throws.
I guess my point here is that we have to view technology differently. It’s not just circuitry, or metallurgy, chemistry or engineering but logistics, training and organization. The Spartans developed a technology and process for standardizing their training and it’s why they dominated.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.