When one starts to simulate a battle, inevitably the question of timescales comes up. How long did it all take - especially, how long does it take to move troops from here to there, how much of the battle where units are already in contact is decided during that time? Of course we have some reports - whole encounters took hours, for instance the Battle of Marathon is said to have lasted three hours.

But what does that include? The armies getting into order, chanting their battle chants? Preliminaries like the action of slingers and peltasts? The actual fighting?

Below I'll discuss a few data points and my interpretation of them.

Hand to hand combat

I have read in several places that hoplite engagements in a phalanx were frequently a matter of hours of actual fighting. I believe that's wrong for a couple of reasons:

First, physical combat is really exhausting - I have done some fencing myself, and it's not an activity one can keep up for much more than 10 minutes. Modern buhurt - done in plate armour - has breaks after three minutes, and you can see combatants really gasping for breath when the helmets come off. So I'm going to argue that the normal soldier is simply not able to do an hour-long period of fighting. In a unit, one can rotate fresh soldiers to the front line and allow exhausted combatants to recover, but that extends the meaningful continuous fighting capability of an eight rank phalanx to perhaps half an hour. If the rear soldiers are supposed so push and brace, they have even less opportunity to recover.

It doesn't exclude that there were long periods during which the two lines just faced each other and shouted insults before they engaged (again) into actual combat - but actual, meaningful fighting must have been a relatively short event or must have involved a continuous stream of fresh reserves (the Roman army was able to do that, but it's rather complex to do).

So, second, we have some evidence for that from battle tactics. Consider the Battle of Leuctra where the Theban line was in an echelon, progressively further removed from the Spartans so that the left wing would hit the Spartans first while the other units would not yet engage.

Even if the additional distance the Spartans would have to cover to reach the center and right wing were a few hundred meters, that's a timescale of 5-15 minutes before they join battle. If phalanx engagements frequently took 'hours', there's no meaningful development the Theban general Epiminondas could have hoped to gain from the deployment, a couple of minutes don't make much of a difference then. But if he expected to get a decisive victory with his left wing before most of the other army joined in battle - then the whole arrangement makes much more sense, because he could expect that the battle morale of the Spartan allies would plummet once the Spartans were defeated (as it actually happened). So it would appear that Epiminondas had reason to believe he could defeat and break the Spartan phalanx within just about 10 minutes.

Ranged combat

Third, timescales compress even more when we consider ranged combat. At the Battle of Crécy the English longbow archers defeated several French cavalry charges, firing from a range of 80 m where they had a reasonable chance to penetrate plate armour.

That is remarkable, because a horse can go fast - even at slow gallop, it can go 10 m/s and so cover 80 meters in mere eight seconds. Well-trained archers could also fire really fast - some sources claim up to 24 arrows a minute, which is an arrow every 2.5 seconds - but even that leaves merely three volleys to stop the cavalry charge with colossal losses (to be clear, that's heavily armoured knights).

Once we accept that ranged combat can do that kind of damage in a really small timeframe, the idea that normal infantry would have taken hours for the same result becomes quaint - why then were they used in the first place and not just routinely shot to bits by archers and slingers?

Suppose that slingers would be a hundred times less efficient than English archers against a phalanx (which is a stretch - they weren't that bad) - they could still basically destroy it within 800 seconds or a bit more than ten minutes - whereas another phalanx would use hours for the same task. Of course someone would have to carry ammunition to the slingers - but that's a solvable job, stones are cheap.

So again, while there are factors that make a ranged attack more dangerous to a unit than engaging in hand-to-hand fighting, the fact that heavy infrantry was widely used argues that the timescales at which they could force a decision was not worlds apart.

Continue with Ranged weapons.

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