The history of warfare is as old as history itself, (I mean just check out these incredible stats). But despite war being a constant throughout our species’ history, each era, region and nation has waged war in their own specific and deadly way. Different tactics, armour, goals and of course weapons have helped shape the identity of our modern world more than almost anything else. Most of our countries were created through war, or at least violence, so it makes sense that the styles and personalities of those formative armies would go on to mold the character of the country.
At the risk of writing an entire dissertation on war, (of which many have been written), I have chosen to tell the history of 4 of the most interesting weapons used in ancient warfare.
The battle axe is one of the most featured weapons in pop culture, the barbarians, orcs and monsters of fantasy are commonly pictured wielding a wicked battle axe. But the battle-axe also served an incredibly important role in warfare.
Because the battle axe was cheap to make and required less skill to wield, armies could be outfitted and prepared for war more quickly than if every soldier was expected to carry a sword.
A battle axe was also an excellent weapon to strike fear into an approaching enemy army, even armored knights. While knights were usually impervious to the cuts and slashes of a sword, an axe had the power to slice through armor to cut off limbs and inflict devastatingly deep wounds. Approaching an army using battle axes told you that they may have less skill, but they could certainly inflict as much, if not more damage. The battle axe could also be hurled as a missile, which just sounds fucking terrifying.
The downside to using a battle axe is that quite often because of their size they’d have to be wielded with two hands, meaning the user would be unable to carry a shield, leaving himself vulnerable to skilled enemies.
The Katana is one of the traditional swords favoured by the Japanese nobility, particularly the Samurai class. The Katana is a sword with a long, slightly curving blade and was instrumental in Japan fighting off the Mongol hordes.
The Mongol armour found the Japanese swords of the time wanting, with Japanese warriors often finding their blades chipping on their hardened leather armour. The need for a more effective weapon birthed the Katana.
In Japanese culture only the elite could carry swords, if a peasant was seen carrying a sword he would be killed. Thus the Katana attained a mystical and elite aura that maintained for centuries, even today a Japanese Katana is considered one of the finest swords in the world.
Fun Fact: The strict rules imposed on Japan after World War 2 impeded their weapons productions, including swords. But Katanas have begun to make a resurgence in the modern world thanks to the popularization of Japanese culture and history through film and television.
I’m going to deviate from the bladed weapons to talk about Greek Fire. One of the most terrifyingly effective weapons in the ancient world of warfare.
Fire is a brutal weapon to use in it’s own right, it burns mercilessly and creates smoke the clogs the eyes and the lungs as well as sucking the oxygen from the air. Greek Fire is far more dangerous in that it alights on contact with water. So while an enemy frantically tries to put out a fire they could end up fueling the inferno instead.
The recipe for Greek Fire was a closely guarded secret, and even today there is no single agreed upon list of ingredients. But the use of pitch is widely accepted because of the stories of how Greek Fire was sticky and would cling to walls and people alike.
Because of Greek Fire’s incendiary properties around water it is seen as one of the main reasons the Byzantine Empire was able to survive so long, because of their dominance of the seas.
The effectiveness of Greek Fire was limited however, it’s range was short and could only be used on calm seas and in favourable weather conditions. (I can’t imagine it would have been fun to see a literal fire wave storm the deck of your ship.) Enemies also began lining the hulls of their ship with leather treated with vinegar which negated a lot of the effect of Greek Fire.
Fun Fact: The Wildfire used in Game of Thrones to destroy King Stannis’ army during the battle of Blackwater was based on Greek Fire!
The Claw of Archimedes:
Archimedes designed this ingenious (and kind of hilarious) defense to protect the walls of Syracuse from naval attacks. A big claw on a crane/pulley like set-up would literally just pick a ship up out of the water and either drop it or capsize it.
This description of the devastation caused against a Roman fleet by The Claw of Archimedes from Plutarch, the great Greek essayist, is far better than anything I could write (obviously):