Nine Great Militaries of History, and the Weapons that Helped Them

It’s not quite fair that military success determines who is remembered in History, but that seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Here are nine case histories of great armies with their key inventions

The invention of the stirrup and mastery of horsemanship were key in the history of warfare development

The following are not by any means the only military powers in history, but certainly the ones we remember most (if not the ones to best utilize new military technology):

1. Ancient Egyptians

Time Period: 3000–1000 BC

Key Weapon: Chariot, Composite Bow

Downfall: Invaded by better ships, downfall of chariot tech

2. Ancient Greeks

Time Period: 800–300 BC

Key Weapons: Phalanx, Galley Ship

Downfall: Civil war and bad management, Romans

3. Ancient Carthaginians

Time Period: 400–200 BC

Key Weapons: Elephant (proto-tank), Improved Galley Ships

Downfall: Destruction of Carthage by Romans

4. Ancient Romans

Time Period: 200 BC-400 AD

Key Weapons: Improved Phalanx, Improved Ships, Engineering, Civil Service

Downfall: Empire got too big to manage

5. Mongols

Time Period: 1200 AD-1600 AD

Key Weapons: Lightning horse raids using stirrups and better bows

Downfall: Could not manage what they had conquered

6. Ottoman Turks

Time Period: 1200 AD-1800 AD

Key Weapons: Cannons, muskets, improved Cavalry

Downfall: European powers developed better weapons, especially ships

7. British

Time Period: 1588–1945

Key Weapons: Heavily-Armed Battleships, Civil Service

Downfall: Debt, Rebellion by Colonies

8. Germans

Time Period: 1915–1945

Key Weapons: Submarine, Tanks, dive bomber

Downfall: Allies developed more and better tanks, planes, ships

9. Americans

Time Period: 1941-Present

Key Weapons: Aircraft Carrier, Fighter Jet, Smart-Weapons, Atomic Bomb

Downfall: We’ll see

Egyptian war chariot-this and the Sahara Desert helped protect ancient Egyptians

The Egyptians didn’t exactly have weapons that the Babylonians, Assyrians, Minoans, or Hittites lacked (the chariot, the composite bow), but they did have an excellent “home-field” advantage…the Sahara Desert. The desert was hostile to any army that dared to invade ancient Egypt, and so they didn’t even have to build walled cities like their competition. Additionally, their main weapon was the chariot, which could be used on flat ground which was abundant in Egypt and Mesopotamia (where their main enemies lived). Egypt had an adequate Navy as well. During the 1176 BC raids of the “Sea People” (they likely being Greeks or Sicilians who had already destroyed the Hittites and others), the Egyptians fought the “Battle of the Delta” during the rein of Ramses III. After luring the marauders into the Nile unopposed, they used grappling hooks to snatch and destroy their ships, while archers pelted them from shore. No one could really knock off the Egyptians until naval technology improved, and horse-mounted warfare eclipsed chariot warfare.

The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae-the Greek Phalanx held against the numerically superior Persians

The Ancient Greeks notably improved warfare at sea, using Triremes (specialized battleships using three rows of oars). Their main tactic was lining up side by side and selectively ramming an enemy ship with a bronze sheathed log, until it sank. Each ship also carried archers and marines (soldiers who would board the enemy ship and finish the job). During the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Greeks lured Xerxes’ ships into a narrow channel, where 380 Triremes destroyed 800 Persian ships, which had limited maneuverability. During the Peloponnesian War in 406 BC, the Athenian fleet of 150 ships defeated the Spartan’s 120 ship fleet during the Battle of Arginusae, using mostly superior ramming techniques. On land, the Greeks used the phalanx formation to perfection. Their soldiers stood up to 6 rows deep, with shields and pikes of up to 18’ in length. As such, the formation was nearly impenetrable, as was demonstrated in the Battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans held off a much larger Persian force. Phillip of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) improved upon the phalanx with superior shields, pikes, and swords. He also greatly improved the use of light cavalry (for lightning raids and finishing skirmishes) and heavy cavalry. His biggest contribution to warfare of the day may have been the trimming of support staff and supplies, which allowed his armies to move much further and faster. Using his father’s tactics, Alexander never lost a battle, although he ultimately failed to keep much of the land he conquered (that requires other measures as we shall see). Though impressed with the tactics of the Greeks, the Romans caught up militarily and learned to defeat the phalanx by engaging them on uneven ground and using more mobile troops to attack their flanks, where they were less effective. Once the Hoplites were forced into hand to hand combat, the Roman Gladiators usually prevailed.

Hannibal almost succeeded in crushing Rome, but he ran out of elephants and headed home, where he lost

The Carthaginians were a dominant sea power from around 600 BC to 202 BC, when they were partially destroyed by the Romans. They fought the Pyrrhic Wars around 280 BC (with their rivals in Sicily) and won the “Battle of the Straits of Messina”, sinking 98 of 110 ships. This set the stage for the Punic Wars from 262 BC to 146 BC, in which Carthaginian General Hannibal famously brought elephants and Spanish allies over the Alps and into Rome, winning three large battles before returning home. Elephants were the “tanks” of the day, allowing archers to shoot in all directions and enabling frontal assaults. Unfortunately, Hannibal ran out of them towards the end of his Italian campaign, as he was weakened by the Roman “Fabian Strategy” (essentially guerilla tactics). Ultimately Roman General Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama (near Carthage) in 202 BC, by using superior cavalry strength. He also devised a successful strategy to confuse Hannibal’s 80 new elephants, by blowing horns to distract the animals, then having teams of javelin throwers injure or kill them.

The Roman Legions were well-equipped, well-supported, and flexible fighting machines

The Romans combined the best tactics of their enemies with numerical superiority, better care of their troops, civic and engineering strength. During the Battle of Vosges in 58 BC, Caesar had a bridge built over the Rhine in order to attack Germanic tribes. In order to lay siege to the Jewish mountain fortress of Masada in 73 AD, Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva had a large ramp built. Though possibly invented in the Near East and developed by the Greeks, the Romans greatly improved upon the crossbow and catapult concept. The Romans also had an uncanny staying power. At first, they suffered several crushing defeats at the hands of Hannibal and his elephant army, but they persevered and ultimately defeated Hannibal by sailing to his homeland and winning using clever tactics. It almost goes without saying that the Romans were excellent “administrators”, setting up a kind of franchise business in conquered nations, where the vanquished were assured food and protection if they obeyed Rome and sent her soldiers and tribute. Rome’s navy was no slouch either. In a kind of “civil war” at Actium in 31 BC, between the forces of Octavian and Marc Anthony (who was aided by his lover Cleopatra and her ships), Marc Anthony’s heavier vessels had archer’s towers, rams, and grappling hooks, but Octavian’s lighter Liburnian ships were more maneuverable with better crews. The ships drew close and hand to hand combat ensued, with Cleopatra’s and eventually Marc Anthony’s ships abandoning the fight. Ultimately, the invaders to the North and East (Germanic tribes and Hunnic invaders) caught up to the Romans, who began having a harder time administrating their large Empire. The Roman army’s last hurrah was in 451 AD, when they were able to defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons with help from the Visigoths (they drew Attila into a head-to-head battle, for which his light cavalry was ill-suited), but it was not long before the Visigoths and others were essentially running the Empire.

Timur (Tamerlane) was an in-law of a Genghis Khan descendent, but carried on the bloody Mongol tradition

There were several invasions from the Steppes (grasslands near what is now Ukraine) over the centuries, including the Scythians, Huns, Mongols, and Turks. The most famous and exemplary of these was Genghis Khan and the Mongol “Golden Horde”. Remember when we said Phillip of Macedonia was able to trim his support team and supplies in order to move faster? The Mongols may have been the world’s best at this, essentially living on their horses (each carried four horses also, so they could change out a tired animal). The stirrup invention is said to have been critical, since it allowed a rider to shoot arrows while standing up, and somewhere between the Huns and the Mongols, the Steppes invaders used the stirrup to master horse warfare. In addition, the Mongols were ruthless, destroying their enemies and living off the plunder. Several generations of Khans led to Tamerlane (Timur) who may have been the most ruthless of all (by this time, the Mongols had blended with Turkic people)

The Ottoman Turks made early and effective use of gunpowder, cannons, and muskets

The Ottoman Turks were early adopters of gunpowder, cannons, and muskets, and used them successfully to create their Empire between the 14th and 18th centuries, between the Balkans and India. Gunpowder is said to have spread from China in the 12th century, and accompanying military tactics were soon developed by the Ottomans. Naturally, gunpowder and canons made quite a difference, while it is not clear whether the inaccurate and slow-firing early muskets were a large advance over the quicker/surer crossbow or longbow. Later, European advances in rifling greatly improved small-arms accuracy, and they became a deadly battlefield force. Ultimately, other nations caught up to the Ottomans in weaponry, and their Empire retreated to the borders of Turkey after World War I.

The sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was the beginning of the British rule of the seas

Though the Portuguese and Spaniards were the early leaders in navigation and cannon mounted battleships, the British soon became the masters of the sea, due to their additional advances in shipbuilding, navigation, and colonization of the New World. They held their own on land, and had the perseverance and administrative ability second only to the Romans. In the early 20th century, German submarines began to be a serious challenge to British naval supremacy, and though Britain prevailed in both World Wars, they needed substantial military help and money from the United States to prevail. British advances in aircraft were critical to its narrow victory in the “Battle of Britain”. In addition to the German submarine, the German tanks and dive bombers were an innovative part of their blitzkrieg strategy, surprising the Russians, British, and Americans until their submarine, aircraft, tank technology and overall production began to catch up. Generally speaking, the Allies bombed German production into attrition, after the Allies’ tanks and planes went into high production. Japan and Germany must have overestimated the element of surprise, or underestimated the Allies’ resolve to fight, because their own technology was not superior to the Allies at that time.

Aircraft Carriers and fighter planes have been central to the defense of the U.S. since WW II

The United States has been, since World War II, the dominant military power. They were essentially forced into this role by the Japanese Pearl Harbor raid of 1941, which led to the development of the world’s best aircraft carrier technology, cutting-edge jet fighters and bombers, and useful tanks. The development of the atom bomb was an almost international effort, since many of the scientists involved were European exiles, afraid of Axis power expansion. Like Egypt, the United States has enjoyed a defensive advantage, being beyond the geographic range of most weapons. The US also enjoys the cooperation of many mutual-defense pacts around the world, including NATO and SEATO. China is rumored to be on the verge of having superior land and space-based missile systems, sonic weapons, and even biological weapons, which might render the United State’s geographic advantage obsolete. The race for better weaponry never ends.

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Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health