What caused injury and death during (and after) ancient battles?
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...
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[ 5 ]. Winlock (1945) 16-18.
[ 6 ]. Partridge (2002) 123.
[ 8 ]. Partridge (2002) 125.
[ 9 ]. Filer (1992) 282.
[ 10 ]. Sanchez. (2000) 143-165.
[ 11 ]. Partridge (2000) 125.
[ 14 ]. Winlock (1945) 11.
[ 17 ]. Partridge (2002) 125.
[ 18 ]. Winlock (1945) 15. contends that 14 of his soldiers died from rock fall.
[ 19 ]. Gardiner, A. (1964) 13.
[ 20 ]. Partridge (2002) 118-119.
[ 21 ]. Partridge (2002) 125.
[ 23 ]. McDermott (2004) 44.
[ 24 ]. Blackman, M & Peet, E. T. 1925. 284-298
[ 25 ]
[ 27 ]. Hanson (2006) 74.
[ 28 ]. Hanson & Keegan (2000) 61-2.
[ 29 ]. Schwartz (2009) 184. Xenophon does mention an instance of a man falling 3 times but finding his feet until he was eventually killed. Xen. Hell. 5.4.33.
[ 31 ]. Hanson (2004) 204.
[ 32 ]. Hanson & Keegan (2000) 217. Especially when compared to Battles like Marathon and particularly Guagumela, both fought against eastern armies.
[ 36 ]. Tritle (2000) 71-72.
[ 40 ]. Tritle (2000) 190-191. Similarities can be drawn with the games in the Iliad (23.257-897), performed after battles and harrowing events.
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