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The Dark Ages and Lost Military Technology

Updated on September 22, 2019
Stephen Austen profile image

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

Having read much over the years concerning the ancient history of Britain, particularly the period known as the Dark Ages (categorized as the span of time since the fall of the Roman Empire in the early 5th Century AD up to and as late as 1500 AD) we can see from history how the technological advances of the Romans fell into ruin. It only truly revived during the Italian Renaissance.

In this article, of particular note for my own purposes, is to focus upon how forgotten Roman military tactics and technology affected Britain in the 9th Century when King Alfred ruled the land and was fighting off hordes of marauding Vikings.

Roman Roads

We know that the Romans invaded Britannia under the leadership of Julius Caesar in 55BC and they finally abandoned the country in the year 410AD. A span of almost 500 years of Roman rule governed the peoples of Britain. We know of course, that the Romans built a tremendous system of roads, made in such a way that they could literally last for centuries, and were even curved slightly, the camber allowing for proper drainage into ditches on either side of the road. No one had ever built roads like these.

Roman roads in Britain around 150 AD. Attribution: Andrei Nacu
Roman roads in Britain around 150 AD. Attribution: Andrei Nacu | Source

But, after the Roman troops had left the country to go back home to defend sunny Italy from hordes of barbarians invading their borders, the Britons and Romano-Britons left in the country failed to maintain this complex, efficient and brilliant system of straight roads which crossed the country from south to north and east to west.

It was not long before barbarian Germanic tribes came to Britain bringing violence, bloodshed and warfare. If the roads were used at all, it was carelessly, disregarding their strategic importance, especially in terms of military effectiveness of transporting men, carts, cavalry and supplies from place to place.

So the stone blocks that made up the Roman roads' surfaces were left to grow weeds between them, the ditches were blocked with debris, and the stones became awash with rain, mud and sludge, often becoming unworthy of travelling on, lost under grass and shrubs. We think that by King Alfred's time, (over four hundred years after the Romans had left) in the 9th Century, many of these roads were lost under such growth, and only thin trails of stones taking a meandering line might trace out the once glorious highway that the Romans had made.

It is believed that, historically, King Alfred did use the Roman road known as Watling Street. (See map above) It must have been but a shadow of its former self, but it ran from Dover (the Roman Dubrae) to London, (Londinium) then on to St. Albans (Verulamium) and continued northwestward all the way to Wroxeter (Viroconium) on the River Severn at the border of Wales.

However, had the roads been properly maintained, the speed of travelling, especially with armies of men carrying equipment, might have been almost doubled. This is of the utmost importance when marching armed men from one place to another to meet an enemy invasion force many miles away. Straight, clean roads, are also easier to march on, and hence less exhausting than grappling with equipment through muddy and overgrown terrain.


The Germanic ancestors of the English had traditionally fought on foot, using shield, spear, sword and axe. Some amongst them may have ridden horses to a field of battle, but always dismounted and fought in shield walls of men who huddled together, each man's shield overlapping so that a 'wall of shields' was formed. Only the wealthier warriors would have even owned a horse, such as the thegns or captains, and of course the king and other nobles.

But the Roman army utilised cavalry as well as foot soldiery. Not only that, many of their auxiliary cavalry troops were of foreign extraction who had been conquered and then served amongst the Roman legions. Cavalry units were used as flanking support and could protect the infantry in a battle. Also, the speed of horses naturally increased mobility on the battlefield. Such cavalry would be armed with javelins and bows and these could have a devastating effect upon the enemy battalions.

Roman Cavalry. Attribution: John E. Ryelea
Roman Cavalry. Attribution: John E. Ryelea | Source

As distasteful as it is that innocent animals such as horses should have been used in ancient warfare and indeed right up until the twentieth century, the horse has proven itself in battle countless times over. Sometimes the horses were even specially trained to kick with their forelegs and to bite.

If, in our analysis of King Alfred's own battle tactics, he had used cavalry troops, he might have gained many more victories over the invading Vikings, who also always fought on foot. Squads of mounted men could have shot arrows into the Viking shield walls and launched javelins or even slingshot at them. In any event, there were several recorded instances in battle, where Alfred's forces had the Vikings on the run, and cavalry could easily have run down the fleeing enemy, allowing few to escape.

It would have been possible for King Alfred to have bred horses for warfare and trained riders in all the skills necessary for mounted warfare. England was in direct contact with Continental Europe and the European nations had access to horses of fine quality. Horses from Persia for example, could have been procured, whose riders were famous bowmen noted for their characteristic tactic of the Parthian shot, whereby as the rider goes past his enemy, he turns in the saddle and shoots his arrow back at the enemy as he passes by, taking the enemy by surprise.


The value of archery was not fully realised during the 9th Century, however, it's effectiveness had certainly been realised by other ancient cultures which had preceded the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

Mounted archers, such as those used by the Parthians of ancient Persia (modern day Iran) would ride into enemy lines and feign a retreat, then turn in the saddle and shoot their arrows directly at the enemy forces as observed above, making the classic Parthian shot.

It would have been relatively easy for King Alfred to have either hired mercenary forces from the continent or hire expert horsemen who could train Alfred's own men to ride and shoot the bow from the saddle. We know from historical records, such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that King Alfred did have many foreigners in his court who were scholars of all kinds and experts in their fields of study. Why not hire military experts as well?

Syrian Archer and Slingers as Auxiliary troops in the Roman army. Attribution: Amedee Forestier (1854-1930)
Syrian Archer and Slingers as Auxiliary troops in the Roman army. Attribution: Amedee Forestier (1854-1930) | Source

Horse breeding, as observed above, could have been conducted on a mass scale, and men trained to ride with skill. But not only could Alfred have had cavalry archers but also infantry forces skilled in the use of the bow. Ranks of archers in support of the regular foot soldiery would have been a great boon when marching ranks were approaching one another. Such archers could have easily been positioned either behind the shield-wall of fighting men or on their flanks in a protective role.

Historically, at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the English forces under the command of Henry V largely won the battle against the French due to the skill of the English longbow men. If Alfred the Great had trained his men in the bow, we might have seen a similar decisive use of the bow, although the longbow was yet to be designed some centuries later.

Ballista and Catapult

When we consider, historically, that the Viking invading forces sailed from Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, England was mostly subjected to naval raids, where the invaders would them disembark and attack the monasteries, towns and villages of England. Eventually, many of these raiders settled in England, particularly in the northern parts and in East Anglia.

However, with astute military planning and the use of ancient Roman technology, the English might well have defeated the Vikings before their ships had a chance to land. With the use of the Roman ballista and catapult, the Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred might well have prevented the Danes from ever settling on English soil.

It is debatable whether there were any illustrative designs available to the English of the 9th Century in which plans of manufacturing ballistas and catapults might have been studied and then fashioned by Alfred's men. Perhaps no such manuscripts existed. Perhaps such skills of manufacture had been entirely lost after the fall of Rome. However, if Alfred's army had such equipment they would most certainly have devastated many of the invading Viking longships before they even made it to land.

Roman Ballista & Catapult Attribution: Armand Dayot (1911)
Roman Ballista & Catapult Attribution: Armand Dayot (1911) | Source

After making it across the channel, the Vikings normally raided England's coastline, making use of the many tributary rivers such as the Thames in the south and the Humber in the north-east of the country. Now, we do know that King Alfred did eventually meet the Danish invaders at sea having captured some Danish longships and then re-designing his own fleet to tackle the Vikings directly at sea. This proved to be very successful, as Alfred had his ships made higher so that they sat above the waterline of the Viking ships and also longer and wider than the smaller Danish ships. He had great success in defeating the Danes in this way.

The above illustrates the willingness of King Alfred to improve upon the known technology of the day, and due to the successful development of the English ships, Alfred later became known as the Father of the English Navy.

However, if the English forces had been equipped with ballistas and catapults they might have spared many a monastery from murder, robbery and ruin, and saved hundreds of villages and towns from death, rape, pillage and plunder.

Feasibly, ballistas and catapults might have been actively mobile, drawn by teams of sturdy horses to be positioned wherever needed along the coast. Certain strategic sites such as the Thames could have had ballistas and catapults stationed along the banks on both sides of the river. As the approaching viking ships came up the river, we can imagine the English forces unleashing the power of the catapult, heaving rocks at the longships, perhaps coated with flaming pitch.

Likewise, the ballista (basically a giant crossbow) would be firing enormous arrows with flaming pitch coated on the end of the arrow head. We can imagine the carnage and destruction that such devices would have created amongst the Viking longships. Add battalions of archers stationed along the banks, and we can imagine how helplessly the Vikings would have fallen.

Such military machines might well have spared the lives of countless thousands who were killed, raped and mauled by the invading Vikings, let alone the vast fortunes in gold and silver that were stolen, and spared England from losing half of its territory to the northmen.

Anglo-Saxon Forces Reimagined

In the days of King Alfred, there was no 'standing army' made up of regular forces; such a concept did not emerge until the English Civil War in the 1640s when Oliver Cromwell created the New Model Army.

In 9th Century England, troops were raised from the local population and conscripted into service periodically, to fight on campaign for a service period of around three months. They were expected to provide their own weaponry for the most part. After they had completed their military service, the warriors went home to tend to their farms, which in those times was an essential service for the whole nation.

But the Vikings fought in battle as a way of life. It was instigated in them from their childhood upwards, and to win or die in battle was their only glory. A good death in battle gave them entry into the Halls of Valhalla where they would drink and laugh with their pagan gods. Like the Trojans of ancient Troy, all males (and often females too) were trained well in combat, and this made their forces powerful, frightening and savage.

Had there been a regular force of paid, professional troops, highly skilled in close combat fighting, the use of the bow and the horse, we can imagine, that, along with ballista and catapult, the Anglo-Saxons under the rulership of King Alfred the Great might have annihilated any invading force that dared cross the English Channel and land on England's shores. Although King Alfred did indeed achieve many great victories over the Vikings, despite the lack of these hypothetical advances, such a formidable force of home-grown, paid and trained militia would have been unstoppable.

© 2019 S P Austen


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