Content Warning: This article contains videos depicting real violence during protests and riots.
Despite an abundance of recent books, movies, and video games depicting premodern warfare (that is to say, warfare before modern firearms), historians still know remarkably little about how premodern combat looked on a physical level. Debates over the exact mechanical meanings of premodern military terms have consumed the lives of far too many academics (just Google “othismos” to get an idea of what I’m talking about).
However, the days of massed melee combat are not entirely over. From Portland to Hong Kong, modern viewers can watch videos of rioters clashing with riot police in a vague approximation of ancient combat. Just as how those who create Hollywood digital effects use real natural disasters to better imitate the physics of falling buildings, hurricanes, and tsunamis, today we’re going to use modern riots to gain a glimpse into how massed violence looked in the past.
I’m starting off this list with a rather amusing video of Korean riot police imitating classical battle formations during a drill. Of course, in an actual violent situation, the formations would look far less pretty and organized, but the video does a good job demonstrating how premodern warfare, where most combat was face to face, uses similar physical principles as riots. Compare this to most Hollywood battles, where combatants on the two sides run past each other, turning the battle into a confused mess, without frontlines or tactics.
This next video shows riot tactics used in a violent situation, as British police officers push back student protestors. In historical accounts of battles, we often see horses play a decisive role in breaking up blocks of inexperienced or lightly armed men. It turns out that while horses may seem docile and small when you view them behind stable doors, they appear very, very large and scary when charging straight at you.
Now, a critic might argue that it is incorrect and even offensive to compare protestors or rioters to premodern combatants. After all, rioters and riot police aren’t usually trying to kill each other. At a physical level, both rioters and riot police are attempting to control the area around themselves while keeping themselves safe from harm. However, that’s exactly what soldiers in premodern battlefields would have tried to do as well. Riots illustrate the importance of positioning and morale, which were just as much a feature of premodern warfare as actual killing. A group of light skirmishers or archers, for instance, would likely behave very similarly to those students if charged by cavalry.
Similarly, the video does a great job of showing how vulnerable cavalry can become in protracted melee. After initially pushing back the students, the charge loses momentum, and the horses aimlessly stand in place, unable to pull back because of the dense formation. In a battle, the cavalry might expect to suffer most of its casualties at that moment, as the immobile riders become easy targets. However, at the very moment the cavalry pause, the riot police infantry take advantage of the students’ surprise to push forward aggressively. Pushing forward may not seem like a very useful achievement in a real battle, but winning space for your side can demoralize enemy troops or give your side enough space to encircle other opponents.
This next video shows the 1997 Student Riots on South Korea. Make special note of the authentic sound and the intermittent throwing of missiles during the lulls between rounds of melee combat. Historian Adrian Goldsworthy has speculated that in classical warfare, the exertion of the melee might have meant that opposing sides only remained in direct contact for only a few minutes at a time, and would periodically pull back to take a breather and throw projectiles.
Now we move on to one of the most controversial episodes in recent American history, the January 6th Capitol riots. Now, I’m not here to talk about the politics of the riot (and neither are you, dear reader, so leave the comments alone) but the videos reveal shocking scenes of organized mass violence.
Take this clip, showing the rioters using improvised weapons and riot shields to break into the entryway of the capitol.
I don’t want to create a too sterile or detached perspective from the realities of violence. That’s why I chose the final clip, linked below. Warning to viewers: this video includes graphic footage from the Capitol riot.
This video shows dense formations of rioters and police shoving against each other in the battle for a narrow passageway, but the haunting image that sticks out to me is the officer trapped against a door, barely able to stand or move and he pleads for help and the battle rages around him. Whatever the limitations of riots as an imitation of premodern warfare, I have no doubts that the scene of the crushed officer has repeated over and over again in the thousands of years of premodern warfare, often with far more fatal results.
As fun as it might be to see how ancient military tactics might appear in the flesh, we must recall that no simulation is complete without the horrifying pain and suffering inherent in violence.