Why did classical battles did tend to be larger than in the medieval period? One particular example I am thinking of was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which had around 30,000 participants, compared to the Battle of Wattling Street which supposedly had 10,000 Romans facing against 230,000 Britons. The number of Britons is of course likely exaggerated, but even if the Romans were outnumbered 1:3, that would already make for a larger battle than Stamford Bridge.

  • Welcome and +1 for nice question. Jun 22, 2014 at 9:28
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    One thing to note about classical accounts against barbarian tribes. Watling Street, like others, was fought between Roman legionnaires and an "army" of British warriors, non-combatants, women, children, and the elderly. And then those numbers were massively inflated.
    – Semaphore
    Jun 22, 2014 at 9:34
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    Depends on where in the Middle Ages - the Mongols assembled massive armies, and fought equally massive armies in Eastern and Central Asia. Did you mean only in Europe? Jun 25, 2014 at 13:16
  • As @RISwampYankee suggests, I'm not sure this is even true. Consider the size of Crusader armies. In practice, smaller army sizes may have only been applicable to fights between comparably small and underpopulated feudal countries - what with the collapse of Western Roman Empire. Oct 18, 2014 at 5:29
  • I re-tagged a bit, hope you don't mind. Oct 19, 2014 at 11:08

2 Answers 2


This is a complex matter (some authors like Delbruck thought that the classical numbers are very inflated) but one may point out to logistics - classical states were much better able to extract and stockpile resources (human and material) than high medieval polities with their fragmented political authority and erratic currency.

As for the Romans' barbarian opponents, there we often have whole tribes on the move, which account in a different way for the relatively large numbers, whereas in medieval battle we do not encounter such population movements.

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    and of course, after the black death especially, there simply were far fewer people in Europe than there had been during the Roman era...
    – jwenting
    Jun 23, 2014 at 6:54
  • but then why did battles even in the late medieval/early gunpowder age still involve less men? For example, Caesar had more soldiers than both the Scots and the English had at Flodden. In fact, we don't see battles involving 100,000 men again in Europe until the 18th century when a typical Roman vs. Persia/Barbarian easily eclipses that number. Nov 10, 2014 at 22:07
  • @EvilWashingMachine That's a good question. I'd guess off the top of my head that early modern states were not very strong at finances and logistics either. Van Creveld's book on military logistics has evidence supporting that. Another example, is Richelieu's France where the money supply was erratic - and that was the richest state of its time (in terms of net balance, since Spain had huge income but even larger outlays). Nov 10, 2014 at 22:17

@Felix's answer is the key, but there is also the secondary fact that medieval warfare tended to be more highly specialized than the classical. The increased emphasis on heavy cavalry meant a lot more emphasis on a very 'expensive' form of soldiers: ones who needed more training, supplies and support staff than either barbarian tribal levies or big masses of infantry. Combine that with the much smaller size of the political units involved and you can see why smaller groups are a natural result.

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