To my understanding, modern terminology such as infantry, cavalry and artillery, and especially light vs heavy and roles like skirmishers etc. generally originate from 17-18th century European efforts at military reforms and standardisation.

However, Renaissance-era terminology aren't designed with ancient history in mind. How did the ancients categorise contemporary troop types and battlefield roles when debating about military matters? Some basic categories are universal like foot vs mounted troops. There are also known historical categories, such as chariot vs horse troops from the earliest Sumerian days. Others still are open questions based on my own limited knowledge: Were ancient melee cavalry also divided into two roles (light and heavy) just like in modern terms, or were they differently categorised, perhaps by the roles suited to different levels of armour protection - no armour, partial armour, full catacphract, and giant elephants?

When identifying different battlefield roles and the categories of soldiers that fill them, in what way are the ancient ways of describing contemporary armies similar and different to the modern way of identifying the same ancient armies? In this question, "ancient" is defined as encompassing all time periods before the Renaissance, during which modern terminology originated. Up till the systematic adoption of gunpowder, warfare had not seen revolutionary changes since the domestication of beasts of war.

While the focus is on the world stretching between Europe and the Near East, any info on Asia would be a worthy addition to an answer as well.

Edit: Perhaps I should clarify that I don't really need a detailed treatment of every civilisation (that is just a bonus if it is feasibly achievable). All I want to know is how much the ancients and us think alike - a rather simple generic answer, as long as it is supported with evidence from ancient military thinking/theories. Exactly how they differ from us, or how the ancient Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, Mongols etc. view the conduct of war is good-to-know if available, but not necessary. What I describe above are just examples of how things may be done differently in the past to prove my point.

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    This is incredibly broad. An adequate answer would be a treatise on warfare. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 8:56
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    OP: ".....or how the ancient Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Indians, Chinese, Mongols etc." makes this Too Broad. Unfortunately.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 13:07
  • The point of that sentence is to say that it's good to know if the answer can tell us about individual civilisations, but it's not necessary. The point is that this is intended to be a very generic question. If specifics can be given, cool. If it's too broad to go into specifics, then fine too. For example, my question is almost no different from "did ancient people use the metric system?" A simple yes/no with supporting evidence is enough. You don't need to tell me what measuring systems different civilisations used, although that would be cool if you want to. Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 13:11
  • The difference of light infantry vs heavy infantry is due to weapon's price which, I believe, is universal. But talking of cavalry "in general" seems to have no sense.
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 13:12
  • @user4419802 The difference of light infantry vs. heavy infantry in the modern terminology mentioned by the question has nothing to do with equipment and everything to do with training.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 13:17

3 Answers 3


Warning: The following is a huge oversimplification of a better part of military history.

You are right that the "modern" terminology arose in the early modern period. The reason it came about was that it was precisely during this period that concepts such as "combined arms" came to be more broadly applied, and military science started to form.

This necessitated a terminology to classify different types of troops so that one could come up with a nice theory of how they should cooperate.

In most earlier periods, things like tactics and doctrine were driven by "conventional wisdom" which evolved very gradually with only occasional leaps when a doctrine much better suited to pertinent conditions evolved somewhere.

This "conventional wisdom" would often simplify things to the point where only one arm was considered to be decisive for the result of a battle/campaign, and all the others were seen as accessories. Which arm this was varied historically, but this is the reason why, when reckoning the size of armies, Greeks would mostly just count hoplites (hence the legend of "300 Spartans at Thermopylae"), high mediaeval armies would count armoured knights, et cetera.

So as a general rule, you would have one arm that would be considered your "field force" or some such, with other assorted units that you would think of as "support", "scouts", and so forth, depending on what you actually assigned them to do.

The descriptors for cavalry, foot troops, archers or chariots existed throughought history; it's just that in absence of a formal system of military science, they wouldn't really have been thought of as "categories", or rather, would be descriptive more of the equipment than of the role these troops fulfilled.

  • Your answer is based on warfare not being a formalised subject of study, but is rather a "family trade" where you pick up the know-how as you go. There have been various ancient attempts to achieve such a formalisation though, in the form of an art of war. China is renowned for contributing the most notable versions to history. I wonder if this question was given any treatment in there? Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 18:57
  • @thegreatjedi The trouble is that the terms you're asking for are contingent upon warfare being a formalized subject of study; They just don't make much sense otherwise. If you're talking about the Art of War, then that's more of a collection of useful tips than a formal system (like those that were developed in Europe under the influence of the Enlightenment philosophy). I'm not sufficiently well-versed in chinese history to comment on other works.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 7:39

I would argue that for most of history the reasons for having different "troop types" in an army were socio-economic in origin, with the leadership/royalty/aristocracy forming one broad class of troops (for example chariot-borne royal noble warriors in the ancient near-East, China and Gallic Britain, the hoplite class in Greece, medieval European knights etc) providing the hard core of an army and the masses of serfs/poor acting as some kind of cannon fodder cannon fodder.

So in ancient times battle tactics would be derived to make the best use of the troops that your culture (and your culture's affluence) has given you. This is hugely different from today, where modern militaries develop tactics and then train/equip their soldiers (within the limits of the state's affluence) to implement those tactics.


This is obviously not intended to be about every possible order of battle through history, but is asking for a general sense of the standard.

The typical organization of army units is as follows:

Company (Roman century): 50-100
Battalion (Roman cohort): 400-800
Brigade (Roman legion): 1500-3000
Division (Roman army): 8000-10000

This is just a very rough and general idea of the most typical military elements.

An important concept to be aware of is the idea of a permanent versus a changeable unit. In most armed forces there is some key unit that is considered permanent and is often named specially. The other units are considered changeable. For example, among the Romans, the permanent unit was the Legion, but among the colonial British the permanent unit was the Regiment, which was about the size of a brigade. Usually a soldier will identify with his permanent unit. So, for example, Roman soldiers would think of belonging to so-and-so Legion, but a British soldier would describe himself as belonging to Regiment XYZ. The British had regimental ties which they used to wear in the old days, so you could recognize old soldiers by the pattern of their ties.

  • One of these things is not like the others.... Not sure if you have misunderstood the question (of if I have), but your answer is completely on a different track than the others...
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 18:27

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