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The Emperor (may he live forever) has invented a new form of battle for his birthday gladiatorial spectacle.

There are two armies, each consisting of one hundred trained warriors. Each is armed with an identical gladius. Apart from this they wear a simple loincloth. They have no other accoutrements.

The arena is the shape and size of a standard soccer pitch. There are fences to prevent warriors straying outside of it.

The armies start at opposite ends of the arena and are securely and effectively blindfolded. For the purpose of this question please assume that this cannot be circumvented by any form of cheating.

To begin the battle, a drummer standing in the centre beats a tattoo and the two armies start marching towards the sound. The drummer leaves before being reached and battle commences.

Assumptions

The armies will fight to the death and to the best of their abilities. The winning side is the one that has one or more survivors. To ensure the armies continue to advance, the fence behind them will be moved forward at about half walking speed. It has sharp spikes in it. Anyone who tries to escape will be executed by sighted guards and the armies know all the facts beforehand. They have been allowed two weeks ahead of the battle to decide tactics.

Question

Is there any reason that this is unsustainable and must inevitably descend into chaos with collateral deaths or can there be an effective winning strategy?

I believe that by having sound signals and by initially marching arm on shoulder or arm on loincloth, it is possible to have an effective battle plan and at the very least avoid killing members of the same team. Am I right?

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    $\begingroup$ The initial charge will immediately break the arm-in-arm method. One person dies, and it'll be difficult to reconnect arms in the heat of blind battle. Sound signals are easily overridden by war cries from either side. And since there is no other accoutrements, they would have to beat their swords on the ground -- Hard to hear when people might be dropping all around you. Just some things to keep in mind, because I have no idea how this could play out favorably, even with a plan. :) $\endgroup$ – Jorgomli Feb 28 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Jorgomli - It doesn't have to be a charge. They can march slowly as long as they keep ahead of the moving fence - see edit. They can use the side-fences as guides. They can go in single-file. It's up to them to decide tactics beforehand. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 28 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ I should have said "first contact". The way in which they meet doesn't matter that much. I would think it would break down as soon as one or two soldiers fall. $\endgroup$ – Jorgomli Feb 28 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK even a slow march would lose any and all cohesion once the two lines met at the center. Also keep in mind that as humans we can't maintain a straight line when walking blindfolded without a point of reference $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Feb 28 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK Good luck figuring that out while getting stabbed. I don't mean to be cheeky, I just really don't see (pun intended) how this could play out with any one team being better than another instead of blind ( ;) ) luck. $\endgroup$ – Jorgomli Feb 28 at 22:36
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Given battle joined with gladius and not pilus, absent scutum, parma or cætra, your gladiators will have to delink arms immediately that battle is joined, and very quickly will separate and each individual will, perforce, rotate and translate as they feel they need to match a given opponent. They cannot coordinate while actively fighting - any sound based signaling gives an opponent a target to follow or strike.

Strategy would be pre-arranged; combat would be damn near silent except for grunts of effort, breathing and the sounds of footwork and the screams of the injured or dying.

Though in terms of one-on-one combat, one technically can train for blindfolded combat via sound, foot-detected vibrations etc, it's incredibly difficult, fraught with error and in the case of live edged weapons, a guaranteed death sentence for all but the most craven of cowards - especially in open melée - you just can't discriminate the sounds enough to triangulate and parry/riposte effectively, and if you do, you have no clue who else nearby is either an opponent, where they are relative to you, and in what phase of footwork, chamber, striking, or parry/riposte they are.

Hell the melée exercises I've taken part in were confusing and challenging enough without blindfolds - and I was a decent fencer and a better martial artist back then (though not anymore, sadly) no-one lasts long - not even the best in the group.

It's an unmitigated slaughter with almost no amusement to it, and a criminal waste of gladiators with skill and talent - if he keeps this up, the Emperor (may he rot forever) will be deposed and executed in the street like a dog. The populace follow the gladiators with passion, identify with the more virtuous and victorious, and have fantasies that virtue is rewarded in the arena for the brave and pure-hearted; treating those with whom the populace identify (and who enact violence as proxies in ways the populace wouldn't dare) like animals to slaughter carries societal and political consequences so great that even the disbanded Senate might ignore the risks re-convene to mount a coup, if they felt the populace behind them in it. Remember, he is a barracks Emperor - can't leave the army barracks and wander freely amongst the populace for fear of being spotted and killed.

However, if instead of trained gladiators, this becomes the preferred execution for cutpurses, corrupt empire minor officials, and butchers who are caught with their thumbs on their scales... the populace may yet vote to erect that gilded statue of the Emperor he so desperately wants.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good answer. People weren't there to see people simply die, but to see effort, a battle, skill, stuff like that. Those are absent on the OP's scenario. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 at 12:11
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The emperor has re-invented the andabatae

"The Emperor (may he live forever) has invented a new form of battle for his birthday gladiatorial spectacle": boo, hiss.

The emperor shows the same lack of a classical education, and indeed a barbarous disregard for all things Roman, as our very own Chasly from UK.

andābătă, -ae, m., a kind of Roman gladiator, whose helmet was without openings for the eyes, and who therefore fought blindfolded for the amusement of spectators. (A Latin Dictionary, founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary, revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1879. Available at Perseus.)

Wikipedia has this to say:

Andabata: A "blindfolded gladiator", or a "gladiator who fought blind". Cicero jokingly refers to andabata in a letter to his friend Trebatius Testa, who was stationed in Gaul. The passage associates the andabata loosely with essedarii, chariot fighters. The word is extremely rare in classical sources, and of doubtful etymology; Delamarre suggests it as a Latinised borrowing from Gaulish. (Wikipedia, s.v. List of gladiator types)

The reference in Wikipedia is to M. Tullius Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares (Letters to Friends), 7.10.2:

(Cicero writing from Rome to his protégé C. Trebatius Testa in Gaul, in November or December 54 BC)

Sed tu in re militari multo es cautior quam in advocationibus, qui neque in Oceano natare volueris studiosissimus homo natandi neque spectare essedarios, quem antea ne andabata quidem defraudare poteramus. Sed iam satis iocati sumus.

However, in military matters you are much more cautious than at the bar, seeing that you wouldn't take a swim in the ocean, fond of swimming as you are, and wouldn't take a look at the British charioteers, though in old time I could never cheat you even out of a blind-folded gladiator.² But enough of joking.

²) Andabatam, a gladiator with a closed helmet covering the face, who thus fought without seeing his adversary.

(Translation and note by Evelyn Shuckburgh, 1901. Available on Wikimedia.)

Note that the andabatae were considered comic relief -- they fought for the entertainment of spectators. Nobody paid to see blindfolded men bumbling around; and the Romans actually knew a thing or two about gladiators.

For the poor, and for non-citizens, enrollment in a gladiator school offered a trade, regular food, housing of sorts and a fighting chance of fame and fortune. Mark Antony chose a troupe of gladiators to be his personal bodyguard. Gladiators customarily kept their prize money and any gifts they received, and these could be substantial. Tiberius offered several retired gladiators 100,000 sesterces each to return to the arena. Nero gave the gladiator Spiculus property and residence "equal to those of men who had celebrated triumphs."

(Wikipedia, s.v. Gladiator. The quotation is from Suetonius.)

Finally, here is an extract from The Private Life of Romans by Harold Whetstone Johnson, Chicago, 1909, available at Project Gutenberg:

Gladiators fought usually in pairs, man against man, but sometimes in masses (gregātim, catervātim). In early times they were actually soldiers, captives taken in war (§347), and fought naturally with the weapons and equipment to which they were accustomed. When the professionally trained gladiators came in, they were given the old names, and were called Samnites, Thracians, etc., according to their arms and tactics. In much later times victories over distant peoples were celebrated with combats in which the weapons and methods of war of the conquered were shown to the people of Rome; thus, after the conquest of Britain essedāriī exhibited in the arena the tactics of chariot fighting which Caesar had described generations before in his Commentaries. It was natural enough, too, for the people to want to see different arms and different tactics tried against each other, and so the Samnite was matched against the Thracian, the heavy armed against the light armed. This became under the Empire the favorite style of combat.

Finally when people had tired of the regular shows, novelties were introduced that seem to us grotesque; men fought blindfold (andabatae), armed with two swords (dimachaerī), with the lasso (laqueatōrēs), with a heavy net (rētiāriī), and there were battles of dwarfs and of dwarfs with women. Of these the rētiārius became immensely popular. He carried a huge net in which he tried to entangle his opponent, always a secūtor (see below), despatching him with a dagger if the throw was successful. If unsuccessful he took to flight while preparing his net for another throw, of if he had lost his net tried to keep his opponent off with a heavy three-pronged spear (fuscina), his only weapon beside the dagger.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice frame challenge and adversarial spectacle.+1 $\endgroup$ – We are Monica. Feb 28 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer (+1) and the fascinating research. It doesn't quite answer my question but is very informative. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Mar 1 at 10:52
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I Darius Quintus, one of the top 200 unluckiest gladiators, have devised a potential successful strategy for my poor century of doomed souls.

Primus: Accept that every single one of us is already dead, because blindfold fighting with shortswords is basically russian roulette with all but one chamber loaded survival-wise. HOWEVER with my tactic we may be victorious! (and by victorious I mean some of our side may yet live.)

Secundus: Draw lots for position beforehand and form into 5 ranks, tightly backed with about a foot of space between each man sideways, and only slightly more front to back. The front two ranks will be side-on to the enemy. We will anchor our line on the left fence. (The majority of us will likely be right-handed, if not all is reversed) The front rank will utilize the standard stabbing techniques of the gladius, at chest/belly level. The front rank will have their left arm gripping the man to their left, with the farthest-left man holding the fence. Should the man on your left die, stab front and sideways until you feel a reserve move up.

Third (I have exeeded my latin): The front rank will deliever the two standard strokes as rapidly as they are capable of for a sustained period of 8 minutes. Given the pace of the murderous back-fences the battle will be over one way or another by then. They need not vary their strokes because the enemy is blindfolded and cannot learn from their fellow's deaths or time the predictive nature of repetitive blows.

Fourth: The 1st and 2nd ranks will use their left hand to hold the man on their left. The second rank will have their right (sword) hand with fist/pommel pressed against the shoulder blade of the man in front. If at any point they cannot feel the man's back (due to his almost-certain death) they will commence the two standard strokes described above until death claims them or battle ends.

Fifth: the third and fourth ranks will keep their blades in their loincloth straps, and be half as many men as the other ranks. The 3rd rank's job will be to keep one arm on the two men in front of them. Should one fall, they will pickly slap the 4th ranker on the appropriate side. The 4th ranker will be walking backwards and have both his arms on the 5th rank "reserve" and pass up his men. He will be able to reach both the two men right in front of him and the ones to either side, which means more reinforcements for a slot in the line than "just" 5 men if things get dicey. Should the 4th ranker no longer feel reserves he is to draw his sword and move as the 3rd rank requires. When the 3rd rank no longer feels a man at his black he is do draw his blade and act the same as a 2nd ranker.

Sixth: the 5th rank will start touching a man in the 4th rank who isn't touching them, to ensure maximum rapidity of passed commands to bring up the reserve.

Seventh: When battle commences the line will move at a quick walk 30 paces, then proceed at half pace. In a perfect world the line would slant backwards towards the center of the pitch to cover the exposed flank, but keeping any sort of complex formation while glindfolded is hard enough that this cannot be relied upon. Therefor the rightmost file will utilize a slashing motion instead of using their right hand to guide. This is the most dangerous position, for if the enemy attacks our flank in numbers there's not much to do but give a word of command (which the men are trained to repeat 3 times when they hear it to ensure it passes to the whole formation).

Eight: Once the word is given the formation will attempt to shift in-place and face the mass to our right. Likewise if the formation goes 100 steps forward (roughly 1/4 into the opposing side of the pitch) and the front-liners give the second word of command to show they have not been in contact for 10 paces, we will face right and advance crosswise. That formation will be the same as described above, but with both end-files slashing to the side.

Ninth: As you can see any motion in the formation brought about by step 6 or 6 will likely shatter the formation as a single block. The emergency fall-back order for gladiators who lose the formation is, if they lose contact with both sides, move directly fowards as best they are able stabbing forwards. If they bump into someone from the side they are to stab if there is any question at all tha the person they bumped into isn't going their same direction. If they are going the same direction the hand-code should be given before stabbing.

Tenth: should a gladiator or group of gladiators which loses contact with the main force contact any fence, they are to put their backs to it and yell my name, stabbing outward continuously. All others on our side are to avoid the noise, so the lost gladiators know anyone coming near is an enemy.

Lastly: All directional contact between gladiators (ie: contact made after initial deployment used to give orders) will be made with a fist that has the first two fingers and the thumb extended, then the actual grab-tug-into-place. Touch is the most noticeable of the sense, and with luck utilizing this method will stop blind gladiators reacting to flailing limbs of the dead and dying rather than actual commands or hesitating if the enemy grabs them.

So there it is. Not a flawless plan by any means. But against an enemy who believes the fight is hopeless and doesn't plan at all it should be enough to ensure they are wiped out before we are. The biggest flaw in this plan I can see is if the enemy copies it exactly. At that point neither force will ever contact the other before we're both crushed to death by the advancing spike-fences. But the Emperor (may he be forever shamed for his poor choice of unique gladiatorial event!) might intervene in that case if both sides look out for blood and just can't find each other!

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