#2. Cavalry Charges Were Surprisingly Ineffective
In medieval times, the cavalry was the equivalent of an army of Navy SEALs, each driving a tank that is somehow also a Navy SEAL. Devastating battles between two armies were fine and all, but everyone knew shit didn't truly get real until the cavalry came in. That's why the very word has come to mean an invincible force that drives the enemy away, and countless films and TV shows still depict horsemen as a game-changer that can plow through hapless foot soldiers like lines of bowling pins.
Hell, all the fancy knights and commanders rode on horseback. Surely they wouldn't have done that if the massive hooved hellbeast they're riding would somehow be a disadvantage?
A warrior who fought on horseback was truly screwed if the enemy knew what they were doing. In fact, English knights were well aware of this and regularly dismounted for battle.
"Luckily, your mothers were good practice for quick dismounts."
Cavalry was actually less of a battering ram and more like a sniping tool: Apart from intimidation tactics and chasing down fleeing enemies, they were best used to exploit the enemies' weaknesses, performing quick "run in, stab, run back sniggering" attacks on various gaps in formation and other tactical openings. But if some confident banner commander decided to try the old cavalry charge against an enemy formation, he was screwed. The second the group of war destriers bore into the enemy, they'd a) lose all momentum, and b) find themselves completely surrounded by a bunch of pissed-off enemies with pikes.
The thing is, horses are actually really, really bad at bulldozing armed soldiers. They're living, moderately smart creatures, so they don't always behave like the well-trained equines in movies: Actual war horses were a lot more likely to object to stuff like running into a group of pikemen that looks a whole lot like a spiked wall -- they'd stop at the moment of first impact, or more likely even before that.
"You want to what? Oh, fuck you and the me you rode in on."
As long as the enemy foot-soldiers held together (which they often did because tactics, shockingly, were a thing even back then) no cavalry charge was going to end with a trip to Trample Town. Instead, a mounted warrior would usually have to pull up before the enemy formation and pathetically flail at the enemy soldiers with his weapons before they stabbed his horse to death. As many a knight found out the hard way, the odds in such a situation are kind of stacked for the guys with lots of spears and their feet firmly on the ground.
#1. Roman Armies Didn't Look Like the Movie Gladiator (or Even Wear the Same Uniform)
Although we might be hazy about the exact details of their costumes, we all have a pretty good idea of what Roman soldiers looked like.
Rome was, after all, an advanced civilization with a professional army, marching in disciplined ranks against hordes of filthy, disorganized armies. That's how they built their empire, right? Their super cool uniforms merely reflected their status as a wealthy superpower.
Sue Colvil/iStock/Getty Images
"You should see my codpiece."
If you had a time machine and were dumb enough to use it to visit a Roman battlefield, you'd find that only a fraction of the Roman army would remotely resemble what you probably think of as "Roman." That's because Imperial Rome's army was basically the ancient world's version of the French Foreign legion, only they didn't bother with matching uniforms.
stephen mulcahey/iStock/Getty Images
When they found a guy in green they'd all merge to form the Mega-Centurion.
The Roman Empire was kind of a vast place. As their legions plowed through the ancient world, they usually wound up recruiting whoever they had been fighting and conquering to keep up their numbers. Basically, this ability to freely recruit made Rome the imperial equivalent of the New York Yankees: Sign all the big-name free agents, form a super team, and advance toward World Series/Mediterranean domination. The Romans gave every worthy prospect a generous offer: Join the team and gain a Roman citizenship. (The small print: If you don't, we kill you and your family.)
Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images
"Please take time to fully read our ToS. This shit's important."
This is why, at the height of the Empire's powers, your average classic Roman legion was likely accompanied by a cavalry of a bunch of Germans, Moors, or perhaps Thracians. The archers backing up the legions were maybe Syrian. The dudes milling around with slings may have been from Crete, and so on. Even the fighting equipment was influenced by former adversaries: The classic Roman short-sword seen in every movie about Rome ever, the gladius, was actually appropriated from the Spanish, and its full name was gladius hispaniensis.
The Roman army had absolute zero interest in offering each and every auxiliary unit the classic legionnaire uniform. There was simply no point in requiring enlistees to bleed for their new masters in an unfamiliar uniform -- it was much handier to let them use the one they already had. Saved on laundry costs, too.
james steidl/iStock/Getty Images
"So did our no pants policy."
As a result, the more diverse lineups of the terrifying Roman war machine could look less like a lean, mean, uniform fighting machine and more like a particularly angry Gay Pride parade. This was further enforced by the fact that the auxiliaries didn't stay auxiliary for very long. As the Empire grew and its military resources were stretched, auxiliaries and their Roman commanders often fought independently of the actual legions. Many a Roman victory was won by troops from wherever, wearing random-ass uniforms that bore little to no resemblance to what we picture as the standard Roman uniform. This presumably caused many hilarious misunderstandings when classic Roman legionnaires entered the region and no one had any idea who the fuck they were.
J. is working on a book about sex, history, and money; you can message him here and help start a bidding war.
Related Reading: Hey did you know the signing of the Declaration of Independence wasn't actually a big event? You're even picturing your favorite myths wrong. Loki is less suave villain and more guy who made horse-rape babies. And if these deleted scenes of Jesus kicking serious ass had made it into the Bible, we'd all live in a much cooler world.