When we think of relatively recent wars like for example the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War then it seems to be pretty common knowledge that the survival rate of wounded soldiers during that era was pretty low. However, when we think of ancient Roman or Greek warfare most of us do not have the same type of association.
So what chances did a wounded Roman soldier have to survive his wounds?
While the exact survival rate of wounded Roman soldiers is unknown, one could make the educated guess of assuming that around 5% of wounded Roman soldiers died. That number is extremely low compared to for example the Napoleonic Wars when 12,5% of wounded British soldiers succumbed to their wounds.
The reason for that relatively low percentage and the general number of wounded soldiers that could be expected after a battle will be explained in the following.
Let`s take a closer look!
How many soldiers were wounded in Greek & Roman battles?
Before we look at the survival rate of wounded soldiers in antiquity we first have to look at the number of wounded men that could be expected after an ancient battle.
That number varied widely. While a ratio of wounded to fallen men of 10:1 or even 12:1 might be reasonable for the armies of Alexander the Great, the Roman general Caius Julius Caesar reports ratios of wounded to fallen soldiers varying between 8,5:1 and 2:1.
For more information on the mortality rate of Roman soldiers and the number of fallen soldiers in ancient warfare, I would like to recommend you my article here. Interestingly, the mortality rate of Roman soldiers (and as such the number of fallen soldiers) was higher in case of a Roman defeat while the number of wounded Roman soldiers was lower in case of a Roman defeat.
Now that might sound irrational. But it makes perfect sense.
In case of a Roman defeat, it was completely unusual for the Romans to negotiate a treaty that allowed them to get on the battlefield and collect their dead and wounded. Because of that only the wounded men who were able to escape the battlefield on their own made it to the camp and could be registered as wounded. The wounded soldiers who did not manage to get back would fall under the category of killed in action.
Ok, so now we have a rough idea of how many men had to be taken care of after a battle. But how many of them survived?
What percentage of wounded Roman soldiers survived?
While we had at least some sources (like Caius Julius Caesar) talking about the ratio of wounded to fallen soldiers we do not have reliable sources stating the percentage of wounded Roman soldiers surviving their wounds. So please note that the numbers I present are nothing more than an educated guess.
Although the exact percentage of wounded Roman soldiers surviving their wounds is unknown one could make an educated guess that around 5% of wounded Roman soldiers died because of their wounds.
That however did not mean that the other 95% survived without any disabilities. Since reconstructive surgery was extremely limited one can assume that a certain percentage of soldiers who survived their wounds would no longer be able to fight. In that case, there was the so-called missio causaria that allowed Roman soldiers who became disabled after an injury to retire with all benefits and the pension that Roman soldiers received in case of an honorable discharge.
Do you want to find out more about the missio causaria and the other two ways to leave the Roman army? Then feel free to check out my article here. And for more information on the retirement of Roman soldiers (and what a soldier could expect depending on whether he was serving as a legionary, a member of the praetorian guard, or as an auxiliary man) you might want to check out my article here.
So wounded Roman soldiers who survived their wounds but became disabled as a result of their wounds were taken care of!
But there is something else that is quite interesting when comparing the rate of survival of wounded Roman soldiers to their peers in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War.
The assumed mortality rate of 5% among wounded Roman soldiers seems extremely low when comparing them to more recent wars. Roughly 12,5% of wounded Union soldiers died during the American Civil War as a result of their wounds. And so did approximately 20% of wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War and 12,5% of the British wounded soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars.
Now that seems odd, but there are a few reasons for that.
Why did wounded Roman soldiers have a better chance of survival than wounded soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War?
The major reasons behind the fact the wounded Roman soldiers had a better chance to survive their wounds than wounded soldiers in conflicts like the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars were the weapons that were used as well as the protective equipment (or lack of).
While soldiers in the American Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars did not use any protective equipment the same can not be said about the Roman soldiers. I wrote an entire article talking about the armament of a Roman soldier and how it protected most parts of his body. Please check out my article here for more information.
While the armament of Roman soldiers changed over time, for the most time most Roman soldiers wore shirts of chainmail to protect their torso and used a large shield, the scutum, that covered them from knee to chin as an additional layer of protection.
Or in other words: Severely wounding a Roman soldier without killing him was pretty hard. That can not be said for the soldiers in the American Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars who were exposed to the musket and canon fire without any effective armor.
And there is one more point that has to be noted in extension to that.
99% of the reported wounds in the American Civil War were reported to be shot wounds, a type of wound that was hard to treat but non-existent in Antiquity. Unlike the wounds that Roman soldiers suffered on the battlefield, the wounds inflicted by early firearms and artillery caused horrible damage to the tissue and made healing them extremely challenging.
For more information on that topic (and how medieval surgeons were able to treat arrow wounds) I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the Napoleonic Wars and the 9 secrets that made Napoleon’s armies so successful.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).
Nathan Rosenstein: Rome at War. Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic (Chapel Hill 2004).