PHALANX vs LEGION: CLOSING THE DEBATE

by BARRY C. JACOBSEN

With the popularity of such films as “Alexander”, “300”, and its sequel “300: Rise of Empire” a broader audience is being introduced (sometimes for the first time) to the warriors of ancient Greece. These films are generally poor educational tools, leaving the audience with many misconceptions; and often more questions than answers.

From their Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek hoplite phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans this compact formation of armored Greek warriors (supported by small numbers of light infantry and cavalry) triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greeks met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian. While the Macedonian Army was a well-balanced, combined-arms force of light and heavy infantry and cavalry (as were most Greek armies by this time, though to a lesser degree) it is the Macedonian phalanx that revolutionized warfare for the following century-and-a-half, superseding the earlier Greek hoplite phalanx. The Macedonian phalanx, in turn, dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans; who fought in a very different formation, utilizing a markedly different tactical system: the legion. The Romans defeated armies relying upon phalanxes at nearly every encounter; and with the growth of their empire the phalanx as a tactical system largely disappeared.

Polybius and Livy examined the differences and advantages of each tactical system in depth; and they were MUCH closer to the events than we are, so their opinions should be given due weight. Based upon their analysis and that of other sources as well, we will briefly compare and contrast the three dominant tactical systems of the Classical World; from the Persian Wars to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.

HOPLITE VS PHALANGITE

It is important to understand that the Greek hoplite phalanx, which defeated the Persians at such battles as Marathon (490 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) was a formation consisting of citizen-soldiers. They fought primarily as “heavy” infantry: closely-ordered, fighting at close-quarters with spear or sword. These citizen-soldier heavy infantrymen of the Greek city-state (polis) are referred to as a hoplites (men-at-arms).

The hoplite’s weapons and equipment consisted of a large round shield (aspis), 36″-40″ in diameter; and a long, heavy [1] thrusting spear (dory) 7-9 feet in length. A sword (either the straight, double-edged xiphos, or the forward-curving, single-edged kopis) was his backup weapon, and for additional defense he wore various pieces of armor, collectively referred to as his panoply.

5th century Greek hoplite. 1-11: shield, deconstructed into various parts. 12: Corinthian-style helmet, with crest. 13: arming cap of felt, worn under helmet. 14: “lineothorax” style of cuirass. May have been made of layers of glued line, or leather covered with linen. 15: bronze greaves. 16: garters tied around ankle to support greaves, and limit chaffing. 17: “dory” (spear), with leather wrapped around grip.These hoplites fought in a tightly-packed, rectangular formation called a phalanx. Within the phalanx, each man’s shield overlapped that of the man to his left, and he partially sheltered behind the shield of the man to his right. The hoplite phalanx deployed for battle in six, eight, or twelve ranks deep (referred to by contemporaries as “shields”) ; though the later Theban phalanx was famed for the greater depth upon which it relied, deploying in anywhere from twenty-four to fifty shields deep.

The Classical Age hoplite phalanx relied on a tactic called othismos, the push of shields; a shoving contest in which the hoplites braced and pushed their shields into the backs of their comrade in the rank in front of them; and the weight of the phalanx as a whole attempted to push the enemy back or to bowl them over. In this formation only the first and perhaps the second rank could actually use their spears (or swords); the rest merely added their weight to the shoving contest.

Pushing the enemy back was more important than actually killing them during this initial phase of the melee. Once large formations of soldiers began to stumble backward, they lost cohesion and began to crumble. So the point of othismos was to drive the enemy backward, and eventually to shatter their formation. Once shattered and routed, the victorious hoplites would pursue, cutting down the fleeing enemy from behind. It was during this later phase of the fighting that most of the casualties were sustained by the losing side; cut down from behind as they attempted to flee. (For this reason wounds upon a corpse’s back were deemed dishonorable; signs that the victim had turned coward and ran in battle. In Sparta, leaving one’s shield on the battlefield was a disgrace, inferring that the hoplite had dropped it to allow for swifter flight.)

A segment of a Greek hoplite phalanx, 8 ranks deep. Note the flute player in the rear: hoplites marched to flute music, rather than drums. These men are advancing in a looser order than used when facing another phalanx; at which time they was all push to the right and brace the man in front of them with the flat of their shield pressing into his backIf a hoplite found himself engaged during this later stage of the fighting in personal combat, he relied on his thrusting spear, sword and shield; utilizing a method of combat called ,i>hoplomachia. It is suggested by the scenes of hoplites in combat depicted upon ancient Greek vase paintings that spearmen used both over and under-handed methods of thrusting. The face and throat were the main target areas using the overhand thrusting method, while the enemy’s inner thigh and groin were prime targets for the latter (underhanded) thrust. The edge of the shield may, too, have been used as a weapon. Modern tests have shown such shield strikes to be very deadly, indeed [2].

Note the different methods of spear-handling in these ancient paintings showing hoplite duels. While scholars often suggest “artistic license” on the part of the painters, it is important to remember that every free-born Greek city-state citizen fought in the phalanx (or some other supporting arm). So even the painters of these images likely had first-hand experience in hoplite training and warfare.It was difficult for a Greek hoplite phalanx to change direction once deployed; and would advance toward the enemy in a great rectangular block. However, the Spartans, who were well-drilled professionals, divided their phalanx into companies, battalions, and regiments; and were quite capable of complicated maneuver and change-of-face-or-front. Hoplite phalanxes tended to “drift” obliquely to the right as they advanced, the tendency of hoplites to shelter behind the shield of their comrade to their right causing this phenomenon. So the right-wing of opposing phalanxes tended to overlap the left of their opponents.

The hoplite phalanx was bested by the Macedonian phalanx in the 4th century at ChaeroneaIssus, and Megalopolis; during the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. The pike-armed Macedonian version of the phalanx largely replaced the spear-armed hoplite version of the Classical Age. By the time the Romans arrived on the scene in Greece at the beginning of the 2nd century (first as allies of the Greeks against the Macedonians, then later at conquerors), they were facing armies whose infantry component was either lighter infantry, or Macedonian-style phalangites.

Unlike the hoplites of the earlier phalanx, the Macedonian and Hellenistic phalangite was armed with a 15-21 foot, two-handed pike; called a sarissa. He carried a smaller shield (only 22″-24″ in diameter) than did the traditional Greek hoplite. The size of both pike and shield varied from the time of Philip II to that of Perseus I; but was largely within that range (though the shield of Alexander’s infantry does not appear to have differed much from that of the southern Greek hoplites of his day; being about 34″-36″ in diameter) [3].

Macedonian phalangite, mid-late 4th century BC. Philip and Alexander called their phalangite infantrymen “pezhetairoi” (Foot Companions). They were armed with the 15′-18′ sarissa; which was made in two pieces, joined together for battle with a metal sheath. Note the figure on the left is phalangite on the march; with his sarissa disassembled.In contrast to the Greek hoplite, who relied upon the push of shields, with every man pushing against the comrade to his front; the Macedonian phalangite relied upon the “push of pike”: driving his heavy sarissa into the shield or body of the enemy before him and pressing forward in mass. The longer reach of the sarissaallowed 4-5 ranks to engage the enemy at a distance, with subsequent ranks raising their pikes over the heads of the ranks ahead of them; partially sheltering them from in-coming missiles.

A syntagma (company) of the phalanx: 256 men, 16 deep and as many shields across. The first four to five ranks could engage the enemy at various ranges; while subsequent ranks raised their sarissas above the heads of their comrades; creating partial cover against missile attackWhile the Classical Greek hoplites typically formed their phalanx 12 ranks deep, the Macedonian phalanx drew up in 16 ranks. In certain circumstances, it could double to 32 ranks; or spread out to give greater frontage, deploying in only 8 ranks.

LEGION VS PHALANX

The Roman Republic, in the hills of central Italy, developed a very different tactical system. From the 4th century onward, the Romans relied upon self-contained units called legions (legiones) instead of phalanxes of spear or pike-armed infantry. These legions were composed of citizen-soldiers, who enlisted only for the duration of each campaign. However, there was a deep professionalism permeating the Roman citizen body; as Roman citizens of the middle and upper classes (those who served in the legions) trained with arms from the time they reached adolescence; just outside the city, on Mars Field. As many reenlisted for long-duration or multiple campaigns, the legions that followed the Consulsand Proconsuls were often highly experienced veterans, professional soldiers in all but name. The soldiers who faced the Macedonians in the first decade of the 2nd century BC were just such long-serving veterans; many of which had joined the legions during the Second Punic War.

Early Roman soldiers of the Republic, 3rd century BC. The man on the left with the red shield is a principe of the second line; and has discharged his pilum and drawn his gladius. The man on the right is a veteran triari, carrying a thrusting spear. The man behind both is an Italian allied infantryman. 

The legion changed throughout the long history of the Roman Republic and Empire. But what we will describe is the legion that fought the Macedonian and other Hellenistic phalanxes, from the late 3rd through the 2nd centuries BC; as described by Polybius.

Each legion formed up in three distinct lines; one behind the other. These lines were comprised of tactical units called maniples (“handfuls”), ten maniples in each of the three lines; 30 maniples total comprising a legion. Each maniple was commanded by a pair of centurions, tough and seasoned under-officers. These maniples were further divided into two centuries (each led by one-of-the-two centurions). It was the use of so many small, well-organized sub-units that allowed the legion the great flexibility it displayed in battle.

The first line of maniples consisted of young men, and were called Hastati. The second line of maniples, men in the prime of their lives, were called Principes. Both of these first two groups were equipped in the same fashion: with a short sword and javelins, and a large oval shield (scuta). The third line was comprised of half-maniples of older veterans, called Triarii. Unlike the first two ranks of maniples, the Triarii were armed with a longer thrusting spear. Each legion had its own intregal light infantry, provided by 10 half-strength maniples of javelin-armed skirmishers, called Velites; recruited from the teenage boys just beginning their military service. The maniples of Hastati and Principes were 120 men strong each; while those of the Triarii and Velites were only half that number.

The maniples were compact, deep formations meant to melee with the enemy. The usual order for the first two lines of maniples, those of the Hastati and Principes was 10 men per rank, with the maniple 12 ranks deep overall. Thus the first two lines of the legion were each 12 ranks: as deep as a typical Greek phalanx. The third line of Triarii were only half as deep, and was meant to be a final reserve that could cover the withdrawal (in order) of the first two lines if they were unsuccessful in defeating the enemy.

Unlike the phalanx that fought in a single line, engaging simultaneously across the front, the legion deployed its maniples in a checkerboard pattern; leaving deliberate gaps between each maniple equal to its frontage. These gaps were covered by the successive line of maniples; so that when a legion engaged, it did so in waves, delivering multiple successive charges against the enemy all along the front. When the Hastati had begun to weaken the enemy line, the Principes could come up through the intervals and deliver yet another wave of attacks. Or, if the Hastati were in real trouble, these could withdraw in order back through the gaps in the second line of Principes. If the attack was a complete failure, both the first two lines could withdraw, in turn, through the final reserve of veteran Triarii; seasoned veterans who could be counted upon to stand firm and cover their withdrawal.

It was a hallmark of Roman warfare that a fortified camp was always prepared; and the Romans never fought far from it. So if defeat was imminent, the legions could retreat back into their camp, covered by the steady Triarii, and regroup for another day. Thus a tactical defeat was seldom turned by the enemy into a major disaster by a prolonged pursuit.

Unlike the Greeks and Macedonians, the Roman legionary fought as an individual within a larger formation. Unlike his Hellenic opponent, the Roman didn’t lock shields or stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Each Roman soldier maintained a space around him of three feet; room to maneuver and wield his sword, either to cut or thrust.

“Now, a Roman soldier in full armor also requires a space of three square feet. But as their method of fighting admits of individual motion for each man—because he defends his body with a shield, which he moves about to any point from which a blow is coming, and because he uses his sword both for cutting and stabbing—it is evident that each man must have a clear space, and an interval of at least three feet both on flank and rear if he is to do his duty with any effect.” [4]While the Greek hoplite phalanx of old relied on the massive shoving contest known as othismos, and the Macedonian phalanx upon the “push of pike” to overbear their opponents; the Romans relied on a combined-arms tactical system revolving around the sword and javelin.

The Roman sword (the gladius hispanicus, or “Spanish Sword”) was a finely tempered steel weapon, 24″ long, effective both for stabbing or cutting. In fact, it was sharp enough to hack through a limb, and was feared for the ghastly wounds it inflicted [5].

The legionary also carried two special javelins, one light and one heavy. These were called pilum (pila). They were made of a wooden shaft with a long iron shank ending in a small head.

The pilum resembled the 19th century whaler’s harpoon; and can be characterized accurately as a sort of anti-personnel harpoon. The construction was such that the pila tended to imbed itself in the shields of their opponents; and to either break or malform on impact, so as to render them both difficult to pull out of the shield or impossible to throw back at the Romans. The lighter pilum was for longer range, the heavier to be used just before closing with sword, at about 20 paces from the enemy. While the first ranks were engaged with the enemy, rear ranks could hurl their javelins over the heads of their comrades, into the ranks of the enemy.

Roman legionaries of the late RepublicAs the legion closed with an enemy, the maniples of velites skirmishers used an even lighter javelin, called a verutum, to harass the enemy line. They also acted as a screen, protecting the heavy infantry maniples from enemy skirmishers and missile fire. As the opposing lines drew close, the velites would withdraw through the intervals between maniples.

Before closing to sword range, the heavy infantrymen of the maniples would hurl their pilum into the ranks of the enemy. These would imbed themselves in man or shield; and if stuck in the enemy’s shield would encumber or disable it altogether. As the enemy was coping with the shower of pila, the maniples would smash into their ranks just seconds later, driving forward with large shield and deadly swords. All along the line, individual maniples would make impact with the enemy line; causing shock and disruption. This was a crucial difference between the Roman system and that of the Greeks and Macedonians: the use of multiple shocks by small units, to break the enemy line; rather than a single push, all along the line, by the phalanx.

The Romans first faced a Macedonian-style phalanx first at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, when warring against King Pyrrhus of Epirus; a kinsman of Alexander the Great. In this as in the subsequent encounter at Asculum, the phalanx was unable to make headway against the push of the legions. Pyrrhus gained success in these first two battles against the Romans not by the push of pike, but because of the destruction and chaos his elephants caused to the unprepared Romans (who had never encountered these great beasts before). In his third, unsuccessful battle against them, at Beneventum the Romans were able to defeat or trap the elephants in bad ground; and went on to defeat the phalanx (some of which entered the battle exhausted from a night march through bad terrain). In all three of these battles, the legions inflicted terrible carnage upon the hitherto invincible phalanx; though receiving heavy casualties of their own in the process.

Later, in their wars against first the Macedonians, and then against the Seleucids and later the Pontians the Romans defeated phalanxes through superior maneuverability; and because of the phalanx’s unfortunate weakness when it lost cohesion. Either because of bad terrain (as at Pydna in 168 BC); or because of “extenuating circumstances” (such as elephants routing back through and disrupting its order, as at Magnesia in 190 BC); or because the unique checkerboard formation of the maniples caused the phalanx to lose order as some sections were pushed back while others advanced into the gaps; the phalanx always tended to become disordered against the legions. Then the swordsmen would come to close-quarters, where their training and equipment was superior to that of the phalangite.

“The Romans do not, then, attempt to extend their front to equal that of a phalanx, and then charge directly upon it with their whole force: but some of their divisions (maniples) are kept in reserve, while others join battle with the enemy at close quarters. Now, whether the phalanx in its charge drives its opponents from their ground (as initially at Cynoscephalae and Pydna), or is itself driven back, in either case its peculiar order is dislocated; for whether in following the retiring, or flying from the advancing enemy, they quit the rest of their forces: and when this takes place, the enemy’s reserves can occupy the space thus left, and the ground which the phalanx had just before been holding, and so no longer charge them face to face, but fall upon them on their flank and rear.”[6]

In theory the long pike of the phalangite could keep the sword-armed legionaries at a distance. But in nearly every battle the Romans found ways to penetrate the wall of pikes and close with the phalangites. At very close quarters, the larger shield and better sword-training of the Romans always proved decisive.

CONCLUSION

While modern historical aficionados and gamers debate the relative effectiveness of spear-armed hoplite phalanx vs pike-armed Macedonian phalanx; and of phalanx vs legion, the verdict of history is certain and unarguable. The pike phalanx bested and replaced that of the spear-armed hoplite; and the Roman system proved superior to the pike phalanx.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is telling that after a century of experience against the Macedonians in battle (both as enemies and as occasional allies) the Greeks by-and-large adopted the Macedonian-style of phalanx; replacing their own traditional spear-armed hoplite phalanx. (Though, in even more cases, the citizen-levy of the Greek states fought as light-infantry thureophoroi, armed with spear-and-javelin.) Similarly, by the mid-2nd century BC the Seleucids were retraining a portion of their elite Silver Shields (Argyraspides) phalangites as “imitation Roman” legionaries [7]; arming them in the Roman fashion.

By the 1st century BC, the Ptolemaic army of Egypt had abandoned the phalanx altogether, and were using troops who were equipped with spears and javelins as either thureophoroior imitation legionaries (scholars debate this point). Or, they were hiring Roman veterans wholesale as mercenaries [8]. The last pseudo-Successor state to challenge Rome, the Pontians in the Mithradatic Wars of the 1st century BC, started with a Macedonian phalanx of Chalcaspides (“Brazen Shields”) as the core of their infantry. But after very rough handling by Sulla’s legions, Mithradates rearmed his infantry in the Roman fashion; even hiring renegade Roman soldiers as trainers.

Clearly, the men on the ground at the time recognized which tactical systems were superior. They adopted these as best they could, as their very life (and the safety and independence of their nations) depended upon it.

While the debate will no doubt go on; the verdict of history is, I submit, final and should be accepted.

_______________________________________________________________[1] Modern reconstructions of the Greek dory (hoplite spear) weigh from 4-5lbs.

[2] While working on the television show, “The Deadliest Warrior”, the author worked on the scientific testing of the Greek/Spartan aspis. The targets used for the testing were human skull replicas surrounded by an appropriate amount of ballistic gel to simulate the soft tissue of the head; and impact “crash” dummies, as used by experts in the Transportation Safety Administration and the automotive industry. The results showed a tremendous amount of impact delivered by the edge of Greek aspis against a human skull when utilizing the method invented by the author (though based upon research of ancient vase paintings); enough to snap the human neck or cause a depressed skull fracture at the impact site.

[3]Based upon the size of the shields depicted in the contemporary “Alexander Sarcophagus”, there is reason to believe that the phalangites and Hypaspists of Philip II, Alexander, and his immediate Successors might have used the larger Greek aspis. Certainly by the end of the 3rd century, the Macedonian and Hellenistic armies had adopted a smaller shield, sometimes referred to as a “pelta”.

[4] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[5] Titus Livius: Books XXXI-XLV describes vividly the terrible wounds inflicted by the Roman gladius on its Macedonian victims in early skirmishes with the legions; and the shock of Philip’s troops when they saw the hacked and maimed bodies of their dead comrades.

[6] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[7] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids .

[8] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies.

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11 comments on “PHALANX vs LEGION: CLOSING THE DEBATE

  1. Greg Long says:

    Great post. It brought back memories of studying ancient history for me. I used to buy books on ancient armies and joyfully read the ancient writers. Thanks ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hirnsausen says:

    How to contact me:
    jamaica_sven [AAATTT] yah00 [DDDOOOTTT] com (I guess you can guess my correct e-mail address, i have to prevent e-mail bots).

    Like

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