Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Roman Battle Tactics Versus the Phalanx

One of my readers posed the following question. “How were the Romans able to get past the long spears of a Greek phalanx, when they were only armed with a gladius? Flanking maneuvers?”

For the answer, let us turn to Polybius, the Greek historian, who spent much of his life in Rome. His dates were ~ 200-118 B.C, so his observations and writings describe conditions during the third Punic War.

In his sixth book of Histories, Polybius endeavored to explain why the Romans were able to defeat the phalanx. I quote him directly.

“Why is it then that the Romans conquer? And what is it that brings disaster on those who employ the phalanx? Why, just because war is full of uncertainties both as to time and place; whereas there is but one time and one kind of ground in which a phalanx can fully work. If, then, there were anything to compel the enemy to accommodate himself to the time and place of the phalanx, when about to fight a general engagement, it would be but natural to expect that those who employed the phalanx would always carry off the victory.

But if the enemy finds it possible, and even easy, to avoid its attack, what becomes of its formidable character? Again, no one denies that for its employment it is indispensable to have a country flat, bare, and without such impediments as ditches, cavities, depressions, steep banks, or beds of rivers: for all such obstacles are sufficient to hinder and dislocate this particular formation.

And that it is, I may say, impossible, or at any rate exceedingly rare to find a piece of country of twenty strades, or sometimes of even greater extent, without any such obstacles, everyone will also admit.

However, let us suppose that such a district has been found. If the enemy decline to come down into it, but traverse the country sacking the towns and territories of the allies, what use will the phalanx be? For if it remains on the ground suited to itself, it will not only fail to benefit its friends, but will be incapable even of preserving itself; for the carriage of provisions will be easily stopped by the enemy, seeing that they are in undisputed possession of the country: while if it quits its proper ground, from the wish to strike a blow, it will be an easy prey to the enemy. Nay, if a general does descend into the plain, and yet does not risk his whole army upon one charge of the phalanx or upon one chance, but maneuvers for a time to avoid coming to close quarters in the engagement, it is easy to learn what will be the result from what the Romans are now actually doing.

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 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, 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.

If, then, it is easy to take precautions against the opportunities and peculiar advantages of the phalanx, but impossible to do so in the case of its disadvantages, must it not follow that in practice the difference between these two systems is enormous? Of course, those generals who employ the phalanx must march over ground of every description, must pitch camps, occupy points of advantage, besiege, and be besieged, and meet with unexpected appearances of the enemy: for all these are part and parcel of war, and have an important and sometimes decisive influence on the ultimate victory. And in all these cases the Macedonian phalanx is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to handle, because the men cannot act either in squads or separately.

The Roman order on the other hand is flexible: for every Roman, once armed and on the field, is equally well-equipped for every place, time, or appearance of the enemy. He is, moreover, quite ready and needs to make no change, whether he is required to fight in the main body, or in a detachment, or in a single maniple, or even by himself. Therefore, as the individual members of the Roman force are so much more serviceable, their plans are also much more often attended by success than those of others.”

Of course these conceptions are theoretical and represent methods of defeating the phalanx as a formation. The real life experiences of the Romans had more to do with tactics and the quality of the commanders than the phalanx formation itself. In my next post we will review some cases of the maniple against the phalanx to see whether the virtues of the Roman formation cited by Polybius were seen in real life.


Pat Patterson said...

But previously the Romans had suffered mightly from the phalanx. At the Battle of Asculum at least being able to retire in order when Pyrrhus used his heavy Epirotes in the middle and during the Punic War when Hannibal basically destroyed the numerically superior Roman legions and turned the flanking mandibles into the center of the Roman line.

I suspect that the superiority of the legion is more a matter of learning from disasters and also having the ability to raise armies after suffering such losses as Cannae. Which owing to the habit of sanitizing their military histories from the period of Etruscan domination up to Adrianople even the Romans had to admit was a disaster of the first order.

I don't know how I found your blog but I like it.

M. Teague said...

These are good points but they are strategic advantages, not tactical. To continue, the Romans were full-time professional soldiers who carried an enormous variety of tools and gear to allow them to march far, fast, and fight almost anywhere. Barring dense forest and cliffs, on any sort of open ground and not having to deal with cavalry archers the Romans seemed invulnerable. And I wondered for the longest time why.

I knew that the Roman legion was much more flexible and maneuverable than phalanx, could accommodate men in various positions but that still doesn't account for trying to get past a head-on collision with a (very strong) pike formation. But it sort of came to me when a few months ago I learned that the Roman Gladius is actually only a half-decent stabbing weapon. It is relatively fast, but compared to other weaponry (as actually tested against other swords) it is poor in stabbing. But this was how the Romans were taught to fight. Why would the Romans equip their troops with a poor stabbing weapon and tell them to stab with it all the time? There are even curved swords not designed for thrusting that do better against the gladius. The gladius is a fat sword and it can only penetrate up to a specific point.

Then just recently I saw the documentary (view-able on Youtube) Conquest: Roman Weapons. Peter Woodward in conjunction with reenactors made an excellent examination. A longsword is a better all-around weapon but it required room to wield and the techniques are either tiresome and you fare better with a smaller shield. A spear was good for holding off infantry charges but while cheap is useless afterwards in the thick of a fight. A large ax requires both hands, and a smaller ax while a good tool, requires swinging. The gladius is small and allows a lot of quick thrusts. A falcata or heavy sword was great at chopping and cutting but that is not only tiresome, it is slow compared to rapid short thrusts.

But beyond this was a technique for battle I never considered. The Roman legion was a highly offensive force. Contrary to what I believed (a counter-attack force that received the enemy) they push and drive into an enemy with that large scutum shield, preventing enemies from properly mounting their large attack. It as a weapon drove enemies into the ground and pushed them back into enemy lines. Romans were not tight-fitted in fighting formation, but had a little space 3 feet from man-to-man) between each other which never made sense to me until the demonstration as why.

AND THE BIG conclusion was this: the Romans at the front would use their large curved shields to hold off the initial bunching of a spear formation. Lots of people don't realize the scutum uses a horizontal grip, so when your arm is hanging loosely at your side, you're holding the scutum. This means you didn't have to hold up your arm across your chest or stomach to support that large shield; your shoulder did it for you. Two scutum close together curving around you could hold off 10 thrusting spears. The rank interwoven from behind moved forward, while the spears are planted in or busy working the front Romans, allowing the second rearward to step into gaps (remember, 2 scutum Romans are holding off 10 spears) and then use their gladius to hack apart the spears or drive them out of the way. No more phalanx. If the Romans had a dedicated thrusting weapon, this tactic would be impossible.

The Roman legion could fight the phalanx head-on and decimate it. Playing straight into the phalanx preference of fighting and force it into buckling destruction. The phalanx is a tightly packed bunch of men in which, almost irregardless of your weapon (you can pick any 1 of 100 around the world in any combination) you were destined to loose. The tight formation is used against itself and loses all advantages from the first advance.