RomanArmyTalk

Full Version: Death and Resurrecton of the Phalanx
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.
Pages: 1 2 3
I’m curious about something in the evolution of warfare. Please correct my sweeping generalization of centuries of military history if I’ve made any glaring errors.

If we begin with the Greeks and their lance-phalanx tactics, we see it evolve to the point where Alexander conquered all the way to India with it. Then the Romans came, with shields and short swords. To the best of my knowledge, the Romans conquered all of Greece, defeating their phalanx tactics. Even the Greeks adopted Roman tactics after that.

The Romans never adopted the phalanx, but were eventually bested by cavalry to the point that they adopted cavalry more and more. By the time the Western Empire fell, heavy cavalry and archers were the premier weapons. Yet, when we jump forward again into the Renaissance, the pike and phalanxes make a brief and triumphant return (an argument could be made that the Scots used them at Falkirk in 1298 under Wallace).

What gives? How did the Romans send the pike and phalanx into the dustbin for centuries?

And was the pike and phalanx/schiltron/whatever a missing tactic that would have been more effective had armies kept it in use?
This is more or less how things are described but in terms of proper terminology and actual tactics there is little sense in this statement. First, one has to determine what a "phalanx" is and then delve into a more detailed tactical discussion. The reasons why a certain combat style and armament is adopted can also be many and complex. Do you by "phalanx" actually refer to the use of spears? Have in mind that in reality a phalanx is nothing more and nothing less than a dense body of soldiers regardless their equipment. Even cavalry masses are called "phalanxes" as often are the Roman lines. As far as the "manipular" system is concerned (in Greek "speirae"), it also changed in later Roman years, when the Romans fought more "phalanx-like", that is in a body of men trying to keep their ground and advance pushing the enemy back. In the Renaissance, we again have pikes, yet we did have pikes in Byzantine times too, but not in "proper", wide phalanx formations mostly. The use of firearms now demanded gaps and smaller formations to facilitate artillery fire, the use of arquebusiers, fast and directed cavalry charges etc.

So, the Romans actually caused the "pike phalanx" to disappear, but shortly after, their own manipular system seems to have disappeared too, giving way to the adoption of a firmer "sword-phalanx" that soon again took up the spear. Tactics through the centuries is a VERY fluid issue and cannot be divided in "phalanx" vs "Roman system" or "spear" vs "sword" discussion.
The Romans never adopted the phalanx
I don't think that's entirely correct. They may have used it during the Regal period (i.e. pre-Republic). And I believe the legions occassionally formed a phalanx during the empire. Arrian describes a battle between the Romans and Alans (circa 131 AD) where the former adopted a phalanx formation to repel the heavily-armored cavalry of the latter, IIRC.


Yet, when we jump forward again into the Renaissance, the pike and phalanxes make a brief and triumphant return (an argument could be made that the Scots used them at Falkirk in 1298 under Wallace).

I think you can argue for an even earlier date in the post-Roman west. The Franks at the battle of Tours, 732 AD, formed a kind of phalanx against the Moors.

What gives? How did the Romans send the pike and phalanx into the dustbin for centuries?
And was the pike and phalanx/schiltron/whatever a missing tactic that would have been more effective had armies kept it in use?

Here's my understanding. The armies of the Hellenistic armies had declined in the quality of their cavalry and came to rely more on the phalanx. These inferior armies were no match for the manipular/cohort system of the Romans who also lacked good cavalry for the most part.

As the quality of Roman infantry declined the phalanx formation came back into vogue.

I also invite anyone to correct whatever I've said. Wink


~Theo
My own view is that spear formations and pike formations are very different.

I don't think the Macedonian pike phalanx was a simple development of the Greek hoplite phalanx, although I'm not familiar with the issues surrounding Iphicratean hoplites and other possible influences. I know that pike formations tend to be deeper or closer than spear formations, and tend to require different shield designs or no shields at all.

Middle and late imperial Roman infantry often form spear formations with thrusting spears in front, and javelins and darts thrown from the rear ranks, and later also archery from the rear ranks. These are loosely analogous to Greek hoplite phalanxes, Etruscan phalanxes, and post-Roman shield walls.

Infantry and cavalry could each be very important. The proportion of cavalry in Roman armies rises from about 15% in the 2nd Century to about 20% in the late 4th century. The importance of each arm depended as much on the situation as anything else; cavalry for battles, pursuit, scouting, raiding, and interception; infantry for battles, sieges, and garrisons.
Quote:I’m curious about something in the evolution of warfare. Please correct my sweeping generalization of centuries of military history if I’ve made any glaring errors.
..............

It's certainly not that - it, if anything, is simply a concentration on a term.

I think it's fair to say that 'we' now tend to use the word 'phalanx' along with the word 'pike' - and thus automatically then delineate down to an Alexandrian and Successor style unit. However, both the Greeks used the term earlier for Hoplite units and even Roman writers later when talking about the legions. In short, 'phalanx' is probably better defined as a 'multi-rank formation of regular soldiers trained to move and fight as a cohesive formed body'. It is a result of using the available arms and armour and sufficient training to get soldiers to move and work together as a team that produces a result.

The Greeks started it and their well-trained and equipped, but normally small, armies used them effectively. Philip and Alexander developed it, made the spars longer into pikes and the formations deeper and could use them just the same way as Napolean did later with his conscript columns - to step forward en masse and grind down the opposition, whilst remembering to support their flanks and then use heavier cavalry to devastating effect.

The Romans, if you then consider them more as heavy, close order, peltasts used their weapons (which could perhaps be considered more flexible in nature than just a pike against a range of enemies) in conjunction with the manipular tactic to disrupt and break up pike phalanx formations. Once they're are beaten, we just then hear less about those tactics - as Rome then tended to face more 'barbaric' enemies.

Tactics, formations, unit organisation and current arms and armour, along with the nature of your enemy all develop and change together and cannot be considered in isolation.
Quote:The proportion of cavalry in Roman armies rises from about 15% in the 2nd Century to about 20% in the late 4th century.
I would be interested to see where you got these figures from, Marja. My impression is that the Romans always fielded far less cavalry than that.
People tend to forget that the Romans lost a lot of battles. Their tactics seem to be less important than their ability to constantly come back for another go after a defeat.
2nd century - Cheeseman's auxiliary counts imply roughly 15%: about 3,360 legionary cavalry, 47,500 auxiliary cavalry, and 15,375 mounted infantry [depending how they functioned] out of about 360,000 soldiers. Cheeseman thought he undercounted the cavalry, and suggested the Roman Army had at least 80,000 cavalry and mounted infantry.

late 4th century - Treadgold's interpretation of the Notitia, for the field armies; the proportion is even higher in the border/garrison armies.
Quote:Cheesman's auxiliary counts ... Treadgold's interpretation of the Notitia ...
I misunderstood you, Marja. I thought you meant the proportion of cavalry in any given army (i.e. deployed for battle), rather than the total cavalry dispersed along the frontiers. :whistle:
Quote:15,375 mounted infantry [depending how they functioned]
Careful! I assume that you are referring to cohortes equitatae. These units were not mounted infantry but mixed units having both infantry and cavalry elements.
Cheeseman counts the cohortes equitatae as 75% foot infantry and 25% mounted infantry.
Quote:Cheesman counts the cohortes equitatae as 75% foot infantry and 25% mounted infantry.
Roy Davies showed (in 1971) that the horse element were proper cavalry, not mounted infantry.
Quote:
Marja Erwin post=321686 Wrote:The proportion of cavalry in Roman armies rises from about 15% in the 2nd Century to about 20% in the late 4th century.
I would be interested to see where you got these figures from, Marja. My impression is that the Romans always fielded far less cavalry than that.

Quote:
Marja Erwin post=321706 Wrote:Cheesman's auxiliary counts ... Treadgold's interpretation of the Notitia ...
I misunderstood you, Marja. I thought you meant the proportion of cavalry in any given army (i.e. deployed for battle), rather than the total cavalry dispersed along the frontiers. :whistle:

In the eastern theatre such fractions seemingly do not look unusual for Imperial field armies.

With the numbers given by Josephus Varus marchs with 2 legions and 4 alae + allies to Jerusalem in 4BC, which leads to something about plus minus 20 %. Vespasian army in 66 AD had about 18 % cavalry, Titus force (Tacitus) in 70 AD about 17 %, the army mustered by Arrian against the Alans 21 %, while the (hypothetical?) army in De Munitionibus Castrorum has 22 % cavalry.
I checked Phil Barker's figures from 1976.

He gives maximum proportions for Roman cavalry as follows:

30% cavalry for 1st century B.C.

25% cavalry for 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

40% cavalry in 3rd century A.D.

55% cavalry for 4th century A.D (extreme proportions)


~Theo
Back on topic, is there not a 3rd Century AD gravestone that states the Roman soldier was a 'phalangari' (excuse the spelling, I'm doing this from a very fatigued memory at the moment)
Pages: 1 2 3