Full Version: Roman military tactics in modern riots?
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Here is a video I've seen described online as a demonstration of how modern riot police can use ancient Roman military techniques. To be honest, I don't know anything about Roman military techniques besides the tortoise formation, which does seem to be popular among modern-day riots. Are these really Roman maneuvers in the video? If so, what am I seeing? How would these maneuvers work on the ancient battlefield?
i have no idea but it sure looks awesome.
The original video is certainly just a training exercise so I am not sure what it is really trying to show at all. No point reinforcing the line if your flanks are wide open.

I wouldn't have fancied their chances against the British miners...
Probably not. No bloodshed Confusedilly:

We've used some of these before in trying to describe things.

In short, the answer to your questions is 'no', but it's a qualified no.

What those videos do show, and the South Koreans do very well, is what can be done. Thus they do show what training and formations, variants of which the Romans certainly could have done. They are, however, possibly the closest thing we currently see to ancient tactics.

What I have come to believe whilst engaged in these discussions, however, is that the Romans most probably had a very simple drill manual (which is possibly why one has not survived and perhaps was never even written) and I have come to the likely theory that perhaps only 2-3 basic formations; backed by rigid drills and hard discipline; were all that was needed.

Could we use those basic tactics against rioters - yes, but only if quite severe blunt trauma was acceptable. I'd quite like to train riot police to stab with their batons and maintain close-order, it would be very interesting and probably rather effective, but is not currently allowed. It would be better than rubber bullets, however.

PS - Bryan, I hope your links were jokingly titled? I know you like to tease.
At 3:45 they do a relieving-the-front-line maneuver that might be similar to the famous Roman tactic for keeping fresh soldiers at the battle line.
Epictetus wrote:
...Are these really Roman maneuvers in the video? If so, what am I seeing? How would these maneuvers work on the ancient battlefield?

No they are not. Unit size, formation depth, use of 12 man squads, tactics and armament are completely different from Romans. Only similar aspect is body shields and a form of relieving soldiers in contact.

You're fighting it out with some rioters, eyes stinging from CS gas, sore from getting hit in the shoulder with a large brick a while back, tired of having to drive back the rioters but being told by superiors that you must use the utmost restraint because the mayor doesn't want a slaughter. You've left your trusty pistol back in the bus because your lieutenant doesn't trust you and the others with firearms during a fight like this. Only the occasional shotgun is used, but to fire rubber bullets, hardly an incentive for an experienced rioter to run away. You're suited up like some ancient warrior when you should be shooting these people with fusillades of rubber bullets and fire hoses but someone up top said this method works better. They even made everyone wear black cause some psychologist said black is scary and impersonal. Suddenly, just as you are defending yourself from a bottle thrown at you, out of the corner of your eye, the unit to your right, which had been fighting hard for a straight hour, suddenly sprints to the rear? The mob sees it to and surges forward, thinking they are the reasons. What do you do?

Am I the only one that thinks having units sprint to the rear is a bit unrealistic? And that tactics like this might lead to a rout of your entire force?
Thanks for your answers, everybody.

Relieving the front line seems to be a controversial topic. I know these two threads both grew pretty big:
Battle line rotation during combat
Infantry relief system
Am I the only one that thinks having units sprint to the rear is a bit unrealistic? And that tactics like this might lead to a rout of your entire force?

No, have no fear.....

'Relieving' units in combat (even if there is a lull and now a gap) is probably the single greatest risk on a battlefield at any period, and certainly one where lots of people can see it happening and misinterpret it.

Which, as Epictetus notes, we have had difficulty before.

If you are going to do it, whether in ranks, or as whole sub-units, then we're talking well practiced drills. It's not impossible, however, and I'll even note that a controversial individual 'quincunx' formation actually makes it easier for the first example! :grin:
What you are seeing on that video wouldn't work in a riot, never mind a battle. Look for some videos of the South Koreans at real incidents and you will see very little of what they are doing on that drill square being used. That looks to me like it was a display where they tried to make their tactics look all pretty to impress someone.

South Korean tactics are very different from most other countries anyway as they rarely, if ever, use batons and rely on shield strikes instead.

In a real disorder situation tactics and formation changes need to be kept simple and practiced until the units can't get them wrong. Anything complex tends to fall apart as soon you come in contact with a real crowd.
In a real [strike]disorder[/strike] battle situation tactics and formation changes need to be kept simple and practiced until the units can't get them wrong. Anything complex tends to fall apart as soon you come in contact with [strike]a real crowd[/strike] people trying to kill you.

Quoted and edited because it's the right counter-point. Excellent summary! :wink:
I've mentioned in other similar themed threads that caution should be used when comparing anti-riot forces and historical formations such as those used by the Romans. I believe other than the obvious differences in training (riot training is usually not the primary aspect of police), environment (urban vs. open rural areas), and equipment (bludgeoning weapons and rubber bullets vs. sharp iron tipped and javelins, spears and swords), the main difference between modern riot police and Romans was intent; the riot police are certainly not trying to kill their opponents, just contain them or drive them off with minimal casualties, while the Romans must certainly were trying to kill their enemy using the most available and destructive hand carried weapons then available.

That said, I've been following the turbulent Kiev riots currently happening and have noticed a few interesting pictures that may shed some light on certain aspects of fighting in closely packed formations scuta/thureos shields. Humor me, please.

The shields:
[img width=500][/img]

This is the standard Ukraine riot shield, which cosmetically is similar to an Imperial Roman scutum, like those portrayed on Trajan's column. Based off gross measurements taken from the above picture, the shield appears to be waist high, when rested on the shield bottom, and slightly larger than shoulder width with a thick winter coat, making it approximately 40 inches tall and 22 inches wide, with a small curvature to it to protect the individual's flanks. While the shape, curvature, and width are "similar" to a Roman imperial, the shield is a bit shorter than most Roman shields and is attached to the wearer by a horizontal mounting system, where the left arm is strapped to the shield, similar to an aspis or medieval heater shield, versus the centered horizontal hand grip of a traditional scutum (the mounting system of Ukrainian shields is not shown in this post but is based off of other pictures of Ukraine rioting). Additionally, the Ukraine shield is of sheet metal, not plywood, and contains vent holes in the top to see through. All told, other than the method of carrying, I'm sure any Roman would have LOVED to have carried the modern replica shield over their own plywood version.

Additionally, the riot police's main weapon for hand to hand combat is a 20 inch baton made of wood or possibly some sort of wood or hard plastic/metal mixture. While some may argue that the baton is meant to be stabbing with, no one can argue with the fact that a sharp sword takes about 1-4 pounds of pressure to pierce human skin and destroy muscle, veins, organs, etc, while a very hard strike with a solid baton might break bones or rupture a nerve plexus. The differences between an actual sharp sword and a bludgeoning club are really night and day in terms of their effects, but somewhat similar in terms of their usage. Similar short slashes and jab attacks with a baton are similar to the attacks possible with a Roman Gladius. With the same move done with each, a sharp sturdy sword requires less energy to be many times more destructive. Again, a clear indication that the riot police aren't trying to kill anyone, at least not at the tactic level or arming them.

In previous threads, certain members have been proponents of the idea that the standard Roman legionnaire combat formation would entail close ordered ranks, with little to no distance between shield edges, or with overlapping shields. When discussed, the assertion was made that these formations would not limit effective use of the sword.

Ukranian Riot Police in a "Testudo"-like formation, being attacked by a single club-waving adversary:
[img width=500][/img]

To present my argument, this picture needs to be taken completely in context. The riot police of the Ukraine Ministry of Interior clearly have weapons capable of defeating all the attackers present (a plethora of AK platform rifles) but remain hidden behind their shields, allowing brazen attacks by their adversaries. This could be the result of morale (not agreeing with gov'ts order to crush dissidents), orders (don't cause unnecessary bloodshed on live television, knowing everything is recorded for posterity), or simple tactics (the chief watched 300 and Rome on HBO too many times). From the above picture, I think it can reasonably argued that a closely arrayed fighting formation absolutely maximized defensive coverage, especially against missile weapons. For what their mission is, against the weapons and tactics most commonly used by the protesters, ineffectual individual attacks with a penchant for intense beserker attacks and by *relatively non lethal missile attacks, the above formation makes sense.
* I say this because I think there is an unspoken understanding between riot police and rioters that certain methods of attack, such as prevalent use of firearms or incendiary devices, can and will escalate the situation into something a little more than a riot, notably a massacre. Molotov cocktails are dangerous no doubt, but against individuals, rarely kill them. Same for chunks of concrete and clubs. If you bring pipe bombs to a street riot, all bets are off in terms of playing nice.

However, as earlier mentioned in previous threads, the above picture clearly shows that with overlapping or nearly touching shields, it seriously limits the availability of possible offensive attacks. Take away the overhead protection from shields in the second and after ranks, and it removes the roof of "testudo" but remains a shield wall. Of the dozens of thrusts and cuts possible to use with a 25-27 inch long Gladius Hispanensis, or a slightly shorter 22" Mainz, or even a 19" Pompeii Gladius, not to mention the possible offensive attacks using the umbo/shield boss of a scutum or its reinforced bottom edge, fighting in close ordered ranks limits attacks to an overhand stab, over the shield's top, against an enemy's face, neck or upper back. This maneuver will also mostly be blind, as the attacker will also be in the enemy's danger zone and therefore must remain hidden behind their own shield.

Should one of those riot police in the above formation decide to use his baton or shield in any method other than the above overhand downward attack, he would have to break away from his shield mates, opening up a hole in the line, which is against the whole reasoning to form a shield wall in the first place.

I posted the link to this gif earlier in this thread, I think it's a great example of the difficulty a closely ranked formation has crossing terrain obstacles:
[img width=500][/img]

First, this gif shows an intimidating sight to behold, a large group of armed shield bearing riot police, advancing in unison, as a team. If I were a protester facing them, I would be scared, which is no doubt the whole point. However, it must be noted that the only reason they were able to pass over the obstacles in front of them, a poorly constructed barricade, was because this formation was NOT in contact with the enemy. Had it been pressured by intense missile fire or an opposing armed formation, the temporary confusion and loss of order would have been seriously detrimental to the overall integrity of a formation designed around integrity.
The barricades of short stacks of tires and overturned tables could very easily be substituted in ancient battles with dead bodies of men or horses, fallen trees, a large thorn bush, a small stream bed, a cleft in the ground, etc. My point is that the closer the distance that two shield carrying warriors are with one another, the more they will be jostled around when one of them takes a small step too close to the other.

This might be an example of why the Greek hoplite armies repeatedly fought battle after battle against one another in the same wide open fields, such as Mantinea or Chaeronea. Also it might be an indicator of why the Romans might have abandoned their early usage with hoplite formations in exchange for the later manipular tactics. While the advent of the Manipular army is often dated to the loss against a tribe of Gauls at Allia, some ancient sources and modern historian believe the Romans developed some of their tactics after fighting in the hill country of the Apennines against the Samnites, which showed them further deficiencies in their tactics.

So, again, I reiterate that while I do not discount the use of a closed ranks formation in certain circumstances, such as defense against missile bearing enemy or to hold key terrain, as an offensive formation, it doesn't seem to be very deadly, just safe. WWCD? (what would caesar do?)

Anyway, food for thought. Smile
Quote:...............Anyway, food for thought. Smile

Good post....

Which is why I seriously want to re-ask (as it got lost in the other post) - would the 'close-order quincunx' formation I proposed in Fig1 of my attachment in the older thread meet your requirements? Where the guys in the front of the staggered ranks have the space you need, but support is close-by and the 'shield wall' can be formed with a single pace from the 'posterior' elements if it was necessary.

I'm not asking you to agree that the formation is likely, or possible, or actually happened - but would it meet the essential criteria?

Like I've always said - I remain skeptical, mainly because of the way I see it operating and that Greeks and backwards and Saxons/Danes forward from Rome all used variations of shield-walls to fight from; but if the situation allows, then why not indeed!

Technically, yes, the defensive formation you showed in that other thread would meet this criteria. However, the issues I have with it is how hard it would be for the drill to be carried out. Having opposing ranks move around in a preplanned way must be regimented in an exact method and there are few ways to carry them out. In the USMC and US Army, there exists a drill similar to what you are discussing, to form for physical training, which requires opposing ranks to be uncovered from one another to make room for exercising and such. In both drill commands, before the command to uncover is given, the men must know whether they will be the ones moving or remaining stationary. Even with the men forming up into ranks based off their actual squads, it is necessary to remind the men of their place in the formation to ensure it is properly carried out. This means adding the additional drill commands of some form of counting. An example based off of the Army method of having files become staggered from a covered file:

Starting out from a formation where everyone is at standard interval, a arms length from one another, sideways and front/back. It is imperative that men be at least an arms length from the man in front of them to prevent stepping on each other's feet.

1st command is "Open Ranks" This is based off of a formation with three or four ranks.
1st Rank takes two steps forward.
2nd Rank takes one step forward.
3rd Rank stays where it is
4th Rank takes two steps backwards, being shorter 15" steps instead of a 30" step

Next step is to find out where the men are that need to be moved, to form a staggered formation:
"Century, From Front to Rear, Count Off!" says the leader (centurion) of the formation to the assembled ranks
"1" yells everyone in the first rank.
"2" yells everyone in the second rank
3 etcetera
"Even numbers, one step to the right, Uncover!"
*uncover being the command of execution,

Result, a formation of men in covered rank and files now resembles a more open checkerboard/quincunx formation, with 6 feet between ranks. However, bare in mind that this elaborate drill command would be necessary to accomplish literally in the face of the enemy and would be impossible if the unit were moving. A way to prevent the need for such an elaborate sequence of drill commands would be to have some sort of preplanned method of signal based on a preplanned elaborate sequence, where one verbal or signal from an instrument is given which would do all of the above. However, such a preplanned complex drill command must be understood ensuring that, prior to battle, each man in the formation is absolutely 100% sure of what rank he is in, in relation to the others. However, like I mentioned earlier, in the US military this should be easy, as the ranks themselves are the subunits, as compared to files in the Greek ancient world and even then, it is necessary to have a sequence instituted that ensures immediately before the drill is carried out that men know exactly where they are in relation to the formation in rank and file. If a man serves in say, second squad, he will always be in the 2nd rank, yet without a pre-execution count, that man will nearly always find a way to screw up, and forget he is even numbered rank.

Remember all drill must be based on Murphy's Law, Fog of War and the understanding that half the population are below average intelligence. Having a preplanned rank structure within the unit has the possibility of working, but any loss of cohesion and strict order of rank and file could jeopardize the whole maneuver. Additionally, being in a veteran or experienced unit would not help this matter unless an extreme amount of time was devoted to memorizing the elaborate choreography of the drill movement.

The easiest method to create the formation you are discussing would be to have the men either open intervals or close intervals. It requires one command, followed by everyone in the unit, instead of select ranks or personnel. Its based off a single pre-established command or signal.

Using either a voice command or some form of pre-established cornicen note:
"Extend Interval/Open Maniple" - Starting from the very right, where the centurion and standards are placed, the soldiers put out left arm, with shield held vertical, and push off their rank mate with their shield boss, moving the whole formation left and extending the width between shields. (ends up as Polybius description of interval distance)
"Close interval" - Using a bent elbow and shield held against left leg as a guide, the men close the distance and move right. (ends with Vegetius description)

However, a movement like this would drastically length the battle line to the left, unless the pivot point for extending was in the center of the unit, not the far right. Also, if gaps existed between maniples and were based off forming initially for battle in closed interval ranks (Larger distances between the files isn't necessary when marching because swords are scabbarded and shields held against the leg), then and once in position, prior to launching attack, the large gaps would mostly be closed by the maneuver described above. The small gaps left would easily be covered by armed calone and velites who've fallen back.

Ex. of gap closing
- - - - - - "close interval" formation with large gaps between maniples
_ _ _ _ _ _ "Extend interval" formation which would remove most of the gaps.
* this looks incorrect for some reason when I post it. Try it yourself. Hyphen with two spaces between them take up same room as underscore with one space.

This could be why the legions of Cannae couldn't maneuver, they formed up with the gaps removed, preventing maniples from opening the intervals once set in place. Just a guess though.

To turn an "extend interval" style formation into a quincunx would be automatic. Men in follow on ranks would naturally uncover a bit anyway, to see what is happening in front of them, who wants to spend a battle looking at the backside of the man in front of you when its more entertaining to actually see the enemy? Also, uncovering slightly means the 2nd rank could continue to use missile weapons; they are 6 feet from the man in front of them and behind them, giving them plenty of room to throw pilum directly at the men the front rankers are squaring off at. The closer the throw, the more power the pilum has. To close up into a shield wall requires a simple one note or verbal command pre-designed that corresponds to "close interval" which would take the unit back to a shield wall, but which would open the gaps between units.

Again, this is all based on the assumption that the Republican Romans actually bothered with formal drill. The Spartans seemed to have, the Theban band maybe, while most other hoplite states didn't. The Macedonians of Philip and beyond did and wrote it down, but no drill manuals exist or were reported, that emphasized Roman unit drill, and for a proper drill method to have been used and even remotely standardized, it would have had to have been written down. At some point in the Imperial Rome, once a long standing professional military was formed, it seems that it happened. Especially as later emperor and generals began favoring the older Greek methods of warfare. However, I find it odd that several long serving famous generals and consuls felt the need to write about farming but not drill. We assume it was that the tactics were so known that no one needed to mention them. However, any sort of formalized drill needs to be standardized, ie. written down and disseminated.
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