03-10-2018, 09:35 AM
(This post was last modified: 03-10-2018, 05:26 PM by Justin Swanton.)

Hi everyone, been a while since I last made an appearance in RAT.

I posted this topic over at the SoA forum. Aelian writes about the Macedonian phalanx deploying in close order (each file occupies one cubit = 18") when resisting an enemy attack. Asklepiodotus says the same thing.

There is a problem however with a phalanx in this formation - the shields. They are at least 2 feet wide, usually more, which means they will overlap quite substantially when in close order. Like this:

Given that the ranks remain 3 feet apart - necessary as the men will be nearly side-on when presenting their sarissas to the enemy - there is no useful way the four ranks behind the front rankers can project their shafts below the shields of the front rankers. The sarissas would be obliged to point straight forwards and somewhat downwards, leaving gaps in the pike wall through which enemy soldiers could approach the frontmost phalangites and kill them.

I tried out a couple of diagrams to see how high the pikes could be held if wielded underarm. First their height to permit maximum lateral movement. The pikes must be completely below the shields in front of them:

Secondly, if the pikes are held as high as possible with minimum lateral movement. They will be a little higher than the bottom of the shields and cannot get in each other's way, meaning that some will be lower than others. Again, these are best-case scenarios with shields just 2 feet in diameter:

However, if the second to fourth ranks hold their sarissas overhead, they can quite easily clear the shoulders of the front men and also move their sarissas a little from side to side, closing any potential gaps. The men holding their sarissas at shoulder height will be able to see over their shields, even with their shield arms raised. I experimented and it works (there is also the case of the phalangites slinging their shields over their backs, but more of that later). I speculate the fifth ranker could hold his sarissa underarm to project between the shields of the front ranker and supply additional protection. Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate (the scale is in feet). The second diagram shows that there is a little lateral wiggle room below the shields for the sarissas if they are presented undearm:

A phalanx deployed in intermediate order - 3 feet per file with a 1-foot gap between shields - obviously doesn't have this problem, as the experiments by Peter Connolly show. However it seems fairly certain that deploying the phalanx in close order when engaging enemy - 18" per file - was common or even standard. Let me cover Polybios' supposed 3 feet for close order at the end of this post.

Connolly proposes this angling of shields to permit the sarissas to pass between them (at least 60 degrees). But this obliges one to dismiss 'interlocking shields' as a poetical exaggeration. It also leaves the phalangites, their left arm full extended in front of them, unable to make any pokes or lunges with their sarissas.

And now for Polybios:

Everybody is familiar with his description of a phalanx's close order as being three feet width per file (Histories 18: 29, 2). However I had a close look at the text.

This passage:

"For since, when it has closed up for action, each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes in breadth, and the length of the pikes is according to the original design sixteen cubits, but as adapted to actual need fourteen cubits , from which we must subtract the distance between the bearer's two hands and the length of the weighted portion of the pike behind which serves to keep it couched — four cubits in all — it is evident that it must extend ten cubits beyond the body of each hoplite when he charges the enemy grasping it with both hands."

The part "each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes in breadth" in the Greek is:

ἐπεὶ γὰρ ὁ μὲν ἀνὴρ ἵσταται σὺν τοῖς ὅπλοις ἐν τρισὶ ποσὶ κατὰ τὰς ἐναγωνίους πυκνώσεις.

Word for word that gives:

"He comes/goes thus the man he stands with his weapons three paces according to the closed ranks for battle"

Notice the absence of one important word: "in breadth".

Polybius then does some maths, an equation in which two factors are known from which the third factor can be worked out.

"For since, when it has closed up for action, each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes, and the length of the pikes is according to the original design sixteen cubits, but as adapted to actual need fourteen cubits , from which we must subtract the distance between the bearer's two hands and the length of the weighted portion of the pike behind which serves to keep it couched — four cubits in all — it is evident that it must extend ten cubits beyond the body of each hoplite when he charges the enemy grasping it with both hands. The consequence is that while the pikes of the second, third, and fourth ranks extend farther than those of the fifth rank, those of that rank extend two cubits beyond the bodies of the men in the first rank, when the phalanx has its characteristic close order as regards both depth and breadth"

The known factors:

1. a sarissa projects 10 cubits in front of its holder

2. the ranks are spaced two cubits apart.

From this one can work out that 10 cubits - (4 x 2 cubits) = 2 cubits: the distance the sarissas of the fifth rank project in front of the first rank.

Notice that if you remove either of the two known factors, it becomes impossible to work out the third. So where does Polybius give us the fact that the ranks stood three feet (2 cubits) apart? In the beginning of this passage, where he states that the phalangite stands three feet - not three feet in width, but in depth.

He then gives the spacing of the Romans, starting by affirming that a Roman infantry occupies a space of three feet:

ἵστανται μὲν οὖν ἐν τρισὶ ποσὶ μετὰ τῶν ὅπλων καὶ Ῥωμαῖοι:

"They stand indeed in three paces with their weapons the Romans"

Polyius then gets specific about what the 'three paces' means (notice how he assumes his readers did not think it meant breadth for a close order phalanx but rather depth):

"but as in their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required, and each man must be at a distance of at least three pes from the man next him in the same rank and those in front of and behind him, if they are to be of proper use."

What does three feet from the man next to him mean? What are the points of reference for measuring? There can be only one that is constant for all men: from his midpoint to the midpoint of his neighbour, like this:

Which actually gives you files three feet wide and ranks three feet deep.

So when Polybius then says that one Roman will face two Macedonians, it makes perfect sense. In speaking of a close order phalanx he expects his readers to know that close order means 18" per file, but he feels the need to explain why the Romans required more space, i.e. there is the implication that his readers would be more familiar with a phalanx than a legion.

What also emerges from this that a phalanx habitually fought in close order, at least against Romans.

One last thing: the word ἐπεὶ is interesting: it implies that a close order phalanx was capable of advancing. It didn't stand stock-still.

Sorry for a long post. Comments welcome.

I posted this topic over at the SoA forum. Aelian writes about the Macedonian phalanx deploying in close order (each file occupies one cubit = 18") when resisting an enemy attack. Asklepiodotus says the same thing.

There is a problem however with a phalanx in this formation - the shields. They are at least 2 feet wide, usually more, which means they will overlap quite substantially when in close order. Like this:

Given that the ranks remain 3 feet apart - necessary as the men will be nearly side-on when presenting their sarissas to the enemy - there is no useful way the four ranks behind the front rankers can project their shafts below the shields of the front rankers. The sarissas would be obliged to point straight forwards and somewhat downwards, leaving gaps in the pike wall through which enemy soldiers could approach the frontmost phalangites and kill them.

I tried out a couple of diagrams to see how high the pikes could be held if wielded underarm. First their height to permit maximum lateral movement. The pikes must be completely below the shields in front of them:

Secondly, if the pikes are held as high as possible with minimum lateral movement. They will be a little higher than the bottom of the shields and cannot get in each other's way, meaning that some will be lower than others. Again, these are best-case scenarios with shields just 2 feet in diameter:

However, if the second to fourth ranks hold their sarissas overhead, they can quite easily clear the shoulders of the front men and also move their sarissas a little from side to side, closing any potential gaps. The men holding their sarissas at shoulder height will be able to see over their shields, even with their shield arms raised. I experimented and it works (there is also the case of the phalangites slinging their shields over their backs, but more of that later). I speculate the fifth ranker could hold his sarissa underarm to project between the shields of the front ranker and supply additional protection. Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate (the scale is in feet). The second diagram shows that there is a little lateral wiggle room below the shields for the sarissas if they are presented undearm:

A phalanx deployed in intermediate order - 3 feet per file with a 1-foot gap between shields - obviously doesn't have this problem, as the experiments by Peter Connolly show. However it seems fairly certain that deploying the phalanx in close order when engaging enemy - 18" per file - was common or even standard. Let me cover Polybios' supposed 3 feet for close order at the end of this post.

Connolly proposes this angling of shields to permit the sarissas to pass between them (at least 60 degrees). But this obliges one to dismiss 'interlocking shields' as a poetical exaggeration. It also leaves the phalangites, their left arm full extended in front of them, unable to make any pokes or lunges with their sarissas.

And now for Polybios:

Everybody is familiar with his description of a phalanx's close order as being three feet width per file (Histories 18: 29, 2). However I had a close look at the text.

This passage:

"For since, when it has closed up for action, each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes in breadth, and the length of the pikes is according to the original design sixteen cubits, but as adapted to actual need fourteen cubits , from which we must subtract the distance between the bearer's two hands and the length of the weighted portion of the pike behind which serves to keep it couched — four cubits in all — it is evident that it must extend ten cubits beyond the body of each hoplite when he charges the enemy grasping it with both hands."

The part "each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes in breadth" in the Greek is:

ἐπεὶ γὰρ ὁ μὲν ἀνὴρ ἵσταται σὺν τοῖς ὅπλοις ἐν τρισὶ ποσὶ κατὰ τὰς ἐναγωνίους πυκνώσεις.

Word for word that gives:

"He comes/goes thus the man he stands with his weapons three paces according to the closed ranks for battle"

Notice the absence of one important word: "in breadth".

Polybius then does some maths, an equation in which two factors are known from which the third factor can be worked out.

"For since, when it has closed up for action, each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three pes, and the length of the pikes is according to the original design sixteen cubits, but as adapted to actual need fourteen cubits , from which we must subtract the distance between the bearer's two hands and the length of the weighted portion of the pike behind which serves to keep it couched — four cubits in all — it is evident that it must extend ten cubits beyond the body of each hoplite when he charges the enemy grasping it with both hands. The consequence is that while the pikes of the second, third, and fourth ranks extend farther than those of the fifth rank, those of that rank extend two cubits beyond the bodies of the men in the first rank, when the phalanx has its characteristic close order as regards both depth and breadth"

The known factors:

1. a sarissa projects 10 cubits in front of its holder

2. the ranks are spaced two cubits apart.

From this one can work out that 10 cubits - (4 x 2 cubits) = 2 cubits: the distance the sarissas of the fifth rank project in front of the first rank.

Notice that if you remove either of the two known factors, it becomes impossible to work out the third. So where does Polybius give us the fact that the ranks stood three feet (2 cubits) apart? In the beginning of this passage, where he states that the phalangite stands three feet - not three feet in width, but in depth.

He then gives the spacing of the Romans, starting by affirming that a Roman infantry occupies a space of three feet:

ἵστανται μὲν οὖν ἐν τρισὶ ποσὶ μετὰ τῶν ὅπλων καὶ Ῥωμαῖοι:

"They stand indeed in three paces with their weapons the Romans"

Polyius then gets specific about what the 'three paces' means (notice how he assumes his readers did not think it meant breadth for a close order phalanx but rather depth):

"but as in their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required, and each man must be at a distance of at least three pes from the man next him in the same rank and those in front of and behind him, if they are to be of proper use."

What does three feet from the man next to him mean? What are the points of reference for measuring? There can be only one that is constant for all men: from his midpoint to the midpoint of his neighbour, like this:

Which actually gives you files three feet wide and ranks three feet deep.

So when Polybius then says that one Roman will face two Macedonians, it makes perfect sense. In speaking of a close order phalanx he expects his readers to know that close order means 18" per file, but he feels the need to explain why the Romans required more space, i.e. there is the implication that his readers would be more familiar with a phalanx than a legion.

What also emerges from this that a phalanx habitually fought in close order, at least against Romans.

One last thing: the word ἐπεὶ is interesting: it implies that a close order phalanx was capable of advancing. It didn't stand stock-still.

Sorry for a long post. Comments welcome.