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Legion Vs Phalanx

Legion Vs Phalanx: Which powerhouse Formation was better?



A discussion on the differences and opposing merits of the Greek phalanx vs. the Roman legion.

The organization from Homeric style hero warfare to tightly packed hoplite warfare was world changing. This powerful Greek formation allowed the Greeks to hold off the powerful Persian invasion and spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Macedonian phalanx took the concept of cohesive group warfare to another level with the sarissa armed phalangites and under Philip and Alexander, steamrolled every opponent in front of them.

While Alexander’s empire grew and fragmented, The Romans were busy with their arduous task of conquering Italy. Initially adopting a hoplite style phalanx due to influence from southern Italian Greek colonies, the army eventually transformed into the flexible manipular legion. This transformation was likely a result of the Samnite wars fought in the varied mountainous terrain of central Italy where the Romans needed a more adaptable formation. The Roman manipular legion and the Macedonian phalanx were each pivotal factors in the successes of their states, but was one formation actually better than the other?

The best descriptions of the formations come from the historian Polybius. Raised in Greece, Polybius fought in Greek battles before being sent to Rome as a hostage, though given great freedoms during his stay. In Rome Polybius studied Roman warfare and so had experience with both phalanx and maniple style warfare.



 Front view of the Macedonian phalanx in unrealistic perfect order, but showing the sheer amount of spear points projecting out of the formation.

In his histories Polybius directly address the strengths and weakness of both formations. For the phalanx, the sixteen man deep formation had the first five ranks with their spears extending out of the formation while the remaining ranks held their spears upright or at an angle to deflect missiles. The tight formation with the average phalangite taking up a frontage of three feet meant that, theoretically, the average soldier, who needed twice the frontage to operate with sword or spear, faced a total of ten spear points. Not purely a defensive formation, the phalanx could advance forward with pikes churning through virtually any opponent with ease. Polybius states that the biggest weakness of the phalanx is its uselessness in rugged terrain but we know that under competent leadership the phalanx had won victories even whilst crossing rivers.


Reenactors showing the much more open formation of the Romans.

The Roman manipular formation was quite the unique layout. With three lines, one behind the other the Romans deployed in separate maniples with each line having a maniple-sized gap between units, with those gaps covered by the next line back creating a checkerboard formation. The exact method of this formation engaging in battle has been questioned due to the large gaps, but it seems that the gaps remained while engaged to allow the rear lines through to support when needed.

There are several key differences in the formations. The maniple was fluid, with each maniple led by centurions who were encouraged to take initiative and lead by example. The phalanx was much more rigid, but overwhelmingly powerful in a frontal assault. The individual soldier of the phalanx was tied to the cohesion of his unit, but had the safety of multiple spearheads between the front row and the enemy. The individual Roman had more room to operate, with a large shield and effective sword allowing them to confidently engage and defend individually and as a group by locking shields. The javelins thrown by the maniples were also an effective formation breaking tool used to lessen the impact of enemy charges or create holes to exploit with their own charge.

My books, Vienna’s Last Jihad and The Darkness That Could Be Felt discuss 17th century battlefield tactics, many of which derived from ancient Roman and Greek  practices. They are available at the address beneath the book cover illustration.

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