Advantages and Disadvantages of the Phalanx

Extract from The Histories - Book XVIII (28-32)

"In my sixth Book I promised that when a suitable occasion presented itself I would institute a comparison between the Roman and Macedonian equipment and formation, showing how they differ for the better or worse, and I will, now that we see them both in actual practice, endeavour to fulfil this promise. For since the Macedonian formation in former times was proved by the experience of facts to be superior to other formations in use in Asia and Greece and that of the Romans likewise showed itself superior to those in use in Africa and among all the peoples of western Europe, and since now in our own times not once, but frequently, these two formations and the soldiers of both nations have been matched against each other, it will prove useful and beneficial to inquire into the difference, and into the reason why on the battle-field the Romans have always had the upper hand and carried off the palm, so that we may not, like foolish men, talk simply of chance and felicitate the victors without giving any reason for it, but may, knowing the true causes of their success, give them a reasoned tribute of praise and admiration.

It will not be necessary to dilate upon the battles of the Romans with Hannibal and their defeats therein; for there they met with defeat not owing to their equipment and formation but owing to Hannibal's skill and cleverness. This I made sufficiently clear in dealing with battles in question, and the best testimony to the justice of what I said was, first of all, the actual end of the war. For very soon when the Romans had the advantage of the services of a general of like capacity with Hannibal then victory was an immediate consequence of this. And secondly, Hannibal himself, discarding his original armament at once on winning the first battle, armed his own forces with the Roman weapons and continued to employ these up to the end. As for Pyrrhus he employed not only Italian arms but Italian forces, placing cohorts of these and cohorts composed of men from the phalanx in alternate order in his battles with the Romans. But still even by this means he could not gain a victory, but the result of all their battles was always more or less doubtful.

It was necessary for me to preface my comparison by these few words in order that my statements may meet with no contradiction. I will now proceed to the comparison itself.

That when the phalanx has its characteristic virtue and strength nothing can sustain its frontal attack or withstand the charge can easily be understood for many reasons. For since, when it has closed up for action, each man, with his arms, occupies a space of three feet 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 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, as Homer expresses it in these verses:

Spear crowded spear,
Shield, helmet, man press'd helmet, man, and shield;
The hairy crests of their resplendent casques
Kiss'd close at every nod, so wedged they stood.

This description is both true and fine, and it is evident that each man of the first rank must have the points of five pikes extending beyond him, each at a distance of two cubits from the next.

From this we can easily conceive what is the nature and force of a charge by the whole phalanx when it is sixteen deep. In this case those further back and the fifth rank cannot use their pikes so as to take any active part in the battle. They therefore do not severally level their pikes, but hold them slanting up in the air over the shoulders of those in front of them, so as to protect the whole formation from above, keeping off by this serried mass of pikes all missiles which, passing over the heads of the first ranks, might fall on those immediately in front of and behind them. But these men by the sheer pressure of their bodily weight in the charge add to its force, and it is quite impossible for the first ranks to face about.

Such being in general and in detail the disposition of the phalanx, I have now, for purposes of comparison, to speak of the peculiarities of the Roman equipment and system of formation and the points of difference in both. Now in the case of the Romans also each soldier with his arms occupies a space of three feet in breadth, 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 feet 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. The consequence will be that one Roman must stand opposite two men in the first rank of the phalanx, so that he has to face and encounter ten pikes, and it is both impossible for a single man to cut through them all in time once they are at close quarters and by no means easy to force their points away, as the rear ranks can be of no help to the front rank either in thus forcing the pikes away or in the use of the sword. So it is easy to see that, as I said at the beginning, nothing can withstand the charge of the phalanx as long as it preserves its characteristic formation and force.

What then is the reason of the Roman success, and was is it that defeats the purpose of those who use the phalanx? It is because in war the time and place of action is uncertain and the phalanx has only one time and one place in which it can perform its peculiar service. Now, if the enemy were obliged to adapt themselves to the times and places required by the phalanx when a decisive battle was impending, those who use the phalanx would in all probability, for the reasons I stated above, always get the better of their enemies; but if it is not only possible but easy to avoid its onset why should one any longer dread an attack of a body so constituted? Again, it is acknowledged that the phalanx requires level and clear ground with no obstacles such as ditches, clefts, clumps of trees, ridges and water courses, all of which are sufficient to impede and break up such a formation. Every one would also acknowledge that it is almost impossible except in very rare cases to find spaces of say twenty stades or even more in length with no such obstacles. But even if we assume it to be possible, supposing those who are fighting against us refuse to meet us on such ground, but force round sacking the cities and devastating the territory of our allies, what is the use of such a formation? For by remaining on the ground that suits it, not only is it incapable of helping its friends but cannot even ensure its own safety. For the arrival of supplies will easily be prevented by the enemy, when they have undisturbed command of the open country. But if the phalanx leaves the ground proper to it and attempts any action, it will be easily overcome by the enemy. And again, if it is decided to engage the enemy on level ground, but instead of availing ourselves of our total force when the phalanx has its one opportunity for charging, we keep out of action even a small portion of it at the moment of the shock, it is easy to tell what will happen from what the Romans always do at present, the likelihood of the result I now indicate requiring no argument but only the evidence of actual facts. For the Romans do not make their line equal in force to the enemy and expose all the legions to a frontal attack by the phalanx, but part of their forces remain in reserve and the rest engaged the enemy. Afterwards whether the phalanx drives back by its charge the force opposed to it or is repulsed by this force, its own peculiar formation is broken up. For either in following up a retreating foe or in flying before an attacking foe, they leave behind the other parts of their own army, upon which the enemy's reserve have room enough in the space formerly held by the phalanx to attack no longer in front but appearing by a lateral movement on the flank and rear of the phalanx. When it is thus easy to guard against the opportunities and advantages of the phalanx, but impossible to prevent the enemy from taking advantage of the proper moment to act against it, to one kind of formation naturally proves in reality superior to the other. Again, those who employ the phalanx have to march through and encamp in every variety of country; they are compelled to occupy favourable positions in advance, to besiege certain positions and to be besieged in others, and to meet attacks from quarters the least expected. For all such contingencies are parts of war, and victory sometimes wholly and sometimes very largely depends on them. Now in all these matters the Macedonian formation is at times of little use and at times of no use at all, because the phalanx soldier can be of service neither in detachments nor singly, while the Roman formation is efficient. For every Roman soldier, once he is armed and sets about his business, can adapt himself equally well to every place and time and can meet attack from every quarter. He is likewise equally prepared and equally in condition whether he has to fight together with the whole army or with a part of it or in maniples or singly. So since in all particulars the Romans are much more serviceable, Roman plans are much more apt to result in success than those of others. I thought it necessary to speak on this subject at some length because many Greeks on the actual occasions when the Macedonians suffered defeat considered the event as almost incredible, and many will still continue to wonder why and how the phalanx comes to be conquered by troops armed in the Roman fashion."


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