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altfritz06 Jan 2013 10:11 a.m. PST

I was thinking the other day that troops fighting pikes must have had a pretty hard time of it.

Pike vs Pike perhaps not so much. One might expect them to do equal damage to each other. Perhaps they would have a sort of fencing action similar to that portrayed in "Captain Alistrade" where the pikemen seemed to be trying to knock the opposing pike-points out of the way.

Actually that reminds me of a description of Ashigaru combat I recently read which showed the Ashigaru of one side striking at the spears of the other side to knock them down and IIRC into disorder before attacking the men.

I wonder how many of the foe would just melt away before the attack. From what I've read about attacks by Swiss pikemen that seems to be the case.

The Romans seem to have been able to handle the pikes but not without difficulty. Presumably their discipline allowed them to hang in there and work their way under the points. Presumably after that happened the fight would be much more even.

Which brings me to the next question: were 2-handed swords designed to counter pikes (by lopping off the tips at a relatively safe distance?)

Oh Bugger Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 10:31 a.m. PST

"Presumably their discipline allowed them to hang in there and work their way under the points."

There is no evidence of them doing that that I can recall. Fighting to the front they, although the discipline helped, seem to have been unable to achieve much.

They key thing seems to have been to disorder the pike formation. Men using 2 handed swords who got on the flank could do that.

But what about the Galatians, how did they see off pike armies?

asa1066 Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 10:41 a.m. PST

The lopping off pike heads thing is a myth as far as I'm aware. It would be very difficult to cut through the shaft of the pike even with a two handed sword, especially when there a bunch of other guys trying to poke you with their pikes.

David S.

asa1066 Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 10:46 a.m. PST

There is a discussion of the role of the two-handed sword here:


David S.

Personal logo Pictors Studio Sponsoring Member of TMP06 Jan 2013 11:23 a.m. PST

Yeah, the Romans were never really able to go toe to toe with pike formations. They had to use something to disorder their line and then get them. Legionnaires just didn't march into them.

Personal logo DucDeGueldres Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 2:52 p.m. PST

The role of the 2-handed swords is one of those mystic affairs in early renaissance warfare.
In some records they are mentioned to guard officers and flags, like the halbardiers often also did. This is a role that's frequently mentioned.
More offensive roles like chopping off the pike heads of the front rows may have been a difficult task as the pike would bend and often the top part was protected by iron strips. And how would they get the room to swing their long swords. Raising your sword would make you vulnerable.
However as said before, sources are scarce with information on actual battlefield behaviour of these impressive soldiers.
It seems to me a challenge for re-enactors to show how realistic a front line role might be.

Personally I would see the 2-handed word men as protection for officers, standard bearers, but also for shot units or as part of forlorn hopes. Also in the back rows of a pike formation to prevent stragglers to leave the formation. A role that was also delegated to halbardiers.

Le Duc.

Mako11 Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 3:19 p.m. PST

I've heard of one side raising their pikes, when they were all in close, in order to get the intertwined pikes of the other side to lift too.

Then, the swordsmen, or halberdiers do their work from below.

Probably a lot easier to try to attack or threaten flanks, or rear though, instead.

Meiczyslaw Inactive Member06 Jan 2013 10:31 p.m. PST

Keep in mind that Roman infantry was supposed to be equipped with two pila each. (Kinda-sort javelins, for those who don't do Latin.) As they closed with the pike formation, they'd throw them into the enemy, which would create disorder, and then small teams of legionaires would slide into the gaps.

Hard, rough work, but doable.

The way that pikes are defeated in Heavy List (fakey SCA combat) seems to revolve around the shield wall. Basically, you push the wall against the enemy's pike and try to trap the pikes and push into them. I have no clue how effective the tactic would be with sharp points, though.

All of this, of course, ignores missile fire. It was how the pikes were worn down in the pike-and-shot era, so was probably effective off-and-on depending on how well armored the pikes were.

Oh Bugger Inactive Member07 Jan 2013 2:55 a.m. PST

"As they closed with the pike formation, they'd throw them into the enemy, which would create disorder, and then small teams of legionaires would slide into the gaps."

No mention of that either in the sources presumably the pila failed to get through the serried ranks of pikes with sufficent velocity to do the job.

Keraunos Inactive Member07 Jan 2013 4:21 a.m. PST

But what about the Galatians, how did they see off pike armies?

I'm not sure they actually did. they just seemed to move quickly through the areas where the pike armies could fight them, and then get onto hilly bits where they were able to avoid the pikes entirely.

There is no evidence of a pike block being beaten frontally by a Galatian attack that I am aware of, anyway.

Puster Supporting Member of TMP07 Jan 2013 5:34 a.m. PST

>The role of the 2-handed swords is one of those mystic affairs in early renaissance warfare.

Strangely Potter includes in the some 17000 Landsknechts in French service in 1517 2000 with greatswords (and 800 with helbards), which looks a bit excessive to me. Was there a period when the greatsword was the fashionable close combat weapon of pikeblocks? Perhaps in the wake of Ravenna, where the losses in the front ranks of the Landsknechts to the SPanish where pretty high, and Novarra, where the Swiss had almost annihilated them?

Daniel S07 Jan 2013 6:01 a.m. PST

Potter's source for those numbers is not of the most reliable kind, it is a German newsheet printed in 1515 IIRC. 2000 men with schlachtschwert is a very high number and not seen in any other sources. But 1515 seems to be a year of change, before that landsknechts with two handed swords are very rare in descriptions, after they become more and more common in artwork and swiss artist like Urs Graf use the 2-h sword to identiy landsknechts in images.

Elenderil07 Jan 2013 7:54 a.m. PST

A well drilled pike block of 8 ranks or better is a real beast to deal with. As a 17th Century re-enactor I rarely see blocks of that depth as we just don't have the numbers to form them, but when I have come across themn they are a far tougher proposition than the 4 rank version we commonly meet.

With a shallower formation it is reasonably easy to sweep sufficient pike points to the side with a musket butt to allow the pike block to be split up. If the pikemen know their trade it becomes harder as they will come forward at a brisk walk shoulder to shoulder this makes it harder to choose your target for sweeping pike points aside. With a deeper formation there are just too many pike points to easily sweep them to one side.

Now back in the real world I would expect all the pike units to have veterans at the front setting the pace so they would be both deep formations, coming forward briskly and with good tight ranks and files. Also lets not forget the interesting collection of personal side arms carried for when the enemy is in too close to use the pike point. All in all not something I would choose to attack frontally. However, if you could get them locked into a frontal fight with another pike block or similar threat then a fast assault from the flank is always going to cause them problems.

Puster Supporting Member of TMP07 Jan 2013 9:13 a.m. PST

Thanks, Daniel. The number sounded suspiciously high – I should have checked his source :-)

Elendril, afaik the usual disposition was 4 or 5 ranks for pikemen before a single or double rank of helbards (or Schlachtschwert?), and most of these would be Doppelsöldner.
I am also quite sure that in the case of high casualties the rear ranks would fill in gaps by casualties.

We can safely assume that at least Landsknecht and Swiss usually had very experienced men in these front position, and pikes to all sides. At Ceresole the pike blocks managed to hold off attacks from several sides for hours despite the front ranks being culled by shot in the first moments of the engagement.

JJartist07 Jan 2013 11:34 a.m. PST

Galatians-- there is not one recorded event where Galatians defeated a formed phalanx frontally… the one major success – against Keraunos seems to be a disaster based on surprise and/or bad generalship combined with bad luck…. we have no data just an anecdote. My guess is that the Galatians defeated Keraunos by some ambush, or over confidence on the Macedonian's part-- in short the same way that Gallic armies usually destroy Romans.

However against hoplites at Thermopylae the Galatians retired after a sharp fight, only to turn the position later…

Comparing medieval tactics to ancients is difficult, since we have few instances of comment about pike vs pike combat.

There are anecdotes about in a siege where one side was ordered to grab and pull the pikes out of the enemy hands…

Romans were frustrated in all case in frontal combat with pike phalanxes. There are anecdotes about legionaries rolling under the pike wall and other attempts to breach the pike hedgehog, but these almost always described as unsuccessful. Generally what Romans did was retire in front of the phalanx… this is proven by the low casualties sustained as battles where legions gave ground rather than stand their ground, at both Cynoscephalae and Pydna. Note the fate of the Pelignian cohort at Pydna which apparently stood its ground in an attempt to allow time for the Roman line to deploy-- and this cohort was indeed overrun.

At Magnesia the lack of aggressiveness by the Seleucid phalanx allowed the Romans to simply stay un-engaged, and the disaster was completed when missile fire disrupted the whole formation and elephants.

The battle of Heraclea is the most detailed description of Romans frontally engaging the phalanx, and they apparently sacrificed themselves in great numbers trying to breach it… but apparently to no avail-- even though they caused heavy casualties.

Another later reference is to Sulla's engagement at Chaeronea, where the cohorts apparently were unable to defeat the Pontic phalanx frontally until the rear ranks came under fire from war machines or other missile troops.

In almost all Roman vs pike phalanx encounters the Romans have the worst of it against the actual pike formations, but the bad deployments, or bad decisions, end up with the flanks caving in and the phalanx served up for disaster.

Pydna is most commonly cited as the situation where the Romans enticed the phalanx onto choppy ground then carved it up.. that is true, but is usually described in a vacuum where the fact that the phalanx had both flanks stripped of any support early on, and the Roman wings had surrounded the Macedonian center, turning it into a Cannae like killing ground, where quarter was not given.


Mars Ultor07 Jan 2013 1:06 p.m. PST

Polybios also makes a note that the phalanx style of fighting is usually overcome by the manipular style because, as the battle progresses and the battle lines become uneven, it was not too hard for an unengaged maniple in the 2nd or 3rd line to attack the flank of a phlanx that had pushed up too far or been driven back.

JJartist07 Jan 2013 1:14 p.m. PST


The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32:

In my sixth book I made a promise, still unfulfilled, of taking a fitting opportunity of drawing a comparison between the arms of the Romans and Macedonians, and their respective system of tactics, and pointing out how they differ for better or worse from each other. I will now endeavor by a reference to actual facts to fulfil that promise. For since in former times the Macedonian tactics proved themselves by experience capable of conquering those of Asia and Greece; while the Roman tactics sufficed to conquer the nations of Africa and all those of Western Europe; and since in our own day there have been numerous opportunities of comparing the men as well as their tactics, it will be, I think, a useful and worthy task to investigate their differences, and discover why it is that the Romans conquer and carry off the palm from their enemies in the operations of war: that we may not put it all down to Fortune, and congratulate them on their good luck, as the thoughtless of mankind do; but, from a knowledge of the true causes, may give their leaders the tribute of praise and admiration which they deserve.

Now as to the battles which the Romans fought with Hannibal and the defeats which they sustained in them, I need say no more. It was not owing to their arms or their tactics, but to the skill and genius of Hannibal that they met with those defeats: and that I made quite clear in my account of the battles themselves. And my contention is supported by two facts. First, by the conclusion of the war: for as soon as the Romans got a general of ability comparable with that of Hannibal, victory was not long in following their banners. Secondly, Hannibal himself, being dissatisfied with the original arms of his men, and having immediately after his first victory furnished his troops with the arms of the Romans, continued to employ them thenceforth to the end. Pyrrhus, again, availed himself not only of the arms, but also of the troops of Italy, placing a maniple of Italians and a company of his own phalanx alternately, in his battles against the Romans. Yet even this did not enable him to win; the battles were somehow or another always indecisive.

It was necessary to speak first on these points, to anticipate any instances which might seem to make against my theory. I will now return to my comparison.

Many considerations may easily convince us that, if only the phalanx has its proper formation and strength, nothing can resist it face to face or withstand its charge. For as a man in close order of battle occupies a space of three feet; and as the length of the sarissae are sixteen cubits according to the original design, which has been reduced in practice to fourteen; and as of these fourteen four must be deducted, to allow for the weight in front; it follows clearly that each hoplite will have ten cubits of his sarissa projecting beyond his body, when he lowers it with both hands, as he advances against the enemy: hence, too, though the men of the second, third, and fourth rank will have their sarissae projecting farther beyond the front rank than the men of the fifth, yet even these last will have two cubits of their sarissae beyond the front rank; if only the phalanx is properly formed and the men close up properly both flank and rear, like the description in Homer:

So buckler pressed on buckler; helm on helm; And man on man; and waving horse-hair plumes In polished head-piece mingled, as they swayed In order: in such serried rank they stood. [Iliad, 13.131]

And if my description is true and exact, it is clear that in front of each man of the front rank there will be five sarissae projecting to distances varying by a descending scale of two cubits.

With this point in our minds, it will not be difficult to imagine what the appearance and strength of the whole phalanx is likely to be, when, with lowered sarissae, it advances to the charge sixteen deep. Of these sixteen ranks, all above the fifth are unable to reach with their sarissae far enough to take actual part in the fighting. They, therefore, do not lower them, but hold them with the points inclined upwards over the shoulders of the ranks in front of them, to shield the heads of the whole phalanx; for the sarissae are so closely serried, that they repel missiles which have carried over the front ranks and might fall upon the heads of those in the rear. These rear ranks, however, during an advance, press forward those in front by the weight of their bodies; and thus make the charge very forcible, and at the same time render it impossible for the front ranks to face about.

Such is the arrangement, general and detailed of the phalanx. It remains now to compare with it the peculiarities and distinctive features of the Roman arms and tactics. Now, a Roman soldier in full armor also requires a space of three square feet. But as their method of fighting admits of individual motion for each man---because he defends his body with a shield, which he moves about to any point from which a blow is coming, and because he uses his sword both for cutting and stabbing---it is evident that each man must have a clear space, and an interval of at least three feet both on flank and rear if he is to do his duty with any effect. The result of this will be that each Roman soldier will face two of the front rank of a phalanx, so that he has to encounter and fight against ten spears, which one man cannot find time even to cut away, when once the two lines are engaged, nor force his way through easily---seeing that the Roman front ranks are not supported by the rear ranks, either by way of adding weight to their charge, or vigor to the use of their swords. Therefore, it may readily be understood that, as I said before, it is impossible to confront a charge of the phalanx, so long as it retains its proper formation and strength.

Why is it then that the Romans conquer? And what is it that brings disaster on those who employ the phalanx? Why, just because war is full of uncertainties both as to time and place; whereas there is but one time and one kind of ground in which a phalanx can fully work. If, then, there were anything to compel the enemy to accommodate himself to the time and place of the phalanx, when about to fight a general engagement, it would be but natural to expect that those who employed the phalanx would always carry off the victory. But if the enemy finds it possible, and even easy, to avoid its attack, what becomes of its formidable character? Again, no one denies that for its employment it is indispensable to have a country flat, bare, and without such impediments as ditches, cavities, depressions, steep banks, or beds of rivers: for all such obstacles are sufficient to hinder and dislocate this particular formation. And that it is, I may say, impossible, or at any rate exceedingly rare to find a piece of country of twenty stades, or sometimes of even greater extent, without any such obstacles, every one will also admit. However, let us suppose that such a district has been found. If the enemy decline to come down into it, but traverse the country sacking the towns and territories of the allies, what use will the phalanx be? For if it remains on the ground suited to itself, it will not only fail to benefit its friends, but will be incapable even of preserving itself; for the carriage of provisions will be easily stopped by the enemy, seeing that they are in undisputed possession of the country: while if it quits its proper ground, from the wish to strike a blow, it will be an easy prey to the enemy. Nay, if a general does descend into the plain, and yet does not risk his whole army upon one charge of the phalanx or upon one chance, but maneuvers for a time to avoid coming to close quarters in the engagement, it is easy to learn what will be the result from what the Romans are now actually doing.

For no speculation is any longer required to test the accuracy of what I am now saying: that can be done by referring to accomplished facts. The Romans do not, then, attempt to extend their front to equal that of a phalanx, and then charge directly upon it with their whole force: but some of their divisions are kept in reserve, while others join battle with the enemy at close quarters. Now, whether the phalanx in its charge drives its opponents from their ground, or is itself driven back, in either case its peculiar order is dislocated; for whether in following the retiring, or flying from the advancing enemy, they quit the rest of their forces: and when this takes place, the enemy's reserves can occupy the space thus left, and the ground which the phalanx had just before been holding, and so no longer charge them face to face, but fall upon them on their flank and rear. If, then, it is easy to take precautions against the opportunities and peculiar advantages of the phalanx, but impossible to do so in the case of its disadvantages, must it not follow that in practice the difference between these two systems is enormous? Of course, those generals who employ the phalanx must march over ground of every description, must pitch camps, occupy points of advantage, besiege, and be besieged, and meet with unexpected appearances of the enemy: for all these are part and parcel of war, and have an important and sometimes decisive influence on the ultimate victory. And in all these cases the Macedonian phalanx is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to handle, because the men cannot act either in squads or separately.

The Roman order on the other hand is flexible: for every Roman, once armed and on the field, is equally well-equipped for every place, time, or appearance of the enemy. He is, moreover, quite ready and needs to make no change, whether he is required to fight in the main body, or in a detachment, or in a single maniple, or even by himself. Therefore, as the individual members of the Roman force are so much more serviceable, their plans are also much more often attended by success than those of others.

I thought it necessary to discuss this subject at some length, because at the actual time of the occurrence many Greeks supposed when the Macedonians were beaten that it was incredible; and many will afterwards be at a loss to account for the inferiority of the phalanx to the Roman system of arming.


From: Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, 2 Vols., trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 226-230.

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

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© Paul Halsall, July 1998

Marcus Brutus26 Jan 2013 3:45 p.m. PST

I believe the above comments from Polybios have been met with some scepticism in historical circles, specifically his description of how Roman soldiers fought. The idea that Roman legionnaires take more frontage per soldier creates a host of problems when trying to determine realistic battlefield deployments. The fact is that Roman army was an army of depth and used tight formations to punch through the enemy battleline. The advantage of manipular tactics is the ability to rotate front line troops and allow periods of rest and recuperation for those troops rotated out of the front lines. How this actually manifests itself in the moment by moment struggle between phalanx and legion is something that I don't quite understand.

Lewisgunner Inactive Member27 Jan 2013 12:21 p.m. PST

The Romans have elastic, loose formations which fall back in front of pike. There is an example of an Italian cohort throwing its standard into the pike formation and attacking to retrieve it. They are destroyed.
As the Romans fall back the pike become disordered or expose their flanks and the small groups of Romans can break into the oration or attack them from the flank where the pike are unable to protect themselves.
Pila are really not very useful against densely ordered, shielded pikemen. The forest of pikes held at 45% breaks up the incoming pila shower. On one occasion the Romans dropped their pila to go in with their swords against the phalanx.

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