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"How did a phalanx work?" Topic

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Korvessa03 Oct 2018 9:05 p.m. PST

Watched a Youtube yesterday on Thermopylae.
They said something I've heard many times before – that is the guys in back used their shields to push those in front. Makes absolutely no sense to me. I think they are just trying to figure out why depth matters.
But wasn't that the problem at Cannae? The Romans were packed in so tight they couldn't use their weapons properly. If that was problematic with a short sword, how much worse would it be for a long spear.

Korvessa03 Oct 2018 9:05 p.m. PST

Watched a Youtube yesterday on Thermopylae.
They said something I've heard many times before – that is the guys in back used their shields to push those in front. Makes absolutely no sense to me. I think they are just trying to figure out why depth matters.
But wasn't that the problem at Cannae? The Romans were packed in so tight they couldn't use their weapons properly. If that was problematic with a short sword, how much worse would it be for a long spear.

Korvessa03 Oct 2018 9:08 p.m. PST

Yikes – sorry for double post

williamb03 Oct 2018 9:25 p.m. PST

The Greek and Roman combat systems were different. After throwing their pilum the Romans needed room to use their swords. When Hannibal defeated both Roman cavalry wings at Cannae the Romans were surrounded and threatened from all sides and were crowded together.

The Greek hoplites used shields that were shaped yo fit the curve of the back of the person in front of them. This allowed the back ranks to help push forward. The Thebans defeated the Spartans by using a deeper formation. If the Greeks were attacked from the flank or rear then they would have been broken also.

Polybius is the source to be read for the battle of Cannae, Herodotus and Thucydides provide accounts of hoplite battles.

Saw that you are from California and live in the Sierras. Are you near Sacramento? There is a wargaming club there.

evilgong03 Oct 2018 9:38 p.m. PST


Rakkasan03 Oct 2018 10:39 p.m. PST

Here is a link to a video on YouTube that talks about the shield wall and hoplite fighting techniques:
YouTube link

David Brown04 Oct 2018 2:02 a.m. PST

If the rear ranks are shoving the front rank forward how on earth does the front rank fight?

You can't fight with any real degree of efficiency while some idiot in the rear rank is shoving you forward? More likely you'll end up dead because you're off balance and can't fight back. IMHO.


Glengarry504 Oct 2018 2:53 a.m. PST

I imagine it depends how hard they push.

skippy0001 Supporting Member of TMP04 Oct 2018 4:23 a.m. PST

I would think it would be more bracing than pushing.

Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP04 Oct 2018 4:27 a.m. PST

Here is my take on phalanx warfare.

It starts with an initial push, try to break the other line from the very beginning. If that fails, troops fall back, dress the line and prepare for a surge.

Now ancient battles and formations were probably a form of crowd management, try to reign in natural instincts and try to avoid the usual problems when people are under stress and start to do crazy things.

They would have fought in surges because you don't want to exhaust yourself, most people can only do intense activity for a few minutes before they are exhausted. So there must have been a nominal gap between the two armies, just out of range of the enemy spears to give troops a chance to take their breath and start again.

"Oh, but people were like super buff back then !!!"

No, they weren't think more like "Third World used to back breaking labour tough" and none of them are seven feet tall mountains of muscle. They didn't have the proper nutrition nor the time to develop huge muscles, they had dietary problems and various diseases that affected them.

Most battles lasted anything from 30-45 minutes up to an hour or two which completely undermines the idea that they were pushing or fighting all that time. It was an exercise in trying to balance the exhaustion level of your own men, keeping a coherent formation and preventing the rear ranks from slowly pushing the front ranks forward so the gap that allows you fall back and rest narrows over time until you're nose to nose with the enemy.

I'm with Goldsworthy in that the Othismos is probably a figure of speech of the two armies locked into some kind of close fighting resembling men locked into a wrestling match, not some weird Rugby-style scrum. Such activities are only held for a few minutes at the very best since they can be extremely dangerous and the risk of a crowd panic and the men in the front line being crushed is quite real. Besides what's the deal in giving guys who are probably too busy doing anything but pushing a spear ? It doesn't make sense to have a pushing match and then give soldiers the most unwieldy weapon short of a two-handed axe in a close-quarters shoving match where the odds that one slip will have you pinned and crushed by the weight of up to fifteen men pushing on you in both directions.

And here's the problem, you're PUSHING, you're not fighting … How come they have armour and spears and all this crap if all they are going to do is a pushing match ????

Besides, wouldn't the fight go to the first guy who thought about bringing a knife to a pushing fight ???

I'm not saying that there wasn't a big scrum at some point, but they tried to avoid it, postpone it until the end of the battle as a last attempt to break the other guys when all control over the crowd is lost.

If battles are fought with surges and giving time to men to recover and surge again while trying to keep the crowd effect under control, imagine the impact of Celtic barbarians charging such a defensive line ? Suddenly troops are fighting men who don't pause to lock shields for a while and trade stabs with spears or swords, they keep on coming, hacking at everything that moves. That's really unnerving to even brave, well trained Hoplites used to battles going a certain way at a certain pace, they will feel the urge to fall back to gain some breathing space but the enemy keeps on coming they don't pause like civilized soldiers and that's when the Celts break Greek and Roman phalanxes.

And the most unlikely film that might help to illustrate this is Hercules, where troops break up a close formation, panic sets in and the battle is lost (probably not exactly the way it was done, but it might give a hint of how it might have happened)

YouTube link

And it also helps to explain the Macedonian model. They simply use spears so long and so dense that no Phalanx can come into contact and are stuck trying to fight an enemy that is pretty much safe from attack and can start to push you over if they move forward.

And it explains Roman formations, they probably understood that surging forward, stab a few times and then fall back with a spear while trying to remain in a coherent formation is extremely difficult to manage, so they switch to swords and throwing weapons to break up the line and develop a system where cohesion and keeping a shieldwall with your buddies is not that critical and they can keep up pressure by switching ranks and bring fresh troops, avoiding the crowd bunching problem. Romans make their formation both deadlier in that it can keep up pressure much longer than a phalanx, but it also has much greater depth thanks to their system of usually three, but up to five lines at times where the soldiers become progressively tougher veterans and your phalanx is being eroded until it collapses.

Phalanxes were extremely powerful when used against Asian armies who used a formation system, but put much more emphasis on missile fire to soften up the enemy and then force a weakened enemy to run with a well timed advance with spears forward.

Against such formations a Phalanx is like a battering ram, they have much heavier gear and can survive the initial missile fire and once they get into close combat range the momentum is enough to break a line of lightly armoured (if at all) troops with wicker shields and spears. That's how the beat the Persians because their formations were not designed to go toe to toe with heavily armoured infantry fighting in tight formation and why they liked to hire Greek mercenaries so much to supplement their own armies.

David Brown04 Oct 2018 6:13 a.m. PST

Pat R,

Yes the surge tactic is probably far more like it.

Anyone who has engaged in any form of up close and personal combat knows that after about 30 seconds or so you are drained of energy.

Thus yes, far more likely to go in hard, fight, break off, reform, then have another go. He who keeps his formation better is more likely to succeed in the long run.


Green Tiger04 Oct 2018 7:13 a.m. PST

Evil Gong has it – It is called Othismos and it has been the subject of scholarly debate for many, many, years.

David Brown04 Oct 2018 9:13 a.m. PST


"The othismos… seems to be a metaphorical push."



MajorB04 Oct 2018 10:50 a.m. PST

They said something I've heard many times before that is the guys in back used their shields to push those in front.

Utter nonsense. Goldsworthy makes a convincing case:

PDF link

Aethelflaeda was framed In the TMP Dawghouse04 Oct 2018 11:33 a.m. PST

IMHO the main virtue of the phalanx was not its ability to fight other infantry formations, but its ability to hold off mounted formations with a high degree of imperviousness. It was indifferent to fighting another phalanx, but the main form of engagement with a similar formation was a fencing match of pike thrusts…not press of bodies.. if a force was pushed forward the rear ranks of the target would still be free to skewer the lead ranks of the presser.

Scrums occur only when sharp points are not available.

John Edmundson04 Oct 2018 1:08 p.m. PST

The phalanx emerged as a way of fighting other infantry formations, not to be impervious to mounted. Typically in these situations, everyone else emulated the successful pattern so most Greek city-states moved to phalanx warfare. It's only when an innovator comes along with a specific method of combatting it that change occurs. So someone like Iphikrates innovates in the use of peltasts or Philip of Macedon develops a longer spear and consistently deeper formation.

The Etruscans (it seems) then invented the pilum and the Romans, used to fighting Etruscan Italiot Greek and Campanian phalanxes, modified their own phalanx formation, which evolved into the classic legion we're familiar with. It turns out that it was capable of defeating a Macedonian style phalanx, but not with any guarantee of success. Pyrhos of Epiros defeated several Roman armies and Philip V might have won too, had the phalanx not ended up in broken terrain, where the more flexible Roman system definitely had the advantage.

None of which sheds any light on what a hoplite fight actually was like of course . . .


Korvessa04 Oct 2018 6:58 p.m. PST

William B
About 2 hours east by northeast of Sacto
(an hour north of Grass Valley)

nnascati Supporting Member of TMP05 Oct 2018 4:15 p.m. PST

What no one has mentioned, is the use and ultimate importance of psiloi on the flanks of the phalanx. While both sides are pushing into each other, the one who makes the best use of the light troops, is the one who will prevail.

Korvessa07 Oct 2018 3:06 p.m. PST

Thanks MajorB that was a good source

JJartist10 Oct 2018 10:32 a.m. PST

The push came from the front, not the rear.
When hoplite commanders asked for one more step and one more push they were in the front ranks. not the back like later commanders.

Hoplite generals often died in the fight, because they lead the push.

Even still formations were not as thoroughly blocked and packed as one may imagine. At the battle of Koroneia the Theban phalanx turned around to face the Spartans that were blocking them. With no place to retreat both sides pummeled and pushed each other. In the end the Thebans broke formation and ran. But they ran through and around the Spartan phalanx to their own lines. They suffered heavy losses in this battle, but routing through the enemy formation is something not quite addressed by rules.

Later on the Thebans developed better tactics to better utilize their massed formations to beat the Spartans frontally.

Aethelflaeda was framed In the TMP Dawghouse11 Oct 2018 10:32 a.m. PST

Certainly routing through an enemy unit is addressed by rules: such units are destroyed.

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