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"Phalanx vs sword" Topic

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741 hits since 9 Jan 2019
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HappyHiker09 Jan 2019 1:50 p.m. PST

Sorry if this has been asked before, I couldn't find an answer. Bit of a noob question, but I'm just starting research to build a Greek vs Roman army.

If the phalanx was so good against the Persians, who had puny little spears and swords, then why is it that most wargame rules will favour the sword(blade) over a spear even in a frontal fight ?

As the romans used swords (and big shields) to beat the phalanx, how come the Persians didn't ? their shields were even bigger weren't they ?
What's the difference between Persians with swords and Romans with swords?

Also, in a macadonian army, what was the percentage of phalanx, and what percentage was just sword ?

Sorry if I'm over simplifying.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP09 Jan 2019 3:00 p.m. PST

I'll take a stab at this. (evil grin)

What's the difference? The Romans have the pila.

The Romans weren't just armed with swords; they were armed with the heavy pila, javelins designed to bend or break upon striking (and sticking in) an opponent's shield. This weighs down the shield, making it unwieldy, if not outright useless. The Roman tactic was to approach the clumsier phalanx in an open order, and hurl the pila to create gaps in the phalanx. The Romans could then take the brunt of the phalanx spears on their scutum shields, targeting these gaps to push inside the reach of the spears, then use the short, stabbing gladius at face-to-face fighting to get under, over, or around the phalanx shields. In these conditions, the long spears of the phalanx become unwieldy and all but useless; the forward ranks will be forced to drop them to grab hand-to-hand weapons (if they aren't already dead). As this isn't the intended fighting style of the phalanx to begin with, the (limited) training of the phalanx soldier becomes a big disadvantage. He's supposed to be stabbing a distant opponent with a long spear; instead he's got man with an active sword directly in his face.

The above is pretty much cribbed from John Warry's excellent Warfare in the Classical World. Don't know if it's entirely accurate, but it works for me!

I think most games just "assume" the initial pila attack, and grant the Romans the advantage on contact.

gavandjosh0209 Jan 2019 3:12 p.m. PST

The best ancient source for looking at both is Polybius. One or two thoughts – Polybius has the phalanx at its least effective when on rough ground – presumably where maintaining the compact block of pikes is difficult. Roman armies threw pila to disorder/incapacitate the enemy. Both sides seemed to be evenly matched front-on but Rome wins when the Phalanx is disordered. Pydna is a good example of a battle where the pike looks like it's winning (at least pushing the Romans back) but comes a cropper on rough ground. I can't recall where Persian infantry actually fought the phalanx front-on. When Persian employed hoplites engaged it, it was a hard fight. By the time of Alex's invasion, Persia had hoplite style or lighter infantry. The big shields of the Greek-Persian wars were no longer used. I doubt if any Persian force had the discipline and flexibility of the Romans. Hope this is some help.

Henry Martini09 Jan 2019 4:17 p.m. PST

Also, rather than merely carrying the sword as a side weapon as with other troop types such as phalangites, for the Roman legionary it was his primary weapon and he was highly trained in its use (in coordination with his shield).

Marcus Brutus09 Jan 2019 4:41 p.m. PST

I think the most important advantage the Romans have is the flexibility of their sub-unit tactics. Frontally the phalanx is unstoppable. For the phalanx to succeed its flanks must be secure. The seams between the phalanxes is where it is most vulnerable. We see this in the 16th century with Spanish sword and buckler infantry assaulting the large Swiss phalanxes at the seams and I think it is the same for the Roman infantry of a much earlier time.

lkmjbc309 Jan 2019 5:10 p.m. PST

The weapons don't matter. The men behind the weapons matter.

The weapons don't determine the how men fight. Men determine which weapons with which to fight.

The Phalanx and the Greek Hoplites were more effective against the Persians because of the men wielding the weapons.

The early Persian army was a polyglot army that was mainly organized to fight mounted opponents. Their infantry was not cohesive. So, they developed a system where a small force of spearmen with large shields fronted a mass group of archers. This worked well fighting the traditional Persian opponents.

The Greek Hoplite turned this on its head. The Persians when confronted by the Greeks, lost. The Greek infantry had high cohesion, heavy armor, and a fighting system based on their shared heritage.

To confront the Greek threat, the Persians attempted to model the Hoplites. They were unsuccessful… and ended up hiring the Greeks as mercenaries.

The Roman experience is somewhat different. The Roman city state emerged fighting hill tribes in rough terrain. The Greek Hoplite method didn't work for them. Instead, they developed a system of fighting that emphasized the individual fighter and close compatriots but still allowed for group tactics. This system proved more flexible than the Greek phalanx system and won in the end.

Does that help?

Joe Collins

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP10 Jan 2019 2:43 a.m. PST

Persian shields (eg at Plataea) were large but light, intended to stop arrows rather than for the rigours of melee- the Spartans quickly overcame their shield-bearers.

Aethelflaeda was framed10 Jan 2019 4:38 a.m. PST

There remains a slight bias regarding swords as being better than spears that goes all the way back to the Dark Ages. It was a weapon of prestige because it more expensive to make, and it was something that could be worn at the belt constantly in non combat situations as a symbol of power and wealth in a way that spears or large axes could not. Much like wearing a gorget, It becomes an article of jewelry. It's symbolic nature as a display for an individual out weighs it's actual military value for a unit, but the associated prestige meant that swords were still often thought of as "better" in both situations, then and sometimes now. Romance has a lot to do with it, and if in a duel between two individual it might have an advantage (might) but the fact that pikes don't disappear until the bayonet made it superfluous in units, and that even knights and wealthy men at arms looked at the sword as a side arm while using halberds and other polearms when in the field, shows that the utility of long poles with a point at the top never lost their value.

Oregon01 Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2019 8:54 a.m. PST

I believe Parzival was pretty much spot on….though I would disagree with the effect of the pilum as they seemed to have little effect in breaking up a
phalanx formation. The cohesion and integrity of the phalanx formation was
paramount to be effective….the legion had much greater flexibility than what a phalanx required. Once cohesion was lost on a phalanx and a small
group of legionaries could get past the 16-foot pikes….at close quarters
it was anything but an even fight. The Macedonians would suffer out of proportion damage to the romans gladius…the phalangite having less armor, a pike that would have no effect at close quarter and not being a trained swordsman…it would not take long until all cohesion would be lost and the phalanx formation would simply collapse. In regards to the Persian
army they were not equipped nor trained as the romans…no comparison can be made between the Persian and the Roman infantry as to being sword armed. As for the Macedonians…they did not utilize sword armed heavy infantry…with the possible exception maybe of a small amount of their light infantry

HappyHiker10 Jan 2019 11:03 a.m. PST

Wow thanks for all the replies.
So I'm thinking of doing a Roman vs Macadonian/Greek army and then maybe Persians later. I'm worried the Romans' are just going to win all the time, that might be accurate but it'll be dull. Also if a game doesn't differentiate between Roman sword and Persian sword, the Persians will win too. If it's a troop quality thing, I guess I can make the Persians green troops and have less Romans' than Greeks. Is that what people do ?
(Rules will be kings of war historical and DBA but I'm only playing with my son, so we can tweak the rules to suit ourselves)

Marcus Brutus10 Jan 2019 12:54 p.m. PST

I don't think the Romans always win. It really is a question of time. Can the Romans disrupt the phalanx formation before it overruns them? There are only a handful of battles where this interaction is tested and the Romans won all of them but to my understanding they were close run events.

I don't think DBA can represent this interaction well.

Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2019 1:38 p.m. PST

The Persians were medium/light infantry. Their main fighting weapons were the bow and the spear.

The idea was that they would shower the enemy with arrows until they were softened up enough to close with the spear if the missile fire hadn't scattered them first.

They were not trained to fight in protracted close combat, more of a steady pressure than going all in, until the enemy collapses.

The Greeks fought in a different manner, they didn't waste time shooting at each other and went for a quick decisive clash if possible. They carried spears, and also heavy armour and a strong shield. They fought in very close formation designed to be extremely strong and tough. And the Persians would have been at a serious disadvantage, finding it much harder to hit the Greeks and be quite vulnerable themselves.

The Persians were used to a more "leisurely" pace of combat and were rarely heavily armoured beyond a wicker shield, a helmet and maybe some kind of metal-reinforced corselet for the better troops. Most would have worn some kind of padded aketon or layered clothing to offer minimal protection.

The Greek method would have startled the Persians whose bows had very little effect on a force moving fast to close in for the kill. This would disrupt their formations and caused a general panic, especially against the lighter troops in their way.

The Greeks continued to experiment with the phalanx and it became the default combat formation for much of the ancient world, the Macedonians probably creating the ultimate exponent with deep pike formations that were all but impervious in battle when properly deployed and supported.

The Romans also originally fought in Phalanx formation, but discovered that light troops and charging wild Celts could beat a Phalanx. So the Romans began to look at alternatives.

The Phalanx has a major disadvantage in that it is an extremely strong formation, but also very rigid and it takes a lot of discipline and skill to remain in formation, so they broke up their formations into more flexible mutually supporting units adding depth to their formations by forming several major lines behind the main battle line as a result they could feed fresh troops into battle to either overwhelm the enemy or hold the line if the first line was weakening.

The Romans also discarded the spear in favour of the pilum with allowed them to break up enemy formations and keep some missile troops at bay. Unlike the Greeks, they also had more room for the soldiers to fight and his shield was now an active piece of equipment that covered much of his body.

It's quite hard to hide a spear in combat so a warrior will know how the angle of the attack. A Roman soldier probably held his sword behind his shield which he could use offensively before doing a quick attack, stabbing, cutting or chopping at any area that was uncovered. Romans would have been able to move inside the effective range of the spear, where a short but powerful sword would have been a terrifying weapon for going up close and personal.

The Romans were able to use the flexibility of their troops to such a degree that if an enemy phalanx armed with pikes made any mistake, they could exploit it, either find a gap in the line or flank the enemy.

Olivero10 Jan 2019 1:53 p.m. PST

I am in no way an expert on ancient warfare (or any rules system for that matter), but I think I read somewhere that in a head to head encounter the macedonian phalanx would actually have prevailed when fighting legions for a prolonged time. So the romans would (and did) need to get the macedonian phalanx disordered by terrain, pila or attacks in the flanks.

And I would further advise to differentiate between the macedonian phalanx and the greek hoplite phalanx. In most rules systems that I know sword armed soldiers are considered superior to spear armed phalanxes but inferior to a macedonian phalanx, if the macedonian phalanx is deployed as deep as it should (DBA does a good job in representing that interaction IMHO). And remember that in DBA the persian troops are classed as "bow" not "blade" or "spear" exactly because they could not stand up for long when being attacked by determined closely packed fighters.

Regarding Kings of War historical: Heard much good about it. Not so for it's army lists. You might want to look here link (written for KoW 2.0 fantasy edition with modifications for historical warfare) and/or here: PDF link

Happy gaming!

Damion10 Jan 2019 5:06 p.m. PST

Perhaps as computer simulations involve more historic input, such interactions will be more easily understood.

As it stands, the Romans gave up their old spear dominated fight in favour of the sword, presumably adopted from the Celts in Spain if that is where the gladius came from.

They must have copied the fighting style too to some extant as they adopted the same way of wearing the sword on the right, as opposed to the Greek swords infantry used to wear on the left.

The Celts themselves with their long shields and swords must have had some earlier successes against phalanxes for them to have been popular in Mediterranean armies.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2019 7:48 p.m. PST

I see the Persians as a mass of archers. The front rank guys are simply there to protect the archers with large shields, almost pavises.
You can see how useful that would be if charged by massed heavy spearmen who charge to avoid being shot at. Eight ranks of armored spearmen with heavy spears would make quick work of an unarmored single rank of dudes with a flimsy wicker shield.
It was two different systems.

Oddly enough, "The Battle of the Bastards" on Game of Thrones showed how difficult it was for swordsmen to penetrate a phalanx with protecting rear ranks. The phalanx has to be hit in the flank or rear to disorder it.

JC Lira10 Jan 2019 9:49 p.m. PST

The Roman legion wins some battles and loses some battles against pike phalanx. The Romans don't overtake the Greek world because they have a superior weapons system or training regime; they win because the manpower and economy of a unified Italy produced and supported armies much better than a Greece that was, as usual, divided into uncooperative city-states.

Olivero10 Jan 2019 11:16 p.m. PST

Hi JC Lira, I absolutey agree to what you wrote, but the question here is why did the Romans win some of their battles and lost the others.What where the differences in those battles. Tactical battles simulations rules would like to have/give the answers opposed to strategic empire building rules that take into account the points you mention.

Martin Rapier11 Jan 2019 1:08 a.m. PST

DBA does a decent job of modelling the different troop types, and Id be amazed if a Republican Roman army managed to beat a Macedonian or Successor army every time.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP11 Jan 2019 1:45 a.m. PST

The Romans had a superior tactical system to the phalanx, AND a superior training regime (well, increasing professionalism) AND the advantages of the manpower and economy of a united italy.

After overcoming difficulties with Pyrrhus, the Romans won ALL their engagements with phalanxes (Cynoskephalai, Pydna, Magnesia, Chaeronea 86BC), and the Macedonian way of war became discredited.

HappyHiker11 Jan 2019 2:51 a.m. PST

Thanks, it always amazes me the depth of knowledge on these forums. Better than many books or other web sites.

The more I understand the more I want the rules to cover ( whilst being very simple and playable of course).
@olivero thanks for those links gives me great data on army compositions etc.

Kow is a good game, though you need a lot of dice. We often swap the igougo system for move, shoot,fight phases as it stops 1 player getting bored and makes the game more interesting, I never intend to play in a tournament.

Once I get enough figures for an army I'll see if the Romans always win or not. Making Persians all bowmen is a great idea. Thanks

Marcus Brutus11 Jan 2019 1:23 p.m. PST

I don't think the Romans victories over Hellenistic opponents has anything to do with Roman manpower or the unified economy. In fact, at the end of the 2nd Punic War Rome was economically devastated after almost 20 years of war. In the actual campaigns Roman forces were consistently outnumbered by their Hellenistic opponents. At Pydna and Magnesia the Roman forces were significantly outnumbered. The Romans won these battles, because as BRB suggests, they had a superior tactical system and perhaps a more professional army. My broader point is that the clash of systems was a much more fraught contest than the win/loss percentages suggest.

What astounds me is with how little effort and commitment of resources Rome defeated the Macedonian and Selecuid kingdoms. Pales in comparison to Rome's struggle with Carthage.

Olivero12 Jan 2019 4:38 a.m. PST

See it the other way round. The Romans won the war against Carthago because of their better resource management. The Macedons lost the war against the romans because they had no better resource management than the romans.

Marcus Brutus12 Jan 2019 7:23 a.m. PST

I don't understand what you mean by "better resource management." Certainly Rome's manpower and cultural instincts explains her capacity to continue in the war against Carthage after several major defeats. It doesn't explain Rome's victory in the 2nd Punic War on strategic or tactical grounds. Imagine that Scipio loses Zama and his army is destroyed in Africa. Do you think the war continues with Rome sending another army to Africa? I don't think so.

Macedon and Selecuid defeats may be explained along the lines of resources but not Rome's victory. Rome won both wars with one hand tied behind her back. With minimal commitment of resources she defeated two significant opponents. Where does Roman resource management come into discussion at all? Don't see it.

Personal logo Swampster Supporting Member of TMP15 Jan 2019 12:07 p.m. PST

A defeat at Zama may not have been followed by another invasion of Africa, but it also wuld not have necessarily meant that the Romans would have sought peace.
A major factor in their success was that a defeat – even a major one – did not result in capitulation.
The 1st PW shows how they could continue the fight not only after the loss of an army in Africa but also after losing huge numbers of men and ships to battle and storm.

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